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Red Lightning — Excerpt

Chapter One

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 Valle Marinaris 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 over-muscled Earthies out on the sand in man-shaped zip-lock baggies and 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 under one 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 baseball bat 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 way, 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 a lot of sheep, a few shepherds, a million 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 12, or even 6. 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 pics 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.

And I was cutting it a little close on the re-entry, too. The board was started to make a few odd beeps and boops, and if I didn’t see to it soon the computer would take over and report it to Mom and Dad and I’d be grounded for a month, at least.

#

No question about it, one of the things that doesn’t suck about Mars is airboards. And it may be the one thing Earthie kids my age envy us. You can’t use them on Earth—please!—and to use one on Mars you have to be a Martian. In fact, if a lot of Martian parents had their way, nobody would be able to use them at all. Hence the computer beeping at me, and less obvious safety measures.

We call them boards to be cool, to fit in with surfboards, which we obviously can’t use on Mars, and skateboards, which we can and do use, and are able to do tricks nobody could even think of on Earth.

What they actually look like is a snowmobile or a jet-ski, sitting on a longer, wider surfboard. You straddle the engine and air tanks, sitting on a motorcycle seat, and there’s a clear Nomex aerodynamic shield in front of you, but other than that, you’re in open space, nothing but your suit to protect you from vacuum.

I fired the jets for the last time as I felt the very thin atmosphere begin to tug slightly on my board. Below me, Mars was spread out like a giant plate of lasagna. Sorry, but that’s really the best analogy I can come up with. Orange tomato sauce and cream-colored pasta, with a few smears of black olive here and there. The only things that didn’t fit the picture were the single, monumental peak of Olympus Mons and the perfect row of Ascraeus, Pavonis, and Arsia Mons east of the big boy. All four gigantic extinct volcanoes showed white caps of water and carbon dioxide ice.

I checked all my helmet displays and everything was copacetic. Airboarding is fun, but you don’t want to forget that you can reach some serious high temperatures on the way in, and that you’ve got a re-entry footprint you don’t dare ignore. Too high and you’re okay, you’ll skip out and have to try it again, a long ways from your target, and endure the merciless ridicule of all the people you know when you get down. Too low, and you can toe right into the soup, decelerate at a killing rate, and fry. Falling off your board on Mars is not an option.

You do have to do a little skipping, but the best way to kill your velocity is slaloming. You have handlebars on the front, and of course you’re strapped down tight, so you hang on and shift your body left and right, maybe hang five, which means putting one foot out into the airstream for a few moments. Wear your heavy boots for that one.

I swooshed left, toward Olympus, traveled for a while almost parallel to the triple peaks, which might have been put there by the god Ares as a flight path indicator. When you get over Pavonis, it’s time to jog right again.

The gee forces were building up, shoving me down into the seat, and a faint ghost of a shock wave was curling over the top of the windshield and buffeting my helmet. That air was cold when it hit the windshield, and pretty hot when it left. The clear material began to glow light pink.

I was getting to the hottest part of the trip, pulling about a gee, which was easy. I dug a little deeper into the air, and pulled a bit more. Then I started getting a little blue color in the air. That was a very tiny bit of the ablative coating of the board bottom burning off. About every fifth or sixth trip you had to spray some more on it, sort of like recapping a bald tire on Earth. But you could mix in some chemical compounds that didn’t have anything to do with slowing you down, like strontium or lithium salts for red, barium chloride for green, strontium and copper for purple, magnesium or aluminum for intense white. Same stuff you use in fireworks. Not a lot of it, and the resulting firetail is not as spectacular as a Landing Day display, but it’ll do.

If you’ve got bubble-drive power you can theoretically start off at any time of day for any destination, and the same on your return. But it can take a long time, even accelerating all the way. The most practical thing is to take off for Phobos during a launch window that lasts about an hour, and when you return there’s an ideal time to leave to get to Thunder City—which is just about the only place worth going on Mars.

That means that a lot of people were re-entering at the same time I was. Off to each side of me I could see multi-colored flame trails as other boarders showed their stuff. As usual, there were varying degrees of skill. I watched as much as I could while still keeping my eyes on all the telltales and keeping my feel for the board. To my left I saw a board getting a little too close. I saw on the display that I was about half a mile ahead of him, which by the rules of the air gave me the right of way. He kept coming, and I got a yellow light on the heads-up. Jerk. I punched the console and a yellow flare arched out in his direction. In about a second he saw it, and banked away from me. A window popped up on my display and I saw a kid about fifteen years old, his face distorted by the gee forces he was pulling.

“Sorry, space,” he said.

“Stay cool,” I said, which he could take any way he wanted.

Below, about fifteen thousand feet, I saw Thunder City, and I banked again and went into a long, altitude-killing turn. Looking out to the side, I got a wonderful view of what had been my hometown since I was five.

My, how it had grown.

When my family arrived the first hotel on the planet, the Marinaris Hyatt, which my father was to manage, was still under construction. People were still new at this, at constructing buildings in an environment as hostile as Mars. The hotel was finished almost a year behind schedule. But it was full on opening day, and Earthies were clamoring for more rooms. So we built them

Now you could hardly find the original Hyatt, which had come within a hair of being torn down before my mother and some others led a campaign to save it as our first historical building. It was converted into our first, and so far only, museum. Next to it was the Red Thunder, which Dad now ran, and where I had lived for the last five years. It was still the tallest and most impressive free-standing building in Thunder City, but wouldn’t be for long. I could see three new hotels in the works, all of which would be bigger.

The city was built in an irregular line, which had now grown to about seven miles. There were a lot of domes, both geodesic and inflatable, the biggest being a Bucky dome almost a mile in diameter. It was all connected by the Grand Concourse, of which an architectural critic had said “It represents the apotheosis of the turn-of-the-century airport waiting room.” Yeah, well. We can’t have open-air promenades with old elm trees on Mars. So most of the trees on the concourse are concrete, with plastic leaves. It’s all roofed with clear lexan, and maybe it’s tacky, and maybe it is nothing but a giant shopping mall, but it’s home to me.

The slightly zigzag line of the concourse pointed toward the Valles Marinaris, five miles away. There was one hotel out there, on the edge, and I swung over the Valles as I deployed my composite fabric wings to complete my deceleration. Like the old space shuttle, the board wasn’t capable of anything but a downward glide with those wings, but if you were good and had a headwind and maybe a thermal you could stretch that glide pretty far. I went out over the edges of the Valles, which is just a fancy word for canyon. The Grand Canyon of Mars, so big that it would stretch from New York City to Los Angeles. You could lose whole states in some of the side canyons. I felt a little lift from the rising, thin, warm air. When I say warm, I mean a few degrees below zero. That’s balmy on Mars. But I didn’t linger. I banked again and soon was down to three thousand feet over my home town.

Other than the usual hotel construction there were three big things going on down there. Dad hated one of them, and Mom was opposed to all three. Dad was a confirmed Green and Mom was a passionate, some might even say rabid, Red.

On Earth, a Red is a communist—and I admit I’m not too clear on just what a communist is since we don’t seem to have any on Mars, or at least they don’t call themselves that. Something about everybody sharing everything, everybody being equal. What’s so bad about that? I don’t know what all the fuss was about, but apparently Earthies spent most of the last century hassling over it.

On Mars, a Red is a conservationist, usually a member of the Preservationist Party. “Keep Mars Red!” You’ll see the posters everywhere you go.

A Green on Earth is a member of one of the national ecology parties. They are against pollution, in favor of wildlife conservation and stuff like that. None of that matters a lot to a Martian Green or red. There’s pollution, but not much, and no wildlife at all. Here on the red planet, a Green is a terraformer.

Got it? Red means leave it the way it is. Green means build more hotels, warm it up, and fill the air with oxygen.

Myself, I’m a member of the Beer, Bang, and Rock n’ Roll Party, and so is just about everybody else I know. We don’t think about it much.

So what do I think when I do think about it?

A little of both, I guess. The Reds seem pretty stupid to me. I mean, who cares? We’ve been exploring Mars for over twenty years now. If there was life anywhere, we would have found it by now. To my way of thinking, no life equals no ecology. Which means Mars is just a big ball of rock and ice and carbon dioxide, and who cares what somebody does to a big pile of rocks?

Don’t get Mom started on that subject, though. You’ve been warned.

On the other hand, who do the Greens think they’re kidding? They’ve got their test site running a few miles outside town and it’s shooting thawed permafrost into the air at a rate that will eventually let us go outside wearing nothing but a very thick parka and take off our respirators for as much as ten minutes at a time.

In about a hundred thousand years.

I could see the plant sitting out there by itself, surrounded by a security fence to keep Red protesters out. Of course, they plan to build thousands of the things, much bigger. But even the most optimistic numbers I’ve seen won’t turn Mars into an approximation of an Earth environment until long after I’m dead. And that environment would be like what you’d find at 10,000 feet over the North Pole.

Again: who cares?

The other part of the Green philosophy is building stuff.

Even Dad has started to worry about that part of the Green point of view. Not the Grand Canal, he likes that part just fine. That’s the second big new thing you see from the air. What they’re doing is, they’re digging a ditch from Thunder City to Olympus Mons. One day in a few years they plan to sell rides to the Olympus ski runs on big sleds, jet-powered iceboats, instead of flying people there. You can put restaurants on big iceboats and you can’t on small passenger rockets. They envision a leisurely two-day trip, extracting your last dime in the casino. It’s sort of a pseudo-retro thing. Mars never had canals, but wouldn’t it have been swell if it had? In about three years we’ll have one.

We already had part of it. The first fifteen miles were complete, almost half a mile wide, straight as a stick, full of water and frozen solid. It continued inside to meet the Grand Concourse, where it was actual warm water suitable for swimming, lined with exotic plastic “Martian” plants and architecture from a 1930s science fiction magazine cover. It was already very popular.

Then there were the Martels, and for once Mom and Dad agreed on something. I could see them sprawling out to the north, into the less desirable real estate beyond the city, like a bad case of acne with multi-colored pimples. Dad would give anything to pop them.

The big travel companies finally realized there is a great hunger for off-Earth travel among the middle classes who can’t afford the Red Thunder, and who find Luna too black, too underground, and too boring. A few years back somebody built the first of what have come to be called Martels, just glorified tents, really. You can have them up an running in a week.

And there goes the neighborhood.

Sure, they look sort of okay now, from the ground, with none of them more than three years old. Your typical Martel room has a queen-sized bed and a dresser and a stereo and a little curtained area where you can shower and brush your teeth and not much else. Sort of like Boy Scout camp, only you don’t have to work for merit badges in suit maintenance and knot-tying. All they are is triple-insulated domes of heavy-duty plastic held up by air pressure and crossed fingers, mass-produced in Ghana or Ecuador and shipped out here by the thousands to sprout on the red dirt like psychedelic mushrooms—they come in twenty-four loud color combinations—whose main purpose seems to be to make Mom hiss and spit every time she sees them.

They’re all free-standing units, like teepees for Martian Indians, which some Earth motels actually used to be—teepees, I mean—like I’ve seen in Dad’s collection of postcards of old motels. Their one luxury is a big triple-paned Lucite picture window offering a great view of red dirt, in the calm season, or of red dust when it blows, which is frequently. Oh, yeah, and a view of pink sky when it’s calm. When it’s blowing you lose even the pink sky, since during a good howler visibility is reduced to about a centimeter. And the howlers can last for … well, for a lot longer than your honeymoon vacation package deal. Yeah, Mom and Dad, we spent five days and four nights on the goddam rock ball and didn’t even see the goddam pink sky.

The last thing worth mentioning in the rooms other than the tacky lithograph glued to the curving wall is a staircase leading down to your front door, which takes you to the tunnel corridor which can stretch up to half a mile of no-pile insulated carpet until it gets to the big central dome—the Vacation Fun Center! in Martel-speak—which consists of a bored clerk working his way through Marinaris U., the No Lifeguard On Duty! Olympic-size pool (if there was a 10-meter freestyle event in the Olympics), and a TV/game room where your kids will spend all their time between bouts of whining Can we go home yet? Oh, yeah, and in the mornings, the “Complimentary ‘Ancient Martian’ Breakfast.” Until the Martels arrived none of us new Martians knew that the ancient Martians liked to start the day with weak coffee and stale muffins. In fact no one had ever discovered the slightest trace of any ancient Martians at all, so you can’t say the arrival of the Martels hasn’t done some good. Who knew?

“Yeah, but just wait until those cheap plastic toilets start to overflow,” Dad says when the subject comes up. “Wait till the duct tape springs a leak some night when it’s 125 below. Wait till one whole wing blows out entirely and fifty or a hundred guests try to breath the air. In five minutes we could have a big disaster on our hands, a whole lot of frozen bodies to ship back home, and how is that going to look for the whole industry?”

You notice Dad doesn’t spend a lot of time grieving over the potentially dead Earthies. He claims to love ‘em, they’re his livelihood, but he doesn’t expect much of them except rudeness, impossible demands, lack of common sense, and about six concussions per week from refusing to wear their helmets indoors.

Dad knows a bit about cheap motels. He is the third generation in the hospitality industry in our family. My great-grandparents opened a little two-story drive-up just down the road from Cape Canaveral about the time John Glenn took his first trip into space. They called it the Blast-Off Motel. My grandmother inherited it, and my dad spent all his early life there. In that time it went downhill quite a bit. It was never very fancy, but by the time Dad met Uncle Travis and Uncle Jubal grandma was about to go bankrupt. And then the whole Red Thunder thing happened, and it changed his life.

Mine, too. Without that trip, I’d surely be growing up as an Earthie.

Makes me shiver just to think about it.

Because when all is said and done, the only place that sucks more than Mars does, is the Earth.