“Results, not theories!” barked the angry Director, “The Board didn't insist I personally visit this shambles of a colony so I could listen to your excuses!”
Administrator Toukka winced at the pacing Director Valta's displeasure, the viperous woman was known for her intolerance even on a good day, and today was certainly not a good day. Nonetheless, he marshalled his best diplomatic tone and pushed his point.
“To fully appreciate the situation, I really think you should hear Doctor Yuskollin out.” Toukka saw the impact of his words as the Director fixed him with a cold glance. Toukka broke eye contact, taking a slow breath as he stared out at the billowing cloudscape on the holoscreen behind the seething woman. Then he looked across the table to the elderly Doctor Yuskollin, who sat sombrely, brow furrowed.
The Director bit back another snarl and followed his gaze to the impassive scientist. She waved dismissively, “Keep it short.”
Yuskollin nodded before he spoke, giving Toukka the briefest of glances to indicate that he held little faith in their cause.With the calming yet engaging voice of an experienced lecturer, he explained, “The cause of the reduced yield of gas products is as a result of increasingly frequent and unpredictable changes in atmospheric conditions. We have repeatedly innovated to overcome these varied environmental challenges, but it seems that for every solution we deploy, the conditions change almost immediately - bypassing countermeasures and destroying extractor equipment.”
Director Valta's eyes narrowed and she spoke in a tone which mimicked the doctor's calm timbre, but with added predatory menace.
“Are you trying to tell me you've been out-innovated... by clouds?”
Yuskollin smiled. “Well in a sense, yes.” Toukka watched as the scientist persevered despite the Director's derision. “With the sudden and inexplicable shifts in the chemical composition and corrosive nature of storm fronts, the evidence is increasingly suggesting that what we are seeing is something akin to an allergic reaction, or even,” he hesitated, “an intelligent response.”
Toukka grimaced as Yuskollin shared that particular pet theory. Prior to this meeting, Toukka had implored the doctor to keep his more outlandish ideas to himself. However, the Administrator was not surprised his request had fallen on deaf ears; Yuskollin's need to prove his wife's far-fetched theories had become an obsession since their recent tragedy.
“Intelligent. Response.” The Director's words fought their way slowly past gritted teeth. “Intelligent response?” She turned back to face the men, placing her hands meticulously on the black table surface before looking up with measured poise to speak in a cold, even tone. “Doctor Yuskollin,” she paused to force an entirely unconvincing smile, “I have read your file. Unlike Toukka here, you are a highly educated man. I expect nothing less than an ‘intelligent response’. However, I'm having a hard time believing that is what I'm hearing.”
Yuskollin responded, “All our data points toward...”
“NO!” the Director bellowed. Then more softly, “No, Doctor Yuskollin. ‘All our data’ points toward an unacceptable decline in the acquisition of the raw materials this colony exists to obtain. Nothing else is of concern to me, to The Board, nor to The Owner. All of whom, by the way, will be receiving an unabridged recording of this entire review.”
Well that explains the histrionics, Toukka thought to himself. He buried a wry smile as the Director continued.
“So, in the interests of your continued careers, I suggest you both consider your next few statements very carefully. The only concerns I have is how you intend rectify your woeful performance and return this operation to respectable levels of output. Both of you should take a few moments to think, then tell me exactly what the solution is.” She turned back to her study of the sky field.
For a period, the only sound heard in the meeting room was the deep, constant hum of the equilibrium generators as they maintained the facility's altitude and position. In contrast, Toukka could feel his position as Senior Colony Administrator slipping away from him, but he had one more roll of the dice.
“We could try sending manned teams to dynamically manage the extractor heads.” Toukka offered, knowing it was a desperate, cavalier suggestion, “Personnel at the sharp end might be able to read the conditions and respond to stay one step ahead and keep the gas flowing.”
Yuskollin shot Toukka a look of complete disgust. “That's not an option! You know what happened to the last team. The risk to life...”
“Yes! Good!” the Director interrupted, clapping her hands. “Finally, solutions. So, how would that work?”
“It wouldn't.” spat Dr. Yuskollin as he sat back in his chair, not shifting his berating gaze from Toukka, who continued to explain.
“The extractor heads are what do the resource gathering, remotely operated from the Extractor Control Unit. But we could modify the heads to accommodate a small crew.”
“And how would that improve yield?” asked the Director as the Yuskollin shook his head in silent disapproval.
“These heads are getting destroyed because the remote ECU crews can't respond quickly enough to the changing conditions in the storms.” Toukka went on, “Dr. Yuskollin has developed a number of adaptive defence systems which, if activated early enough, could prevent the damage.”
“But you've already tried these solutions and they have failed so far, have they not?” said the Director.
“Exactly,” interjected Toukka, “so by having eyes on scene to respond to the threats as they happen, they can react in a way that the remote operators would never be able to.”
“But with no guarantee that it would even be effective.”
“Well, your science team did manage to keep their exploration capsule in one piece. Mostly.”
A look of unadulterated fury burned across Yuskollin's face. “I...” His words failed him. He looked once more each at the Director and Toukka then, without a word, stood and walked from the room.
Toukka knew he'd landed a low blow and he wrestled with his conscience. Yuskollin had a point, there were indeed risks. But every individual who signed up to work at this or any similar facility knew that. Tragedy or not, Yuskollin's moralistic grandstanding was threatening to undermine the one chance he had of preserving both their jobs. As colony Administrator, Toukka accepted it was his role to make the hard decisions.
“Interesting.” said the Director who, apparently untroubled by such matters of conscience, was flicking through a holofile on the science team accident from the previous month. “So the upstanding Doctor Anders Yuskollin sent his daughter to her death and left his wife crippled and in a coma. All in the name of science. Hmm. I would very much like to see this Sky Bell exploration capsule. Lead the way, Mr. Toukka.”
Toukka had led Director Valta silently through the austere corridors of the facility. Like all structures built to function on gas worlds, resilience and weight were the only design considerations. Maintaining equilibrium was both law and religion, with strict controls on personal effects of every one of the hundreds of employees on each of the hovering platforms that made up the colony network. Everything necessary was built from high-strength, lightweight materials. Everything unnecessary was contraband.
Now they stood on a shielded observation platform, looking down over a scarred and pock-marked metallic sphere. A narrow shelf around the base of the orb gave the structure a more bell-shaped quality. Various malformed wrecks protruded from hardpoints on the shelf, presumably the remains of what was once scientific equipment, now nothing more than shattered evidence of the sheer power of natural forces. A circular hatch hung awkwardly from one damaged hinge.
“So talk me through what I'm looking at.” said the Director.
“This capsule was designed by Yuskollin and his science team – including his wife and daughter - to capture environmental data to help improve gas-harvesting efficiency. It would be deployed from the facility via high-tensile cable and lowered into the troposphere to gather samples, conduct experiments and so on. For the most part, it was unmanned, fitted with equipment able to be operated remotely.”
“Well, judging by the figures you've been sending my way for the past six months, it doesn't seem to have been very effective.”
“Well, that's what the Yuskollins called them. When the probe brought back some live bacteria from one of the lower strata, they all got really excited and started talking about ammonia-based life and ecosystems. They started to believe that these storms were being sent deliberately as a deterrent.”
“Hah! They really thought there was something intelligent down there?”
“I guess so. In any case, they decided it was worth a manned trip in the Sky Bell to make some observations. Whatever happened crippled the Sky Bell, destroyed most of their data and killed two of the occupants.”
“The daughter Dr. Jessica Yuskollin and...” the Director glanced briefly to her holopad, “Technician Uhrata.”
“Yep. By the time the Sky Bell was winched back up, the capsule door had been torn open and only Maeve Yuskollin was found inside, clinging to life after being exposed to who knows what. There was some evidence of the other two occupants, but it, uh... took a while to identify them. It's all in the file.”
“Hmmm. So I see.” she flicked through the text on her holopad. ‘It's inconclusive though. Events could equally be explained as a result of operator error.”
“True. Yuskollin firmly believes otherwise though.”
“Well of course he would.” Director Valta considered for a moment, “Presumably, we need him on side to make your proposal work?”
Toukka nodded, “I've got other people, but without Yuskollin's input, it'll be a slower, more risky project.”
“Then I think we should go... pay our respects.”
Through a haze of tears, Anders Yuskollin watched the slow rise and fall of his comatose wife's chest as the ventilation equipment forced air into her ruined lungs. Most of the skin on her body had been seared off in the incident and the medics had been unable to graft new tissue due to a crystalline infection that had sealed her wounds. Her condition left her too fragile to survive removal of the foreign material and so here she remained, stable against the odds, but with little hope of recovery.
“They want to send more people down there.” he whispered. “But I can't let them. Not after what I did to you and Jess. I know you wouldn't want that. Neither of you.” He looked to the framed picture of the three of them on the bedside cabinet, taken after his daughter's graduation from Hedion University in YC 93 - the three doctors Yuskollin. The poor naïve family in that holograph had no idea how it would end.
The door opened behind him. He did not react.
“Doctor Yuskollin, may we come in?” It was Director Valta's uncharacteristically sympathetic voice. She was accompanied by the toadying Administrator Toukka, presumably fresh from making a new deal with The Devil.
Yuskollin wished they'd leave, but could not find the voice to say so.
“Toukka has explained recent events to me.” she soothed, “I just want to say how genuinely sorry I am for your loss. I can't imagine how hard this must be for you to deal with.”
Yuskollin looked round at the woman, her empathy was convincing. But Toukka, who was loitering shiftily behind her, betrayed the fact that they had an agenda with his awkward body language and constipated expression.
“What do you want?” Yuskollin croaked.
“I want to help you,” the Director said without pause. “or more accurately, I want to help your wife. I've spoken with the medical director and he explained that they do not have the capability here to repair or replace the damaged tissue or effect a full revival.”
Yuskollin nodded, his reality given such voice caused an upswell of emotion he was failing to stifle. The Director's hand came to gently rest upon his shoulder.
“But what if we could get your wife treatment elsewhere that might bring her back to you? I'm sure the Board would be supportive given everything your family has sacrificed. Let us help her.”
Yuskollin's heart ached and his stomach lurched. He knew what was coming.
“And in return you want my help to risk this happening to more people?” He indicated to his wife's shattered body.
“Well, I prefer to see it as needing your help to stop this from happening to more people. If the advances you and your family have made can help pioneer a new way of atmosphere harvesting, then not only will the Board be very grateful, your name – your family's name – will become immortal.”
Yuskollin's head bowed. The pain of his grief grew sharper as hope made its edges more keen. It seemed the deal with The Devil wasn't Toukka's to make, it was his. He looked to his wife's frail form and saw two futures, both filled with sorrow and regret. But at least in one, his beloved Maeve lived.
“I'm sorry, my love. I need you.” he whispered into her ruined ear.
Then he stood with the resolve of a condemned man and made the deal.
Toukka twitched with anticipation as the senior colony personnel assembled in the executive meeting room. He had been surprised how quickly the operation had come together, but in little under six days Dr. Yuskollin had managed to oversee the complete conversion of an extractor head to accommodate a control pod for two occupants. With the Director further greasing the wheels of motivation with some financial incentives, the two “vapournaughts” had been selected from a pool of over fifty enthusiastic volunteers. Toukka had idly wondered if that was a sign that he needed to run a colony-wide psyche-screening programme.
Nonetheless, the vapournaughts and assorted support staff had been briefed and drilled, and waivers had been signed. They were scant minutes from the moment that had originally been borne of a desperate attempt to save his job, but could now very well launch his career to unexpected new heights.
Of course, showcasing the launch as some kind of corporate event had been the Director's idea; ‘A display of confidence and brand identity' was how she had put it. Showing off, in other words. But the whole build-up, as hard work as it had been, was intoxicating and only Dr. Yuskollin, now sitting quietly by himself in one corner, seemed to have been unaffected by it.
The buzzing audience fell silent as the lights dimmed. Dressed in her signature slate-grey business suit, the wiry Director Valta stepped up to the illuminated podium, the corporation logo slowly revolving on the giant holoscreen behind her.
Toukka stepped up to the podium with a nod, “Thank you Director.” He paused for a moment to compose himself, “As I speak, our two ‘vapournaught’ volunteers are piloting their extractor head deep into the troposphere. Using state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and dynamic countermeasure systems, they will be able to harvest a continuous stream of gas resource while safely protected from the conditions around them.”
He operated the podium control panel and the holoscreen behind him blinked into life to display the familiar upper atmosphere cloudscape. Toward the horizon, the twinkling of distant navigation lights indicated the presence of floating facility similar to the command centre. Beyond the structure, the azure band of the stratosphere gave way to the star-spattered heavens above. With another finger movement, the view zoomed in to the angular platform of an extractor control unit.
“We're looking at the extractor control station situated 496 kilometres north-west of our position. In a moment we'll be talking to their control room to get a better idea of what's going on.”
There was a momentary hiss as open channels were established and stabilised, then a voice spoke.
“This is Senior Control Technician Tettava at ECU bravo-intaki-uniform-three-papa. Are you receiving, Command?”
“We are indeed Tettava.” replied Toukka as the screens switched over to display the ECU's camera feed showing a bluish haze with a black cylinder extending from the left of the screen away into the distance. “We've got your visuals, what are we looking at?”
“That is the feed from our first external camera on the underside of this facility, looking along the supply conduit extending down toward the extractor head, which is in transit to the designated test point at 350 kilometres below the tropopause. We will be onlining further cameras along the route as conditions allow.”
“How are the pilots?”
“They're fine. We're in constant contact with them, and they're reporting all systems are nominal as they pass the 300 kilometre mark. At that depth, the methane clouds which you can see on your view start to give way to the ammonia and hydrogen sulphide strata. This is the upper threshold of where the volatile conditions have previously been encountered. We'll activate another camera drone to show the change.”
The picture shifted to show the shadowy image being transmitted from deep within the churning cloud layers of the troposphere. The cloudscape had taken on a deeper azure hue and the occasional static discharge would momentarily illuminate new formations. Liquid particles glistened in the electrical light and the conduit was visibly buffeted by the whirling vortices of ether dancing along its length.
Toukka glanced over to Dr Yuskollin, who was watching the feed intently with a tortured expression. He couldn't help but feel for the man, he was facing many personal demons today.
Tettava's commentary continued, “The extractor crew have arrived at their designated testing depth, reporting an ambient pressure of 1200 kPA and an external temperature of one-hundred and seventy-six Kelvin. We're patching through to the capsule feed now.”
The screen blinked for a moment, then the image of two men in a cramped cockpit came into focus. They were wearing white protective suits and secured into cradles. The heavy-jawed pilot, closest to the camera, winked playfully.
“Hi folks and thanks for flying Air Vapournaught, I'm your captain Cyrus Punainen and this is my co-pilot Frank Paita. We are currently flying at an estimated altitude of: unknown, with an expected landing time of: later. The weather outside is... a little cloudy, with a heady mix of acid rain, lightning bolts and herds of rampaging tornadoes. But we're pleased to report all systems are operating at nominal levels, we have just fired up the extraction filters and the view... is spectacular. See for yourselves.”
Toukka looked over to Yuskollin. Even in the dark room he could see the tears rolling unimpeded down his cheeks. Toukka wondered what the scientist saw that so moved him.
“Check check.” It was the co-pilot's voice. “Control, we're picking up some anomalous readings. We've recalibrated shielding elements and deflection frequencies.”
“We've got a broad pressure shift and an increase in ionised ammonia in surrounding strata.”
To Toukka' eyes, the image showed no obvious signs of change, insofar as could be assessed in an ever mutating environment.
Suddenly, the picture spun.
“Woah! Did something hit us?” The audio was still coming through, but the video, now hazy, showed only blurred, intangible shadow.
“Negative. All readings still steady.”
“Wait, what's...moving... mass...” The audio started to fragment, then cease. The picture darkened.
Toukka looked over to Yuskollin to see the doctor's head was in his hands. Every other spectator sat in morbid silence. Toukka thumbed the comm. “Extractor Control? What's going on?”
“Uh..we're trying to re-establish contact, but we're getting no incoming data. The 300k camera is still up though. Switching the feed.”
The picture returned to the view from the remote camera showing the writhing conduit. As before the conduit trailed into darkness as it twisted in the winds, but now with more violence. The conduit thrashed as electricity arced along its length and vapour coalesced around it. Dark clouds beyond shifted angrily and began to expand like an erupting fountain.
Tettava spoke again, tension in his voice, “Our sensors are picking up a storm front that makes no sense. It's moving retrograde to the tropospheric current with huge force and speed. It's... it's following the conduit. Permission to detach?”
Toukka felt sick. He looked over to Yuskollin to find the scientist staring at him with an unreadable expression. The camera feed blinked to darkness as the raging cloud consumed it. The view shifted to the camera attached to the underbelly of the Extractor Control Station. The usual, gentle blue haze of hydrogen and helium had already darkened and distant flashes from the growing storm could be seen in the depths.
“Administrator?” Tettava's panic was evident, “The incoming pressure spike is enormous. We're going to have to detach the conduit and engage emergency protocols.”
Storms were not unprecedented and every gas colony facility was designed to withstand phenomenal forces, but to do so required all non-emergency processes to be shut-down and protruding structures to be withdrawn or detached.
“Understood. Go ahead.” Toukka's throat was dry.
He watched as the conduit silently disappeared into the expanding maw of the storm and with it, any hope of the vapournaughts' survival. Then the feed cut off as the camera deactivated.
“What's going on?” The Director had appeared beside him.
“We've lost the extractor head and the incoming storm has forced the ECU into lock-down.”
The woman pursed her lips in frustration, but said nothing. She operated the podium control to bring up the external view still focused on the distant extractor facility. Sensor rods, hanging like stalactites from the underside of the structure were slowly retracting. Resilient bulkheads slid across fragile surfaces. Then, with all safety procedures complete, Tettava re-established contact,
The signal died. They watched as the tranquil foothills of rolling hydrogen vapour beneath the distant platform buckled and erupted as a violent mass of dark, roiling cloud vomited upward, spitting lightning and acid as it consumed the fragile facility. The helpless onlookers watched it fragment and shatter even before it was enveloped by the growing, enraged storm.
“It's turning.” The fear-filled voice of Dr. Yuskollin stated as he rose from his seat and paced toward the podium, not taking his eyes from the holoscreen.
“What?” spat the Director. They watched the expanding storm front as it continued to pump out from the lower atmosphere like an overflowing geyser.
“Don't be daft man.” said Toukka scornfully, “It's just reached its zenith and now it'll just spread and dissipate along the pressure gradient.”
“No. No it won't.” Yuskollin said with morbid certainty. “It's coming for us.” He turned to the grey-suited woman. “This, Director, is your intelligent response.”
“That's ridiculous.” she retorted as the increasingly disturbed audience began to fluster and move toward the exit. “Sit down you idiots!” she bellowed at the fleeing crowd. “It's five-hundred kilometres away.” They paid her no heed.
“I'd say that storm front is doing well over a thousand metres per second.” said Yuskollin, “Five hundred kilometres is nothing, it'll be on us in minutes.”
“I'll engage lock-down.” said Toukka, desperately.
“Yes, that worked well for them, didn't it.” replied the doctor, without humour.
“Then we need to leave, what are the escape procedures?” the Director asked earnestly. Toukka shook his head.
“The Hohmann mass driver has a single lifeboat projectile. But it'll mean scuttling the entire colony and abandoning all personnel not able to get to it in time.”
“Do it.” she ordered.
Toukka thumbed the comms control.
“All hands, this is Administrator Toukka. This is a state of emergency. I have been authorised to abandon the colony. I repeat, all facilities are to follow evacuation procedures and proceed to lifeboats where possible or engage lock-downs where not.” He disabled the comms and looked to Doctor Yuskollin who was still watching the oncoming storm front intently. “How long?”
The doctor shrugged. “Probably less than five minutes.”
“Then let's go.”
The heaving tide of panicked bodies seemed to propel Doctor Yuskollin forward. Peversely, he was at peace as all those around him grew increasingly frantic. Yuskollin was barely aware of Toukka's firm grasp on his arm, dragging him along. He thought of his wife. He had failed her. Her suffering would soon be over but his would continue. Perhaps it was a fitting punishment for making the deal with The Devil.
Toukka led Yuskollin and the Director as he forced a path through the mob to the launch platform entrance and thumbed the door open button. It remained closed.
Yuskollin was vaguely aware of an increasingly aggressive conversation between Toukka, the Director and several mob members, but he paid it no heed. He was drawn to the nearby viewport looking out onto the emergency launch platform. Peering through, he could see the broad chamber was in darkness. Neatly arranged emergency equipment led up to the four lifeboat entrance portals. In contrast to the increasingly feverish mob, it looked peaceful in there.
Then, his attention was drawn to a single figure standing by a control panel. His old eyes struggled to make out any detail, especially in the darkness.
The world shuddered and Yuskollin was thrown hard against the corridor wall. The storm had arrived.
A nearby sound alerted him to the fact that the crowd had somehow gained access to the launch platform and the mob poured in, the emergency lighting blinking on as they did so. The mysterious distant figure was illuminated at the very same moment the storm tore open the facility.
He saw his wife, Maeve.
As corrosive, alien winds howled in through widening cracks and flayed the crowd, dissolving clothing, skin and bone, he watched as the ether caressed Maeve's ruined body. He felt a chest-bursting sense of love and relief as she crumpled to the ground and wisps danced from her form to join the cacophony of destruction. He smiled.
“You were right, my love. They were here all along.”
With a final scream of distressed metal and the roar of elemental wind, his conscience became unclouded. As he drew his last acid-filled breath, Doctor Anders Yuskollin accepted the judgement and found peace.