Beneath the few evening stars speckling the deepening blue of the sky, the uncomfortable patchwork of zones and districts that made up the city of Deleml seemed to brawl for the limited space within her walls.

In the city's center, circled by a wall nearly as mighty as her monumental outer wall, workers withdrew for the day from the grid of farmland that fed the city's many millions. Monorail cars buzzed across the wide expanse of fields and pastures towards the maze of surrounding highrises, while threshers and reapers the size of buses lined up in open lots to rest for the night. Surrounding the farm zone soared the city's ring-shaped downtown: an uneven mosaic of spike-like, steel skyscrapers lording over the more modest buildings around them. The skyline there was marked by smooth, tapering curves, as if everything was decked in a thick cover of ice. It was a style that had remained in vogue for centuries.

But away from the wealthy, central districts of the city, different styles prevailed, sometimes out of necessity, other times out of poverty or simple, chaotic caprice. In the westernmost districts, spanning the entire area between the city's two rivers, sprawled a thick honeycomb of factories stacked on top of each other and rows of freight airports each boasting a dozen levels of terraced hangars. Trucks navigated a three-dimensional labyrinth of roads as huge airships pondered their way through the sky above, their engines glowing moss-green and propelling their sleek prows through the clouds. Those ships exiting the city were escorted by lithe, hornet-like Drake class gunships, mere specks compared to the whales of the sky they circled protectively.

To the south of that stood the comparably dense and offensively ugly Vertical City of Son, a concrete jungle home to the Sion, the city's most disenfranchised ethnic group. From afar it almost looked like a huge, concrete brick that had fallen from the sky and smashed into the city. But closer up it resolved into something more like a block of swiss cheese, with tunnels leading inside and betraying glimpses of the human anthill thriving within.

But none of that was nearly as prominent as what lay at the very heart of the city: the Pillar of Origin. It was a nine mile-high, obsidian obelisk piercing the sky from its heavily fortified base in the center of the agricultural region. The warehouses and silos around it disappeared in its monstrous shadow, and even the tallest skyscrapers fell into insignificance beside it. Its dramatic structure left even the clouds far behind, penetrating deep into the featureless, blue emptiness beyond. Somewhere up there its tapering accelerated and brought its four sides together in a final pinnacle. But on this evening, the windy realm at its apex was obscured by heavy cloud cover.

This was the sight stretching into the distance before Rain as he waited patiently on his balcony for the summons he knew would soon arrive. He imagined that the city would look like nothing more than a nondescript, blue disc from the summit of the Pillar, but from his apartments near the top of the Royal Spire it seemed absolute and endless. The huge outer wall that marked its boundary lay barely above the horizon, and of the phantom wilderness beyond there was nary a glimpse.

That was no accident. It was considered tasteless to build skyscrapers to a level from which their inhabitants would be able to see beyond the wall. The citizens of Deleml preferred to keep their lives neatly confined to their sanctuary city, and most of them had never even laid eyes upon anything beyond. It was far easier to simply pretend that there was no beyond at all. Of course, Rain couldn't have possibly deluded himself as they did. It was typical for the city's rich to travel by airship, even if it bared to their eyes that shadowy realm on the other side, and his command of the 28th army division often brought him onto the wall to give directions and take reports. Thus the outside world was very real to him in many ways: as a breeding ground for menaces to the city, as a home to the many who had been denied the city's protection, and as a foreboding justification of his father's iron-fisted rule.

Rain leaned over the railing and let himself forget that his feet were still attached to the ground. And then suddenly he was falling, tumbling past the windows below, the wind was thickening beneath him, the animal part of his brain was panicking, the ground was ever so slowly and terribly rising up to bring him oblivion, his heart was racing, his vision spinning, he wondered what was beyond, he considered the family member's he'd miss. And then he stood up straight again and closed his eyes, breathing deeply to reorient himself.

He didn't know why he put himself through that exercise. There was just something fascinating and mystical about the expectation of death without the distractions of pain, about the state of the mind as it sees its end careening towards it. He could hardly imagine a more intense experience. It would surely result in the sort of profound insight he needed now. And anyway, it couldn't hurt to be prepared for getting thrown out of a window. Stranger things had happened in his family.

As Rain again opened his eyes to the world a gust of wind whipped through his raven hair, playing with the thick strands like a patient lover. He could read its secret language well enough to know that a storm was on the way, the first of the summer. He looked forward to it, to watching every piece of the world alive and surging with the energy of a planet. The thought that the many people outside of the city's walls didn't have adequate shelter was barely sobering to him. He knew that they were no different from the people he did care about: those inside the city, but those on the outside somehow took on a fairytale quality in his mind. They were the unseeable and unknowable wraiths of the forest, living lives he knew not a damned thing about in a place he'd hardly seen. They just weren't on his radar.

A knock interrupted his ruminations and Rain reluctantly left his balcony, shuttering the doors against the coming storm. The knock came again as he hurriedly combed his hair back into place and tried in vain to force a wrinkle out of his shirt. Almost like I'm going on a date, he noticed dryly as he opened the unlocked door.

A young girl stood on the other side and Rain's chin almost touched his chest as he peered down at her. She glanced around nervously when his eyes met hers. Rain was pretty sure he hadn't ever seen her before since - unlike most of his family - he did actually make an effort to remember the servants. The girl was probably a brand new addition to the Spire's staff; he'd heard they were looking to hire.

"Yes?" he gently prompted.

She blushed and looked down at her shoes, which rubbed the hall's red velvet carpet nervously. "Uh..."

Rain sighed tolerantly as it seemed no answer was forthcoming. "I'll help you out this once. My father wants to see me immediately. Thank you." He drew out the last words in an ambiguous cadence that could have been either mocking or encouraging, and brushed past her into the hallway.

To his left the doors to the apartments of the other three siblings in his generation were closed and unwelcoming. To his right a stairway led upwards to the 47th floor and downwards to the 45th. His father had the entire 49th floor to himself, up past several intervening floors filled with even more royal progeny. The lecherous old bastard and his harlem certainly kept themselves busy...

But Rain wasn't in a personable mood so he opted for the elevator instead and typed in his access codes and the password for the 49th floor. As the machine began rumbling upwards a green plane of light moved down from the ceiling, passing through him and chittering while it scanned him for weapons.

The elevator doors opened before him and he stepped out into a cozy parlor of sorts. Like most of the Spire's rooms it had a distinctly old-fashioned atmosphere, with overstuffed chairs, thick carpeting, a mahogany billiards table, and an assortment of plants and statuettes. A fire burned low in the fireplace, but the room was empty. Rain had already started towards the dining room when he heard the soft clank of silverware from within.

At the end of a table long enough to seat two dozen, Rain's father, the Magnate of Deleml, tucked into his dinner.

"Good evening, father," Rain said respectfully as the Magnate nibbled fastidiously at a butter-soaked bread roll. Rain joined his hands behind his back, stood up straight, and tried to look as regal as was expected of him. It was just one of the tactics he hoped would calm his father's anger. It wasn't that Rain was ashamed of what he had done, not in the least, but in truth he was afraid of the ageless lord of the city. Rain could bring himself to covertly defy him, to nip subtly at the heels of his authority, but when standing right before him like this, feeling the full weight of the ancient power radiating from his eyes, obedience and subservience was the natural response.

No one knew the true name of the Magnate of Deleml, or whether he even had one. He had reigned for so long, centuries, maybe even millennia, that his past was just as mysterious as that of the city he ruled. Even Rain knew no more about him than the average citizen. He kept his children at arm's length, treating them more like lesser lords than heirs and entrusting to them only the knowledge necessary to manage the city for him. Occasionally he seemed to take a particular liking to one of his children and indulged them with material gifts or positions, but even then he did not seek to become closer to them in any meaningful way.

The Magnate wasn't fat, exactly, but he was getting there. Then again, he had also been getting there when Rain had first met him as a child a decade before. And considering how much he ate, he was actually surprisingly lean. Rain had to wonder whether the old lord had control even over his appearance. It would explain a lot. His face was that of a slimmer man, and the contrast, while odd, let him stand out from any crowd and gave him an air of other-worldliness. His hair was white as bone but still thick and shiny as feathers. He kept it combed to the left side like a cresting wave and when it shifted with the movement of his head it seemed to do so with purpose.

His eyes were his most striking feature. They didn't look all that unusual, just grey like dirty snow. But looking into them somehow imparted a sense of bleakness and cold. Beyond them lay glimpses of a primordial world before matter became distinct, where all that had ever existed was a flat, grey waste and the viewer was the first thing to have ever moved. It seemed almost like a threat of what the world could become, and the hidden secret of what it once was. He never claimed to be a god or to be older than the world, but looking into his eyes there could be no doubt that he at least had some sort of backstage pass to the whole thing.

The Magnate motioned for Rain to sit, too busy eating to deign answering with words. His long, cottony beard hovered just barely above his food.

Rain took a seat at the other end of the table and waited. The Magnate moved on to the next course without looking up at him. He slowly ate his way through a generous helping of mashed potatoes and then a salmon steak. Rain shifted uncomfortably but remained patiently silent. He wasn't unused to such treatment, but that made it no less awkward. The Magnate was always outwardly moderate in expressing his rage and Rain could only feverishly guess what kind of thoughts were running through the mind of the most powerful man in the world as he munched away in silent judgement.

The Magnate wiped his thick lips with a handkerchief and finally leaned away from his meal, setting his hands on the edge of the table. He mustered Rain's face as if he were looking for something small he'd lost there. "You've disappointed me. Again," he said simply.

"How so, father?" Rain asked.

The Magnate's eyes narrowed into slits like a lizard's. A shadow stole over his face and Rain remembered nervously that his father hated beating around the bush. "Don't insult me. You let a crowd of dangerous criminals escape you, against my orders."

"They weren't dangerous criminals." Rain objected mildly but pointedly, mastering his voice despite his trepidation. "They were nothing more than upset citizens."

"As I said, dangerous criminals. In times like these, patriots hold their peace." The Magnate met Rain's defiant stare with a determined one of his own. "You're young Rain, so you don't understand what this means. But we're on the eve of another Swarming. Things are going to start changing very soon; tonight, as a matter of fact. You know as well as I do that we've started losing ships beyond the city. As soon as I'm finished with you I'm posting notice that we're initiating quarantine. After two weeks time no one will enter or leave the city for the next year. We'll start evacuating the mines tomorrow, and within days half a million people will lose their jobs. Spices and fruits will disappear from shelves. Prices will rise, people will get poorer, and people will get angrier. And meanwhile we'll be fighting to keep a horde of homicidal monsters out of the city. You think we can afford rioting at the same time?" He pointed a stubby finger at Rain's chest, spitting out the words in a display of emotion Rain had seldom seen from him. "Your job is to keep the people under control so we can focus our resources on the real dangers! You'd have the city burning from within as from without!"

Rain blanched despite himself under his father's stabbing glare, imagining for just a moment the sight of humanity's last bastion going down in flames, the Pillar swirling with fire like a giant torch, lighting the night like day, and around it the rest of the city filling with ash and smoke like Satan's bathtub. But there were a lot of things that didn't seem to add up in that picture. "Maybe I don't understand," he admitted. He took a deep breath and decided to risk it. "However, I have it on good authority that the city itself has never been in such dramatic peril. I may have been a child during the last Swarming, but my lieutenants agree that the military had little trouble then keeping the monsters at bay..."

Rain braced himself as the Magnate leaned back in his seat, regarding him distantly, seeming to look past him.

"They don't understand either. Only I understand." The Magnate's voice was soft and icy, almost introspective. Then disgust stole into it. "I don't have time for this, Rain. And you don't either. All you have to do is what I tell you to do. You're never going to have to bother yourself with the difficult questions, I'm immortal. You're starting to worry me, you know. If you don't get yourself under control, I will throw you out of the city."

Rain's blood ran cold. He knew it was no bluff. Such a death sentence - and it was a death sentence - was occasionally meted out among the family, mostly to those who started thinking in the same way Rain had, he realized with a shiver.

"But I have hope for you yet," the Magnate continued, nearly tenderly. "I have an idea. It ends up everyone was right, Lightning really can't run Soliaris, he's simply far too stupid. I can't have him there anymore damaging the company as he is."

No surprise there, Rain thought. The only surprise was that the Magnate had assigned Lightening to run the company in the first place. Rain's younger brother of eighteen years was shortsighted, autocratic, and didn't understand the value of research and development or maintaining relationships with private firms. His shortcomings had been clear long before his eighteenth birthday, so the whole family was shocked when the Magnate had assigned him to run the legendary conglomerate. But even after the explosion of a fertilizer plant brought about by his reluctance to upgrade old equipment, the Magnate had remained silent on the matter, until now.

A satisfied smile ever so stealthily curved the Magnate's features as he continued. "But I think you could benefit from his lack of scruples. I will assign him to join you during the day, and he'll have the authority to override any instructions you give to your men."

Rain felt bile rising in his throat. "Oh no. Father, that's practically giving him command over my division! He can't run a military unit!" He tried to keep the pleading out of his voice.

"I have command over 'your' division," the Magnate reminded him sharply. "Whoever I put in charge only needs to follow orders. That's something Lightning can do. Maybe not all that well, but he's never done anything he knew would upset me, unlike you. If you don't like having him around, stop disappointing me. Now," The Magnate stood up, reaching his full height of nearly seven feet. "We are done. Leave."

There was nothing more Rain could say or do. He left the apartment stiffly and took the stairs downward. From there he wandered through the tower's halls and stairwells in deep thought, letting his feet guide him to where they would, all the while cursing his father for his cruelty and himself for his cowardice. It slowly dawned on him what his father had been doing with Lightning: using him as a walking punishment for those who had displeased him. When the Magnate had found out that Leaf, the previous director of Soliaris, had been secretly diluting the poison gases used in crowd control, he'd stripped him of all of his titles and exiled him from the city. The last thing they told Leaf before throwing him out was that the company he'd carefully constructed from scratch over the past forty years was now being run by an incompetent madman. And now Rain had been condemned to a similar fate, although it seemed like his father wanted to scare him into line rather destroy him.

That thought gave Rain pause. Was he less disposable than Leaf? Why would he be? All he did was command an average-sized division patrolling an average-sized area of the city. And what his father had said was true, doing that didn't really take any particular talent besides following orders. Rain knew he was a more effective leader than most of his siblings, but a much worse leader could probably get the job done nearly as well. And what did his father mean that he "had hope" for him? What the heck could lie beneath those words?

Rain returned to his quarters confused but feeling a little more secure in his position. He watched thoughtfully as the dark clouds rolled in from the horizon, pouring over the wall and illuminating the breaking night with lightning. It would still be hours before the storm reached him, but reach him it would.