Once Among the Clouds

High above the trees, but low within the atmosphere, a trio of small clouds stood as sentinels. They were the front watch, investigating the perimeter around a communal mass of clouds about three furlongs away.

The first two, Strat and Cirri, did not seem to take their duties very seriously. They lazily swayed about in the breeze, then with each gust weaved tumbling dances through the air. The third, Nimbo, tried to maintain his station, fighting against the wind to stay in place.

Of course fighting the wind only resulted in getting strained out, and before long Nimbo’s thin form had been caught up by three separate thermals and he was split into Sub-Nimbos 1, 2, and 3. They groaned in frustration, but then decided to let the wind whisk each of them away in various directions as that would improve his overall reconnaissance of the surrounding area.

Strat and Cirri didn’t seem to miss the dispersal of their companion in the least. Instead they played games, shifting through various forms and laughing at one another’s ingenuity. They would billow together as one, then split apart in a sweethearts’ dance.

Then, all at once, they stopped. Even in their childish playing they couldn’t miss that sudden change in the air.

“What is it?” Cirri wondered aloud, peering closely at the small golden flakes they had wandered into.

“I don’t know,” Strat said, dangling his hand into its midst. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Oh, look at that!” He held out his billowing arm which was starting to expand at a tremendous rate.

“Oh!” Cirri put her own hands into the golden stream and experienced the same effect. “Why I know what it is! It’s a cloud of dust particles!”

And so it was. Unbeknownst to them, all these bits had been kicked up into the air the day prior by a strong updraft blowing over the dry soil below. And this condensation nuclei was a treasure trove for growing new clouds. In fact, as the two of them looked across its expanse they saw infantile cloud formations already starting to coalesce.

“We’d better find Nimbo,” Strat crowed, turning to catch the nearest breeze. “He’ll be so jealous that we found this while he was busy being all serious.”

Cirri’s hand caught his, stopping him. He gave a small jolt as he sensed her mind.

“Not tell him?” he asked.

“Why should this go to the community?” she asked. “We found it. You and I.”

“But…if we took it for ourselves the community would know we had changed. We’d be so much bigger”

“Who needs the community? Don’t you see? We have our own right here. The community of Strat and Cirri.”

Strat’s eyes moistened with understanding. Then he squinted suspiciously at the still-forming cloudlings.

“Just us,” he said. “A community of two giants. Those others can’t be allowed to grow.”

Cirri nodded. “I’ll terminate them. You go intercept Nimbo.”

“Alright…. I’ll handle him just fine.” He unclasped from with Cirri and went on his way.

Strat caught the nearest stream leading back to the place where Nimbo had left them. He began floating around in circles, calling out Nimbo’s name. When that didn’t work he tried splitting himself into different Sub-parts and explored multiple reaches of the atmosphere at once, then he would coalesce back to question his separate parts if they had found any of Nimbo yet.

“Nimbo, where are you?” he shouted in frustration.

“What are you making such a ruckus for?” a thin voice responded from directly ahead. Nimbo’s face was materializing, invisible strands merging together to slowly rebuild his form.

“Oh Nimbo, there you are. Cirri and I needed to talk to you.”

“Well talk then.” Nimbo’s face was nearly complete, but that was about all.

“Well, I think I’d better wait until you’re all here. Wouldn’t want to leave the later parts of you confused.”

“I’ll handle my other parts. Go ahead.”

“Oh, okay…well…” Strat knew he had to pause for time. “We found a dust cloud, Nimbo!”

“You did?” Nimbo’s form began coming in more rapidly. “Where? I can’t believe I would have missed that.”

“I suppose none of your parts headed that particular way.”

“Well that’s obvious. But where is it?’

“Not far, sort-of-East from here a little ways.”

“Oh,” Nimbo said disapprovingly. “Well that explains it then…the exact opposite direction of where we were supposed to be scouting.”

“Yes, well you can be all condescending if you want, or you can share in the glory back at the community when we bring them word of it,” Strat snapped.

“I’m not here for the glory, Strat. But I will, of course, serve the community. Now where exactly is the dust?”

“It’ll be here soon.”

“What?”

Nimbo was almost entirely formed, just a few stray threads dangling from his structure. Strat lunged forward and wrapped his arms through Nimbo, attempting to assimilate his body before he had a chance to respond.

Nimbo proved far too adept for that, though. He hardly showed his surprise, instead giving an instinctive roar and pressing back. He pushed hard to reverse the direction of assimilation, and for a moment the two were caught at an impasse. A very dangerous place to be in. If each was equal in will, they might just blend into a new entity altogether and there was no telling what that new individual might do.

Strat changed tactics and fanned himself out to catch the breeze. He rushed back, trying to disengage from the fight. Nimbo anticipated the maneuver, and immediately dispersed parts of himself into ultra-thin tendrils. They were so slight that they rushed out quickly, passing clear through Strat’s body, and then began solidifying on the other side into thick cords. Strat densed himself up and slammed against the cords, eliciting a cry form Nimbo as they burst into pieces.

“Go on then,” Nimbo snarled. “Run and hide. The community will find you and then they’ll stretch you both into vapor for your greed!” He turned to flee…and found himself standing before the giant face of Cirri. She was more than fifty feet tall.

“Oh no,” he muttered, then she opened her mouth and swallowed him whole.

“You you were going to handle him just fine, were you?” Cirri raised an eyebrow.

“I had it under control,” Strat folded his arms in a surly way.

“Not from what I–watch out!” she shrieked suddenly, her eyes riveted onto something behind Strat’s back.

Strat spun around and saw the tendrils from Nimbo that he had burst apart. They were spread thin and were dissipating in the wind. He lunged for them but he was too late.

“There can’t have been too much of him still in there,” Strat said, but his voice was panicky.

Cirri wasn’t convinced. “Obviously enough to know that he should run! And they were making for the community.”

“Well so what? Look at you, you’re practically as large as the whole community already. We’ll go and hit them before they can rally.”

“Yes, we’ll have to. Otherwise they might find the dust.”

“You didn’t take it all?!”

“There wasn’t time. You and I will go attack, and I’ll send a small part of me to start siphoning up more in the meanwhile.”

“Wait! First a pact.” Strat extended an arm out.

“…Don’t you trust me Strat?”

“Of course I do. Don’t you trust me?”

Cirri hesitated. “Of course,” she put her arm out and enveloped Strat’s with it. The two of them closed their eyes and stood as if in a trance. Their consciousness flowed between and Strat was enveloped within Cirri. They were now one entity: Stratocirrus.

Stratocirrus paused and divided itself into two Sub-parts.

“We’ll still hit them from both sides.” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 said.

Sub-Stratocirrus 2 nodded and the two turned towards the distant cloud community, spreading themselves thin to catch the nearest breeze in that direction. They found one and raced off, descending quickly on its massive form. When they passed near to the dust cloud Sub-Stratocirrus 2 dispersed a part of itself to go and stand guard. Then the two Subs took opposite thermals and moved like a pincer to hit the community from either side.

The community was already aware of their coming. The thinner wisps of Nimbo had reached the enclave much more quickly, and already the army stood ready on the perimeter.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 charged headlong towards them, solidifying its arms for crushing blows. Sub-Stratocirrus 2 imitated the same behavior, but suddenly strained to a halt as it felt a strange tickle at its chest.

“It’s a trap!” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 bellowed, thrusting itself backwards and swinging wildly at the empty air in front. Or rather the almost empty air. It had been laced with hidden wisps from the community army, wisps that were now solidifying into the first line of defense. Cloud warriors came into full relief, clutching after Sub-Stratocirrus with long, extended arms.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 had not noticed the liers-in-wait in time, and they had come into form both in front and behind it, several even embedded in its midst. Each of those soldiers seized a different clump of Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s mass, pulling it free, and purging the consciousness from it. The discarded heaps fell to the side, lifeless puffs of cloud.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 roared in pain, swinging its arms wildly, enveloping what soldiers it could. They were well-trained, though, and though several were lost in its rage, still others dodged the arms and then systematically dismantled them. It had to grow new ones, and as it did so it diminished in overall size.

The leader of those soldiers charged forward and thrust himself straight at Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s head. His hands pierced through its temples and the two of them roared as they struggled to overpower the other’s consciousness.

“No!” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 shouted. “He’ll find where it is!”

“There’s too many!” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 wailed. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Something quivered in both Subs at the same time, and each looked appalled.

“NO!” they called in unison, and clapped their hands to their cores, but something inside seemed to be struggling, to be overpowering them both.

“You traitor!” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 said, and its voice sounded a little more Cirri’s.

“It’s the only way,” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 said, and its voice sounded a little more like Strat’s.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 struggled a moment longer, looked briefly at the community army still hacking away at it, and then tried to lunge across the sky at Sub-Stratocirrus 2. It was entirely futile, though, it did not even stretch halfway before it ceased all movement. The strained out pieces of its corpse were Cirri.

Back at the other side, Sub-Stratocirrus 2 was restored back to the identity of Strat. A pact could be undone, but only by one of the former identities assuming full ownership. All other entities would necessarily die.

“One of us had to,” Strat shrugged, then dealt another crushing blow to the soldiers that still beset him.

Having evaded their trap he was now at a great advantage. He alternated between forms rapidly, not giving his opponents a chance to assemble any sustained strategy. First he stood as a a solid giant, cleaving through their ranks and bursting them into wisps. Then he funneled half his essence into a single arm high over their heads and split it off to form two Subs, each attacking the soldiers from opposite sides. Then both Subs dispersed into a near-vapor and pierced clear through the soldiers chests, slowly weakening them from within. Then he transitioned back to his single gigantic shape to pound them once more.

All the while he kept expecting the rest of the soldiers to come join the fight, the ones that had defeated Sub-Stratocirrus 1. But they didn’t. They had congregated together, still on the opposite side of the community, and he kept wondering what they were planning.

He did not have long to wait. Finally all the soldiers began to congeal and rise in a single entity. In desperation they had given up their individual will to fuse into a giant soldier. And as the face of the being came into form Strat could recognize the traces of Nimbo firmly etched into it.

“What have you done Strat?” Nimbo boomed. “You killed Cirri! You tried to kill me! And you would come murder the entire flock as well?!”

For a moment Strat felt a pang of guilt, almost a wish to undo what could not be undone. But there was no time for regrets now, his path was chosen. And so he stiffened himself further, turning dark and gray, a stray thundercap booming from his depths.

“You’re still barely half my size, Nimbo. Will you take in all the community just to defeat me.”

“No. This will be enough.”

The community parted down the middle, leaving a path for Nimbo to glide over to his quarry. Once he had cleared the community, it quickly dispersed out into the wind, fleeing from that place.

“How noble of you,” Strat scoffed, “sacrifice yourself to save them? It won’t matter, you know.” Then he lunged at Nimbo.

Strategies were much more complex where giants were involved. One had so many different forms to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Nimbo caught Strat’s arms in his own, then exploded his chest out in a hundred Sub-Nimbos. They rushed directly into Strat’s core and cleaved clear through to his other side. Strat winced, but rather than resist the dividing he quickly turned each half into a Sub-Strat. Before he could do anything more Nimbo’s sub-parts assembled back into a collective body behind Strat. That body densed itself, growing tighter and tighter, darker and darker.

Strat’s sub-parts remerged and he turned to grab his foe, but suddenly Nimbo’s body gave out a savage bolt of electricity! It tore through the air, extending out until it struck Strat squarely in the chest. For a moment each of the giants were dazed. They saw one another as if through a haze, and struggled to control their charges.

Strat blinked furiously, slowly feeling his control regaining. He swung out at Nimbo again, but just before collision Nimbo sent out another bolt of lightning.

“Aagggghhh!” Strat slurred stupidly. He tried to look at Nimbo but couldn’t focus. Nimbo himself was reeling senselessly, in an even greater stupor than Strat. Nimbo wrestled for control of his senses, but where his charge was already so volatile the extra strain proved his undoing.

Another lightning bolt lurched out, this one unintended and undirected. It pounded down to the earth, and left Strat unscathed. Nimbo’s body went limp and spread out. Slowly it began to fall as rain. He tried to move, but he was too weak. Perhaps he could recover in time, but it would be far too late. Strat’s head already loomed in front of his glazed eyes, shaking in disapproval.

“I wonder Nimbo, had Cirri and I tried to include you in our plan…would you have joined us?”

“I don’t care for power without principle.”

“But power without purpose?” Strat plunged his hands down and started overwhelming Nimbo’s frail consciousness, taking the body into himself. “You do realize that once I unlock your mind I’ll know exactly where the others went? I will destroy them, and all because you couldn’t hold onto their secrets for longer.”

“I wonder what you might find in my secrets,” Nimbo smiled.

It unnerved Strat, but he didn’t ask for explanation. He would have understanding soon enough. Already Nimbo’s thoughts and memories were starting to flood into his own mind.

The memories came in backwards. First there was Nimbo’s struggle to maintain control of himself, the fight with Strat, the taunting of one another after giant-Nimbo had first coalesced. Then the memories started to split, separating into the multiple consciousnesses of the soldiers that had combined into Nimbo. Strat flitted through each of them hurriedly, looking for anything significant.

He froze in horror as he came to the memories of the leader that had attempted to absorb Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s mind when Strat had betrayed it. He saw played back the way its face had changed into Cirri, etched with fear and betrayal. The shock momentarily subsided as her brow steeled with hateful intent.

“Kill him,” she had whispered to the leader. “I’ll tell you where the cloud of dust is. Go get it for yourselves and kill him.”

And then she had told them, just before lunging out at Strat. That was where the community had gone off to while Nimbo fought with Strat. They hadn’t been fleeing, they had been preparing for his destruction.

Strat recoiled in horror. How could Cirri have betrayed him like that? Like how he had betrayed her…

He shot his gaze out to the horizon, looking in the direction of the dust cloud. Already he could make out the community reforming upon it. They had found it, they were growing, they would be ready for him. Stratocirrus had left a guard to protect it, but that would have died at the same time as Cirri, when he Strat undid their pact.

Now was the time for decision. If he wanted, he might be able to run and hide. The community would no doubt hunt after him and seek their vengeance, but he might be able to find refuge in some migrating cloud caravan. On the other hand…he could try to challenge them for the resource. They would have the advantage, together they were larger, and they could take a defensive position. But still, it would be close. He might just be able to pull it off.

Strat’s face etched with hateful resolve and he spread himself to catch the wind. His tendrils groped about until one of them found a slipstream and hooked into it, rushing off towards the distant dust cloud and dragging the rest of him along with.

He kept his body stretched out like a javelin, maintaining maximum speed as he raced the distance to the community. They were drawing quite close now. He could already make out their sentries catching sight of him and scrambling to alert the others. If he wanted to perform a standard frontal assault he should start slowing down now. Instead he hurtled onward, rushing on the community before they could get up any defenses.

At the last possible second he spread his body out and stretched it into a mist. With his great velocity he continued streaking forward, piercing through to the heart of the dust cloud. Strat began congealing back together, and as he did so absorbed what dust particles he could into himself. Those particles bonded with stray water vapor in the air, and from that new cloud patches began to accumulate on him, slowly building up his body.

Of course the downside to his daring charge was that he was now smack in the midst of the cloud community as well, and they were descending on him with murderous intent. They had already become engorged in their brief period among the dust, and were large enough to have complete temperature and pressure control. They tightened themselves together, working as a unit to lower the temperature around them, causing mighty ripples of wind angled straight for Strat.

Strat groaned in frustration as the currents whipped his form. He tried to tighten himself, but that made the more powerful gusts cleave entire chunks off of him. If he let himself go limp then he would be more elastic, and would not lose pieces of himself, but then he would be blown away from the dust field.

Thinking quickly Strat clenched tighter and strove for some semblance of temperature control himself. He wasn’t so mighty as the community, but he was able to have some influence on the air around him. He hastily created a simple updraft and then dissipated himself into that wind.

The combined pressure of the community wind and his own updraft spun him up and out in a wide arc, moving him out of their line of fire. As soon as he was clear of them he thrust out his arms, separating half of his essence into a horde of Sub-Nimbos that descended on the front-lines of the community.

A vicious scuffle there commenced. The smaller, individual entities wrestled with one another, trying to overpower the consciousness of their foes. It was a strange battle, one where individual entities might be overpowered and change ranks many times over, an ever-shifting balance of power. Each side understood the basics of front-line tactics, things like giving way in the middle so that the enemy platoons would advance quickly there, then pinching inwards and cutting those platoons off of from the rest of their fellows, where they could be taken over in isolation. That then provided a center of strength that could thrust out at the other side.

And while there were fewer Sub-Nimbos, they had the benefit of sharing a core instinct. Each one’s mind was their own, but each could vaguely sense when their fellow was in distress. It was soon apparent that the battle was evenly matched.

But it was only a distraction. For while it raged on in the front, a portion of Strat and the community remained lurking behind, accumulating more and more mass into themselves. Strat was siphoning in the additional mass as quickly as he could. It resulted in a weaker bonding, and left him with imperfect control over himself, but he ballooned up impressively, far more than the community, who were accumulating at a slower, more controlled rate.

“No more trading,” Strat breathed out to his Subs, then he flung himself over their heads and into the heart of the community.

The Subs shifted their strategy according to their master’s instructions. Instead of trying to overcome the consciousness of their foes they now sought to tear them apart. Casualties would be permanent, the lifeless clumps of severed cloud entities tossed unceremoniously to the side.

Very quickly the community caught on to the change and began to respond in kind. The numbers dwindled quickly on both sides, but more so for the community. Strat’s Sub-parts were willing to fight more recklessly as their demise didn’t really mean anything, given that they were only clones. When each community member was torn to pieces, however, they were gone forever.

Strat wove in and out and around that community, snaking about like a terrible phantom, always in motion. He threw out a crunching fist here, he dispersed a mass of Sub-units there. He took daring gambles, losing much of his mass at one turn and then destroying more of the community at another.

Soon there were no front-lines or behind-lines at all. The two sides were completely entwined, fighting among a soup of friends and foes. Dead corpses were thrown every direction. The number of community members decreased, while the size of the living increased, thus balancing out the balance of the battle. Now they were only a score of souls.

And what of Strat? As his core was cleaved away and replaced with hurriedly siphoned matter he became more and more disjointed. His behavior started to become erratic. Sometimes he would drop entire chunks of himself, sometimes he would shoot out bolts of lightning without intending to, sometimes he would damage himself instead of his foes. He became less and less of a person, and more and more like a wild animal.

The battle shifted accordingly. It was now between the community and this feral beast. They positioned themselves around it and took turns jabbing out at its haunches, cleaving off what corners they could. At first it lashed out reactively to these attacks, but eventually its strikes became truly random. Many were thrust out into useless, empty space, but every now and again one would happen to zero in on a community member. And when it did, those thrusts came with such power and zeal that they could not be denied. The unlucky soul was crushed in an instant.

Two sides went into the war, but only hollow shells would emerge if anything at all.

The only real increase was that of the of dead matter. Everywhere stray puffs of lifeless cloud floated lazily. It got in the way of the battle, dampening blows until it was hastily thrown to the side. Usually to the same side, to a single quadrant of the sky that the battle remain apart from.

As that dead detritus accumulated in one place it began to compress and merge under its own weight. It grew colder and tighter and darker. Every now and again it would twitch when a stray synapse in its dead mass fired at random.

It was already larger than all the surviving community members and Strat combined, and whatever dust was not claimed by those warring sides naturally accumulated on this largest entity. And so its growth became exponential. Dead matter upon dead matter upon dead matter. Higher and higher it rose, becoming a wall extending nearly to the stratosphere. Its face clapped with blanket lightning and its core grew dark as night. Wind began to whip around it, a cold chill bursting out in gusts, and small droplets condensed in the air, hung for a moment, then fell for a final rest on earth.

Even in the heat of their battle the community members could not ignore the chilling bite in the air. As one they turned and witnessed the behemoth raising high, arcing forward, and forming a ceiling above them. Its underside was tumultuous and rumbling, about to burst.

They didn’t even try to run, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

There came a loud crack and then the deluge fell. Millions of raindrops every second, the entire mass giving itself away in a flowing torrent. Each raindrop plunged through the warring clouds like a tiny bullet. Inch-by-inch the entities were blurred and smeared. Though they tried to hold themselves together they could not resist the endless cascade, and eventually all streaked out into a rainfall of their own.

All of the remaining members of the community, all the fractured pieces of Strat, all the corpses, all the idle grains of dust still remaining in the air. All sins were washed away indiscriminately. It took time, the rainfall lasted for hours, but when at last the cleansing was done not a single cloud remained to be seen.

And so the unblocked sun shone brightly on the muddy ground and baked it with its heat. After a little while faint tendrils of steam could be seen lifting off the ground’s surface. Embryonic streams of water vapor lifting into the sky, invisible until some future time when they would condense into clouds.

Perhaps this next time they would manage things better.