It seared their eyes. Squinting, they watched the light dilate, divide in six. The rocket fell away, limp, useless, and dark as a new star grew against the storm.
Illustration from The Fourth Dimension (1904) by Charles Howard Hinton. Source: The Public Domain Review.
Like a tambourine continuously shaken, going on twenty minutes now. This, the sound of crashing keys. They bristled from the ring in copy-proof cuts, circular, tubular, square. The brassy rattle of the keys against the dashboard had been almost pleasant at first, softening the rumble of the ancient jeep’s engine. It distracted Ravan from another rattling, of his body, as they drove over the mud saucers of the flats of Death Valley, the common origin. Now he’d reached a second phase. Rather than diverting him, the jangle melded with the jarring of his viscera, encouraging the sickness.
“Why so many?” Ravan said with his palms flat on the scarred dash, eyeing the keys.
“Lots of doors in the national labs,” Menar said.
“No, but why did you bring them all over with you from India?”
“I didn’t think not to, really.”
“Well, you could separate the key for the ignition.”
“But then this lovely music would go,” Menar said, gesturing at the keys. “Wouldn’t you mind?” The suggestion of a smile breached his face. Only a relative could see this.
“Okay, I will do when we get there. Ten minutes. The way back will be a whisper if you like—except for this yappy engine, of course. I just hope we’ll get to play baccarat before I leave. I’ve never been to Vegas, you know.”
The station appeared ahead, a C-shaped aluminum tube with entries on both ends of it and a broad pair of doors in the recessed middle, raised up like a garage. Everywhere the ground was paved in hexagonal mud scales, a chemical signature of the valley soil that produced this kinetic signature in passing vehicles.
Ravan looked in the rearview mirror and saw nothing but dust.
“Your NOAA people tell me these stones—see that one?—they leave trails. Only no one has ever seen or recorded them move. That can’t be right.”
“I really don’t know.”
“They also mentioned an unplayable golf course somewhere in the valley.”
“Did you bring your clubs then. For the challenge.”
“What people you work for, Ravan.”
They exchanged a family smirk, Ravan’s wryer than Menar’s. A resemblance held them together, the smirks. Otherwise the brothers did not look much alike, except for a shared softness in the eyes. Menar was the taller, by half a head, perhaps 6’3”. He had a long, clean-shaven face with a sharply tapering chin. His skin was a pale tan, a shade or two lighter than Ravan’s, and he wore his hair short and neat, the inverse of his brother’s.
“It’s a craggy salt bed,” Ravan said. “The Devil’s Golf Course.”
“Well, as I say…” Menar trailed off, or referred back to something Ravan couldn’t pinpoint, something indefinite, a general idea, maybe, or several at once, even an infinite conjunction. Menar said a lot when he was in the mood for it.
They pulled into the station under marbled, pregnant skies.
“Well timed,” Menar said.
“Dr. Peshwa, we are so pleased to have you here.” A bearded man, not so old, in a light blue button-down and dark blue jeans approached them as they hopped out of the jeep. Two more men stood within the station.
“We have a live feed set up so the rest of the team can see back East,” the bearded man said.
“Ah, hello Michael,” Menar said. He squinted and twisted his face. “And please—it’s Menar. You don’t call this one doctor, do you?” His hand trailed back toward Ravan, who approached from the back of the jeep with two white duffle bags.
“So the matériel has arrived, I take it,” Menar said.
“Just over there,” Michael said. “Dispersers on the left, seeders on the right.”
“Slakers and makers,” Ravan said softly as he passed by his brother with the bags.
“It doesn’t take much of a payload to activate clouds, or to dissolve them either,” Menar said, tapping one of the darts.
The garage held a central server, four workstations, a bank of laptops, and a large monitor some hundred inches wide. Beyond the workstations was the storage and lab facility. Ravan set the duffels on the ground next to the weather missiles crowding the racks.
Menar stooped and lifted a seeder up to his chest. It was the height, if not quite the weight, of a dwarf. He cradled it in his arms. The head of the missile, the end of the rocket stage, was ringed by six smaller missiles, copper darts, each about a foot long. The two technicians moved to help him but he nodded them off. He set the rocket roughly on the central steel table in the lab. It clanked and rolled several degrees, planting on a fin. Michael trotted to the back wall and switched on the lights above the table, which were startlingly bright. They turned the silver rocket a watery white.
“It doesn’t take much of a payload to activate clouds, or to dissolve them either,” Menar said, tapping one of the darts. “It used to be thought you needed to dump huge quantities to get anything going. That was actually a mistake. Too much agent retards the reaction. You just need to get the formula right. That, and the mechanism of distribution. My father sent you the specs.”
“Some, yes,” Michael said. “A one-pound charge in each?”
“That’s right. The tiniest warhead. You can launch them from the shoulder too, if need be, when a platform isn’t practical. Easier with two men, but a strong one can do it alone. On-board altimeters activate the charges, and rather than explode, they make the powder, treated antimony, smolder and stream smoke.” He looked at his brother. “So, you’ve got these set to discharge at what, seven thousand feet? Eight thousand?”
“I was going to send them up to six, to eight, and to ten,” Ravan said, “one at each elevation, and then draw them right across.”
“That sounds right,” Menar said. He pointed to the rack of missiles and looked at Michael: “These are based on the latest Starstreak, you know. The Mark III. Can you see the resemblance? I don’t know exactly how much bleed-through there is from military technology to your atmospheric R&D. I’m assuming rather a lot,” he said with a gesture of outspread fingers and tightly closed eyes. “Just like us.” He shook his head with vigor and a smile. “You and the Brits appear to share the Starstreak now. Thales builds them, in Belfast, but Lockheed’s helped tweak it for your army. Actually,” Menar said after a pause, “I have seen quite a lot of them deployed in Kashmir, and in Pakistan, launched by the allies, principally the two of you. More versatile than the old Stinger. Good for striking lightly armored vehicles, low-lying helicopters. Defeats jamming. No infrared needed. And with the darts, the odds of making contact expand.” He caressed one of the darts. “They were certainly effective there, we can all agree, I think.”
He sucked in his lower lip, drawing the blond whiskers of his mustache down past it.
Michael looked to one side of Menar and nodded slowly without saying anything. He sucked in his lower lip, drawing the blond whiskers of his mustache down past it.
“And now they’ve proved more versatile still,” Menar said.
Michael smiled and fixed Menar’s eyes. “They have, yes,” he said.
“One more use for them, and again, it’s all in the darts. Did you know any of this?” Menar asked.
“Not exactly, not really,” Michael said. “But what your father has managed to do here is very interesting.” The two techs stirred and nodded along.
“He’s a gift. And it’s much more than interesting.” Menar paused again, a habit of his. “The formulation is mostly his work. Delivery, how to aerate the substance, that was up to me. That’s why I talk of the rockets.”
“Well that’s not really true,” Ravan said. “You’ve done plenty with the formula. And it’s nothing without distribution. It’s really all one thing, not many.”
“Is it?” Menar said. Again there was the suggestion of a smile on his face, invisible to all but his blood, Ravan. “You know, I think it would be possible to do both today.”
“Both?” Michael cocked his head slightly.
“Seeding and dispersal. The same storm, the same patch of it even. We’ve done it in parallel before, at a distance of some miles. We precipitated a cloudbank in one place and vanished it in another. But why not try the very same cloud. Let’s seed this one now. After we have it going, we’ll switch it off, scatter it. We can try, anyway. It’s not foolproof. None of it is, actually. There are definitely still unknown variables in play. But we’ve reduced their number more than anyone. More than the Chinese. More than you too, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. We are far beyond chance now.” He looked at the techs. “Shall we get these outside, then, before the water falls?”
Michael looked slightly confused.
“Before it comes down on its own,” Ravan said, pointing through the opaque roof to the heavily clouded skies beyond.
“Ah,” Michael said.
The technicians each picked up a seeder and headed outside, ducking under the back doors before they had fully risen. Michael and Ravan helped move them while Menar took out a laptop from one of the duffels and logged onto the network. “Oh, good work,” he said as Ravan left with a missile in his arms. It drew a smile from his brother.
The two launch platforms were side by side, just behind the station. They looked like squat traffic lights, but without the lights. There were only holes where they should have been. The wide poles, painted in a textured, heat-resistant green, were moored deep in the dirt, far below the mud tiles, with support struts fanning out from the base along the flats. Thick rectangular panels with three holes, each a foot deep and stacked vertically, hung off one side of the poles. The panels could be remotely flattened out to any degree, and the poles themselves could be rotated.
Low-lying stratus clouds, vertically developed, hung overhead. A tiered deployment of makers, as Ravan had suggested, would be ideal. “So, rotate them out ten degrees each,” Menar said. “That should get us enough of a gap between them.”
They whirred in opposite directions, turning the warheads away from both each other and the three men standing between them.
Michael and the technicians stood between the launchers while Ravan dialed in the platform angles from his terminal. They whirred in opposite directions, turning the warheads away from both each other and the three men standing between them.
“Better to get some distance for launch, I think,” Michael said, withdrawing into the station, the techs in tow. He positioned himself over Menar’s shoulder, near the edge of the lab table, which Menar was using as a seat. The deployment code he’d been tweaking on the flight over from New Delhi, the algorithms that charted the missiles’ course, the darts’ sub-course, and the moment of payload ignition, flashed across the screen of his laptop. Ravan thought of their father, Menar Sr., as he watched his brother make final adjustments in front of the matrix of data. The other three lab men, just as in Ravan’s childhood, stood quietly awed by the maestro.
Menar scanned the last of the figures. One final look out at the platforms and then a glance at Ravan: “So, here we go.” Everyone but Menar moved to the edge of the station’s open doors.
The tail of the first seeder went a deep, dark red. Suddenly it was orange and shimmering the air as the rocket took flight with a rowdy hiss that quieted as it ascended. They watched the narrow contrail form, lither than any airplane’s, tethering the rocket to the launcher like a harpoon.
On entry its rumble was muffled by the cloud. At just that moment, with another keystroke, Menar deployed the second rocket. It went up just like the first except for the debris that fell from it: a ring of metal, red with heat. “Was that from the platform?” Menar asked.
The second contrail took shape just below the first, which had, owing to the mix of fuel and heavy atmospheric conditions, congealed in place. The final seeder, which was meant to prepare the lower third of the cloud, fired off cleanly and revived the fading hiss of the second rocket just before it too died in the clouds. Menar had adjusted the platform panel so its path fell between the other two, but lower, creating a configuration of contrails that looked, when viewed from the monitor, which drew its signal from cameras stationed beneath the platform, like a V in three dimensions, thousands of feet deep along the z-axis.
The rocket stage of the final missile fell to earth as the six darts parted ways. They fanned out in smooth parabolic arcs until they ran parallel to the cloud base, just beneath its surface, and it was only their color, a sharp yellow from the smoldering antimony, that made their slender contrails visible against the grayscale backdrop of clouds.
A star like an asterisk formed as the darts diverged from the origin at speed. The contrails grew pale, their color thinned by cloud as the darts sliced through the gauzy base, burrowing further by the second. The lines gave out and the star peaked when the darts were too deep to see.
“Eighteen darts make three stars,” Menar said. “The other two, at the higher elevations, we can’t see, but they’re there. And that’s it.” He scrolled through the onscreen values, the mathematical trace of the darts.
“This is the definition of a warm-water cloud,” he said. “It must be a hundred degrees today, and without the sun. If there are any supercooled droplets at all in that cloud, there aren’t many.”
Menar went outside and the others followed.
“The darts run very hot,” Menar said, “creating tiny updrafts. The antimony particulate is taken up in them, you get greater diffusion. That’s the root of natural condensation. Then the binding of particulate with water microdroplets, the coalescence threshold drops, and the microdroplets suddenly turn macro. No simulation of ice crystal nuclei at all…” he trailed off. “That would be pointless in a cloud like this, it’s so warm. There’s nothing to crystallize.” Menar turned and said, “You can send the drone through again, Michael, and see the difference we’ve made already.”
He made a call to the pilot and in a few moments it cut through the cloud like a larger dart, a desert tan to the dart’s reflective copper, flying upward until it emerged from the top.
Michael had kept the tiny unmanned plane in a holding pattern nearby, continuously recording data with a battery of sensors for other experiments carried out earlier in the day, but ready for use should they need it here. He made a call to the pilot and in a few moments it cut through the cloud like a larger dart, a desert tan to the dart’s reflective copper, flying upward until it emerged from the top. “Temperatures are up and rising,” Michael confirmed as he joined the others outside. The cloud thickened and yellowed, the bottom edge darkened, the black bands widened.
“You know, we do use—Ravan has probably told you—a propagation approach sometimes,” Menar said. “Identify a pocket of supercooled droplets, get it to overtake the rest of the cloud, freeze the whole thing. We’ve also tried creating that pocket ourselves, if we can’t find one. Nitrogen flares—”
Just then Michael’s eyes disappeared behind a splatter of water. He pulled the glasses from his face with a startled grin and grabbed Menar’s shoulder.
“Well then,” Menar said. “We should probably go back inside. These artificial rains can be monstrous.”
The drops were sharply formed and proportioned to a monsoon. They burst on the skin like tiny balloons, and the water released felt almost sticky. There was an uncommon discreteness to the downpour. It produced the sort of precisely articulated patter on the mudflats, like a continuous drumming of the fingers, one might expect from a much harder, more resonant surface, like the aluminum roofing of the station (though the earth had more bass to it).
The saucers started to come apart. Fissures appeared and filled with water that overflowed the cracks running like grout lines between the mud tiles. The crisp attack of the rain slowly gave way to a gurgling.
Menar leaned up against the steel table with his hands wrapped around its edge.
“Well,” Ravan said softly, sitting down at the terminal directly behind the table. The storm had transfixed the NOAA men, holding them where they were.
“Yes, well,” Menar said. “If you hadn’t seen this before, you’d be just as stunned as they are.”
As the storm swelled, the raindrops lost their form and merged into ropes. The saucers were invisible now beneath a roiled, viscous layer of water, the rain falling faster than the ground could take it in.
“This is striking, Menar, really striking. Especially with warm water,” Michael said, turning away from the storm to face him. Water ran into the station in thick rivulets, amplifying the brightness of the corrugated steel floor.
“But I am starting to worry this could become a flood,” he continued. “We should close these doors or—”
“Well if you’ve seen enough, let’s switch it off,” Menar said. “As I say, we’ve never dispersed a cloud we’ve provoked into storming, certainly not like this. I do wonder if the two agents will interact in some way. They shouldn’t. But let’s see. Close the doors, I think. The monitor will serve.”
The seeders were identical to the dispersers in appearance, save for the darts, which were a darker copper and slightly larger, carrying a 1.5 pound payload.
The techs brought the door back down, muting the falling water. Menar re-adjusted the position of the eastern platform, five degrees to the west. The seeders were identical to the dispersers in appearance, save for the darts, which were a darker copper and slightly larger, carrying a 1.5 pound payload.
“We call these dispersers ‘slakers’ for a couple of reasons,” Menar said. “One is that, though the cocktail’s complicated, unslaked lime—treated lime—is a vital ingredient. But much less of it than is usually necessary to make it a desiccant or a significant source of heat. In bulk of course it’s deeply toxic, burns the eyes, and so on. But we’ve managed to get round that problem with the auxiliary compounds we’ve bound it with.”
He tapped the track-pad and the first rocket ascended in just the manner of the seeders. But the digital monitor presented it differently, more instructively, and in peculiar ways, more viscerally, than direct sight could, odd as that sounded. Under magnification the contrails seemed more deeply textured and bubbly, and also discontinuous, having a patterned structure of thicknesses harnessed to each other: a cotton rope that looked as if it were being thrown to the sky. The launch cameras caught a sun-bright gleam of orange, then gray smoke, then a missile-tipped contrail.
“Deployment’s pretty much the same,” Menar said. As before, the first rocket slid through the base of the cloud, on its way to the upper reaches. Just as it disappeared, Menar sent the next rocket up.
“The separation between launches, is there a reason for that?” one of the assistants asked. “Do the upper layers need to be activated first?”
Menar seemed surprised he could speak. He smiled. “Yes. Nothing technical, though. It’s just so the rockets and darts don’t collide. It’s happened in trials, darts going straight into missiles. No charge in them, but the impact and the heat exploded the fuel tanks. Just a mess.”
“And one more,” Menar said, releasing the final rocket. “Here we’ll see something. Limelight.”
“Limelight?” Michael said. “Oh, as in—”
“As in limelight. Candoluminescence.”
“A real show,” Ravan said.
“Actually, raise the doors,” Menar said.
“Really?” Michael asked.
“Yes, why not? You can’t be worried about this little shack, can you? Surely you’ve got the funding to bear a little water damage. In the name of science. Or art.”
“No, of course we can.” The assistants opened it and a small wave of water rolled in, giving out after a few feet.
“Oh, that’s not so bad,” Menar said. “Now look.”
They could see virtually nothing of the third rocket, the sky was so heavy with rain and black clouds. Then its contrail bloomed a supersaturated white at its far end. It seared their eyes. Squinting, they watched the light dilate, divide in six. The rocket fell away, limp, useless, and dark as a new star grew against the storm. This time the smoke was terracotta, and the radiating darts luminous, which turned the clouds directly above their path a greater intensity of white, and, through contrast, darkened the more distant parts.
“As I say, limelight,” Menar said.
The NOAA staff looked on as water pooled around their shoes. Absolute white and sizzling in their ears, the darts broke the plane of the cloud and dug into the storm. The men watched these haloed dots of white, still surprisingly bright, as they continued to race away from each other, though the rust-colored lines of the star itself disappeared, cloaked now by cloud.
Their eyes dealt more easily with the veiled limelight, and they continued to follow the expanding circle of lights. When the darts had finally exhausted themselves, they marked the vertices of a star twice the size of the terracotta one they’d just painted on the underside of the storm above.
Menar looked back at the laptop. The spent darts would be descending now, unlit and unseen.
“So let’s see,” he said. It was still storming hard and the mudflats outside had become a lake of red, as they did in flash floods. (Nearby Furnace Creek also reported unusually heavy rains.)
Ravan thought he could hear the beginnings of a decrescendo. The roiling waters filled the ears less fully now, and it was easier, it seemed, to attend to the rest of his senses. The first thing he noticed were his sopping shoes. The lab assistants pulled heavy towels from a storage closet and threw them to the ground, working them around with their feet, mopping up what they could.
“You can give the drone another pass,” Menar said. Michael radioed again with the orders. “It must be quite hot now.”
They all sensed the diminishing patter of water on the roof. Outside on the flats, the ropes withered to beads, first swollen and oblong, but then, sooner than seemed reasonable, just tiny dots, specks.
“Very much hotter,” Michael said, staring into a screen.
The cloud itself was losing substance, not through collapse but expansion. As it distended it turned wispier, vaporous, ever more transparent, the gray and black ribbons seeming to lighten as they dissolved into simple air.
The lightest drizzle persisted, but the extent of the transformation left the NOAA people nodding vaguely to one another and pointing up at the faltering cloud.
“What you have here is something real,” Michael said without looking at Menar, who was seated on the table, playing with his laptop, his mouth bent this time into an insouciant smirk visible to anyone who cared to see. Ravan, shoeless now, joined the other assistants looking out onto the watery flats, his heart beating harder but not faster.
Mark de Silva holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). Having served for several years on the editorial staff of the New York Times’s opinion pages, he now freelances for the paper’s Sunday magazine. He is the author of “Distant Visions,” a critical essay on the state of contemporary fiction that was recently published in 3:AM Magazine. His first novel, Square Wave, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in February of 2016.