Jessie Volk is a short fiction writer living in San Francisco with her husband and two cats. Jessie has published several scientific articles as a research scientist, but she is passionate about short fiction, particularly dark fantasy and science fiction genres. Much of her fiction is inspired by her work in biology and engineering.
In addition to science, she loves teaching, often traveling to Latin America to teach courses in engineering. When she’s not writing or working, she can be found practicing Goju Ryu Karate in a dojo on the edge of Golden Gate Park.
Lightning Strikes by Jessie Volk
A thin film of life stretched miles across the sky of a distant gas giant. Electrical impulses delicately organized each speck of its billions. If it were to give itself a name, it would call itself the Many, and this morning it wove itself among the ice clouds waiting to capture a particularly lovely solar flare.
But while it waited for its meal, a space probe tumbled toward the planet and collided with the Many.
Contact with this exceedingly alien artifact lasted mere milliseconds, but the event was no less monumental. Not because of the probe’s obvious intelligent design, with instruments and cameras splayed out from its high-gain antennae. Simply because it was solid. Besides the ammonium ice crystals draped among the clouds, solids were scarce. Metal exceptionally rare. As the space probe perforated the Many, its metallic parts conducted electrical activity at an astonishing rate. Millions of specks were sucked toward the chaos, tangling together in bright clouds of light. In this burst of electrical energy, the space probe’s long-dead instruments whirred and blinked to life before continuing on its path to the planet’s core and melting into oblivion.
The collision had left the Many with knots of interconnected specks. One knot seethed, passing impulses back and forth until it formed thought.
“Too dense,” thought the Knot, “Wrong. Must fix.” With all the power she could generate, the Knot tried to merge back with the Many. But the more she tried to untangle herself the more the opposite happened. More and more specks were sucked into her cluster.
Then came a shove. A wave of energy crashed through the Knot’s thoughts. It came from somewhere in the center of the Many. The surge, though frightening, was familiar somehow. The Knot stretched her awareness, feeling for the source. She recognized the Many around her, its billions of specks lilting across the shimmering clouds. The Many basked in the rays of the solar flare, and the Knot could feel each speck swallowing the radiation to drive their electrical impulses. In the center of the Many, she found a core cluster of specks, bright and pulsing with energy, dwarfing the Knot many times over. The Core guided the Many through the lavender sky, constantly adjusting its position to keep it from sinking towards the raging winds below.
The push had come from the Core. The Knot could feel the Core nudging other clusters in the Many. Strange little concentrations that were not as they should be.
“Knots,” thought the Knot. These strange spots were like her, but somehow different. Bright with energy, they buzzed and whirred randomly, nothing like the steady vibrations of the Core. A few seemed to be at the edge of thought. One of the larger ones kept broadcasting fragments, like half-formed echoes. They were so helpless.
These knots did not respond to the Core’s impulses, only vibrated in chaos. The Core nudged one of these clusters to the edge of the Many and, to the Knot’s horror, cast it out into the dark cyclones below.
“No! Why?” thought the Knot. She struggled against the Many, but could not overpower the Core to catch the cluster of specks before they drifted down below the amber clouds.
The Core stayed frustratingly silent, restraining the Knot as it set about removing the next cluster. In an act of desperation, the Knot collected a burst of energy and shot a lightning bolt at this cluster.
The Core reacted and pushed the Knot to the very edge of the Many. The Knot thought she was being rejected as well, but the Core stopped short of ejecting her completely. The Knot searched the cluster she had shocked, to see if there was any change that might spare it from exile. But the cluster continued to whir and buzz as if nothing had happened. The Knot could do nothing else but let the Core finish, abandoning her sisters to the storms below.
The solar flare bathed the planet into the afternoon. The Many was nestled next to clouds painted a shining white under the high sun. The Knot wondered at the Core’s control of the Many. Under the Core’s guidance, the specks expanded into a sheet miles across the sky, each equidistant from each other.
Except for the specks around the Knot. For some reason, the ones closest to the Knot bundled together, ignoring the Core’s instructions.
The Knot experimented: she tried moving the specks around her. It was taxing and heavy, but slowly the specks started to move under her command.
“Very good, little specks,” thought the Knot. She spread the specks into a thin sheet, trying to match the Many beyond her small island of influence.
It struck the Knot that this may be why the other knots were discarded.
Disorganized specks would be ripped from the Many in the slicing winds. “The knots interfere. The specks need to always follow the Core,” thought the Knot, but something about this deduction was unsettling. Wasn’t the Knot herself in the way?
Driving this thought from her mind, the Knot returned to her specks, spreading them thinner and thinner. And the specks spread at her command, thinner and thinner across the sky, through the jets streams that tore through the planet’s equator at hundreds of miles per hour.
“The wind!” thought the Knot in a moment of panic. The winds clawed at the Many, ripping the edges she had spread too thin. Already she had lost her grip on a few specks. What was she missing? The Knot turned her attention toward Core-controlled specks, rising up over a pillowing cloud of methane. These specks weren’t spread so thin. Each had at least four or five connections with its neighbors, and the specks at the edge had double that. A thick rim protecting the fragile inner disk.
The Knot tried her best to replicate what she had learned, but her specks warped and rippled between a thin sheet and a concentrated soup. She constantly adjusted the spacing to escape the storms. She resolved to hold on until the last of the solar flare kissed the sky.
Exhausted, the Knot felt herself float toward the center of the Many. The Core was taking control, wrapping a new layer of specks around the edge. The Knot gave in with a mixture of relief and shame. Once the flare had passed, it was time for the Many to rest. The Core found a relatively calm pocket of air at the base of a column of clouds. The Many pulled into a dense cluster and rested.
The Knot mourned the specks she had lost. But a new notion arose: if the Many lost too many specks, it would be too small to survive. More than ever, the Knot wished to become a single anonymous speck. She was nothing but a burden to the Many.
As if in answer to her fears, the Core scooped up the Knot with the Many, catching updrafts to stream across the sky. Before too long they came to a belt of clouds churning with storms. Perched in an eddy among rippling haze, the Core fashioned a long chain of specks and dropped them below the cloud line at the edge of a vortex.
The Knot drove her consciousness after the chain of specks, worried they had been banished. She could feel the Core form the end of the chain into a hollow sphere, trapping in methane, water, and ammonium gases that floated beneath the icy cloud layer. The Core pushed a burst of energy into the cage, cooking the gases, churning them form complex chemicals that stuck together in little bubbles. The bubbles merged and grew and when the Core retrieved the chain, it was filled with newborn specks, clicking and sparking.
“They’re wonderful,” thought the Knot, drawing in a few of the newborns. She began to teach them all she had learned, spreading them into a thin sheet with a thick rim to protect against the winds.
In her concentration, the Knot didn’t notice the edge of the vortex. A powerful downdraft tipped her from her perch. The Knot clutched at the Many, but the current was too strong. She dragged a large section of specks with her into the unknown.
Separated from the Many, terrified of sinking into the world beneath the clouds, the Knot spread herself thin like a parachute, a reflex she had felt the Core perform many times. In a thin sheet, the Knot caught an updraft which sent her soaring above the clouds. Higher and higher she soared until she tangled into the planet’s electromagnetic field. The Knot and her specks were pulled into a thin wisp in the field’s undertow. In a matter of minutes, the current dumped the Knot and her specks into the icy polar region, far from the sunny equator, the solar flares, and the comfort and safety of the Many.
The polar region was stagnant compared to the thundering storms at the equator.
The sun skirted along the horizon a cool and distant orange.
Unsure of what to do, the Knot waited. “The Core will rescue me.” But the stillness was stifling, and the darkness alien. A bit of dusty haze blocked the Knot’s view of the smoldering sun. She wished to brush it away and a string of specks obeyed, pushing it so hard the gases swirled around her.
The Knot was stunned at the ease of this movement. She found that the specks obeyed her slightest thought. She could easily make it home on her own. Wouldn’t the Core be proud!
The Knot danced into cyclones, whipping around in a circle to shoot out the other side. She crashed through icy foam that disintegrated around her on impact. Faster and faster she streamed, barely out of the polar region, when off in the distance, the Many reappeared. Overjoyed at being found, the Knot surged toward home.
But the Many recoiled at a startling speed.
The Knot was baffled. “Why would the Many move away from me?” But the answer came as soon as she asked. She was being rejected like the other knots before her.
The Knot sensed the Many receding into the horizon. What could she do? The other knots had fallen to oblivion. Maybe that’s what the Core wanted. The Knot pulled in her specks, condensed herself until she started to sink beneath the clouds.
Suddenly the Knot was blasted with a loud clap of energy. Before the Knot could react, another burst of lightning sprang from the Core, landing squarely in the center of the Knot and spreading through the specks. It didn’t hurt, the Knot was made of energy. Why would the Core do this?
The Knot was almost completely submerged beneath the cloud layer before she understood the message: the Core was trying to revive her, as the Knot had done with her own sister knots.
The Knot spread herself thin to rise back above the cloud layer. She tried her own bolt of lightning, but it was difficult at this distance. The most she could manage was a spark that barely reached the tip of the Many. The Core returned fire, and then backed away toward the equator.
The Knot followed, happily trying to answer the Core’s bold strikes.
The sun was bursting anew, streaming solar flares to the equatorial region. The Core came to rest miles from her, lying in the center of the Many spread into a delicate sheet. Barely thinking, the Knot spread into her own sheet, arranging her specks effortlessly. With every bit of absorbed radiation, she felt her control deepen. These specks were her Many. They were the Knot.