Lloyd
Ritchey 

1899

Lightning split the sky above Pikes Peak, sending peals of thunder booming down the valley and grumbling across the plains. The concussions shook the square, barn-like structure crouching in a windswept field a mile east of Colorado Springs. The building’s roof sloped upward to an open section, from which there rose a slender mast capped with a polished aluminum sphere. A sign beside the barred gate read, “KEEP OUT! EXTREME DANGER!”

A flash of atmospheric fire illuminated Nikola Tesla, who observed the storm through the broad west window. He smiled, his deep-set eyes scanning the approaching thunderhead. He turned his attention to a cluster of instruments on the slanted panel before him. The glowing dials were alive, needles jerking in response to the earth’s electrical forces.

Mikhail, Tesla’s assistant, watched the inventor closely. Tesla’s concentration was unusually intense this night; the Master of Electricity had a final experiment to perform—something that involved the oncoming storm.

Lightning-fired shadows leaped across the laboratory’s cavernous interior, followed by a thunderclap that rattled the windows and drummed the pine-planked walls.
Tesla turned from the instruments and strode to a wooden platform overlooking the huge machine at the building’s center. He climbed rapidly, his long legs taking two steps at a time. He spoke over his shoulder. “We haven’t much time. See that the mast is secure.”

Outside, Mikhail climbed a hillock where he could see the free-standing steel rod that rose one hundred and forty-five feet above the roof. Silver against the dark sky, the three-foot sphere atop the rod seemed to hover without support. The sun had fallen behind the horizon, and in the purple twilight, twinkling early stars framed the glowing thunderhead. Below the storm, the yellow lights of Colorado Springs winked in warm defiance.

Mikhail entered the building and latched the door. Tesla was on the platform, bending over the control console. From his elevated position, the inventor monitored the great instrument before him—the Magnifying Transmitter—a giant coil of copper interconnected with a wizard’s tangle of electrical machinery.

“The mast is holding, sir,” Mikhail reported. “There is very little wind.”

“Good,” Tesla said without looking up. “Raise the voltage. We will be operating at full power.”

Mikhail snapped shut a bank of massive switches near the main transformer and walked to a long, insulated handle connected to the transmitting circuit. The handle would allow him to make adjustments while staying a safe distance from the lethal current that would soon surge through the apparatus. Following Tesla’s instructions, he reached up and rotated a knob, placing the numeral 8 at the center of a large dial suspended overhead.

The drumbeat of thunder became louder and more frequent. Tesla placed his hands on the console and leaned forward, lifting his gaze slightly. He resembled, Mikhail thought, a ship’s captain peering ahead toward uncharted waters.

Lightning glared through the observation window. Tesla turned to him. “Are you ready?”

Mikhail tightened his grip on the control handle. “Yes sir.”

“Then we are starting—now!”

As Tesla spoke, an electric motor whined to life, followed by the whistling whir of the rotary spark gap. Tesla grasped the handle of the transmit switch and slammed it down.

The laboratory erupted in a fury of sound and light, as if the heart of the storm had suddenly burst inside the building. The rotary gap flared blue-white, blaring like a buzz saw ripping through an oak log.

Crackling, purple fire danced from the Magnifying Transmitter’s central helix, clawing menacingly into the open air. Mikhail twisted the control handle and brought the overhead dial’s needle back to center. Tesla had never operated the machine at such power, and Mikhail tensed, preparing to run if the voltage climbed too high. Run? He smiled grimly. There would be no opportunity to run.

He imagined the scenario: electrical streamers would arc around the control handle and penetrate his arm, locking him in a bone-breaking spasm of pain. In less than a second, searing tendrils of electricity would erupt from his body, splitting his skin, exploding his head, and blasting a froth of steaming blood from a thousand rent openings. His wife would die in horror from the sight!

Tesla thrust the power lever to the right, increasing the deafening roar of man-made lightning. The coil’s crown of electricity now resembled a thousand serpents wriggling on their tails, their heads snapping and hissing as if seeking any prey foolish enough to come within striking range. Blue-white light flashed and bellowed beyond the open hatch, accompanied by a fusillade of shuddering booms. Tesla signaled that he was increasing the power to maximum.

Sound waves pounded the air. Mikhail thought his head would burst. A wind reeking of ozone and burnt insulation swept through the laboratory and rushed upward through the truncated roof. Mikhail glanced behind him; the rotary spark gap had become a mass of roaring, yellow-orange fire. Melting down from an overload of current, the whirling disk showered metallic sparks across the building like an overcharged Catherine wheel.

Mikhail jerked his hand from the control handle; the tingling in his arm was growing, presaging instant electrocution. When will Tesla shut this inferno off? He stared at the roof opening; long, zigzag streaks of electricity roared from the aluminum sphere high above the building and sizzled into the lightning-torn sky.

Tesla seized the power switch and yanked it open. Searing sparks blasted from the contacts, forcing him to cover his eyes and step back. As if imbued with a will of its own, the Magnifying Transmitter refused to stop—the noise and voltage were increasing.

“Mikhail!” Tesla shouted as he leaped down the steps. Mikhail anticipated Tesla’s move and dashed to join him.

Violent, twisting channels of electricity erupted from the coil and lashed against the floor, the deafening barrage carving branching rivers of white fire across the wooden timbers. The frenetic discharges glared with stroboscopic light, throwing the running men into stuttering silhouettes of frozen motion.

They hurled themselves against the emergency disconnect, and the bar exploded free. An electrical spark three feet long buzzed from the top connector, trying to reestablish its path, and then died. The men paused in the sudden silence, ears ringing, and then released the lever, letting it swing, creaking, back into position.

Flames curled from sections of the transmitter and rose from blackened pockmarks where electricity had arced to the floor. Snatching soda-filled buckets, Mikhail and Tesla moved rapidly and snuffed the small fires before they could become a conflagration.

“It’s ruined,” Mikhail said, wiping the grime from his brow. “It’ll take months to repair.”

The inventor laughed. “Magnificent, wasn’t it?”

The look of obsessive concentration was gone from Tesla’s face, replaced by, what—elation? After a grueling year of development and testing, his greatest invention was destroyed, and yet he laughed. Perhaps, as some had said, he was a madman after all.

Tesla smiled, his eyes glittering. “The experiment was successful, Mikhail. This is a time for celebration.” He clapped Mikhail’s shoulder and guided him toward the door. “Come to the hotel after dinner. I’ll buy us a bottle of the best wine they have in stock. I would ask your beautiful wife to join us, but tonight I will be telling you a great secret about this machine and the experiments. It would be better if you were the only one to hear.”

Mikhail nodded. Secret or not, all he presently wanted was to return home to his wife and young daughter. Yet, he had been extended a great honor. Tesla was not in the habit of confiding secrets.

After a quick meal and bath, Mikhail donned his best suit and walked to the hotel. Tesla was seated at a table in the lounge, gazing through the front window.

As Mikhail approached, Tesla smiled and said, “Just in time. I was about to taste this bottle without you.” He poured for both of them and raised his glass. “A toast—to successful experiments and the future of mankind.” He paused, his smile widening. “And to the future of Mikhail Karsov and his family.”
Mikhail followed Tesla’s example and drained his glass.

“Dr. Tesla, I greatly appreciate your kind sentiment, but I am completely baffled. I…”

Tesla interrupted. “You will have your explanation, Mikhail.” He signaled for the waiter, and then chuckled. “I think this will require two bottles of wine.”

The inventor spoke for more than an hour. Afterwards, Mikhail was stunned, his hand visibly shaking as he reached for his wineglass. Tesla had thrown him a proposition that would affect his family for generations and have an enormous impact upon the entire world. If Tesla had truly discovered what he claimed, the future would be one of paradise—or of Hell.

Mikhail left the hotel, dodging puddles as he walked down the cobbled street toward home. Sleep would be impossible; he and his wife would soon have to make the most important decision of their lives. He stopped and looked back, sighting Tesla’s room. The light would glow until early morning, for the inventor applied himself relentlessly to his work. Mikhail turned and resumed his walk, pulling his jacket tighter against the now cool, starry night.

***

Far to the south, the thunderstorm that had revealed such powerful secrets rumbled on, undiminished. It passed over the town of Pueblo and continued southward, dropping rain and hailstones on Raton Pass, then sweeping onto the plains of New Mexico, where it could be seen for a hundred miles.

***


2007

Captain Jack McCullough rocked forward and stared at the purplish light flickering on the horizon. “Pete—what the hell is that?”

Static crashed through the headphones, obliterating the copilot’s reply. “…thing’s huge. No transponder.…”

Jack banked the 767 left and watched the object creep from his field of vision. An endless strata of cumulous clouds crested a thousand feet below, ragged tops a firestorm of red in the dying sun.

The static faltered, and then stopped. Jack brought the plane back to wings level, his eyes searching the sky.

“It’s gone,” Pete said. “Bang. Just like that.” He glanced back at the radar. “The trace was soft. Maybe it was some kind of atmospheric—”

The light ignited again, closer, exactly in their path. But it was no solid mass, rather a violet flame hundreds of feet across, with a guttering nucleus that crawled with patches of orange like molten steel in a crucible. Jack threw the plane into a hard left and shoved the throttles forward. As the airframe shuddered through a wall of turbulence, the light emitted a series of bright pulses and flamed out.

“That wasn’t random,” Pete said after an interval of silence. His voice had climbed a full octave. “And it sure as hell was no atmospheric.”

***

Senator Jeff Travis felt the rising G-forces shove him downward as the plane arced into another turn. He reached beneath the laptop balanced across his son’s legs and tugged the seat belt tighter. “Not to worry, tiger. They’re probably just avoiding some weather.”

Scott jabbed the keyboard; the battling karate figures had frozen in mid-kick. “Oh, it locked up. Just when I was gonna smash you.…”

“We’ll reboot and see what happens.” Travis punched the start button and watched the screen. Instead of the usual chirps and beeps, the tiny speakers emitted a warbling electronic howl. There was a soft pop, and a wisp of smoke curled from the vents.

“Whoa!”

“Shh. Don’t get everyone riled up.” Travis lifted the machine onto his own lap and clicked it off. Let an eight-year-old play with a thousand-dollar computer.... He nudged Scott, trying to divert his attention from the aborted karate duel. “Think you’d like to be a senator someday? I think you’d make a good one.”

“Only if I get to play games.”

Travis winked. “Oh, you play games, all right.” His eyes shifted to the petite Oriental stewardess hustling along the aisle, shouting for everyone to buckle up. She looked worried—no, scared. He snapped the computer’s lid shut and stuffed it back into its case. The aircraft pitched sharply to the right. A murmur rose from the passengers.

Travis felt the breath punched out of him as the plane slammed upward. It roller coasted weightless, slashed sideways, cracked his ribs against the armrest. Metal screeched and banged; overhead bins burst and disgorged their contents into the aisle. Thunder rocked the cabin. He threw a protective embrace around his son. Someone’s detonated a bomb….

                                             ***

Jack shoved the 767 into a dive as the violet-orange glare swallowed them. He felt the yoke seize up. “I’m losing assist?” Warning lights raged across the console. Alarms blared. “Engine fire! Pete!”

Jack glanced at the copilot. He had pitched back in his seat, eyes glazed and staring. A filament of blood trailed from his nostrils and branched across his jaw. Jack punched his shoulder. “Pete!” The man’s head arched backward as taut cords of muscle stretched his mouth into a rictus. “Jesus Christ!” Jack shot his hand out and twisted the fire control handle. The entire sky blazed orange.

                                              ***

Pressure exploded inside Travis’s skull. He bent forward and gasped, his insides climbing his throat. He turned and managed to focus on Scott. The boy’s eyes had rolled back, eyelids fluttering over glistening slices of white. “Oh, my dear God!” We’ve been poisoned, or

With a crack, sparks shot from the lighting panels above the aisle. Oxygen masks tumbled from their concealed pockets and swayed in unison as the plane lurched. The lights flickered and died, throwing the cabin into semidarkness. In the starbursts from the shorting wires, Travis could see passengers reeling in their seats. Hands clawed at faces, bodies jerked, screams bubbled from constricted throats.

Beyond the miasma, in the dark alcove behind the cockpit, a glowing orb materialized like the unlidding of a phantom eye. It was the size of a beach ball, violet in hue, its core a pulsating yellow. Travis could hear it rasp and whir above the bedlam. It burst from its invisible socket and soared, spinning and twisting, down the aisle toward them. Tentacles of blue-white electricity uncoiled from its surface as it traveled and raked the cabin walls, punching out fountains of sparks where the neon shafts pierced metal, cloth, flesh…

Screams tore from Travis’s throat as the fulminating horror loomed up beside him. Whether the torrent of pain came from the fireball or from another source, he couldn’t tell.

                                               ***

A white-hot poker probed behind Jack’s eyes. The instrument panel danced through a kaleidoscope of shattered colors. If he could force his hands to maintain an even grip on the yoke, he could pull them through.

Maintain! He stared into the seething, yellow-orange sky….

Jack and Mark are pumping their mountain bikes up the Lost Canyon Trail. Legs burning, lungs bursting, they coast to a stop on the Overlook. Jack plucks his water bottle from the bike’s frame and holds it out. “Comin’ at ya’,” he says to his son, as always after they reach the top.

Mark holds his own bottle aloft. “Comin’ at ya’.”

Looking down, Jack realizes he is sliding toward the edge of the cliff. He must grasp the handlebars tightly, or the bicycle will tilt into the abyss. The bike is falling even now. He has to maintain—

                                               ***


There was only a searing incandescence, as if he had been suddenly thrust into Hell’s furnace.

STORMDRAGON

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