Here’s a story that will appeal to all the weather wonks out there. It’s called Throwing a Haymaker. this originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of M-Brane SF. It’s on the long end for a short story at 6600 words, and was my 37th published story.
THROWING A HAYMAKER
The doorbell rang. Twice. Bart Toynbee watched his butler, Charles, pass through the kitchen on the way to the front door. A moment later, Charles returned.
“A Dr. Harry Westmore is here to use the computer, Sir.”
“Good.” Toynbee set the paper on the table and stood. “I’ll meet him myself.”
“Very good, Sir.” Charles nodded his head before going about his business. Toynbee walked through the manor until he reached the foyer. There, a tall man dressed in black slacks and white shirt with a navy tie casually explored the art hanging on the walls.
The man turned at the sound of Toynbee’s steps on the polished wood floor. “Good morning, Dr. Westmore,” Toynbee said while extending his hand.
Westmore took the hand with an iron grip. “Thank-you for allowing me use of the computer on such short notice.”
Short notice. Toynbee hadn’t used the computer for at least three months, and all that time it just sat idle, taking up space and power. “You were fortunate,” Toynbee said, “that another client cancelled.”
Westmore nodded with a slight glance toward the ceiling, as if thanking a higher power. “I have several boxes of punch cards in my Rambler.”
“I’ll have Charles bring them in.” Toynbee turned to walk down the corridor leading to the rear of his estate. The computer room was a recent addition, built over the old tennis court. “Follow me,” he said.
“Nice place you have here, Mr. Toynbee,” Westmore said.
“Thank-you.” Toynbee smiled. Westmore seemed pleasant enough. “What sort of research are you involved with?”
“Weather,” he said. “I’m working on some new weather techniques.”
Toynbee stopped in front of a door and removed a ring of keys from his pocket. “My computer is here. I did tell you that it isn’t cutting edge?”
Toynbee opened the door as Westmore answered. “It’s a 1952 model, right?”
Toynbee nodded as he flipped a switch and the fluorescent lights flickered to life. “The firm bought a new computer when I retired last year, and I took the opportunity to buy the old one. Not enough room for both.” He suppressed a laugh. “I thought it might be fun to play with, but I don’t think very well in binary. I haven’t touched it in eight months.”
Westmore followed Toynbee into the room, saying, “It will take a little longer to process the information on this model, but I think it can handle the job.”
Toynbee patted a table near the punch card reader. “Feel free to use the table for your punch cards.” He took a couple of steps toward the door, then stopped to say, “I would love to stay and learn more about your project, but I have a meeting at the lodge. We are planning a food drive to help the Ethiopians.”
“Sounds like a worthy cause,” Westmore took a seat near the card reader. “I’ll send you a copy of my results.”
“I look forward to it,” Toynbee said. He turned to leave, side-stepping a moment to allow Charles to bring a box of punch cards through the door.
For three solid weeks, Westmore spent almost every waking hour in Toynbee’s computer room. At first, Toynbee spent time in the computer room discussing theories of weather, but toward the end of Westmore’s stay, the scientist’s mood became increasingly disagreeable.
Westmore had paid for four weeks of computer time, but after the third week, he packed away his punch cards and left, claiming that he finished early. Toynbee was surprised. The man’s mood did not radiate success. He did pay for the entire four weeks.
Toynbee’s computer remained idle for several months, and thoughts of the man with the dozen boxes of punch cards left his mind. One Saturday afternoon, Toynbee pulled his red MG convertible into the garage and walked into the house. His wife, Rose, was watching television in the sitting room.
“How was your drive, dear?” she asked.
“Pleasant,” Toynbee said as he sat down on the sofa next to his wife. “Remind me to have the oil changed. Is this Beaver?” he asked, pointing to the television.
His wife nodded. “Yes. It just started.” She turned her attention to the television, but then suddenly stood. “There’s a package for you.” She disappeared into the next room and returned with a large clasp envelope. “Dr. Westmore dropped it off just after you left.”
Toynbee opened the envelope and pulled out a large stack of journal articles. The one at the top bore the title Computational Evidence to Support Weather Control. Beneath that was another article titled Maser Stimulation of Atmospheric Conditions, and beneath that, Manipulating Weather Patterns in the Indian Ocean. On and on through the stack, the papers all related to weather control.
Toynbee tucked the papers back into the envelope, got up from the sofa, and walked toward his study.
“Aren’t you going to finish watching Beaver?” his wife asked.
“You can tell me what happens.” With that, he walked to his study, and spent the next several hours reading the journal articles from Westmore. When he came out of his study, Toynbee was excited.
“This is fantastic,” he said to his wife while holding the envelope over his head.
“What is it, dear?” She was working on a cross stitch, and answered without looking up. Typical.
Toynbee pressed on. “The envelope contains a number of articles on weather control, written by our friend, Dr. Westmore.”
His wife still didn’t look up from the cross stitch. “That’s nice dear. Maybe you can make it rain in Ethiopia, that way, we won’t have to do any more of those food drives.”
“That’s crazy,” Toynbee said.
“Why?” his wife said. “We have the money, and we have the opportunity to do some good for the world.”
By making it rain? Westmore’s procedure was all theory based on computer simulations. Nobody knew if it would really work, and it would require a very large sum of money. “What if something goes wrong?” he finally asked.
“If it doesn’t work, what harm is done?” she asked, leaning into the conversation. “If there’s a chance that it might work, we should take it.”
All that money. Whether or not the project worked, there would be no return on investment. None at all. “What’s in it for us?”
Toynbee’s wife smiled. “Bart, we have more than enough money, and we can’t take it with us. Let’s do something good for the world while we are young enough to do some good.”
Why not? Man had achieved great things over the past fifty years. When Toynbee was a boy, nobody could conceive of quantum mechanics. Why, scientists had still believed in ether! Progress was progress, and only a fool would stand in the way. Here was an opportunity to make history, and help people who truly needed help. Toynbee decided he was destined to do this. It was his calling.
“I suppose–” he said to his wife while trying to sound hesitant. It was always a good idea to let her think things were her idea. “–that if man can send a rocket into space,” he continued, “and transmit moving pictures over radio waves, why not control the weather?”
Harry Westmore was riding a wave of popularity spawned by his revolutionary solution to the weather problem. He had book deals, he had interviews, and he had appearances on the late night talk shows. When Toynbee arrived at Westmore’s Los Angeles office, Westmore was nowhere to be found.
The secretary said that Westmore was in Hollywood, and would be back in a couple of hours. When he returned several hours later, the secretary announced that Westmore still wasn’t in.
“When,” Toynbee said in a dither, “will Mr. Westmore be here?”
The secretary shuffled some papers, and turned to her typewriter. That snubbing made Toynbee’s blood boil. He slammed his palm down on her desk, causing a terrific rumble to reverberate through the small office. “What kind of scientist refuses to see somebody who wants to grant funding?”
The secretary turned in a rather gruff manner, looking cross, and shaking with anger. “Mr. Toynbee, please leave at once, or I shall call the police.”
“I flew to Los Angeles to see Mr. Westmore–“
“Doctor Westmore,” the secretary corrected.
Toynbee did not stop. “–because I want to bring his theories to life. Does Doctor Westmore turn away everyone with the money to build a working prototype based on his theories?”
Toynbee did not wait for the secretary’s answer. He spun about, and headed through the door, which he slammed. Of all the nerve. Turned away like a peddler. When he was almost at the end of the hall, he heard a voice from behind.
“Mr. Toynbee?” It was the secretary.
He stopped. He turned. He waited.
“Mr. Toynbee, Dr. Westmore will see you now.” She flashed an artificial smile to punctuate her statement.
“Is that so?”
“He just arrived, sir.” She made a come hither motion with her hand. “He wants to speak with you.”
“I see. I suppose he crawled through the window?” Mentioning the money never failed, not in business, and not in academia. Toynbee walked back to Westmore’s office. The secretary held the door for him, and pointed to another door behind her desk.
“You’ll find Dr. Westmore inside.”
Toynbee looked at the door, then at the secretary, then back at the door, and finally, back at the secretary. “Thank-you,” he said.
The door was not locked. On the other side was a large laboratory filled with tables and benches, mostly empty. In the far corner was a fantastic array of computer equipment and electronic gadgets, all turned off as far as Toynbee could tell.
“His office is through that door at the far end,” the secretary said from behind.
Toynbee wasted no time crossing the lab. He reached the door the secretary pointed out, and he knocked. Westmore opened the door opened almost immediately, revealing an office space crowded with towering stacks of paper, manila folders, binders, journals, and computer print-outs. “Hello, Mr. Toynbee,” Westmore said.
“A strange welcome for a man in whose house you stayed for three weeks.”
Westmore ushered him into the room and said, “Quite so. I apologize for that. If I had known it was you, I would have seen you immediately.” Toynbee followed Westmore through an obstacle course of paper towers and finally sat in one of two green folding chairs at the front of the scientist’s desk. Westmore continued around the desk and sat in his office chair.
“I know you’re very busy,” Toynbee said, “so I’ll get right to the point of my visit.” He leaned toward Westmore to emphasize what he was about to say. “I want to build a prototype weather control maser.”
Westmore’s face faded a few shades, and took on the appearance of shock. Toynbee understood. It was a scientist’s dream to have some eccentric wealthy old buzzard spring for a multi-million-dollar project. Yes, Toynbee understood completely.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Westmore asked. “The cost will be astronomical.”
Toynbee expected some diplomatic resistance from Westmore. It truly would be an astronomical cost, but Toynbee had astronomically deep pockets. He knew that once the shock wore off, Westmore would be gang-busters to help engineer his theory into technology. They always are. “The cost is manageable,” Toynbee finally said. “What I need from you is a master list of materials and a procedure. I’ll hire people to do the rest.”
Westmore began shuffling through a stack of papers, and kept shuff-shuff-shuffling for over a minute. He had plenty to shuffle through with as many stacks as this office boasted. Some of the stacks were as tall as Westmore. Finally, he produced one file folder from the middle of a stack, setting it on the desk. “I prepared this file a few months ago, in the hope that you might decide to follow up on my success.”
Westmore was starting to sweat, even though it was a bit cool in his office. Nerves, Toynbee decided. Westmore continued discussing the folder. “It contains a list of all the components needed to build the maser array.” Westmore paused, opened the folder and pored over the contents for longer than Toynbee thought necessary, then pushed it across the table. The scientist patted the folder. “I think you’ll find that everything you need is inside the folder. Number of masers, power injection, prime locations, optimal natural conditions–everything is here.” He patted the folder again, pushing it another inch closer to Toynbee.
Toynbee picked up the manila folder and rummaged through the contents to see what was inside. Westmore was right, it seemed that everything he needed was there. He looked up with a smile. “Thank-you, Dr. Westmore. This is exactly what I need.”
Construction of the maser tower project was ahead of schedule when Toynbee arrived in Ethiopia to inspect tower number three, and to address the Ethiopian people. The progress had him in a good mood.
His escort for the tour was a local woman named Oombay, or at least that’s the best pronunciation Toynbee could manage. It was fair. The best Oombay could manage with his name was “Tornbee.”
Oombay was a tall woman, at least a head taller than most of the local men. She was also pregnant, and starting to show, but not far enough along to cause the swelling to overcome the sag of her breasts. Toynbee noticed all this with his first glance, but it didn’t interest him. He turned his attention to the maser tower.
“As you can see,” Oombay said, “the tower is nearly completed.” She turned about and with a quick gait, led him inside the chain-link fence. Toynbee followed her to a cream-colored building a hundred meters inside the fence.
“This is the generator building,” she said. “Some of the hardware has not arrived yet, but we expect it to arrive next week.”
Toynbee took a moment to scan the site. The maser tower looked every bit like a radio transmission tower, complete with flashing red light at the apex. Beneath the red light was a sheath with a protruding cylinder. He knew from Westmore’s plans that the cylinder was an enclosure to protect the maser from the elements. He looked back at Oombay only to see her unlocking the door on the cream building. Toynbee scrambled to catch up.
Oombay smiled, probably at the sight of an old white man running. When he caught up, she invited him to lead the way with her free hand while holding the door open with the other. Toynbee stepped through the door into a large but empty room.
The door slammed closed, leaving the room dark. That lasted only a few seconds before the overhead fluorescent lights flickered to life. Toynbee turned around in time to see Oombay remove her hand from the switch.
“This is where the generators will go,” she said while waving her arm to indicate the center of the large room. “For now, let’s visit the control room.”
“Yes,” Toynbee said, “That’s what I want to see the most.”
“It’s in there,” she said, pointing to a door about half-way down the wall on the left. “The control equipment is on site, but the installation is incomplete.”
“Fair enough,” Toynbee said. They walked side-by-side to the door, but he paused to let Oombay open it.
“You may open the door if you wish,” she said. “This is your facility.”
Toynbee waved her toward the door. “I am a guest here. It is your facility,” he said.
“Very well.” Oombay opened the door and Toynbee followed her into a room. Half-filled equipment racks lined the walls, with small tables between them. Mint green office chairs were situated at each table. On the corner table sat an analog computer, and filling the entire wall across from the door was modern computer and card reader.
“This rack is our weather forecasting station.” Oombay walked to another rack and said, “And the maser will be controlled from here.”
Toynbee inspected the set-up and mentally compared it to the notes from Westmore. Oombay’s voice broke his concentration. “Mr. Tornbee, we must get back for the speech.”
The speech. Toynbee wished to address the people of Ethiopia directly. He wanted the people to know what he was doing, and how he planned to break their drought. Breaking the drought would break the famine, and that would save lives. “Let’s go,” he said. “I want to be on time.”
A portable stage had been assembled outside the gate of the maser station. The stage was roped off from an area where a crowd was accumulating. On the stage were two lecterns equipped with microphones; one for Toynbee, and one for his interpreter.
Toynbee was kept busy meeting people and lost track of time. He was deep in discussion when the interpreter tapped his shoulder. “Time for your speech, Mr. Toynbee.”
The crowd was enormous. He’d given speeches in corporate settings in the past, but never anything of this size. He rationalized that everyone had a vested interest in what he had to say. Their very lives might depend on it.
Toynbee and the interpreter both climbed the stairs to the stage. As they walked across the stage to the lecterns, the crowd erupted with a deafening cheer. Toynbee was forced to wait nearly two minute before the noise settled enough to allow him to speak.
His ten minute speech lasted over an hour because the crowd continued to interrupt with cheers. They cheered when he told them the maser station would bring jobs, and be operational by January of 1960. But they cheered for fifteen solid minutes when Toynbee told the crowd that the maser station would help bring rain whenever Ethiopia needed rain.
When his speech finally concluded, the crowd broke into a chant. Toyn-bee! Toyn-bee! As for Bart Toynbee, he was on top of the world. How else could one feel when saving an entire nation from starvation?
After his visit to Ethiopia, Toynbee ordered the maser station grounds expanded for the installation of a heliport and on-site lodging. The size of the cheering crowd made him feel like a king, but he could foresee that becoming a problem in the future.
A large crowd could impair the operation of the maser station if Toynbee should ever decide to visit during a mission. Keeping a heliport on the site would allow the easiest ingress and egress without attracting a crowd.
Ethiopian station number three was only one of a series of maser stations were built in strategic locations around the world, and when the full array was finished and ready for the inaugural mission, Toynbee decided that he wanted to be in Ethiopia for that mission.
He arrived by helicopter, landing at the new helipad. A small crowd was gathered outside the fence near the helipad, probably attracted by the sound of the rotors. Toynbee walked from the helipad to the control building through the din of the cheering crowd. He waved to acknowledge them, and the din only got louder.
Inside the control building, the noise from the now functional generator array drowned out the crowd. Toynbee smiled at the sound that would bring salvation to these people in the form of rain. Life offered few pleasures that could compare with the satisfaction of helping people.
The control room was crowded with the equipment operators and observers. As the architect of the project, space had been reserved for Toynbee. Space had also been reserved for Westmore, but he declined the invitation, claiming illness. No matter, Toynbee always gave credit where credit was due.
Toynbee had approved space for only one reporter inside the control room, and that reporter was Gretchen Bierbaum of the Journal. She was a beat reporter who had been following Toynbee most of her twenty-year career. She was already in the control room when Toynbee arrived.
“Good day, Gretchen,” Toynbee said. “I’m glad you could make it.”
Gretchen sported a grin as wide as any Toynbee had ever seen. “I wouldn’t miss this, Mr. Toynbee,” she said. “To have a chance at witnessing history like this? This is the finest thing a human has ever done!” Gushing, she was simply gushing. It was too much for Toynbee to bear.
“Well, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “I must greet everyone here.” With that, he excused himself to mingle with other guests. The technicians and engineers, he left alone. They did not need distractions now.
Toynbee was busy speaking with the local mayor when the P.A. system crackled to life. “Three minute to maser fire.” The voice was that of Oombay. He heard rumor that she lost the baby, and he meant to visit with her before leaving the country. She must have come back to work to keep her mind off the child. He forced that train of thought out of his mind. There would be time enough to console Oombay when the mission was finished.
He decided to stand next to Gretchen for the firing. After edging through the crowded control room, he managed to find a spot to stand near the reporter. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked.
“There doesn’t seem to be much happening,” Gretchen said.
Toynbee chuckled. “No,” he said. “Even when the maser fires, you won’t see much. The wavelength is well below the visual.”
“It’s a microwave laser, I know that,” Gretchen said. “I just don’t know how this is going to bring rain to Ethiopia.”
“The maser will kick the natural rhythm of the Indian Ocean into a different leg of its cycle.” Toynbee held up his hand to represent the Indian Ocean, and gestured with the finger of his other hand. “The maser will generate winds that will stimulate cooler water temperatures in the eastern side of the ocean. That will push warm water toward Africa, and warm water produces storms.”
Gretchen seemed to be chewing on that idea because she hesitated before she responded. “And that’s natural?” she finally asked.
“It is part of the natural cycle.” Toynbee was particularly proud of this, because that much was true. “All I’m doing is giving nature a little push; moving her to a different part of the cycle, like I said.”
Gretchen’s answer was preempted by the P.A. system. Oombay started the count-down from twenty.
“How long will it fire?” Gretchen asked.
“I’m not sure. Every maser in the world fires on a coordinated schedule, and the individual patterns are all different.” Toynbee hoped that Gretchen understood. He didn’t want to explain everything and miss the moment. “This weather change requires global stimulus.”
Toynbee turned his attention back to Oombay’s voice. “…ten…nine…eight…”
“Here it comes, Gretchen,” Toynbee said. He was aching with excitement. All the lead-up, and the time had finally arrived. “This is the moment we change the world!”
The lights momentarily dimmed until the generators could compensate for the power drain. The maser fired for three full minutes before the operator shut it down.
“Maser firing completed,” Oombay announced. “Let’s hear it for Mr. Tornbee!”
The small crowd in the control room cheered, and Toynbee’s face flushed. “Speech!” they yelled, and finally, he gave in, taking the microphone from Oombay.
“Thanks to all of you for making this project possible. If Mr. Westmore’s model is true, we should see rain by the end of the week.” That’s all Toynbee said. He was tired, and wanted to get some rest.
It was early the next morning when a motorcycle approached the maser complex. Toynbee was already eating his continental breakfast as a guard led the messenger to him. “This man claims to have a message for you, Mr. Tornbee.”
The messenger was a white man, about forty years of age. He wore blue jeans, a white tee-shirt, and a black leather jacket. He looked the part of an aging street racer, and the man nodded in approval with the mention of the message.
“Leave us,” Toynbee said to the guard. “Have a seat.”
The messenger sat across from Toynbee, then introduced himself. “Mr. Toynbee, my name is Jesse Roddam, and I was asked to deliver this envelope to you.” He handed Toynbee a tattered 9×11 envelope filled with what felt like papers. He continued. “Apparently, three scientists have tried to verify Westmore’s results, and no one has been able to reproduce them.”
Toynbee looked out the window at the maser tower, then at the partly cloudy sky, but said nothing. He tore open the envelope and removed the contents. Article after article, both scholarly and newsstand, calling Westmore a fraud. At the bottom of the stack was a copy of a letter from Westmore. In it, he admitted that he falsified his results due to university publication pressure.
Toynbee sat there, not knowing what to do. The messenger, Roddam, said, “Are you all right, Mr. Toynbee?”
Toynbee had a far-away look in his eyes; a look of utter shock and despair. “Dear God,” he said. “What have I done?”
Toynbee looked again at the articles. It was some time before Toynbee realized that Roddam was speaking to him. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“I said that most of the masers did not fire. We had to send messengers to the remote stations like this one, and the station in India.” Roddam waited, as if for some kind of congratulations from Toynbee. He would get none.
“This maser fired last night,” Toynbee said.
It was six days after the maser fired that the rains came. The rain was gentle at first, just a pitter-patter against the walls of the dormitory. Toynbee was in the common room watching the rain through the windows.
“Why are you feeling bad, Mr. Turnbee?” He broke his stare from the window and looked at Oombay. “You brought rain, just like you promised.”
He smiled, if only for a moment. “Yes, I brought the rain, but what else have I done?”
“We need the rain, Mr. Turnbee.”
“Roddam brought a telegram this morning. The weather has changed everywhere, not just here.” Toynbee turned his attention back to the thumping of the rain against the windows. “Nobody knows how bad this will get.”
He didn’t think that Oombay could understand. The Ethiopians only knew that it was raining. Rain meant crops, and crops meant food. He had kept his promise of rain to Ethiopia. At least that was something.
Late in the evening of the third day of rain, the storm intensified. The winds howled as the rain came down in sheets. In the darkness outside the window of his room, all he could see was the fat raindrops pelting the glass. He watched for hours, wondering how long the rain would last, what was happening elsewhere in the world, and when the weather would return to normal. If it would ever return to normal.
He was yanked from his thoughts by pounding on the door of his room, the hard, heavy pounding of a large fist against the door. Who could that be?
He opened the door to see Oombay and a very large and very black man. His left arm was around Oombay, the other was raised as if to strike the door again.
“Ah, Mr. Turnbee,” Oombay said. “The helicopter, sir.”
“What about the helicopter?”
“The wind has flipped it over,” she said.
“It can’t fly in these conditions anyway,” Toynbee said. “I’ll take a car to Djibouti when the rains stop.”
Oombay shook her head frantically. “Many roads are washed away,” she said. Her husband’s face displayed the far-away look of somebody excluded from a conversation in a language not understood.
Toynbee was in no hurry to face the media. “Then I’ll stay here. We’ll have the helicopter repaired when the rains stop.” He said it, but he was not certain the rains would ever stop.
After nine days of non-stop heavy rain, Toynbee sat in the common room of the dormitory. The hour was late. Through the window, he could see the shadows of a crowd gathered outside the gates, illuminated only by the lights of the maser compound. Men hurled themselves at the chain-link fence, and the fence bulged inward in several locations. Rain whipped past the men, but it did not slow their determination. They continued to hurl themselves, and the bulges grew.
He heard Oombay walk up from behind, then felt a hand on his shoulder. “You should have left with the reporter, before the rains.”
Toynbee shook his head. “But I didn’t.”
She tugged on his arm. “You should move someplace safer, Mr. Turnbee.”
“There is nowhere safe.” He stared at the men. The fence was almost breached now. “Why are they so angry?”
“You don’t know?”
Toynbee shook his head. He looked up at Oombay. Pain was in her expression. “Tell me,” he said.
“Eighty-three people are dead from the flood, and still the rains come. I–” She turned and walked away.
Westmore. This was his fault. A scientist was supposed to be somebody you could trust. They were people dedicated to the search for truth and knowledge, not fabricating results for the sake of a publishing credit. Toynbee felt betrayed, violated, and less in control than any time in his life. He called after Oombay, “Your people; I wanted to save them!”
He choked back the tears and looked out the window. The fence was down. The crowd ran toward the dormitory. Some slipped, and others fell in the mud, but that did not stop the crowd. He could hear their shouting through the glass of the windows, and could see their angry faces in the light of the incandescent bulbs. Toynbee did not run.
Upon reaching the concrete, the crowd ran toward the entrance of the dormitory. Toynbee turned to Oombay. “Go. Get away now.”
She hesitated, but Toynbee pushed her and she ran deeper into the building. The crash of shattering glass resonated through the dormitory. With nothing to stop it, the cold and damp wind howled though the building. The rumble of footsteps climbed the stairs to the second floor. Still Toynbee did not run. He knew there was nowhere to go.
The door crashed open, but Toynbee refused to look. Instead, he continued to stare out the windows at the damaged chain-link fence. The angry footsteps slowed, overtaken by chatter amongst the people in the mob. He understood nothing, the chatter was all in the local tongue. Toynbee never bothered to learn the name of the language, he was too busy saving Ethiopia to bother.
A single set of footsteps approached from behind, stopping a good ten feet away. Toynbee wondered how much it would cost to repair the damaged fence.
From behind came a man’s voice. “Mr. Turnbee.”
It wasn’t just Oombay with that strange accent. He stood up from his chair, and upon turning toward the crowd, he could do nothing but stare.
The man who had approached stood well over six foot tall. His was an imposing figure with skin as dark as any Toynbee had ever seen. The man’s white teeth jumped out in stark contrast to his blackness. The man did not smile, he just stared at Toynbee.
“Well,” Toynbee said. “Finish the job. Stormy weather is perfect for a lynching.”
The darkest man snapped his fingers before he pointed at two men carrying rusted carbines. “Take him,” the darkest man said, and the two stepped forward to grab Toynbee by either arm. The crowd parted as the darkest man stepped through the door. Toynbee went through the door, too. He was forced.
The mob led Toynbee down the stairs and out into the rain. They led him to the maser tower. At the tower, he saw several pack animals gathered, oxen, or maybe water buffalos.
Toynbee felt detached, as if he were watching everything from far away. How alien these people were. He had tried to save them, but never to understand them. Why did they not kill him? He understood why the villagers blamed him, hated him, but it still felt wrong. All that cheering was a lifetime ago. Hail the conquering hero, the white knight arrived to rescue the damsel in distress. What other reception should the knight expect after releasing the dragon?
A crack of thunder brought Toynbee back to the here-and-now. In the momentary brightness from the flash of lightning that followed, Toynbee saw a yoke tied to the beasts that might be water buffalos. Tied to the yoke was a cable. The other end looped around one leg of the maser tower. The crowd was about to topple the tower, and they brought him here to watch. Insult to injury, except Toynbee no longer cared.
The money was wasted from the day Westmore handed him that manila folder with his falsified designs and fabricated maser simulation data. Harry Westmore, following in the footsteps of other great liars. Weather control was the new Piltdown man. Only this time, it wasn’t a harmless prank. This time, people paid for the charlatan’s ruse with their lives.
How many people did Oombay say? Something in the eighties? And it was still raining.
The darkest man got right in Toynbee’s face, staring him in the eye with noses almost touching. “Watch now, Mr. Tornbee,” he said, accompanied by a mist of spittle. “Your tower is about to fall.”
The men holding Toynbee pulled his arms backwards into an extremely uncomfortable position. Toynbee grimaced for a moment, then said, “I wanted to help. To make–“
“We do not want your kind of help. Watch now, as the welder makes his cut.” The darkest man turned to face the tower himself. He clapped his hands over his head twice, and a few moments later, the blue flame of an acetylene torch lit the base of the tower. In another moment, sparks flew as the welder began cutting a metal support post.
The welder continued for several minutes, then suddenly, the blue flame disappeared and all Toynbee could see was the hot glow of the freshly cut metal.
The darkest one raised his and again, then said, “Pull!”
Before the echo from the darkest man faded away, a whip cracked and the water buffalo creatures heaved in unison, causing the support post to buckle. Once the post buckled, the tower fell to the ground, crushing the water buffalo beasts and the man with the whip. It fell too fast to avoid, and they were trapped beneath steel cross-beams.
When the tower fell to the ground, the crowd in front gasped in horror while watching the death of the man. Farther back, the crowd cheered the felling of the tower. Toynbee watched dispassionately, caring neither for the tower nor the man crushed beneath it.
The men at the front of the crowd rushed to the fallen man. They tried desperately to lift the tower, but the weight was far too great. They gestured for the welder to cut him free, but Toynbee doubted it mattered. Nobody could survive those crushing pounds.
Toynbee was not allowed the chance to find out. The crowd drifted closer, forming a semicircle around him. The guards, who still held Toynbee’s arms, shouted at the crowd in their strange language. Some of the men in the crowd shouted back and pressed the semicircle inward, backing Toynbee and the guards against a tree.
Guards and crowd exchanged more shouts, and the darkest man appeared from behind the tree. He joined the shouting match, forcing the crowd back with his will, but it didn’t last long. After another exchange, the guards released Toynbee and fled with the darkest man, leaving Toynbee to face the crowd alone.
Everything was a failure. The desire to help these people was about to lead to his bludgeoning. Why couldn’t they see the problem wasn’t him? The problem was Westmore and his lies!
One man near the front of the crowd stepped forward and pushed Toynbee into the tree trunk. The blow slammed his shoulder at an awkward angle, and a sharp pain shot through his back. Another shove, and pain shot again. Toynbee preferred a bat to the head; at least that would kill him quickly.
Repeated punches and kicks connected until his entire body felt numb. A vicious blow knocked Toynbee to the ground. His body screamed from the searing heat of his damaged shoulder. Mercifully, a hard blow to the head made the world go black.
* * *
Toynbee’s body hurt everywhere. Opening his eyes hurt from the light, but that was the least painful part of his body. As he stirred, he heard a voice and pressed his groggy mind to identify it. Female, familiar. Family?
“Is that you, Rose?” The effort of speaking that short phrase exhausted him. The woman sobbed, but managed to force out one word.
He rested a moment before trying to speak again. When he felt his energy return he said, “Where am I?”
“Djibouti,” his wife said. “A woman named Oombay convinced the crowd to stop the beatings after you collapsed. She brought you here after the local doctor refused treatment.”
Amazing. Oombay had no reason to risk herself to save him. She must have seen his horror when the rains continued unabated. Was it still raining? How long had he lain in this hospital bed?
Rose rested her hand on Toynbee’s before she answered. “Just a drizzle for the past two days. The National Weather Service back home says that everything is returning to normal.”
A relief. It was finally ending, but at what cost? And what of Harry Westmore? What happened to him?
Toynbee thought he said it out loud, but Rose did not speak. He tried again. “What happened to Harry Westmore?”
Rose wrinkled her brow, but did not answer immediately. After years of marriage, Toynbee knew that meant he wouldn’t like her answer. He waited patiently.
Rose gently patted his hand as he waited for her response. She was a good woman. Marrying her was his most successful venture. After an eternity, she finally answered.
“Nothing. Nothing happened to him.” She put a finger across Toynbee’s lips. “Save your strength, dear.”
Toynbee couldn’t help himself. “Nothing?”
“Oh, he is now shunned by the scientific community, but he retired before he could be fired.” Rose waited a moment, and then she added, “He made enough money with his books and lectures to allow retirement.”
Retirement? How many people were dead in Ethiopia? Even though it was now just a drizzle, the rain still hadn’t let up. How long had he been in the hospital bed? How many more people died since the tower fell? What about the rest of the world? Surely more people died in places other than Ethiopia.
“How many dead?” he asked.
His wife again announced bad news with her silence. “Worldwide, fourteen thousand,” she finally said. “Mostly in third world countries.”
How could Westmore get away with this? “And nothing happened to him?”
Rose fixed a stray lock of hair on Toynbee’s forehead. “He did nothing illegal,” she said.
Despite the pain, Toynbee pushed himself to a sitting position. He adjusted the pillow behind his back, then rested against it. “What a travesty,” he said. “It’s Piltdown Man all over again, only this time, Westmore led innocent people to slaughter.”
He turned his head and drank in the sight of his wife. He was glad she came to Djibouti, but his mind couldn’t stay away from Westmore. “Such a price for cardboard fame,” Toynbee said.