Eight: Brume Broom Boom
Alexi Venäläinen rolled over in the large foam bed that he prized so much. He had wrangled many deals to acquire it; the frame had come from the ruins of the old Ghirardelli Arcology; though greatly damaged by the bombings after the Collapse, several gangs had made parts of the gargantuan ruin their territory. The location had become both a warzone and a center of commerce for the favela that covered the Bay Area.
What made the remains of Ghirardelli Arcology so valuable was that many areas within the impossibly large structure had been essentially untouched, leaving behind a wealth of pre-Collapse goods and products; most in near perfect condition. This was what the gangs fought to protect their control over, and the politics of dealing with them was complex.
Alexi's bed frame had come from the 37th floor habitation zone 'Archangels' gang, but to get passage for any item from that part of the Arcology, he had needed to make deals with three other gangs first. It had been a massive undertaking that had occupied most of his spare time at Clinic 042 for his first two months. But, as his Russian mother had often told him 'A good bed is worth a thousand troubles.'
In the end, Alexi had not only gotten his frame, but two fine foam mattresses as well, one of which he gave to the physician of Clinic 042, Dr. Roselyn Pastern. It never hurt to be on the good side of the person with the power to hire and fire, but more than that, Alexi liked Dr. Pastern. She was always friendly to him, and for an Undergrounder like Alexi, genuine friendliness went a very, very long way.
Right now, Alexi loved his soft foam mattress very, very much. He hurt all over, and all he wanted to do was sleep. But there would be new Conversions to announce; he had his daily routine of helping Miriam in the kitchen feeding the 'animals' -Alexi's pet name for the conversion applicants and the newfoals alike - and there was always his maintenance chores.
What ever had he done last night to cause him so much discomfort? Alexi tried to remember what day it was, what he might have been up to. Briefly he worried that the Collectors had come, the agents sent by the Unpleasant Man to deal with scoundrels like him. Had there been a fight? Alexi's right wing felt like it had gone through a shredder, he lifted a hand to rub it and found that his hand was a hoof.
Alexi's eyes opened wide. He searched around him, unable to interpret what he was seeing.
He was laying on a soft, springy lumpiness. It felt somewhat like his old foam mattress, and it dawned on him now that he had been dreaming of his old life on Earth. The lumpen surface was limited to a strange shape, irregular and bent, the floor of a deep hole of some kind. The walls were white, as was the floor. He reckoned that he was about twenty feet or so down what appeared to be a white, irregularly shaped pit. Above him morning was just beginning - the sky was still quite dark, but he could see the golden rays of Celestia's sun shining on the edges of the shaft far above. It was this light that let him see his surroundings.
The walls of the shaft sparkled in the morning illumination. Alexi was still mostly laying down, he had brought himself up halfway with his front legs, the better to see. Holding his weight with his left leg, he stretched out his right hoof and prodded the wall of the strange, white, shaft. His hoof left a dent in the wall; he felt almost no resistance at all. Alexi began swiping his hoof left and right, up and down, leaving scrapes on the wall. It carved easily.
When Alexi pulled his hoof back, and examined it, it was dripping, covered with beads of water; the hair on his fetlocks was soaked.
Alexi began scraping away the walls next to the flat, springy surface on which he lay. Spinning his body around as he lay there, he managed to carve out a space next to one edge of his strangely shaped platform. Digging down from the edge of the surface, he saw in the increasing light that his platform was a darker shade than the surrounding white; it was gray and dense.
He stood up, grimacing from the pain in his right wing, and looked around at the shape of his support. The platform was very odd in shape, long here, short there, with odd extensions in strange directions. He let his right wing hang from his side for now, it seemed to hurt less that way. It wasn't broken, but it was very bruised. He remembered it cramping before he fell. That cramp had been the worst pain he had ever felt.
The shape of both the shaft, and the platform itself, began to make sense to Alexi - there was the curve of his own neck, over there was the shape of his own back legs. Another longer curve in the shaft was the form of his left wing, which he had kept extended to try to slow his fall.
The shaft had been made by Alexi's own body slamming down through the white layer of haze, and the platform had been created by the compression of that mist as he fell.
Alexi tried to take that in. He was standing on a platform made of compressed mist.
He remembered all the practice at the ponds making water speck blobs. Mist was a fine suspension of water particles in air. That is all haze was, just water in the air. Tiny, microscopic droplets, bounced around by the molecules of the atmosphere. It had seemed that the finer the suspended particles, the more power the pegasai had over them; back when they practiced in the pond it was only the tiniest specks that remained floating. Nothing could be a finer suspension than this endless white mist.
The platform, his 'bed', was gray. Gray was the color of storm clouds, the darker the wetter. Clouds were just dense mist.
The mechanism by which pegasai controlled the weather burst upon Alexi's mind like the light from the rising sun above him. He had a fairly good idea of what to do; but could he actually accomplish anything?
Alexi struggled to retract his right wing. The muscles were stiff and sore, and felt swollen. He gritted his teeth, a feral grin wrapping around his muzzle. With effort, he managed to bring his wing closer to his body. Now he began to lift it, to work it, trying to increase circulation, trying to loosen the muscles. It hurt, but he would not give up. He had a job to do. He was a procurer, he found things that were needed and supplied them to those that needed them.
Right now the greatest need was for weather, and Alexi had found the secret. He had to fly again. He had to bring the knowledge of making clouds back to Base Camp, back to his Caprice, back to the ponies that depended on him.
Over and over, Alexi slowly, painfully raised and lowered his right wing. Again and again he struggled to bring his wing in tight to his body, to keep it from dragging on the... cloudstuff? He would not give up. He would fly again. He must.
* * * * *
Within herself, Caprice was frantic. Alexi had not returned. He had been gone the entire day and night, and this morning there was still no sign of him. She had sent searching parties out to look for his body, dreading what they might find, but hoping for some kind of survival. He must be out there somewhere, there is no way he could still be flying; no pegasus had such endurance.
Perhaps he had made a soft landing in a pond, far out there. Alexi might be hurt, unable to walk back to Base Camp. If he could walk, he might be lost, unsure of which direction to go. For that possibility Caprice had ordered several of the pegasai to fly in circles around Base Camp to act as a color beacon. She had ponies crowning the four hills, also to act as a beacon. If Alexi was out there, somewhere on the brown plain, the colorful bodies of the herd would show him the way home.
The herd had taken her instructions without complaint. She had not even thought about this until after her plans were in place and there was little to do but wait. Just like that, the herd had instantly obeyed her.
She remembered things she had read about terrestrial horses, long ago; they were matriarchal, once a leader was defined, she was followed without question. It was unusual, then, if Equestrians were kin at all to Earthly equines, for Alexi to have been accepted as a leader at all. Perhaps, it was just natural that she would be listened to in his absence.
What was the connection between Equestria and Earth? Was her body some kind of evolved or modified terrestrial creature, or perhaps...
Suddenly Caprice realized that she was trying to think of anything but her fears over Alexi. He was just... gone. Every scouting party had returned with the same news; no sign of Alexi, dead or alive. Where could he be?
That he had flown upwards, everypony had seen. Droplet and several other members of Flight Team had tried again and again to duplicate Alexi's apparent success; none had managed to climb indefinitely. Caprice had finally demanded they stop after Droplet had partially fallen, weakened by successive attempts to follow Alexi.
That night had been terrible for Caprice. Pumpkin could not help but fear the worst, adding to her own terrors. Caprice could not follow the dictate of remaining removed from the herd; she had remained below, on the packed dry grass with the others, unable to sleep. Buttermilk somehow sensed her grief and worry, and constantly got in her face, trying to lick her muzzle with little foal kisses. Caprice understood that Buttermilk was just trying to comfort her in her own tiny way, but the constant licking became annoying, like having to deal with an overexcited puppy; to her shame she had screamed at the little unicorn, frustration overcoming her.
Buttermilk cowered, unsure of anything, and began to cry; a strange sound halfway between an animal bleat and the sound of a human child. This had broken Caprice's heart, and so she spent most of the night nuzzling and licking her little foal, apologizing endlessly for her moment of anger.
Droplet had been a great help through the night; she had laid close to Caprice, often resting her head on Caprice's back, hugging her in the pony way. She had also helped to sooth the distraught Pumpkin, and kept her distracted, so that Caprice could attend to her foal.
Lightning and Sweetpepper also slept nearby, wanting to be supportive, but not knowing what to do.
The unicorn who had the aerospace background - he went more or less by the nickname 'Boeing' - had tried to offer the possibility of a long, shallow glide; Alexi might simply have a trek longer than a day or two in order to return. It was meager hope, but Caprice had been grateful for the kindness behind it.
Very late in the night, sometime before morning, Caprice looked around her at the herd clustered close by, barely illuminated in the dark by the setting moon. Everypony was asleep it seemed, save herself. She was exhausted and numb, but her worry overrode her body's need for rest. Alexi might already be dead. He might never come back, he might never be found. He could be out there, somewhere in the dark, broken and bleeding, so terribly alone.
She simply could not help herself; softly she prayed to Luna and Celestia, in her mind knowing how foolish she must be, and yet no longer caring. "Please, let Alexi be alright. Please, princesses of the moon and sun, please." she repeated her prayer, over and over again.
The prototype cloud was not much to look at. It was an ovoid mass of compacted mist, roughly the size of a Volkswagen Solarlectric Neobeetle, and it did not look like an earthly cloud at all. For one thing, its edges were strikingly well defined, as if it were a giant mass of cotton, rather than a diffuse patch of fog.
The cloud was now a medium-to-dark gray; the result of Alexi rolling it around the endless field of white mist as if it were a huge snowball. At regular intervals, Alexi had used his hooves with force and packed the amorphous sides down, making the cloud increasingly dense. He began to wonder just how dense it could be made. The custom cloud had many uncanny properties.
He could stand on it, walking across its surface as if it were a large, rounded boulder. He could push it with his hooves, thrusting forward with his wings, to move it wherever he chose. Once placed, it would hang in space, just as the small cloudlets of water spray had in the ponds. Alexi considered the possibility of making floating stairs out of little clouds, allowing the other pegasai to climb up to the white expanse. But this idea was quickly abandoned; it would require an awful lot of individual clouds to make a staircase reach so far into the sky.
Alexi's cloud, after even more rolling and packing, was now quite dark in color. It was a proper little storm cloud, or at the very least it was quite a dark shade of gray. The shape of it was not puffy, it was more like a big round lump than anything else. It did not directly resemble a proper cloud from Earth. His wings tired again, Alexi flew up above his hoofywork and simply let himself drop; he already knew the soft and springy cloudstuff would catch him without risk or danger from the short fall.
As his hooves heavily impacted the dark cloud, his eyes were momentarily blinded and he found his ears ringing. There had been a terrible flash, and a great noise, like a slow explosion. Alexi looked around. What had happened? Was there some new danger? Had war broken out in Equestria?
No, that was silly. War was alien to Equestria. Then what had made the flash and the great boom?
It couldn't be, Alexi thought. But then, physics was clearly different here; he had just rolled up a cloud with his hooves and was now standing on it - worrying about whether lightning could come from that was a bit silly at this point.
Alexi raised his right hoof. He held it suspended for a moment, then plunged it down with as sharp a report as he could manage.
A smaller flash crackled and boomed from under his hooves, he could feel it rattle his bones where he stood. Alexi began to bounce on the cloud, as if it were a trampoline, occasionally giving it a smack with one or two of his hooves. Each time he attacked the small, dark cloud it flashed and boomed, and as he bounced on it he heard the distinctive sound of rain.
Alexi spread wide his wings, sore but functional, and flapped away from the cloud to observe it from the side and below. As he circled the floating raincloud, he could see rain pouring down from it, disappearing through the layer of haze below. As his hoofmade cloud rained, it slowly began to shrink in size, the water content of it draining away to fall through the haze and onto the land far, far below.
Alexi let out a great laugh as he circled his work. He had found out how his kind could make rain! He howled in triumph, soaring directly under his cloud, letting the rain spray him as he passed beneath. Out the other side, he rose above and over his shrinking raincloud, the sun and air drying his feathers, yelling his joy to the sky.
Caprice stood in the midday sun, her legs locked in dreamless sleep. She had stood to allow Buttermilk her lunch; Pumpkin had been right about how to properly feed the little foal. Buttermilk seemed to find it much easier to latch onto Caprice this way, and not once did she feel teeth on her delicate udder.
As she stood, letting Buttermilk suckle, her long night of worry and wakefulness caught up to her. The sun, a glowing patch behind the opaque, white sky, was nevertheless warm, and before she knew it, her eyes had begun to close in exhaustion.
She struggled to keep them open, but between the repetitive suckling and the warm drowsy heat, her lids became so heavy that she decided to just let them remain shut, just for a while, just for a moment...
A shocking cold wetness awoke Caprice. It was the afternoon now. Bethany, the receptionist back at clinic 042, had once explained pony sleeping techniques to her; Beth had been correct in saying that standing sleep did not permit dreams. Dreaming was somehow necessary for truly restful sleep, and thus while her nap had helped, she still felt she needed more.
Caprice's mind returned to the cold wetness she had felt. Had somepony spit water on her head and back?
Caprice looked around, becoming aware of the herd about her starting to yell and cavort. Pumpkin was screaming something at her over the din; finally she reared up and began frantically gesturing at the sky with her hooves.
Caprice looked up, to see a round, dark shape descending from the haze. Suddenly a flash of lightning burst from beneath it, temporarily blinding her, and making her ears ring from the boom. When she could see again, the shape was much lower and slightly to the side of Base Camp; as it rapidly dropped she made out the shape of a white pegasus pony flapping his wings powerfully, pushing what could only be a dark, raining mass of cloud down to the ground.
She tried to run, but only then remembered that her legs were locked. Swearing silently to herself, she unhooked the spurs of bone and freed her legs to move again. She was galloping now, as fast as she had ever run as a pony, the still air streaming past her ears as she pushed through it.
Alexi flapped furiously, maneuvering the diminishing cloud over the top of Sweetpepper's small patch of garden. He stomped twice; two dramatic booms followed bright flashes announcing his triumph. The now tiny raincloud continued to drain out upon the shriveled crops as Alexi half hopped, half glided to the ground.
The entire herd crowded around him, stomping their approval and cheering Alexi's dramatic arrival.
Suddenly Alexi found himself sprawled on the ground, half under his own cloud, the ground becoming mud, the rain in his face; Caprice was on top of him now, holding him down with her weight and her legs, kissing him and crying, her tears of joy mingling with the rain until it seemed as if the cloud itself were an extension of her relief.