In a Season of Storms
by Harry Lang
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
The descending ship lost its footing in the cold autumn night of equatorial Uranus and tumbled like a leaf, down toward the mouth of the cyclone spinning far below.
Olivia Gray stirred in her sleep as she fell. Her pale, willowy legs and delicate porcelain feet twitched and kicked against the twisted folds of her black mourning sari as she dreamed of a grand old house where she ran from room to dusty room, searching, fighting her way to freedom. Sometimes a young girl’s hand gripped hers, drawing strength to struggle and keep up. Sometimes Olivia pushed the little hand away...
“Are we there, Philip?” Olivia called from the edge of the dream, untouched by the violence of the ship’s fluttering descent. The luxuriously appointed passenger compartment was built to minimize the effects of the fiercest turbulence the old ice giant could dish out, and the dream potion she had taken at the start of the flight was still at work. She was aroused by the intrusion of tension as her dreams turned to the landing at her childhood home and the funeral soon to follow.
“About an hour, Miss,” answered S. A. Philip Zant smoothly as he gave up trying to decipher the nonsense of the black sky and dizzying instrument readouts. He never would have approached along this trajectory if he had known the danger, but this was humanity’s first autumn on the green world. Nothing was predictable.
Philip closed his eyes and relied on his inner ear for information and intuition to guide his hands, something he had trained countless pilots never to do. The manual told him to fire thrusters and energize force fields to regain stability, but his years of flying in the alien atmosphere told him to unfurl the craft’s membranous golden wings and let the winds work for him instead of against him.
The fusion-powered shuttle, an opulent but rugged relic from the gilded age of the Uranian cloud estates, seemed to be much happier under sail than under power and soon glided smoothly and easily, bleeding off speed and the dangerous heat of aerodynamic friction, skipping along the ferocious currents like a stone across a rippling pond.
Lights sparkled in the abyss below, sometimes spread in dim, sparse constellations, sometimes concentrated in ordered rings and grids. There were cities floating above the clouds. There were siphons collecting helium-3, the gold of the bland green world. There were refineries, factories, homes, theaters and shops. There were parks sealed within domes and farms illuminated to augment the feeble sunlight or growing crops engineered to thrive in the local lighting conditions. There was everything anybody could ever need.
“Miss Olivia,” called Philip. Wisps of clouds glowed blue in the indigo sky overhead and a smudge of illumination outlined the distant horizon. The dim profiles of individual structures added depth to the awakening skyscape passing below, growing in complexity as the ship descended.
Olivia opened her diamond-hued eyes. Sleep had done nothing to fortify her for the ordeal waiting just beyond dawn. She abandoned the passenger compartment and made her way forward, struggling against the pitching, rocking motions of the ship riding the warming winds.
“Yuhwa City,” noted Olivia, pushing back a wisp of silvery blonde hair as the ship glided over a floating metropolis tinged with the rosy glow of the faraway sun. “About fifteen minutes?”
“Seventeen and a half,” answered Philip as Olivia slid into the copilot’s seat beside him. She knew nothing about flying a spacecraft, but she was agitated and tired of the smothering luxury of the passenger compartment.
The city retreated as the ship pressed on toward the sun. The clouds below rolled in waves of blue and deep violet, breaking upon each other in collisions of conflicting winds, piling up into mountainous formations or stretching toward infinity in flat, pastel fields. Like prairies, thought Olivia, whose experience of sweeping expanses of waving grass was purely virtual. Like oceans, the thought continued. Like deserts...
There were no more cities to see as the craft moved out across the “country” region beyond Yuhwa City, where the mercantile families of Uranus kept their floating mansions. Somewhere out in the emptiness above the clouds, the Kwon family estate waited to welcome Olivia home.
“Here we go,” announced Philip. The craft dropped and wheeled before Olivia even spotted the great house emerging from the morning mist. Its appearance always caught her by surprise, as if the palatial white and emerald structure with its domes and towers, bridges and floating out-buildings respected her wish not to find it but was powerless to remain concealed. Tennis court, she noted indifferently, rose garden, servants’ module...
The beautiful parts of the structure were fixed to a vast, buoyant ring by a system of braces styled to resemble the flying buttresses of gothic architecture. Hanging below the house were “the works”: ballast, stabilizers, steering gear and the massive thrusters for positioning the leviathan. In thirty-eight years of flights to and from the estate, Olivia had never caught so much as a glimpse of its mundane mechanical foundation. Only the beauty.
The hangar dome approached swiftly, sunlight glinting from its transparent doors as they opened out like the petals of a great lotus. They were cleared for landing. Philip ignored the strict regulations of the air traffic protocols and swooped over the edge of the bright turquoise landing platform like a golden-winged dragon, stalling at dead center, then settling down to the deck in a burst of smoke and flame.
The hangar crew applauded as the doors folded back into place and warm, fresh air rushed into the sunlit space of the dome.
Olivia giggled with delight despite her bad humor. The flamboyant landing was strictly out of character for the steely-eyed, taciturn servant. He had first performed the maneuver years ago, on a dare by then six-year-old Olivia. Since that time, he landed with a flourish whenever the two of them flew together.
The house transport master, a round man with a bald, egg-shaped head and expressive, twinkling eyes, waited outside the hatch with two young, black-clad porters. He bowed to Olivia as she stepped out of the ship onto the spongy surface of the deck.
“Welcome home, Miss Kwon!” he effused. “Please accept my condolences on the passing of your mother. Madam Kwon was... forgive me.” He paused to collect himself. “Madam Kwon was a treasure.”
“Thank you,” acknowledged Olivia coldly, flinching at the old fool’s use of her father’s surname. It was no secret that she had adopted her mother’s maiden name, but the older servants couldn’t get it through their thick skulls. She would just have to steel herself.
Philip and the transport master watched Olivia make for the hangar exit with the morning sun casting long, bouncing shadows as the porters scrambled to collect her things and keep up. The two seasoned servants chuckled. The porters were new and would have to learn about Miss Olivia the hard way.
“You’re looking well, Mr. Zant,” observed the jovial transport master, raising his voice to compete with the mechanical whine of the ship’s folding wings. “Earth agrees with you, then?”
“I can’t speak for Earth, Mr. Klyke,” answered Philip, inspecting the familiar old deck with satisfaction as the hangar crew prepared his ship for short-term storage, “but there is no place like home.”
“Well, it’s grand having you back,” said Mr. Klyke warmly, “however brief the visit. But you must be famished after your flight. Your place in the servant’s hall is open, of course.” He leaned in close. “Cook has been talking about you all morning,” he said with a wink and a knowing jab in the ribs.
“Good to know. Is Mr. Tral on the premises?”
“Unfortunately, no,” answered Mr. Klyke with a worried look. “Lord Kobe was here for a visit, and Mr. Tral flew him back to the Kobe Estate. He experienced some mechanical difficulties on the flight. You know, these newer models don’t hold up as well as the time-tested masterpieces. Lord Kobe’s mechanics are working on it now, but Mr. Tral won’t be back in time for Madam’s service. I hope there won’t be repercussions. You trained the last of the breed when you trained him, Mr. Zant.”
“To be sure. Thank you, Mr. Klyke.”
Philip lingered at the center of the landing platform while Mr. Klyke supervised the removal of the ship. The sunlight was as strong as it got in the reaches of the outer system where he had spent much of his life. The sky was pure and blue as sapphire, split in half by the thin, ghostly traces of the planet’s rings directly overhead. It took no imagination at all to convince himself that there was no dome, just the natural sky and the peaceful yellow light of the distant star.
The pilot’s nostalgic reverie was pleasant but short-lived. Mr. Klyke was right. It was time to head for the servants’ hall and breakfast.
“Why, it’s Mr. Zant!” cried a familiar female voice as Philip entered the echoing rhubarb and organized chaos of the servants’ dining room. A stout redheaded woman in the formal black livery of the kitchen staff, with a pleasant, round face and the aura of an irresistible force put down a platter of flapjacks and kippers, leaving the hungry staff to fend for themselves. “Isn’t this a surprise!” she virtually squealed as she advanced upon him, all outstretched arms and beaming smiles.
“Dear Mrs. Shaje,” acknowledged Philip warmly, catching the head cook in her mad flight and embracing her with unfeigned affection. It was the most extravagant display of admiration the pilot was ever likely to part with. “How are you?”
“No time to tell, Mr. Zant,” she answered, smoothing her spotless white apron. “Mr. Hugo has us jumping, I must say! But who can blame him? A dear, dear woman, Madam Kwon! Together for forty years, they were! I must wonder how a man like Mr. Hugo will get on without a wife like Miss Muriel... But you know all that! Here, have a seat and we’ll plug that hole in your belly!”
Off she went.
Oolong tea and a steaming bowl of miso soup with a scone or two soon satisfied Philip’s most acute longings. He was just starting to consider indulging himself with a second cup when one of the porters from the hangar found a seat across from him at the long table, which was being quickly abandoned by well-fed staff leaving to take their posts.
The porter was a tall, elegant looking specimen with straight black hair and smooth, olive skin. Youthfulness radiated from his finely sculpted face. One of the newer models, Philip noted.
Copyright © 2018 by Harry Lang