Seeking our source, our subsistence, survival,
our solace, salvation
the mazes of meaning
between love and death
—from “Cloudsong” by Sirette, called “the sister of Car”
Chapter 1. To see if it flies
On a red‑sand hillock under the northernmost Old Ser Mesa, Barrens Area 3, some sixteen miles out from New Ser Town in the year 32 Post-Then (2058, in old notation), the underground researcher Arturo Donati, amazingly fit for a man of his unlikely 65 years, stood silently, hood thrown back, wiping sweat from his narrow forehead with an ancient rag and staring into an earthen pot. The vessel was filled with distilled particulates patiently coaxed that morning from a young Ascendant Cloud, and Donati’s frustration at the sheer physical repetitiveness of the desperate task was mixed with gratitude. This Cloud had been the rightmost, or trapezoidal, of that morning’s triad of Ascendant Clouds (or A.C.s), and its great willingness (compared to its mates, the paired long ovoid Clouds) to drop particulates, at his fingers’ gentle probe, had drawn his heartfelt thanks, even as the Clouds began their barely delayed ascent.
Donati now was conscious of exhaustion draining the strength from his old, gaunt arms. It had been a weary night, eluding the Ser Council’s patrols, as well as a pack of weir-dogs, on the silent trek from Town, and then in the desert dawn the struggle with the Cloud—I’m very old, he thought—but there was no choice, no choice if we yet hope to save what remains of this Earth. But this Cloud had seemed nearly helpful, even caring.
He half‑smiled. Like any underground aerate researcher, even one still famous in the remaining scientific community for his discoveries in the fight against Aerosol AIDS, he was acutely conscious of anthropomorphism in his reactions to the Clouds. Yet (again like every other pursuer of outlawed aerate studies), he still instinctively responded to the shifting, whimsical indeterminateness of Ascending Clouds as if to a particularly ominous example of Earth’s new life forms. And he also believed that from this gathered, mysterious A.C. particulate, research might yet distill some antidote that could return Cloud motion to the horizontal, thus restraining each Triad’s intent (if indeed intent were at work) to ascend to its unknown destination in the infinite reaches of space.
Of course, there was also that other possibility, the chance that human fallibility or the Clouds’ so‑called “suck” (not to mention the shakiness and weakness of my aging hands—and mind), might instead cause to be multiplied, as the Council of Elders so feared, the A. C.s’ speed and seed.
A sudden crackling, as of pebbles underfoot, made the wiry scientist spin around, his sandals sliding on the hot, dry sand.
He could see nothing at first, only the hazeless clarity of sky and shadows beneath the barren outcrop where the beakers of infused particulate lay spread on a sandstone ledge. But as he watched, eyes steady while his right hand’s arthritic fingers moved toward the ancient lazo at his waist, a straggly‑haired girl of some sixteen years stepped reluctantly forward from a shadowed rock-pile to stand pouting, avoiding his gaze, one finger in her long‑lipped mouth.
“Did you wish to help, Tee-Tee?”
There was no answer; only her dark eyes shifted under her dirty black mane.
“Well, put on your hooder, Tee‑Tee, and you may stay and watch the Cloud-milking. Your ceder, now; you know the line‑O, ‘Hooder‑less is slow/fast‑death.’”
The lithe form remained still, and Donati caught himself shrugging as if every tenet of Ser life, from “Help your least among these” to “Time has gone, take time,” had fled. Turning, he pulled one of the ancient emergency plasticized hoods from his pack and placed it over the youngster’s head and shoulders.
There was no reaction, or none she would allow him to see. Letting the protective garment hang, she stepped back precisely, belying her half-wild tautness, out of reach.
“Very well, Tee.” Trying to ignore that dark, irritating figure, he turned his back. Of course the girl would slip back once she felt herself forgotten; she always did. And she would stand there, staring fixedly, eyes huge in obsessed inchoate longing, at the beakers awaiting Cloud‑lift. But no matter; the only issue, Donati reminded himself, was to continue preparations for the next particulate phasing.
* * *
This was a moment’s hush in our already fear‑filled research and discoveries into A.C. provenance, that quiet morning by the Old Ser Reds. Alone but for the silent Tee-Tee—or Tarshiya, as her guardians, Jeanette and Big Noah, had named her in her first, innocuous-seeming, post-Then childhood days—Donati worked, sweating in the baking sun, resting only briefly in the shade. It must have been a full three hours before he paused, settling himself under a cottonwood snag to sip from his old water-bag. The heat was continual, only surging as the sun reached noon and moved across the sky; it has always been so, his body said, yet Donati remembered that, in days before the first advents of then, there had been coolness of a night.
Clear skies, bright stars, a single moon not blown by crazed men’s rocket-bombs into two moonlets and a shattered rush of shards. A wind pure, soft, and sometimes cold; an atmosphere not thick, hot, dry, still filled with radiations. Once the Earth had been . . . well, not what it was since Then, he sighed, and lay the bottle against one leg while he drew his gloves back on. Time to return to Cloud-milking.
Glancing up, he glimpsed, about a hundred yards away, the young orph Carlyn bounding toward them, exhilarated, in that gawky yet graceful lope. The blond youth’s hood swung out behind him, half‑loosened in the style of the non‑Nihili bulk of his generation. It was a mode and stride, Donati understood, that was free of what haunted Survivors, like himself, old enough to bear real memories of Then.
“Hey, Don, still out here? Spunky of you!” At the young man’s genuinely pleased greeting, the scientist’s mouth opened in a sudden delighted smile.
Only, at that instant, one boot half‑planted in the red dust, Carlyn paused and, tossing his yellow cowlick, looked behind as if puzzled, down the dusty track. Then, with a pointedly backhand wave, he trotted away, retracing his path.
Hey-O, and how is it fair to claim, like you our young do, that it’s we who parody ourselves? Donati frowned, watched the youngster head on off. As if we’d have behaved like you, back in the day. No, never mind, he shrugged, returning to the phasing—never mind any of it, for the floods, the Warming, Hot Nukes, radiations, so‑called Bye-Bye Ozone crisis, global super-SARS and plague, and all the depredations of Aerosol HIV, epiphenomenal Apparitions—the Great Crescendo of Then—had been a holocaust sans equal, indeed for many species the Big Extinction. Probably for us, as well, he thought, but only momentarily: he must not divert his attention any longer from the phasing.
* * *
It was more than two old‑hours later before young Carlyn returned, walking with slow and respectful (though perhaps, the scientist noted, patronizing) steps. He was escorting Samantha, the aging Native American medicine‑woman, or B’worth.
At sight of her, Donati slightly flushed. Straightening, he hurried forward, one hand outstretched. The tiny B’worth, too, stepped forward eagerly, arms reaching from beneath her flowing ceder, the long and elegantly tapered fingers seeming to cast a welcoming shelter far ahead of her fragile but unbowed form. Beneath the hood, a fleeting smile spread over the strikingly high‑cheeked features framed between long salt‑and‑pepper braids, and then disappeared, while her lacquered fingernails moved forward to touch not the barely trembling fingers of the scientist but, rather, in an action notably illegal, the wispy, almost ghostlike shapes that stirred and shifted wetly over the mouth of the earthern pot in his trembling hands. These shapes, or “shapelets,” were rounded, semi‑translucent, three to nine inches in height, and ranging in their dewlike gleam from white to rosy pink.
“Never a change, then, Don.” The B’worth’s tremorous comment barely questioned.
His head shook slightly in instinctive response. “No, no change. Either these baby Clouds tell us what the grown Clouds are, either we make the Triads cease Ascent, or everything still living will . . . Well, ‘fly to the sky/or dry ye and die,’ as the song goes, Sam.” He heard his tone go stiff, as flat and calm as hers had seemed. Always, it lay hid, what lay underneath. Between us. But too old now, too late, he reminded himself.
Samantha had struck the pose of stillness, the exultata or piata, of the full-fledged healer, or B’worth.
“Y’know what?”—Carlyn’s boyish voice intruded suddenly, curious. He was leaning forward, one hand awkwardly resting on the healer’s shoulder, one half-extended toward the burbling pot—“Stick the Cloud in a washtub and see if it flies.” Only, the veneer of humor in his voice cracked.
An unbounded sympathy glistened across Donati’s sunken eyes. “No change, but you know that, Carli. Listen now, don’t worry, these don’t go anywhere. Remember when you used to help me count the shapelets? Cloudlets—and Clouds, I think—work in their own time.”
Then Donati’s narrow face turned to the B’worth. “You understand, Sam. How long do you think there will be, do you see?” (These were—remember, Revebies—only the early days of Cloud‑quest). In his glance, Donati’s eyes said, With you. Whatever sorrows still await.
More practically, and as if in dismissal, while Donati and the Native American continued their quiet communion, Carlyn sat down upon a toppled boulder. Using a knife painstakingly fashioned by one recent girlfriend, he began to whittle a stopper for the fist‑sized particulate pot. Well, clear enough, Donati thought bleakly, another love-shift. No, even the kid’s long friendship with the so‑called alien, precocious Nar (“he who walks seeming to glide”), had never curbed Carli’s tendency to roving. In the sharp light, the youth’s gold-tousled silhouette shimmered. Samantha shifted slightly, and even this small movement shuddered glints of light and shadow around the torrid stillness. Beyond, across the wide spaces of the Great Third Barrens (as if anywhere were not barren), the Red Ser stretched silently from dry horizon to horizon, mesas and broken peaks massed in distant ranks, while here and there an A.C. triad lifted, rising in its mix of shimmer-droplets, dust, radiation, and, Cloud by Cloud, Earth’s remnant water toward whatever it sought in the pinkening sky.
“Look, Carli,” Samantha murmured. “You—you’re like your pal Nar, always searching. Where do these come from, do you suppose?” Her long fingers pointed to the distillate and its accompanying floats.
Slowly, Donati walked back to the beakers; carefully, he mixed the rare pale pulvates with cold drops of saya in the fifth‑most pot. Samantha stood watching, and for an instant he glanced intently at her—her beaded top‑ceder and tunic, her quiet, rooted stance, her eyelids still delicate yet fragile—as if he would place his free hand on her hair. Instead, he turned to Carlyn. Indirection, the scientist knew, was necessary. “Yes, tell us, Carli”—he spoke not unkindly—”you still believe in these things, I know. Tell us how you would study the aims of these Ascending Clouds.”
Questing © Copyright Paula Friedman 2014, All Rights Reserved; reprinted with permisssion
Paula Friedman is the award-winning author of The Rescuer’s Path, which Ursula K. Le Guin has called “exciting, physically vivid, and romantic” and Cheryl Strayed has noted “had me from the first page to the last.” Friedman’s other published books are Time and Other Details (poetry), the edited anthology Songs for Our Voices, and two co-edited books, The Future is Short—Science Fiction in a Flash, vol. 1, and Gathered from the Center. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 magazines and anthologies. Her second novel of the “Sixties” antiwar movement, Reaching Through, will be published in autumn 2015. A professional book editor and writing instructor, Friedman has worked as a news reporter, publicist, and librarian.