News from the Clouds
Waking up in Gardenia was, looking back on it, no big deal. On that occasion I awoke in an actual bed in an actual room made of stone and wood and some kind of carbon nanofibre insulation. But the room had walls, a floor, a delightfully carved wooden ceiling, doors, windows, and most importantly, it was on the ground.
Waking up in the Institute in London was, admittedly, a bit weird but I was still in a room with straight walls in a building in a city. A city that was also connected to the ground.
Waking up on Cloud Nine was a bit more of a challenge.
I was ensconced in a white supportive bench made of an unknown but possibly intelligent material that was in turn encased in a circular, semi-spherical white room with a round window looking out onto totally static clouds. When I say static, I mean they weren't moving across my limited field of vision: I stared for a long time and they didn’t budge a millimeter. It was like looking at a well-lit, still image of clouds.
I was alone in this slightly chilly space. I didn't suddenly jump up and run around in a panic - I stayed still, simply because I didn't know what to do. I mentally retraced my steps as I tried to get a grip on the situation I found myself in.
Once again the forlorn hope of flying out into the sky above Didcot power station in 2011 fell away. This time there was no moment of doubt as to where or indeed when I was.
Coming out of the cloud and seeing blue sky and clouds I could, I reflected, have wondered for a moment if I was over Didcot once again, however, the presence of a couple of dozen white doughnuts flying alongside me soon put paid to that dream.
I had then been taken over by some sort of flying duvet cover and deposited on an enormous cloud that was floating a few hundred feet above the ground. I had a vague memory of seeing the ground below as we approached the cloud. It appeared to be brown and rocky, not green and lush or even urban and complex. It looked like an expanse of scrubby moorland.
I was comfortable on the bench, so I had no great urge to move; I held my breath and stayed motionless in the peculiar white room and concentrated on listening to the sounds around me. I could just hear what I took to be people talking but I couldn't make out anything they were saying. I started to wonder why I could hear no wind noise, no engine noise, no vibration or mechanical sound of any kind. The thing I was in was up in the air and yet it was eerily silent. I could just make out tiny movements - nothing alarming, but just faint alterations in the supporting pressure on my back.
I slowly moved my body to try and get up. Once again, I had no idea how long I'd slept and the light coming through the window was no help, looking exactly the same as when I'd fallen asleep.
As I shifted my body weight the bench I was lying on reformed itself into slightly firmer platform supporting my bum. I cannot describe to you how weird this felt; it was almost as if I was lying on something living, the response calm but immediate.
I swung my feet onto the odd quilted-looking floor and stood up. I then sat down again rather rapidly because I really couldn't get my balance. The floor was squashy. It gave way under my heels and threw me backwards.
I dropped down onto all fours and using hands and knees made my way over to the circular window. It really was like a very big porthole in a ship; there was some kind of transparent material in it to keep the elements out of the room but it wasn't glass. As I touched it I could sense it flexed under the pressure but not in a way that distorted the view.
I managed to get into a standing position by leaning on the slightly flexible side of the room to steady myself. With my hands and feet spread, I could stay relatively stable.
What I saw out of the window was a bit of a shock - in fact two very distinct shocks.
One, the thing I was in was incredibly high up, much higher than when I'd landed on it, and two, the view below showed that without any question we were above an ocean.
Whatever I was in was above water, and not only that, we seemed to be moving. I could tell by watching the lower clouds pass over the blue expanse of water. Either they were blowing in the other direction or we were moving. It was a very similar view to the one you'd get out of the window of a passenger jet at 35,000 feet. This could only mean one thing: the room I was in was pressurised. It had to be, or I'd be suffocated and frozen to death.
I stared down for a long time trying to make sense of what I was seeing. I was fairly certain that when I came out of the cloud and saw the flying doughnuts I had been above land. In both my previous jumps through the cloud I'd ended up in the same place - well, the same map coordinates, although it looked very different each time. As far as I could make out, both times I was still in the vicinity of where the Didcot power stations once stood.
However, this time I'd flown through the cloud that was above the Squares of London, and, it seemed, somehow come out above the sea. Had the world flooded? Was this cloud really more like a floating Noah's Ark? Would I discover two of every kind of animal stashed in the hold?
I then remembered a graphic representation I had pinned up in my office back in Kingham. It showed the earth with all the water that exists on the planet gathered into two giant blobs resting above California. The saltwater blob was big. The freshwater blob was teeny. I knew that no matter how much ice melted, how much rain fell, there was just not enough water on the planet for Kevin Costner's second worst ever film to have been remotely possible.
So, the question arose in my mind, if I had flown into the cloud over London, and flown out of the cloud over the sea, was it possible to fly through space as well as time? A question like that made me feel mildly annoyed; the whole concept was barking mad, so why worry about minor details like travelling through space as well as time?
'Ah, you have woken up,' said a voice behind me.
I slid down the wall and sat below the window in order not to fall over as I turned to face the person speaking.
It was the old man who'd greeted me by the plane. I couldn't recall his name, which left me feeling even more annoyed. Why couldn't I remember his name? I felt sure I was better at such basic data storage before the wretched kidonge had wormed its way into my bone marrow.
'Yes, sorry, I'm a bit confused. I'm really sorry, I can't remember your...'
'I am Gustav,' he said kindly. 'Don't worry, you are bound to be a bit disorientated. I am Gustav and you are Gavin Meckler.'
'I know who I am, Gustav,' I said, while repeating his name in my head over and over to try and lodge it in there somehow. 'How do you know who I am? Have you got a different sort of kidonge here?'
'I don't know what a kidonge is but I am sure you will tell me in good time.' His soft German accent was quite gentle and reassuring. 'Please try to relax; you appear to be very anxious. I want to reassure you that you are very safe. We are currently ten thousand meters above the surface, but there is nothing to be alarmed about - the structure you are on has a 100% safety record.'
'That's very good to know,' I said, very aware that my face was not showing any signs of reassurance. 'But there are so many things I don't understand and one thing is really disconcerting. Gustav, you knew my name. As soon as the Yuneec, my plane, my drone, I don't know what you'd call it, the thing I came in-'
'The highly modified Yuneec E430,' said Gustav calmly.
'Yes, yes, well, as soon as it was put down here, on this, on Cloud Nine, as soon as I opened my door, you seemed to know who I was.'
'Yes, we know who you are.'
'How do you know who I am?'
'Hopefully all will be revealed to you presently.'
'Yes, we are attempting to navigate our way to the requisite culvert but as you may be able to imagine, navigating a vessel such as Cloud Nine is not an easy matter. We go where the weather goes and while we can predict fairly accurately where that will take us, we have learned that when it comes to weather…' he stopped and smiled, then leant forward and put a hand on my shoulder, '...nothing is certain.'
'Okay, well, maybe you can explain that.' I said gesturing out of the window above my head. 'We seem to be above the sea.'
'That is correct.'
'But when I came out of the cloud, when I was surrounded by those round things, I was over land - at least I think I was.'
'Again, correct, however we have moved a considerable distance since you arrived. We are now over the Atlantic Ocean.'
'We are travelling with the prevailing wind, Gavin. At present it's a North Easterly but we will soon turn back towards Europe.'
'So this is sort of like a balloon?' I asked.
'No, it is not like a balloon, Gavin, it is a balloon. Cloud Nine is a very large balloon: it is over five kilometers in length and roughly three kilometers wide. We hope that by this time tomorrow we will be in a calm area over the mid-Atlantic where we will reconnect with the others.'
'The other clouds. We are one of ten clouds presently, although another ten are under construction. When the weather allows, we connect with the others and form one supercloud, nearly fifty kilometers long.'
'But why?' I asked, staring at this perfectly sane-looking old bloke. 'Why on earth do you float about on clouds?'
'Remember the moment you got out of the Yuneec E430 this morning?' said Gustav.
'Yeah, it's not going to be something I can forget quickly.'
'Gut. Well, did you feel the wind?’
'Yes, do you remember as you walked across the court, do you remember feeling moving air; was your hair blown about; did you feel the wind on your skin?'
I thought for a moment. 'No,' I said. 'It seemed very still.'
'Indeed, and yet there was a wind blowing, about one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour at ground level. Nothing unusual, but we were moving with the wind and hence felt nothing.'
As had been the case in Gardenia and London 2211, every single explanation raised a million new questions.
‘So that’s why you live on this,’ I said, gesturing around me.
‘Well, to say we live on the cloud would be a little misleading - we stay on it from time to time, a few months of rest every now and then, plus we get to travel and see the rest of the world. Living in the culverts can be a little claustrophobic.’
Gustav smiled at me and with a slow and gentle movement put a bony hand on my shoulder. ‘You will soon see. It is very different here from anything you are used to, but please do not be stressed; you will be fine, we will look after you.’