by Bob Shaw

For several moonspins now—like a field lying fallow, like a steel blade shedding its fatigue—I have been waiting and resting. But lately a sense of imminence has grown and I have taken to night-riding in the silent sled, soaring over the city’s trembling lights or drifting low in a Debussy prelude ambience of moonlight and towers, fulfilling childhood dreams of flight. At times I hover close to stolid old buildings, filling my eyes with the details of their crenels and corbels, but such things look strangely irrelevant when viewed from close anchorage on a tide of dark winds. They produce a sense of unease and vertigo, of a dangerous ending to the volant dream, and I turn the sled away, wondering what the birds must think of us.

Selena has gone with me on several of these aerial excursions, on nights when neither of us could sleep, yet I know they make her unhappy. Percipient to a wonderful degree though she is, a streak of practicality in her nature forces her to question my “profession“. We talk about having children—I have been assured I will breed neither mooncalves nor mutants—and while she nods in agreement her eyes grow smoky with doubt. Who could blame her? Only I can sense the ethereal migration of electrons and scry the shadows of lightning flashes yet unborn.

It is coming at last—the first storm of the season.

Archbold called me this morning but I had been aware for hours and said so. Even had the weather satellites not fallen dumb in their orbits I would have been the first to know, I told him haughtily. But his sole concern, of course, was that I could deliver.

As a true child of World War Three Point Three Repeating, I feel sorry for Archbold. He sits there in his underground rooms like a mole, his whereabouts marked by that single steel mast and the blankets of meshed cable whose oxidation has done odd things to the colours of the surrounding vegetation. The same political and nuclear forces that brought me into being have reduced his kind to their present lowly station. Scientists are generally unloved but GlobeGov is too wise and experienced to ban their activities. All that was necessary was to withdraw fiscal and fiduciary support. Now Archbold, the archetypal physicist, languishes underground, dreaming of the 300GeV accelerator that has lapsed into decay at Berne and relying on biological sports like me.

If the truth were told, some of his colleagues would like to get me under the knife and probe for extra organs or neural abnormalities which might explain my existence. But even Archbold would never countenance dissection of a goose that lays a billion golden eggs in every clutch.

It is almost here, this first storm of the season, and I can sense its strength. All day warmly humid air has been streaming upward over the streets and quiet terraces of Brandywell Hill. Water from the sea, the river, the pale rectangular emeralds of the private pools has been swirling aloft into a white anvil of cloud ten miles high. Scrying into the misty universe of cumulo-nimbus I was able to “see” the moisture of its central up-seeking column condense and freeze into hailstones which, having strayed from the geometries of the normal world, were unable to fall. Dancing on the awesome chimney current, they rose higher and higher until the force of the current was exhausted, then spewed out in all directions, carrying cold air down with them. And as the vast process continued my excitement grew, for the electrons within that cloud had begun their inexplicable migration to its base. Up there, not far above the coping stones of the city’s towers, they gather like spermatozoa—and their combined pressure grows as irresistible as the force of life itself.

Selena sees nothing of this—but I am delirious with pleasure over the fact that, for the first time, she is accompanying me to meet a storm. Tonight I will be able to make her feel with my senses, let her know what it is like to ride herd on a billion times a billion elementary particles. Tonight I will drink fulfilment from her eyes. Our sled soars high in the fretful air. Selena lies, pale and nostalgic, in the cup beside me as the shivering craft describes slow circles in the darkening sky. But for once my eyes are elsewhere.

“Look, my darling.” I point down to the patient, shimmering lights of an isolated suburb glowing broochlike in the shape of an anchor.

She looks over the edge and her face is expressionless. “I see nothing.”

“There’s nothing for your eyes to see—yet—but a ghost is slipping through those houses.” I pick up the sled’s microphone. “Are you ready, Archbold?”

“We’re ready,” his voice crackles from the darkness trapped in the hollow of my hand.

“In less than a minute,” I say, setting the microphone down. This is where my work begins. I try to explain it to Selena. Above us the cloud is tumescent with electrons as its incredible negative charge increases, and on the ground beneath it an equally great positive charge is formed like an image in a mirror. As the cloud drifts, the earth’s positive charge—a shadow only I can “see”—follows it, hopefully seeking its own fulfilment.

The image glides silently and eagerly across the ground, climbing trees, scaling the mossy steeples and towers. It races into houses and ascends water pipes, television antennae, lightning conductors, anything that can bring it closer to its elusive cloud-borne partner. And none of the people and dreaming children and watchful animals can even feel its transient, engulfing presence.

Suddenly Selena is sitting upright—the electrical potential has come so close to orgasm-point that it manifests itself to normal senses. A thin white arm reaches down from the base of the cloud.

“Archbold calls that a leader,” I say through dry lips. “A gaseous arc path, reacting to electricity like the gas in a neon tube.”

“It seems to be searching for something.” Her voice is small and sad.

I nod abstractedly, spreading the net of my mind, once again awed at my power to control—even briefly—the unthinkable forces gathering around us. To our right the leader hangs, hesitating a moment, thickening and brightening as the electrons in the cloud swarm into it. Then it reaches down again, extending to several times its former length, I glance toward the ground and realise it is time for me to act. The activity of the positive particles on earth has increased to the point where streamers of St. Elmo’s fire are snaking upward from the highest points. Yearning arms stretch from the tops of steeples. At any second one of them will contact the down-seeking leader—and when that happens lightning will stalk the brief pathway between earth and sky.

“I see it,” Selena breathes. “I live.”

At that moment I strike with my brain, exerting that miraculous power, that leverage which can be obtained only when one’s neural system branches into crevices in another continuum. The leader, flame-bright now, changes direction and moves southward to where Archbold is waiting in his underground rooms. On the ground beneath it the positive image also changes course, its white streamers reaching higher, in supplication, in—love.

“Now, Archbold,” I whisper into the microphone. “Now!”

His telescopic steel mast, driven by explosives, spears up into the sky and penetrates the leader, absorbing its charge. The ground image leaps forward eagerly but its streamers are sucked down as it encounters Archbold’s carefully spread blankets of steel mesh. Both charges—cloud-borne negative and earth-bound positive—flow down massive cables. In an instant their energy is expended, far below ground, in one of the experiments with which Archbold hopes to achieve a true understanding of the nature of matter by accelerating particles to speeds far greater than they ever achieve in nature. At this moment, however, I am not concerned with the physicist’s philosophical absurdities and arcana.

“They’ve gone,” Selena says. “What happened?”

I hold the sled on its course with unsteady hands. “I delivered the power of a lightning strike to Archbold, as I promised.”

She examines me with dismayed eyes, her face a calm goddess-mask in the instrument lights.

“You enjoyed it.”

“Of course.”

“You enjoyed it too much.”

“I—I don’t understand.” As always, a strange sad weakness is spreading through my limbs.

“I won’t give you children,” she says, with the peacefulness of utter conviction. “You have no instinct for life.”

The storm season is almost over now. I have not seen Selena since that night and I often muse about why she left me. She was right about the nature of my work, of course. There would be no vegetation or animals or human beings on Earth were lightning not there to transform atmospheric nitrogen into soil-nourishing nitric acids. And so by diverting the great discharges into Archbold’s lair I am, in a very small way, opposing my mind and strength to the global tides of life itself. But I suspect that my infinitesimal effect on the biosphere is of no concern to Selena. I suspect she has a more immediate, more personal reason for rejecting me.

There is no time to think about such things now, though. Another storm is coming, perhaps the last of the season—and I must fly to meet it.