This story won honorable mention in the 2021 Writers of the Future contest.
On a hot green day in the Red River Valley, nature worked its magic on the land where towns used to be. Elm, oak, and hickory trees blotted the ground in clumps and tall stalks of grass curved like gnarled fingers grasping at the sky. There was no sign of man or beast, no children or slithering snake, for in these times all living creatures dwelled in caves and tunnels dug deep in the hills by the race of great machines. Now man farmed on the surface in short, harsh cycles. Those with the means left on rockets to the moons. But out here in the sun-blushed field, the only reminder of humanity’s presence was the long, ancient highway that rolled across the grass, its concrete tongue eroded by a century of vanished time.
A flock of anemometer drones – eight long-necked mechanical birds – flew out over the field in a tight swarm. As they flew, their servos clicked and warbled, a near telepathic language that few could understand. The subject of their excitement was the conditions of the wind.
At the edge of the horizon, clouds began to gather like they’d just witnessed a murder.
A blue van eased off the road and followed the drones onto the field. It rode low to the ground on four big, meaty tires. The sides were covered in thick kevlar plates. A lone antenna mounted to the roof cast its shadow on the earth like a pair of metal antlers. A century ago, supercell storms might take hours to form, but today, mesocyclones descended within moments and tornadoes wrecked the planet with the might of nuclear bombs. This van was built for hunting weather.
Its driver breathed a sigh of relief. He was an older man, late forties, cheeks marked with stubble, hair damp with grease. Despite the disheveled appearance, his face crinkled with ambition. After the near miss in Kansas, they’d been out of fuel and emptied of hope. The smart thing to do would have been to turn back, head home, tough it out through the long days in the mines and the wailing children and the rations that tasted like dust.
But if Riggs Robinson was smart, he wouldn’t be driving the van. He wouldn’t have earned a reputation for surviving weather that, depending on who you talked to, made him hated, feared, or loved. He often thought to himself, during the long, star-flecked nights of driving before they caught a storm, that if he were smart, then maybe he and Gary wouldn’t have to be so desperate.
Then again, if they weren’t so desperate, they probably wouldn’t have found this tornado. If they could make it to the center, break it apart, and capture its energy, they’d earn enough money from the Martians to kiss this rock goodbye and live like the kings of Olympus Mons.
New rain began to fall in drops, slowly at first, then in fast, regular drum beats. Thunder followed, booming. Lightning came last, huge bolts that splintered and cooked the air.
Riggs’s left knee jittered when he got nervous, and right now it rattled like a jackhammer.
Gary climbed into the front seat beside him. He had just turned eighteen this season and celebrated by piercing his right ear with a tiny golden weather vane. As Riggs drove, the jewelry spun in small, aimless circles, unsure where its compass should land.
“You see the hook?” asked Gary. As a navigator, he spoke in facts. Gary loved his computers and could translate what the drones saw into a language Riggs could make use of. So when Gary asked if Riggs saw the hook, what he really meant was they were headed right into a shitload of trouble.
Riggs didn’t need convincing. The tornado looked as if it was being ripped down from the sky. The hunters of Old Earth called a tornado the Black Wind. Before the age of science, people thought them demons, spawned by Satan to punish humanity for its sins. Riggs knew better than that. Weather wasn’t holy. It was chaos.
“Cheer up, Gary, our problems are about to be behind us.” He squeezed the kid’s shoulder. He wanted to look him in the eye, tell him he was proud, rally their spooked spirits. But Gary’s eyes were wide with terror and Riggs was no good at speeches.
“We can’t go in, old man. That thing’s gonna be an EF9.”
Riggs watched the storm wall gather strength and tightened his grip on the wheel. “Your systems must be fritzing. That’s an EF5, max.”
“I triple checked. The anemometers, the mesonet, the radar. We gotta turn back.”
Riggs took the measure of the storm. The tornado was warm air rising and cold air falling. It was black and dizzied violence. Could she really punch past five hundred miles per hour? There’d only been one storm in history that had ever topped that power on the Enhanced Fujita scale, and it was the reason three-fourths of Texas now lived in bio-caves buried underground.
“An EF9…” The thought of it made him jumpy. But they’d paid too much to get their hands on a TSIKE stable enough to break the tornado. Riggs could already feel the spray of a hot shower, taste the rocket champagne they’d sip while watching Earth’s atmosphere fall away. “I promised your mother,” Riggs finally said, which they both knew meant they were going in.
Gary’s reply was cold as rain. “If we go in there, we’re dead. The drones won’t survive. The hail will rip the plates off and the roof wide open. We won’t even get close enough to pierce the outer wall, let alone have a chance at finding the center.”
Riggs responded by goosing the gas. He didn’t feel guilty, but then guilt went away after he lost Maria. Along with almost everything else. The van’s wheels churned the earth like butter. The storm roared its welcome.
Gary was already strapped into his chair in the back by the time the anemometer drones hit the wind wall. Eight became three as two birds exploded in orange bursts and three more collided and got smashed to smithereens. Gary’s hands flew across the keyboard to stabilize the survivors long enough to give them a clear shot inside. “North fifteen!” he shouted, eyes dancing, fingers sliding across the keys in a symphony of mechanical clicks.
Riggs turned the wheel and gave his body to the van. Rain hammered on the windshield like a hail of silver arrows. The storm expanded, churning, engulfing the remainder of the sky until the world was a darkened swirl of blues and blacks and the elms and oaks and hickory trees shivered beneath their leafy coats. The wall looked unassailable but Riggs had faith in Gary and as the van shot through, his last thought was that they were never not pretty, like the most dangerous women.
And then they were inside. The wheel had a mind of its own and Riggs’s back burned from the strain of pulling against it as the van pinwheeled under winds that shoved and bullied. Through the madness, Riggs drove, a living conduit between Gary, barking directions, and the wheels, screaming and sliding on the mud.
“Drones are dead!” he heard Gary shout and Riggs’s eyes were blinded when a lightning bolt disemboweled a tree.
Riggs slammed on the brakes and the van shook in protest. With the drones down, it meant it was time for the minutemen to do their job.
Stacked together in a large tin crate, the minutemen were colored spheres in shades of blue and grey. They were an invention of Gary’s; notched with indentations, the spheres unfolded into tiny, high density robots, a miniature assortment of bipeds and quadrupeds, some on wheels. Unlike the anemometer drones, the minutemen didn’t transmit meteorological data. Instead, they were made of cheap, throwaway parts that would be destroyed at any moment they met life threatening danger. Riggs just had to follow the survivors through the storm and they’d have a safe path to the center, provided Gary could keep the robots alive long enough. He controlled them not by keyboard but through a thinking cap, a thin brown piece of leather buckled to his skull.
Riggs watched Gary ready the toy soldiers at the van’s back door. He saw Gary stretch and heard his neck and fingers pop like champagne corks. He hooked his arms into a metal harness, snapped the belt shut tight, then wrenched open the back door. The minutemen came to life and, heedless of the danger, leapt out into the rain. They charged ahead into the storm, pistons pumping.
“Cover your head!” Riggs swerved as giant shards of deadly hail battered the sides of the van. Releasing the brake in a seamless motion he followed the line of robot soldiers even as they were gobbled up by the wind. Adrenaline coursed through him. Close to the edge of death was where he always felt most alive. “We need a vector!”
“The storm’s eating us up.” Gary slammed the door shut behind his robots, then turned his focus to controlling them, arms rising and falling like the conductor of an orchestra. “Go west two eighty five!”
The van lifted up on one side as Riggs gave the wheel a fierce turn. If they hadn’t put spikes on the tires last month they’d be spinning out, but the treads dug into the mud and he wrestled to hang on as they caromed deeper into the storm. The eye was a constantly moving target; the cyclone gaining momentum and expanding; the tendril at the bottom rotating around a fixed, unwavering point. One eye on the radar, the other on the road, Riggs watched the tornado shred the minutemen into confetti.
“Fuck!” Suddenly Gary screamed, and a sound like a great and violent tearing erupted from behind them. Papers whistled past and pinned themselves against the dash. Wind crashed into Riggs’s side, a barrage of poisoned knives. Rain washed up against his feet, soaked the soles of his shoes and left him with a feverish chill.
“Are you okay?” He heard his bellowing voice through the violent churning of the brakes. The radar still worked, which meant Gary wasn’t dead and there were still at least some surviving minutemen. “Gary?” He threw the van into park and unbuckled from the seat. Bracing against the ceiling, he heaved himself through the beaded curtain and entered the back of the van.
He found himself up to his knees in water. A long column of ice had somehow impaled itself through both sides of the van, tearing open a wide, gaping hole in the left side. Riggs yelled for Gary but he could not see or hear him. Frantic, he took a gulp of air and submerged himself underwater, but the water stung his eyes, and it was dark and impossible to see.
He came up for air, desperate and cold. The computer screens showed just a handful of blips. Every few seconds, another minuteman would blink out like a Christmas light gone dead. Next to the screens, the TSIKE stood rooted to the floor. A product of years of complex engineering work, the silver barrel was a marvel of man’s triumph over the weather. But it was a useless trinket here.
Riggs slumped back, acutely aware of how much his bones ached. He noticed blood leaking from his knee, and reached down to feel something sharp and jagged had made a new home in his cartilage. Grimacing, he pulled the shrapnel out. Life was a shitpile full of setbacks. Mars had always seemed like a great escape plan, but maybe it was just the delusion that he could one day feel good again, and build a farmhouse with his bare hands.
A pale arm shot up out of the water. Gary followed, spluttering and gasping. Behind him, he hauled a coil of heavy rope that was attached to a white suit of bulky armor. Seeing Gary made Riggs realize the extent of his terror. His feelings exploded into gratefulness and he enfolded Gary in a hug.
Gary scowled, his face pinched. Then his face broke out into a beaming grin. “EF9, I told you!” Meanwhile he set to work pulling one leg after another into the armor.
“Gravity suit? But why would you–”
“It’s not a discussion.” Gary zipped himself inside and inflated the suit through a switch. The puffy material filled with pressurized air, expanding like a balloon. When inflated, the armor took on programmatic mass that could simulate up to ten times the weight of the van. A man wearing a gravity suit could theoretically tether himself to the vehicle with the rope, then walk in the wind like an astronaut out for a stroll on the moon. “The drones are dying or dead. We’re too deep into the cone to get out now. This,” he said, snapping the hooks on his helmet, face only visible now through a plane of misted glass, “is the only way. I navigate, you drive. That’s our deal.”
The minutemen might be dead to rights, but in a gravity suit, Gary could lead them to the eye. The problem was the rope. While the suit would weigh him down, and had a high chance of withstanding hydrometeors or lightning, the rope could be cut like a ribbon. And if the rope snapped….
“No,” said Riggs, while the wind howled around them. “I won’t let you risk it.”
Gary squeezed Riggs on the shoulder and pulled him in close, where he could hear him. “I’ll get us through. We’ll break this bastard. We’ll suck it in and sell it all and be on that rocket.” They clasped hands. “I’ve followed you all this time,” said Gary. “Now you follow me.” Then he jumped.
Riggs watched him go for a moment. His eyes were heavy, his hands and throat were raw. But when Gary walked around the van Riggs followed to the driver’s seat, trailing a stream of blood behind him. The storm was wild and furious. Lightning exploded around Gary like the sky was throwing fits. Yet they’d somehow survived and had one last, surreal chance.
Through the windshield, Riggs watched Gary crack a pair of lightsticks and stab them into the mounts on the sides of his suit. He watched him take steady steps, one by one through the howling wind. The wind must feel us, Riggs thought. It must know what we want to do. The tornado wasn’t bound by their rules. It raged and destroyed until it decided it was done, and then it vanished into the mist, leaving broken things behind. On Mars, they didn’t have tornadoes. Only smog and dust, so fine it could sneak into your bronchioles and linger there for months, until one day you’ve got no hair and two months left and you can’t even rest by the water because we decided to build casinos before we terraformed lakes.
But that was being human, and in that sense, nothing much had changed for millions of years.
They made progress slowly, Gary towing the rope, rope towing the van, Riggs following and watching. All the while, the van drank in the water and spit out the wind, and hail and lightning crashed around them. Sailors in a tsunami on the ancient seas.
Then Gary took a step, and the rope snapped.
The wind seized the moment. It snatched Gary in its jowls and tore him from the earth.
Its jaws opened and the van got swallowed too, and Riggs was in the sky screaming like everything else.
There were no purple thunderclouds here. Gold sunlight warmed him through a hole in the roof of the barn. He could hear blue jays chirping and smelled the scent of hay on his hands. It felt like one of those afternoons where he’d already helped Maria with the plowing and he had nothing much else to do until Mitch came back from the lake with the fish. They’d either eat salmon for dinner or they wouldn’t, and then they’d play gin rummy all night until they all passed out drunk from laughing.
Riggs smiled, flat on his back on top of a bed of straw. He felt familiar motion on his right, and a small hand interlocked with his and raised it to rest atop a bump that still felt as strange and mysterious as dreaming. Maria squeezed his fingers and as she did the bump made a tiny kick. They both shot up, excited but for vastly different reasons. Riggs never knew that pride could be so powerful, but then Maria coughed and he felt afraid.
After the wheezing trickled off he kissed her forehead and she looked up at him. She didn’t take shit from anyone, but he knew she was afraid by the way her tongue touched the gap between her teeth. He felt so lucky to have met her when he did, in between jobs and ducking into Fifth Street Cafe for a burger he could barely afford. She’d been reading a book about fixing up vans.
Riggs gathered her hair into his chest and tried not to think about Mars denying them for the third straight time, even as the clouds overhead gathered speed, coming together like a trio of town gossips. He needed to go, but she didn’t want to let him get in the van.
An alarm sounded now. A shrill blast, repeating in the distance. The sky turned a shade of purple like Riggs knew it had to be. Her hair was blowing now, as if sucked backwards by a vacuum in time and space. Nothing stays put in this world, he thought. Not even the sky.
Funny how the world could suck your whole life up, like the walls of a barn collapsing. Just like that.
Riggs opened his eyes to a world burning. His seatbelt had him pinned to the ceiling, looking down on a bed of shattered glass. His muscles screamed in protest, but with great effort, he reached for his belt loop and released the metal catch. Falling like a stone, he smashed forearms first into the glass and felt the pieces dig deep into his skin.
There was a hole where the driver’s side window used to be. Riggs kicked at the door but the metal had been wedged deep into the earth. His ears rang and he didn’t know which way was up but he was breathing, so he crawled. Snakelike, he slithered on his belly out of the hole and dragged himself onto the mud.
He was still alive. The wind was eerily calm and small drops of rain pelted his face at random. He was in the center of a mud-slicked field that looked to be about a mile long. The van was smashed and smoking, but somehow he was safe. And caging him on all sides was a towering, phantasmagoric wall of black wind.
By some lucky roll of the dice, he’d gotten tossed like a sack of potatoes and landed inside the eye of the tornado. If God was real, then give him a sold out show at the Laughing Man Theater.
Riggs tried to stand, but his right knee didn’t like that plan. It liked staying bent at a wrong angle instead. The van didn’t look any better. They’d landed upside down and backwards, the front smashed into the earth by a godlike sledgehammer, and tiny flames licked at the dirt and grass and ground. Even though the front was demolished, the wheels shattered chunks of molten rubber, the back end stood upright, the rear door open. If Riggs was somehow still breathing maybe the TSIKE was still there too.
Nope. He didn’t have to drag himself far to see that the van was dead empty.
He leaned back and let his fingers sink into the mud, wishing he had a cigarette to light. He supposed the storm would finally get him now too. The winds would close in, and this time they’d snap his back and neck and knock his teeth out, too. If by some whim of chance the cyclone lost its energy and wisped out, he’d probably die of thirst or hunger before anyone found him. The only people fast to storm-touched territory were other chasers, and most would be happy to do with one less competitor.
That was what Riggs’s life amounted to. You chased a dream for a pot of gold. If you were lucky, maybe you got to see a rainbow after the rain.
Riggs wanted to laugh but he just felt so damn tired. So he rolled over instead, intending for the tornado’s walls to be the last thing he ever saw.
Instead, he saw the TSIKE. Standing there, some kind of middle finger to Mother Earth. The silver cylinder stood there like it had laid roots in the ground. Riggs bit down on his lip and crawled his way over. Gary’s rope was still attached, severed by the wind but lightly waving. With great effort Riggs pulled himself up to the top of the barrel by his elbows and groped the metal for the starter. He found it waiting and flicked the switch with his thumb.
Like a groundhog poking its head out in February, the antenna came up and released a miniature turbine that began to rotate around itself. It spun, slowly at first, then faster and faster until it began to discharge a crystalline material invented at great cost by Earth’s finest engineers. The golden material gathered in density until it formed a tight sphere, and then a laser beam shot upward along the channels of crystal and burst into the sky, superheating the tornado’s sides.
The wall of winds began to race at speeds incomprehensible to man or machine. If someone had been watching, they might think that Riggs was a god of weaving, spinning the wool of the storm inward into the crystal channels with his bare and broken hands. The TSIKE drank the tornado, in great and greedy gulps, and moved its charged particles along the crystal rod to steer the storm itself. It steered it around in a wide circle, the circle collapsing again and again, until the TSIKE had swallowed all it needed to and the tornado vanished from the sky.
Riggs fell to the ground, gasping.
The night sky cleared and became a tapestry of stars, a network of satellites and flying rockets. The birds and animals would come to find him soon. When they did, they’d find trees shucked from the land and a barrel with enough power inside to light up all the tunnels on Earth for the next hundred and fifty years.
Laughter came easy for him now, at the end. As he lay on his back and saw Mars shining, Riggs Robinson knew that he and Gary had broken the storm together.
And that was enough.