Clouds – A Science Fiction short story

There’s a landing coming in today. Off-Worlders and those from ‘down below’, all coming to the city. Some will stop by the bar, to meet the old war hero and listen to the stories. That’s if he wants to tell them… On landing days, his mind is somewhere else.


Sky’s clear today. Good. Flyers are coming in later. Official numbers are low for this one, a couple of hundred at the outside, but the bar’ll still be packed tonight. I’ll open late, always do. I wouldn’t miss the landings for all the anti grav in the city.

It’s cold, too. My breath steams on the air as I climb the short staircase from the front of the bar to the platform. From here, I can see most of the city, floating majestically far above the Shimmer Sea. The narrow plumes of smoke jet from the bottoms of the vast islands before drifting up into the blue. I’ll never tire of this sight, not as long as I live here.

My mouth twists as I lean against the flight pole. Shalia said that. We’d stroll up here every morning and just stand, just like I’m doing, staring out at the city. And she’d say she could never get bored of it. I took that to mean she’d never get bored of me, but neither was true. She tired of me just as soon as my rep from the war began to fade and the bar became just another bar.

I still don’t quite believe it. I don’t believe she was as shallow as her behaviour made her seem. She wasn’t shallow when we talked, when we perched on the window sill, feet dangling over the sea miles below, and talked about our dreams. Mine were bloody, then, filled with explosions and death. But she helped me make new ones.

Then she left and I had to make more. I don’t remember my dreams much these days. Maybe that’s for the best.

I sniff and pop open the box on the flight pole. Everyone switches them on this morning. Most won’t have landers coming down onto theirs, but the more lights the better. I flick on the uplighter and, although I can’t see it, a beam of light shoots straight up from the top of the pole, 20 metres above my head. The flyers will pick it up on their screens, imagers telling them everything they need to know about my bar.

It’s a wonderful feeling, coming in to land. It’s hard to explain to anyone, least of all those below, like Shalia’s become, what it’s like coming in on the city with your engines powering down, ship rumbling and shaking around you. It’s coming home, of course, so it’s easy to understand why it feels the way it does. But there’s something else, as well, something more. I think I got that from the war.

Last time I came in, I wasn’t thrilled about coming home so much as thrilled I wasn’t floating somewhere out at sea, drifting with the wreckage. Not many left who understand that feeling, and I’ll see most who do, tonight. Once the part-time revellers leave, having soaked up all the stories from the off-worlders and those come up from below, me and the others will start the proper drinking and talk about the war.

I can almost see Shalia sniffing. She’d accuse me of clinging onto things I hated at the time, defining my life by something I wish had never happened. Maybe she’s right. But then, she didn’t understand what it felt like, coming in on the ships and seeing my freedom before me.

This place was always a prison for her. She didn’t like the wires and she didn’t like the heights, and you don’t live here long if you don’t like heights.

I stretch, drop to the floor, and do my press ups. Some habits die hard, no matter how long you spend away from them. And when they’re healthy, why would you bother?

Where shall I watch the flyers come in from? I’m tempted to head for Central, but it’ll be packed, and I’m not sure I can handle the crowds today. Too many like Shalia there, young and beautiful, eager for what life has to throw at them. Life’s all but done with me and just the thought of hearing that much hope, that much expectation packed into one place exhausts me.

Maybe the Southern Isle. I nod, smile creeping across my face. It’ll be quiet, they’re coming in from the North. No one wants to be that far away, no detail from back there. But I don’t need the detail. I’ve seen enough ships in my life to never want to see another. You see things different from back there. You get the big picture.

Mind made up, I sidle back inside and inspect the bar. Everything’s ready. I can step in later, flick a few switches, and open the doors. I slip a knife in my ankle sheath – another old habit I’ve struggled to divest myself of – and stomp back up to the platform.

The wires are already busy, the soft hum of riding buzzing across the skies. I climb to the riding platform, pull my gloves on, and grip the wire. I’m getting more funny looks every time I land on another platform, but I can’t change the way I do things. Why would I, when they work? And these fancy new riding grips take all the fun out of it.

The wire vibrates as I grab it, but there’s no alarm, so I push off and sail into space. My gloves are army issue, better than anything anyone in the city’s got, and they sing as I slide along the wire. My shoulders ache in a way that’s as familiar as cleaning my teeth, but it’s an ache I couldn’t imagine living without.

I watch another rider fly past, on their way to Watson’s, if I’m any judge. She’s got a platform, not just a grip, and I can’t help laughing, the sound spilling out and tumbling down towards the sea. It’s like a surf board with a hang line that she clips over the wire before pushing off. There’s no strength involved, though the balance isn’t insignificant. Still, I couldn’t imagine using one.

And when I look down, I see the sea, so tiny it looks like someone’s thrown white paint onto a blue sheet. A clear day means wind, and wind means waves, higher than a building. I close my eyes, banishing the memories. I can feel those waves, crashing against the platforms, throwing my aim, throwing my friends into the water and then into the depths and darkness.

I force my eyes open, shoving the images to the back of my mind. I’m coming in on the Village, nice and fast. I keep the speed up, enjoying the looks I’m getting as people see this old timer rushing towards them, held up with nothing but his hands and his strength. I leave it as late as I can. I seem to be leaving it later every time, but I’ve not crashed yet.

I grip tighter, slow hard enough to throw my feet forwards, then release. I’m still a metre out from the platform and can’t help grinning at the gasps. My feet catch the edge but I’m still relaxed and my momentum takes me the rest of the way. My upper body keeps moving until I topple forwards, catch myself on my shoulder, and roll, then pop up.

They’re still staring at me as I strip my gloves off, tuck them into my pouch, and stroll into the Village. Time was, I’d have let go three metres out and caught the platform with my hands. Kids.

I’m not sure whether I’m thinking about me, or them. Both, maybe.

I cross the Village, then ride out to the Southern Isle. It takes another four wires and my shoulders are on fire by the time I arrive. But it’s a good fire. Reminds me I’m still alive. Coming in on the last platform, I stumble and have to grab the wire to keep from falling. My heart leaps into my mouth and I swallow it down, glancing around. There’s no one here to watch. Everyone’s gone Central, drawn by the landing.

I pause just before my legs take over and stomp me to the peak. My hands are shaking so I force myself to turn back and look at the platform. It wasn’t close, not really, but it’s as close as I’ve come. They say that when you fall, you black out long before you hit the ocean. They say you can’t resist the G-forces.

There’s a quiet voice inside me, growing louder every day, that says that’s a challenge I’d like to take. Just to prove them wrong, of course.

I stare at my hands until they still, they spin on my heel and start the final leg of my journey. This one takes me to the peak of the Southern Isle. There are trees up here, brought from off-world and set in earth they dragged up from beneath the sea. Everything up here is grown in the farms, tiny glass-covered troughs that line the edges of the islands. We get plenty of sun, of course, so growing’s no problem.

Below, beneath the waves, it’s a different matter. They eat lots of sea food, I’m told. I grin and finally turn to survey the scene. The whole city is beneath me. On cloudy days, you can sit up here and stare out at an ocean of white and grey, the rest of the city sunk below them, like the city below is sunk beneath the waves.

I shudder. Just the thought makes me go cold.

Today, though, I can see everything. I can see the spires of the Church glittering in the sunlight, and the scrapers of Central, their windowed walls catching the light and turning it into power. I can see my bar, all the way over the other side, dark save the flashing light, quietly proclaiming my tiny corner of the world.

I can hear the people, too. The waves below provide the softest of backgrounds, a gentle sussurrus that has finally, after decades of being here, safe and away from them, become background. It no longer makes me sweat when the weather gets bad and the noise levels rise. Not most of the time, anyway.

But today, the noise is different. Thousands of people are gathered on Central, making the anti gravs whine as they pick up the slack. And louder than them are the chatter of a thousand excited conversations. The anticipation is almost as good as the event itself.

I rest my head back against the bench, and drift. I see the faces of those I lost to the waters, and those I lost to the guns. I hear them and my body twitches in sympathy. But my eyes stay closed. This is my mourning, my celebration of lives that should have been lived, but weren’t.

Then I hear a shout and, try as I might, I can’t keep my eyes closed. When they open, I see what I’m expecting to, and my heart leaps, just as I knew it would. A ship, so distant it’s nothing more than a glint of light on the horizon. But they’re coming in fast and, within a few minutes, I can see them all.

It’s a wave, another wave, this one of grey and silver steel, dirty and burned by the cold of space. They slow as they near and the first tugs float up from Central. A hush runs through the city as the nearest ship slows to almost stopped and the tug docks.

It’s a beast of a craft, longer than the Southern Isle from front to back, and almost as deep. There’ll be hundreds of people on board, hundreds of new possibilities. Of all the things that excite me about the landings, that used to be at the top. It’s not so much, not anymore. Years of disappointments have left me tired, bored. But still, a chill runs through me at the thought of all the lives on board.

The tug pulls away and the tow wire straightens, then pulls taut. The massive craft jerks and a great cheer goes up as it crawls slowly towards Central. The landing has begun.

The day goes on, ship after ship docking in Central, passengers flooding the island.

I thought the anti gravs were complaining earlier, but now I’m doubly glad I chose to be up here. I’m convinced it’s going to drop at any moment, though I know the engines can handle far more than they’re being asked to.

There’s only a handful of ships left and the sun’s shifted right across the sky, when I see her. I don’t know what possesses me to pull my goggles down, but I do, and the landing strips flash into focus, magnified dozens of times over.

It’s a small ship, up from down below instead of off-world, and there’s 50 people at most coming off. It makes it easy to spot her, red hair and all. I click the magnification up and my tongue dries out like I’ve been riding with my mouth open. Shalia. She’s here. 25 years of waiting and she’s finally here.

She’s come back to me. I watch her, waiting to see if she looks up. She does and the sight of her face, so different to the photos I’ve got in my bedroom, yet so familiar, makes my heart lurch. Her hair’s greying at the roots, tiny flecks of white running all the way to where it flows over her shoulders. For a moment, I can’t breathe, then my lungs leap into action along with every sinew in my body, tensing, readying to jump.

I watch a moment longer, and my heart really does stop. She’s with someone. I can’t see his face, but he’s big, square shouldered, proud. And he’s got his arm around Shalia. They kiss, a familiar, warm gesture.

I pop my goggles up onto my head and let out a breath. She’s with someone. She’s not come back for me. Why is she even here? The memories I’ve been stifling, the nights of her flirting with the famous, hanging out with the men and women who used to come to my club, who used to come to be seen with the great war hero, come bubbling up and I feel my lips curl in a sneer. Is it aimed at her or me? Does it matter?

She was never coming back for me. I stumble, half-blind to the edge of the platform, and look down. The wind should be yanking me off, but the same anti-grav that keeps us in the sky does wonders for keeping it at bay. But there’s no barrier. They tried it for a while, but soon discovered anyone wanting to take the jump could do so, regardless of barriers. And besides, how could you stop people unclipping when they were riding? So they gave up and took the barriers down.

The sea waits below me, waves surging, spitting white tongues high into the air. Not that I can see them from up here, but I can see them in my mind, still tugging at me from years ago. It would be so easy. One single step. I’ve thought about it before. I thought about it plenty when she left, even more when I first came back from the war. But not for a while. Not until now.

I sniff as I step back. Not now, not today. The bar will be heaving tonight and I need to be there. Maybe Shalia will be there. I turn to the wire and grip it in one hand. Besides, there are five wires between here and the bar, anything could happen.

I glance down at the sea once more, and the war comes rushing up to me. Then I grip the wire with my other hand and kick off, into space, into freedom.