Storm Cloud – Sample (Full)

Chapter One: Predictions

They say that sunset in the tropics is instant. One moment it’s daylight and then it’s dark. If you’re lucky, in between you can see the “green flash.” I’m convinced that the so-called green flash is a myth based on the way the light appears at sunset some nights. And as for instant — hardly. Sure, twilight doesn’t last forever like it does in a Canadian summer, but it happens. I know it does, because there I was, sitting on the beach in Mo’orea, watching the sunset’s colours illuminate the few clouds dotting the sky out to sea.

The party was in full swing behind me, people laughing and eating, the twang of a guitar as someone started up a song.

“I was wondering where you’d gone to.” That non-existent twilight managed to cast a shadow over me as Isaac settled into the sand next to me. He wasn’t even ten years older than me, but he felt like a kindly uncle. As the mate on the ship I served aboard, Isaac kept both the boat and the people working.

I smiled at him. “I’m fine,” I said, “just enjoying the view.”

“Hmm,” he said, “it is beautiful.” I could just make out him gesturing back to the party. “They sure know how to have a good time.”

He wasn’t referring to our shipmates, although the sentiment applied to them as well. We were enjoying our last night in the area, which was often an excuse for a party. But this time it was especially worth noting, as our hosts were Tulia’s extended family.

She was one of the deckhands and Mo’orea was her home. When we’d arrived two weeks previously, they’d tried to convince her to stay. It had been touch and go for a while, but she’d eventually convinced them that she wasn’t ready to quit sailing yet. The captain, Mat, had agreed to stay in the area longer than usual to let them spend a little time together, but we had to get moving. At least, that was what she said. I didn’t completely understand our schedule, but I did understand that Mat got squirrelly if we stayed in one place too long. At first I thought it was part of our business model but now I wonder if it had more to do with the captain’s personality.

“They’re going to miss her,” I said.

“They will,” Isaac agreed. “I’m going for another plate of ham. You coming?” He stood, brushing sand off his butt. I watched as the dying colours deepened in the sky.

“Sure.”

Rainui Laille, Tulia’s brother, had laid in a proper Polynesian spread for the party, including a whole roast pig. I wasn’t a vegetarian or anything, but honestly it put me off. I tried not to look it in the face as I took a plate. I stood next to a young Polynesian woman, one of Tulia’s cousins, waiting for my turn at the salads. She was tall, with long wavy hair that fell almost to her hips, and even in the dim light I could make out the swirl of a tattoo on her upper arm. She caught my eye, and said in accented English, “You sail with Tulia?”

I said I did and introduced myself. “I’m Devi.”

“I’m Marie. Nice to meet you.” She scooped a large helping of something that looked like coleslaw onto her plate, then gestured to me. I nodded and she gave me an equally generous portion. “How long have you been sailing?”

“I joined the crew…” I had to mentally count the days, “… a couple of months ago.”

“Oh. And before?”

Before I was on the boat I was a regular university student in Vancouver, and I’d ended up on board the Byte Bucket as my internship working for a company that offers clients untraceable, remote data storage. Explaining cloud data storage was hard enough; explaining that I administered servers installed on a boat that most of the time was sailing in some of the remotest parts of the world, when even I didn’t really understand why we did what we did — well, it wasn’t exactly easy small talk for me.

“This is my first time on a boat.” I left it at that, and she seemed surprised but accepted what I’d said without question. We took our plates to a nearby table and sat.

After we’d each had a mouthful, she said, “There are a lot of ladies on your boat, no?”

I couldn’t help myself and I laughed. “Yup.”

“I work with Rainui at the company.” Tulia’s brother and his wife ran a local tourist charter firm; they’d just added a float plane to their fleet of jeeps. “We see many of the cruising yachts. There are not so many ladies on other boats, I think?”

I nodded. “We are unusual, it’s true. There are lots of couples, a few families. The big, fancy boats have crew; they’re mainly guys.”

She nodded, thinking it over. “It’s good,” she said, finally. “It’s hard to be the only lady.”

“It is.” I knew it wasn’t as bad as it used to be in computer science, but I’d still had plenty of experience being the only woman in the room. “What do you do?”

“I’m the pilot,” she said, grinning. I grinned back.

“Awesome.”

* * *

Tulia’s parents and the other older folks left a few hours after the sun went down, but everyone else carried on into the night. I noticed that earlier Martin had been avoiding Tulia’s family, but now they were joined at the hip. Martin was the other deckhand and over the past month he and Tulia had become a bit of an item. Having a fling with someone you couldn’t get away from if things got weird wasn’t my thing, but I was glad for them.

Martin and I had hit it off immediately when I’d first come aboard, and for a while that made things awkward between me and Tulia. Until I let slip a story about my ex-girlfriend, anyway. I was glad to see them happy together, but it was hard to watch them laughing, Tulia wiping a bit of sauce off Martin’s chin.

It wasn’t so much that I missed hanging out with Martin — there was a lot of time on the boat and we were still getting our daily card games in. It was more like I was simultaneously worried about what would happen when the inevitable problems between them began, and envious of their relationship. I didn’t want to hook up with another member of the crew. Hell, I didn’t want to hook up with anyone at all, regardless of how pretty Marie might be. But I couldn’t help but miss the weight of someone next to me, the squeeze of a hand in mine.

“Hey.” Christine, one of the other “ladies” on the Bucket, threw her leg over the bench I was sitting on. “It’s good to see those two happy again.”

“Yeah.” She looked at me, her eyebrow raised. “I’m happy for them, really,” I said. “It just makes me feel a little lonely, you know?” I caught her eye and she flinched a little.

“Well, I wouldn’t date anyone I worked with,” she said, a bit archly.

“Me, neither,” I said. “I don’t know how they manage it. But they remind me a little of me and Jeannette and it’s…” I trailed off. Christine’s face seemed to soften a little.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “That’s one of the downsides to this life.” She shrugged. “There’s always the possibility of meeting someone in port. I’ve stayed ashore one or two nights.” She grinned.

“Yeah, I’m not sure that’s really my style,” I said and she nodded. “Anyway, enough moping around. This is supposed to be a party, right?”

“Right.” We both extricated ourselves from the picnic table and headed toward the cooler full of drinks. I wasn’t part of the sailing crew, so didn’t have any set duties for getting underway, but I still didn’t want to be hung over the next day so I fished out a Fanta from the melted ice. I opened it and took a swallow while Christine struck up a conversation with one of the locals. I wasn’t really paying attention to their conversation until I heard her voice rise.

She wasn’t shouting, and I doubted that the guy she was talking with even knew that she was upset, but when you live and work with someone twenty-four/seven for a few months you pick up a few things.

“No, I really am the mechanic,” she said, again. “I’ve worked in machine shops and on commercial vessels before this. I’ve been to school and everything.” She smiled nicely and her voice sounded like she found the whole conversation hilarious, but I could tell that she was pissed.

I was just about to go over there and try to help when Mat appeared out of nowhere. “Sorry to interrupt, but can you help me take some of our stuff back to the boat?”

“Sure, Captain,” Christine said and then turned to the person she’d been talking with. “Sorry, duty calls. Nice to talk with you.” She and Mat turned away and walked down the beach to the dinghy.

I wandered around until I found Isaac. “We’re going to wrap up pretty soon,” he said and I nodded. I didn’t know how early a start we were going to get, but I was getting tired anyway. There was a bunch of stuff that would have to be done before we got underway and even if I wasn’t expected to help I liked to do my part. I helped Isaac clear up a few of our things, giving Tulia more time with her family. I knew she wanted to keep travelling, but I also knew that if it were me it would be hard to say goodbye.

* * *

The wind meter read thirty knots, but I didn’t need to see the number to know that it was windy. The boat was moving very quickly through the rough swells and while it wasn’t particularly comfortable, it was nice to be going fast. Relatively speaking, of course. We were making about nine knots — nine nautical miles an hour — about as fast as a dog can run. But for a sailboat, it’s pretty quick.

Jimmy Houghton, the ship’s cook, had made a large pot of oatmeal. It seemed a bit odd to be eating a hot breakfast in the tropics, but he knew what he was doing. It was filling and easy to eat in the rolling swells. Plus it stuck to the bowls, keeping the inevitable spills to a minimum.

Jimmy was the oldest member of our crew, probably by a lot, though I’d still never figured out if he was a rough thirty-five or a well-preserved sixty. He talked like it was the latter, having an inexhaustible supply of tales about sailing “back in the day.” But his midnight iPod dance parties made me wonder.

I was hanging out in the main salon, an enclosed space on the deck level in front of the cockpit. It had large windows, with seats bolted to the floor, and it was the best place to stay out of the way and still be able to see what was going on outside. I didn’t really need to watch the ocean spray go by, but when it’s rough the best way to avoid seasickness is to be able to see the horizon.

I wasn’t particularly prone to seasickness, but I’d learned that there was no point in testing my luck. Isaac had said when we pulled up the anchor in the morning that the trip would be just a single overnight, so I’d gone down to the server locker as we were motoring out of the bay. I planned to ensure everything was running smoothly, then avoid going down the steep ladder into the windowless hold for the rest of the passage.

Our servers were still connected to the internet via the cell network in Mo’orea. The Byte Bucket had its own cell, making that connection stronger, but it wouldn’t hold at sea. We used a slower but more accessible satellite network then, and I made sure that the system was set up to switch over automatically. One of my predecessors had created the script, no doubt after having forgotten to make the change manually. It hadn’t failed yet, but I still felt better making sure that everything was running smoothly. Especially since the company had recently been profiled on a high-traffic blog and we’d seen a large increase in customers as a result. We weren’t exactly competing on reliability, but I still felt like I needed to do my best to keep my part of the system up and running.

Really Remote Desktop had a strange business model: it was slow, somewhat unreliable and expensive. But we promised security from the prying eyes of governments and private hackers alike. The American government had its eyes on us — I thought that was one of the reasons we never stayed anywhere long. Our servers were located in the most remote places possible: a satellite in orbit, up one mountain in the Andes and another in the Himalayas, on an unnamed island in the Caribbean, in the hold of the Byte Bucket. I wasn’t convinced that a dedicated attacker wouldn’t be able to intercept our data, but I guessed that our customers were  interested in the appearance of our service as much as its reality. There is something about being able to say that your data might be in space or in the middle of the ocean that just sounds cool. At least it must have sounded cool to a bunch of people given the traffic numbers I was seeing.

I watched the packets move for a while, marvelling at the increase that we’d seen since I first came aboard. We were handling it, barely. Head office had sent some upgrades which I’d installed when we first reached French Polynesia, and they’d helped, but I was still a little nervous. Given that our network connections were not the most stable, a significant traffic increase could cause problems. Everything was moving fine on the network. Unlike the boat, as a wave rocked us over on one side as we got into open water. I decided I didn’t need to watch the data move anymore and stowed the equipment quickly before heading back up above decks and to my favourite seat in the main salon.

* * *

Being at sea always tired me out. By the time Jimmy served the early dinner, I was yawning. But I also knew that given how rough it was out there, I’d hardly get any sleep. It was windy and the swells were big enough to roll all hundred feet and several dozen tons of the Byte Bucket every few minutes. I’d learned to use the evenly spaced handrails whenever I was standing up — it was a lesson learned painfully and my ribs still ached a little when I thought of it.

Dinner was sandwiches, easy to make and easy to eat. No one complained about the lack of a hot meal. The mood was unusual; all the other passages I’d been on had an almost festive air, even when it had been rough. Christine would find some out of the way place to do her yoga, then watch the sea go by for hours. Mat bustled around, plotting our course, checking the weather, suggesting tweaks to the sail trim. Sometimes we’d catch a fish. Martin and I played cards. It sounds mundane, but with everyone aboard doing their own thing, days and nights at sea felt as much like a quiet party as they did work. It was obvious that all of them loved being on the water.

But now it felt like all of us just wanted to get there. It was only an overnighter and it wasn’t terribly comfortable. Plus we’d been in the same small area for much longer than anywhere else, at least since I’d been aboard. It was almost like we were out of practice.

“This blows,” Christine said, as if she’d been reading my mind. “Pacific ocean my ass.”

Isaac barked a laugh, but the deepening frown lines made it clear that he felt the same way.

“It’s an el niño year,” Mat said. “We should expect ‘enhanced trades’.” She made air quotes with her fingers. “Still, I wouldn’t have left if the forecast had actually called for this.” She gestured at the wind meter, which now fluctuated between the high thirties and low forties.

“You know what they say about predictions,” Isaac said.

“They’re difficult,” Mat answered as if they’d had this back and forth a million times before, “especially about the future.”

“So, if you can’t trust the weather forecast,” I said, concerned, “how can you do anything?”

Mat shrugged. “The forecasts are almost always right in the overall pattern — where the wind is coming from, what the trend is, the general windspeed. The trouble is that they have a false sense of accuracy. The forecast is for 25 knots from the north northeast and then we get mad when the wind is only 15 and it’s more easterly.”

“In the grand scheme of things that’s really close,” Isaac said with a shrug. “But a couple of knots or a few degrees is the difference between a beautiful beam reach and a painful windward slog.”

“Basically,” Mat said, “you make your best decision with the information you have available. Then deal with what you actually get.”

“Just like everything in life,” Jimmy added, then disappeared with the remains of our meal.

Everything they said made perfect sense, but I couldn’t help but feel like in the two weeks we’d been hanging around Mo’orea I’d lost whatever sea legs I’d acquired in the previous month. I wasn’t in love with that idea, and I sure hoped that it wouldn’t take another set of cracked ribs to get them back.

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