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CLOUDCUTTER • by Bill Ward

The day I got my fifth brain Dandrys walked me over to the platform and told me I would see something I ought to try to understand.

“Just watch the ceiling Charlie,” he said, his weak voice piping up from dying lungs. “Watch and remember that it happens once a year, like clockwork.”

So I looked at the layer of brown clouds that slither their way over the sky, the whole sky, and so those clouds are called the ceiling. The day I got my man hands I remember throwing a ball up into those clouds and watching it disappear–a few stray puffs knocked out by the force of impact–then pop out again a second later. I was using my third brain then, and a game like that could occupy me for hours while Dandrys busied himself in the scrap.

“When will it happen?” I asked. My man voice was similar to Dandrys’ own, but healthy and whole-sounding. Dandrys told me to be patient, but he checked his chronometer every few minutes, too.
I took my eyes off the ceiling and looked around, seeing the scrap yard as if for the first time. It was stacked in layers of time, Dandrys told me, like the old mountains. I’ve never seen beyond its borders. Even in the dark I could see the occasional glint of stray toplight striking one of its far outcroppings in the distance.

“Now. Look!” Dandrys reached to touch my back. His hand stayed to smooth my fur, which I no longer liked the feel of now that I had my fifth brain and thought as men did.

The ceiling above us bubbled, like the froth from a punctured battery, and the brown clouds parted in places as if sliced at from above. Through those rents I saw a uniform field of pastel blue. “What…?” I meant to ask, but had lost my voice in wondering.

“The Great Current. Once a year, now, it rushes past. It’s high above us, above the clouds, and it pushes some back. Just enough to see, Charlie. Just enough to remember.” Dandrys and I watched the tiny rips in the ceiling as night came and we marveled as the blue dimmed into a spray of diamonds on black, and he told tales of the old time.

That night I flew above the ceiling. I was sucked up through the gash cut by the high current, and soared in a bright world of toplight blue. I did not move as I normally do, as Charlie does, but hung in the fibers of the air with broad arms and pushed forward mightily with my feet. I cannot remember a more beautiful thing.

“Your fifth brain can dream, Charlie; you are a man now.” Dandrys smiled and patted my head. I then asked why our bodies differed but Dandrys said it did not matter, and told me to come with him to work.

Cloudcutter was huge and slick like a drop of water, and Dandrys was busy removing its wings. He told me it was an aero, and that once men had moved above the ceiling and sought to know why the clouds had sickened and fallen to menace us so close to the ground. Once whole fleets ranged the skies in a search for the reason, but fewer and fewer were able as time wound down. Cloudcutter had been one of the last.

“And will it fly again?” I asked.

“It will as best we’re able. We have a year’s work ahead of us, and now you can help me.”

And we started by removing its wings, great steel fins that flexed and bucked as we cut them from Cloudcutter’s body. At the platform Dandrys had collected the wings of other aeros, large and small, blunt and slender, those worn with age and those preserved as new. With chucks and pulleys and wheels we heaved them into place upon a great horizontal bar and fused them there with plasma fire. At each end of the bar the great arms of lifters waited in folded silence. This was the work of a year.

The work was hard on Dandrys, and he shrunk and slowed before my eyes. One day I caught him as he slipped from a gantry where we worked side by side, caught him before he fell, and I learned fear then. That day I realized that my hands were surer than his own, my contrivances of steel better than his failing flesh.

“Do you still dream, Charlie?” he asked me shortly before he died.

“I remember,” I said and he nodded, knowing that I had arrived at the truth. In the mirror while I puzzled at my difference I had noticed the symbol on the black plastic casing of my fifth brain. It was the symbol of Cloudcutter.

“Even as the last of us died on the ground our machines scanned the air above, always searching, always loyal. We did not fail from lack of friends.” Dandrys reached to stroke my fur and I let him. “The current comes soon. Be ready.” These words were his last.

The lifters roared into action and belched the dead gases of life eons gone, and the wings rose up in jerky, screeching stages. The crossbeam was strong. The vertical jags of the many wings did not fall. They meet the ceiling and bit the brown clouds like teeth. I rolled a tongue over my own sharp teeth and waited, glancing at Dandrys’ chronometer on my hairy arm.

The Great Current swelled above the scrap lands, and its bottom edge caught the disembodied wings and flowed and sped around their edges like oil over glass, and the ceiling opened. Over the platform the dirty clouds parted wider than ever before and the great river of the sky flowed above me, and I drank in the beauty of the blue and dreamed my dreams of flight.


Bill Ward is a freelance writer out of Baltimore, Maryland. He has sold fiction to Murky Depths, Flashing Swords, Every Day Fiction, Darwin’s Evolutions, Kaleidotrope and the anthologies The Return of the Sword, The Age of Blood & Snow, and Desolate Places. In addition Bill has written background material and serial fiction for fantasy and science fiction games, has done editing for small press ventures, and is co-editor of the Magic & Mechanica Anthology from Ricasso Press. To read his fiction or check out his weekly book reviews please visit www.billwardwriter.com.

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CLOUDCUTTER • by Bill Ward, 3.6 out of 5 based on 42 ratings
Posted on August 15, 2008 in Science Fiction, Stories
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  • K.C. Ball

    Bill:

    Shiny! Gave it a five.

    K.C,

  • Gerard Demayne

    Another great story. It’s gotten to the point where I look at the contents listing for the upcoming month’s stories to see if BW’s name is there.

  • Teresa Koeppel

    This was a very well-written piece. I really enjoyed not only the imagery and the story, but the many questions it raised (and the some it answered). Well done!

  • http://www.rumjhumbiswas.com rumjhum

    Brilliant!

  • http://blogtiderising.wordpress.com Deven

    Wow!

  • Alison Bullock

    Great writing! Loved “the froth from a punctured battery” and all of the careful word choices that helped to create the tone of this piece. I gave it 5 stars and I’m not even a fan of this genre.

  • http://afburns.wordpress.com/ Alexander Burns

    Amazing work, Bill.

  • http://www.MadelineMora-Summonte.com Madeline Mora-Summonte

    This is not usually one of my favorite genres but I enjoyed this story a great deal. The imagery and the complexity of the characters made the unanswered questions believable and poignant and very real.

  • Bob

    Very nice story. I’d love to see it expanded, to explore the relationship between your protagonist and his mentor during the year of working on Cloudcutter. This format is too restricting for the richness of your world.

  • http://www.everydayfiction.com Jordan Lapp

    Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a positive comment from Gerard. Way to go, Bill!

  • http://www.shamelesscreations.com Kevin Shamel

    Love it, Bill.

    An amazing world you created.

  • http://canyonsofgray.blogspot.com dj barber

    Another great flash, Bill.
    Gerard may be on to something…

    –dj

  • http://www.writewords.org.uk/oonah/ Oonah V Joslin

    That made me dizzy – what a world.

  • anon

    Sorry to disagree with most other comments, but my reaction was “wtf.” I’m sure I know what was going on, or why, or how… it feels like this is part of something larger, and we just get it here without any explanation. Fifth brain? Man hands? What?

  • anon

    Err, that should read “I’m not sure”

  • http://msherlock.wordpress.com M.Sherlock

    Fantastic story…though i agree with anon…i had no bloody idea what the narrator was meant to be, im asuming mechanical but it had fur…

    Good story regardless.

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  • Bob

    Very nice story. I’d like to see it expanded, to explore the relationship between your protagonist and his mentor during the year of working on Cloudcutter. This format is too restricting for the richness of the world you’ve created

  • http://billwardwriter.com Bill Ward

    As always, I can count on EDF’s readers for great comments, they are much appreciated and a sure source of monthly inspiration.

    Anon, et al . . . I can understand the reason for your confusion, believe me, and that’s always the risk with a story like this. I’m pretty sure nearly everything in the story has at least one hint that points at some explanation, with one somewhat large exception. One can legitimately ask why I didn’t just explain everything, but this is first person, and it was my attempt to conjure a dreamlike narrative that mirrors Charlie’s own experientially different world. There are things he wouldn’t talk about, things he perceives differently, and things he takes for granted. As for what he *is* . . . well, he’s Dandry’s best friend.

    The great thing about flash is a writer can play these games, and the great thing about EDF, of course, is that if something isn’t to your tastes, you only have to wait a day to sample something else.

    Thanks again for the superlatives and the criticism and all of it, I’m just pleased to have people talking. And for those of you who wrote that you don’t normally like science fiction but liked this, that’s a fantastic compliment and I especially like that you took the time to post on a genre story that normally wouldn’t be your cup of tea.

  • Nicholas O

    Nice work, Bill.

    My take on Charlie was that he’s a dog who’s been genetically and cybernetically modified.

    But I’ll grant that, for readers unfamiliar with the tropes of sci-fi, that’s a pretty big leap to make. :)

  • B.Teuscher

    Very nice world you’ve created, Bill.
    I disagree with anon’s expectations for what a good story/writer must explain. The best at the craft will paint a picture with graceful strokes, stoking the imagination of the reader, offering a glimpse of worlds which may defy simple explanation.

    In short, continue creating worlds. Leave the encyclopedias to academics.

    Thanks.

  • http://nihawkins.wordpress.com/ Nik Hawkins

    Another good one, Bill. Admittedly, I had to do a bit of extra thinking (and second guessing) to determine exactly what the protagonist is, but I don’t mind a story that makes me think.

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