Covalent: Part Thirteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Cace shivered all over, then slowly rose to his feet. Earlier that day he had stood with a foot in both the overworld and the Ether, not seeing either in perfect clarity, but semi-conscious of each. Now, though, with the help of the beast-warden’s submodule, each realm was fully flooding his senses. When he moved he was registering the shift in both worlds and it was overwhelming him. After staggering for a few moments he stopped, then released his grip on the Ether. That probably meant it would be hard to get back to it again, but for now it was better for him to just be here in the overworld. As his perspective on the Ether faded away, a sense of dizziness left him, and at last he was back to normal.

Well, mostly. Now that he was entirely attached to his overworld body, he couldn’t help but notice that there were a few things unfamiliar about it. For one thing he felt taller, and looking down saw that his arms and legs were unnaturally elongated and thin, appearing too feeble to bear him, yet surprisingly strong, as if they were made of steel. There was also something unusual about his face, too. His mouth was wrong, though he didn’t know how. It just didn’t feel like the sort of mouth he was used to.

Cace lifted those strangely elongated arms to feel the part of his face between nose and chin, and found that there was no mouth there at all! No lips, no teeth, no tongue…none of it. What was there was a metal grille, with four vertical lines that were constantly venting steam.

“Ohhhhh!” Cace cried, but the sound didn’t emanate from his throat. It came from the back of the grille, and made a sound like the whine of small gears spinning too fast.

Cace realized this must be the result of having attached the warden-beast submodule to him. Making that change on the Ether had altered things for him here, that was not too surprising, but why was it like this? The warden-beast hadn’t had any grille. It hadn’t been venting steam. Evidently when two submodules combined in the Ether they didn’t result in a simple sum. Their joined functions in the Ether were predictable…but not their outward representation in the overworld.

Cace’s hands twitched as he felt his grille over and over. He wanted to get back to the Ether, wanted to rip the warden-beast submodule out of him, wanted to find some way to get himself back to the way he was supposed to be!

But no. For now Cace forced himself not to linger on the moment. He had more important things to attend to. Rotating around he got his bearings, then marched off in the direction of their shelter. He did not have far to go, and he soon spied the form of a great, hulking creature leaning against a nearby tree.

The creature was nearly ten feet tall. It’s shape was warped and asymmetrical, with a back that curved sharply to the left. Upon its left shoulder there rested another shoulder, with a third arm extending down alongside of the first. The first left hand had only a thumb and the first two fingers. The second left hand had a thumb as well, and then five three-foot tentacles that drooped towards the ground. Over the creature’s right shoulder there were four rocks which were suspended in the air and lazily followed the creature as it moved, as if tethered by invisible strings. The left side of the face was Rolar’s: bright, blue eye, a long nose, and hair the color of straw, but the other side was entirely shrouded in a small, black cloud.

Hello, Rolar, Cace thought sadly.

The creature looked at him forlornly turned to face him. It was hard to do, though, as it had only one good leg and the other was a stump, broken off at half the length of the other.

So that was how Rolar had been escaped from the invader: he had had to sever its hold on his leg. But the stump was not bleeding or showing any exposed flesh, as the overclocked larva submodule was still actively rewriting Rolar’s body to seal off the wound.

Cace reached up and rested his hand on the outer of Rolar’s left arms.

I’m sorry, he thought, unable to actually make the sound due to the grille that had replaced his mouth. He wondered whether Rolar understood what he meant. If Rolar’s body had been changed so much, what about his mind? Did this half-creature even remember Cace?

The Rolar-beast gave a forlorn sigh, and raised its right hand to pat Cace’s forehead. At the very least it seemed to recognize that Cace was a friend.

What happened to Aylme? Cace thought, looking searchingly into Rolar’s eyes as he did so. Rolar squinted back, then slowly turned to the side and stared in the direction of their shelter. As Cace followed the gaze a low whine of shock reverberated from his grille.

The entire area beside the river’s edge had been overrun by the water tendrils. Its threads were spread out like a black web, piercing through every trunk and branch, slowly tightening their grip until it broke the wood into dust. The higher branches fell earthward as the lower ones shattered, and were caught by the tendrils to meet the same fate. Meanwhile unseen tendrils pressed on through the dirt, grabbing pushes and saplings by the root and forcefully sucking them downward to oblivion.

And as the tendrils continued their life-throttling advance, a single, massive bubble grew at the center of the river. A bubble where the water was congealed so tightly that the surface appeared black and Cace couldn’t see into it at all.

But then, as Cace slowly drew nearer, the bubble started to expand outwards, growing thinner at the edges, until Cace was able to make out the forms at its fringes. Around the sides and the bottom there were fishes and frogs, totally immobile, with rigid, unblinking eyes, suspended in the water’s pressure. And at the very top there was the head of a girl, face turned upwards, dark hair wreathed around pale skin, eyes fastened shut, and with arms extended out to either side.

It was Aylme.

Part Fourteen

Covalent: Part Twelve

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

“Please no!” Aylme moaned, but as she looked up to where the sling scraped over the bough she could see that the fibers of fabric were peeling apart more and more quickly. With lightning-fast reflexes she released the sling and threw her hands around Rolar. His head, arms, and chest had made it out of the hole so far, and she managed to catch him around the shoulders before gravity tried to pull him back down, dragging her along with.

“NO!” she screamed, kicking her feet out until they slammed against the other side of the hole. She gave a long, angry shout, but managed to hold Rolar in place. Then she grit her teeth and pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms, wresting him up and out of the hole, inch-by-inch.

“Please!” she pled, tears streaming down the side of her face. The soil was loose, and sliding out from under her, so she dug her heels in harder and arched her back to help guide Rolar’s limp form onto the surface. Fortunately, the more of him she got out of the hole, the more his weight could rest on the ground and the easier it became to hold him. A few more moments of struggle she had him free at last.

“I made it!” She panted, releasing her grip and turning over to her side. “I did it!”

But these last moments had been too chaotic for Aylme to notice the water-tendrils slowly creeping around the edge of the hole, feeling their way towards her struggling form. All at once they shot forward and pierced into Rolar and Aylme.

Her eyes burst open in shock!

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cace exclaimed. Something had just gone very wrong in the Ether. The outside entity that was pressing against the system had just breached it somehow. Different modules started flickering like mad, as if lightning was surging through them! And not just any modules, either, it was primarily the ones that represented Rolar and Aylme! Aylme’s module was still putting up a fight, thrashing and twisting, trying to get free. Rolar’s module, however, remained catatonic, quickly being overrun by the void.

Cace trembled for a moment, but then a firm decision overtook his hesitation.

“I’m sorry,” he cried as he summoned the remaining submodules of the warden-beast and began assembling them into the missing places of Rolar. “I just don’t have a choice anymore.” With careful precision he placed the beast’s submodule for threat detection and emergency response in place of Rolar’s missing consciousness. Rolar was also missing some structural and motor capabilities, and into that void Cace placed the larva’s submodule for replicating its own form in a host. It would fill in all those missing parts.

Normally it would take a long while for the larva to do that, but Cace reached back to the circuit that he had been using to overclock Rolar’s healing submodule, and he routed it to the larva part instead. He cranked up the flow of power, causing the part to burst into overdrive. New instructions surged out of it, compiling new modules, and expanding them to fill every empty space that remained in Rolar in an instant.

Then, the Rolar system woke back up.

Of course, Cace could still only see the side of the ensuing struggle that the Ether showed him, but he could tell that Rolar’s system almost immediately began to thrash about, just as Aylme’s was, though with an astounding amount of vigor! So massive were the movements that Cace lost the ability to tell what was happening, all was a chaos of surging movements, firing signals, mounting pressure, the signs of two great tides surging against one another.

As Cace continued to watch the different sides of the battle started to stretch apart from one another, and he realized that Rolar was not fighting to destroy the outside entity, but only to retreat from its clutches. And though Rolar was moving with great strength, he was facing an awesome resistance. Then came a sudden, horrible sense of something breaking and tearing. Cace couldn’t tell what it was, but some sacrifice had been made. Rolar’s system managed to wrench free, but it had had to leave something behind!

Cace snapped his focus from left to right. What of Aylme?…

With a shock Cace realized that there wasn’t any Aylme. Somehow, in all that thrashing struggle, she had disappeared entirely from the system.

“No!” Cace looked frantically from one module to another, trying to see if he was overlooking her. Was she there, but fractured, like Rolar had been? Broken but salvageable? Hidden inside of another entity? But he already knew. There was no ambiguity in the Ether. If you knew what it was you were looking for, and it wasn’t immediately obvious…then it simply wasn’t there. Somehow, someway…she had been lost.

“NOOO!” Too devastated to be cautious, Cace pulled over one another of the remaining warden-beast modules, the one used for detecting things on the overworld, and he thrust it into himself. He’d had it with not being able to see what was going on in up above, and one way or another he was getting back.

The most strange sensation came over him. He no longer felt like a whole, but rather was conscious of being many separate parts all at once. Each of his submodules shifted and reoriented themselves, attaching to this foreign implant, or rerouting themselves to go around it. For brief moments each of his normal senses flickered off, recalibrated themselves, then came back on. Some the same as they had been before, some slightly changed, some drastically altered.

Most importantly, though, Cace felt his senses being flooded with input from both the Ether and the overworld. Just like when he had they had been fighting the warden-beast he was able to perceive both paradigms at the same moment. And being able to see the overworld above, he finally felt anchored enough to it again. He was able to detect its signal throbbing within him, and was able to shift into it as effortlessly as putting on a cloak.

Cace sat bolt upright in the grass where Aylme had left him. He was back.

Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Once Among the Clouds: Part One

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.

Part Two

*

Well, that’s the first half of Once Among the Clouds. A pretty different sort of premise, wouldn’t you say? I am personally not aware of any other dramatic epics that star clouds as their main characters. I find myself liking this world quite a good deal, though, which is not always the case with an experiment so far out in left field.

We have not yet seen the consuming monstrosity I promised on Monday, but we have the seeds that will eventually bring it about. Before that, though, I’d like to pause and look in greater detail at the many different sources of inspiration possible, and where the idea for this particular short story came from. On Monday I’ll share that, and then next Thursday we’ll see the end of Once Among the Clouds. Until then have a wonderful weekend!