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Cloudmining is a rough business at the best of times, mostly because everyone on the ground wants to kill you, but I had more particular problems. The day my past caught up with me, I was working for cloudboat captain Clandestine Ham—such a pompous name, everyone knew it must be an alias—as a refueller, the fourth-worst job in any cloudboat crew. We came cruising along at a middlish altitude, just beneath the lowest cloud level, over a pleasant little farming community called Crater Rim. Despite the name there was no actual crater in sight, which was something to be thankful for, at least.
The cloudboat—named the Corpulent Whale—had four big tight-woven gasbags packed with buoyant cloudstuff, and I was in charge of keeping #3 topped off. Not that it mattered much now, as we’d dropped our load of silver at one of the less reputable trading posts along Precipitous Bay, and the cloudboat was riding empty and high and light. Cloud silver is exactly the same as silver pulled out of the ground, but so much easier to mine; digging in fluffy floating cloudstuff is far easier than cracking open mountains, but there was the little matter of cloudmining being banned under sixteen different treaties, so it wasn’t precisely honest work. It required middlemen of optional morality to get the silver to market, and a desperate crew to mine it, of which I was technically more desperate than most.
“Nice bank there,” my co-refueller, a pink-faced man named Salmon, said, leaning way out against his harness line, gasbag squeaking under his feet. “Must be ten, fifteen tons right here in those cumulus humilis.”
I nodded, but I was leaning out and looking more at the farms below, neat squares of more or less dark earth. The cloud cover here was patchy, allowing lots of good sunlight in but also promising ample rain in season, making it a prime area for agriculture, one of the region’s many little breadbaskets. It was autumn, harvest time, so the people down below wouldn’t starve this winter at least, and maybe they’d have time to move on before Crater Rim became a bowl of dust, its clouds gone forever and all hope of future rain stolen away.
Of course, Captain Ham hadn’t chosen this season to strike out of kindness—mining the clouds during spring rains and summer thunderstorms and winter snow is much harder, so inert autumn clouds were easiest. And cloudminers, like most kinds of pirates and poachers, tend toward the lazy.
I wasn’t lazy, but my past made me unfit for most kinds of work, and clinging to a wooden vessel tied to a bunch of inflatable gasbags several thousand feet in the air was among the least dangerous of my available options.
“That bag’s sagging, Jokum!” Captain Ham shouted through his conical speaking-tube. I snapped out of my dazy musings and picked up my suckhose while Salmon unhooked his. We opened up the nozzles and heard the whine of the suck-engines start up belowdecks. Then we jumped, our harnesses tethering us to safety as we swung down, landing with the soles of our feet pressed against the yielding side of the gasbag. We bent our knees and jumped out and up in wide arcs, extending our suckhoses into the nearest cloudbank and slurping up great fluffy white blobs of cloudstuff, just the loose bits around the edges. The #3 gasbag filled, the Corpulent Whale surged up a few yards, and Captain Ham shouted “Enough,” not that he needed to, as Salmon and I were good at our jobs. We both let ourselves bounce to a stop, stowed our suckhoses, and clambered back up the side of the now drum-tight gasbag, using looped canvas handholds and footholds to get back to the broad top.
Down below the mining crew—who have the third-worst job on a cloudboat, as swinging a pick over a void with cloudstuff in your eyes is tricky business—extended their wooden planks out into the nearest clouds, and sent the ordinary crewmen out with their handheld fans. The crewmen have the second-worst job on the boat, as no one bothers to give them safety harnesses and they sometimes tumble from the planks, with long seconds of knowing they’ll die before they hit the ground.
The fans did their work, blowing away just enough cloudstuff from the sides to reveal the gleaming smooth face of the cloud’s silver lining, beautiful pure ore there for the taking. They hammered in a couple of pitons and tethered the cloudboat to the ore, then hurried back to deck; no casualties yet today. A few hands heaved on the mooring ropes to make sure they were solid, and the ore didn’t budge an inch. Meant it was a big seam—smaller ones will give and drift a little when you pull, though as a rule clouds don’t ever move much apart from some eddying at the edges, being so freighted down with silver.
The mining crew went out on the planks, strung nets between the boards to catch any falling ore, and set to work with their picks, knocking off hunks of silver for busy crewmen to collect and carry belowdecks. This was a dull downtime for refuellers, so Salmon and I sprawled out to nap on the gasbag, flat on our backs on the cushiest mattress imaginable: triple-thick canvas crammed with cloudstuff. I gazed up at the higher layer of clouds, which were a thin streaky whitish gray with the occasional glint of silver when the wind parted the cloudstuff enough to reveal the lining inside. Nobody knew how much silver there was up in the sky, but it wasn’t infinite. Every cloud has a silver lining, and when you take away the silver, you no longer have a cloud—without the ballast of precious metal holding the cloudstuff down, it just flies up into the atmosphere and disappears. And after that, it’s just merciless sun and no shade or rain for the unfortunates who live below.
Back in the unregulated days, when the Gracious Trading Company mined in full force, whole small countries were turned into deserts by the strip-mining of the clouds overhead. These days there were only a few outlaw cloud miners, since existing cloudboats were damned hard to acquire and new ones nearly impossible to fuel—there were only a few places where mountains touched the sky, allowing cloudstuff to be gathered from solid ground. The small number of outlaw miners weren’t enough to do much harm in the aggregate, but in the specific . . . Well. It was dry days ahead for the good people of Crater Rim.
I first knew something was amiss when the shouting started, though I just thought someone had just fallen. Then there was a sudden lurch as the mooring lines were cut free. I grabbed a handhold and kept my grip, but Salmon, fast asleep, rolled right off the gasbag, and I heard him curse and bounce on the side. I made my way along the curve of the gasbag so I could get a look around.
There was another cloudboat coming toward us from the west, its gasbags black, its deck polished and gleaming, utterly unlike the patched and ragged mien of the Corpulent Whale. Captain Ham was shouting about pirates, which wasn’t strictly accurate. There aren’t enough cloudboats plying the skies to support full-fledged pirates, but occasionally two outlaw ships will happen upon the same seam of silver, in which case the better-armed bunch generally gets all the spoils. And the losing boat gets its gasbags popped for a swift midair scuttle, if they’re lucky. Crueler foes will just poke slow leaks so the cloudboat drifts to the ground gradually, providing ample time for the people on the ground to set up a proper welcome, the kind with tar and torches and hanging ropes.
But this black ship was no mining vessel. It was a warship, the only one of its kind in all the world.
And it was coming for me.
Captain Ham called all crew to man battlestations, such as they were, and Salmon and I dropped to the deck and unfastened our harnesses (I left my little pack strapped on my back, of course, as always). We picked up the rusty pikes used, in theory, to repel boarders. The crewmen realigned the fans to provide us with some thrust, but it was clear the approaching cloudboat—named the Avenging Crow, I knew—had some more complex and efficient propulsion system, as it closed on us rapidly. A bolder captain (myself, say) might have tried to rise up through the nearest layer of cloudstuff, dodging the seams of silver by intuition and luck and getting above the clouds where a more expensive cloudboat might fear to follow, lest they crash against hanging ore. But Captain Ham was a plodder, and such strategic thinking was beyond him, so the Avenging Crow inevitably closed in. Our archers sent a few feeble arrows at the Crow, but their gasbags were made of sterner stuff than our own, and the projectiles bounced off harmlessly.
“Oh, bugger,” Captain Ham said. He had the worst job on the cloudboat, because he was the one who’d get tossed over the side first if we were boarded.
A black-haired dark-skinned giant of a man stood in the bow, holding a golden shouting-tube to his lips. He looked enough like me that he could have been my brother, but he was only a distant cousin. “Your Majesty!” he shouted, voice whipped, but audible, in the wind. “You must return with us!”
“Majesty?” Ham sputtered, approaching me and awkwardly drawing his sword. “You’re . . . That’s . . . You’re him? You’re worth a king’s ransom!” He paused. “Literally.”
While he was looking pleased with his own witticism, I brought my pike down hard, probably breaking his wrist but at the very least making him drop his sword. I sprang for the nearest gasbag, clambering up the handholds with practiced ease. Once on top, I knew I had only moments before my fellow crewmen came after me. I pulled my goggles over my eyes, gauged the distance to the nearest cloud, bounced a few times, and then leaped out into the void.
I fell through cloudstuff and thought I’d misjudged, but I reached out wildly and caught a lip of hard silver with both hands. The ore didn’t even move when my weight hit it, which meant it was a big seam, so I pulled myself up to the only semblance of solid ground in the sky, standing in spongy cloudstuff almost up to my waist. Running through cloudstuff was like running through feathers: theoretically yielding but practically rather hard going, though it was no more substantial than seafoam when you scooped it up in your hands.
In my younger days I’d engaged in more than a few chases across rooftops, but this was my first chase across the clouds.
And chase it was. My cousin had brought the Avenging Crow, with its superior maneuverability, close to my cloudbank, and Feydor had personally leapt out after me. Idiot. If he missed his footing he would plunge to his death; the Crow couldn’t descend fast enough to catch him. I’d feel guilty if he died, but then, I hadn’t asked him to pursue me.
Suddenly a wind blew, stirring aside cloudstuff and revealing a hole just a dozen feet ahead. The silver was still firm beneath me, but a few more steps and I would have fallen, and the nearest cloud was too far away to reach. Maybe if I’d had a grappling hook with me, but I hadn’t planned for such a contingency. I turned, standing on the edge, and there was Feydor, approaching me with his hands spread in a harmless way, giving me the horrible pained expression that was his attempt at a reassuring smile. “Please, Majesty. Come back with us. Your country needs you.”
I snorted. “I left things organized to my liking. I see no need to return. But it’s good you’re here. You can let everyone know I’m still alive.” A more reasonable country could have appointed or elected or acclaimed a new king in my absence, but my homeland has certain quaint and ancient customs, notably a belief in divinely-appointed rulers. I am the earthly minister of the gods, after all, and while I am absent, nothing in my country can change—no new laws can be enacted without my seal, no new taxes levied, no appointments filled, no executions committed without my signature. And, most importantly, no new wars can be declared. Everything must remain as I left it, static and unchanging.
“Majesty. Iorek ordered me to kill you.”
I laughed. My younger brother. Successor to the throne. All he needed was confirmation of my death, and he could run things as he saw fit.
“Would you try?” I said.
He sighed. Seeing such a man, such a titan of the battlefield, sigh, was enough to soften my heart, but not to change my mind. “Of course not, Majesty. I just thought you should know of his treachery.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for assassins as well as more benign pursuers in my future travels, then.”
“Majesty, you are in the clouds. There is nowhere for you to go.”
“You know the improvements I made to the Crow, cousin? My many inventions?”
“Yes, Majesty, all ingenious designs.”
“I invented some other things, too,” I said, and jumped off the cloud.
* * *
I called my device a break-fall, and I’d only tested it once before, and that from the top of a tower while my valet looked on, barely holding together his practiced air of disinterested boredom. The break-fall was an arrangement of ropes and silk cloth, now folded away in my backpack. I had never attempted to deploy it from such altitude, and indeed, the earlier model had involved a more complicated arrangement of stiff struts and wires. I thought there was a good chance the stresses of deploying my break-fall while plunging through the sky would dislocate my shoulders, but it was a better option than landing on the town of Crater Rim.
Still, the experience of falling, wind rushing in my ears, without the definite prospect of death at the end, was almost unimaginably invigorating, something I could imagine doing again for pleasure, assuming it worked this first time.
I pulled a rope, which tore loose several buckles on my pack, and released the great expanse of silk cloth from its confines. I closed my eyes, unwilling to watch the bare earth rushing up at me, and prayed to the gods who had supposedly invested me with their power and privileges.
The jerk of straps against my shoulder and waist was sudden and hard, and I would be sore, but no bones broken and no joints dislocated. When I opened my eyes, I was floating down through the sky like a bit of dandelion fluff on a breeze. The ground was by then only a few hundred feet below, and I looked up, but all I could see was the off-white cone of silk cloth above me, catching the air and easing my fall. I had some rudimentary directional controls, ropes I could tug to shift the break-fall’s angle, and I aimed for what I took to be an abandoned farmhouse, next to the burned remains of a barn—perhaps there would be water there, and food. I had a great deal of gold (not silver, never silver) sewn into my clothing, which would help when I reached more populated areas, but in the meantime: I couldn’t eat or drink gold.
I landed in a dead field with a harder impact than I’d anticipated, and winced when my ankle turned. That meant adding the task of finding a horse to my list of more or less immediate needs, since I would not be walking far on an injured ankle. I limped around, gathered up the silk, and shoved it back into my pack, though it would take many hours of checking for tears and careful refolding before I could use it again. I looked up, and the cloudboats were distant dots against the sky. I hoped I’d been too small a target for them to track my descent, but even if they decided to come down—a one-way trip since they couldn’t acquire more cloudstuff here—getting a cloudboat to the ground was a slow process that usually ended in a landing zone filled with an angry mob, so I had time.
One of the dilapidated farmhouse’s doors was hanging open, so I slipped inside—where a lantern was suddenly lit, dazzling my eyes.
“Majesty,” said a slightly bored-sounding voice.
“Malko?” I said, dumbfounded.
“I have a horse, fresh clothes, some food and water cans, and gold, sir,” my old valet said. “You should perhaps make haste. Unless I can discourage you from this folly.”
“How could you possibly be waiting for me here?”
“I have seen your break-fall in use before, sir,” he said, a small, neat man who had always served me loyally, though I was never quite sure if he liked me. “I could imagine no other way you would escape apprehension in the sky, and given prevailing winds, it seemed likely you would be blown this way, and make for whatever shelter was most convenient. As this is the only structure in the vicinity . . .” He shrugged, as if his actions were obvious and inevitable; but he was always that way. “It would be better for us all if you came back. Your departure has been the cause of . . . much speculation. Some say you went mad, others that you fell in love, others that you are on a spiritual quest.”
“Hardly any of those. I committed war crimes,” I said, kneeling to check the provisions he’d bought, busying myself so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “You know that.”
“I suppose the argument could be made, sir, but you need not fear prosecution—the only court that would dare apprehend and try a sitting head of state was in the capital of Carolignia, and . . . that place is no more.”
“I know.” I closed my eyes. “I saw its end.” I engineered its end. Carolignia was my country’s principal rival. We’d skirmished at our borders for generations, and when I took over as king after years in charge of the army, years overseeing young men dying in the foothills, I decided there must be a cleaner kind of war, a definitive end to the conflict. Cloudboats had been invented in my country, the first ones built by my ancestors in the Mountains of the Moon, among those peaks that touch the clouds, where there are lamaseries and temples built of pure silver. All those years later we only had two of the ships left—most were burned when the treaties outlawing cloudmining were enacted generations before—and I oversaw the reconstruction of one, a ship that became the Avenging Crow.
I’d had a simple realization, you see. Clouds are a complex interaction between two substances, the impossibly buoyant cloudstuff and their heavy silver linings. The weight of the silver holds the cloudstuff down, a mere several thousand feet in the sky, and fortunes (and droughts) had been made by removing the silver and letting the vaporous cloudstuff float away.
But the cloudstuff also held the tremendous weight of the silver up. What if the cloudstuff were removed, suctioned off by suckhoses, leaving the silver entirely unsupported? I reasoned that such an act wouldn’t even break any treaties—those rules outlawed extracting the silver from the clouds, not vice versa.
It seemed to me that if the cloudstuff were removed, the silver would quite simply fall from the sky.
“I thought it would be a show of force,” I said, sitting in the darkness of a broken house. “I thought the silver would punch a hole through the roof of their Senate, perhaps kill one or two of their philosophers. I would show them that we could strike the very heart of their capital, drop rocks from heaven and spoil their weather, and the Carolignians would agree to an expansion of my borders. I didn’t expect . . . I didn’t calculate . . .”
Malko was silent.
“Do you know what happens, when you let several tons of solid silver fall seven-thousand feet to the ground? I do. I’ve seen it. The capital city was obliterated, Malko. You have heard descriptions, but you cannot imagine. Nothing remained but a smoking hole. The noise was deafening. The plume of dust rose so high, I could almost reach out and touch it from the deck of the Avenging Crow.”
“It is a potent weapon,” Malko said. “And it served its purpose—Carolignia surrendered unconditionally.”
“It was an abomination. An abomination my generals were eager to see used again and again. Especially Iorek, who wants to rule the whole of the world.” I shook my head. “Never again. Not by our people. I will not allow it. And while my brother could poison me in the palace, he cannot so easily remove me when I am loose in the world.”
“How long will you run?” Malko asked.
I shrugged. “Until I’ve invented a device that can knock cloudboats out of the sky from the ground. Until I’ve built prototypes and placed them in the hands of every government I’ve ever heard of. My pack is filled with sketches, some quite promising. I will come back, Malko. When I’ve neutralized the threat we’ve become.”
“I suppose I understand,” Malko said. “The business of kings is not my business.” He paused. “But I must ask—why did you hide on a cloudmining vessel? You despise such outlaws, you always called them scavengers of the sky, and had them hung when they were apprehended inside our borders.”
“They are horrible people,” I agreed. “But every scrap of silver I remove from the sky is a scrap of silver that can’t be dropped as a weapon on the people below. Drought is a terrible thing . . . but there are worse ends, Malko.” I clapped my hand on his shoulder. “Good-bye, old friend.”
“Where will you go?”
“If I don’t tell you, no one can make you say. But I promise I’ll send the occasional letter, if only to let Iorek know I’m alive, and still king. Now—where’s that horse? I think I’m ready to spend some time traveling a bit closer to the ground.”