Taking Umbrage

Most of Alvar's friends would probably tell him he was too old to be riding a flying carpet. He could hear Damaris now. "Why not get a chair?" she'd say. "It'd be better for your back, and they have a better centre of gravity, in case you get dizzy or something, so you don't flip over." What it boiled down to was that a chair was safer.

But it also made him a passenger, and he could never stand being a passenger, especially when there wasn't even a human piloting. No, he knew that Damaris loved him dearly, but she'd never really understood him. Wasn't it enough that he'd long since stopped routinely subjecting himself to high G-stress and above-par cosmic radiation? Did he have to become a coddled invalid too?

Besides, carpets were actually safer in many ways. If you needed to maneuver suddenly, chairs handled like stoned water buffaloes. Whereas carpets flew like the most delicate of craft he'd ever piloted.

That might come in handy if those dots just coming through that cloudbank were what he thought. He pushed a stud on the steering column and a visor flipped up. It only took a second's glance to confirm his suspicions. Someone thought that living in the clouds wasn't going to provide them enough privacy, and they had border guards as well.

These people really pissed him off. Claiming a patch of land for one's own wasn't that bad--he'd done that himself, and not only did he appreciate the openness after so long living in cramped quarters, both earthside and spaceside, but he was getting a lot of enjoyment out of his garden--but claiming to own a volume of airspace and keeping everyone else out of it was the height of absurdity for Alvar.

The bogeys were getting closer. Just dumb missiles, according to the scan. With a sigh, Alvar pushed another stud on the steering column, and then quickly a few more. A quick survey to make sure the UV lasers had done their job, and Alvar flew on.

It wasn't just claiming the airspace that nettled him, though. The possibility that air and ground could possibly conflict hadn't occurred to them. He was beginning to wonder if some kind of zoning law might not be a bad idea. Generally he hated laws, but he knew that there will still a lot of people who needed a bit of prodding to keep them from selling out their fellow prisoners.

He was getting closer to the cloudbank, and the radar silhouette was just as he had expected. Someone's damned floating castle. He had no idea whose, and his enquiries through normal channels had been rebuffed--definitely a privacy-lover. So he had to take a more direct approach.

Unfortunately, he had no idea yet whether he was dealing with just a bad-tempered recluse, or a paranoid too. Still, even if there were more defenses, the cloudbank should shield him sufficiently until he could get inside.

It took him several circuits of the castle before he gave up on finding an entrance, and he saw no sign of further defenses. A recluse, then. Alvar supposed this thing could be a self-contained system, but then why not set up underground or something? Sunlight, perhaps? With that thought, he sent his carpet up in an arc over the top, and found a skylight. A quick burst of sonics, and he had an entrance.

The opening was still small, but that was another good thing about carpets--they were flexible. Curling up the sides, he maneuvered in through the windowframe. The sound of tinkling glass hitting the floor, far down below, was accompanied by swearing.

"What is the meaning of this?" the voice roared more intelligibly as he descended.

"Good afternoon, sir," Alvar said. "We haven't met, but I'm your downstairs neighbour."

"I don't have any goddamn neighbours! That's why I'm up here!" Alvar could see now that the speaker--or, more accurately, shouter--was a rotund long-haired man, who seemed, for the moment at least, to be unarmed. He wondered if the fellow had such confidence in his defenses that he hadn't even been notified of their failure.

"With all due respect, sir, that's where you're wrong. If this were the clouds of Jupiter, perhaps you'd be correct. But this planet's airspace has only been populated for a few decades; its surface has been for millennia. And your castle seems to be depriving my garden of its fair share of sunlight."

The recluse laughed coarsely. "Oh, you're a dirt-grubber, are you? Don't you think you're a bit out of your element?"

Alvar was now hovering at eye level, and decided the time had come to lose his temper. "Now listen, you pompous shit-brained waster non- contrib you! I've clocked more time in the air, and above, than you've spent eating, and from the looks of it that's a lot. If you spent some time grubbing in the dirt, maybe it'd do you some good, and it'd certainly improve that pasty complexion of yours."

"Nobody talks to Powys Tarant that way!" the man blustered.

"I will if I damn well want to. You're a throwback, Mr. Tarant, to the days when self-centeredness was considered a virtue. You can have yourself as close to your center as you want, but I'd rather you did it at the bottom of the Mariana Trench."

The recluse recovered some of his composure. "Now listen here. It's unfortunate that your vegetables are having light troubles, but frankly I couldn't care less, and it's not my responsibility to do anything about it. You're a fine one to talk about wasting, with your own plot of surface land while millions do have to live on the seafloor!"

"Ah, yes, Mr. Tarant. I recall your name now. You've done quite a bit of work on seafloor housing, haven't you? Very fine habitations, I've heard. I'm sure that those dome breaches were merely coincidental. No, wait, you managed to find scapegoats for them, didn't you? So are you moving into atmospheric habitations next?"

"You're kidding, right?" Tarant sneered. "I'm not letting any goddamn grubs up here if I can help it."

"Ah, so now I understand why floating buildings are considered so unsafe that only the very richest are able to use them. Thank you for clearing that up; I had wondered." Alvar smiled. "I'm almost done here anyway."

"Good," Tarant said. "You can go back down and buy some sunlamps for your precious plants."

"No, that won't be necessary. You'll be moving along soon enough."

"Not a chance, grub." But Tarant's sneer had slipped somewhat.

"Can you feel that? There seemed to be some problem with your castle's guidance program. It was set to keep you stationary, against all the caprices of the currents of the lower atmosphere. But I've fixed that now. I believe the prevailing winds around here are westerly, and you'll probably have a few weeks before you drift over the ocean. Unfortunately, fixing the problem seemed to have necessitated erasing all your communications software."

"You can't--"

"Of course I can, Mr. Tarant. And I have. I'm sure you're set up very self-sufficiently here, and from your logs it looks like if you go incommunicado it probably won't be noticed for quite a while. It's been a while since you've been much of a contrib, Mr. Tarant. I bid you good day."

The carpet rose out of range of Tarant's belated clutching, and back through the skylight. It'd probably let in a little bit of rain, Alvar mused. That'd do him some good, too.

Hopefully the weeks until Tarant was recovered would give him a chance to get things moving towards rectifying the whole affair. Rhea still owed him a favour for that rescue he'd done a couple of decades ago, and with any luck he could put Tarant's company in the hands of the people who were actually running it right now. And keep the airspace over his garden clear.

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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com