In Flight: Cloud Palaces

And a puff of cloud beneath, and the world is gone. London, rigid in its rows of suburban houses, grey and brown like a tired corpse, vanishes with a sigh. I look down at the passing clouds and I imagine them opening again, to reveal: flocks of dragons drifting beneath, mammalian muscles rippling beneath scaled shoulders; a 2D sprite landscape, like the top-level of a Mario game; just a descending void, perhaps with the straggly rubble of treetops growing sideways from the clouds; endless dark mountain peaks, sharp like birds’ beaks; a quite-white lunar surface, dust still settling; a face, immensely huge and hungry, looking back at me; a sea of Jorgumundr-scale world snakes, slowly writhing, nomadic peoples living and dying on their slimy backs.

Cloud artefact
Another cloud artefact. This is not the sun. The sun is 90 degrees to the left.

Something that can’t be real swims in front of my dreaming eyes; a single, faint brown straight line, that spans the cloudscape far below (though below, side and above vanish the longer you look at the clouds, along with scale and meaning). Moving my head doesn’t shake the image, nor blinking; it’s not ocular or on the window, but it seems to be tracking us.

Perhaps it’s a contrail from an engine or wing, but it seems to be far below. There are no other lines quite like it elsewhere in view, but there are other straight lines elsewhere on this lead-white lunar surface, cutting into the fluff like stream into foamed milk. This line though, it’s impossible to tell how far away it is. It’s obviously super-imposed on the surface below, but whether it’s close or far is hard to tell. Leaning to peer through another window, I see that it shifts slightly but that’s just an effect of our movement; it is travelling with us. Yet distant clouds do seem to block it; either that or, as we’re progressing, it’s fading.

It must be an optical illusion, yet I’ve never seen anything like it. That moment of incomprehension, of struggling to understand, makes me think of cargo cults, minds blasted by the godmen from the air, of the parodic predatory bird-planes of early Nemesis: The Warlock, and of science fiction heroes contemplating impossibly alien tech. Future shock is a very real thing; as Lovecraft realised, there are scales and structures the human mind struggles to comprehend, that it eventually accepts but doesn’t understand. Think of your feelings on gravity, gravity that doesn’t make sense, that can be approached only by analogy to gravity itself (the ball in the rubber sheet view of spacetime). Your mind has abandoned the struggle early here, stopped asking because it doesn’t understand the question or the answer. I’m getting that with a single brown line.

The landscape of the flight doesn’t help though; shifting codes of interpretation that defy scale. Is that an iceberg or a snowcone? A shrub or a redwood? A boulder, a house or a hill? American flits between snow and desert and mountains and inhabitation so fast, without a sign of life beyond a dusty straight line road, that it’s hard to believe 300,000,000 live here.