This story is a rewrite and re-imagining of my original Windboy, which I wrote back in 1978 when I was 12 years old.
Of all the screwed-up professions I could have fallen into, I had to fall into the screwiest.
I wasn't even a meteorologist. My major at UCLA had been good, old-fashioned physics. And in the mid-1960s, earning a university degree in physics had really meant something.
All of you out there, who grew up and went to an American college on the far side of the Vietnam War — you've had it easy. During the Vietnam draft era, college professors were reluctant to flunk anybody, because they knew any college dropout could be snatched up by the Army and sent overseas to die. That meant the good students had to be given even higher grades so as to distinguish them. Performance that just would have squeaked by with a C grade in 1960 would earn you an A by 1970. The Vietnam War eventually ended, but the practice of easier grades continued, and is still going strong in your day.
I earned — I fought tooth and nail for — a friggin' B average back before then. A 3.0 grade point average made me a friggin' star. If I'd had the money, I would've been a shoo-in for the master's degree program.
Then the first time-warp tornado came along and shook physics to its foundations.
Oh, sure, to you a time-warp tornado is no big deal. Two counterrotating tornadoes collide, and the resulting disruption to spacetime can send objects forward in time, or even backward in time a minute or two — but never farther back than the moment the time-warp tornado first formed. All you care about is that you can't go back and shoot Hitler, or learn tomorrow's winning lottery numbers.
But to us physicists, the existence of any time travel into the past, no matter how small, violated everything we knew about causality. If event A occurs before event B, then there should be no way for event B to influence event A. Now, event B could hop on a time-warp tornado a minute after it forms, sneak up on event A from behind, and kick its butt. Thanks to a vague promise of grad school credit, I got roped into an internship with a gaggle of other physics majors. We were going to go out and find more of these elusive time-warp tornadoes, and make event B happen before event A.
Between the start of 1965 and the end of 1966, the team I was on somehow managed to chase down 2 out of the 3 total time-warp tornadoes that formed worldwide. Up close, they were spectacular. The boom that accompanied the tornado and anti-tornado colliding. Pulsating flashes of light like sheet lightning, which stretched across your entire field of view. The eerie, time-reversed howling of the wind. The blasts of radio noise at 11.42 megahertz every few seconds, playing havoc with 25-meter shortwave communications for miles around. (At that frequency, the noise bursts would bounce off the ionisphere; shortwave operators with sensitive enough equipment could pick them up on the other side of the world.) The buzzing, almost hypnotic expansion and contraction of the combined tornadoes' funnels. The way any objects it swept up would just . . . vanish. Our time-travel experiments didn't actually break the universe, but God knows we tried to.
I took a deep breath of the cool, salty early-morning air. 6:30 A.M. local time, 26-March-1967, Santa Monica beach. Forces were stirring just off the coast which would dwarf anything I'd ever seen before. A time-warp tornado was breathtaking enough, but this. This was going to be, according to all our best calculations . . . a time-warp hurricane.
You'd think anything to do with hurricanes would be more likely to happen in the Atlantic. But north Atlantic hurricanes only rotate counterclockwise, and south Atlantic hurricanes only rotate clockwise, thanks to the coriolis pseudoforce. This day, off the west coast of southern California, two hurricanes were converging, one from the north and one from the south — and in a sadistic twist that would make every meteorologist tear his hair out, the southerly one was rotating clockwise. This backwards hurricane was smaller than the normal, counterclockwise one approaching from the north, but it was big enough to get the job done.
The amount of energy in the combined double hurricane would be enormous. More than enough to cause a time-warp; and, if we were right, enough to permit time travel to points in the past long before the time-warp formed.
Tracking the hurricanes while they converged was a pain. This was long before the era of up-to-the-minute weather monitoring. The only weather satellite in existence at the time was TIROS-1; it transmitted its data to exactly one ground receiving station at a time, if there were any stations within range of it at all, and this data was only available in real time to a select group of analysts with access to big, room-filling computers. The only tools we had to pinpoint the two hurricanes were a couple of pairs of binoculars.
The winds picking up as the storms approached served as a good hint, though.
At last, we caught sight of the southern hurricane — and it took only a few more seconds for the bigger northern storm to come into view. They were barreling toward each other at breakneck speed, and we were dead center between them. Okay. Focus. Equipment out. Experiments at the ready. Dave had his wind-up home movie camera out and pointed at the action. The wind kept getting stronger. I had to put my hand out in front of my face to keep the wind from stinging my eyes. Pretty soon, I could make out both hurricanes without binoculars. Our anemometers kept spinning faster and faster.
And then, the hurricanes collided.
The initial flash was blinding. Looking away didn't help; the light stretched from horizon to horizon. I couldn't see my wristwatch. I had to count the seconds from the instant of the flash. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thou—
The sound from the collision finally reached us. I nearly jumped out of my own skin. I could feel the bass notes shake my gut. But the shock cleared my vision, and I could at last make out the single quivering, roiling, blinking mass of spinning and counterspinning air that was the time-warp hurricane.
The sound of the boom seemed to echo backwards, then forwards, then backwards again. It was a similar sound to a time-warp tornado, except lower. And slower. As though the whole ballet were unfolding in slow motion. The light the hurricane gave off seemed to sparkle and glow at the same time; my spectroscope split it into dozens of little dazzling rainbows, each peppered with absorption lines exactly where we expected them to be. The broad-spectrum radio detector showed a peak at the expected 11.42 MHz, but brighter and sharper than a thousand time-warp tornadoes combined. If our predictions were right, the time-warp effect should be confined to the double hurricane's eye, a region that time-warp tornadoes lacked. That was where the magic should be happening. And . . .
What . . . what was that? A silhouette, against the time-warp hurricane's near continuous sheen of light? Was an object coming out of the hurricane?
Not just an object. A human figure.
I struggled to stand against the roaring wind that was still stinging my eyes, but I had to get a better look. No doubt about it. It looked like someone standing against the backdrop of the hurricane, suspended in midair. I shook my head. What I was seeing was impossible. Anyone that close to the hurricane would be getting tossed around like a ragdoll. And yet, the figure continued to approach, standing calmly on nothing; and, as I could now make out, with its arms casually outstretched in an almost welcoming gesture.
As the figure wafted in past the shoreline toward us, I could make out the details. And this confused me even further. The calm, almost serene expression on his face, coupled with his gently outstretched arms, would have given the impression of a hippie Jesus were it not for two things:
First, he was dressed like a comic-book superhero. Below his waist he was wearing blue shorts over white tights (spandex?), above the waist he sported pristine white with the blue outline of an enormous "W" across the chest, and fluttering behind him was a bright blue cape. The only thing missing was boots; his feet were adorned with small bright blue shoes, or perhaps socks, that looked like they were made from the same material as a SCUBA diver's outfit.
And second, he was just a boy. He couldn't have been more than twelve years old, and was more likely nine or ten.
He came to rest a few yards in front of us, but he didn't land. The strongest, most localized updraft I'd ever seen was keeping him suspended a couple of feet off the ground. It was almost as though he were . . . controlling it.
Then, as if on cue, the deafening roar of the wind ceased. The wind was still blowing all around us, but we were in a little bubble of calm. He opened his mouth and spoke, and we could hear him as plainly as if he were standing two feet away. "I am Wind Boy," he said in plain English. "I am a super hero who has come to help you."
I could swear that his words didn't quite match the movement of his mouth, like I was watching a foreign movie dubbed into English.
"Um . . . hi," I said in spite of myself. "I'm Jason."
Windboy squinted for an instant, then said, "Yes. I remember. I ran into you last time, but we didn't —" He seemed to stop himself. It must have been the confused look on my face. "Tell you what. How'd you like to come with me?"
I shook my head in bewilderment. "Come . . . with you?"
He gazed at me levelly and smiled. "How would you like," he paused for effect, "To fly?"
Now my mouth just dropped open. "Fly . . . you mean . . . fly, with you? Up in the air? Like a superman?"
He made a tiny come-hither gesture. "Just stand next to me and I'll show you." He held out a hand, as if asking me to take it.
I blinked. "Um . . . okay!" I set my bits of equipment down and walked across the sand until I was standing right beneath that outstretched hand.
He seemed to make the slightest upward gesture with his fingers. At least, I think he did. I'm still not sure. It's hard to remember exactly, because in the next second a gale-force wind blew straight up on my crotch from below and knocked me skyward. I yelped. Windboy rose up to meet me in midair, but by then I'd tumbled flat on my back, and with this increased surface area exposed to the updraft I shot upward that much faster.
"Streamline yourself," I heard Windboy say. "The smaller your cross section, the less lift you'll create."
Oh, sure. Just streamline myself. I could barely stave off the motion sickness, and he wanted me to control my posture? I tried to arch myself forward, to no avail. It was like lying on a gigantic water bed, except the water bed was actively trying to pummel me. Maybe if I twisted sideways . . . oh! It wasn't much, but lying on my side meant my flank was slicing into the air stream more sharply than if I were lying on my back. My rapid ascent slowed and started to reverse itself.
"Good," Windboy's voice sounded in my ears. "Now follow me."
Follow him? I couldn't even turn toward him to see him! Not without falling down, or falling up. All I could manage to do was call out "Where are you?"
"Right behind you," he answered. "Steer with your arms."
I tried frantically to dog paddle through the air. This did nothing but tire me out. Maybe he meant to stick my arms into the airstream and — yikes! That did something, all right. I started to spin. Wildly. I glimpsed Windboy hovering near me with every rotation. I retracted my arms, turned my hands edge-on into the wind, and the spinning slowed. I put my arms down rigidly at my sides, and just angled my hands into the wind. That seemed to offer better control. I could almost manage to position myself with Windboy right in front of me. Now, if I could just stop the —
"Let's go," Windboy said, and angled away.
"Uh, wait, wait!" I called out. I'd figured out how to climb, descend, and turn — sort of — but I had no clue how to move forward or back. Apparently, Windboy heard me, because he stopped and made a single, tiny come-hither gesture with his right hand. At once, a tailwind blew me toward him so fast that I overshot him and hurtled right on past. I instinctively flattened myself out to slow down, but that just caught more of the wind and made me go even faster.
"No," I heard him say, "Try —"
And on we went like this, him trying to get me to go where he wanted, and me struggling to figure out how to control myself in these gale-force winds he seemed to be creating. We danced around wildly, until finally, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it.
That was when I heard him say "Oops."
I looked over my shoulder, and there behind me was the limb of the time-warp hurricane, coming up fast. In all our zipping around, we had strayed too close to it. I clutched my hands to my chest. That wall of wind was going faster than anything Windboy had thrown at me, and could potentially tear me apart right here in midair. I panicked. I saw my own legs beating back and forth, churning uselessly, as though I were trying to run away from the threat. My animal survival instincts had taken over. They were working against me. I needed to regain control if I were to have any chance.
"I can't pull you away from the hurricane," Windboy said, his voice as calm as ever. "We'll have to go through it."
What? He can't mean — I shouted, "Through it?!"
Windboy didn't answer. Or rather, his answer was a wind that whipped me around until I faced directly into the hurricane, followed by the strongest tailwind I'd ever experienced. I must have been hurtling toward the hurricane at over a hundred miles an hour. My physicist brain, in an absurd disconnect from the terror of the moment, converted this figure to 147 feet per second. I pushed the thought aside. As the wall of wind rushed upon me, I could make out the striations — the bands where the two counter-rotating hurricanes were blowing in opposite directions. Relative wind speeds where striations met must have been strong enough to snap a tree trunk in half.
Then we plunged in. Though I've since learned better, at the time I was convinced that Windboy's wind powers were the only thing keeping me alive. We sat in a cocoon of controlled air, hurtling inward toward the eye of the hurricane.
Okay, Jason. Focus. You've seen the calculations. You know how a time-warp hurricane is supposed to work. The eye is where time displacement happens. There was a huge, complex function that governed how much time displacement would occur, all based on the angle at which an object entered the eye; and this function was discontinuous. Enter at 80° from the axis of rotation, and you'd go 2400 years into the future; enter at 81°, and you'd go 5000 years into the past. So pay attention to —
27 degree angle from the rotation axis. We breached the eye.
Total, dead calm. Our momentum carried us across to the other side.
Wait . . . was it the angle at which you entered the eye that mattered, or was it —
The far side of the eye smashed into both of us. There was a brief, blink-and-you'll-miss-it flash. Then the hurricane winds resumed, just as strong as before. I was relieved, but crestfallen. We must still be in the same hurricane as before. No magical time-warp had sent us to the past of the Pharaohs, or to the future of the Jetsons. Maybe our calculations were bunk, and hurricanes didn't behave like time-warp tornadoes at all.
Windboy once more kept the strongest winds at bay, but this time the hurricane spat us out. Before I knew it, we were flying away over open ocean. I looked over my shoulder at the hurricane receding behind me, my heart still pounding like mad. "We made it," I said, unable to keep the trembling out of my voice. "We're alive!"
"Of course," Windboy said. "The wind wouldn't hurt me."
We slowly descended until we were skimming the ocean waves. We were still travelling at quite a decent clip. The water directly below us flattened out, its waves smashed flat by the same winds that were holding us aloft. I looked ahead, and saw the sun low on the horizon over the water.
Over the water. But sunrise . . . the sun rises in the east. Just moments ago, the sun had been behind me while I was standing on the beach staring out over the ocean toward the west. The sun should be over land, over Santa Monica, but there was no land in sight below the sun right now. We couldn't have travelled out to sea that far, even at these speeds.
"Um . . " I began. "Are we? Um . . . Did we?"
"We flew through a hurricane, yes," Windboy said, completely misunderstanding me.
"No, I mean —" I tried to find the words "— Where's Santa Monica beach?"
"About half a world away," Windboy answered. "Look out ahead, right below the sun. Land just came into view. That should be the coast of Cornwall."
Cornw. . . "England?!"
"That's where this era's time-warp hurricane appeared. Off the southwest coast of England."
This era? Then . . . oh. . . .
That was when the bottom fell out of my world. The hurricane had propelled me through time. But it had sent me into another time-warp hurricane. That's what was missing in the equations. That's why the entry-angle or exit-angle function was discontinuous. Time-warp hurricanes were linked to each other, across space and time. Time travel through one of them can only send you into another, nowhere else. And no-when else.
I was still pondering what to ask next, when we reached the Cornwall coast. Gray craggy cliffs sprang from the ocean to greet us, and atop them, a green countryside. Windboy slowed us with a headwind and set himself down on the grass as gently as a mother sets her baby in a crib. I had a harder time of it. Controlling my movements in these artificial winds was still a challenge. But eventually I got my weight back onto my own feet and stumbled forward. It felt amazingly reassuring to be back on solid ground again.
Windboy inhaled deeply through his nose, seeming to sample the breeze. "Early autumn. I bet you're wondering what year it is."
"I don't have to wonder," I replied. "It's 1127 A.D."
For the first time, Windboy looked genuinely surprised. "How did you know that? The first time I came here, it took me nearly an hour of sampling the wind before I could figure out the year!"
Something about what he said didn't quite register with me. I just shook my head. "I didn't use air currents. I used physics. We entered the eye of the time-warp hurricane — the 1967 time-warp hurricane — at an angle of 27 degrees from the upper rotation axis. Then we went straight through the eye, which means we must have exited at 27 degrees from the lower rotation axis. Our calculations showed a negative 840 year time displacement at that angle."
Windboy looked at me, bewildered.
"And 1967 minus 840 is 1127," I finished.
Windboy asked innocently, "Does physics have a lot of math?"
That sounded like a pretty dumb question coming from a time-travelling super hero — until I remembered that I was talking to a 9 or 10 year old boy. "Yes," I said. "Physics uses a ton of advanced math. Vector calculus, complex exponentials, matrices — and that's just the lower-division stuff. Working out the equations for the time-warp hurricane took math so complicated that only a few of the grad students understand it."
"It sounds hard," Windboy said. "It must've taken you years."
"Over a decade," I said.
"It's too bad I'll never get to learn it," he said. "Physics sounds like it would be really useful."
"Never get to learn it?" I asked. "Why not? Are you too busy with super hero stuff?"
He shook his head. "No, it's not that. I'm —" He hesitated. "I'm cursed, you see."
That I didn't expect to hear. "Huh?"
He might have been about to say something, but his head jerked to one side. "Someone's coming," he said, "From the north."
I peered where he was staring. If I squinted, I could barely make out a figure on horseback. It looked like . . . yes, yes, it was trotting toward us. As it got closer, I could see that it was wearing a scruffy wool coat. No — not wool, armor. Chain-link mail. There was a helmet on his head shaped vaguely like a bullet, and some kind of weapon strapped to his left side.
Windboy inhaled stiffly. "It's a knight."
"Oh, neat!" I said. "Like a real knight in shining armor?"
Windboy grabbed my arm and pulled, beckoning me to go with him. "Real knights aren't like in the fairy tales. If he sees us, he could attack us just for being here."
I stumbled after him. "But don't knights have a code of chivalry?"
"Not for another century," he said, breaking into a trot. "And even then, chivalry only restrains them from attacking other knights and nobles. Peasants don't count. He'd be within his rights to murder us both."
Oh. Oh crap. I broke into a sprint. We dashed into a grove of trees and hid behind two of them, breathing hard. I peered out from behind my tree, and watched the knight trot by. He came close enough that I could see his coat of arms emblazoned on a saddle flap, but he didn't seem to notice us. A moment later, he was all but completely out of sight.
This wasn't how I was expecting this day to shape up at all.