The Storm and the City
Prompt: “A permanent storm rages across a planet. The only inhabitants are nomads who constantly travel inside the eye of the storm.”
I got this prompt from Reddit, a lovely source of nonsense and the occasional idea.
It’s a quirk of nature, one of those things that seems impossibly perfect, and only shows up because of how infinitely large the universe is. A dirty little ball of a planet, atmosphere a little bit heavy on the hydrocarbons for the pan-human standard, but still breathable. The interest (and the draw for all the tourist dollars that keep the place running) is the Storm. Five hundred million square kilometers of howling wind, swirling dust, and unlivable acidic rain.
And so they have the City. Technically, the City is two distinct cities, connected by a single strand of carbon fiber and quite a lot of energy transfer, but what it amounts to is one spectacular tourist destination.
On the ground is a sprawl that looks like something out of a steampunk novel: buildings on treads, carrying their portion of street with them as they trundle along, the occasional tower rising above the rest, spherical sections spread throughout, rotating to cancel the motion of the enormous legs on which they walk that would’ve been *so* disruptive to the lives of the elite who live, or – more likely – vacation there.
Adding to the illusion of steampunk is the occasional building hanging from a bulbous gasbag, propellers turning lazily to keep them ahead of the slow-moving wall of the Storm, tethers linking them to buildings below for power or ease of access. Smaller aircraft flit about, pleasure craft for the most part, but even though they look like something out of a Da Vinci drawing, the software in their onboard computers won’t allow anyone to get within the ‘danger zone’ at the edges of the eye that the City occupies.
The illusion begins to degrade once you figure out what the whisper-thin strand that rises out of the squat building at the center. This is easiest to do when the elevator itself rides down the strand, ferrying new visitors down from the other half of the City, floating serenely in orbit high above.
What’s on the ground was built haphazardly, the faux-steampunk aesthetic tracing back to the early days when a society with more technology and resources than it knew what to do with tried to figure out what made the most efficient way to build a migrating city. The hodgepodge carried on, though, after the first wave of tourists showed up, awe-inspired by the idea of a neo-Victorian design aesthetic buried amidst one of the most spectacular natural backgrounds the galaxy had to offer.
It’s a scene that deserves a space opera, and it has, in fact, played host to enough that when an explosion rips apart a low-riding dirigible on the outskirts of town, the widespread reaction is to turn to watch the spectacle, rather than try to find somewhere safe or even make a call to the authorities.
Ornithopters, only able to fly because their bodies are built of materials lighter than the local atmosphere, flutter around the flaming wreckage, looking for survivors. An armored dirigible descends from the clouds, police lights flashing, while a larger aircraft descends from above and begins to spray fire retardant foam on the remains.
A burning patch of the envelope wobbles, and then is thrust aside. Out of the wreckage climb a confident-looking young woman, accompanied by a young man who couldn’t look more cowed if he’d had an udder and a robot that looks so harmless that the intelligent observer becomes instantly suspicious. The young woman adjusts the dress she’s wearing – Victorian-and-brass being the local vogue, though the technological advancements mean that the goggles, more often than not, carry more computing power than the average atomic-age civilization.
In orbit, the security center of the City is a flurry of motion: the citizens may be quite blasé about this sort of thing, but there are people paid to maintain the peace, and at the moment they have quite spectacularly failed to do their job. Being honest, it’s no great loss: the airship had hosted the local saloon, and as such, carried an insurance plan that could pay for the loss of half a planet. The owner, having gotten smart after watching his first three establishments get destroyed in increasingly-ridiculous ways, was probably celebrating his windfall from the penthouse two light-years away, after unplugging from the remote-control drone that allowed him to, as tradition required, man the bar.
And, on top of one of the walking towers, a dark figure watched, binoculars in hand, face bearing a grim smile, and uttered one word as the wind wrapped its way around their figure: “Soon.”