Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Notice: Array to string conversion in /home/varley/public_html/wp-content/themes/varley/functions-varley.php on line 699

Dark Lightning — Excerpt

Prologue

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 le bons temps rouler!” And then the good times will roll, cher.

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 Rolling Thunder, 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 one hundred and twenty-three 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.

Chapter One

Polly:

I was lining up a sure shot on the 9-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 outsized 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.

#

BLINKLINK: SKYPOOL: A game played in zero-gee, invented in the starship Rolling Thunder, late 21st century. Eight players on each side complete 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 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.

#

BLINKLINK: SKYCYCLE: A human-powered flying machine. Skycycles are extremely light, made of composite materials like buckytubes and monofilm. A high-end cycle will weight 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 face down—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, and then behind it.

The lights are station-keepers, like the pocket rings. There are twenty of them, at the points of a 20-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 semi-final 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 it 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 to do 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 father 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.

“Oh, fiddlesticks!” 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 feathers 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.

Cassie:

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 big 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. Spacegirl, I told myself, she needs your help.

So I did something either of us would find extremely hard. I let the nine-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 Rolling Thunder.

#

BLINKLINK: ROLLING THUNDER: 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 32,000 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 20,000, 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 2/3 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, that uses compression-bubble technology to produce light and heat.

#

Just in case, I corkscrewed around in the air, picking out every Bulldog. 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, Rolling Thunder, 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 dark. 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 street lights, 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 re-think 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!”

No answer. I was gaining speed, to the point that it was getting dangerous. The wings were shuddering a bit. Skycycles are built for maneuverability and short bursts of speed. More important, they were built for flying in zero gee, and I was feeling the insistent claw of gravity tightening around me as I descended.

There was a momentary flash of gold which might be her, twenty degrees to my right and what I estimated might be a quarter mile below me. That was way too far below me. She must have been falling like a rock, no wings at all.

Then I saw a cluster of pinlights that I knew must have come from the edges of the emergency chute. But instead of being a nice, even circle, they were twisting around each other like a cluster of drunken fireflies. That had to mean the chute was opened, but not deployed.

I swung in that directed and started pedaling hard.

#

Polly

#

I groped around behind me. The chute handle should have been attached just over my left shoulder, where I could easily reach it in an emergency, but there was a slight chance I could deploy it accidentally. I could feel a torn patch in my jumper where it had been ripped away by something—not ripped in a way that would have deployed it, unfortunately, but just pulled free.

I twisted around as far as I was able and could just see the little yellow handle twisting in the breeze.

Not just a breeze by then, actually, more of a strong wind.

I was spinning now at a pretty good rate. I kept twisting back and forth into every position I could manage, trying to reach the handle. It was like trying to scratch that spot on your back, a few inches square, where your hand just will not reach.

Luckily, this spot was not stationary, but moving as the wind increased, twirling in a circle that brought it almost within my reach every few seconds. I timed it, determined to wrench my shoulder out of its socket if that’s what it took. I lunged, hearing the tendons crack … and I caught it.

With a great feeling of relief, I yanked on the handle. The bright orange sheet unfurled, the tiny pinlights on the edges began to blink. The radio would be sending out a distress signal.

And the chute snarled in the wreckage of my flycycle.

Well, there really wasn’t much else that could go wrong now. I was going to hit the ground. The only question was would I land on my feet, my ass, or my head.

The head seemed like the best idea, since it didn’t seem good for much else.

I have always maintained that if you manage to kill yourself on a flycycle, it’s because you did something wrong. No excuses. I didn’t doubt that when they unwrapped the wreckage from my lifeless body they would find a weak spot on the frame that I hadn’t noticed—but should have—when I put it on. After all, how often do flycycle frames come apart in the air? I couldn’t recall the last time it had happened.

Right then, though, it seemed to me that the only mistake I had made was allowing that gosh-darn Cheryl Chang to sneak up behind me.

Okay, girl, get a grip. A fall from almost a mile wasn’t necessarily fatal, not in Rolling Thunder. I couldn’t recall at the moment just what terminal velocity was, theoretically, but it’s not as high as it would have been on Mars or Earth. Of course, hitting the ground at sixty or even fifty miles per hour is no joke.

Also on the bright side, the wind resistance of my remaining wing elements and the flapping remnants of my chute should slow me down some, sort of like a bird hit with a shotgun doesn’t quite drop like a stone, it flutters some. I’d better start seeing what I could do to make sure I didn’t land on my head. Because though my head may be hard, my neck was the weak point. I didn’t want to break it.

Trouble was, I just didn’t have that much control over my attitude. I was hoping to get oriented feet-downward, figuring I could deal with broken ankles and legs a lot better than a broken spine or skull. Yet every time I thought I had it, the wind would catch another part of me and twist me around again.

During one of those rotations I thought I saw something I didn’t dare hope for. I thought I saw another flycycle, nose down, and a flash of gold. But I didn’t see how that was possible.

The ground was very near now. I made one more effort to get my feet under me, and for a while I had it. Then I felt myself starting to drift again.

That was when a hand grabbed the back of my jumpsuit and I jerked like a fish on a line, or really more like a felon at the end of a hangman’s noose. All the air went out of me and my neck popped. The ground was still rushing up, but it was slowing. I heard the hummingbird whir of a flycycle rotor. Then the hand slipped and I was falling again.

“Shit,” somebody said. I knew that voice.

“Cassie!” I shouted. “Help me!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do, you idiot?”

I was as helpless as a baby bird falling from the nest; even more helpless, since I didn’t even have little wings to flutter.

Now I was falling face-down. It was dark down there, I couldn’t see much, but I knew it had to be less than a hundred meters.

Cassie’s hand grabbed me again, this time by the ankle. All the blood flowed to my head and my hair came loose from its bun—somewhere in there I had lost my helmet, and I didn’t even remember it. All I saw was long blonde locks streaming in front of me.

My cycle-shoe came off in Cassie’s hand. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to grab my bare foot. I felt my ankle pop, and I howled.

Suddenly, there it was. The ground. I squealed, and put my hands out in front of me. That was probably a bad idea, but you try to keep your hands at your side when the ugly, muddy ground is coming up at you.

It was muddy, all right, and smelly, too. I hit face-first, and then Cassie landed on top of me, driving me into the ground and huffing all the air out of my lungs. Which was no fun, as my face was buried in muck and I couldn’t inhale.

I heard the snapping sounds of Cassie getting out of her rig as I finally managed to lift my head up. It was pretty dark, but the farmer on whose grounds we landed had a few lights up on poles. It was enough so I could see my sister sitting up, taking her helmet off, ass-deep in mud. She looked at me, pointed her finger, and howled.

“Oh, lord, I wish I had a camera! If you could see yourself …”

She was unable to finish, convulsed with laughter. And she was still pointing.

“Look … oh, my, Polly, just look behind you!”

I did. There was a huge, pale shape, not a foot away from me. For a moment I couldn’t identify it, then it moved forward and nudged me with its snout. It was a pig. We had landed in a pigsty. And that meant that the stuff I had landed face first in was not just mud, it was full of …

The big porker nudged me again, and snorted.

“I think he’s in love,” Cassie said. And howled again.

At last she got up and held her hand out to me. I yanked, intending to bring her down in the muck with me, but she knows that trick and was ready for it. What I wasn’t ready for was the grinding pain in my forearm.

“I think I broke my arm,” I said, and passed out.