Authors: John Varley
BOOKS BY JOHN VARLEY
The Ophiuchi Hotline
The Persistence of Vision
Picnic on Nearside
The Barbie Murders
The Golden Globe
THE GAEAN TRILOGY
The John Varley Reader: Thirty Years of Short Fiction
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Copyright © 2014 by John Varley.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15442-1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Varley, John, 1947 August 9–
Dark lightning / John Varley.
pages cm. — (A thunder and lightning novel)
ISBN 978-0-425-27407-1 (hardback)
1. Science fiction. I. Title.
Cover illustration by Fred Gambino.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Spider and Jeanne Robinson
Cassie and Polly:
“Stop the ship!”
When Papa comes out of a black bubble it’s always a party. Mama is always there, and us twins, many of the Strickland-Garcia-Redmonds, and anywhere from half a dozen to forty of the Broussard clan. It’s a little stressful for him. You’d think that after all this time he’d be used to it, but then you don’t know our father.
The bubble will vanish, and there he’ll be, a short man built like a fireplug, white hair and beard, interrupted in the middle of a Hail Mary. He’ll stop, look around to be sure he’s not surrounded by green slime monsters from Betelgeuse this time, and when he sees all those familiar faces, his own craggy features will split into a huge grin and his Santa Claus eyes will twinkle, and he’ll shout,
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
And then the good times
This time was different. He looked around, he started to smile, and suddenly his eyes grew wide. There was a momentary pause as a look of horror slowly spread across his face, and he shouted:
“Stop the ship!”
Well, that’s easy to say, a little harder to do.
The ship he was talking about was the
, our home. And there was a slight problem about stopping her.
She weighs just short of two billion tons. That’s not even counting our own 123 pounds times two.
And she was traveling at just about .77c, last time we checked.
That’s 143,220 miles per second, or 515 million miles per hour, fast enough to get from Old Sun—a medium-sized G-type star that warms the planet where humans evolved, or so we are told—to Mars—where our mother was born—in about sixteen minutes.
Trust us, at that speed and with that mass, you don’t just grab for the brake handle.
If anyone else had said it, everyone would have written it off as insanity, temporary or permanent.
But Papa is Jubal Broussard, and when Jubal talks, people listen.
I was lining up a sure shot on the nine ball, not thirty meters away, when a Hillbilly came soaring up beneath me and tore off part of my starboard wing.
Next thing I knew I was on my back, looking up at her big ass in its tight scarlet-and-mustard-striped jumper, and her smirking face looking back over her shoulder.
I recognized her at once. It was Cheryl Chang, girl gorilla. She was so hefty you just had to wonder at first how she could get her flycycle in the air. Then you saw those huge hams and thick arms and bull neck and it became clear: brute power trumped her outsize mass. There was no finesse in her cycling. I don’t think she had scored a pocket all season, but that wasn’t her job. She was the intimidator, the one you had to always look out for, because she was somehow able to spring out of nowhere and make you sorry you were in the air. She and I had tangled before, but never so badly.
Skypool is a full-contact sport, and I’m not a crybaby, but it was a flagrant foul and I shouted some words that would have blistered her butt if words could do physical damage, and looked around for a zebra. Naturally, all three refs were on other sides of the field, one near the up pocket and two arguing over some fine point of the last score at the east pocket. Cheryl would have checked their positions before she hit me.
And there I was, hanging out pretty much alone, within scoring distance of the bottom pocket.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that a missed penalty was the least of my problems. I was going to have a hard time staying in the game at all.
: A game played in zero gee, invented in the starship
, late twenty-first century. Eight players on each side compete on skycycles to carom free-floating inflatable balls, the size of volleyballs, colored and numbered 1 through 15. Six “pockets” are located at points on a virtual sphere: East, West, North, South, Up, and Down. The playing sphere is one hundred yards in diameter. Players strike any ball with a fist and must carom that ball off a target ball to score points into a pocket. All games are night games, as the playing fields must be located very near the internal sun, where spin gravity is near zero. As a proper playing field requires quite a large area of open space in near zero gee, there is no record of the game’s being played anywhere but in large, hollow asteroids.
There I was, on my back, the broken part of the wing fluttering in my face. The ointment we rub onto them before a game to make them supple also makes them shimmer in rainbow colors like oil on water.
: A human-powered flying machine. Skycycles are extremely light, made of composite materials like buckytubes and monofilm. A high-end cycle will weigh no more than four or five pounds. They collapse to become no larger than an umbrella.
Human-powered flight is barely possible in a one-gee field, as on Old Earth, and easier in lower gravity, such as Old Mars. Much greater agility and endurance is possible in near zero gee.
A skycycle rider stretches out in the prone position and uses her legs to power an aft-mounted prop with up to twelve gear settings. Directional control is obtained by altering the shape and attitude of two sets of wings, two near the handlebars and two located near the waist of the rider.
Skypool players must use caution to remain in the low-gravity areas of the interior playing space, as dipping lower in the atmosphere can result in uncontrollable speed and lack of directional control.
An emergency parachute is worn while skycycling.
I pulled my left-center wing in a bit, then the right, and turned the left-front one to twist myself around. I got to where I was facedown—the nearest ground was under me, and the sun was at my back—and shifted gears to get more power from the propeller blade behind me. I knew I’d lose some lift, so I hoped to gain some speed in a power dive before pulling out and swooping back into the game.
In no time I was heading out of the playing field in a down attitude, that is, aiming for the interior surface of the ship. That didn’t alarm me; during a game you can be facing any direction at all, and you have to stray quite a distance from the arena before the air gives you enough spin to make increasing “gravity” a problem.
What I didn’t like much was that it got a lot darker as I passed pretty close to one of the stadium lights, then behind it.
The lights are station-keepers, like the pocket rings. There are twenty of them, at the points of a twenty-sided polygon, an icosahedron, all oriented so that they point to the center of the playing field. When you move out of the field, it gets dark quickly.
But I wasn’t worried. I’d played a game with a damaged wing before. You just have to adjust your angle of attack. I was a lot more worried about getting back into the game.
This was the semifinal of the girls senior tournament between us, the Bayouville Gators, in black-and-gold tights, and the Hilltown Hillbillies, in crimson and mustard. The winner would go on to play the winner of the other semi, happening at the same time just a little north of us. It had been a hard-fought game. There were still four balls in the playing field. We were behind, but it could still go either way, depending on strategy in setting up high-value caroms. We couldn’t afford even one mistake.
Maybe I pulled up a little too hard in my eagerness to get back into play, but I didn’t realize how much damage that bitch Cheryl had caused.
Next thing I knew my arm was beating uselessly at the air while the damaged wing was twisting me like a corkscrew. I was powering down like a grouse hit by a shotgun blast.
I shifted gears into reverse, a gear you almost never use in flight. I mean, hummingbirds can do it, but when’s the last time you saw an eagle flying backwards? I weigh a lot more than an eagle. I pedaled for all I was worth, hoping to slow down enough that I could assess the situation and not have to pop the chute. Popping the chute is a rookie move, a desperate move. It will get you ridiculed mercilessly for months to come, maybe forever. I felt the air start to blow, hard, over my back as the prop behind me began to churn the air.
Next step in the disaster: The remnants of my broken wing got caught in the draft and blew over me. Suddenly, I was blind, couldn’t see a thing. I stopped pedaling and tried to remove the wing from in front of my face.
It wasn’t happening. Some of the support wires had got tangled in the harness behind me. No matter how hard I tugged, they wouldn’t come free.
I knew that getting back in the game was now impossible. It was going to be all I could do to land safely.
But I didn’t really start to worry about that until the mainframe popped.
A flycycle is always going to be a compromise between sturdiness and lightness. The best ones look more like a sketch for a machine than the machine itself. Deployed, the wings are up to fifteen feet long, depending on the rider, and the frame is seven feet long.
The struts that make up the frame and the “bones” of the wings and prop are made of three nested nanotubes, no thicker than a pencil lead and hollow inside. These things are very, very strong for their weight, but they don’t have a lot of give in them. Human muscles, and in particular the strong muscles of the legs, can strain them badly. Under enough stress, they will fracture.
That’s what happened to me. It was like snapping your spine. The aft was no longer connected to the front. My feet were still strapped to the pedals, but pushing on them no longer turned the prop, it just shoved it farther away from me.
I arched my back, still trying to get the wing out of my eyes, and the severed end of the frame jabbed me in the butt.
And stayed there. It was in about four inches in the fatty layer and the gluteus, almost hitting my tailbone.
!” I shouted. It hurt like heck, like sitting on a long spike.
I reached around and grabbed it, tried to pull it out. But there is a problem with nanotubes. Once their molecular structure is disrupted in one place, they start to come apart. This one snapped in my hand, leaving a big piece of it still inside me.
In a few moments, the whole structure of the flycycle was disintegrating all around me. It was like being wrapped up in a dozen clotheslines hung with laundry.
I finally managed to swat the wings away from my face, and I didn’t like what I saw. I was moving down at a considerable speed now. The wind was coming from one side as the ship’s spinning atmosphere began to accelerate me even more. The ground was coming up rapidly. It was definitely time to pop the chute, humiliation or not. So I reached over my shoulder to pull the ripcord.
Which was gone.
Finally, I began to really worry.
I’m not sure what alerted me to the fact that my sister was in trouble.
I was all the way across the field, lining up a shot that would have brought us to within a couple of points of the hated Hillbillies, when I must have seen something out of the corner of my eye. A smear of ketchup-and-mustard uniform uglying up the dark sky. A
smear, big enough that it almost had to be Cheryl Chang, coming out of a tight turn and heading back toward the center of the playing sphere. Too far away to see the expression on her face very well, but something about the easy way she was pedaling . . . well, I just didn’t like it.
All this in my peripheral vision, you understand, but to be a good skypool player you have to develop the ability to see in pretty much all 180 degrees of your visual field. Someone can come from any direction.
So I turned my attention toward her, and there was the merest flicker of something black and gold moving out of the lighted playing area.
Polly is my identical twin sister. We are mirror-image twins, she’s left-handed and I’m right-handed. We are hard to tell apart. But I claim no mystical connection with her. There’s no telepathy or other psychic connection, other than both of us knowing each other well enough we can often predict what the other will do. But these little cues just didn’t feel right.
I told myself,
she needs your help.
So I did something either of us would find extremely hard. I let the five ball go its own way, banked sharply, and headed toward Chang, who was powering up from the direction of the surface of my home, the starship
: The starship Rolling Thunder is a privately owned asteroid belonging to Travis Broussard and his cousin Jubal Broussard. The Broussards had the interior hollowed out by compression-bubble (also known as “squeezer bubble”) technology. Topsoil and plants were imported, an ecology was established.
The asteroid was an irregular “potato-shaped” carbonaceous chondrite with nickel-iron and water ice mixed in. Its exterior dimensions are eight miles by approximately four and a half miles. The interior of the ship is a cylinder six miles long and two miles in diameter. It has an interior surface of fifty square miles, but some of that is in the spherically curved ends, where the spin gravity decreases with distance from the interior surface. The flat surface is thirty-seven and a half square miles. This is around thirty-two thousand acres, though some of them are vertical. Its interior volume is almost nineteen cubic miles. The atmosphere inside is Earth-normal. The interior is divided into fifteen townships.
The ship has a population of twenty thousand, with an additional large number of colonists suspended in time stasis (also known as “black bubbles.”)
The asteroid was accelerated to a speed of .609 revolutions per minute, or 98.54 seconds per revolution. This produces a spin gravity of two-thirds gee on the interior surface, trailing off to zero gee at the axis of rotation.
The interior is illuminated by a long, cylindrical tube, fifty feet in diameter and over six miles long, which uses compression-bubble technology to produce light and heat.
Just in case, I corkscrewed around in the air, picking out every Gator. Sure enough, there were only six in the lighted playing sphere, and none of them was a mirror image of me. So I changed gears and hauled ass, straight down.
Chang passed about ten yards to my right, heading up. She sneered at me, and I gave her the finger.
“Later, bitch!” I shouted.
“Yeah? You and what army?”
I didn’t have time for that. We would even the score. We always do.
Once out of the light, I had the problem of finding my falling sister. My dear old home,
, is a cylinder two miles wide. I was right at the centerline, very close to the sun. But when the sun goes off in the evening, it gets
. No stars, no moon, not even little Deimos and Phobos, like back on Old Mars, Mama’s home.
There are no big cities, naturally. There aren’t enough people awake to make a city. What we have is a series of small villages, with fifteen of them slightly larger: the township seats. There are streetlights, and it was early enough that house lights would still be on, but I was looking down no matter where I looked, right at the roofs. Add in that my eyes were still a bit dazzled by the stadium lights, and it became a pretty problem to locate a black-and-gold sister against the dark interior.
I had been more than half expecting Polly to come limping back into the sphere, her crippled cycle barely able to make headway. But as the seconds ticked off, I began to realize that wasn’t going to happen.
We don’t carry radio locators, or emergency flashers, or anything like that. Come on, it’s just a game of skypool! But maybe we ought to rethink that. I couldn’t see a damn thing.
I kept my attention on my locator system in one window in the corner of my eye. When it’s switched on it can pinpoint where I am, in the air or on the surface, to within a few inches. But it can’t tell me where anyone else is unless they switch theirs on. Privacy issues, care of Uncle Travis. I wondered if Polly had thought of that. No blip appeared in my window.
“Polly!” I shouted. “Can you hear me? If you can hear me, turn on your goddam positioning!”