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Authors: John Varley

Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / Adventure

Red Lightning

BOOK: Red Lightning
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John Varley:

Red Lightning

(2006)

 

 

Note: This novel is a sequel to the author's
Red Thunder
(2003).

 

 

 

 

This book is dedicated to the memory of

Don and Mary Stilwell,

and to Jim, John, Jane, Joe, Janice, and Jerry
.

1

Mars sucks.

If you're from Mars, you already know what I'm talking about. If you're from Earth and have read all the glossy travel brochures and watched all the fancy promos, you're thinking I must be nuts. What sucks about swanky hotels and souped-up sand buggies? What sucks about the longest ski slopes ever built, and low-gee rock climbing where you race up the Valles Marineris like a lizard on a wall? Mars is like the biggest cruise ship in the system, nothing to do but have fun, fun, fun, and your daddy never takes the T-bird away, like it says in one of Dad's corny old songs. What's wrong with that?

Nothing, for a few weeks.

At least, none of the Earthies seem to mind it, they've been coming over like rats to a big red Gouda cheese ever since I was a kid, more of them every year. First it was just the rich ones. Not that it cost all that much money to get them there but because the cruise lines could charge whatever they wanted to since there weren't enough cruise ships to take everybody who wanted to go.

But Earthies know a good thing when they see it, and soon there were a lot more ships, but there weren't enough places to stay once they got here. Can't just dump a lot of overmuscled Earthies out on the sand in man-shaped Ziploc baggies with a bottle of oxygen. (Well,
I
wouldn't mind it, but you sure would use up a lot of Earthies that way. Not enough, of course; Earthies reproduce like rabbits, and not even their habit of tossing nuclear bombs around seems to make a dent in the population.)

Now we're building more hotels, and you know what that means: more Earthies. And if you want to know the
biggest
reason why Mars sucks, you've got it right there.

Earthies.

On any given day there are more Earthies on Mars than Martians, Reds and Greens together. In the summertime there can be twice as many, and all I can say is, it's a good thing that summer only comes every two years.

 

My name is Ramon D. Garcia-Strickland, but don't ever call me Ramon unless you want a fat lip or you're a teacher I can't hit. I'm Ray to my friends, and to all the decent teachers, too. And don't ask what the D. stands for, either. I swear, parents can get the goofiest ideas, and I don't care if it
is
a name that goes back six generations in Mom's side of the family. Trust me, if that name ever got out I'd be having fistfights every day.

I was born five years after the first four people set foot on Mars. You may have heard of it, if they still teach history at your school. (I understand they've pretty much given it up at a lot of schools on Earth, but they still drill it into you at Burroughs High.) Which is okay, I like history, it's one of my best subjects. Even if I didn't like it, nothing short of an A is acceptable to my mother, who makes sure we get our studying done every evening before we're allowed out.

I mention this because one of those first two men on Mars was my father, Manny Garcia, and one of the first two women was my mother, Kelly Strickland, though they weren't much older than me at the time. You want to talk Martian pioneers, you're talking about my family. Even if you don't know any history you might have seen the movie or the TV series on an oldies channel, and you may have thought it was just made up, like most movies, but this one was true.

For just a little over a million dollars they built a spaceship called
Red Thunder
out of old railroad tank cars. They didn't do it alone. They couldn't have done it all without my uncle Jubal, who is a crazy genius.

You should have heard of Jubal, since he's the most important man on Earth, but I once ran into an Earthie about my age who said he was into music and he didn't know who John Lennon was, so you never know.

Okay, first, my uncle Jubal and my uncle Travis aren't really my uncles, we aren't even related, but me and my sister started calling them that when we were very young and that's how we think of them, as family. An odd family, but my own. Travis is Travis Broussard, who was once an astronaut on Earth, back when space travel involved strapping yourself into a very dangerous guided missile rocket machine and keeping your fingers crossed. You wouldn't get me up in one of those Space Shuttles or VentureStars for any amount of money. I'm not crazy. The VStars even
looked
like tombstones.

Travis had a cousin, Jubal, who might have been almost anything he wanted to be until his religious maniac father beat him on the head with a two-by-four studded with nails. After that, he was suited only to be a mad scientist. He made something that was truly revolutionary, something that to this day no one has completely figured out: the Squeezer.

Now
I'll bet you know the dude I'm talking about.

It violated just about every law of physics you want to name, but it worked, and what it did was squeeze stuff really, really,
really
hard. Any stuff at all: air, water, rocks, garbage, that big Earthie bastard who beat the crap out of me a couple years ago when I objected to him putting his hands on my girlfriend (don't I wish!). You could take a cubic mile of seawater and squeeze it down to the size of a football, and then you could make a little hole in it, a discontinuity, and what came out was one hell of a lot of energy. You could use that energy to power a rocket like no rocket anyone had ever seen, a rocket that didn't need to carry one hundred times its own weight in fuel just to get out of Earth's atmosphere. That's because the football didn't have the mass of the seawater you squeezed, it didn't weigh anything, not even the Planck mass; it had gone somewhere else for a while. You could float it in the air like a silver soap bubble. In fact, if you didn't keep your eye on it you could easily lose it, it would just blow away. One of Jubal's early bubbles did just that, and my father found it, and that's how they came to go to Mars.

Free energy. The only known free lunch in the universe. But nothing is really free.

 

That day it all started was pretty much like any other weekend day. I had spent most of it in Phobos and was on my way back down when my phone rang. Not the very best time to get a call, but it was from Jubal and I knew he'd be waiting by his phone for an answer and would worry if I didn't get back soon. He understands time lag as well as anybody, but he's a nervous man, and a lonely one, and I'm one of his favorite people, so I never keep him waiting. I called up a picture window on the inside of my pressure suit helmet and ticked
Answer
.

What I saw was a man with a round, jolly face and a wild shock of white hair and white beard. Jubal's hair had all gone white at an early age, which led a lot of people to think he was older than he really was, which was in his fifties. You can't tell it from a head-and-shoulders phone shot, of course, but he was quite a small man, not much over five feet, though chubby.

"Hi-de-hi, Ray," he said, "an how happy I am for you to see me!"

Jubal's got his own way of talking. A lot of it is a thick Cajun accent and strange syntax. When Dad wrote his book he tried to reproduce it pretty much exactly, but I'm not going to do that. It strikes me as a little condescending. But there was a definite flavor to his speech that is delightful, and I'll try to retain that.

Then there was the usual pause. He denies it, but I'm sure he's waiting for me to answer back. He can't help himself. He comes from so far back in the swamp and such poverty that he didn't make his first phone call until he was eight or nine. He's usually pretty loud, too, unlike his face-to-face mumble, as if he had to shout to be heard all the way to Mars.

"How's da weather up dere?" he said, and chuckled. This is about as sophisticated as Jubal gets in the joke department. He knows very well that the weather on Mars is one of two things: bad, or very bad. It also has to do with my height, a joke tall people quickly get tired of, but with Jubal I didn't mind. He always says it as if he's just that moment thought of it... and maybe he has.

"We got our usual storm blowin' here," he went on. "De penguins don't mind it, so neither do I. Was out rowin' dis morning, me, an I seen me a whale. Coulda been a big blue, or maybe a fin. I taken off after it, but de Captain tole me dat was a no-no. I had to let that big boy go, me, or de Captain he would of put a few rounds into him, just for meanness sake."

Jubal lives on the
Falkland Islands. The only other things that live there are millions of penguins, and the military contingent there to protect him and the scientists and staff there to take care of him. The man in charge is actually a former general from
Russia whose name Jubal can't pronounce and I can't remember, but Jubal always calls him the Captain.

When Jubal goes rowing, which is his favorite activity when he's upset or thinking, he's accompanied by two heavily armed destroyers and there are at least three fighter planes in the air at all times. The protection around the President of the
United States is nothing compared to the security around Jubal.

He chattered on for a while about things that would be important only to me and him, like where I should go to college after I graduated from good old Burroughs High. Then he sighed deeply, as he always does when he's about to sign off.

"Well, I be goin', Ray, my friend," he said. Then he did a double take and smacked himself on the forehead with the flat of his palm, another gesture that was pure Jubal. He hates it that some functions of his brain are not like they used to be. Well, wouldn't you? "Almost forget, me. I sent you another package, few days ago. It ain't nothing much special, no, but don't worry about it. Jus' a little gizmo I made. Don't do much, that thing, but it maybe can open things that nothin' else can open. An maybe one of dese days I be sending you something else. Can't tell right now, me. Anyway, you take care, and don't take no wooden alligators. Bye."

He laughed, as he always did at his ridiculous sign-off. There's no way to really explain the joke; it has to do with something that happened between him and my father a long time ago.

Sending me something? He did that all the time. Sometimes it was ridiculous stuff, toys of one sort or another. Jubal had trouble keeping track of time. Sometimes he seemed to think I was still twelve, or even six. He was almost devoid of social skills. Travis had told me that had been true even before his injuries. He had something called Asperger's Syndrome, which I gathered was a point on a line called the "Autistic Spectrum." Some autistics aren't able to function at all, while others are true geniuses with some social deficits. Some people think Newton, Einstein, Tesla, and a lot of other great people of the past had Asperger's.

Anyway, Jubal was always sending me stuff. He was a pretty good artist, so sometimes it was drawings, usually of the Louisiana bayou country. Or he'd send me or my sister, Elizabeth, flowers. Other times it would be some little gadget he'd made, some clockwork fancy or flamboyantly useless machine. Once he saw this old plastic box at an online auction site. What it did was, you flipped a switch and a little plastic hand came out of the box, grabbed the switch, and turned it off. A machine whose only function was to turn itself off. Loved it. So,
a little gizmo, don't do much, that thing
. Pure Jubal.

I checked the systems on my board and saw I had a few minutes, so I immediately ticked
Compose
and started talking.

"Hi-de-hi, Uncle Jubal," I said. "All the wooden alligators here are frozen, as usual. I'm looking forward to the new gadget. The stuff you send me is always fun, you are one of the funniest guys I know. Nothing much doing here, just schoolwork and hanging out on the weekends, wasting time. The new band isn't doing so well. In fact, I think you could say we've broken up. No big loss, the guy on lead synth is a real a – a real awful person. And like I told you a while ago, I've finally realized I'm never going to be a big star and have to beat off all the adoring women with a big old stick. But it's fun. I'll send you some downloads next time. Right now I'm about to be pretty busy, since I left Phobos about fifteen minutes ago and the air is starting to get thick. Oh, did you get the pies of my low-gee pad up here? Pretty neat, huh? Stay well my friend, and take care of the penguins. Over and out."

I ticked off, silently cursing myself. I almost said "asshole," and profanity or obscenity upset Jubal horribly. You'd think that after all these years it would be second nature to clean up my mouth when I'm talking to him, and I haven't slipped since I was ten and saw how hurt he was. Close call.

BOOK: Red Lightning
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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