I can feel it; the change has started. Suddenly the universe has slipped slightly out of focus. I go into the livingroom to get my backpack while it still exists - I have just enough time to add a sack lunch I was making. I'm relived to see that the change is coming along nicely; I started the Shift a bit too early so I was worried the new reality would jerk as it adjusted but everything is smooth as the worlds overlap and switch places. The carpet is a little more brown, and the cards that I left on the table after my game of solitaire are starting to curl at the edges. There's no glass in the windows anymore - and in a way there never was. The floor is dirty. Pine needles are showing through. The cards are looking pretty strange now, but it's such a gradual process, so cleanly done, that you wouldn't be able to say exactly when they become leaves, or when the table they were on got so grey and uneven. Only the walls are somewhat jarring; First the paint is different, then they bulge strangely - that much I can follow - but at some point they stop being walls and start being trees. Even that is nearly seamless as long as you don't watch the transition too closely. Something seems to click; reality is back in focus.
I sit down on the rock that part of me still thinks of as being my table, and I open my backpack. Everything is there - I knew it would be, but I had to check. After taking a swig of my water, I start through the woods towards the village. The forest is peaceful and I'm not in a hurry, so I take my time winding along the path. I'm tempted once again to turn and go the other way, explore the dense tangle of trees, but even though I think about it I continue walking on the trail until the forest comes to an end. As always, the view at the edge is amazing; the world drops off suddenly at a ninety-degree angle, leaving the path nowhere to go but down a sheer rock cliff. Beyond the edge, the sea of clouds stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by pillars of rock capped with green - forest-topped towers of stone like the one I arrived on. I head down the carved steps that angle down the cliff, staying close to the wall to guard against the strong winds that whip around me. The steps wrap partway around the column, and I hike for about fifteen minutes before I reach the village. It sits just above the cloud level, so that during high tide you can't tell where the land ends. The village sticks out on a huge ledge like a mushroom on the side of a tree, overlooking the endless ocean of vapor. They say going below the clouds is death, and while I'm sure it's just superstition, I can't help but wonder if there's some story behind it - if they've found a way to travel below. I want more than anything to see it - it must be dark down there, with the permanent cloud cover, but I'm sure I could find some night-vision goggles online. I've tried to Shift down there, but the planes won't align right anywhere but in the clearing on top of the pillar so it would be like stepping into an empty elevator shaft - I'd get to the bottom floor, but would be in no condition to enjoy it.
Everyone in the village is at the fire. I sneak quietly between huts until I can see them in a circle around the flames, singing and dancing. They've started earlier than normal; there's still some light in the sky. I don't want to disturb them, so I sit on the ground and eat my sack lunch. The dancing continues for half an hour, and finally everyone stops to get drinks and rest. Without hesitation I step forward and greet them - they slap me on the back and hand me a home-made cup filled with their special brew of alcohol, one drop of which is enough to peel the paint from every wall in my house. All eyes are on me as I pull presents out from my backpack - blue jeans (almost everyone in the village has a pair now), some blankets, and a new lighter to replace the one that got dropped over the edge. They cheer and thank me, offer once again to adopt me into their tribe, and I decline as always; I'm not ready for the arranged marriage that would come with the deal. We celebrate the fact that everyone is healthy, that I brought some Levi's, that they caught a pig - nothing in particular, and later one of the younger men comes to me. He's clearly drunk but very serious and keeps checking over his shoulder. I can't quite remember his name, but before I have a chance to embarrass myself by asking he holds a hand over his mouth to indicate silence. He checks to see if anyone is nearby, and finally asks if I am still interested in the world beneath the clouds. I tell him I am, and he whispers to me in their language, "The stars of the heavens shine below the clouds at night - I have seen them." I beg him to tell me more, but he will only glance nervously at the cave that leads to the village's water supply and mumble, "The stars, spread out in a spider's web..."
I will see it for myself. I will. The drunken villager has gotten me too excited, too agitated, to sleep. I begin the hike back to the clearing, and the quicker but almost infinitely stranger trip back to my livingroom.