Authors: John Varley
“Now, it would be a shame to let all this fine food go to waste, so I want you all to find a bucket somewhere and fill it up and take it all home with you. I want to see nothing but empty plates when I come back. Okay?”
“I’ll take care of it, Podkayne,” said Great-grandpa Jim.
“Thanks, and thanks for cooking it all. Mike, Marlee, could y’all come back here with me, please? Granddaddy Ramon, Granny Evangeline, Aunt Elizabeth and Dorothy, could y’all come, too?”
I finally spotted Cassie, on the far edge of the crowd. She had maneuvered Patrick up against the wall and was standing very close to him.
They were eye to eye. Invading his personal space.
He didn’t seem uneasy about it. She was talking, one hand casually draped over his shoulder. He nodded, put in a word or two here and there, and began to move toward the front door. Cassie dug her claw into him and gave him the big eyes, the parted lips, the slightly cocked head. Every ounce of her body language was saying “Kiss me, you gorgeous man!”
Still smiling, he patted her on the shoulder and deftly stepped around her. She almost lost her balance and fell over, she was so intent on staying near him. He joined a few other relatives around our own age, and they made their way to the door and out. Cassie had her back to me. She was rigid as a fencepost.
“Cassandra!” Mom shouted. “Here, now, this minute.”
Cassie jumped a foot and came quickly toward us. I knew I should be heading back to see to Papa like she told me to, but I know that tone of voice and wouldn’t have missed it for a brand-new Fuji flycycle.
Mom looked her up and down and hissed at her.
“Cassandra Ann, what the heck were you thinking?”
Cassie tried an innocent look, but Mom’s shoulder-to-ankle gaze was about to burn the toga off her and scorch the skin beneath. So Cassie went to the fallback position: Civil rights.
“I’m a grown-up now, Mother. Don’t forget that.”
“And you’re still living in my home. And that dress makes you look like . . . I don’t even want to say it. And Patrick is your first cousin.”
Well, I was sure in the mood to see my sister catch heck, but I have to admit that was unfair. Patrick was our first cousin legally, but not genetically. His father was adopted into our family, and Marlee was no relation. Children would be no problem.
Not that I was really thinking in those terms. I just wanted to date him.
To be even more blunt: I just wanted to get into his pants.
Papa Jubal is . . . different.
Our father grew up in a large, extremely poor family on Earth, completely dominated by his father, who was a religious fanatic. Our grandfather Avery was an adherent of some beliefs so strange I can hardly understand or believe that anyone could be so stupid. But I’ve never known Papa to lie to me, so it must be true. This sect did things like handle venomous snakes and spiders, believing that if they had faith, God would protect them. As you might expect, they had a high mortality rate, but there always seemed to be enough new believers to fill up the little backwoods church on the bayou.
They didn’t believe in birth control, thus the large family. Their child-rearing practices were sub-Neanderthal, and consisted mostly of knocking their children about for any offense. Almost everything was forbidden but prayer. No reading was permitted except the Christian Bible.
Total obedience was demanded. Papa was beaten regularly. When his father discovered that he was extremely bright, with a supergenius IQ, he was beaten even more, on the theory that a child shouldn’t be smarter than his father. Being that smart was seen as an affront to God.
After one violation of the rules his father beat Papa so badly with a nail-studded pine board that it was a miracle he survived. The people who were supposed to stop things like that finally took notice, and my grandfather was tried and convicted of attempted murder. He died in prison.
Papa was brain-damaged. The verbal part of his mind took the worst injury, and he never recovered fully from that. He has a small vocabulary, learns new words only with great difficulty, can never get the hang of certain concepts of grammar and so speaks with the thick Cajun accent and dialect he grew up with, garbled and inconsistent syntax, and no understanding of the more esoteric parts of language. We always understand him well enough, but his problems with communication led him to withdraw from human society, to become a loner.
To become, in many ways, a mad scientist.
There’s nothing of Dr. Frankenstein about Papa. You won’t find him cackling madly over boiling beakers or sparking machines. He’s not in search of a way to rule the world.
No one is really sure if Papa would have done the things he did without the brain damage. He was smart before, no question. There is a theory that after his injuries, his brain rewired itself somehow to be different from a normal human brain. Aunt Elizabeth believes that Papa is different because of the damage.
To me, it really doesn’t matter. Was Einstein’s brain completely different from other human brains? Is that what led him to his way of seeing the universe from an angle no one had seen before? My guess is, no. If he hadn’t thought it up, someone else would have.
It’s not that way with Papa. One day, in his lab in Florida, he invented something that somehow screwed with space itself. He cobbled it together out of things lying around. When he was done, he was able to create these little spheres, like Christmas tree ornaments, only so perfectly reflective that you could see them only as distortions of space. They didn’t interact with anything around them. The only way to hold them was to surround them with your fingers or some sort of cage, as they had zero friction.
That was interesting enough, but there was more. A lot more.
The size of the bubbles could be adjusted. If you started with a small one, say, the size of a playing marble, and expanded it to the size of a basketball, you had a pretty good vacuum inside. Then if you turned it off, the air would rush in, and there would be a loud pop.
That’s what Papa wanted to use them for. Noisemakers, like firecrackers. He figured they could make a lot of money out of them.
Papa has almost no practical sense. He just fiddles around.
Luckily, my uncle Travis was the hardheaded side of the family. He had already taken a few gadgets that Papa made, patented them, and made the two of them wealthy.
Travis asked Papa how big he could make the bubbles. Plenty big, Papa said. So imagine expanding that marble-sized bubble bigger than a house Now turn it off. One
of a bang.
But the real power of the things was if you reversed that sequence. Start with a bubble the size of a house and squeeze it down to the size of a marble. That’s a lot of air in there. A lot of power. Squeeze it down to the size of a proton. Now you have an undetectable bomb.
There’s more. Make a bubble a mile across, and instead of air, squeeze water, or rock, or garbage, or anything at all, down to the size of a marble. Now turn it off. But it would be wise not to be on the planet where this is being done. You should be a safe distance, maybe fifty million miles or more. Because that sucker is going to crack the planet wide open.
I hadn’t really been all that worried about Papa Jubal when he came out of the black bubble and hollered for the ship to stop.
But while Mama was dressing down Cassie—dressing her down for dressing up—I thought it was wise to skedaddle down the hall before she turned around and saw me. I slipped into their bedroom.
Papa was sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, and he was shaking. He looked up when I closed the door. His worried expression quickly changed to alarm.
“Oh, my sweet Polly. What happened to you,
Papa is the only one who can tell me and Cassie apart with just a glance. I don’t know how he does it. Even Mama gets it wrong every once in a while. We quickly learned never to try any twin tricks on Papa.
Ce n’est rien.
It’s nothing, Papa. Just a little fracture.” I moved the arm up and down in the sling to show that it didn’t hurt. It did hurt, a little, but I trust I didn’t show it.
mon bébé doux
! You makin’ me old before my time, whizzin’ aroun’ on them flyin’ sticks, like Holloween witches. Come here,
, come here. Come give your papa a hug. Let me kiss it an’ make it well.”
I decided not to tell him about my other injury.
I hurried over and was trying to sit beside him on the bed, but he embraced me and twisted around until I was sitting on his lap. Papa is very strong. It had been years since I’d sat on his lap, and I was surprised at how warm and safe it made me feel. We probably looked silly as hell, he being short and wide and me at six-foot-four, but who cares? This was my papa, and I love him to distraction.
He hugged me to his barrel chest, threatening to crack ribs. I didn’t mind. He had never hurt me, never would.
“Where’s your sister? Your mama?”
“They’re coming, Papa.”
“Good, good. We need to be all together, us.”
I pulled back and looked in his eyes.
“What’s the matter, Papa?”
What I saw in there was despair.
, I’ll work something out. I’ll figger something.”
But his eyes were telling a different story, and that’s when I began to be scared.
In my experience, heaven and hell can be only a moment apart. Since I always try to look on the bright side of life, I do my best to enjoy the heaven before hell arrives.
I was in his arms. I was dancing with him! We cut a rug, tapped our toes, kicked up our heels, shook our booties, tripped the light fandango. I could have danced all night and still have begged for more!
It didn’t last that long, probably only a few minutes, but who’s counting when time stands still?
He had a few inches on me, and I loved that. Mama says that she and I and my sister would not stand out as unusually tall on Mars, but the majority of the citizens of
are from Earth, where they tend to stop growing them before they’re really finished, like the Chinese and Mexicans. We were the tallest girls in our high-school class. Speaking as a tall girl, I have to say that there is something deep inside me that wants to look up to a man, even if it’s just a few inches. I wonder if it’s genetic, built into the double-X chromosome? Mama has obviously dealt with it, being a foot taller than Papa, and I know a few other couples where he’s the runt and she’s the giant, but I’ve noticed that, nine out of ten times, you look at boy-girl matches and you’ll find that he’s taller. We just tend to pair up that way.
Patrick was at first reluctant to dance close, but I soon narrowed the distance and rested my head on his shoulder. I feasted on the smell of his hair.
And that’s when Mama let out her supersonic screech and brought the dream to an end. Patrick turned to face her and listened intently as she, basically, told everybody to take a hike. Before I knew it, Patrick had disengaged from my embrace.
He gave me a small smile. Wistful, I thought.
“Thanks for the dance . . . uh, Cassie.”
Well, there’s a bit of a comedown. He didn’t quite put a question mark at the end of the sentence.
“It was my pleasure, Patrick,” I said. I moved a little closer and looked deep into his eyes and parted my lips. He just shook my hand and turned away.
Shy, I guess.
Well, I got sort of reamed out by Mama Pod about the dress I was wearing. I admit it was sort of radical, but it did its job, and that was all I cared about. I was sure Patrick would come calling in a day or two.
And I swear, Mama Pod says she was young once, too, but I don’t see any evidence of it. All I ever get is griping and negative vibes. It’s about time she allowed me to be a woman.
I waited it out, got a few sour looks from the inferior sibling, and retired to my room to get “decently dressed.” I picked a pair of low-cut tartan pedal pushers that I could barely wiggle into, and a white off-the-shoulder peasant blouse with baggy sleeves. I stepped into a pair of rhinestone-coated mules with three-inch cork heels, and topped it all off with a floppy moonshiner hat.
Trailer Trash Chic
, the girls are calling it. I don’t know what trailer trash is, or a moonshiner, for that matter.
A quick glance in the mirror told me I was lookin’ swell, Belle, so I headed down the hall to Mama and Papa’s room.
The womb-mate was sitting on Papa’s lap, with her head on his shoulder. She had to scrunch up a little to do it. Papa looked up and held out his hand to me.
. Come to your papa.”
I did, intending to sit beside him and put my arm around his beloved shoulders, but he wasn’t having any of that. He pulled me over and somehow got the two of us arranged, one on each knee.
“Okay,” I said. “For Christmas I want a red wagon, and a new sprocket for my flycycle, and a dolly that laughs and cries.”
He looked puzzled for a moment, and I tugged on his long, white hair. Then he roared with laughter. With Papa it’s usually a roar, and I don’t know anyone who can hear it and not smile. If there are people like that, I don’t
to know them.
“I look like Santy Claus, don’t I? Only my beard be not long as it used to.” He looked at Polly. “And what do you want, little girl?”
“I just want my papa to be happy and not worry,” she said.
Oh, gag me. That’s what I wanted, too, of course, but I thought the situation called for levity. Polly doesn’t do levity very well.
Papa’s face fell, and he hugged us both even harder. I hoped I wouldn’t have bruises in the morning. Then Mama was on one knee in front of us. She took Papa’s hand and pulled gently, until she had his attention.
“No time for that right now, family,” she said. “We’ve got to get going.”
“That’s right, get goin’,” Papa said. He kissed us each on the forehead, then slapped our behinds. I saw Polly wince, but Papa didn’t notice. We got up and followed them out the door. I caught up with Mama.
“Where are we going?” I whispered, as Polly leaned in closer to hear.
“We’re off to see your uncle Travis.”
Well, that was interesting. Uncle Travis usually means trouble. I was in the mood for a little trouble.
Travis was pretty wild in his younger days. When an emergency arose in the spacecraft he was nursing through reentry, the cabin filling with smoke to the point that he couldn’t see anything, he used the pistol he wasn’t supposed to be carrying to blow a hole in a side window. That sucked out all the smoke, and he was able to see enough to pilot it by the seat of his pants into a dead-stick landing on a remote smuggler’s airstrip in Africa that, far from being a NASA emergency landing site, wasn’t even on the maps.
The nose wheel killed a water buffalo, which he and the locals and his passengers cooked and ate while waiting for rescue. What he thought he needed a .45 for on a mission to the primitive orbital space station of those days is something I never asked him. Shooting skeet at shooting stars?
It was hushed up. NASA couldn’t very well put him on trial for the weapon—or the fact that it was later determined that his blood alcohol was over the legal limit for automobile driving in most states—without Travis bringing up a lot of other ugly facts concerning irregularities committed at the request of a VIP congressman who was deadheading at taxpayer expense. They couldn’t charge him with losing the spacecraft—which was never recovered, and may still be sitting there to this day—without acknowledging that if he hadn’t “cowboyed up,” as Mama once put it—they would have lost not only the ship but the passengers as well.
They couldn’t very well ever let him pilot a ship again, either, not after flying drunk. So they promoted him, gave him a nice pension and a medal of some sort, and invited him to resign quietly.
But you can’t keep a good man down on Earth. Travis and my great-grandparents built themselves a spaceship and drove it to Mars.
: Summary: Both the first spaceship to use compression-bubble technology for spaceflight, and the first to take humans to Mars and back. The ship was piloted by Travis Broussard, and crewed by Manny Garcia, Kelly Strickland, Dak Sinclair, and Alicia Jones. The ship was assembled from old railroad tanker cars, and powered by three compression-bubble engines. This gave it the ability to accelerate constantly, and the trip was made in a few days. On the return trip, the crew located the wreckage of the failed American expedition to Mars, and rescued the crew who were still alive. Blink for complete article.
Visiting Uncle Travis isn’t just a matter of walking down to the trolley stop, riding awhile, then walking up to his front door and knocking. In fact, very few people can visit him at all, and all of them are FOCT.
That stands for Family of Captain Travis. This has been the source of some tension in the ship over the years. And the acronym (which Travis didn’t invent) has been the source of a lot of rather obvious humor for just about as long.
is a limited democracy. That is, anyone who is awake and of a certain age can vote on many issues that might come up. Everyday matters, those things not having to do with engineering. Mostly they have to do with the economy: acreage allotments, taxes, decisions on which crops will be planted where, how many food animals will be raised, how many slaughtered, things like that.
There are also issues concerning awake time and hibernation time that can get a bit heated. The population of the ship just
grow. There is no room to expand. On launch day, we were at capacity, plus a much larger number in black-bubble hibernation, some of whom would not be allowed out of their bubbles during the duration of the voyage. Sounds harsh, and it is, but people signed on knowing the terms and decided it was better to take a chance at life on a new world than to stick around on Earth, which was being rapidly rendered uninhabitable.
Then, after a vote is taken, Captain Travis reviews it on the next Groundhog Day, which is what we call the day he pops his head out of the bubble to see what’s happening in his ship. If he likes the new regulations, he does nothing. If he doesn’t, he vetoes them.
That’s limited democracy: The captain gets the last word. Always.
Mostly people don’t seem too unhappy with that arrangement though there are always malcontents. It helps that Uncle Travis seldom messes with internal decisions unless he thinks they are really,
dumb. And after all, it
his ship. He paid for it, had it built, and anyone aboard is there because of either earning a spot by helping in the construction or being invited because of certain skills. There was a test you had to pass.
What does cause a little more resentment is the whole idea of FOCTs. I’ve never heard it to my face, but I know there are those who say our privileges are “all focted up,” or they call us fockers.
Polly and I haven’t been radically affected by being fockers. It didn’t make us more popular, nor did it make us the subject of either a lot of sucking up or anger. We were reasonably popular—me more than her, I believe, because I’m more outgoing—but neither of us were BWOCs. Teachers didn’t defer to us or grade us hard.
Our true glory came in our junior and senior years, when we came into our own as skypool stars. I was Most Valuable Player last year, Polly was this year.
But there’s no denying there are privileges of family. Like having our own private subway stop, on a subway that most people don’t even know exists.
At the side of Papa’s workshop is what looks like a cellar entrance, not quite flat to the ground, with two wooden doors. It’s just made to look like a tornado shelter, and it’s phony, like a lot of stuff in my world. I’m okay with it. We don’t need a weather vane, either; all we have to do is blink the climate-control site to see which direction the wind will be blowing at any given moment, and how hard. But we
a weather vane, a big red metal rooster, and it looks good sitting up there on the house.
The doors are a lot stronger than they look. There’s no padlock or anything, but they’ll only open to the fingerprints of Papa or Mama on the handle. When you pull the doors open what you see is a long flight of concrete stairs going down into darkness. Lights come on as you walk down, and go off behind you. Soon you are traveling in a bubble of light that takes you right down to a steel door, which also opens to Mama’s fingerprint.
On the other side is a dark tube, about ten feet in diameter, stretching off dimly in both directions, toward the bow and stern. North and south. A single rail runs right down the middle of the tube.
The door shut behind us and a sign on the other side of the tube lit up.
CAR COMING. ARRIVAL IN 1:35.
We stood on the little platform, not saying anything. The numbers counted down, and the car arrived, decelerating rapidly to come to a standstill right in front of us.
The car resembled the golf carts I’ve seen in movies from back at Old Sun, except for the lack of wheels. A squat metal body had three pairs of seats, a plexi windshield, and a flat top. It hovered a fraction of an inch above the floor, and the four-inch-high vertical mag rail fit neatly into a slot in the front. Inside, the seats were bare plastic.
Mama and Papa took their seats in the front, and the sib and I got in the second row.
“Take us to the Bridge,” Mama said. We were on our way.
I had only ridden on these cars three times in my life. I don’t even recall why we took the trips. The subways were just another of Uncle Travis’s paranoid precautions, a place to go if things got very unsettled, politically. He has hundreds of these fallback plans, including some serious weaponry if it came to that. I don’t know the half of them; none of the family do, as far as I know. That’s how Travis works.
We came to a big open space, one of the warehouses. Basements, if you prefer, because they are underfoot, and they store stuff.
is like a big block of Swiss cheese. It began life as an asteroid, remember, five billion years or so ago. It had a tumultuous youth, being pulled this way and that by other planets and asteroids, trying along with its neighbors to form a real planet but robbed of that accomplishment by the huge influence of Jupiter, which stripped away the bulk of the mass in the space between itself and Mars and doomed the little planetoids to wander the vast spaces, airless, waterless, devoid of life.
It was very hot at first, and the rock and nickel and iron melted into a solid mass. During those early years, it was repeatedly bombarded with smaller rocks, so that its exterior is pockmarked with craters. That lasted maybe a billion years. Then things settled down, and the asteroid assumed its place in the stately, uneventful dance around and around the sun, in the main part of the asteroid belt, until Uncle Travis came along.
He had the interior living space excavated by means of compressing the rock into enough squeezer bubbles to power the ship out to the edge of the universe, if we cared to go there. If one blew up, they’d see it easily in the Andromeda Galaxy in 2.5 million years. So much power that, after twenty years of shoving this great big rock at one-twentieth of a gee, we have not even had to replace the first set of bubbles. We’re still running with the ones installed back at Old Sun and don’t anticipate needing to swap them out before we arrive at our new home.