Three separate storms conspired in the faraway distance — sky towers of dark, mushrooming clouds appearing as thin lines on the hazy horizon. Despite the distance, Zeemat sensed their approach by the escalating tingles on his alien skin. Like an insistent itch demanding to be scratched, something compelled him to move, to go outside, but he resisted the natural urge, choosing instead to remain indoors, against his own instinct and his father’s command. A stronger desire overpowered his innate drive — he would stay indoors to watch the storms through his bedroom window so he could paint an impression of what he saw through his artist’s eyes.
Zeemat’s large, compound eyes saw his world in all its vivid colors, from infrared to ultraviolet, from the glaring glow of the midday sun to the near-blackness of night. Unlike most Torkiyans, including his father who saw the world in the black and white of winning and losing, Zeemat relished the nuance of hue and value, the detail of temperature and tone. He was fascinated by similarities and differences, and marveled at how every stroke on the canvas was part of a larger whole. Painting brought him joy in the heartless world of militant Torkiya. It provided an escape from the pressure to compete and combat — things that were not in his gentler nature. In his paintings, he could instill the world with a certain beauty and peace that he didn’t find in the danger and drama of Torkiya’s day to day. In his paintings, he could make life better. Creating these images of a better world is what he was compelled to do, it’s what consumed his thoughts. And now he was focused on capturing the beauty in the violence of the impending storm. Something told him it would be historic.
Violent weather continuously assailed the planet Torkiya. On rare occasion, several storms collided to form a massive mega-storm, unleashing torrents of rain and shocks of multi-colored lightning on the agitated people below. This storm was one of those — a collusion of three separate storms uniting for an allied assault — and Zeemat was prepared to stand witness.
He moved his painting materials to the hemispherical window of his third-floor bedroom, giving him an unobstructed 180-degree view of the mounting gloom outside. From his high position near the peak of his pyramidal family unit, he could see the three separate masses of dark, swirling clouds marching toward him from the distance, beyond the tall cylindrical buildings of the capital’s central district, and beyond the Space Academy which he knew was further away in the same direction. Though the storms were far away, he predicted they would collide directly overhead — an accurate sense provided by nature and the evolution of his species in a planet of raging storms. Now his almond-shaped eyes found the towering lightning rods that were visible from out his window, part of a network of lightning towers spanning the expansive planetary capital city, dotting it in a uniform grid in order to capture every possible bolt. His eyes and head darted right and left, up and down, following the distant, quick flashes of red, yellow, and blue lightning exploding from the strengthening storms, streaks of raw energy branching out and intertwining, striking closer and closer to the city, closer and closer to the lightning rods, and to the sidewalks. He hurriedly set up his easel and electronic canvas, and poured a dollop of the ten ionic paints into finger wells at close reach. He wasn’t going to miss this chance to capture the fiery spectacle. He rubbed the itch on his arms but allowed the tips of his long fingers to tingle in anticipation.
The time between flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder was shortening. The last few diamagnetic cruisers yet in the air hurried to land on their charging stations and were locked into place, safe from the weather’s impending violence. As the clouds and the lightning grew nearer, he gazed up and down his symmetrical street, to the vanishing points in the distance, not surprised to see parades of citizens streaming out of their multi-colored but otherwise identical pyramid-shaped homes. They were drawn by the energy in the air. They rushed to the sidewalks which connected the entire city, a frenzy of ravenous bodies pushing and shoving with their slender arms to gain a suitable position.
Zeemat considered the sidewalks to be a work of art. He loved the swirling, copper metal pattern inlaid into the grey stone of the sidewalks. As the rain began to fall, sizzles of lightning lit up the sky, and the copper in the sidewalks glimmered the reflection of every flash. “Rainshine,” Zeemat called it, and it had much to do with copper — that precious, conductive metal which was ironically rare in a planet of electric storms. Copper was used in the construction of the sidewalks — a flaunt of the capital’s wealth. The swirling copper pattern in the sidewalks represented the storms themselves, which were an integral part of Torkiyan life. These metallic inlays connected every section of sidewalks all over the city, in turn connecting to the system of massive lightning towers — an elegance of form and function. When lightning struck, the powerful electric charge conducted down the towers and throughout the entire city through the copper wiring of the sidewalks for the benefit of every Torkiyan.
Life on Torkiya did not depend entirely on these frequent and violent storms — most species simply tolerated them — but over the 5 billion years since the planet came into being, from the first spark of life to the present day, evolution found clever ways for some living things to use the storms to their advantage. The most successful species on this planet shared two characteristics in common — a degree of intelligence, and some capacity to use the electric power of the planet’s frequent storms.
Evolution fashioned the people of Torkiya (the land of storms, in their language) with an acute intelligence, their over-large brains crowding the smooth dome of their cranium, their heads resembling an upside-down teardrop. Their angled, almond-shaped eyes dominate the lower half of their face — eyes with millions of tiny sensors to capture a wide spectrum of light and movement, glimmering softly with reflected light, glowing with a rainbow of ever-changing colors to mirror their emotions. Their noses are small and fine, belying a precise sense of smell that provides chemical and geographic information about their environment. Their mouths are also small, as their efficient digestive and energy-producing systems require little food. A thin neck is enough to support a large head, due to powerful musculature. The torso is also slim, housing the other major organs laid out efficiently by nature. Retractable external genitalia provide males and females with a similar external appearance unless they are sexually stimulated, at which times a male plug makes a dramatic appearance, and a female socket is made ready for reproduction. Their sexual activity, and their purposeful actions in general, are driven more by logic and reason than by instinct and desire.
As for their use of electricity, Torkiyans are endowed with conductive carbonic skin on their grey hands and feet, enabling them to absorb the massive energy of a lightning bolt. Evolution equipped them with a specialized nervous system capable of storing the energy, giving them a period of enhanced strength and aggression, or of using the energy against an enemy or predator. Through their intelligence, aggression, and superior use of electric power, the ruthless Torkiyans dominated their world. They advanced their technology and reached out into space, colonizing the neighboring planet Senechia and conquering its sapient inhabitants, enslaving them to mine Senechian copper, their most treasured resource.
Whenever Zeemat thought about Senechian copper and slaves, he thought about his father, the most famous hero of the Senechian War.
“They fought bravely, but we were smarter and stronger,” his father often boasted. “Now we have their copper, and they do our bidding. Everything is better.”
But Zeemat didn’t see it the same way. The original Senechian slaves, the ones who fought and lost, were dying off. The younger Senechian generation, about Zeemat’s own age, were genetically modified Senechians grown in Torkiyan labs. They didn’t speak. Their faces revealed no emotion. They would follow orders until the day they died. Zeemat once tried to paint them, but he couldn’t manage to depict them happy, or their world a better place.
A loud crack of nearly simultaneous lightning and thunder brought Zeemat back to the here and now. He looked down to see his barefoot neighbors fighting for their positions on the sidewalk, standing directly on the metallic patterns. He noticed his father, Yonek, and mother, Iohma, were already there. They spotted him at his window and waved frantically for him to join them outside. His father flashed a menacing grimace — lips downturned, fists clenched, and piercing red-angry eyes aimed directly at him — eyes that shot a conflict of emotions through Zeemat’s soul. As a child, those lips had spoken kind and encouraging words. When he was a baby, those hands had held him close, keeping him warm and safe. And for most of his life, before painting had become his passion, those eyes were most often the placid-pink of a good father’s firm but gentle nature.
His mother touched the fingertips of both her hands together, cocked her head, and made a sad expression — the one she sometimes used to get her way — pleading for him to come outside. But Zeemat knew there was a hidden current of anger in his mother as well, and it would be worse after the storm. She didn’t approve of his painting any more than his father did. She encouraged more education, beyond the basic studies he had just completed, especially in science and math — areas where Zeemat had shown hereditary aptitude, and areas that Zeemat disdained. As he expected, his mother’s expression slowly morphed from pleading… to impatient… to intolerant.
Several people took notice of what was happening and quickly averted their gaze, both from Zeemat’s behavior and his parents’ shame.
But Zeemat was determined — he would not join them — he would paint. And though his father’s disapproval weighed heavy on his heart, Zeemat was content with his gentler calling. Zeemat understood his father wanted nothing more than for his son to energize into the same aggressive Torkiyan he himself was, and energizing under Torkiyan storms was essential for that to happen. But Zeemat wouldn’t obey, and his father wore the angry, disapproving look he reserved for soldiers under his command who did not comply with his orders.
Zeemat didn’t want to disappoint him, but he simply didn’t fit into his father’s world of science, technology, space travel, and warfare. All his life, his friends and schoolmates had beaten him during fighting play. While they all gravitated to positions in Torkiya’s militant society, Zeemat did not. Though he did well in basic science and math, he hated it. He became more interested in art. He could see the beauty of life everywhere — in the endless variety of plant and animal life, in the excitement of the city at all times of day and night, in the storms, the changing light, in the people themselves. And his style, his artistic voice, was to somehow improve on what he saw — to intensify the colors and emotions, to highlight the contrasts, to balance the elements, and to pacify the strong undercurrent of anger which was the Torkiyan way. Since finishing basic studies and turning of age, he pursued his calling with hard work and dedication, and his beautiful paintings showed it. Art was something he could do and do well, fighting was not.
Zeemat looked down to his parents and shook his head. He held up his hands, the brilliant ionic paints already dotting his fingertips — colorful emblems that ranked him as a painter, an artist, the opposite of a warrior. His father turned away and covered his eyes, unwilling or unable to see his son this way.
A deafening crack of thunder signaled the storms were upon them. As anticipated, they coalesced directly overhead, the crash of clouds exploding into bright bursts of lightning, often simultaneously. Lightning bolts connected with each other, embracing a wide swath of the darkened sky, their different colors blending to yield entirely new ones. The bolts wrapped around each other like intertwining snakes, whipping wildly through the air before contacting the towers and sizzling down their lengths, their hot charge spreading instantly along the sidewalks and into the people themselves. They were being drenched in a deluge of blinding rain now, and the strong wind tried to blow them off their spots on the sidewalk, but they leaned into it, fighting to keep their ground so they could receive jolt after jolt of the energizing charge. The storm was at its peak.
Zeemat was ready. He aimed his colored fingertips and attacked the canvas. He alternately looked out the window and at the canvas, painting what he saw with all the fingers of both hands at a frantic pace, like two spiders madly spinning a colorful web. He was trying to capture the spectacle and the emotion of the moment. He drew not only the swirl of dark clouds and the lightning but also the look and reactions of the people. He loved the way the wind whipped their wet clothing in all directions. He loved their upraised arms waving in the air and the smiles on their faces, celebrating the power of the storm. And he especially loved the expression on their faces when a bolt electrified the sidewalk — the red glow of their eyes which made their large heads look even larger, their look of surprise, pain, and pleasure, followed by triumphant shouts and growls, with clenched fists pumping up toward the sky. This was Torkiya, and these were the Torkiyan people! There was nothing like it and nothing like them in their known universe. Zeemat tried to capture it all so he could remember this proud moment forever.
This storm lasted longer than most others. The frantic pace of his concentrated painting exhausted him, while outside, people received an energizing charge more powerful than any they had ever experienced. People would remember details about this storm — the exact place where they stood, the people around them, the spectacular colors, and the electrifying charge and aggression that lasted twice as long as after most other storms. It was a historic storm like everyone had hoped it would be, and Zeemat was the only one in the city who missed being in it.
When the storm finally dissipated, a Torkiyan celebration erupted. Some people danced, moving their long limbs with a fluid grace as if they were swimming in the warm Torkiyan Sea, while others wrestled and fought with the powerful punches and kicks so typical of their species. Zeemat started another canvas, capturing images of people in their post-storm festivities, including his own parents. His lips turned up into a proud smile, seeing his father and mother face each other in their fighting poses, part of him wishing he could be a fighter like them. His mother attacked his father, delivering a series of powerful punches from all directions while he backed away and did his best to deflect them. His father reached up to feel the bruise developing on the side of his large head. Then his eyes flashed red and he countered with punches and kicks of his own, driving her back while she tried to fend off his powerful blows. He charged her and tackled her to the ground. They wrestled and tousled until his mother escaped his crushing grip. He circled around her, jabbing and distracting her with his left hand while hiding his right fist so she would not see his punch coming. Yonek swung a powerful right uppercut aimed at the underside of Iohma’s fine, tapering jaw. But she knew to expect it. Iohma had seen him make this move many times before. She spun gracefully as the punch whizzed by the side of her head and, using the power of her spin, she landed a hard punch at Yonek’s midsection, sending him tumbling backwards, gasping. He stood up straight, rubbing his side, and they faced each other, breathing heavily, fists ready, eyes glowing, and smiling in Torkiyan delight. Then, they suddenly stopped. They dropped their guards. As if in some sort of silent communication, they looked up to Zeemat’s window at the same time.
They stared at him through his window as the swirl of Torkiyans around them continued their delirious dancing and frenzied fighting. The strength of his parents’ emotion was strangely inspiring. Zeemat captured his father’s scowl and stance, with his clenched fists and tight muscles, looking like he was ready to explode. He captured his mother’s bowing head looking at him with upraised eyes, teeth bared and fists clenched in a posture of attack, any hint of shame now overtaken by a seething rage.
Zeemat hurried to finish his paintings, dreading the different sort of storm that was coming. He put the final flourishes on his painting, stood back to inspect his work for a moment, and took a deep breath when he heard the entrance door open. His parents stormed into the house. He heard the front door slam and heavy footsteps march up the stairs. As he put his painting materials away, his father’s booming voice was already yelling at him, even before he kicked open the locked door to enter Zeemat’s room.
Yonek’s eyes were burning red, his teeth were clenched, and his hard breathing came out in a growl. He took a few bold steps toward Zeemat who instinctively took a few steps back.
“Grrk! Don’t back away from me like a weakling coward!” he said to his frightened son, his Torkiyan speech thick with harsh buzzing and angry clicks.
Zeemat stayed silent. His father had posed no question that needed to be answered, and Zeemat knew from experience that there was nothing he could say or do to avert his father’s anger at moments like this.
Yonek advanced toward Zeemat who stepped back further until he was against the room’s far wall.
At that moment, Iohma caught up with her husband. A snap of static electricity caught Yonek’s attention as she put her hand on his shoulder, holding him back from doing something he might later regret. Yonek took a deep breath and reached up to touch his wife’s hand, the red glow in his eyes dimming to orange.
Iohma stepped in between Yonek and Zeemat, further diffusing the tension in the air. When she was sure there would be no physical fighting, Iohma stood next to her husband and held his hand. They faced Zeemat together.
“Zzzt. You didn’t come out for the storm,” Iohma said accusingly. Zeemat wished she had the shameful, pleading look on her face he had seen earlier. Now she also growled through clenched teeth, her eyes aglow from the fresh electric charge, and Zeemat sensed a threat rise up along with the left side of her upper lip. He knew the danger had not yet passed.
Zeemat slammed a stubborn foot to the ground, immediately recognizing the childishness of his little tantrum. He had a flash of a memory — riding on his father’s shoulders as a toddler, fantasy-flying in a space ship, then slamming his conquering feet on the pretend planet Senechia — happier days. But that was then, and now he was no longer a child. He was a young Torkiyan ready to assume some job in Torkiyan society. He didn’t know how to do it, but it was time to stand his ground as best he could.
“Zzzt. I want to paint,” he said, one hand tapping his chest and the other pointing to his paintings, his voice fizzling out in a weak crackle.
Yonek’s eyes blazed red again and he let out a harrowing growl. Iohma squeezed his hand more firmly, but Yonek ripped it free. He marched directly to the easel and grabbed Zeemat’s fresh painting. He held it overhead and brought it down hard against his knee, breaking it in two.
“No!” Zeemat shouted as he rushed toward his father to try to save what remained of his shattered painting.
Yonek instinctively threw a powerful side kick which landed squarely in the center of Zeemat’s chest. Zeemat toppled backward and crunched to the ground, squirming and clawing at his chest and throat, gasping for air.
While Zeemat struggled to catch his breath, Yonek finished demolishing the painting, glaring at Zeemat and hissing as he did so. “Our family does not paint! We don’t watch life, we live it. We fight for it!”
Iohma nodded her agreement, piping in, “Your father did not become Supreme Commander of Mission 51 by chance. He earned it during the Senechian War. And I wasn’t promoted to Chief Programmer because of my good nature. I crushed my competition — their bodies, minds, and spirits. None of that came easy.”
“I’m not like you…” Zeemat blurted between short gasps, alternating his glance between his mother and his father, “… I’m not strong and smart.”
“Brrgh,” Iohma said, shaking her head from side to side and waving off the idea. She allowed her voice to settle into a more controlled buzzing hum. “You have my natural aptitude for numbers. You showed it in school. But you don’t know what you can do because you haven’t done the hard work.”
“I have, though,” Zeemat pointed out. “Did you see the painting before he destroyed it? Do you think I could do that without practice and hard work? Do you think that was easy?”
“Grrk! Enough!” Yonek boomed, his voice freezing Zeemat and Iohma in their tracks. His eyes now pulsating a purplish red.
Iohma jumped back in between Yonek and Zeemat, putting a hand on her husband’s chest to hold him back. “Yes,” she concurred. “He’ll stop painting, now, like we discussed.” She looked at her husband, forcing her eyes to mellow from a bright orange into a soft yellow, and it did the trick. It calmed Yonek and averted an escalating crisis.
Then she looked back to Zeemat, sneering at him, the cause of all this trouble. “Our positions in the Space Academy bring you opportunities other Torkiyans would covet,” she hissed. “You don’t deserve it, but we’ve decided to enroll you in the Academy, so you can finally grow up.”
“No! I won’t do it,” Zeemat whined. "It’s not fair."
Iohma shut him up with a shrilling, high-pitched sound that pierced the air and their hearing organs. Zeemat and Yonek reached up with both hands to cover the tiny acoustic holes on the sides of their heads, in case the shrieking continued.
“Of course it’s not fair!” she screamed. “It’s not fair to the other students at the Academy, and to the cadets in the Space Program who earned their way in!”
Zeemat knew better than to try to argue with his mother when she made that screeching sound, but he tried anyway. “If you’re ashamed of me, I can leave Torkiya City,” he argued. “I can go somewhere else to live and paint, and pretend I don’t have a family.”
“There’s no place in this world I will let you paint!” Yonek said, now in a low, even growl that was somehow more threatening than his explosive outbursts. Zeemat rubbed his still-aching chest and prepared himself for whatever was coming next. The muscles of his father’s body were tensing. A faint, flickering red was trying to inflame his eyes.
Iohma hugged Yonek and held on tight, absorbing some of his anger, restraining him. She looked at her husband in the eyes and said, “It’s settled then. We’ll proceed with the plan.”
Yonek took a few deep breaths. “ZZzt. There’s no other way,” he replied, his eyes defusing, finally starting to calm down.
Zeemat was confused by the subtle sadness that crept into their tone.
“What?” Zeemat asked. “What plan?”
Yonek and Iohma turned to face him, the glow in their eyes now an identical golden yellow, their mood more somber.
“You will never paint again,” Yonek said. “You’ll become a brave Torikyan at the Space Academy, even if it kills you, and I’m assigning you to Mission 51.”