Story Excerpt

Stormdiver

by Nick Wolven

 

In the old days Ju had thought it was cute, the way Priya got about big storms.

This was when they lived in Denver, just outside Tornado Alley, where the only weather you had to fear was a white-out blizzard and a dump of snow. But in summers the family traveled east to Myrtle Beach, or what remained of it: old condo towers on a crumbled shore. And it was something, sitting in those glassy rooms, high above the blue sweep of ocean, watching the Atlantic hurl its weather up the coast.

First the gray clouds would thicken, deepening to slate. Then came a slam of windy pressure, a thick clatter of bursting drops. And soon the world would be tossing and roaring, rain machine-gunning, waves flashing, and they’d crouch under blankets and play shipwrecked sailors, watching the riot of water on glass.

Hurricane zone. They were on the edge of it, there, in South Carolina, receiving the tail ends of downgraded storms. Ju explained to Priya how a storm was like a living thing, born of the union of warm water, cool wind, fed by pressure differentials, whipped and steered by the planet’s rotation. A storm had a life cycle, ending in landfall, a slow decline over solid ground. It was technical, mathematical. Like a science experiment.

Priya listened with wondering eyes. Storms were beyond science, for her. They were mysterious, mythical—great godly beings that came howling from the sky. In childhood, she would put her hands to the windows, yearning for something at the heart of those giant cycles of pressure and vapor, a message carried by a spirit who spoke in the whooping voice of wind, whose couriers were waves and rain, who came ashore as a harbinger of ruin, but also, one imagined, as an emblem of awe.

*   *   *

Ju’s shuttle docked with a thunk of pressure-clamps, the flight drones clicking and twittering as they leapt into their disembarkation routine. He grabbed his bag and felt for the guide-bars, remembering the long-ago skies of childhood, his sister’s girlish rush to bright windows, funnels of vapor over distant Terran seas.

Davies was waiting outside the hatch. Though waiting, Ju thought, wasn’t quite the right word. The project leader lurked, blocking the exit, so close that Ju nearly ran into him.

“Kid.” Davies put a hand on Ju’s shoulder, reaching with the other to grab his duffel. For reasons Ju could never remember, Davies had always called him “Kid,” ever since their training days in the NOAA Offworld Observatory. He was a squat, sturdy, dark-skinned man, with the curiously flattened appearance of a gingerbread cookie.

“Whatever you do,” Davies said, “don’t go out there. Not yet.” He pulled Ju to one side. “We gotta talk. Hustle-hustle.”

With Davies, that weird phrase, hustle-hustle, could mean anything from a private tête-a-tête to a bookkeeping scam. Ju peered down the curving corridor to the check-in gate. A group of touristy-looking people from a private transport were fumbling black gearbags, getting used to the local gravity.

“Can’t this wait?” Ju said. “I just locked orbit. I’ve been in transfer for seventeen days.”

“Ha! Tell me about it.” Davies pulled him to the wall, out of sight of the check-in crowds. “I’ve been counting the seconds. Hell, I’ve been waiting for you here half the morning. You wanna see what I’ve done to my nails?”

Davies held them up, showing the bitten tips. Ju knew that in Jovian time, a full day was about ten hours. Which made the daylight portion five, which made half a morning an hour-and-a-quarter. Not terribly long. But Davies was that kind of project manager. Always in a snit.

“You couldn’t have beamed a message to the shuttle?”

“Beam—? No, I couldn’t beam a message! Kid, we’ve got a crisis on our hands.”

“Crisis?” Ju leaned out from the wall. The new arrivals were bickering with security, making a fuss over their equipment. Davies yanked him out of sight.

“It’s your sister, Kid.” Davies held him till the last visitor had passed through check-in. He dragged Ju down the corridor, waving a badge, rushing him through security. “She got here early. And she brought her whole damn crew.”

*   *   *

Dido Station was one of three general-purpose structures that swung around Jupiter in a low orbit, a hard metal ball in a cloud of field potentials. The science decks were located in the upper hemisphere, concentrated in the middle-outer band where gravity was roughly half Earth-normal. Ju bobbed behind Davies past offices of cloud surveyors, particle physicists, Hsiao-Ghaori Field assayers. In the cluster of offices outside the drop bay, Davies dragged him into the management suite and slapped on the privacy lockdown.

“Kid, I thought you said you talked to her.”

The project office was an example of the interior style Ju privately thought of as Elite Science Moderne: a cluttered sprawl of computers punctuated with spots of whimsical color—a deflated balloon Jupiter, a nickel-plated model of a G-H dropship, a still of the starchild from 2001, with Davies’ face in place of the bulbous head. Ju shoved aside a stack of reprintable paper and settled on a ledge next to a decorative moldfarm; Davies rested his squat bulk on a desk.

“To Priya?” Ju frowned. “We talked when she told me about this assignment. But that was a year ago.” He rubbed his eyes, tired after the long cruise. “Priya’s been deep-diving Saturn for a decade; I’m just an inner-world satellite man. We don’t catch each other on the beam too often.”

“She didn’t tell you what she was planning?”

Ju shrugged. “She told me about the dive. Gave me the specs, handed over your info. Of course, she made a big production of it. You know Priya.”

Davies made a puffing sound—the kind of sound, Ju imagined, old cartoonists had in mind when they had their characters say things like Pooh! or Fah! “Your sister’s a prima donna, Kid. I’m not gonna sugarcoat that. A goddamned camerahound. She did that first dive at twenty-five; ever since, the media folks have been scrambling to make her the second biggest star in the Solar System. Now she thinks her whole life deserves to be a documentary. Which, I’m not trying to cut her down, mind. There’s no one else who can do what she does. But when I called her for this—”

“When you called her,” Ju said, “you told her, I assume, what you told me.”

“‘No media,’ I said. ‘Keep this hush-hush.’ You know how many egos I had to stroke to get permission for this dive? The good folks in the Jovian Oversight Committee didn’t even want me to know what was going on. They’re terrified word’ll get out.”

“Which is what you told Priya,” Ju said. “And you’re surprised she got excited?” Ju fiddled with the moldfarm, rotating the little glass chambers to see the different patterns of fuzz. “Priya’s not an attention-hog, not really. She’s a dreamer. A visionary. You start throwing phrases like ‘top secret’ at her, well . . .”

Davies passed a hand across his eyes. “So you’re telling me your sister isn’t crazy for attention, just plain crazy. And that’s supposed to console me?”

“The cameras, the stunts . . .” Ju remembered the little girl who’d pressed her face to taped-up windows, awed by mighty winds. “For Priya, this work, it’s a kind of quest. It’s where she belongs, really. In the sky, in the clouds. In the heart of a storm.”

“Wonderfully poetic.” Davies slid off the desk and paced the narrow office, bouncy in the half-grav. “Fact is, I put it in her contract. No media. Now her people are running all over this place, poking into every corner.”

“Are you calling off the dive?”

“Calling it off?” Davies showed his teeth in a laugh. He came across the room, grabbed a stool, parked it in front of Ju and sat in a posture that made his meaning clear. “Kid, we need to put a lid on this. Your sister’s out there, talking up a storm. No pun intended. I need you—”

“To talk to her,” Ju finished. “Well, I’ll try. Pri’s never been a good listener.”

“If you can convince her to shut up, so much the better. I’m not asking for miracles.” Davies put a hand on Ju’s shoulder. “Her people are gonna stick those cameras in your face. They’re gonna ask you what you know about . . . well, about what’s going on here. I’m not saying you have to lie, exactly. But I would very much appreciate it if you could—”

“Cover up the truth.”

Davies rolled his eyes. “Someone needs to be the voice of reason. You’re a media hero, Kid. Electric sailor, cloud-skipper, stormdiver. People love you. They’ll believe what you say.”

Ju set the moldfarm back on the ledge, dropping his voice. “Is it true, then? The reports?” His voice sank to a whisper. “There’s something down there?”

Davies patted his shoulder again. “We’re professionals, right? Scientists. Tell you what. Let’s take this one step at a time.”

*   *   *

Ju told himself, leaving Davies’ office, that the whole thing was probably no big deal. Since his sister’s rise to stardom, he’d rarely spoken with her. They’d parted ways many years ago, Ju to a career in routine weather management, Priya to a life of spectacle and adventure, deep in the outer Solar System.

Only an event on the scale of Davies’ project could possibly have brought them back together. It was an opportunity, Ju told himself. To catch up, relive old times. And if, in the course of things, he managed to talk sense into Priya, remind her of the delicate nature of this assignment . . .

In fact, it was several days before Ju saw his sister. The Jovians lived on a three-day cycle: ten hours for rest, ten for leisure, ten for work. Project StormDiver ran on a tight schedule. Ju endured a four-hour station orientation, a two-hour psychological cleanse, a solid eight hours of induced sleep, finally a mandatory meal with the control crew, and eight straight hours of background and briefing. Leisure time consisted of a medical checkup, cocktail hour with the team leads, a visit to the drop bay for a cheese-platter social, and—with Davies’ grudging permission—a photo-op.

It was here that Ju finally met his sister. She was standing with her ship, posed with athletic elegance in front of the black steel bulge, an experienced model who interspersed her smiles for the camera with instructions to her crew. Priya looked older than Ju remembered, older even than in her videos, streaks of white striping her hair, stark bones fluttering in her hands. Seeing Ju, she waved him over, hugged and kissed him in front of a dozen people, holding him back with hands on his shoulders while her crew and assistants and stylists looked on.

“Brother! Wonderful! Shall we get a shot of us together?”

“Let’s have the whole sequence,” said a woman with dyed white hair. “The whole reunion, kiss, hug, etc. Can we re-roll that? Give us three, four takes?”

So they pantomimed their meeting again, brother and sister—and again, and again, while cameras buzzed and techs hustled and the white-haired woman shouted instructions. Then Priya drew him close, eyes wide, smile huge and girlish in her prematurely aged face.

“Can you believe this is happening?” she whispered.

“Priya.” Hearing her tone, the edge in her voice, Ju thought of words Davies had used. Literally crazy. His sister looked like what she was—someone who had done things no one else dared to do, seen things no one else had seen. “Priya, we need to discuss—”

“Shh! Shh!” She made pincering motions, silencing him. “Let’s enjoy this moment, okay? Savor the feeling.” Priya turned and waved at the white-haired women. “Eve? Why don’t you take Ju to his ship, get a solo profile, do a walk-and-talk?” As the woman approached, Priya squeezed his hand. “We’ll catch up soon, okay?”

So Ju found himself dispatched to the far end of the bay, ushered by the white-haired woman toward his ship, while Priya flitted off with her own hangers-on—and Davies glowered from the refreshments table.

Voice of reason, Ju reminded himself. No need to lie. Be a professional. Handle this scientifically.

The white-haired woman was an expert at her trade, organizing her crew, cuing the tech-boy to open the case that released the buzzing camera swarm.

“Ju, is it? Walk with me.” The woman took Ju’s elbow. “Be natural, okay? Don’t worry about the cameras. We’re having a conversation, you and me. This is your ship? Great! Maybe you can act as if you’re checking it out, prepping for flight, doing a quick once over. Don’t worry if it all seems fake. Remember, you’re the star, people love you. Don’t let the bumblecams bug you, ha ha. They’re carefully programmed. They won’t get in the way.”

She guided him toward the ship. Ju looked up at the great metal bulk. Checking? Prepping? What was there to check? From outside, his dropship resembled a minor moon, solid and spherical, its mechanical secrets concealed behind thick shielding. Ju pretended to examine the giant struts that held its anchorage frame.

The woman asked questions while they walked. Distracted by the bumblecams flitting around them, Ju did his best to answer.

“The ship. Well, it’s like a giant magnet, essentially. Except, not quite. See, any object entering the atmosphere is going to compress the air to plasma as it falls, and that generates a magnetic field. What the Hsiao-Ghaori generator does is allow us to control and extend that plasma stream, churning up electrons, creating a kind of avalanche effect . . . Well, imagine a kind of subatomic sail. Or better yet, a propeller, huge, invisible . . .”

It was awkward, embarrassing, trying to explain ideas that he himself barely understood. The woman was patient, drawing attention to the ship itself, its size, its ultimate purpose, steering him toward dramatic topics.

“Why a field?” Ju said, in reply to her queries. “Why not a physical propeller? Well, given our entry speed, the flight duration, the strength of the winds—”

“I see. You’d be torn to pieces.”

“All this? Most of it’s shielding. The rest is the generator. There’s only a tiny cockpit for the pilot.”

“It sounds very dangerous. Tell me, Ju, why do it? What kind of madman would take such a voyage?”

They had almost completed a full circuit of the ship. As they came back to the public side, Ju heard Priya, across the bay, giving her own, much more practiced spiel.

“. . . Why us? Well, I say, why not? This isn’t a job, it’s an adventure. Listen, Jupiter’s not only huge. The planet is fast. It’s spinning at incredible speed. The whole world is like a giant, mighty dynamo. There’s a huge amount of turbulence down there, a ton of radiation, electromagnetic activity . . . we’re talking Jove, right? The thunder god? And what we’re going to do is dip into his world, steal just a little bit of the god’s power.”

“Ride the lightning?” Priya’s interviewer suggested.

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

Boy, she was good at this stuff. It was nonsense, mostly. But what an image!

Ju himself struggled to keep up with his interviewer’s questions.

“Why a manned expedition? Well, I suppose—”

“Is it true that the teams at this station have lost thirteen probes in Red Rover in the last four years? That, in fact, every probe sent into the storm has disappeared without a trace? That scientists have begun referring to this new, mysterious storm as Jupiter’s Bermuda Triangle?”

Ju had to laugh. “That last part is definitely not true.” He remembered Davies’ exhortations. Voice of reason. Scientific. “Look, the probes are designed to be disposable. What’s surprising is the way in which . . .” Ju broke off.

“The way in which they’ve disappeared,” the interviewer finished for him. “Snatched out of the air? Instantly crushed? Before they could finish broadcasting their findings? Almost as if . . .” She lowered her voice, forcing the bumblecams to zip in closer. “As if there’s something down there,” the interviewer whispered. “Taking them.”

Too late, Ju realized he’d been trapped. Lured, baited, and deftly hooked. Now he floundered. “Well . . . it’s not as if  . . .”

From across the launch bay, Ju heard Priya chirping, “Of course every storm is, in some sense, a living thing. Storms are born. They grow. They die. They’re really very mysterious.”

“It’s not . . .” Ju stammered. “Look, the nature of a project like this . . . what I mean is . . . excuse me.” Batting away the hovering cameras, Ju pushed past the woman and hurried across the deck. From the corner of his eye, he saw Davies watching. The project leader’s face was stretched into a monstrous frown.

“Priya.” Ju pushed through the crowd of media flunkies, seizing his sister’s shoulder. “Can I talk to you? Privately?”

“Ju, we’re almost finished. Give me a second to—”

“Now. Please.”

“Why are you being so pushy?” Priya scowled as Ju guided her across the launch bay, into the chamber that had been marked off as his personal locker room. Amid a tangle of flight suits and harnesses, Ju smacked the privacy panel.

“What exactly have you been telling these people, Pri?”

His sister set her jaw. Even with her gray hair, her lined face, she was still, in some ways, a stubborn little girl.

“You know what’s happening here. We all know. Why should any of us keep secrets?”

“But we don’t know what’s happening. That’s the whole point. That’s why we’re investigating.”

“There’s something down there, Brother.” She came across the tiled floor, holding up her fists, dropping her voice. “We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t. Something hiding in that storm.”

Objections crowded Ju’s mind; he focused on the obvious point. “All we know is that some equipment has been lost. We’re professionals, Pri. It’s not our job to speculate.”

“Oh, bull.” Priya’s mouth pulled down in a frown, then, just as rapidly, curled into a smile. “Davies got to you, didn’t he? Listen, that is exactly our job. Why do we do this work at all, if we’re not going to indulge in a little speculation?” She lifted two fingers, gave his shoulder a poke, the way she had when they were kids playing in the Denver snow. “You’ve been floating over Mars too long, coasting on those weak little winds. Why do you think I got into this gig? Brutal Air Force training, boring travel, spending half our lives in transfer? You can feel it. Something down there, calling to us. It wants us to come, Ju. Red Rover is reaching out.”

“Wow, you are crazy.”

“I’m not the only one who’s climbing into a big steel cannonball, spreading my electric wings, and diving into hell.”

A light blinked by the door, green and gold. Davies, summoning them to the command center. Time for another briefing, an exam, an equipment check. And on to another bout of induced sleep, and after that, the flight itself.

Ju shook his head. “Listen, just try and keep this scientific.”

Priya headed for the door, smiling over her shoulder. “We’re plunging into the unknown, Brother. Risking life and limb to observe the unobserved. What could be more scientific than that?”

 

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Copyright © 2018. Stormdiver by Nick Wolven