Weather is a Zero-sum Game by Judith Field

May 26 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

Sam wheeled his new invention up the garden. It was a metal box about the size of a pillow, with an array of switches, instrument panels and levers down one side. At the top was a sort of axle attached to a horizontal row of plastic drainpipes of different widths and lengths, looking like a set of organ pipes on their sides. The box was mounted on the frame and wheels of an old-fashioned pram. This one would make his fortune. A thirty year old millionaire. Just like Bill Gates. Only more.

He unwound a cable as thick as his wrist from a bracket at the end of the box and plugged it into the extension lead running out of the back door of the house. Luke looked over the fence from the garden next door.

‘Hi, Mega-nerd,’ Luke said, ‘looks like rain. So much for my barbecue.’

‘It won’t rain,’ Sam said, ‘just wait and see.’ He looked up at the grey clouds that had been gathering all afternoon and tapped the side of his nose.

‘How do you know?’ Luke asked. ‘Can’t believe the forecasts. They make it up as they go along. Wanna come over?’

‘Will Cara be there?’

‘Said she might, if she finishes her revision. It’s this ‘Chemistry for a sustainable future’ thing she’s doing with the Open University. I think she’s off her head, doing exams when she doesn’t have to.’

‘No, you weren’t one for the academic stuff at school, I remember.’

‘I think she fancies you, God knows why, she must be off her head. Always asking about you.’

‘Really?’ asked Sam, ‘I don’t have time for relationships. I’m married to my job. Although I could use a bit of help with this project from a big, beautiful woman, that’d be sweet.’ He smiled and looked into the distance.

Luke leaned over the fence, his mouth set in a line. ‘Less of the letching, that’s my sister you’re talking about. Job? Don’t give me that. I’m not sure I want her going round with a beer-gutted layabout like you.’

‘Leave it out. I’m a freelance designer/inventor, me.’

‘Yeah, yeah, right.’

‘I shit you not. Who do you think dreams up all those things you never knew you needed, in the gift catalogues? Me. And I’m doing very nicely out of the last one I came up with. Combined golf ball holder with integral hip flask in a sumptuous leather case, lavishly personalised with up to three initials of your choice.’

Luke shrugged. ‘I never look at those things. I’d shove them straight in the bin if Cara didn’t insist on recycling everything.’

‘That’s like taking money out of my pocket, you tight sod. Anyway, talking of trees, now I’m branching out.’ Sam pointed at the wheeled contraption. ‘I call this the Cloudzapper. Plenty of people have tried to seed clouds to make it rain, but this does the opposite. Chases the clouds away.’

‘What happens? Does it suck them into those tubes? Don’t look long enough.’

‘No, no!’ Sam rolled his eyes upwards. ‘This is pure science. It sends a super-powered stream of ions into the atmosphere. To be precise, the bit called the tropopause…’ He could see Luke’s eyes glaze over in that way people’s so often did. He skipped to the end ‘…and the jetstream whips the clouds out of the way. Then there you are. For as long as it’s switched on,’ Sam started to sing, ‘the sun has got his hat on.’

He realised he didn’t know the words of the rest of it and substituted ‘ner, ner’ under his breath, in the manner of someone who realises they’re going on to the second verse of ‘God save the Queen.’

Sam turned a crank on the side of the Cloudzapper and the pipes swivelled from their horizontal position until they were pointing almost vertically towards the clouds, like a bundle of howitzers. He flicked a switch, a red light glowed on the control panel and the machine began to hum and pulse. He turned a knob and a lever flicked from ‘zero’ to ‘50%’.

Luke and Sam looked up. The clouds moved aside like a pair of curtains pulled back by a pair of giant hands, leaving clear blue sky. A blazing sun shone directly overhead. In the distance, all around this blue, sunny gap were rainclouds.

Sam went into his house to get changed. His switched on the radio. The local news reported a localised thunderstorm, which had flooded three streets in another part of town.

Cara wasn’t at the barbecue, but Sam hardly noticed. He lolled in a recliner in the corner of Luke’s garden, plate of food balanced on the curve of his stomach, scribbling in a notebook.

The next day, Sam turned the control knob to 75%. There was sun over the entire town, turning to rain as soon as you passed the sign thanking careful drivers. And blizzards in Scotland.

Sam decided to turn the control knob to 100%. The news said it was hotter in England than in Athens. The entire British Isles toasted under a week of sunshine. Sam wondered who he should contact in the government to pay him to keep the weather good for the Jubilee. Some money coming in would be good, the Cloudzapper ate electricity. Meanwhile, the French authorities warned that more bodies could still be found as they picked through debris swept away by flash floods, caused by torrential rain, above the Cote D’Azur.

At the end of that week, Sam went outside to check the machine. Cara was in the garden next door lying in the sun, looking like a giant perspiring humbug in the black and white striped swimsuit that cut into the flesh at the top of her legs. She sat up and rubbed oil into her dimpled knees.

‘Oo-oo! Sammy! Come over and put some of this on my back.’ She held out a bottle..

The fence creaked under Sam’s weight as he leaned on it.

‘Olive oil? You’ll fry like a piece of battered cod.’

Cara stood up, waddled over to the fence and tapped the back of his hand. ‘You saying I look like a fish? Cheeky.’

Her cleavage reminded Sam of two giant marshmallows pressed together. Sweet and soft. He coughed and looked away. ‘No. Like a mermaid.’

‘Get off! More like a manatee. They’re endangered, did you know that? But actually, this oil’s environmentally sound, not stiff with chemicals like that suncream you get in the shops.’

Sam forgot about being married to his project as, sweating and panting, he hauled himself over the fence.

‘Hot enough for you?’ he said with a smirk, rubbing oil further down Cara’s back than he’d been asked to. ‘You can thank me for it.’

Cara shook his hand off, rolled over and looked up at him. ‘Don’t be silly.’ A dimple formed in the corner of her mouth as she laughed, her chins blending into her neck.

Sam explained about the Cloudzapper. Cara sat up, her eyes wide and her mouth turned down. She grabbed Sam’s arm.

‘You can’t do that! Weather is a zero sum game.’


‘Think of a game with two people. If someone wins then the other one’s lost. If you force the clouds away from here, they go somewhere else. It’s like the Gaia theory.’

Sam shrugged. Cara tightened her grip on his arm.

‘Don’t you ever read anything but electronics mags? It’s the idea that everything on earth, alive or not, is part of a system that regulates itself to hold onto the conditions life needs.’

‘Sounds like more of that global warming malarkey to me, a bit of weather never hurt anyone. I’m going to get rich. After I’ve sorted out the Jubilee, I’m going to tell whoever runs Wimbledon that I’ll do it for them too, for a fee. It’ll work better than Cliff’s singing did.’

Cara shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, Gaia will get her own back somehow. It’s like Le Chatelier’s principle.’

‘We had one of them but the wheels fell off.’ Sam said.

‘What are you on about?’

‘What are you on about? Go on, you’re obviously dying to tell me.’

Cara went red and looked away. ‘Well, I can’t actually remember. We haven’t done it yet. But I think it was something we did in school chemistry, to do with reactions trying to maintain the status quo.’

‘Now you’re talking. I like The Quo – you can’t beat the golden oldies. I didn’t have you down for a headbanger. Just shows you never can tell,’ Sam said. ‘You come round to my place, we’ll have a drink and listen to some music. Think I’ve got one of their CDs in the car, I’ll go and get it.’ He climbed back into his own garden.

‘That’s the lamest chat up line I’ve ever heard. You’re an idiot, you know that?’ Cara called to him, pulling on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. ‘You need to get out more, let’s go somewhere else for that drink. Hang on, I’m coming round – the civilised way’. She disappeared indoors.

Sam led Cara into his garden. ‘Come and help me put this away, before we go, it’s caning my electricity. I must owe them a fortune.’ He unplugged the Cloudzapper from the extension socket and they wheeled it into the shed.

Within minutes, grey clouds began massing. Cara shivered. ‘It’s getting really nippy, I’ve only got these shorts.’ She rubbed at her goosepimpled legs. ‘Maybe I should just get home.’

‘No! Don’t do that! I reckon we’re the same size, sort of – I’ll get you a pair of my jeans and a shirt. And some sandals.’

Cara looked at him, tilting her head from one side to the other. ‘Hmm, maybe. I don’t mind if they’re a bit big, though – makes me feel sort of enveloped, held, you know – like I’m being cradled by some big hunky man. But not leather sandals. Got any flip flops?’ They went into the house and Sam went upstairs.

‘The CD was up here.’ He came back in with clothes over one arm, carrying the CD in the other hand. ‘Digitally remastered! Better than those MP3s. We can listen to it while you put these on – I built a better hi-fi.’ Raindrops the size of olives blobbed against the window, lashing down the pane like glass rods.

Cara put her finger across Sam’s lips. ‘Stop wittering. And forget these. ’ She took the clothes and flung them onto the floor behind her. ‘I can think of another way of warming up.’ The CD joined the heap. ‘And we’ll be making our own music.’

Soon there was another pile of clothes. It had been a long time. They grabbed each other, their stomachs pressed together, arms and legs trying to reach round. Sam was reminded of a wildlife programme he’d once seen, showing two tortoises trying to mate. But suddenly it all seemed to fit together. Very well.

As they lay together, their breathing returning to normal, thunder crashed overhead and there was a flash in the sky.

‘I’ve heard of the earth moving,’ said Sam ‘but this is ridiculous.’

Another bright crack lit the garden up like a strobe light. Sam and Cara sat up and looked out of the window just in time to see a lightning bolt hit the end of Sam’s garden. The shed burst into flames, burning despite the driving rain.

Sam pulled his jeans on and rushed down the garden, but the heat of the fire beat him back. He stood with his hands dangling by his sides as the shed burnt to the ground. Cara came out, wearing his bathrobe. She put her arm round him and kissed his cheek.

‘Shame about your gadget. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

The next day, Sam stayed indoors. So did everyone else. During the two soggy weeks of Gaia’s revenge, the end of Sam’s garden flooded, as though something was trying to wash away all trace of the Cloudzapper. Sam and Cara found lots to do, including making plans to send a wind turbine into the atmosphere. After all, the jet stream was still up there, just waiting to be harnessed.

‘We can sell it back to the national grid. Forget pennies from heaven. When we get this jet stream generator working, it’ll be treasure from the tropopause,’ Sam said, sitting up in bed on the morning of the fourteenth rainy day. ‘What do you think, Sweet Cheeks?’

Cara stretched out an arm and pulled him towards her. ‘I think you should forget that for now. Come here and we’ll generate some electricity of our own. The natural way.’

And they did.

The end

Bio: Judith is a scientist, editor and writer who lives in London, England, with a husband, two children and a cat. She’s also got two grandchildren. Her work has previously appeared in The Lorelei Signal and Mystic Signals, among other places. Visit her online at

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