• Published 6th Oct 2012
  • 19,978 Views, 674 Comments

Just Passing Through - Caliaponia

Humans, sailplanes and cloud cities just don't mix very well.

  • ...

1 - A brief tour of Cloudsdale

Just passing t
A brief tour of Cloudsdale

The darkness lifted. There was no up or down as the horizon spun dizzyingly around him and the wind roared in his ears. Thought battled against vertigo. He was flying. He was falling. Spinning. Quickly. Too quickly.

Land and sky had become a blur and nausea threatened to overtake him as he struggled to grasp the situation. Focus. A flat spin, but the altimeter wasn't screaming. Yet. No, he couldn't afford to panic now. Just fly. He centered the controls and quickly hunched forward as far as he could. The nose dropped as he shifted the center of gravity, steepening the spin and improving airflow across the wings. Reaching over, he adjusted the controls to counter the rotation. After a long moment, he felt the airfoils began to bite and he breathed a sigh of relief as he settled back into stable flight. His head still spun, but he was back in control and began to scan quickly for damage.

His Swift was a beautiful little craft. A hybrid design, it could be foot launched like a hang-glider, but it's rigid wing allowed it to still achieve most of the performance of a pure sailplane. It also had recumbent seating and was controlled by a joystick using rudders, flaps and elevons, rather than by shifting the pilot's weight. Compared to a hang-glider, this combination was much more comfortable and took less effort to fly, increasing the pilot's endurance. The little craft seemed to have come through the dangerous maneuver well. Its controls were responsive and a glance upwards revealed no visible damage to the snow-white wings.

The day was still beautiful and clear, and it looked like he hadn't lost much altitude. As his stomach settled, he slowly relaxed, unclenching white knuckles from the joystick. He'd just gotten up here and didn't want to cut his flight short. He loved the exhilarating sense of freedom he got from flying. Especially with gliders, the dance of balancing speed and altitude, lift and drag was like nothing else. Be it skipping between thermals, riding wild gusts, exploring cloud cathedrals or simply soaring in an endless expanse of deep blue sky, up here he was one with the wind – at peace with the world.

Well, it might have been peaceful if he hadn't just woken up in a flat spin. The worst part is that I don't even remember getting into the spin, he thought, taking several deep breaths as the adrenaline rush faded. It was quickly replaced by a sense of growing unease as he looked around more closely. Something is seriously wrong here. Though the sky seemed the same, ahead of him lay an odd cloud formation that he couldn't recall. Not that he made a habit of memorizing clouds, but this one was noteworthy, as the billowing vapor had formed strangely regular shapes that gave it an odd, sculpted appearance. There were also a few unusually concentrated pockets of precipitation, and a rather out-of-place rainbow. Finally, there were a number of bright specks clustered around it – possibly large birds.

Unusual as the clouds were, his attention was soon riveted to the ground instead. Where am I? Geneva should be right ahead of me, or at least nearby, he thought, craning his head about in bafflement. I can't see it anywhere, though. I should at least be able to see Lake Geneva, or recognize some of these mountains. What the hell? Where are the roads and cities? This just looks like wilderness. He paled as he realized how completely lost he was.

Just how long was I unconscious for? That spin had to have been brief, or I would have crashed, so I should still be in more or less the same place. I've flown from the Salève dozens of times, though, and I can't think of anywhere I could've gone to that would be this different, he thought, brow furrowing as he continued spotting oddities. In the distance off to the side, he could see what looked like a castle plucked from a fairytale and perched implausibly on a mountainside. Stranger still, far behind him was what looked like a waterspout, but without a storm. Instead, a shimmering column of water snaked into the sky. Weird. It reminds me a bit of that liquid alien thing from “The Abyss.”

His speculation was dashed as the Swift lurched, seeming to stumble in midair, and he fought the controls to straighten it out. It felt like he'd run into a horizontal tornado, but the air calmed as soon as he penetrated the outer boundary of the vortex. He found himself carried along, rapidly gaining altitude and speed as he was pulled towards the clouds he had noticed earlier. As the distance shrank, he began to notice even more oddities about the small cluster of cumulus clouds. The shapes were too regular and well defined. Even stranger, they seemed to support buildings – he thought he could make out columns, pennants, and other architectural features.

The nearest structure was perhaps the most peculiar. It was surrounded by a swarm of small nimbus clouds, but was itself smooth and white. Its form was geometric and regular; a cylinder, round on one end and open on the other, with a large tapered funnel perched at the top. The overall shape reminded him uncomfortably of a sausage grinder. The birds around it were... odd as well. They're flying wrong and something seems off with their feet, but from here I still can't quite tell what's going on, he thought, straining his eyes to make out as much detail as he could.

His breath caught as a sense of motion made him look up, and he got a better look inside the funnel shaped cloud. The interior was a dark, swirling vapor, churning in a violent maelstrom that somehow left the exterior cloud surface unaffected. Okay, I don't know what that is, but I want nothing to do with it. It looks like this wind is carrying me right towards it, though – I've got to break off somehow, he thought, angling the Swift to bank away from the clouds. As soon as his wing encountered the side of the vortex, however, it was deflected gently back to the center. He tried again, this time diving, and his eyebrows shot up in alarm when the same resistance supported him. By now he had almost reached the structure, and could clearly make out the maelstrom awaiting him.

This might cause another spin, but I've got no choice, he thought, desperately rolling the Swift sharply, pitching it on edge, and then crossing the controls to slip down vertically. The sudden drop knifed through the bottom of the vortex and took him below the level of the intake, though at the expense of briefly rolling the craft. He recovered quickly, but he was already too close to the edifice. Unable to turn away in time, he braced for impact, or at least turbulence. Bursting into a huge factory hall came as a complete surprise.

Time seemed to slow as he tried to process what he saw. He was about halfway up the interior wall of what looked like some sort of factory. Machines of unknown purpose lined the walls, billowing vapor and filling the air with a loud industrial hum. The space was crowded with a riot of colorful flying... No, that can’t possibly be right. Don’t think about it. Focus. Cables, tubes, and ductwork hung in the air or snaked on the ground, creating a disorienting and hazardous environment. Just fly.

Passing over one such machine, a sudden burst of air threw him upwards, directly into the overhead tangle of machines and connections. Again there was no impact, though he felt the little glider shudder at encountering unseen forces as he cleared a wide swath along the ceiling. Behind him, he heard the sudden howl of wind and crackle of electric discharge.

The end of the room loomed and he blew through another wall. He found himself in an even larger room, but instead of the vapor-belching machines, there were a series of tiered pools of bright liquid color. It was crowded with workers, including a large cluster dead ahead.

He reflexively pulled up, intending to avoid a collision by escaping the room altogether. As he slid into the cloud, however, instead of piercing through as it had so far, the little craft shook and fell back as it encountered something unexpectedly dense. Dropping back down, he saw the wing was now coated in the bright liquid and leaving a rainbow trail.

He heard a roar behind him and risked looking back. The ceiling was dissolving, allowing a massive sheet of the rainbow liquid to pour in. Fortunately, though he hadn't been able to escape the room, he had gained enough altitude to miss the strange flyers, especially as the knot dissolved into panicked flight.

Another wall loomed, and the scene changed again. This time he was enveloped in winter, as the temperature dropped precipitously in a room piled high with mounds of snow. Fortunately, this room was barely inhabited and he didn't have to make any evasive maneuvers. He left chaos in his wake nonetheless, as the piles of snow flew into a swirling frenzy behind him.

One more wall, and then he finally burst into the open, trailed by a kaleidoscopic blizzard and a growing chorus of panicked yells and shrill alarms. He was still near the tops of these strange clouds, and he found he had exited above the edge of what looked like a large plaza. It was well populated, and he found himself the sudden center of attention with many now staring aghast at his surprise entrance.

The Swift rose further, trading velocity for altitude, and he briefly hung over the scene. Having made it through the high-stakes slalom, he relaxed his death grip on the controls and slumped back into his seat in relief. In this moment of respite, his brain finally caught up with events and he came to a sudden, terrible realization. I've had some sort of stroke or seizure, and am in a deluded state. I already blacked out once, and clearly can't trust my perceptions now. No matter how you look at it, I am not fit to fly. There is only one thing left to do now – I just should have done it sooner. Mechanically, he reached up and pulled a red handle mounted on the frame.

The rocket exploded upwards from the airframe with a brief hiss and his eyes traced the silken streamer it hauled behind it. Moments later came the soft but reassuring fwoomph, as the ballistic reserve parachute caught the air, its fabric billowing out into a large canopy. He grunted as he was flung into his restraints by the sudden deceleration. Any of the inhabitants who hadn't noticed him before now clearly had, and they scrambled out of his way as the glider ground to a stop and then began to descend slowly.

Rainbow fluid had begun to run down the sides of the canopy. Now that he was at rest, he swung the canopy up to clear his vision. He was finally able to get a real look at the creatures. It did not reassure him of his own faculties. Flying, yes. Birds, no. From up close they actually appeared to be winged horses. The pegasi of Greek legends, except the Greeks hadn't said anything about their incredible array of colors, smaller size, ability to stand on clouds, or talk. Silence fell at his appearance. What snatches of conversation he could still overhear were beautiful and lilting, but utterly unintelligible. This just keeps getting weirder and weirder. He wasn't sure if he should feel betrayed by the Greeks omitting so many important points, or worry over his own eroding sanity.

A few of the pegasi circled him curiously, though most seemed wary. Those standing nearest were backing away from his descent path. Pilot and pegasi stared at each other in mutual confusion, as the parachute billowed and the Swift descended slowly until it reached the clouds below. The pegasi may have been standing on them as if they were solid ground, but the cockpit passed through smoothly, and he felt only the slightest hesitation as the wing followed afterwards.

Just like everything else, the inside of the cloud was a bit off. Rather than entering into a mist and having visibility gradually taper off, the transition was abrupt, with well-defined boundaries. The movement of the vapor seemed to be constrained, despite being as insubstantial as ever. After a few seconds, the cloud ended as abruptly as it began, and he found himself in a room. Looking up, he could see the Swift had left a hole behind it; he estimated the layer of cloud to have been one to two meters thick.

The room he had dropped into was a different breed from the ones in the strange factory. For one, though the ceilings were high, it was much smaller. Its purpose was much more familiar as well. Rather than having inscrutable cloud machinery, it was a simple lobby that could have been taken from any hotel or fancy apartment – but for everything being made out of clouds. The walls were lined with artwork and shelves, and there were a number of little clusters of sofas and low tables scattered about the floor. On the far end of the room was a long front desk, presently empty.

How the hell can these clouds support normal things? he thought, watching in fascination as his wing came down on top of a table that held a lamp and magazine. There was a brief moment of resistance, and then with a sound halfway between a zap and a pop, all the items suddenly fell through. They continued falling as well, vanishing into the cloud below.

A moment later, there was another hesitation, and he looked up to see that the parachute was now entering the cloud. Despite the parachute's larger surface area and the extra cohesion these clouds seemed to have, it was not enough to check his descent.

As he continued to watch, he saw the cloud material trapped inside the parachute deform and even out as it settled. The parachute was clearly leaving a big hole in the floor, but within the parachute the hole his wings and cockpit had left quickly vanished.

He dropped in on another room, and found he had company. Two pairs of ears perked up, and bright eyes regarded him intently. Below him sat a pair of little pegasi, both about the size of a large cat. Foals? He wondered. Both had silver eyes, but while one had a dusty teal coat and lavender mane, the other's coat was ruddy orange with a red-streaked black mane.

The room was littered with toys, and it looked like they'd been bouncing off the walls – literally. He could see small hoofprints all the way up. No wonder there were no windows. Come to think of it, the other room had been windowless as well.

After a brief pause at his arrival, two tiny pairs of wings sprung open and began to buzz. Though he was still high off the floor, they lifted off the ground and quickly darted up to his level. There they circled him like hummingbirds around a flower, letting out a continuous stream of sing-song babble.

He tried to shoo them away, but they seemed more interested in exploring the giant colorful toy that had just dropped into their room. If anything, the gesticulating figure making funny noises was just a bonus. After circling a few times, they settled on the top of the wing and began running back and forth, splashing and creating colorful patterns on its still rainbow-wet surface.

Meanwhile, the Swift continued its inexorable descent, soon reaching the cloud floor. His unruly passengers shrieked in glee and bounced excitedly as they rode the wing down into the next room.

This cloud layer had a new oddity. So far, all the clouds had been a uniform white, diffusing the sunlight into a gentle, omnidirectional glow. Some change had been wrought in this cloud, however. Passing through cut off light like a heavy curtain, and the interior of the room was wreathed in shadow.

For a moment, he was plunged into darkness, and all he could hear was a sudden deep rumbling roar. Then the top of the wing cleared the ceiling, and light poured in through the room's brand new skylight.

Gold, bronze, and steel glistened and gleamed in the gentle half-light of the room. The walls seemed to be studded with stars, as points of light reflected from the various pieces of armor and weaponry displayed. A panicked mental calculation reassured him that the parachute was probably not going to be shredded by all the hardware adorning the walls, at least.

That still left a rather large problem sprawled gracelessly on its back atop a cloud bed near the center of the room, however. Said problem being pure white, blue maned, powerfully built, conspicuously male, and snoring like a freight train.

His sedate descent gave him plenty of time to fret at the abundance of pointy death and potential mayhem in the room. This was not something he was equipped to deal with. The foals did not share his concern in the slightest, however, running about and shrieking in complete abandon. Well, this may be it. He thought glumly to himself.

Two meters, then one. He was on the edge of his seat as the tip of the left wing just missed the stallion, instead encountering a pile of magazines spilling out from under the bed. Zwop zwop zwop – the magazines went tumbling down. Then he was past. The massive stallion barely twitched an ear.

The next room was thankfully empty. It looked like it might be some sort of living room; it was hard to tell, as the room was completely bare. An apartment between renters, perhaps. It was just as well the room was boring – he wasn't really paying attention, anyhow; his mind was preoccupied with the parachute above. Though he couldn’t see what was going on anymore, he was fairly sure the descending maw of the parachute was about to encounter the slumbering stallion.

The Swift swayed slightly as it descended, and he could feel the small vibrations of the foals’ little hooves as they chased each other rambunctiously. Then he felt a heavier resistance as the parachute caught on something large and solid. There was a snort as the snoring from above abruptly cut off; he held his breath nervously. Then he felt the resistance start to give way, and the chute resumed its downward journey. A few moments more and the snoring resumed as well, though much more softly now. He let out a quiet sigh of relief – reassured that he was not about to have an unpleasant encounter with his latest unwitting passenger.

The next room found a pair of orange eyes already fixed on the ceiling in irritation. This room was a bit smaller, and the steamy air thick with the scent of lavender. In the center, a pegasus lay blissfully in a raised pool of water. A cloud bathtub?

Its occupant was bright yellow, with a fiery orange blaze of mane. There were no dead giveaways like with the stallion, but also no hint of his blocky build. Though muscular, this pegasus had the lean physique of a dancer or athlete. It may have been the effect of the water, but despite its alien appearance, the sleek conditioning and refined lines imparted a distinctly feminine air. Indeed, he found himself actually rather impressed by the latent power and lithe grace she exuded.

The reverse did not appear to be true. Whatever nuisance she had been expecting, he and the foals did not appear to have been on the list. She slowly rose, dripping, from the water. With her coat plastered to her body, mane falling limp, and sodden wings raised threateningly, she was quite the sight. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to watch both him and the foals, clearly nonplussed by their behavior. He could almost see the gears in her head grind to a halt as irritation gave way to incomprehension and then alarm.

It didn't take long for her to regain her focus. She tensed up, assuming the taut readiness of a sprinter at the starting blocks. As he reached the cloud level, she dove for the foals, who mirthfully dodged aside. She quickly recovered and tried again, with the same result. Then he was below her and falling; he peered back up through the deepening hole. She had ended up on the edge to his right, and was glaring down from her perch by the tub. Unfortunately, she was a little too focused.

The glider gave a shudder as the descent briefly slowed again. He saw the ceiling bulge, before a disc of cloud detached and descended rapidly. He closed his eyes and looked away. The parachute lurched again, this time accompanied by an indignant yelp from above. There was the same brief hesitation, but this time the release was accompanied by a burst of lavender-scented rain and a series of vigorous exclamations. He had no doubt that his newest passenger was not amused by this latest turn of events. Well, look on the bright side. At least the water missed. He mused.

He finally looked around. This appeared to be some sort of kitchen, but the contents had barely registered before he was already passing through the floor.

Looking back up, he saw the mare's head break through the bottom of the cloud, just in time to meet the new layer of floor rushing up. She shot him a very dirty look before their line of sight was once again cut off.

Two more floors, both empty; another living room and then a bedroom. The third was occupied, but the occupant fled before the Swift had even fully left the ceiling.

This latest room was a little different. It looked like some sort of office, complete with desks loaded with what appeared to be paperwork. Some things never change. In the middle, on a raised dais was what appeared to be a map. Though the symbols were indecipherable, it reminded him of a weather forecast. More importantly, this room had windows! Down below, he could see the ground. Dare he hope?

The next cloud layer was a bit different. The mist was a bit thicker, darker, and went on for longer. Still, he was pleased it didn't immediately lead into another room. The moments in the enveloping gray stretched out, until...

Finally! He tasted open air as he fell away from the strange cloud construct. His parachute caught the wind, and he drifted off to the side. Looking up, he could see an open column of air that clearly marked his path of descent. On one edge perched the strange cloud edifice he had first encountered. His eyes widened as he saw flames coming from it. An ominous plume of multicolored smoke was beginning to snake up into the sky. How can clouds even burn? He wondered.

He noticed that a change had come over the cloud above in the parachute as well. No longer the fluffy white material he had been accumulating, it now looked darker, heavier. A few drops of rain began to sprinkle down. Where they struck the wing exploded into unexpected sparks of blazing color and arcing effervescent energy, eliciting little yipes from the foals. Now thoroughly splattered in the liquid rainbow, the foals whined and danced away from the raindrops, eventually taking flight and heading for the shelter beneath the glider's wings. Huh. Seems like they don't like the rain. They're flying a bit more slowly, too. I wonder if they're getting tired. I hope not – it's a long way down. Now they're looking over here agai–

That was when they suddenly made a beeline for the canopy and he found his hands full of darting young pegasi. Opening his mouth to protest, he immediately received a mouthful of wet feathers for his trouble. Time stopped as his taste buds short-circuited all higher mental functions. It was like licking a high voltage battery made of frozen wasabi. Rainbows were delicious. He mused a bit. They'd go better on some sushi than unaccompanied, though. Or maybe in a dip? Hmmm...

He wasn't sure exactly how long it took him to recover from his little culinary reverie, but when he returned to the present, he found the teal foal industriously trying to excavate his lunchbox from its pocket at his side. Moving to defend his lunch, he discovered one of his arms was pinned by the orange foal sprawling across his lap, sound asleep. It took some doing to extract it out from under the orange foal, correction, the orange colt, but he managed to do so without waking it.

With both hands free, he was able to fend off the little teal treasure hunter, and reclaim his lunch. It ah, no, she, settled back on his legs by her brother and looked at him forlornly. Now this was an arena in which he was outclassed. The wind ruffled her still rainbow-wet feathers a little as she just sat there, looking up at him with big innocent eyes. He sighed. He was a softie when it came to cats, little kids, and now apparently foals as well.

He knew he couldn't hold out, but there wasn't really any reason to, anyhow. He dug into the lunchbox, rummaging around a bit until he pulled out a cup of applesauce. The teal filly watched him intently, eyes going wide when he opened it and held it out towards her. She buzzed up and over, and squeaked brightly at him before burying her muzzle in the small plastic dish. He moved his other hand over to give her support as she eagerly inhaled the applesauce, and she settled down on his arm. When her little wings flicked closed, he was surprised to feel just how light she was.

Focused as he was on the teal filly, he barely registered that the rain had stopped before the yellow mare burst out of the clouds, looking ready to spit fire. She dropped like a stone a little ways before opening her wings with a sharp retort. She must have somehow dried off, because she flew powerfully, seeming completely unhindered. She looped over the glider once before settling into a steady circular orbit. As he tracked the mare's movements, he felt the teal filly relax into him, joining her sibling in slumber.

The mare did not appear to enjoy seeing him holding two limp foals, but he was ensconced in the Plexiglas cocoon of the cockpit, and she seemed unwilling to risk damaging the craft while they were inside of it. She settled for shadowing him aggressively and performing ominous charades.

He had to crane his head up to keep her in sight. As he did so, his attention was diverted by a streak of motion in the corner of his eye. He looked over to see the same column of liquid from the waterspout snake into the top of the cloud structure.

For a few moments, nothing happened; the smoke might have even started to taper off. Then, in a sudden flash of light, the clouds melted away as a prismatic shockwave tore out in all directions. Jagged rainbows jetted out, seemingly at random, while scintillating showers of energy rained down, slowly fading as they spread. He stared up aghast at the maelstrom – the structure at its heart had simply vanished, along with a substantial piece of the adjoined sky city. He heard the booming thunderclap a few moments later, before being buffeted by the force of the distant explosion.

The Swift danced around a bit, but all the lines held. The yellow mare was jostled as well, but she wasn't in a state to notice anything as trivial as turbulence. She had broken off her circling when the building erupted, just hovering as she stared up in shock and alarm. He could see her restraining her impulse to dash up and help. Abruptly, she fixed him with a fierce, accusatory gaze, as if he were the sole source of all her troubles. Well, to be fair, she may currently have a point, he thought, wryly rueful.

The ground was approaching quickly now. The altimeter decided it should wake up and inform him of his impending doom. At this point, he felt sufficiently well acquainted with impending doom, and shut it off. Up above, the great cloud city was tattered, with pegasi boiling out of it and darting off in all directions. Two little foals lay in his lap, twitching in their sleep, while the mare had resumed circling menacingly. The patch of cloud in the parachute slumbered on.

He couldn't help but chuckle at the absurdity of the situation, though his laugh was, perhaps, a little bit strained.

So, I wake up when I reach the ground, right? Right?!?

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Kwakerjak, MaxVive and especially maskedferret in helping me realize this story in its present form. Their encouragement, feedback, first hand expertise and editing prowess were indispensable.