He perched himself on the edge of a barnacle to eat a lunch, pulling out the little generator and squinting at it through the fog. He swore when he saw the depleted power but it didn’t make him feel any better. The thick, swirling cloud layer swallowed up sound like it swallowed up power. He sighed, turned it off again and pulled out the water nucleizer his sister had invented. At least this hadn’t run out of power.
The sides of the great whale began to expand slowly under him in a great inhale, and he had to grab onto the barnacle with some of his arms to stay on. The surface of the rocky animal had the sticky, sandy feeling of limestone and it clung to his clothes and hair like Velcro, keeping him in his seat and giving him hairline scratches that felt like sunburn. He scooted back as best he could until he was firmly seated at the root of the barnacle and he turned on the nucleizer. It began to noisily pull water from the air while he unhooked his notebook and his precious, outdated ink pen. He carefully entered his observations onto the damp pages doing his best not to rip holes with the nib of his pen. By his count, there were three days left until his rope would begin its programmed ascent back to the village. That should be enough time. The little cup on the nucleizer was finally filled, so he stowed the book and drank. When his break was regretfully over, he stowed the device in a pouch with one hand and used the other two to unlatch the catch on his harness. He would just have to eat later. Giving a pat to the expanding hide next to him, he stood, stretched, sighed, and then jumped off his little outcropping, rappelling down through the swirling, soggy clouds.
By the time the sun was setting and his hands were burnt from the rope, he was feeling again that this was a ridiculous venture to have set out on. He could have sent a probe or set up some complicated mirror rig or something.
“But no one would believe that. I have to see whatever’s there and bring back proof or they won’t believe me,” he said firmly, and uselessly, for there was no one there to listen to him. Far away above him there were a lot of people worried for his return but not understanding his journey. Well, he’d come back with some answers. He realized that he was singing loudly to drown out the creeping stillness and stopped, but that only made it worse.
He stopped on the next barnacle in the growing darkness, a scraggly, empty looking growth only about half as tall as he was. He had noticed that the barnacles looked less and less healthy the farther down he got, probably because they didn’t get enough sun through the clogging clouds. This particular barnacle crumbled as he stepped on the edge so he sat at the base, turned on a globe lamp that hovered around his head like a sun, and wrote in his book. Eventually he pulled out his little transceiver and the food generator again. There was a catch in the movement of the hide underneath him as the whale finished inhaling, and then a very slight downward movement as the great lungs expelled gallons of used air in an interminable exhale. He thought of lying on his back under the sun, looking up at the inky sky as Ikara, his whale, world, village, and protector, swam inexorably through the depths of space. The little orbiting sun was always close enough to impart heat and light in the day, but dim enough to allow the stars to shine onto the village eternally. The atmosphere generator, tapped into Ikara’s nervous system and feeding off Ikara’s energy, created breezes that made the trees rustle and the fish dart. Ikara was the village’s provider and protector and would always be there for them.
As he sat in the gathering darkness, on a barnacle that was gently cracking, he was imagining how he had sat out one night and watched another whale moving slowly past above him and outlined by stars. He had looked on peacefully, until he realized there was something bothering him. Although the sun was at the bottom of it’s orbit around this other whale, it didn’t illuminate anything; just a cloud of light in the clouds. He couldn’t see what was on the bottom of the whale. And with a spasm of his entire intestinal system, he realized that he didn’t know what was on the bottom of his whale either. It was the feeling of hearing scritchscrscratch from the darkness under your bed when you know there’s nothing there. But then he had realized that the feeling wasn’t one of fear, not entirely anyway, but excitement. So he had started packing.
He turned the dial on the transceiver. Maybe this evening he could hear a little of the broadcast from Griis, another whale they were passing close to for the next two or three days. He cranked the handle and the radio crackled into the stillness.
“Forever, the gr--t--- id-- ---er c--e ------- ----- --h---.” This was not helpful, so he retuned it to a station from his village on Ikara. “Lobrg fdhja shseti weather sdjfhhgi! And the enels! djkf heard njkafhgjsk selahomet--”
A sudden shrieking wail wound through the thick air. He didn’t even have a breath left to swear. As soon as he could unfreeze he stood up and looked desperately into the darkening fog around him. He flicked off the transceiver, but his heart beat too loudly in his ears to hear anything. It felt as though its eyes were boring into his back and he whipped around, but there was nothing there. The barnacle began to break away further under his feet, but he still felt it behind him. He turned, nauseous and sweating with fear, but there was still a perceptible absence. He heard a pittapatatipitatip like the footstep of a drunken spider fade off to his left, on the side of him that led deeper into the clouds.
A thin, spidery shape swam out of the darkness in front of him and he tensed again, breathing in and out heavily and squinting at it. It was a fish skeleton. He hadn’t seen any fish this deep in the clouds, unfortunately for his meals, so he supposed that this was where all the village’s fish skeletons went after they finished the meat. They had always just thrown them over the tail end, trusting that they wouldn’t return. Come to think of it, these fogs should be full of bits of waste. What couldn’t be reused or recycled or remade was simply pitched over the edge. He wondered what he had been breathing for so long.
To take his mind off that thought, he set out to make dinner. He realized he was hungry, maybe, although fear had made his stomach pickle. He wondered why he wasn’t feeling more paranoid, but of course there was always Ikara to watch over him. The generator had been drained of more power, but he turned it on anyway and made a Delicioso Nutritia©, a specialty of the doctor in his village. It was a lovely color; flecked with blue, flavored like rotten raspberries, and containing all the nutrients that could be needed and a couple extra just to entice mothers. He ate it while patting his head and rubbing his stomach to take his mind off the taste then downed it with water. He recorded all his observations in his journal, making sure to make a special mention of the wail.
Pitatpiaitiaitpitipapaiti came again from off to his left, then another howl that shocked him into action. He jumped and yelled, rending his notebook with a big black scribble and tumbling off the barnacle with accessories bouncing down around him. His belt lock locked as it was supposed to, stopping his fall and nearly cutting him in half. His generator, just by luck, hit him in the face and he caught it by the handle. His notebook was less lucky, falling past his out flung arm with a sad flapping noise and being devoured whole by the emptiness below him. He hung for a moment, breathing, then righted himself and swung to the side of the whale, stowing the generator and the pen. Whatever had shrieked had long since gone, but the fear clung to him in a blanket. He wished with all his might he were back up above, dancing with his sister or setting snares for color fish. No, he couldn’t think like that. Besides, Ikara would protect him as Ikara always did. He resettled himself on the barnacle and waited for sleep.
It was afternoon again, lunchtime again, and he felt his head fuzz in the absolute stillness. The fog pressed around him in oily swirls that he could move with his hands into wild shapes. A breath sent curls of fog flowing away, and they snuck in again around his ankles as if to trip him up. He rappelled down the side of Ikara, the rope vanishing away above his head and into the darkness below him. But was it afternoon? It was hard to tell when the sun was so hard to pinpoint. Ikara was exhaling again, but that happened sometimes twice a day. He saw dark spots in the fog, probably more trash. He was singing loudly. The words echoed back eerily from the walls of clouds. It unnerved him, so he sang louder to block it out. Some of his hands were occupied with the rope, but the last held his shirt tied to a thin stick he had found, likely an old fish net pole. He caught trash from the history of his people. It was mostly boring things; ancient, congealed fish skeletons, old nets, locks of hair, but some were interesting, like the jewel-bright bottle and the ball, still inflated. He stuck some into his belt to show those above.
It was odd, he thought. It was hard to recall the faces of his sister. Merhi. Merhi, who had given him some lovely things to help him on this journey, although she and everyone else didn’t understand why he was doing it. Where were the things? He looked at his belt. There was the water nucleizer, but where was the generator? His shirt snagged something, and he looked up with a jerk. He stopped the rope, burning his hands, and pulled it down to eye level. It was a book that looked familiar to him. Ah! It was his notebook! He hadn’t written in it for a while. He opened it. An oozy substance leaked out, covering his hands. The ink! It was running! He was losing his words! He shut the book to keep any more from escaping and heard a spine-zipping call.
He clutched tight at the things he was holding; book, belt, rope. It sounded again, closer. It sounded like that call he had heard last time he had sat on a barnacle for dinner. With a realization that was almost as electrifying as the call, he remembered that he hadn’t eaten since then. Or drunk. Or had he? But Ikara would always protect him, so he shouldn’t be afraid. Ikara was always there. He relaxed, and began letting the rope out again.
It was really dark now, this deep in the clouds. The fog almost looked like water. He could feel the miasma going in and out of his lungs, coating them repeatedly. But that was okay because he was still alive, and happy to be so. The wail had served to prove his point, because that meant that there was something on The Underside. But he kept going anyway, because it was what he was doing. He looked down and wondered how he was still on Ikara’s side if a whale was vaguely spherical. Assume spherical whale.
“Like math,” he giggled vaguely.
He heard the call again. It didn’t faze him too much, because nothing could happen to him with Ikara there. But then there came another call, lower, more insistent, from another direction. He started humming a soothing lullaby. A third sounded from his left.
Paititpitatapait. He slowed. Another. And another. He stopped, his hands fastening rigidly around the rope, suddenly sweaty all over his skin, in his hair, even under his nails. The calls pierced his bones. The calls came in one after another like the fluting of the fish at dawn. But these were the calls of the monsters in the dark.
PatpiatPATitpITApatia. The ocean-like air around him began to show shapes, long thin spidery shapes that scuttled back and forth on the edge of his vision. Long limbs with too many joints, flat shield-like heads. Holes in their faces with rattling jaws and those insistent calls. Their feet made soft tapping noises in the dark.
PititpatipiiTAPPIpitIPPApat. The feeling of nightmares swamped him as breaths tore in and out of his chest. He could not have said which way was up with his head reeling like this. The shapes shuddered closer and closer to him, reaching their legs out. He began gibbering as he felt cold fingers slide over his own.
He was shocked awake again when he hit a barnacle. The rope had stopped, as it was preprogrammed to in its ascent back to the village. The vestiges of the creatures still moved through the clouds, and he cried out, struggling in his harness that seemed to cage him. But there were no shapes, and the air was lighter here, it smelled better, and he could see the outline of the sun above him, and he made himself calm. How long had he been out? His belt was very light. He saw that the only things still on it were his notebook, no longer pouring ink, and his ancient pen without the cap. There was also no ink on his fingers, although they had been liberally coated when the book had leaked. He took out his pen again. He saw written on the page; IKARA. When had he written that? He tore out the page, and then watched as it fluttered down into the abyss. Then he put some more observations in the notebook with a hand shaking too much to hold his pen.
Ikara could feel the little one back in the village with all the incurious minds of the villages perplexing themselves over him, reading his notebook, and felt the little one’s mind, clouded beyond repair, grasping feebly at reality. It felt like the ones on the bottom when they had first gotten there. It was the clouds that did it. The noxious clouds, full of wastes from the living things. There could be no letting any of it out in space, or the carefully generated atmosphere would be ripped away, and there wasn’t enough power in one whale to create an atmosphere as well as clean it. So the clouds were noxious until they reached a planet they could refuel on. But although the lost children of the village could survive in the clouds, Ikara didn’t like the way their minds felt. They had fallen through the clouds by accident and once by malice, struggling to return until the clinging, seeping, creeping fog invaded them. They left holes in the hearts of those they left, but there was no way for Ikara to return them. Luckily the little one had brought a rope. Ikara had just had to save the other ones. Kept them alive in the clouds until they could be found again. Because Ikara always protected Ikara’s people. Always.