Winner – Short Story – Steven Gonzalez Monserrate
Silence. Every morning I wake to silence. Sometimes at dawn, I go out to greet it, to look up at the sun-drenched sky, tinged red with the blood of what calamity claimed. Above, the canvas of the heavens is parched, naked. I hear nothing but wind as it combs through the desert, longing to remember the songs of skylarks. There isn’t even a whisper of birds anymore. This world is quiet. Empty. Like the blank, barren sky, bereft of those formless flocks of white that now only live in memory. But this is our reality now, our penance for not heeding Nature’s signals, or the warnings of indigenous shamans or the politically incompetent outrage of scientists who tried to stop it. They cried out in terror, their voices tapering as they echoed in the nothingness that is this wilderness after clouds. For the clouds have gone the way of the skylark; extinct. They are but dreams now, for those of us left who remember how to dream of them, for those us fortunate enough to be born before they departed.
Some of us tried to stop them from leaving. Perhaps we were naive. Perhaps we were vain. But we believed we understood them. Their signs. The clues they left behind for us hidden in choreographies of vapor. I still remember what it was like to see them teeming in puffy flocks, their great sails thick enough to cast shadows on the mortals below. The children always shudder when I tell them of cloud shadows by the hearth fires in the dead of night. They want to hear Uncle Nimbus tell them about the clouds that were. So I tell them my story. I recount the wonder of a world of clouds as they stare at me, eager to absorb every detail, some of them turning their gaze to the curling smoke from the red blaze, the closest thing to clouds they might ever see.
I never begin the story the same way. Perhaps I am in denial that the past is immutable, that what I did or failed to do is irrelevant in the face of the simple fact that cloudkind is extinct. Perhaps I feel remorse for these children, the only ones left standing who can judge me for my actions. Whatever the reason, the last time I started my story, I began the story in the days of my youth. There I was, eyes twinkling with promise and wonder, a freshly minted Dr. Esteban Bisumn, computational meterologist, a student of the skies and the hidden calculus of their ever-shifting constellations. It was the year that the cumulus cloud was declared an endangered species. I was admitted to a global team of researchers in those last hours of civilization, when the United Nations Parliament invested heavily in attempting to reverse the slow burning of our world. While most of the research teams were devoted to developing geo-engineering fixes to undo the catastrophe of global heating (terraforming algorithms, atmospheric chemistry modifications, etc.), we were part of a limited research group charged with the welfare of clouds.
Why clouds? Why not devote my efforts and skillset to stopping global heating? Well, it turns out, clouds were something of an enigma. They eluded our climate models and terraforming algorithms. They seemed to defy our predictive capabilities, and we couldn’t understand why. Careful study of cloud morphology and behaviors revealed that something profound was missing from our understanding of their shifting nature.. No matter how we refined our calculations or how much additional data we collected to feed our algorithms and expand our databases, the enigma persisted. Clouds, those ever-shifting dreams of vapor, appeared to defy conventional scientific wisdom and the laws of Nature that were said to govern all things. Clouds exceeded. They exceeded our epistemologies, or lexicon of ideas about the natural world. So rather than continue to capture them in the language of science, of albedo effects and water cycles, we took a different, more controversial approach.
Following the counsel of indigenous communities in the Amazon, the Malay peninsula, and the Caribbean, we started to take seriously the possibility that clouds were…alive. Cloud sapience might be the only explanation for the persistent deviations we were observing in cloud behavior. This led us to our second conclusion; if clouds were indeed intelligent as the Zuni and Yanomami nations had long suggested, then perhaps the clouds were capable of communication. Perhaps we could send a message, no – a plea – for the clouds to stay rather than depart. Over the years, there were weeks when our errand felt hopeless. And then there were days filled with the wonder and joy of discovery as we inched closer and closer to the day of first contact. The sky was bright and blue in the morning when we gathered on the rooftop of our meteorological station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where an unusual cloud convergence was occurring. There I stood with my collaborators, a motley crew of scientists and humanists now dubbed Anthronephologists. Today was the day we would activate our machine, the nephosemiosis engine, the culmination of tedious years of meticulous research, cataloging the various behaviors, patterns, and species of cloud as they manifested in all corners of the globe. Using the finest cloud of computers that MIT could conjure, we excavated nephosemes, the secret language of the heavens. Puffy patterns of inchoate moisture that were units of meaning. In those phase-changing molecular arrays of noble gasses and vapors, we found ideas and words; Flying elephants. The faces of the Gods. Pillows. Continents – whatever shapes human eyes imposed upon the fickle geometries as they waltzed and deliquesced in our bright skies. But the signals were now clear. Computation clarified the mist. The dense tangle of ether could now be deciphered. With our rosetta stone in hand, a message could finally be crafted and sent back. To communicate with the clouds, we had to fashion some of our own.
The wind picked up as we primed the machine. Dr. Rydra Usratt, veteran expert on hydrology, helped me initiate the calibration sequence, her long black hair flapping in the wind.
“What do you think they’ll say?” She said, nearly shouting to be heard above the crosswinds.
Dr. Marina Suculum, a former Anthropologist from Brazil broke in with an answer of her own, “This isn’t first contact, remember? The Yanomani have been in communication with them for thousands of years.”
“True,” I said, “but this time is different. We have science on our side..”
“I hope so, “ Marina said warily, her dark eyes narrowing.
“Well, here goes,” Rydra said through clenched teeth, “initiate calibration.”
I glance at the infrared scanner to verify proper condensation, “Nephosemese are cued up properly.”
“All looks good here,” Rydra says, her face brightening, “condensation underway.”
The message had been pre-written. After hours of debate and deliberation, the team agreed upon a message that was as direct as possible. After all, our linguistic facility with the Cloud language was at best provisional, at worst theoretical. The simpler the message, the better.
“Here goes!” I shouted, giddily. Marina and I stepped back from the steaming apparatus as it churned and belched vapors. Like a balloon unfurling, a long tunnel of buoyant plastichrome heaved upward into the troposphere. We watched as white steam billowed and crystallized in the shaft, bobbing as it sailed toward the firmament nearly 5 kilometers above them.
Rydra studied the sky, watching closely as the clotted bales of cloud subtly parted.
Was their message already being interpreted? How fast or how slow would they take to respond? We were riveted to the sky, our curiosity and urgency bursting from our pores. If clouds were endangered species, then perhaps this machine might be the key to their salvation, if not the preservation of their memory, their culture, their histories. In that moment we felt like the Anthropologists of old, the last hope for documenting cultures and languages that were swiftly vanishing.
How might they reply to our message? We had puzzled over hypothetical replies and mapped potential conversations on chalkboards and whiteboards and virtual breakout rooms. But some of us feared that all of our scenario modeling might turn out to be futile. If clouds were alive, how could we possibly anticipate their reply? They were so unlike us in so many ways and yet like them we are mostly water. We hoped our hydraulic kinship would be enough to bridge our differences.
Why are you leaving?
The message was simple, perhaps too simple, but it was a step toward negotiation, dialogue, or diplomacy with a great empyrean civilization. All possibilities were too exciting. Perhaps the thrill of discovery and the wonder our subjects inspired had clouded our judgment. For hours, we gaped up at the void, watching in terror as the bilious tendrils of the cloud convergence dissipated, revealing the blank, azure canvas of sky, like seafoam dissolving into a hungry surf. We stared and waited and stared and waited.
“Maybe we miscalibrated,” Rydra proposed, after a long silence. Hope was a desperate, crazed glimmer in her eyes. But I recognized her fear, her denial, because I felt it too.
“We failed,” Dr. Marina said, after another hour, throwing up her arms. “Science can’t save them, or us it seems.”
Failure was hard to accept. We had simulated this precise moment countless times. We had mapped and anticipated every possible outcome and scenario. We knew the clouds. We could understand them. Our machine was perfect. Everything worked on paper, in theory, but how, why, was it failing?
“I don’t understand, all the diagnostics indicate that everything is functioning properly,” Rydra frowned, puzzling over the data streams on the console.
“There is one possibility,” I said slowly, my throat parched, “one scenario we never considered in our naivety.”
Marina rest her hands on our shoulders. Of course, somehow she already knew what we failed to consider, what we refused to believe.
“They hear us,” Marina gestured to the sky, “but they refuse to listen.”
I nodded, numb and in a delirium of exhaustion and frustration, “They refuse to listen, just as we refused to listen to them until it was too late.”
“They have no reply,” Rydra said, choked with emotion, “maybe we’re unworthy.”
Marina turned to her colleagues, “or maybe we are not even at the cusp of understanding their complexity, their brilliance.”
I stood there with them, defeated. I stood there and wept. I wept for our hubris. I wept for the future, for a world without clouds, and I wept knowing that such a wonder might forever elude human comprehension. Or maybe as Marina said, perhaps the select few scientists who burned the world with one hand and proposed to fix it with the other were unworthy of communication. Perhaps, the indigenous elders had been right all along.
And so, shortly after our failed attempt at contact, the clouds vanished and the world was forever deprived of their pearlescent beauty. For years, I tinkered with computers, trying to understand where went wrong. But no matter how I shifted the variables or refined the data, I always reached the same conclusion. The clouds ignored us. They heard but did not reply. And now, years after the Cloud of computer networks have evaporated, I can no longer torture myself with answering the unanswerable.
Instead, I try to be useful. I wander the yesterlakes and arid wrecklands in search of dew. I etch my maths on paper, trying to pinpoint where moisture might fall, so that our roving band of survivors, my new family, can survive. At night, I tell stories of rain and thunder and clouds that were alive to youngsters so that they might rekindle them in their dreams. I tell them of the bone-white cumulus, of the undulating gray nimbus, and the gossamer strands of cirrus that once painted the oceanic void above us. I tell stories so that posterity will remember the lesson we failed to learn, so that if the clouds ever return we are ready to hear them, we are ready to listen, and then perhaps, one day, they might be inclined to listen to us.