By Chatoyance

Sixteen: The Cloud Tower

Droplet Deluge (dammit, it wasn't intentional that those stormclouds got loose!) led Flight Team Alpha toward the direction of the incredibly distant mountain. The changes in the atmosphere over the past month had made it just visible once again. Distant Mountain made an excellent and necessary point of reference in the endless flat plains.

The view from the air was strange. In her human life, Droplet had occasionally enjoyed the opportunity to ride on one of the large lifting body transports high over the smog layer. She had seen mountains on Earth from altitude, and the view in Equestra conflicted with her memory. There was no curvature to the horizon. As far as Droplet could tell, the geometry of Equestria was that of an infinite, utterly flat plane extending to eternity.

There was no intention to reach the mountain, of course; while there was no way to tell exactly how far away it was, it was possible such a journey, even by air, could take weeks or even months. This could possibly be done, provided food was found along the way, but she could think of no way to find Summerland Village again on a return journey. It would be so very easy to become lost, to pass by the small patch of green amidst the infinite brown. A journey to the mountain would almost certainly be one-way only.

Her real goal was to scavenge water from the receding haze layer. As the pegasai had worked to create weather, the effects had spread much farther than they had imagined. It should have been obvious, perhaps, that the atmosphere was contiguous, that a change in one spot could affect everything around it, but nopony had even considered this in the rush to generate rain. Even if it had been considered, what else could they have done? Rain was vital.

Their cloudmaking had initiated changes in the atmosphere, and the haze layer had begun to vanish. Much of the local haze had been collected and turned into clouds, which in turn had been used to water the land. This had opened up holes for sunshine, and generated winds; the winds had come from rising and falling air creating high and low pressure zones. The zones had affected the surrounding air far beyond Summerland, and the result was a rapidly changing world beyond the village.

Increasingly, the land beyond had turned to true desert, and water vapor in the air had become harder to find. The lands around Summerland Village were green, the lakes and ponds full; if it had not been for the accidental discovery of clouds that could absorb surrounding moisture the pegasai might have had only one or two rains before desert claimed everything.

Now, above every lake in Summerland hung an absorber cloud, these kept the available water within the area, creating a controllable cycle. But if more water could be collected, the size of Summerland could be increased, and this would mean more water security for everypony.

Droplet called out to Cherryblossom and Gasket; she had spotted patches of white amidst the endless blue; a 'sky mine' of water. They could now work together to corral the vapor into an absorbing cloud; what they were coming to call a 'seed cloud' and it would, over time, grow into something large and fat enough to be worth slowly pushing back to Summerland.

Teams Beta and Gamma had gone different directions, they would be doing the same thing.

Droplet wished Alexi had headed one of the other teams; those pegasai needed an experienced leader. But Alexi was busy with Cirrus on some project or another; he had isolated himself inside the growing 'Cloudcastle' effort. A castle of cloudstuff seemed a little silly to Droplet, but if nothing else, it did store water in a relatively solid state, acting as a vast, floating reservoir.

It was actually kind of strange, now that she thought of it; Alexi hadn't gone down to the ground except to eat for over a week. He hadn't given any instructions or provided any leadership, either. Droplet had needed to pick up the slack; more and more the newfoals were turning to her for guidance. Maybe that was what Alexi wanted, but Droplet felt odd about it all. Probably she'd better have a talk with him and find out what he expected her to do.

Mostly, though, Droplet wanted to just get this damn cloud built. She wanted to get back to Summerland before sunset, if she could. Ren was waiting for her; they were going to go off and graze together - the closest thing to going on a date that was possible right now. He said he had composed a poem to tell her; he had spent several days committing it to memory as he wrote it in his mind. Droplet spent a lot of time thinking about Ren. He was delicious.

Gasket banked to the left, Cherry to the right as they circled the mass of vapor. It was a rich load; quite a lot of water in there, Droplet could tell. This was good but... dammit... being larger it would take more time to weave it into the shape required to act as a seed cloud. Oh well, nothing for it; this was the reason they were out there.

Droplet hoped Ren wouldn't be too disappointed if she wasn't there exactly at sunset.

* * * * *

Cirrus Uncinus carefully held the beautiful, delicate cup over the flat, white surface. The surface looked like compressed snow; it was a rectangular slab of highly worked cloudstuff about three hooves wide by five hooves long. It had taken Cirrus several days of work to create it; constantly adding more cloud, working it in, squeezing it down between hooves, flattening and working the result like clay.

Under the hovering slab of white, Alexi lay on his back, belly up on the fluffy floor of Cloudcastle (formerly Sky Base). The plan was that he was to try to catch the precious cup -taken from the collection in crate eleven - using his body and hooves. Hopefully, between his belly and his reflexes, the cup could be kept from sinking through the floor of Cloudcastle, inevitably to smash on the ground below.

Perhaps it was risky to use a cup, since they had a limited supply, but Cirrus wanted a real test of his creation. He needed to know if it was truly possible to create a functional, viable city in the air. A floating city would be pointless if there was no way to store goods, keep objects, or support structures made of materials other than cloud. If cloudstuff could not be made to support something beyond pegasai, the clouds would always be nothing more than a convenient platform to briefly rest on.

Cautiously, Cirrus lowered the cup held in his teeth, closer and closer to his expertly created slab. The cup was but fractions of an inch over the flat surface now. Just a little more... Cirrus felt resistance from the cup, the slab of cloudstuff was blocking it. Good. Good. Now for the real test.

Cirrus did his best to make sure the round base of the cup was flat and centered. Holding his breath, he slowly released his bite on the cup, ready to snap his jaw shut at any moment. Looking down his muzzle, he could see the edge of the cup, immobile. He gave the cup a gentle prod with the tip of his tongue. It moved slightly, then settled. It wasn't sinking.

The white-tufted, sky blue pegasus slowly pulled his head back and regarded the cup.

"What is going on, Cirrus? I am ready for any falling of the cup. Is it sinking? What is its status?" Alexi held his front hooves up and ready; he was on edge, tense and primed to react.

"I think, my good Alexi, that we have a success. It's not sinking. Not a bit. Come up and have a look!" Cirrus spoke in a careful way that belied his internal excitement; he really wanted to shout and dance around, but the experiment was not over yet.

Alexi carefully rolled away from Cirrus, and got to his hooves. Standing, he shook his mane; it was quite a mess, with many tangles and a generally disheveled appearance, and tended to get into his eyes. Alexi stepped over to look at the floating 'shelf'. The cup stood on it, with no sign, as yet, of sinking through it.

"How many days did you say it took you to make this?" Alexi had lost track of time; living at Cloudcastle was slightly disorienting, especially with only Cirrus to interact with.

"Almost three days. It wasn't constant work, of course, but I did put about... oh... three to six hours a day into this. Maybe a little more." Cirrus held his head low to the small shelf of cloud and squinted, looking for any sign of the cup breaking through the shining, white surface.

"Then I don't think anypony will be paving the streets of a cloud city with this material." Alexi lowered his head to look at the cup on the shelf from the side; still no sinking.

Cirrus moved to look at things from a different angle, from the long side of the 'shelf'. "I have to agree. It was exhausting and dull work. But, we pegasai can easily walk on normal clouds; I see this material as something to be used sparingly, only as needed. With this, a cloud city could have, say, a library, with books on shelves. Or a restaurant with places to store foodstuffs, and surfaces to prepare dishes on. Or better still, factories!"

"Factories? In the sky?" Alexi looked puzzled.

"I've been thinking about the seed clouds, Alexi. What if a small seed cloud was fitted inside of a... chamber of some kind. Something that could hold water at the bottom, with the cloud above the pool, and a smaller opening at the top? I'm thinking, it might be possible to pour water inside, and have the seed cloud generate cloudstuff from the moisture as it evaporates. It could be the basis of a cloud-making machine!" Cirrus' eyes widened with excitement "Think of it, Alexi, perpetual cloud manufacturing plants, of whatever size, constantly pumping out cloud material for any use; weather, cloud city construction, cloud homes, rain on demand!"

"Like a corporate utility of some kind, providing basic, needed materials?"

"Exactly! And I've noticed something else too; as seed clouds grow, their temperature drops. I don't know how it works, or why, but it's noticeable. Somewhere in that is a way to make cold; I'm thinking cloud-powered refrigeration, maybe even a full cycle of weather, maybe even... snow!"

"Snow? Why would anypony want snow?" This baffled Alexi, they had perpetual summer. What more could anypony ask for?

"A complete yearly cycle is important to many forms of life, Alexi. It's even important to us, if you think about it. Do you really want... the current rutting cycle... to go on forever?"

Alexi considered this last one. No. No he did not. "But, would not the snow mean cold as well? Cold would kill the grass and freeze the gardens."

"This is true, but that is what seeds are for; some plants actually need the cycle of winter and summer to thrive in the long term. It is what they are adapted to. The same is true for many animals, including insects. We know we have insects. Eventually, animals may show up, as they expand their range to reach us out here... wherever we are." Cirrus gave the cup a nudge with his nose. It tippled, gyrated, and came to a stop, just as it would on any wooden table. It did not sink through the cloudshelf.

"I think you have done it, Cirrus. This cup is not moving. Congratulations are in order!" Alexi grinned at Cirrus, he knew how much this meant to the meteorologically-minded stallion.

"Thanks, Alexi, but not quite yet I think. Phase two." Cirrus took the cup off of the cloudshelf and placed it carefully into the cloth saddlebags he wore. Several dozen of the incredibly convenient bags had been found in crate seventeen, and now many ponies had no idea how they could have lived without them. From the other side of his saddlebags, Cirrus took out a stone, and placed it with little ceremony on the cloudshelf.

"Now what, Cirrus? First a cup, and now a stone?" Alexi couldn't understand the reasoning here.

"The cup proved that useful objects, made by native Equestrians, could be supported. But now we need to see for how long such support will last. If the stone falls through, nothing of use is lost, so we can just let it sit that way and check on it every day. If it still shows no sign of sinking through the shelf after a week, then perhaps congratulations really are in order." Cirrus lifted the stone with his mouth an inch and then let it drop, just to see what would happen. The stone bounced slightly, then came to rest. It did not sink.

"Why not just use the stone from the beginning? Why bring the cup at all?" Alexi had to ask.

"Because..." Cirrus seemed startled by the question; Alexi could almost see the effort of Cirrus' scrambling brain " the materials of Equestri... well..." Cirrus looked very sheepish and blushed slightly "Basically, the cup was for what we meteorologists call 'The Awesome Factor'."

Alexi laughed "The... Awesome Factor?"

"Well, it was, wasn't it?" Cirrus grinned like a little foal, excited at a favored toy.

"Actually, I don't entirely know, I was under it all, if you remember. So as to to catch the cup if your awesomeness failed." Alexi couldn't help but smile. It was clear Cirrus loved his process of discovery.

"Oh, um, yes. I could put the cup back for a bit!"

"No, I think I understand. It is OK. Good work, Cirrus." Alexi shook his head slightly. It had been fun, the past week, wandering about Cloudcastle - such as it was - helping build more walls and floors, and assisting Cirrus with his curious experiments. Alexi hadn't had to worry about anything except for making sure that when he flew down to eat, he landed far away from the rest of the herd. He hadn't wanted to accidentally bump into anypony right now. Well, a certain pony anyway.

The week had given Alexi both time and space to reflect on everything that had happened over the last five or so months. He had also been free from any demands; he had made it clear to Droplet that he was not to be bothered.

Alexi had constructed a bed for himself in the unfinished tower of the floating fortress. Cirrus had been a little haphazard in constructing Cloudcastle; there were only three walls to the 'castle', none of them were complete, the tower was barely even there. The tower did feature a spiral staircase of cloudstuff however; an experiment to see if such a thing could even be done, and at the top of it was a flat, circular floor of sorts. Partially completed walls surrounded half of that upper floor. There was even a lone, complete, arched window built into the unfinished wall of cloud-stone. The absurdity of the thing delighted Alexi.

Alexi's 'bed' was little more than a roughly rectangular mass of cloudstuff, the top of which he had fluffed, giving it a puffy, soft appearance and feel. Laying on it felt like floating, and it easily was the most comfortable sleeping surface he had ever experienced. It was truly a shame that Caprice could never experience such a thing.

That thought surprised him a little. He had not been thinking overly charitably about Caprice of late; quite the opposite, actually. She reminded him uncomfortably of his very first roommate, way back when he was young, and stupid, and just starting out in Oulunsalo, long before he moved to the North American Corporate Zone.

He had been only eighteen, and his name was not Alexi Venäläinen, not back then. Unknown to his parents, he was a hacker, a quantum outlaw, very highly ranked among the red hats. He wasn't out to hurt anyone, but he did love the feeling of power that came from being better than anyone else. He wanted to be on top. He wanted the respect, the admiration, and yes, the fear.

The young would-be super-hacker was at an impasse. He had gone as far as he could with the connections possible from the citizen hive where he lived with his parents. If he wanted to be a truly big shot in his secret world, he would need to move; he would need have better access.

He had not wanted to live out on his own; he adored his mother, he admired his father, and his home life was warm and filled with love. But in order to gain the access he thought he needed, he required a special connection to a primary quantum carrier node.

Only such unique access would allow him to truly advance to the status of being a respected and feared 'Dark Mystic'. Oulunsalo had a massive node that served most of the region; it had likely been placed there for the benefit of the Oulu Nanofabrication Center that used the sea for cooling.

In order to gain the special access he required, it was necessary to pose as a fast-track worldcorporate recruit; Alexi needed to have everything about him fit this role, and that included having an apartment in the Oulunsalon Arcology, which housed the node. In order to make his plan work he had needed to contact a fellow dark lord of the quantum arts, a mysterious figure that only went by the name "äpärä". The name meant 'Illegitimate'; appropriate, he thought, for a black hat Dark Mystic level hacker.

äpärä had seemed a safe bet at the time; he had helped the young hacker on numerous occasions with minor things; they seemed on good terms. When they had finally met in meatspace, äpärä turned out to be an older man who was very friendly and outgoing. äpärä had arranged changes in identification - including temporary implants - simulated contacts, history, and background check information as well. It was incredibly thorough, and the would be Dark Mystic had been very impressed.

He and äpärä ended up at an expensive dinner together. He could pay for this because he had a wondrous treasure; several very special, custom hacked credit sticks that allowed him nearly unlimited wealth - so long as he used them very, very rarely, and very discretely as well. äpärä was funny, exciting; he had the most incredible stories and all of them were thrilling. äpärä was charming, too, and in no time it felt as if äpärä was his oldest friend, perhaps even a long-lost brother.

It only seemed reasonable that äpärä should stay the night in the his new apartment; it was a long trip back to... wherever it was the man came from. Besides, there wouldn't even be the new apartment, or the new identification, except for äpärä. And, being a Dark Mystic, äpärä could teach him so much!

Morning was even more fun, with laughter and more incredible stories over breakfast. They took a trip together to the holocomplex, and toured the arcology, at least as much of it as could be fit into a day. Dinner was another exclusive, expensive experience, and äpärä never seemed to run out of stories and the most amazing jokes.

It was only when boxes of clothing, personal items and several pieces of furniture arrived on the third day that things somehow began to feel off. All the stuff belonged to äpärä, who claimed he just needed to store them for a day or two. This seemed odd, and became stranger still as more and more of the boxed items started appearing in the environment. Any attempt to confront his new acquaintance always seemed to be interrupted by something new to explore, or something interesting which needed to be done.

It took to the end of the first month, before he realized that äpärä was now his roommate. The boxes were gone, and the apartment was now mostly filled with the things that belonged to äpärä.

It was then that he finally checked his personal accounts, including his very special credit sticks. äpärä had been using them for the most unbelievable things; yachts, a mansion, a lifterlimo. There was no question that his accounts would be traced now; äpärä had done the most incredibly stupid, indiscreet things imaginable with them. It was likely that they had only hours before blackmesh armored troopers would raid their apartment, and their lives would be over.

äpärä wasn't anywhere to be found; doubtless he was out enjoying one of his new purchases. Worst of all, it seemed that äpärä wasn't even a Dark Mystic, and that he had never had anything to teach. äpärä was barely even a hacker. äpärä was just a con man with connections. He had been taken.

In desperation, he changed every aspect of his identity, using every last trick he knew. He ran from location to location, carrying only his cerebral jackbox and the clothes on his back. äpärä ended up in the newsfeeds, along with his own online identity; they were now criminals of the planet.

With effort, he managed to make it to the North American Zone, to San Francisco. It was there that he had constructed the identity of 'Alexi Venäläinen', son of corporate work transfer parents. For several years 'Alexi' worked in the underground economy, but this was a frightening life, filled with danger and severely desperate men. Eventually he hacked his way into being a 'trusted' entity within the Conversion Bureau structure. As the official handyman for Clinic 042, Alexi had finally felt as if he had a home, an existence that was both stable, and helpful to others.

Alexi felt uncomfortable on his cloud bed. The stars shone above, the moon was high. Somewhere out there, Caprice was looking up at the very same moon. Alexi turned on his other side. Caprice. Always Caprice.

It angered Alexi that the same thing had happened to him twice. äpärä, who had somehow mesmerized him into a situation that had cost him everything, and now Caprice, who had suckered him into a life of responsibility he never had time to even consider agreeing to.

How had it happened? Big green eyes, a shiny peach mane, and a bulge in Alexi's pants is how it happened. She had played him, manipulated him, all to get... what? What was Caprice after? Alexi was confused. He had no wealth, not as a handyman at a Conversion Bureau - besides, Caprice was a pony when he had met her.

If it wasn't wealth, then what? Plunk, here is your daughter Alexi. She had done that with Buttermilk. Was that it? She just wanted someone to support her while she raised her daughter? Only it wasn't her daughter, exactly, Buttermilk was a foundling. Caprice had rescued her from termination. It didn't make sense.

And Pumpkin. Caprice had just adopted her, an abandoned teenage mother. What was the profit in that? Who gained from any of this?

Alexi tried to think of any way that Caprice would have benefited from her manipulation of him. There was no gain at the Clinic, she could have done perfectly well without him. Here in Equestria, she had become the mate of the leader of the community! No, that was his own damn fault. She hadn't made him stand up and talk to the ponies like that. He'd done that stunt all on his own.

At worst, she was at fault only because he wanted to impress her. That and save everyone from doing something stupid.

Again, Alexi felt uncomfortable. He was laying on a cloud, yet it felt lumpy. No, it didn't feel lumpy... Alexi felt lumpy. He got out of his cloud bed and stood up. He walked around the small, unfinished tower room. He peered out through the window, set into an open, unfinished wall of cloudstuff. The rolling hills shone in the moonlight. Somewhere down there was his hill. No, not his hill. He's chosen it but... it was somehow her hill. It felt like her hill tonight.

Alexi lay down on his floating bed. There. That was better. Cloud bed. Nice. Where was he?

Alright, Alexi thought. Manipulation. There must be some gain for her. It wasn't wealth. It wasn't power. It wasn't support; the grass grew everywhere; ponies did not have to walk far to get everything they needed. But there was no question he had been manipulated, just like with äpärä long ago. It felt like the same kind of spell; things just happened, everything spiraling out of control.

She hadn't asked him for anything. Not anything, in all of the past months. She'd told him what was what, that was for sure - but she hadn't demanded a single thing. It had all just happened, Pif. No, the demand was there. The demand was implied. Here is your daughter, Alexi; the implication is 'Love her. Help me raise her. Care about her.' Here is me, Caprice; the implication was 'Love me. Be my partner. Share your life with me.'

Alexi didn't grasp where this led. Reduce the basic demand to its essential entity. What was left? 'Love'. That was what Caprice was trying to gain. She was manipulating events to gain love. Love for herself, and love for her adopted daughter. Love for her adopted sister.

That didn't sound so evil, really. It wasn't evil, not by itself. It was the methods Caprice used that were the evil. Alexi rolled fitfully on his cloud bed. So, Caprice wasn't trying to do anything wrong, as such. Maybe, in time, all of what had happened could have grown naturally, without such manipulative tactics. Alexi had to admit, he certainly liked Caprice, and he did find her attractive.

But what she truly wanted seemed clear; commitment. Caprice wanted a long term commitment. Alexi wasn't sure how he felt about that. He liked Caprice, she was wonderful. Well, except for the manipulative streak, of course.

But did he love her? Did he actually even want to commit to her, or to anything for that matter? He definitely didn't want to be stuck with so much responsibility. Being a... husband, a father, a leader, it was all too much. It seemed like too much. Wasn't it too much?

Dammit! How is it possible to not be comfortable on a bed made of cloud? Alexi turned again, angry. It was a goddamned bed of cloud! It couldn't be softer if it tried! Alexi tried laying on his back. He remembered how Caprice had lain that way, teasing him. It was fun blowing raspberries on her belly. She had such a nice belly.

Dammit! Even now, she was in his head! Caprice must be some kind of witch! Caprice, the gypsy witch!

Alexi sighed. How much of what happened had been manipulation and how much... had been something he had secretly wanted? Is it manipulation if you actually want it? Did he want the life she manufactured?

Did he truly want... Caprice?

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