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Cloud Dancing · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The gramophone towers up from the fallow field that used to be part of Old Man Whitaker's place, all reddish-brown dirt where I can remember shivering greens and golds and silvers when the wind would come whisking through the corn that used to grow here.

And when I say the gramophone towers, I mean it towers: the thing's two stories tall if it's an inch, twenty-five feet on a side, I reckon, and that's just the body of it. The horn stretches up what has to be another four whole stories, a huge burnished metal flower yawning maybe forty feet across at the opening and pointed at the perfect thunderhead floating on the afternoon breeze in the blue sky due west of us.

"Of course," Dr. Tamblin explains from the passenger seat beside me as I stare at this enormous old-fashioned record player and do my best not to steer my Silverado into the ditch, "we can aim the horn in whatever direction necessary." He digs a cell phone or something like it from an inner pocket of his white lab coat. "A separate app controls the crank, so in theory, the entire mechanism could be operated remotely from anywhere within range of a satellite signal."

I'm finding it harder and harder to keep my eyes on the dirt road the closer we get. I mean, it's one thing to look at blueprints and artist's renditions when you're sitting in your living room, but to see the actual gramophone standing there as big as a grain elevator?

Tamblin puffs a little breath through his nostrils, and I can almost hear it whistle between the gray bristles of his stiffly waxed mustache. "Since it's all still experimental, however, I'd much rather be nearby when we initially set the machine into motion. For all the simulations we've run, real-world conditions are always the proof of any concept."

"Real world," I mumble, pulling us up beside the south wall of the thing and shutting down the truck's engine. "I don't rightly see that phrase getting applied to this project."

It's more a "Hmmph!" than just a puff from Tamblin this time, and he goes on in a similarly peevish tone: "My work, Mr. Bass, is perhaps a bit on the cutting edge for some meteorologists, but I assure you, when this test project proves successful, the lives I save and the property damage I prevent will be as 'real world' as anyone could possibly wish!" He flops a hand around the passenger door for a moment till he finds the handle, flings the door open, and nearly tumbles from the cab out onto the ground.

Once again, I find the words 'buckets full of money' passing through my head the way they have multiple times since Dr. Tamblin first walked into my office at Dibble Municipal Bank of Oklahoma back in January looking to rent any undeveloped patch of open ground a mile square or larger. I'd just signed the papers with Tommy Whitaker the day before, taking over ownership of his late father's whole 650 acres west of town, and the more Tamblin went on and on about what sort of land he was looking for—flat and isolated but with fairly good roads—the more the old Whitaker place sounded like the best fit.

Now, I'll admit to just a smidge of blindness. Even with the recovery after the pandemic, the economy in south-central Oklahoma's never been sputtering, and finding someone willing to put up those buckets full of money I mentioned earlier on a parcel of property that wasn't going anywhere but into the filing cabinet with all the other land the bank had taken possession of recently, well, maybe my due diligence wasn't quite as 'due' as it could've been. His lab coat and the 'University of Oklahoma' logo on his business card helped, too: I've always been a sucker for those science specials on public TV...

So papers got signed and agreements got entered into before I got around to asking him what it was all about.

And by then, it was too late.

"No one understands!" the doctor wails as I clamber out from behind the wheel and plant my Diehard Oxfords in the dirt. "I'm revolutionizing meteorology here! Melding the present with the past and moving the whole ball of wax into the future! And I do mean 'ball of wax'!" He waved a frantic hand toward the top of the gramophone's box. "Do you have any idea how much wax was involved in pressing a properly sized disk of Fletcher Henderson and the Dixie Stompers' 1927 recording of the tune 'Cornfed'? Do you?"

"Haven't given the matter much thought," I say.

But he's spinning away with more hand waving. "Not that I actually used wax, of course," he goes on, "not when the mechanism and all its components will have to stand up to such extreme conditions. But my point remains the same!"

I can't help clearing my throat. "And what point exactly is that, doctor?" Now it's my turn to wave at the giant machine. "Other than the way you've somehow convinced yourself and a group of not-too-sane investors that 1920s jazz music can prevent tornadoes?"

He snaps a glare around at me. "That's a complete and grotesque mischaracterization of my project! I have no investors! This is all funded by the university in the name of science!"

Tongue firmly in cheek, I bow my head toward him. "Well, now, don't I just stand all kinds of corrected?"

Of course, I'd called the university after he'd left my office six months ago and been informed that, while he was indeed a nut, he was a tenured nut. So to keep him off campus and away from any potential students, they were happy to shell out the couple hundred thousand dollars a year he asked for to fund what the manager of the meteorology department referred to as "Dr. Tamblin's unique research." Which meant that having him spend the next half a year out here in Dibble working on his crazy project suited them all back in Norman right down to the ground.

Tamblin gives me a crisp nod. "Apology accepted, Mr. Bass." I've asked him a dozen times, but he never calls me Elgin. "Now, if I'm reading the reports correctly"—he taps his cell phone—"we should have a perfect opportunity to run a preliminary test of the equipment."

I've had an eye on that thunderhead ever since we left town fifteen minutes ago, but I haven't been at all worried about it. What little breeze there is is coming from the east and sending the cloud away from us. And even then, while it looks like it might hold a bit of a gullywasher, I don't see it spawning a tornado.

Still, after you've lived in this part of the world for as long as I have, you learn not to take anything for granted. "If you're really expecting a twister, doc," I say, "and this thing here's supposed to attract it—"

"Oh, tut, tut, Mr. Bass." Which really ought to tell you all you need to know about Dr. Tamblin: I mean, who says 'tut, tut' except Winnie-the-Pooh? "As this will merely be a preliminary test, a truck as large and solid as yours should be sufficient." He's tapping his cell phone again, but he glances away from it to give me as mild and unassuming a smile as I think I've ever seen. "That's why I asked you to accompany me, in fact. I haven't gotten to know very many people in Dibble, so your truck is the largest I currently have access to."

I think about pretending to be upset, but I'm absolutely sure Tamblin wouldn't get the joke. So instead, I just nod. "So what's the first step?"

"This." He looks past me and gives his phone one more poke.

The whine of flywheels spinning up whirs behind the wooden wall of the gramophone, and above us, the crank on the side shivers and begins moving. "Unfortunately," Tamblin is saying, "actually hand cranking an instrument this large is impractical. Flywheels, though, are a sufficiently old technology to appeal to the forces we're dealing with, I feel."

"Appeal?" I'm tempted to take several steps back from the machine as the crank stars picking up speed and the creaks and pops of giant internal springs being tightened start crackling though the afternoon silence. "That sounds like you're saying the storm's making choices."

"It is." Tamblin's head bobs back and forth between looking at the gramophone and looking at his phone. "Not the way you and I make choices, of course, but the vast, muddy field where chaos theory and quantum mechanics slop back and forth against each other creates certain variables that can be influenced by the correct sort of outside forces." He spares one quick glance at me. "Naturally amplified jazz music of the 1920s happens to be one of those forces."

To say that I've got more questions would be an understatement, but I just nod some more. He's going on about frequency modulation and angles of tonal response, but I've pretty much stopped listening. Engaging with crackpots has never been high on my list of things to do.

It's a nice day, at least, the breeze doing a fair job of stirring around the heat and humidity—south-central Oklahoma in July, after all. But it's the barest bit of a breeze, the air a sleepy sort of heavy, not sparking with that electrical weight it gets when it's building up to a real storm. That thunderhead's lazy and drifting off, I reckon, not looking to unleash anything except maybe as an afterthought.

I shake my head. Damn Tamblin. Now he's got me turning clouds into people...

Something clanks loud as a tow truck chain hitting asphalt, and I blink into the suddenly reformed silence. The crank's stopped turning.

"And now," Tamblin says, all breathless like someone narrating a film, "stage two." He very slowly and deliberately touches the face of his phone, and more gears or whatever they might be start revving up inside the gramophone.

Movement catches the top of my vision, and I lean my head back to see that the black arc of the giant record where it stick out a bit over the edge of the machine has started, the shiny shellac along the rim catching the sunlight. Something else moves at the base of the horn, and what I'd taken to be part of the support structure starts bending downward: the tone arm, I can now see, the thing longer than my truck and a good bit sleeker, the needle on the end of it more like a javelin than anything else.

"Gently now," Tamblin whispers, his phone clutched in both hands and his whole attention focused on the action up top. Slow and steady the tone arm drops, and the staticky crackle when it reaches the horizontal position makes me think of the first roll of thunder when a storm's on its way.

A second of that, maybe two, and then—

The music doesn't explode from the horn: that's too violent a word. It floods out, maybe, like a whole section of a dam's given way, and the water's just doing what it naturally does. It's a sweet, jumping melody, the kind of thing you'd hear in the background of an old cartoon or a black-and-white movie where everybody's wearing gowns and tuxedoes. But at the same time, it's huge, something I'm not just hearing with my ears but with my whole body. The air's moving with it, stirring my lungs when I suck in a breath, and even the ground seems to swing into the beat.

I reach for the truck to steady myself, and I swear it's pulsing with the rhythm, too. I look toward Dr. Tamblin to see if he looks alarmed or not, and he's still clutching his phone. But his attention's shifted, a huge smile on his face and pointed past the gramophone at the western sky.

I follow his gaze, and the thunderhead, it...it's like it's frozen in place even though the wind hasn't changed near as I can tell. And then?

Then the thunderhead turns. I'm not gonna say it faces us 'cause it doesn't really have a face, but I can't shake the impression that something up there's maybe woken up and wants to see what all the ruckus is about.

"Careful," I hear Tamblin mutter, barely audible under the all-encompassing sway of the music. "Let it come to us..."

As opposed to what? I want to shout, but the wind puffing into my face and flapping at the cuffs of my jeans makes me stop.

It's changed direction, wheeling around all of a sudden to come out of the west, to catch that thunderhead and send it—

Send it toward us.

It mounts up, gray and billowing up between us and the afternoon sun, its shadow covering us except for the beams streaming all gauzy around the edges. And then the wide, lumpy bottom of the cloud starts to swirl.

Quick as a thought, I'm back into the Silverado, slamming the door, my hands on the wheel, the music every bit as loud even inside. The swirly part of the cloud's stretching down now, a wavering tendril—

And something nearer, flapping white right in front of the truck, grabs my attention: Tamblin, the tail of his lab coat whipping around his knees.

"Damn it!" I shout, and I shove my way back out just as the tip of the tornado lashes down into the dirt at the western end of Old Man Whitaker's empty field. "Doc!"

"Thirty-eight more seconds!" he shouts.

I race up, ready to grab him and drag him into the cab, before the twister can blast across the half mile between us and it. Except—

And it's staying right where it touched down, the thin white stretch of it as straight up and down as a flagpole. Another second, and it starts to sway, starts to bend and fold and shuffle and shimmy—

Exactly in time with the music pouring out even above the whoosh of the wind. I'm standing there, one hand reaching for Tamblin's shoulder, the whole place maybe ten degrees cooler than it was just half a minute ago, and the tornado—

The tornado's dancing to Fletcher Henderson and the Dixie Stompers' 1927 recording of "Cornfed."

"Ten seconds!" Tamblin calls, and he counts the rest of them down till, exactly when he announces, "Zero!" the final note sounds. I stagger in place as if I'd been bracing myself against the force of the music as well as the force of the storm, but I can't look away from the tornado, its gyrations stopping, my mind racing.

Will it get mad now that the music's stopped? Rush the machine—and us—in a blind rage? Keep heading east till it smacks into Dibble?

About to take Tamblin by the shoulders and shake some answers out of him, I stay put when the tornado straightens up again. I catch my breath, but the long thin funnel of it leaps up, drawing itself right back into the cloud cover. The very tip of it flicks as it hits the lumpy grayness, and—

And the cloud starts breaking up, seams of blue crackling over the whole surface from the point where the tornado disappeared. The wind seems to give one last sigh, and the thunderhead just kind of tumbles into about a dozen separate pieces, all of them drifting off and away, the sunlight splashing across us and the field again.

A little beep pulls my attention down to Tamblin and his cell phone. "Preliminary test concluded quite promisingly." He taps several icons and glances up at the turntable, the tone arm just tucking back into place. "What we need, though, is a longer recording, one with perhaps a slower tempo..." Stroking his chin, he turns to face me. "Henderson's recording of 'Feelin' Good' from 1928 comes in at three-and-a-half minutes: I shall need to get back to the university and see about assembling another disk." He nods and starts back to the truck.

I stare at him, then at the gramophone, then at the perfectly clear afternoon above, and all I can think is: I'm gonna be telling this story either to a psychiatrist or a documentary film maker here pretty quick...

"Mr. Bass?" Tamblin's voice startles me around. He's pulled the Silverado's passenger door open and is blinking at me. "I have all the data we can expect to gather here today. Shall we be getting back to town?"

Not trusting myself to speak, I aim a jerky smile at him and head for the driver's seat.
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#1 ·
I only see one typo, and there are a few instances of a word repeated twice close together, but other than that, it's very clean.

This plays more like a scene than a story, as I don't see any kind of message being delivered, but for what it is, it's an interesting scene. I guess the machine makes clouds bleed off their tornado potential? I feel like I'm missing an inside joke in your choice of names. They seem vaguely familiar.

Scene though it is, you kept it engaging throughout.