Silver Linings

Silver Linings

illustration by thom tenery

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

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.

Andrew J
1. Waitingforthenextpost
Nice story! I like my fantasy light and this seems to have many of the elements I enjoy in a book. Great job.
2. AhoyMatey
As a long time fan of Robert Jordan and now Brandson Sanderson, I have to say that Tim Pratt is fast becoming another of my favorite authors. The Marla Mason series is awesome, and here we have a new original intriguing story starting up. Can't wait for the next post. Meanwhile, if you need a fix, checkout Bone Shop.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
3. glasserc

The ending felt a little abrupt, though.

John Chu
4. JohnChu
Wow, what an utterly awesome story. The world of the story expands and expands becoming ever more fascinating with each paragraph. Surprises and wonders at every turn. I read the whole thing with an irrepressible grin on my face.
5. xxley
Great writing, but the story (sorry, author!) didn't do it for me -- turned out to be less a "story" than a method of revealing backstory.

I'd love to see a longer version where this only the jumping-off point, so those fantastic writerly skills can tell a "full story"...

That's just me, though, I guess.
6. pbinko
Great story. I love the device of the King going to save a world that he has apparently ruined. Great twist.
I like this style of narration a lot, a very personal way of writing, I think that Epic fantasy would become so much better if it had a narration style similar to this in that it was heavily first person personal language.
7. Wei Jian
I agree with xxley. I too wish the author would be less giddy about showing us his clever world and spend more time on the story, conflicts, and characters. This would be great if fleshed out and expanded, so the author can take his time building the world unobtrusively in the background, where world-building belongs.
8. HonorGod
A nice, light, read. I enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it.
9. Spacegirl
A nice read. Thank you for sharing it.

Though I think it could have had a more stronger ending. This feels like I've only read the first chapter.

Not to use the common word parachute is also a nice twist. It makes me think of all those ingenious people who invented important stuff but gave the wrong name to it!
10. Hali J
Thank you for that , it was a nice little teaser of a story, made me want to learn more of what happened before and how he will cope with trying to fix it.
11. Teka Lynn
Every cloud really does have a silver lining. Who knew?
12. Steven Klotz
I love seeing such a rich world created by a short story. The remorseful inventor king, while sketched in broad strokes, is a character I can relate to.
13. dayyakin
First time I've read anything by Tim Pratt. Loved this story. Do agree that it ends where you'd expect it to really begin. The world-building was masterful and the back story cleverly established, but it was back story. I certainly would love this story to continue. Going to have to check out his fantasy novels.
Zeke Uribe
14. Zeke
Awesome short story. Loved the world-building and the really intriguing character reveal. After I read this I had to take a look at his other short stories, check out the link here:

I read and liked, "The Frozen One" quite a bit; "The River Boy" was like a beautiful fairly tale, "Artifice & Intelligence" was awkward, stupid, but unique, definitely not my favorite. "Little Gods" was very interesting and twisted and - I hate to use this word again - but it WAS unique.
Keith Adamson
15. Tyrunea
Ingenious idea.... Although I'd bet scientest won't be to happy ith the author! ;)

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