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Authors: John Varley

Tags: #Fiction / Science Fiction / General

Rolling Thunder (6 page)

BOOK: Rolling Thunder
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Over there by the buffet, where he always is when the food is free, is Anthony Redmond, my uncle Tony, piling a plate. He’s twenty-eight, masses around three hundred pounds, and is currently failing at his third career, having already gone bankrupt twice. He’s a burden to Jim and Audrey, but it’s hard to dislike him because he’s so cheerful and outgoing. My advice: Let him guide you to all the most fun places in Thunder City, and even buy him drinks, but never loan him any money.

Not far from him, the handsome guy with the short military haircut, looking like the offspring of a cardinal and a peacock in his full-dress uniform, is Rear Admiral William Redmond, NMR, my uncle Bill. He’s thirty, which might seem young for a proctologist (belowdecks slang for a rear admiral; get it?), but as well as being a young republic, we are a pretty nonmilitaristic one. We don’t have a warrior culture to speak of. People from Earth find that surprising, as Mars and Switzerland are the only places where military service is mandatory for everyone, but the huge majority of us are only in the Navy for the one year (one Martian year: 669 Martian days, 687 Earth days, 1.88 Earth years) and spend the rest of our lives in the reserves. Lifers are rare, as the pay is bad, the chances for combat are remote if you’re the kind who wants that, and the social status almost nil. But you do get to wear a bright red uniform to all formal occasions.

Uncle Bill has always been kind to me and was probably responsible for me entering my year of misery as a jg.

Standing there at his side, like the good Navy wife she is, you can see Aunt Amelia, probably the most domestic woman I know. That’s not to say domestic
ated
; so far as I can tell she and Uncle Admiral Bill have a good marriage of equals. It’s just that she’d have been right at home in the 1950s in Dubuque or Cedar Rapids or Charleston or someplace awful like that, reading
Betty Crocker Magazine,
dressing in calico pinafores or whatever they wore back then, and popping out babies like a gumball dispenser. Various of her sandrats, my cousins, are swarming around her and the other guests, biting at their ankles, threatening to tip over the punch bowl, tossing stuffed grape leaves and fricasseed frog legs at each other, and generally creating a blur of random activity. Some women are just born to reproduce. Amelia was a good candidate for Trans-Mars Champeen. I could never remember just how many Redmond cousins I had, possibly because at least once a year the number changed. There was one in a pram, and one in her arms, and one, as they say, in the oven.

Me, I love babies. I don’t recall ever talking to a girl who didn’t love babies. I don’t mind the crappie nappies and the spit-up and the occasional crying jag. It’s probably a hormonal thing, we’re just programmed that way. Somewhere on that double-X chromosome is a gene that makes us look at a squirmy little recently postfetal human and squinch up our mouths and coo things like “Awwwww, isn’t little snooky-ookums so
boooo
tiful!”

But I also love puppies and kittens, for the same reason.

Allow me a short digression on the subject of babies. As of now, I don’t plan to have them. Don’t look so shocked. I’ve got two good reasons.

One is that I’ve babysat most of Amelia’s kids at one time or another, plus others. Spending money, what are you gonna do? I’ve dealt with them at all ages from a few months to early teens, and I’ve observed that
all
of them, at one age or another, turn into creatures that should be consigned to a zoo. Sometimes it’s a stage, sometimes it seems to be permanent. With some, it’s the Terrible Twos. With others it’s the Frightening Fives. And don’t forget the Sickening Sevens or the Nasty Nines. Girls are marginally better than boys, until they reach the Terrifying Twelves, then they’re worse. Somebody once said that teenagers should be raised in a barrel and fed through the bunghole, then decanted when they’re twenty. I should know; I admit it, I was a prime candidate for en-cooperage (I just made that up, means put into a barrel) until recently.

But that pales in comparison to the other reason to not have babies.

Part of your education on Mars is witnessing a live birth. We do it when we’re fifteen. The idea is to appreciate the joy and the beauty of the event. We watch through a one-way mirror as the mother (a volunteer, naturally) sweats and screams and bleeds.

Lovely. Joyous. Beautiful.

I fainted dead away, along with two boys. How humiliating.

When I got back home me and my vagina had a serious talk. (Hey, why should that sound weird? Some boys name their penises, or so I’ve heard.) The conversation went something like this:

ME: But babies are so
cute
!

MS. V: Honey, you need to get a tape measure. Measure me, then measure a baby’s head. Then … you do the math.

ME: Oh.

Not a pretty picture. In Homeland America there is an accepted church dogma called “intelligent design.” I can call the whole wacky theory into question with one word: testicles. And if you need another example, tell me why a human baby should be expected to emerge from an opening that can’t accommodate a lemon without discomfort.

Design, maybe, but not intelligent. If that was God’s intent, then God is a dunce.

We’re almost done here, then the ceremony can begin.

And we’re getting to the best of what you might think an odd bunch. You’re not supposed to have favorites in families, but everybody does, and Elizabeth Strickland-Garcia, M.D., is one.

She’s Dad’s sister, older by two years. She went with the families to the Red Zone in search of Gran and came out unscathed. Then she returned to Mars with them, in time for the war with Earth. Naturally she was a member of the Volunteer Pressure Brigade, and during the bombing she crawled into some wreckage where no one else would go, pulled out a few survivors, and then was trapped, her right hand pinned by a shift in the debris. Her suit was punctured and there was a slow leak. The pressure loss wasn’t a problem; she had enough bottled air to replace the lost stuff for twenty minutes, and they got her out before that. But her heating system failed in that arm and her hand froze solid to the wrist in only ten minutes.

Well, kiss that piano-playing career good-bye, right?

Not my Aunt Elizabeth. Step one was learning to be left-handed while her stump healed. I understand that took her about three days. Step two was getting used to the prosthetic hand they gave her. State of the art for the time, pretty primitive by today’s standards. Step three was medical school at Harvard. Top of her class. Internship, then time to pick a specialty. General practice, right? Maybe Ob-Gyn. Think again. Surgery.

Today she is the best nanosurgeon on Mars. Not surprising, because she practically invented the field.

Oh, yeah, and she’s a damn good piano player.

That’s her over there perched on a tiny chair at a big round low table in the corner where the kids are supposed to be corralled, with half a dozen youngsters watching as she does a few of her best tricks. Onehanded (her “bad” hand) she could fold origami animals while her left hand pulled all sorts of crazy stuff out of thin air.

Wait a minute, wait a minute … who is that ravishing blonde just entering the room over there? She’s about average height for a Mars-born, six-four or so, plus she’s wearing three-inch heels. Her hair is up in a tight bun on top of her head, revealing her slender white neck. She’s wearing a wispy golden chiffon thing that reaches about to her knees, strapless, flattering to her figure without being overly provocative. A string of matched pearls and pearl studs in her ears. Light makeup, a greenish frosting thing going on around her eyes and on her lips, very fashionable, very up-to-date.

Why … it’s Podkayne!

Okay, I take back the “ravishing” part. That’s a judgment call, and I wouldn’t want to prejudice you. I try for mysterious, but seldom achieve more than a gawky, coltish, and—I hope—endearing young charm. The slightly turned-up nose always gets in the way of my attempts at sophistication. I sometimes feel I haven’t quite grown into my body yet, that I’m playacting at being a grown-up woman.

I think I should have gone with the little black dress, with a longer skirt.

The hair is good, though, you can’t deny that. And I have a Pismo Beach tan. As for the high heels, I hardly ever wear them and would sooner walk on hot coals than wear them on Earth, like Earth girls do, where they don’t seem to mind mutilating their feet. But on Mars it’s no problem. Besides, they do great things for my legs.

Suddenly, our heroine is attacked by what looks like a brown cannonball. The missile bounces almost as high as her head as it homes in on her, but instead of trying to avoid it, Podkayne opens her arms, braces herself, and catches her brother Mike in midflight. His stumpy arms embrace her and they kiss, then she lets him go.

Mike is short. About three and a half feet, and that’s as tall as he’s likely to get. He’s what you’re supposed to call a “little person.” Not to mince words, which he never does, he’s a dwarf. When people stare and point at him—and some still do—he delights in clomping around like Frankenstein and making an ugly face and bellowing, “Me dwarf! Me kill!” Shuts ‘em right down.

You’ll have a few questions, so I might as well get them out of the way.

No, he’s not my biological brother … to which I’m supposed to add “but I love him exactly as much as if he was.” I don’t know; I don’t have another brother to compare him to, but I never put the word adopted in front of his name, not even on the first day when Mom and Dad brought him back from Earth at age two, when I was ten. I’d already graduated from baby-doll age, but I took to him instantly like the finest toy a girl ever had, then the finest pet, then the finest friend, all in about a year’s time. I took him everywhere with me, including classes, which may help account for the fact that he’s almost ready to graduate from high school.

Or it could be native intelligence. Who knows? His DNA has been analyzed, of course, and aside from the autosomal dominant mutation in the fibroblast growth factor receptor gene (FGFR3), which is the cause of his achondroplasia (the most common of the over two hundred types of dwarfism), he’s healthy as a horse. He’s mixed race, his skin is medium brown, and his hair is kinky. There’s some African in there, and some of a lot of other things. A not-atypical blend for his birthplace, which was Florida.

Mike was found by a UN patrol in the Red Zone, abandoned by the side of the road, a few weeks old, almost dead from exposure. Used to happen a lot. The UN cleaned him up, cured a few of the diseases endemic to the Zone, and put him into an orphanage in one of the “temporary” refugee camps, still jam-packed fifteen years after the Big Wave. And there he easily could have rotted, at least in mind and moral fiber, as so many have. He was a “problem” adoptee, being brown-skinned and with a disability, or at least a disfigurement. Then came Mom and Dad.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened.
She
told me the timing of
my
arrival was an accident, they had intended to wait a bit.
He
told me they’d always planned for two, and didn’t want me to be old enough to be my sibling’s mother when they got around to it, but Mom kept putting off the conception of Number Two. Next thing I knew they were off to Earth, shopping.

Mike has the big head and high forehead of your average achon-droplast, but has avoided some of the other typical problems, like curvature of the spine and bowed legs. Most of that’s due to Aunt Elizabeth, who goes exploring inside him several times a year and takes care of problems like that … if she can. There are limits to surgery. Not that he worries about that much. Or at least he never shows it. It can’t be easy, being a little squirt in a society of giraffes, even for Chrondro the Magnificent.

“How ya doin’, Chrondro the Insignificant?” I asked him.

“How’s the weather up there, beanpole?” he countered.

“Ouch. You really know how to hurt a girl.” I let him get the last word.

I’d come more or less directly from the Deimos shuttle, taking time only to change into my new clothes, so I hadn’t had time to get up to date with Mike. And we didn’t have time then, because Grandma Kelly was at the podium calling us all to order.

Madame President Kelly Strickland had addressed the Martian Assembly, which made the monkey house at the zoo seem sedate. She had faced the United Nations and shoved proposals down the throats of all the governments of Earth that, in an earlier age, could be considered acts of war. She had met with all the most powerful leaders on Earth, political and corporate, and left with their balls in her handbag. But in those cases she had the squeezer technology, and Mars’s sole possession of it, to back her up, and she wasn’t shy about squeezing.

Here, she had nothing. She was just Kelly. Mom, Grandma, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law … not a lot of power in any of those positions, not with this bunch. We were Martians, and we were Strickland-Garcia-Redmonds, and an ornerier bunch were never born. She looked the least little bit intimidated.

“Ladies and gentlemen … if there are any of them here …” But then Gran, sitting in the front row in the seat of honor, struggled to her feet and started slowly toward the podium. Kelly could keep talking, or she could help Gran get where she was going. She quickly moved to take Gran’s arm while Granddaddy Manny hurried up on the other side, but she shook them both off.

“I may be slow, but I get there,” she said, when she’d made it to the podium and Granddaddy had adjusted the mike. She looked so tiny, so wasted, but there was still fire in her eyes. She looked at Kelly as she took her seat beside Granddaddy.

“Kelly, I know you planned this all out. It’s what you’re good at, and the citizens of Mars are lucky you are. But I decided this is going to be my show.” Kelly nodded, and started to clap, and we all joined in, but Gran waved us quiet.

“That’s enough of that,” she said. “I figure you were going to have everybody come up here one at a time and spout a lot of lies about what a wonderful person I was. Am I right?”

Kelly nodded.

BOOK: Rolling Thunder
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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