Currents of air batted the small craft back and forth... the sky had turned dark chartreuse, clouds flew quickly against the fading twilight. Why did I think I could win this thing? Me, a librarian! Get to the Prime Meridian before... him! thought a fiery young Piet Gold. It was her first day on the trail, and already the skies were turning from her first love to her most virulent enemy.
She was tracking a Nimbian who was tiny and quick, and cleverer than a sea wolf. His name was Mineuxian Tallborn, and he had bragged in the pub about being able to jump thunder. What could that mean, jumping thunder? Piet asked herself, weaving her Lunar Hummer in and out of clouds. Why did I take his stupid bet?
Weaving the Lunar Hammer between the plasmic clouds.
“Because you knew it would please me,” came an Orwellian voice from behind Piet.
By the time she could fire off a standard “Who’s there?!” the voice was gone, floating behind her now, echoing in her subconscious. Am I going insane?!
“Don’t be ludicrous, dear,” said the voice, “You know I’m telepathic.”
“I know nothing!” Piet shouted at the empty sky. A moment later, she realized what she’d implied and added sheepishly, “About you. I know nothing about you.”
“I’m the invisible ghost who haunts your Lunar Hummer, remember?” the disembodied voice said. “Also, in life, I was your mentor.”
“That in itself is wrong! I had no mentor!” she screamed out into the darkness, the sharp wind blinding her.
“Have you forgotten... Cairo?”
She held fast, gritting her teeth in remembrance. “Yes... Cairo... it’s- Aicron?! Aicron, is that you?!”
“It is.” the voice flatly grated, tuning in an out of her mind, like a cheaply-produced radio.
A blot of lightning blazed through the sky mere meters from the Lunar Hummer; the ozone smelled oddly sweet.
“I’m going to have to cut this conversation short,” Piet grinned as she reached for the control panel. “I’ve got a Nimbian to catch!”
“Yes! You must avenge me... avenge me!”
The chase went on for days. Each dawn, the sun rose to kiss Piet’s face, her domain in the clouds turning rosy pink. During the night the moon would shimmer wetly, just out of reach. Piet never slept, not one second, throughout the chase. Though she never caught a glimpse of the Nimbian, she flew on.
Exhaustion began to take its toll. Her loops became looser, her rolls less accurate. Once or twice she fell into a hypnagognic state and would fly for several hours without any conscious thought. Hours later, she would be shocked back into consciousness by the realization that she was lost— lost among the clouds.
Finally, one pink dawn, the voice returned. “You’ve lost,” it said.
“But... I have two weeks to find this idiot!” she yawned.
“You’ve lost count? Today is day 15.”
Piet spat over the side of the ship. She was no stranger to humiliation, but she was furious nevertheless.
“We’re going to find him, anyway,” she said.
“Hey, loser! How’s it going?” came a third voice. Piet whirled around to face it. The Nimbian was there, a ball of static electricity holding the green insectoid on top of a cumulo stratus. Thunder jumping, Piet thought.
The typical Nimbian, giving the ceremonial welcoming gesture.
“You know what?” the Nimbian continued, his wings flickering to maintain his balance, “I was under your ship the whole time. I’m serious. You never thought to look there?” He laughed. Piet Gold remained silent, her face a stony wall of disappointment.
The Nimbian paused, his face betraying his emotions. He was quite concerned with Piet’s adamant visage; he thought it was pretty funny that he had hidden right behind her the entire two weeks. He hesitated before reminding her, “You owe me two million d’jennies...”
The Lunar Hummer hung in midair. Tension mounted as the two stared each other down.
“Computer... Open Fire.”
“It’s been days since you shot the Nimbian out of the sky... do you have to keep looking?” the voice said derisively, a hint of lip biting in the vernacular.
“That’s not something you would have told me a year ago, when you were alive, Aicron.”
“Yeah, but now I’m, like, a ghost. A show-host ghost. Have you,” the show-host ghost reflected, “ever seen the sun rise... from the inside? I think you leap before you look.”
“I think I shouldn’t have to put up with this-”
Before Piet could wrest control of her mind from the babbling specter, a flashing light outside the module’s window appeared out of nowhere; with spiral concussion, it triggered a shift in altitude that shook the tables on the Lunar carpeting. One, two, and then three crystal glasses fell from the dining table, shattering into billions of prismatic slivers.
“He’s back again, isn’t he?!” she growled at nobody in particular. Even the normally festive ghost was silent; this was odd, as in life he never passed up an opportunity to mock others for their misfortune. Perhaps this schadenfreude was why he now haunted a skyship?
“Curse your segmented eyes, Tallborn! I’m gonna have French-fried Nimbian tonight-”
“You are in maybe restricted airspace,” a blaring warning banally blared from below her berth. It was a trio of helicopters, each bearing the insignia of the U.S. Department of Airspace Restrictions and Poor Grammar. “Identify yourself and bring down land immediately, or you will be in violation of Treaty #9, section asterisk.”
“You are in maybe restricted airspace!”
“But I don’t have the means to respond! Or to land! And your grammar is downright stupid,” she shouted at the top of her fluid-filled lungs out the open window of the Lunar Hummer.
“We urge you for respond. This is to have been your final warning.” The lead chopper began circling the small craft slowly at first, but quickened in pace. The other two readied their grappling hooks.
Piet glanced about the cabin for something she could use to fight them off. She was a tiny weakling of a librarian, and the Raven-Copters around her were piloted by what appeared to be ex-sumo wrestlers. She grabbed an ionospear from the closet, but the power harpoon had only enough charge for a single shot.
“Why not use the ship’s guns?” whispered the ghost.
“Minuxian’s antennae are jamming the ports, remember?” The stupid Nimbian! If only he hadn’t fought back... if only he hadn’t made her so wroth to begin with. Him and his stupid static boots...
His static boots! That was the answer! She seized them from the shoe rack in the corner and began to strap them on. The first boarder clambered onto the Lunar Hummer while she was still tying the laces, and she stared at him, horrified. The massive man screamed, leaving Piet very confused. A second later, she saw the Ionospear hovering past her. It fired its single shot, blasting the captain out through the cabin door and into the sky.
“Aicron, I didn’t know you cared!” Piet said, strapping the boots to her feet.
“Yeah, well,” the ghost said, blushing invisibly.
“You’re still an idiot! Now they’ll shoot me on sight!”
She rolled towards the door, just as another boarder entered, waving his gun menacingly into the cabin. He was not expecting an attack from directly below him, however, and Piet kicked him in the stomach. The boots went off, inducing a positive charge in the attacker and shocking him enough to force him backwards— again, into the open sky.
As he fell, he rearranged the electrons in the clouds. A moment later, the puffy white clouds were turning black. Down on the planet’s surface, Farmer Brown said to his lovely young trophy wife, “Storm’s a-brewin’. Eeeeeyup.”
Farmer Brown was one of the smartest pig farmers in his small community of pig farmers, but not even he could anticipate the kind of radioactive backwash going on up in the stratosphere. Each cloud began to reabsorb the residual effects of the Ionospear before passing the ions on to their neighboring nimbi. This had only happened once before in the history of labeled pants, back in the second world war... but Roosevelt couldn’t save the world this time.
“Aicron, can you give me more lift?” Piet piped into the piloting pipe, which made her privy to the pilot’s position. “Aicron?”
“I am here, my meal ticket!” the ghost gracefully groused, a ghastly grin in his grim voice.
“The clouds are creating colors, canceling constellations, and causing confusion!” she yelled.
“What’s with the alliteration all of a sudden? Do you have any idea how annoying that can be?” Aicron acrimoniously accused.
“Focus, Aicron! We’ve still got three choppers on our tail! Evasive maneuvers!”
“I thought there was only one left... you know, because you sort of kicked one of those guys out into the sky... and I harpooned the other one...”
“What, you think they’d just jump aboard and let their multi-million dollar helicopters crash?” she sarcastically chortled, lifting one reddish-brown eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how much a helicopter is worth? There’s always someone on board to pilot it, and fire missiles.”
“Well, pardon my compassion. At least one of us was thinking of the big picture. You know, if it were up to you, we’d all be living under a big rock out in the middle of Florida. You know that, don’t you?”
“Why do you always do this,” she sighed, “you know you’ve lost an argument, but instead of accepting it, you say things that are distracting and pointless.”
“Ah, the student has surpassed the teacher.”
Fortunately (for Aicron’s pride), an explosive shockwave ripped through the sun-streaked sky, flipping the Lunar Hummer end-over-end. Only by quickly jamming her right foot into Tallborn’s static boot, which had sealed itself to the side of the ship after his demise, was Piet able to keep from falling out into the roiling clouds. The choppers weren’t so lucky, and their blades bent upward, sending the extremely expensive machines down, down to Farmer Brown. The next day, Mr. Brown would discover his pigs mercilessly crushed under the weight of three government helicopters; it would only feed his paranoia and fear/hatred of big government.
“Hey! Hey, can anyone hear me?!” said the downed pilot to anyone who could hear him; there had to be other survivors, there had to!
“Gunther? That you?” a scratchy southern drawl wavered from the burning troughs. “I... think my legs broken.”
“Hold on, Chen! I think I see you.” Gunther stumbled, using his hands to “see” in the odorous den. Chen was still alive... it may have been too late for the others (they were seriously overweight), but if he could drag Chen to safety, it could earn Gunther that promotion to Helicopter Obstetrician.
“Chen, are you-”
Light poured in as a heavy foot kicked in part of the wall, filling the air with sawdust and drywall. The filaments stuck to a dark pool of red goo that seemed to seethe over the hay and dirt.
“Ma pigs! Ma precious pigs!” wailed Farmer Brown, lowering trembling fingers down at pieces of bones and snout, all that remained of his prize-winning potbellied pigs. Fighting off tears, the old man could feel his own pulse throbbing twixt his eyeballs as his grain pail spilled its contents besides his faded trousers; yet he maintained a death-grip on his 19th century railroad lantern.
“A civilian! Were saved!” Gunther beamed, holding a semi-conscious Chen up to the lantern light.
Ah, the civilian. So graceful, so happy; so full of ham.
“You...” Farmer Brown waved a hairy, crop-infused finger at the dazed survivors. “You... government agents... big brother... always watching...” he swung his head back, looking over his shoulder and through the dark woods behind the farm.
“You two...” he bent in his fingers. “You two done crushed all ma little piggies.”
He picked up the half-empty grain pail and dumped it all out. Reaching into his left sleeve, he pulled out a stalk of corn, and threw it in the bucket. He repeated this several times, until the pail was brimming with... corn.
“You gonna turn ma pigs into paste?! You gonna be piggies!” he threw the bucket directly at Gunthers head; Chen fell to the ground as the prodigal pilot keeled over.
“Why dont you eat yer corn, piggies?!” Farmer Brown laughed, snapping the straps off his overalls. They dropped, revealing a dark blue wetsuit. “Now we gonna go to market.”
“What did he promise you?”
“What?” Piet said, distracted. She turned to face the ghost’s request, years of Dewey Decimal training kicking into overdrive.
“What did he promise you if you won the race to the Prime Meridian?”
“Oh. The bet was for two million d’jennies.”
“That’s... hey! You know what?!” Aicron’s spectral nostrils flared with invisible sawdust. “With that kind of money, you could buy me a robot body to live in!”
“I could, but I won’t. Not after... last time,” she said as she stroked the long scar on her right cheek. “Besides, I need that money for an operation...”
“Heavens above, below, and maybe in a parallel universe! I had no idea you were sick!” the empathetic poltergeist cried, ingratiating himself on her in the hopes of usurping the prize money for his own robotic needs.
“It’s not an operation for me, it’s for my precious little child.”
Aicron knew Piet long enough to know that she had no children. “Yeah,” he said sneakily, “I was just on the phone with your kid. He said to give me all your prize money, you know, for that new robot body...”
“She is to be my sister’s baby,” Piet frowned, “my sister, who lives in the strictest of poverty. I alone must save her!”
“What of the child’s father?”
“Her father died on the moon, fighting demons,” Piet moaned. If only things had worked out differently, Piet’s sister could have successfully poisoned him as planned, and had enough insurance money to stay at an actual hospital, instead of Farmer Brown’s pig birthing center.
“And now, my only niece is going to depend on me to keep her, you know, financially soluble. But the poor, wretched child,” Piet wailed, “has been pre-diagnosed with that most terrible of afflictions, the No Organs!”
“Not the No Organs!”
O horrors! The innocent child, a victim of the No Organs?! Why?!
“The no organs?” came a third voice from the Lunar tether cable. Mineuxian Tallborn, sporting a brand-new pair of static boots, walked in through the shuttle doors, upside down and backwards. “I had no idea that’s what you were going to use the money for!”
“What would you prefer she used it for?” Aicron sneered, “Sign-in security software? She isn’t a business!”
“I was planning to use the money to end world hunger... by imploding the universe. But you and your selfless nature have changed my narrow-minded, insect-eye view of the world!” He handed her a brochure. “This contains a map leading to my secret supply of Nimbian gold and centrifugal birthing devices. Bring your sister there, and raise the child in happiness!”
“I’ll... never forget you, Mineuxian Tallborn!” Piet whispered, running over to hug the slimy critter.
“Still dead over here,” Aicron waved, rolling his semi-transparent eyes. “Speaking of which, how did you survive our last encounter? I saw you-”
“You saw nothing!” Mineuxian clicked. “It was all just another game to me. But now that I’m no longer questing quixotically for quid, I can quit this quorum and become a quiz-show host!”
“Quiz-show host?” Aicron raised a ghostly eyebrow. “I just happen to be a show-host ghost! Would you happen to need a co-anchor on your splendid little project?”
“That depends. Can you carry a tune?”
“You graciously graze my gruesome gaze with such a guttural query?”
“I ask politely, poltergeist, the politics I may peruse to pry you from your pointed place, and play party to my show?”
“Such talk! Tall tales, and telephonic tricks. Tried two times to tip this ship,” Aicron’s ghostly visage quipped.
“Ah, good sir, a tune you carry! Lightly not this path you tread; for underneath its mighty carriage, lies the fallen and the dead.”
“Are... you still talking about... starting some kind of game show together?” Piet asked, wresting the two from their game of alliterative cat and mouse.
“Yes. And so, we must be off! Time to fly,” the Nimbian cried. “Remember fondly, me, young human.”
“Remember doubly,” Aicron added, accelerating perpendicular to the horizon. Piet stood there, in shocked silence, watching the ghost and Nimbian spiral each other on their way to stardom. Then she looked at the brochure in her hand.
“Don’t worry, sis. Everything’s gonna be okay... I can feel it.”
“Piet Gold, as next-in-kin to Phules Gold, it is my terrible duty to inform you... that your sister died in centrifugal childbirth.”
“That’s terrible! Her baby... did it survive?”
“Sure,” said the priest, pulling the infant out of his trench coat. “She’s all yours. She was left to you, in your sister’s will.”
He shoved the baby into Piet’s arms and turned to leave. Doubt shot through her mind like bird pellets. Piet knew that she was a failure at life. She had a level of incompetence so profuse and integral to her character that it could only be genetic. And the gods of the sky had graced her with a child?
“Wait!” she called to the priest, “Father Berrick! What’s her name?”
In lieu of an answer, he handed her some rolled-up papers.
“Don’t worry, little one,” Piet said to the baby, which was crying for its mother, “I’m going to make sure you never make the same mistakes I did. I’m going to raise you to be an actress. An empress! Anything but a Librarian!”
The baby was so pink and vulnerable in her arms. Its adorability doubled when it ceased wailing and cooed a little. A bouncing baby girl, Piet thought. She unfurled the birth records Father Berrick had handed her.
“It’s okay, little Catry. I’m going to raise you right.”