Fortress in the Clouds

Julian Caruso

The alarm blared.

‘Rise and shine,’ a robotic voice said over a speaker.

A young girl laid on a bed in the centre of a metal dome. Pristine white pillows, blankets, and sheets were wrapped around her. Dirty grey walls loomed over her, clashing with the pure white bedding. One lonely window in the southernmost part of the dome allowed feeble rays of sunlight in.

‘Five more minutes, CAI,’ the girl groaned, rousing from her sleep. Stretching, she stumbled out of bed, hitting her head on the bedside table.

‘Ow, mother f—’

‘Begin morning routine,’ the robotic voice interrupted. A computer screen descended from the ceiling. ‘Identification.’

‘Diana,’ the girl huffed, holding her head.

‘Identification unrecognised. Repeat. Identification.’ The computer beeped.

‘Ugh fine. It’s 88-F23,’ she moaned.

‘Acknowledged. Directive.’

‘You’d think after all this time you’d get the idea, and I wouldn’t have to keep doing this every morning.’

‘Directive,’ the computer repeated.

‘Project New Life. Directive, to protect and oversee the “precious cargo” blah, blah, blah,’ Diana remarked. ‘The usual, y’know?’

Diana waited for the computer’s reply.

‘Acknowledged. Begin description rundown.’

‘Well, I was 5’8 yesterday and the day before that, so there’s a good chance I’m 5’8 today. I weigh 69.564 kilograms according to our super precise scale. Jet black hair, 50.2 centimetres in length. Light blue eyes, I guess.’ Diana said smarmily. ‘Same ol’, same ol’. Also, I reckon I’ll wear the same thing I’ve worn for four years now. This standard issue white jumpsuit.’

She hoisted the jumpsuit up past her legs, over her shoulders, and zipped up the front.

‘Look CAI, it even has an 88 plastered across the back, just for me,’ she added sarcastically.

‘Description complete, proceed with daily activities 88-F23.’

‘You know, it wouldn’t kill you to call me Diana every once and a while,’ she grumbled.

‘Request denied.’

‘Yeah yeah, typical.’ She waved the robot off and headed towards the door.

‘88-F23, you are seven minutes behind schedule. Begin daily activities.’ The computer buzzed at her.

Diana glared at the computer, then smirked.

‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll go back to bed, skip out today.’ She made her way back to the bed and collapsed onto it, wrapping the blankets around her.

Her bed rumbled, bouncing up and down before tipping over. Diana landed on the ground with a loud thud.

‘Ow! Son of a—’

‘It is strongly advised you proceed with daily activities.’ The computer cut her off again. ‘You are now running eight minutes late.’


Diana snatched her helmet off its stand, donned her security watch, and exited the dome.


A blustering gust of wind greeted Diana. Lush grass wavered under her feet. There was a larger dome beside her. The laboratory. A giant tower extended from the top of the dome, disappearing into the clouds above. A large hazard label flickered above its sealed blast doors. Attached to the laboratory was the greenhouse where Diana grew her food rations, cultivated alien plant life, and experimented with herbology. She glanced at the lab and scoffed.

Diana stared beyond the greenhouse at the surrounding islands. They all sat at different altitudes, some even lower than the clouds beneath. In the centre of all the floating islands sat the magnificent fortress of Leaz. Waterfalls streamed from the fortress and flowed towards the edges of the island. They poured off the sides and seemingly fell all the way down into the cloudy void below. Every smaller island was connected to the central one via massive chains. Lining the the chains were tubes designed for human transport to and from Leaz.

‘Another day in paradise ay CAI?’ Diana remarked, eyes still glued to the fortress.

‘88-F23, you are eleven minutes behind schedule.’

The computer’s deadpan response did nothing to raise Diana’s spirits.

‘Better get to it,’ she sighed.


Diana went about her daily routine. She checked diagnostics of the cargo; everything seemed to be in order. Refuelled the deep space freighter. Check. Greenhouse temperature regulated. Done. Cleaned the dwelling dome. Finished. Diana let out a yawn as she ticked upkeep off her list.

The day droned on. Each task felt like it grated at her mind as the hours passed by at an excruciatingly slow pace. It wasn’t until late afternoon that Diana finally reached the end of her routine. Lawn-care.

She feebly struck at the grass with the razor, eyes fixated on the central island. She imagined what it would be like to live in Leaz. Free from constant pressure to maintain a mundane directive. To hear the harps and drums play in every Weeks End festival, with her own ears. To bathe in the lake’s waterfalls and feel their cold touch. To feel alive. When she’d finished trimming the grass, she stood at the edge of the floating island, eyes glued to the great fortress beyond.

‘Hey CAI, you ever wonder what it’s like on Leaz?’ Diana spoke into her security watch.

‘According to my database, the impenetrable fortress of Leaz was built thousands of years ago. A utopia for the people of this day and age, often described as a destination of pure euphoria. Known for its Weeks End festivals, teeming with lively music, exotic reveries, and awe-inspiring shows. It is a sight to behold.’

‘I know all that,’ Diana replied. ‘What I meant is, what do you think it feels like to be up there? To be part of those magnificent celebrations.’

‘I am a Computer Artificial Intelligence, 88-F23,’ CAI responded in the same deadpan manner. ‘I am unable to feel physical or mental emotion.’

‘I know CAI,’ Diana sighed, ‘I know.’

Diana continued to gaze at the fortress, entranced by the thought of partaking in the festivities. Her heart pounded rhythmically to the imaginary steel drums playing melodically alongside harps. Her fingers twitched and her breath felt light. Her eyes were transfixed on the fortress as she slowly crept closer to the islands edge.

‘I’m going.’ Diana stated, ‘I’m going to Leaz.’

‘Request denied,’ CAI said. ‘Subject 88-F23, you are to remain on Zeta Island until Project: New Life is completed.’

‘But that’s just it, isn’t it?’ Diana groaned. ‘For four years I’ve been doing this, day in and day out.’

‘Acknowledge. Subject 88-F23, your time is valued and will continue to be utilised for Project: New Life,’ CAI buzzed.

‘You know, for something called “New Life,” it’s ironic that I don’t get my own,’ Diana said. She breathed in deeply. ‘I’m going CAI, and that’s it.’

She threw the lawn razor to the ground and paced towards the giant chain connecting the central island.

‘Warning. Subject 88-F23, you are going against protocol, it is heavily advised you cease these actions immediately,’ CAI buzzed in Diana’s ear. ‘Warning. Warning. Warning.’

Diana tore her helmet off and cast it to the side; her hair caught the breeze. She reached the door to the transportation tube and as she stepped in, robotic arms erupted from the walls poised to strike at her.

‘Don’t stop me CAI, please.’ She trembled. ‘I need this.’

‘Subject 88-F23, you have gone against protocol and must be treated as hostile.’ A computer screen descended from the roof. ‘This is your final warning.’

‘I’m going, whether you like it or not!’ Diana yelled.

‘Re-education measures. Engaged.’

The robotic arms sprang at Diana. She leapt in-between the tendrils and dodged their grasps. She sprinted down the tube, hastily clambering over the arms bursting from the walls.

‘Desist this behaviour Diana,’ CAI droned, following closely behind her. ‘Your attempts at defecting are futile.’

One of the arms snatched at Diana, clamping around her ankle. She tripped and bust open her lip against the floor.

‘Don’t do this CAI,’ Diana choked through tears. ‘I’m made for more than this.’

‘Subject 88-F23. Defection must be treated with extreme measures,’ CAI stated. ‘I’m sorry, Diana.’

Diana yanked at the robotic tendrils, trying to free herself from their iron grip. She pulled and pulled, until her shoe slipped off and she shimmied her leg out. She clambered to her feet and dashed for the second blast door.

Red sirens blared overhead. They wailed in her ears as more robotic arms scratched and scraped at her shaky dodges.

The robot made one final attempt to leap at Diana. Flying through the air, it hurtled towards her. Diana dove for the doorway as the robot crashed down, narrowly missing her. She slammed the big red button and the blast door shut, sealing tightly. She could hear pounding and whirring on the other side, but the door didn’t budge. Diana turned away and stared down the long connecting tunnel. It would take the rest of the evening to walk by foot.


Diana slowly made her way down the tunnel, dripping blood from the cuts on her arms, her lip swollen, and her legs aching. All the pain meant little, as the adrenaline and anticipation distracted her from her wounds. The hours felt like seconds, as she eagerly arrived at the terminal. She scanned her security watch, and to her surprise the doors opened. The lights that adorned the edge of the island were blinding. Before her stood the illustrious fortress she’d always dreamed of visiting.

She looked back down the tunnel then turned to the fortress. As she headed towards Leaz, she thought to herself.

New Life.

Author: Julian Caruso is a 3rd year Creative Writing student studying at QUT. His writing deals with the theme of exploration. Whether it’s a deep dive into human emotion and psyche, or discovering the beauty of the world around us, no place should be left unexplored. 

Artist: Harrison Coates is an emerging writer studying at QUT. His work investigates the varied and complex lives of those around him, and their place in an increasingly strange world. Living in Brisbane as a 3rd year fine arts student, he finds inspiration for the absurd situations explored by his fiction easily.

Editors: Euri Glenn and Tracy Channell