In the Clouds

[Estimated reading time: 15 minutes]

We reach the coast just an hour before sunset. I look back and note our path, a long swath of dust rising slowly in the calm windless air, illuminated a dazzling gold by the setting sun. The dust twists for miles, then disappears behind a small hill. With a little light remaining, we set up our camp.

I pull my pop-up tent from my hover-bike, unravel it on the ground and check it for holes, tears, scorpions. I then straighten and connect its carbon-fiber ribs and plug the tent's power into my bike. While the tent inflates on its own, I go through the bike's maintenance menu and start a cleaning and fine-tuning process. I send up a dozen fly-sized drones to watch over us. I can check what they are seeing around us, but I don't feel like it and just leave them to their task.

Pops dumps his sleeping bag by the ring of rocks that's going to serve as the campfire. He pulls out some kindling from the bike's side bag, small twigs and branches that he gathered every time we stopped, and starts building a small well-ventilated structure. He adds larger branches and pieces of wood, then gets the fire started with some flint.

He's in charge of the common camp space today, while I'm cooking. I've been enjoying these moments for their pure simplicity.

Pops sets up my foldable table first. It's wallet-sized when collapsed, but expands with table- and seating-space for six. It's one of the few non-essential high-tech pieces of equipment that he tolerates. He gets the cooking pots out, sets them aside for me, then gets a washing basin and starts heating up water on the fire. The water comes from the large blue tank that's attached to Pops' hover-bike.

The water is heating up, so Pops takes a break and gets Digger out. That's his latrine shovel, a roll of toilet paper stuck on its handle. I look around and note that we're high up a cliff and there are no bushes or trees for miles around. Pops takes a walk away from the cliff, away from the setting sun. I sit facing the sunset, but my eyes are down.

I'm looking through an old leather binder. Discolored photographs fill its pages. They are of a young Pops and my mother. They used an ancient stock of Polaroids to documented their travels in the early years of the End Days.

A dusty red ribbon marks the spot where I left off last night. Las Vegas. They made the trip when my mother was not yet pregnant with me. I look and ponder what my mother was thinking and feeling at that moment. I've heard so much about her throughout my life, but on this trip the floodgates seem to be opening and Pops is more honest with his stories.

When he comes back, I show him the picture and ask for its story.

He remembers the wild days, a Vegas that was plunging into chaos and disrepair, the rolling blackouts impacting even The Strip. He points to the sky in the photo and explains the strange teal sheen: radiation moving on desert winds had a discoloration impact on the Polaroids. The secret nukes that went off and vaporized a billion.

The two of them were very much in love. Pops talks of nights in the desert under the bright skies, of holding each other and talking about an uncertain and unpredictable future. They make love under the stars. I will be born in 9 months.

Tears roll down Pops' eyes.

I start heating up water in the dinner pot, then we use the washing-up water to take layer after layer of sweat and dust off ourselves.

We have dinner and Pops keeps on describing the Old World, the reality as it was before I was born.

The night is warm and peaceful, so I fall asleep with the tent doorway open, only a bug shield over it to keep out the insects. Pops is smoking his pipe, watching the stars, tasting the air. He is trying to predict tomorrow's weather. I've got a sat-link, but I haven't used it once over the past week, we've relied on the old man's skills to get us here, and we'll rely on his skills again to get us out.

It's the next morning and Pops is already up and preparing percolator cowboy coffee. I yawn out a "good morning" as I stumble out of my tent. Pops nods.

"Going to be good weather today. See?" He points down the cloud-covered cliff face. There's a steady wind coming from the ocean. I follow its trajectory and see a smattering of small clouds traveling slowly toward the horizon, to where we came from.

The ocean air meets the cold air coming from the river and they collide to create great big cumulus clouds that we're looking for.

We have a breakfast of non-assembled, fully organic eggs, bread, and cheese. I carried these in my bike's cooler all the way from Pops' village. We saved them specifically for today.

After breakfast I start preparing the powder. I mix some fine sand with ashes from the fire, add red color powder, and grind this for a while in a heavy granite bowl with a ceremonial pestle.

Pops gets out a large sack with dozens of small baggies in it. From each of the small baggies he grabs a pinch or two of the unlabeled substance, murmurs a prayer under his breath, and drops the ingredient into my bowl. The powder changes color multiple times. He adds strange unidentifiable spies, as well as the easily-recognizable stuff like a yellow powder that smells of onions or a black and white powder that looks just like ground pepper. The mix quickly go pungent and I need a mask over my face.

I pull a golden container from my backpack. I unscrew the container's lid and slowly tip its contents out into the mixing bowl.

Pops keeps tossing things in, I keep grinding the powder, and Pops keeps talking about his and mom's travels.

Pops' story continues. My parents are driving through Baja California, on the road to La Paz. It's just a few weeks after my conception, so I am a tiny fetus no one knows about. They stop off at friendly communes along the coast. There are no blackouts in these towns and plenty of water. They stay a few days, work in the fields, surf and swim, practically live on the beach. I remember my own shoreside sleepovers. I remember Lily from school.

Pops and I spend a few hours watching the cloud formation and waiting. The tide comes in and the clouds are heavier, denser, very frothy.

"Try a practice round on that," Pops points to a short and fat cloud. It's not what we are looking for, but it will be good exercise.

I get the rifle off from my hover-bike, attach one of the test rounds. It's a clear cylinder filled with yellow sand. There are three more on the ground next to me, and one round with red sand inside it.

We bicker a bit about the distance and height of the cloud, but finally settle on something reasonable. I aim, remember to compensate for wind, and fire the rifle. The practice round flies from our cliff-side position up, up, and up, on thrusters, and into the cloud. Then there's an explosion and the cloud flashes yellow and red.

The sand expands away from the explosion and fills the cloud with a faint golden glow. Perfect hit. We watch the golden cloud recede into the distance and a new cumulus forms in its place.

Eventually, after two more successful shots, we see a cloud forming and quickly agree that this one will work for us. It is a heavy cloud.

I aim the rifle with the red round and say a word of prayer. Fire. The round goes up, up, and hits its target head-on. It's perfect.

The cloud turns a light pink and sails on into the heart of the continent.

We start putting our camp away. We're mostly already packed, so it's just the odd provision and we jump into our respective hover-bikes.

The glass canopy comes down and my world is silence. I cannot hear anything but my own breath, my heartbeat. Out there, in the world outside, I miss this silence.

Pops doesn't mind the roar of the wind. His hover-bike is open, the canopy is pulled back. The constant wind has stripped the cabin clean, the sand has even blasted some paint off.

We start heading back, inland, back to the place we came from, but this time we take a different path as we follow the cloud. We came here by the safer north route, but now the cloud is taking the more dangerous southern route. We follow the pink cloud.

Father doesn't talk on these drives, probably because it's so windy and impossible to hear each other.

In my bike, I'm lying down and operating the bike with my feet, accelerating this way and that, turning. My upper torso is free to do anything else. I accomplish a lot when we're going over boring terrain, way more than a regular teenager. But then, in the End Days, there is no "regular" anything. I listen to music as we navigate the endless voids of our burned-out world.

I am my father's daughter, fourteen and a half years old, and I am on a mission.

We follow the cloud through the evening and into the morning. In the early hours of the day, the winds cease and the cloud hangs over us, a wall of pink. We set camp below it and sleep in shifts.

After two of these shifts the winds pick up and we continue further into the valley.

I was afraid that the cloud was going to Lose Itself. If that happens, we would need to neutralize it right there. I didn't want to do that, especially not this early into our trip.

I know how much this means to Pops. Even if he can't properly show it.

We travel at night again and come up on a bay and some cliffs. The cloud moves over the cliffs and is blown out into the bay. We do not follow, not over water. If the cloud flies out into deep ocean, we will not follow it. So for a while we just watch and pray that it comes back to land.

We're sitting in our bikes, their engines off, canopies pulled back. We watch the cloud over the bay.

I ask Pops about a Tahiti photo. It's the first time in this album that I see myself, here as a bump in my mother's belly.

Pops says that they were happy, but also conflicted. How could they bring a child into this monstrous existence? The End Days all around them. Society crumbling in front of their eyes.

They could never agree.

They only sometimes argued, Pops tells me. From the photographs, I come to the same conclusion. They're incredibly happy in these photos. They put this binder together themselves, when mother knew of the pregnancy.

She knew of the risks. Society had just collapsed, who knew what hospitals would be open in eight months? And I am eternally grateful to her for persevering and having me. And grateful for her life, that she gave for me.

We pray to the winds and burn long-lasting fires that create huge white pillars of smoke. The columns are steady and straight.

We walk down from camp to the bay. Pops prefers to walk in the dark, so I don't use any illumination. My goggles are able to give me an outline view of the surroundings.

We descend to the shore, walk along it until we come to a cave in the rising sea wall. We stand just inside the entrance and begin to sing. It is an old song that my ancestors sung for generations, it is about a sheep wandering away from the flock. The cave does not answer, we cannot even hear and echo of our own voices. The cave entrance is a strange place where I cannot hear a thing. All sound is whisked away, possibly by the persistent pull of air that the cave exerts on us. I look back toward the camp and the column of smoke has shifted away from the ocean. Our words turn into wind and push the pink cloud back towards the continent. We continue singing.

The pink cloud flies on, toward the White Plains, where we came from.

The land we fly over is dry and desolate, no settlements, rivers, not even a forest. Patch of grassland, sometimes with a tree or two, sprinkle the landscape, but that's about it.

I am concerned that the cloud is going to lose its moisture over this stretch of dry terrain, but Pops is optimistic. He's done this before. We gun it and do an ellipse around the area where the cloud was expected. We are looking for danger, for sudden changes in the environment that could destabilize and tear apart our cloud.

The dangers can be fairly subtle, but the one we are now coming up on is ancient in its simplicity. It's a patch of grassland that was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. From the burn marks and the plant resurrection, I'd say it happened a week back. The darkened land absorb the heat from sunlight and then creates a vertical column of hot air. These can be a danger to our cloud.

Pops finds a "suitable" stretch of brush and prepares to light it on fire. The fire should counteract the impact of the burnt grassland. I'm curious to see the two patches of land battle it out, but the pink cloud does not reach the burnt patch, it swings around and continues on its easterly path. Perhaps Pops was wrong about the impact of the burnt grassland?

We follow the pink cloud, stop with it, sleep when the weather is calm and the cloud stays in one spot.

Pops tells more stories as I look through the increasingly-radiated Polaroids. He shares more about mother's character, talks about their life before me. They were always nomads, even before that became the New Standard. They followed musicians around, a sort of mobile commune, powered by music and dancing. It was a strange time, Pops says as he reminisces and seems to hold stories back. I don't press him, just wait him out. We've got time.

I look up at the wall of pink and dream my dream: I imagine cuddling with mother at night, when there is lightning and thunder above us, her holding me close, telling me that everything will be alright. I rock back and forth in my tent.

Pops continues with his story about an elaborate Muse concert. I get a projector from my backpack. It's about the size of a deck of cards. I set it up outside my tent, sitting up on the grass and pointing toward the wall of pink. I turn the projector on and then start playing a Muse album. Bright laser light carves strange and beautiful paths in the cloud. Our own impromptu little laser show. The pink of the cloud goes well with the show, the strange color combination is mesmerizing and colors the entire experience with a soft hue. Pops describes the concert in more detail, and I change the visuals to match up. We listen to the album and watch as the cloud is illuminated in tune with the music.

Pops goes to sleep after the concert, I stay awake for my shift.

"Mother, if you were here, what would you say? Of the two of us, were you the lucky one? You've lived quite a life. You saw the greatest civilizations, marvelous sights. These ended right about the time I was conceived. You saw the world fall to its knees. All I see is the aftermath of the collapse. I try to imagine the wonders of your world, but all I have are cold dead records. I've watched it all on video, but it still feels so distant. Even the Fall of Countries means little to me, since I've never experienced a country. You were there in person." I realize I'm rambling. "I love you. Thank you for the life you gave me."

Silence, of course. There is no response.

There never has been a response, but I was sure that if it did happen, it would happen on this trip.

The cloud moves on in the morning, and so do we.

We move through a very wide and flat plain of low grass. There are no burn marks here, not any recent ones. But there are other people here. They've got three Cats, the multi-jointed demons on wheels. Short for Caterpillar, each Cat has a three-segment body, with each segment having a full set of tires. The connection between the segments - the spot where humans could pass from one segment to another - can have a sealed or an open connection. When sealed, a tunnel of plastic isolates the walkway from the environment. When open, there is just a set of railings, but people can jump in and out of the walkway. Two Cats are sealed, a third is open.

We pop up over a hill and notice the Cats, they are between us and our destination, the yellow sun-beaten plain far on the horizon.

We stop at the top of the hill. Pops waves out of his motorbike, "Get a bead on them."

I slide the canopy to the side and get the rifle out from the side of the bike. I'm still in the bike, operating the vehicle with the canopy open, but now I have my rifle on hand. It'd be a bad idea to go fast like this, but in the meantime I have both mobility and armament.

The scope on the rifle shows me encouraging news: the Cats are still on the same course, they haven't diverted towards us or the pink cloud.

For a while we watch them, but we're not really concerned, there's not a lot of people who'd be out here with us, and all of them know about the rituals. The pink cloud is going east, and the Cats keep moving on their way south. We wait for the vehicles to disappear behind the curve in the terrain, then we continue following the pink cloud.

We ride through the day, make our way through the Shonash Canyon and in the evening finally make it to the Sand Bowl.

We approach a large bowl the size of ten city blocks carved into the sandstone floor of a box canyon. The bowl covers the entire circular canyon. It's called the Sand Bowl and it's found at the eastern end of the Shonash Canyon. We entered the canyon around mid-day, and make it to the Bowl before the last sun rays are gone from the canyon walls.

The winds have favored us, they carry the pink cloud over the canyon and toward the Sand Bowl. Then specially-designed thousand-foot storm gutters divert airstreams and trap the pink cloud over the Bowl.

We only have a few hours.

Pops and I split the load of turrets in half. He both carry a dozen with us, and we're both responsible for a particular half of the bowl: I will line the north half, he will do the south.

We start at the eastern entrance and plant the turrets every 15 degrees of the circle. I drive the bike with the canopy off to the side, a turret in my left hand, raised up as if I was wielding a harpoon. And there, in the dust in front of me, is the quickly approaching target. A circular hole in the Bowl, filled with dust and dirt. A red hologram hovers over the hole, but it is only visible to me, projected by my goggles.

I approach the hole, stand up in my seat, and throw the turret into the red target. Jets fire from both ends of the turret: one fires into the dirt-packed hole, the second fires into the air, such that the turret clears out the circular area, then slams into it. A green light blinks on and I've already forgotten about this turret. I'm getting the next one out of the bike's external bags.

Repeat a couple more times.

It's dark by the time I've planted half of my turrets. I push a button that's been blinking for the past twenty minutes, and a duo of rockets lift off from my bike's back. They blast away into the night sky, keep on burning fuel until they are above the pink cloud. I don't need to look up to know that this is what they'll do.

"Heads down, two illuminators are up," I send over the radio. I've learned not to look up, just needed to warn Pops.

The twin rockets have separated by now. It's very quiet and eerily gloomy in the darks of the canyon. Then the two rockets illuminate the night and drive the shadows away. It's not quite daylight, but it's much brighter than twilight.

We finish planting the turrets and park our hover-bikes at the edge, at the ring of the highest positions around the Bowl. We setup camp, make dinner, all while appreciating the pink cloud. It has flown several hundred miles from its birthplace, the spot where the mighty Shonash River meets the moist Pacific winds.

Pops tells me about the time her was here with my mother.

"Who were you witnessing?" I ask.

We don't look at each other. Haven't in so many hours. We've just been sitting here and watching the wall of pink in the night.

I can only see the cloud now. All other concerns are null and void. My entire world consists of the cloud. Pops' voice comes in, from behind the curtain, and I have to tear myself away, to be able to remember my existence, remember the "real" world. I look at the pink cloud and wonder what sort of reality it knows.

"Your mother's sister," Pops replies. I nod. Aunt Philippa. She died at the hands of a bigot. Lucky for him, the world ended before he could be sentenced. But he got killed in a bar brawl not too far outside of Vegas, so maybe there's karma?

I wondered for years, who was it that Pops witnessed. But you never ask about these trips. No one knows or understands what happens on the trips. Just that they are important to our world, to our people, to our way of life.

It's late at night, the moon is up, the wall of pink is illuminated from the Bowl's edge by the portable projector. I leave the projector in album mode, then we start walking to the Bowl's lowest point, its center. We are listening to the same space rock that my parents listened to the last time that they were here. Pops is dancing quietly. The projector's lasers put on quite a show for us tonight.

We come to the center and the album winds down, comes to an end.

I trigger the turrets and the air hums with electricity. We look above us and watch as the illuminated pink cloud grows dark and loses color.

I start a new playlist on the projector, and new music fills the Bowl. I wonder for a moment where this music is being sent by our presence here. The bowl is, after all, focusing the sound waves. Where will those sound waves end up? Who else in the world will listen to our music tonight?

Pops and I begin to dance in the middle of the bowl. Pops plays the classical role of the clapper, I serenade the spirits, and we circle around each other, standing on our tip-toes and dancing around the bowl.

I begin to feel the first drops after a few minutes of the song. We switch up the tempo and I sing a song of a beautiful woman who has rejected me for being poor. Pops provides the backing vocals.

The rain quickens and in a matter of seconds it changes from a light drizzle to a torrential downpour.

The wall of rain is also pink. I tilt my head and let the rain wash my tears away.

The Sand Bowl fills up with water and we dance and play in it.

When the water reaches our knees, Pops walks out to the newly-made shore and I follow.

I open the golden container and scoop up some of the water.

The rain is quite localized, so once we're on to dry land we're in the clear and can see the sky and stars above.

The cloud is gone by sunrise and we have moved up twice to find dry land. The cloud is now a great red lake.

"Your aunt asked for a green lake. It was beautiful, and very sad," Pops muses. "I'm happy that your mother asked for red. This feels like being with her one last time."

We camp on the rim of the Sand Bowl and wait for the lake to evaporate. While it's still around, somehow there are fish in it, and even seaweed. I have no idea where it comes from, but I do see them on my later excursions. I go swimming in the red lake, but quickly it becomes unnerving. I am swimming through the ash remains of my mother. What happens now?

It takes four days for the lake to evaporate. We sit on the Bowl and tell stories, get drunk, spar with staffs, listen to more space rock, go swimming. It almost feels like Mother is here. The water goes down, concentrates the sand and dust it has picked up. This fine particulate is the last to go and I watch as my mother rejoins the world by way of the wind. She's free. I'll see her again, some day.

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