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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.