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

Rolling Thunder — Excerpt

Chapter One

ONCE UPON A time there was a Martian named Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond.

Whew! What a mouthful, huh?

That’s me, by the way. Six-foot-two, eyes of blue.

Mom and Dad got all whimsical naming me, with the Podkayne business. It was a time of patriotism; everybody was all hot about “Mars for the Martians!” and trying to be more “Martian” than their neighbor. In my high-school graduating class alone there were three John Carters, two Dejah Thorises, a girl named Burroughs, one poor fellow saddled with Edgar Rice, and a Bradbury. The name Podkayne came from a novel from last century that I’ve never read. I’ll get around to it one of these days, but I don’t much care for science fiction.

With a name like that, what are you going to do? Everybody called me Poddy growing up. When I reached my pissed-off teenager years I insisted on Patricia, which everyone shortened to Patty. In no time at all it was Poddy again. If I called them on it, they’d just say they’d said Patty, and I heard it wrong, and don’t blow your bubble, spacegirl.

These days I just go by Podkayne. One word, which will come in handy if I ever make it as a music star:

LT. (JG) PODKAYNE, NMR.

It looked good on the brass nameplate, sitting there on my desk. NMR: That’s Navy of the Martian Republic. We’re here to protect the solar system.

What I was protecting it from at the moment was one California girl named Glinda. Most of the solar system didn’t really need protection from Glinda, but Mars sure did, and since Mars was my home, I took my job seriously. Well, as seriously as I could. With people like Glinda, it was a challenge.

“So, Glinda,” I said. “Why do you want to emigrate to Mars?”

She thought that over for a minute. I could tell, because her brows knit fetchingly, which made a pleasant jangling sound. There was enough metal up there to open a hardware store. Finally, she formulated her response.

“Huh?” she said.

I figured it was the three-syllable word that was confusing her.

“Why do you want to leave Earth and go to Mars?”

“Oh. Well, I live to board, you know? I’m real good at it. I heard there was gigawaste snow up there on Mars. Some big mountain?”

That would be Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, and she was right, the snow was waste. Or wasted, or bitchin’, or groovy, or cool, or the bee’s knees, depending on what era’s slang you were slinging.

“So you’re a professional snowboarder?”

She nodded enthusiastically.

“I live to board. Like I said.”

“No, I mean . . . do you make a living at boarding?” Another blank look. “Are you a boarding instructor?” There were hundreds of winter sports pros making a living on Mars; if she was really, really good, she might make it.

“I don’t get it.”

“Making a living,” I said. “You’ll need a job when you get to Mars.”

Comprehension dawned, and she smiled.

“Oh, no problem. Mommy and Daddy will pay.” Mommy and Daddy? She looked to be about thirty-five.

“I see. Well, Glinda, what you need to do, then, is buy a ticket to Mars. When you get there, apply for a three-month visa. It’s renewable for another three months. Then you can come home to Earth.”

More jangling of eyebrow hardware.

“But I don’t want to come home. I want to go to Mars to stay.”

“Well, that’s your decision, of course, but if you just want to snowboard when you get there, it’s the easiest thing in the world just to buy a ticket, make a reservation at a hotel—there are hundreds of good ones, some right on the slopes, I have a few brochures I can give you—and then if you decide you want to stay, you can make an application for citizenship at the immigration office there.” And save me the paperwork, I didn’t add.

“No, I want to go to Mars. I want to be a Martian.”

Honey, if you stay there a thousand years, you’ll never be a Martian. Hell, my father has lived there for over thirty years, and I barely consider him a Martian. If you get a residency permit and eventually are allowed to swear allegiance to the Republic and then have a child, she will be a Martian, but you never will be. Bottom line, you have to be born there. Otherwise, you’ll always be an Earthie or an immigrant.

But I didn’t tell her any of that.

“Okay,” I said, and opened a drawer in my desk. I pulled out one of the 230-page citizenship application forms and pushed it across the desk at her. “Fill this in,” I said.

“What’s this?” she said, suspiciously.

“You don’t have to do the whole thing right now. The essay questions can wait.”

She didn’t touch the paper.

“I can’t read this,” she said, somehow managing to entirely dismiss the idea of literacy in a few words, as though I should be ashamed for even asking. “Give me the verbal version. I prefer that.”

“Then I’m sorry, Glinda, but there’s no point in going any further.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Mars only accepts literates for immigration.”

“That’s elitist!”

“Whatever.” I had lost what patience I had ever had with this girl.

“No way, ‘whatever.’ I know my rights.”

Everybody on Earth knew their rights. People in Western America knew them better than most, even though they didn’t actually have as many as they thought they did.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Not!

“I never heard such bullshit. It’s in the . . . laws, and stuff. ‘Nobody can’t discriminate on the basis of illiteracy.’ ”

A double negative. “It’s your constitution, not mine. This is the Martian Consulate, and we have extraterritorial status. Legally, this is Martian territory.”

“I’m not leaving here until you start treating me with respect, and by God you’re going to be facing such a lawsuit . . .”

“Actually, you are leaving,” I said, and stood up. For the first time, she looked a little less than totally self-assured. She was not a tiny woman, not by Earthie standards. Say five-six, five-seven. But women my height are rare on Earth. Standing, I towered over her. It can be intimidating. I hoped she didn’t know that, pound for pound, she was twice as strong as I was simply from years of snowboarding and from carrying her own mass around in the depressing gravity of Earth all her life.

She left in a huff. Maybe two huffs.

I’d been on Earth for six of their months, still had six months to go on this assignment, and I was dying from the terrible gravity, from the incredible crowds, from twits like Glinda, and from a bad case of homesickness. I was beginning to think it might be terminal. I wanted to go home.

Waaaaah! Mommy, I wanna go home!

Well, brace up, spacegirl. You have a job to do. It may be a stupid job and you sure didn’t ask for it, but there it is. You’re a Martian. Start acting like one.

I checked the clock and saw it was 3:13 P.M. Official closing time of the office was 5: 00 P.M. Close enough. There was a sign on the outer door that I’d had made shortly after I arrived at my job in Western America. It said:

MARTIAN CONSULATE OF CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

THE CONSUL IS IN

I flipped the card from IN to OUT and locked the door. “Consul” was one of my many titles at the Consulate. I was also the Chief Recruitment Officer, the Artistic Liaison, the Cultural Ambassador, the Director of Public Relations, and the resident spy. (Sssh! Don’t tell anyone!) I adopted these titles when and where it suited me. In addition, I was the secretary, the interior decorator, the hostess, the cook, driver, chief pilot, laundress, dishwasher, and janitor. If the Consulate needed a mime or a clown, I could be those, too. I took the back door from my storefront office and the elevator to the Consular Residence, which was three rooms on the fifteenth and top floor of the Baker Building, Pomeroy Avenue, Pismo Beach, California, Western America.

I stripped off my fatigues—the hideous rust-and-pink baggy shirt and pants I was required to wear when on duty and best not described in too much detail lest one lose one’s lunch—and applied SPF 45 sunscreen from my hairline to my toenails. Then I put on the little scraps of cellophane and dental floss Earthies require you to wear for modesty’s sake, and an oversized aloha shirt that screamed with bright-colored racing cars and surfboards.

I hit Pomeroy Street and it hit me right back, with a blast of air in the high nineties. There wasn’t as much of Pomeroy left to hit as there had been fifty years ago. Surf now crashed about four blocks inland of where it had at the turn of the century. This was due to what the Heartlanders called the “temporary global climate fluctuation.”

The old wooden pier was sheltered by a fairly new breakwater, made from demolished buildings. There were only a few watercraft tied up in the slips. My ride, Rosinante, was not quite a boat and not quite a Jet Ski. She was a sort of trimaran, broad and stable. She had won my heart as soon as I saw her nested in morning-glory vines in an Arroyo Grande backyard. I boarded and kicked the old engine into life.

THE SKY WAS vast, the ocean was vast, the horizon was far, far away, much farther than it could ever be on Mars. It felt like, on a really clear day, you could see Japan. The sea was calm, long, slow rollers about three feet high, and Rosinante ate them up with hardly a bounce, which was why I preferred her over a conventional ski.

The sunshine was glorious! Of course, it could burn you raw, but I was covered with enough sunscreen to deflect a blowtorch, and if you spent your time thinking of what a hostile environment the Earth was becoming, you wouldn’t go out at all. When I got back to Mars I’d have the only souvenir of Earth that ever impressed any Martian: a tan you just couldn’t get under UV lamps.

I called up my karaoke program and flicked through the thousands of accompaniments stored there, then clicked on “Born to Be Wild,” written by somebody with the delightful name of Mars Bonfire, first recorded by Steppenwolf. I fed it to Rosinante’s music system, and soon the sounds of heavy metal thunder were blasting out of the speakers, lead vocal by yours truly.

I followed it with “Give Me Another Reason,” a Tracy Chapman hit from the thirties, then switched to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Poor Wand’ring One,” from The Pirates of Penzance.

Taking a deep breath, I launched into Musetta’s aria, “Quando me’n vo soletta per la via,” from La Bohème. It was a stretch for me. I have an extra octave available to me on top of my normal contralto, like Julie Andrews had; I can be a mezzo-soprano if I work at it, but I don’t usually try it in public. Here, nobody but the great white sharks would be offended.

To cool down I swung into “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser,” the famous habanera from Carmen. I was grinning broadly. From John Kay to Tracy, to Mabel, to Musetta, to Carmen. Quite a musical evolution for one morning.

I dropped a sea anchor and did a quick visual inspection of my hide, looking for patches of lobster red. I suppose a blonde really has no business exposing her pearly white skin to the lethal rays of Sol from a distance of only ninety million miles or so, but the sunshine was the only thing about Earth I liked. So I risked radiation burns, but carefully. I took off my big hat, and the shirt, and the bikini, and stretched out on Rosinante’s postage-stamp deck.

Two minutes later, my phone rang.

I said, “Accept call.”

A man in Navy uniform appeared floating above the sea. The ident line below his face named him Captain J. K. Carruthers, CID, WAM, MD. That meant Commander, Immigration Division, West America Region, Martian Delegation.

“Lieutenant Strickland, how are you?”

“Fine, sir.” Until you called.

“Ah . . . it seems your grandmother is ill.”

“Grandma Kelly?” I asked. I only had one living grandmother, but I had to say something, or I felt I’d stop breathing.

“Pardon me?” He was frowning. “Oh, I see now. This says Garcia—”

“Granddaddy? What’s happened to Granddaddy?”

“If you’ll let me finish. Apparently it’s your great-grandmother.”

“Gran?” I squeaked.

“Here, I’ll forward the message to you.”

Dad’s face replaced the captain’s.

“Honey, I might as well get right to the bad news. Granny Betty is very ill. It seems to be some new variant of the autoimmune disorders, and the doctors say they can’t do anything about it.”

He paused, then tossed his hair back in a gesture that was very familiar to me. He looked exactly like what he was: Ray Strickland-Garcia, Ph.D., an academic, a history professor at the university, probably the foremost authority on the colonization of space. Disheveled, a bit absentminded, usually up to his eyeballs in downloads of forgotten files playing on his old-fashioned external stereo.

“They can’t tell us exactly how long she might live, but it’s a matter of weeks. A month at the most. She has elected to go into time suspension. She wants to see the whole family before she does this, and since you are the only one so distant right now, she insists she’ll take the chance and wait until you can get here. Your grandmother has secured you a thirty-day compassionate leave, so I hope you’ll lose no time.”

“Of course I’ll hurry, Dad,” I said, uselessly. Even if he was still on the line, it would be quite a while before my words could have reached him on Mars. I found myself trying to twist the Rosinante’s accelerator even more, but she was already going flat out.

“Your mother sends her love. I . . . I love you, too. Hurry home.”

I was already consulting the train schedules while I pulled Rosinante into her slip at the dock and hit the ground running. I ran as fast as the relentless gravity would allow, up Pomeroy toward my apartment. With the heat of the day waning, there were a few people here and there on the street, and I got a few stares. Actually, more than a few. It wasn’t until I was getting into the elevator that I realized I had forgotten to put my bathing suit back on.

Earthies, you are so weird. I hope you enjoyed the show.