Time to head to the skies for this week’s short story challenge.
Last week’s disastrous health state is behind me, and while I don’t feel great right now, I at least want to have a genuine go at my short story challenge.
For those coming in late, I’ve once again challenged myself to write a short story every week for fifty two weeks, AKA a calendar year.
It’s my second go at this concept, with the first leading to a book of short stories called “Fifty Two”.
This is the fifth week of my challenge, which means that you’ve also got four other stories to pick from:
And now, on with this week’s short story, a little tale called
“It’s just one foot in front of the other, concentrating all the time”, said Cesar to himself.
“Well, of course it is. Everyone knows that, but today is different, isn’t it? It’s the cloud walking exam, where my future lies. Hell’s teeth, even the infants know that it’s one foot in front of the other, because they teach you that on day one, right before they send you out onto your first cloud.
Which you fall through, because everyone does, because nobody’s ready then. Nobody.
Teaches you to expect the unexpected, but also to be careful. More important than one foot in front of the other, being careful. Wasn’t that what old Shomar used to teach, right before he… left.?”
Thinking of Shomar gave Cesar a bit of a jolt. One day he was there, at the academy, teaching the principles of walking through the clouds, farming the water and the sky fish, and the next day… he just wasn’t.
None of the other teachers would say what had happened to him, though the rumours all said he went out cloud walking one night with no provisions and no plan on coming back.
Tomas used to frighten some of the younger kids by saying he’d return on a storm cloud if they didn’t practice harder, but Cesar knew better than that. Nobody could walk on a storm cloud.
Run on a regular cloud? Sure, that was possible, and that was a super desirable skill, which was why today was so very important. The quicker Cesar could run the course, the wider range of jobs that would be open to him, in accordance with the rules.
It all made sense to Cesar, because the better jobs required a lot more travel, and if you couldn’t quickly judge between a cloud that could support your weight and your work, and one that you’d plunge through, you wouldn’t last long.
Cesar had his eye on an aquaculture job. Something that needed skill, and guts, but more importantly, something that would get him away from the crowds most of the time. You could just stop and think out on a cloud, harvesting water day after day.
Not like a retail job, where you never moved anywhere, never saw any different landscapes below, and had to deal with people all day, every day. Come slipping loose in the exam and survive, and you’d spend all your days taking ration cards and providing water pouches to the thirsty. No thanks!
That had long been the plan, ever since Cesar first bumped into Helene. He’d been practicing small cloud jumps – big ones for his age, but tiddlers compared to what he’d been facing today – and Helene came barrelling through with a water ox behind her, working on an advanced project.
Helene always had some crazy ideas in her head about how the world should work, and how to get more water to more people more quickly. Which was fine, Cesar used to argue with her, right up until you run your Ox right into a class of undergraduates all still grappling with slippery cloud issues. Helene had saved Cesar that day. The other undergraduates had heard the Ox coming, but Cesar was mid-leap when it came through, and without Helene’s sky line to hook him, he would have tumbled away.
Cesar thought often of Helene. She’d gone up for the cloud walking exam two years ahead of Cesar, in line with her age. Cesar used to wonder at her light and graceful touch, and everyone reckoned she was definitely going to do well and score a top job as a result. Maybe something in aquaculture, or perhaps even a position in politics.
Cesar had waited for her that day, just outside the exam hall gates. Not much to do while he waited but stare down at the land mass so many kilometres below. Some said that people lived down there, while others argued that cloud walkers who failed the exam landed on them too regular for that to be a way to really live.
Cesar passed the time by pretending the squiggly land masses were clouds, working out where he’d put his foot, one after the other, and where the best spaces to tether his cloud line might be.
One by one, the students came back, some looking distinctly worse for wear. Cristos had barely scraped by, to nobody’s surprise, but Tomas doing so poorly was a genuine surprise to everyone, not least Tomas.
Tomas had stumbled on a thicker than expected cloud stem, and only his cloud line had saved him from the worst possible fate. Instead, he got the second worst, sent to tend to sky ox fields due to his terrible finishing time.
Helene though, did not come back at all. Nobody would say why, because everyone thought it was bad luck to find out how you could fail the cloud running exam.
For the fifth time that morning, Cesar made sure to check his sky line for kinks, frays or knots. All still smooth and shining, and ready to hook into anything up to a grade 3 cloud.
Grade 4 and above, where the darkness starts to permeate and the risk of rainfall and runner collapse wasn’t what you wanted on exam day. So far, though, the day was clear, with good solid clouds waiting for the exam to start.
Cesar was so lost in thought he didn’t make out the voice at first. It was examiner Robina, calling his name as it was his turn to start the course. Robina was wearing the traditional purple sky gown with the golden sash, as befitted her political class. It was said that she’d jumped across three rain clouds in one go during her exam, and while she’d never confirm it to any student bold enough to ask… she never outright denied it either. Only the record keepers knew that kind of thing for sure.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Robina. I’m ready to go… if that’s OK?”
“Of course it’s OK. Now, I know you’ve been told this many times before, but I must state it again. Today is an important day for your future. Cloud running candidates are timed across the course, with a penalty applied for each use of the sky line. No time is given back for any adverse weather events, and you may not stop to help, assist or engage with any other candidate in any way whatsoever. You will be alone out there, running across the fifty clouds in the arranged pattern. This is the one test, and there is no other that will determine your career choices once – and if – you return.”
Cesar had heard it so many times that the voice in his head was a good sentence or two ahead of Robina.
“Also – and I don’t say this to every candidate – take it slow and steady out there. A fast result is great, but slipping or, God forbid, dropping is not what you want. You’re a skilled runner Cesar. You’ve got this. Now… GO!”
Cesar took a deep breath, looked down at his sandals and then out across the skyline before taking his first step. One cloud down, and it was solid beneath his feet. Two down, no problem.
Three, four, five… the sky was bright and shining, and Cesar’s focus was absolute. The course just started to blur away beneath his jumping feet, five, ten, fifteen clouds passed before he even started to think about how he would handle the last tricky ten to fifteen. That’s when the weather change would happen, and he’d have to start thinking about routes and approaches well before then.
Suddenly, his left foot slipped out from under him. He went down, and reflexes kicked in, throwing his arms out to grab as much cloud surface as he could to avoid sinking in or through the cloud. He bumped to a stop, still on the cloud and past the ice patch he simply hadn’t seen in the middle of the cloud.
This was downright weird. Ice in the middle of a day cloud? That wasn’t possible, was it?
No time to think! Cesar got back to his feet and leapt for the next cloud, landing with a crunch in another ice patch. This time he was ready, taking it slower to move to the edge before running across to the next one, and then the next. The markers indicated he was now at cloud twenty, nearly half way.
Back in a rhythm of running and counting, jumping and landing as he approached the higher final clouds. Twenty and thirty and thirty five… and there they were. No more simple jumps, no way he was getting up there without his sky line.
That’s when Cesar realised that the jolt had knocked his sky line loose. It would be back there on cloud fifteen, shimmering in the sunlight… way too far back to go and get if he wanted any kind of decent time.
Cesar looked up at the cloud banks towering ahead of him, planning out a route. To the left first – that stack would require precise grip, but if he was careful there, he’d get through two or three clouds and then have an easier run of the next five. No room for error, though. He tensed his legs, crouched to jump, and leapt up towards the stack.
It was cold, of course, but less slippery than he’d anticipated, with his fingers gripping tightly into the bank with little effort. Scrambling up the bank was easy, up to forty five, and then he could actually see the finish line ahead!
Waiting at the finish line… was that Robina? Cesar’s heart lifted. He’d made it, just one or two cloud jumps more.
Cesar was dumbstruck. Robina knew the rules, because she’d explained them to him. She wasn’t allowed to call out to him… was she?
The calling out was distracting, and while the cloud jumps weren’t long, he knew he couldn’t risk landing on another ice patch.
“What is it? I thought I couldn’t talk to anyone…”
“You can’t. You’ve done… very well. A superb time. Better than my own, in fact.”
“Better than yours? Is that possible? I mean, I thought, the raincloud jumps and…”
“Oh yes, I did do that. That’s kept me employed all these years. Only seen one other person do as well as you did. That young lass… what was her name? Oh yes.
“But… she didn’t… come back…”
Cesar readied for the final jump, not sure what Robina really meant there. He landed not on, but in the cloud.
“What… what’s happening?”
“Oh dear. Oh dear dear dear. You seem to be stuck, my lad. But don’t worry. That cloud will disintegrate in the next minute or so, and you’ll fall.
Fall like they all do, if they come close to my time.”