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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Cloudburst

Robert Reed has sold a couple hundred stories and won a Hugo among myriad other honors. This is his second story for Daily Science Fiction.
Saturday night was scheduled to be our game night. Except that nobody ever told me the schedule. My son was unfolding the Monopoly board. My wife claimed that we had talked this through days ago. I claimed that I'd been more preoccupied than usual, which was the truth. I explained to both of them that I couldn't play just now. JB was waiting for my call, and this was important. My son ignored me, sorting money and cards into neat piles, while my wife stared at me in that special way of hers.
"Give me five minutes," I begged.
JB has no life outside astronomy, which was why he gets work done.
Not that that has any bearing on this story, of course.
It was Sunday morning in Australia, and at least my colleague was happy to see me. I mentioned an inspiration about funding. JB said that great minds worked in parallel, that he had the same kind of thoughts to discuss. GOLDILOCKS still needed another two billion dollars, at the minimum. Some very big mirrors and radio dishes had to be inserted into Earth's L-4, and then they had to be woven together with nearly impossible telemetry. GOLDILOCKS had to be the boldest scientific adventure ever attempted by humanity, yet the usual government agencies were proving less than sympathetic when it came to funding our magnificent alien hunt.
My scheme was to let media multinationals bid against each other. The winner became our benefactor, buying our Russian rockets, and in honor of that charity we would hand over first-broadcast rights to the photographs and transmissions associated with each living world that we discovered. Furthermore, if the alien broadcasts were deemed suitable for public viewing, they could be run on television and the Web, with a few appropriate commercials inserted here and there.
JB laughed at my proposal. He told me that media tie-ins were deeply cynical, and I should be ashamed of myself. But then he laughed harder, saying that he could play that game too.
"I've been getting overtures from Asian billionaires," he claimed. "They're willing to pay for everything, and all we have to do is name the worlds after them, and after their little ones, and finally their wives and favorite mistresses."
At that point my little one came into the office, holding a tiny metal shoe. I'm always the metal shoe when we play Monopoly.
"Almost done," I lied.
He left the shoe beside my tablet, ready to go.
Returning to JB, I mentioned that it seemed odd that the billionaires only wanted naming rights. Could they be sniffing around for new technologies and other windfalls? JB started to answer, and it might have been a very comforting answer. But then he vanished. It took me a full minute to reestablish our link, and I found him laughing again. Except this was a different kind of laugh, not loud and not happy. With a nervous tone, he said, "We just had a shake-up here. A rather big earthquake, apparently."
"Since when do you get earthquakes?" I asked.
Some kind of native pride was triggered. "Oh, they happen," he said emphatically. "Australia isn't seismically dead."
We struggled to get back on topic. Another two hours, and we might have decided which course was the least reprehensible. But after two minutes my wife strode into my office with a mission: To stare at me with cold disappointed eyes, hinting at a long life without conjugal relationships if I didn't meet certain family obligations.
"You know, we can do this later," I told JB.
"I hope that's so," my colleague said, contemplating the trembling earth.
I shut down and grabbed my little metal shoe. I don't like Monopoly. I don't appreciate being throttled by an eleven-year-old with more business sense than I'd ever possess. But it occurred to me that if we waited long enough, my boy would make his first billion, and then I could hit him up for GOLDILOCKS.
That seemed like a rational plan, which shows how desperate I was.
The valid vivid mind withdraws from its surroundings. Always, always. There is no second choice, no alternative conclusion. The true consciousness holds everything that it will ever require. The universe might intrigue a child for the first minute of life or for the next thousand eons, but there always comes a moment when space reveals itself to be barren, and the stolid charms of the baryonic can no longer compete with grand thoughts and idle dreams.
Great minds have always moved where they wish.
Grand souls always think however they wish to think, coursing across the dreary realms, and sometimes if not often they will pass through whiffs of baryonic fog.
I was in jail. I liked being in jail. My wife and boy could ignore me, playing the game as hard as it deserved to be played. My only responsibility was to try and roll my way free and then pay the fine in the end.
We were sitting in the basement rec room. Suddenly our television came on, and a voice that wasn't human announced that the storm god were attacking our city. Thunderstorms were bringing wind and gigantic hail, and we should retreat to our basement, unless we lived on a floodplain. Flash floods were the other looming problem, and the computer-generated voice suggested that if we were in the bottomlands, we should immediately flee to high ground.
We didn't live on a flood plain, and we were already in the basement--facts that my son noted with smug pleasure.
"I don't remember storms in the forecast," I said, genuinely confused.
"There was a twenty percent chance," my wife said, rolling her way to Marvin Gardens. Then digging into her savings, she announced, "I'm buying."
I rolled again, trying to escape incarceration. But the jailhouse guards spotted me and dragged me back behind bars, probably beating me with nightsticks. I had to cough up fifty dollars to put myself back on the unfriendly streets.
The television had turned itself off again; Civil Defense was done scaring us.
My son rolled and bought Boardwalk, and that's when the first hint of thunder leaked through the basement ceiling.
I turned the television on, aiming for the Weather Channel. An orange scroll was repeating the general warning, but there wasn't any radar on display. We were being treated to a documentary on the challenges and societal positives offered by global warming.
"I'm going outside," I announced.
"You need to roll first," my wife said.
I rolled five times. "Remember the numbers and play that shoe like I would."
Exchanging glances, my loving family prepared to gang up on me.
I strolled out the front door. Three months of wet and hot had culminated with this awful evening. No cold front was expected, but the dew point was in the low 80s. I was dripping before I hit the street. Calm blue skies stretched off in three directions, but storms always came from the northwest. A lot of trees stood to the northwest. I couldn't see trouble through the high branches, but deep rumblings heralded the intruder's presence. Thunder overlapped thunder. I wasn't standing on the grass for two minutes when the first roaring breaths of wind started to shake the canopy.
Ready to report, I moved back inside--except that would mean abandoning my view of the oncoming maelstrom. Standing beside the biggest window, I watched trees dance and the rain strengthen. Someone called out from the basement. I assumed it was my wife, but I couldn't hear much over the storm. The voice said something about the radar and to come look. I turned on the living room television instead. The Weather Channel was focusing on happy crops growing in a new desert, but the local station had broken into normal broadcasting. The weekend meteorologist looked as if he'd won a lottery. He was practically singing about the storm that came from nowhere. "Came from nowhere" were his words, and he used them several times. Meanwhile the radar went through its loop, showing our city and the surrounding counties and a blotch of pumpkin-orange that had started as a point just twenty miles to the west. That wasn't half an hour ago. There was nothing and then the point exploded and began charging east, for all intents and purposes steering toward me.
At least that's how the universe looked from my living room.
My wife yelled a question. "Are you in the house or aren't you?" she asked.
"I'm outside, standing on the roof," I shouted.
By the moment, by the breath, the storm grew worse. The official gusts at the airport would hit 65 mph, but we were miles south of those windsocks. My winds would crush any pedestrian 65. Standing beside fragile panes of glass, I watched full-grown trees shake and bend low and then stay low to escape the worst of the blasts. Trashcans spilled and then raced their own garbage down the middle of the street. A car drove past, dodging cans and clutter, and then with a flair for drama, one long limb from a silver maple ripped free and crashed into the street directly behind the fortunate driver.
The window glass began to shake, drum-fashion, and I took a step back.
"Get down here," my wife called out.
That was my plan. It was. But some instinct made me pause in the kitchen, glimpsing into the backyard. Our property was long and normally shaded beneath a wall of walnut trees standing to the east. Except the scene seemed altogether too bright, and a second, more studious glance gave me a reason: Three mature black walnut trees had been sheared away by the wind. Dozens of shattered branches dangled in unnatural positions and wreckage littered the weedy lawn. But even more impressive than the haphazard pruning was the light--a brilliant white radiance suspended high in the air, powerful and mysterious and utterly splendid.
Marry a nest of stranglets with seven species of dark matter. Follow the ancient weave that can never be improved upon. Larger than an atom but tiny compared to almost everything else, the perfect home for thought is ultraconductive and nearly invulnerable. Thoughts move where they wish, and the body moves where it wants to move. And sometimes the body feels a swift little shiver when it strikes fog.
But the shiver always fades, the fog left behind.
And the memory of what couldn't be less consequential will be ignored as the relentless mind plunges on, and on.
Brilliance and wondrous mystery hung high in the air, but then a rational voice inside me ruined the mood: One of the walnut branches had collapsed onto a high-power line, causing an ordinary white-hot arc of pissed-off electricity.
My wife yelled up at me. I couldn't tell what she said.
I yelled something back to her. I can't remember what.
A list of emergency phone numbers was magnetically lashed to the refrigerator. I yanked it off and found the electric company's number while my other hand pulled my phone from its holster. I was calm and lucid until my fingers tried to punch out the proper buttons. My first attempt ended with the wrong area code. The second try started me on the road to a long useless conversation with the water department. Where was my head? I lifted the card to my face, but a memory that always impressed students and colleagues could no longer handle seven ordinary digits.
After several more attempts, I was finally dropped into a menu of quiet words spoken by the world's most patient and ineffectual machine.
Reporting a downed power line was my goal.
I punched what seemed like the proper button.
The voice chided me: Disputing my electrical bill was best done during business hours.
I hung up and said one strong word.
My son was beside me. I don't know how long he had been standing there. Shouting downstairs, he said, "Dad just said that word again. The bad one."
My wife came out from shelter. "Get down there," she told both of us.
My son went down two stairs and stopped.
She pointed her disgust at me, words ready. But I interrupted the scolding by saying, "Look out there."
An endless bolt of lightning was dancing on the power line. And when she saw it, she blurted a second immoral word.
The boy made a disgusted sound.
"Have you called anyone?" she asked me.
"I couldn't get through," I said, which wasn't strictly a lie.
She pulled out her cell, trying the electric company again. But I was past small measures, pounding out 911.
In the midst of that button pushing, the winds managed to find even more strength. A great raging burst of wild air swept across the neighborhood, and the refrigerator cut out and our lights flickered. Then the ringing on my phone stopped, and I pressed the phone against my better ear, saying, "Hello, hello."
I was chatting with a busy signal.
My wife was dealing with the electric company's menu, listening for instructions while gazing through the little kitchen window. I considered 911 again. But really, did we need the full power of emergency services on our doorstep? I didn't call anyone. Looking outside, I tried to convince myself that the wind was finally dying. Past the wounded tree was the long roof of a neighbor's house, shake shingles dried to tinder by twenty years of sun and wind. Something about that view was important. I wasn't sure what. Then the electricity changed color, fading noticeably as the raw walnut wood burst into flame.
I watched the flickering, ignoring everything else.
"Is that fire?" my wife asked.
Not just fire, but a very healthy blaze that was shrugging off pelting rain.
"This isn't working," she said, dropping her phone. "The lines are clogged."
The fire was far from our home. It hung over our neighbors' house, but in that cold practical moment I couldn't even remember their names.
She said, "911."
"Yes."
"Are you dialing it?" she asked.
Apparently not. I lifted my phone and pushed the proper buttons, and then she said, "Busy signal."
The fire was spreading, chunks of burning wood tumbling out of the canopy.
My call went nowhere.
"Clogged," she repeated.
"Is that fire?" my son asked. When did he come back upstairs?
Nobody reprimanded him. We stared at the blaze and dialed 911, and then my wife shouted at someone, "A tree's down and our backyard is burning."
"The neighbors' house," I said.
"Our neighbors' house too," she said, overstating the situation. Then she added our address and name, telling the harried operator, "Thank you. Thanks."
The wind was softening, at last. The rain slackened and the evening light turned brilliant when the sun dropped under the cloud deck, hanging low in the west. A golden glow washed over the mayhem and the last retreating vestiges of the storm. We stood close, the three of us, and we watched the fire spit and flare up. At some point our boy took each of our hands as the lights flickered again. But the fire wasn't growing anymore, I decided, and with my professorial voice and a measure of confidence, I announced that the worst was past.
That was when a single massive explosion came from somewhere close. We heard it and felt it, and an instant later the strained sagging electrical line parted with a wild flash. The line dropped and flapped, and awestruck, I watched its descent into the hedges that divided us from another close neighbor.
Our power was off.
Modern houses hum. Our house had stopped humming. The sudden quiet and the failing winds allowed us to hear little sounds: Rain on the roof, and dozens of sirens screaming their way to important destinations, and now and again the explosive detonations of overtaxed transformers.
Each mind exists in solitude. The reasons are many and eternal, including the limits of sentience and the cramped circumstances and natural competition and boundless ego. Suffice to say: Once a critical mental capacity is achieved, companionship is superfluous. Alliances mean nothing. Personal agendas drive each of them, and they speak to one another only in those vanishingly rare moments when two of them meet within the Nothingness, risking impact.
Reach the ultimate heights of intelligence and good humor and there is no good reason to speak to the universe again.
The firemen drove up to the house not ten minutes after our frantic 911 call. Their considerable authority was on display--an expertise ready to face anything this side of the apocalypse--and I felt embarrassed by them. I didn't have so much as a smoldering pile of leaves to offer. The best I could do was to describe my panic while walking them around the property. But I was nothing. The canopy blaze was out, and the downed line wasn't resting on any house. If something happened to catch fire, for any reason, we should call them back immediately. But the radio on the big fire truck was squawking about lightning strikes and real fires, and somebody was having trouble breathing, and our firemen rode off to the nearest or worst of those ongoing disasters, probably forgetting me after the first blare of the siren.
Our house still didn't hum. We'd already eaten dinner, which was good since every appliance had been turned into fancy-shaped scrap metal. On my suggestion, we took a family stroll to the park, cataloging the split trees and uprooted trees and one Buick crushed beneath most of a sycamore. My son relished the carnage. But what impressed me more was the sky to our east. The unexpected cloudburst was growing stronger, bolt after bolt coursing through the otherwise black clouds, and knowing very little of substance, I played with the energies involved and what a gifted civilization could accomplish if only that storm could be applied to spaceflight.
We returned home as the sun set. Gathering flashlights took time, and finding good batteries took longer. By then it was night. Nobody felt like playing the game, and so it was put away. My wife pushed big batteries into her old boom box, and we listened until a fresh forecast claimed that the worst was over but storms could linger until morning.
The upstairs was already growing steamy, unpalatable. We camped out on the basement floor, packed together on our inflated mattress. The cool ground made us feel protected, and I mostly slept through the second wave of storms. But the third wave was louder, and it seemed to get stuck overhead, and somewhere between the third inch of rain and the fourth I decided to touch the floor. A slow river was passing through the carpeting, making its way to the distant floor drain.
Well, nothing could be done about that now.
Eyes closed, I pretended to sleep. I thought about my boy and his stepmother and my many limitations as a father. I considered JB and his little earthquake. Then I was thinking about aliens, because I always think about aliens. I contemplated intelligence and time and the great distances of space. At some point I drew an imaginary line that began in Australia and ended in the Midwest, slicing its way through the mantle and crust. Or did it impact here and emerge there? And what was this "it" that I was thinking about? I had a very clear goal when the daydream began, but I lost my way somewhere. Then I was sleeping again, dreaming about hurricane winds and lightning bolts that cut the sky into pieces, and I remained asleep inside the storm, right up until someone big knocked hard at our front door.
A million trillion strangelet ships are racing through the galaxy, and stars and worlds are nothing but the thinnest clouds to them, and nothing distracts these dark brilliances as they hurry toward destinations worthy of their importance--destinations that will not even be born for a very long while.
The electric company had arrived. One yellow truck and three men, all smokers, had parked in front of our house. They were looking at the blown transformer up on a high pole. They were looking at their precious cigarettes. Eventually they had to look at me. Their oldest member explained that they were here only to cut the power to the downed line, making the way safe for a tree crew to slash a corridor so that a third crew could make repairs. I thought I should ask how long that would take. He thought that we'd have power by noon, which seemed wildly optimistic to me.
Feeling like a man in a lifeboat, I wanted to make friends with everybody. I thanked them and asked about last night. How bad had it been?
Grunts and red-eyed stares told me everything that I needed to know. They probably hadn't slept in twenty-four hours. A hundred dangerous jobs had been managed in the dark, while rainstorms pelted them, and so long as the tobacco kept burning, they had this brief chance to rest and reconsider their life choices.
Wishing them well, I retreated from my new friends.
Without power, there was no dealing with the wet basement. The family and I decided to walk to a neighboring street that ran off a different line. But no, they were living in the eighteenth century too.
A quiet fellow that I saw five times a year was cooking eggs on his propane grill. He invited us to join him. Hot coffee arrived from somewhere else. By eight in the morning, our neighborhood had descended into a party of grateful survivors. Chain saws tore at the air as we ate and chatted and watched kids playing. By eleven, the power was on again. We got home and got the shop-vac busy, and when I finally checked my mail, there was a note from JB. He saw that we had been hit hard by a storm, and were we alive?
I got him on Skype.
It was his Monday morning, and I didn't recognize the woman in the background. I claimed good health, and he said that the quake was unexplained but not particularly large. I told him that I once read an analysis of Monopoly, and utilities like the Electric Company were steady, underrated performers. Then he mentioned that after the quake and after he heard about my storm, he had this very odd thought: What if our two events were somehow connected?
I didn't know why that sounded familiar.
He laughed. I laughed.
Then we talked about GOLDILOCKS, using every trick to convince ourselves that our wildest dreams might come true someday.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 3rd, 2012

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