Dark Lightning

Dark Lightning

by John Varley

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Known for “superior science fiction" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), author John Varley returns to his Thunder and Lightning series with a novel of how one man’s volatile genius could alter a starship’s epic plunge into a future where human survival is just a theory…

On a voyage to New Earth, the starship Rolling Thunder is powered by an energy no one understands except for its eccentric inventor, Jubal Broussard. But now, on his emergence from a state of suspended animation, Jubal makes a shocking announcement: The ship must stop, or everyone will die.

These words from the mission’s founder, the man responsible for the very existence of Rolling Thunder, will send shock waves throughout the starship—and divide its passengers into those who believe and those who doubt. And it will be up to his twin daughters to stop a mutiny, discover the truth, and usher the ship into a new age of exploration…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425274088
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/31/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Varley is the author of Slow Apocalypse, the Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, and Demon), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Red Thunder, Mammoth, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder. He has won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for his work.

Read an Excerpt


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 les 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 123 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.



I was lining up a sure shot on the nine 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 outsize 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 twenty-first century. Eight players on each side compete 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’s 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 weigh 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 facedown—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, then behind it.

The lights are station-keepers, like the pocket rings. There are twenty of them, at the points of a twenty-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 semifinal 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 the wing 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 do to 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 farther 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 wings 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.


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 five 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 thirty-two thousand 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 twenty thousand, 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 two-thirds 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, which uses compression-bubble technology to produce light and heat.

Just in case, I corkscrewed around in the air, picking out every Gator. 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 streetlights, 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 rethink 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 are 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 that might have been her, twenty degrees to my right and what I estimated was about 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 direction and started pedaling hard.


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 facedown. 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, 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.



My sister is such a drama queen.

After I pulled her into a sitting position and slapped her around a little until she woke from her swoon, she howled loud enough to frighten the pigs and wake the farmer and his family. He shined a bright light on us.

“Is she hurt badly?” he asked.

“Not as bad as it sounds,” I assured him.

“Call an ambulance, darn you!” That, of course, was Polly. It was unusually nasty language for her, too.

“Where does it hurt, sis?”

“My arm, and my behind!”

“Sure you can tell one from the other?”

I got her to her feet by pulling the other arm. Sure enough, there was a piece of her flycycle frame sticking out of her butt. I touched it, and she howled again.

“Hold on, let’s get a look at this.”

“I’ll call the ambulance,” the farmer said.

“Wait a minute,” I told him. Then I turned to Polly. “How badly do you want to be hazed tomorrow at school?” I asked her. “Right now, you might just get a little respect, since that crash was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. How did you manage to totally destroy a flycycle? I didn’t think that was possible.” And I hadn’t. Those suckers are strong.

“It wasn’t my fault,” she whined. “It was that Cheryl Chang! She—”

“Hold on, let me expose the wound.” I got two fingers into the hole in her jumper and pulled. It ripped open, exposing most of her butt. It’s a great butt, perfectly formed, drives the boys wild. I should know, because it’s exactly like my own.

One thing you can never do if you have an identical twin is say bad things about her looks.

Unless she’s covered in pigshit, of course.

“Good thing you landed facedown,” I told her. “Both times. When you hit, and when you fainted. I wouldn’t want to get any of that nasty . . . mud in the wound.”

“It’s more than just mud, and you know it.”

“I know. I’m trying not to think about it too much.”

Without warning her—she just would have pissed and moaned and worried—I yanked on the strut, and it came free. She was so surprised and shocked, she didn’t even cry out at once.

“Darn you! Is it bleeding?”

“Hardly at all. It’s just fat, not much blood in there.”

“My ass is not fat.”

“Did I say that? Not too fat, but everybody’s ass has fat in it. Still want that ambulance? Or can we walk out of here?”

She sighed in her best put-upon way. She knew as well as I that if medical help came there, somebody would have a camera, and pictures of us covered in poop would be all over the news tomorrow.

I’d look stupid, too, but I’m not the one who had it all over her face.

I started laughing again, couldn’t help myself. And I’d be able to torment her with this night for years. But not at once. This one was worth saving for a really golden moment. I’d let her relax, let her guard down, wait until she thought I’d forgotten about it. I could hardly wait.

In fact, about the only downside for the night is that we lost the skypool match to those stinking Hillbillies. With Polly and me both out of the game, our team didn’t stand a chance.

The farmer—a nice man named Mr. Nguyen—hosed us down. We tossed the ruined jumpers in the trash. Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen didn’t have anything to offer us to wear, being about five feet tall on tiptoes and their children ages four and seven. So she loaned us some nice blankets. They were both too polite to laugh out loud, but I saw them turn away from time to time, obviously stifling a chuckle. Their kids just stared wide-eyed at us. I suspected Farmer Nguyen and wife were considering hiring the matched set of tall, skinny blondes as scarecrows when we came back with the blankets.

It was still about an hour till sun-on. We trudged along the little dirt farm road, Polly favoring her left leg and cradling her right arm, which she was sure was broken.

“What’s the big deal?” I asked her. “You’re left-handed. You’ll still be able to masturbate after the boys kiss you good night at the door.”

She didn’t bother to answer that.

We soon reached the stone-paved circumferential road—a C-road because it goes round and round the inside of the ship—and saw the streetcar just a little ways up the curve to counterspinward. It was there in less than a minute, sensed our presence, and stopped with a merry clang of its bell.

When Uncle Travis built his space ark and started stocking it with plants and animals and all the other stuff we’d need for a long journey to the stars, he first used prefabricated buildings and other cheap, undistinguished things. The result, he once told me, was something like an Antarctic station, something like a cheesy housing development, something like a refugee camp. He hated it. So he stopped doing that and began shopping for buildings. He brought a lot of them intact from the Earth and a few from Mars. Others were torn down and reassembled when they got here. The main thing he was looking for was that they be architecturally “tasty,” as he put it. His tastes leaned toward art deco, Victorian, and Japanese, with a smattering of other cultures. There would be no Bauhaus in Rolling Thunder, he decreed. I blinked up Bauhaus, and I have to say I’m with him. Ugly stuff; about all you could say was that it was functional.

Later, when the Earth was in a really bad way from the Europan invaders, prices went down drastically on all sorts of things. He looted museums around the world. Uncle Travis was very, very rich, and he was a hell of a shopper. By the time we launched, he was broke.

One of the things he liked was old railroads and streetcars. There were to be no private cars in Rolling Thunder, other than farming machinery, and after looking at tubes from the first part of this century, I could see why. Insanity! Millions of cars stuck on the road, not moving.

So we have streets in the ship, good paved ones, on which you will see only pedestrians, riders on horses or wagons pulled by them, various human-powered contraptions on one to six wheels, trains, and streetcars. The streetcars are antiques refurbished and converted to battery power and automatic operation, and you never know for sure what you’re going to get.

This time it was two San Francisco cable cars hooked together. They were green and gold, and a small brass plaque announced they were from the 1920s. Over 170 years old, and looking like they’d just rolled out of the factory.

I like cable cars, they’re so cute.

“All aboard,” the cable car said, and we climbed in. We usually ride on the outside footboard, hanging on to the bar, leaving the cabin for the old folks, but the night was chilly and our blankets didn’t give us a lot of protection, so we went into the cabin. The seats were padded leather, with wicker backs. There was patterned carpet on the floor, and crystal bud vases with fresh flowers. There was no one else in either car. I took a seat and Polly remained standing as the Thunderville Trolley rang its bell again and took off.

Here’s another effect you don’t get on a planet. Since we were headed to spinward, and traveling at a speed faster than walking pace, we got heavier. Though it was a long way from being unpleasantly heavy, like it is in the gym down below, you could feel it, like when an elevator starts going up. But as soon as an elevator reaches its top speed, the feeling of weight goes away.

Not on the trains. As long as they move—and their top speed is about fifty miles per hour—you stay heavy. That’s because you’re adding your speed to the speed of the spinning ship. Your angular momentum becomes greater.

If you’re going to counterspinward, of course, the effect is reversed. You get lighter the faster you go. If you go fast enough—230 miles per hour, a pretty good clip, and much faster than our trains go—you become weightless. The train, too. It could float right off the tracks.

Polly was standing with one foot barely touching the floor, favoring her injured gluteus muscle. Her forearm and wrist were swelling up, and she was sweating, in spite of the cool night air. Maybe I had underestimated her hurt.

“All kidding aside, sis,” I said, “how bad is it?”

“The puncture, not so bad, but I’m real worried about infection. The arm . . . well, it hurts real bad. I can’t make a fist. I’d flip you the bird, but it hurts too much.”

“Don’t let that stop you, Lefty.”

So she used her other middle finger. She even chuckled a little. Polly and I are highly competitive, often at loggerheads; sometimes we even come to blows. We love getting each other’s goat, but anyone who knows us knows we love each other in our own way. They know that messing with me is the same thing as messing with her, and vice versa. You come at one of us, and two of us are going to come back at you. One of us will hit ’em high, and the other will hit ’em low. Count on it.

“Maybe you better sit down.”

She gave her head half a shake, then thought better of it, and sat. I put my arm around her.

“We’ll be there soon.”

“I’m amazed I survived.” She paused a moment, then glanced at me. “I guess I’d better thank you for saving my life.”

“Aw, shucks, ma’am. Just doin’ my job.”

She punched me on the shoulder. We both knew it was unlikely her life had been in danger, but a more serious injury had been possible.

Replaying it all in my mind, there on the cable car, I slowly became aware of a pain in my hand. I looked down at it.

“Shit!” I cried. “I tore a fingernail.”

For some reason, Aunt Elizabeth decided to treat Polly’s broken arm before she even looked at my painful finger.

“Get it fixed at the beauty parlor,” she suggested. “Or go see a vet.”

So I shut up. I had been kidding, of course, but though Aunt Liz has a decent sense of humor, it doesn’t extend into medicine.

Aunt Elizabeth Strickland-Garcia is really our great-aunt, the older sister of our maternal grandfather, Ramon Garcia-Strickland. She’s an M.D., a nanosurgeon, mostly, though she’s also good at putting iodine on a scraped knee, which she did many times for both of us. She lost her right hand during the First Earth War. Her suit got punctured while she was trying to reach what she hoped were survivors of a bombing, and before she could be pulled out, the hand froze solid.

The hand might have been saved, but it would never have been as skilled as it had been. Her career in surgery would have been over. So she elected to have it replaced with a prosthetic, which was just as good or even better. She’s had half a dozen new ones over the years. With the current one, she can read the date on a Mandela dollar, with a touch so gentle she can put a smile on Nelson’s face.

She lives with her spouse, Dorothy, in Bedford Falls, in a small Victorian with a large yard where she breeds roses that win the blue ribbon at the township fair every year, and usually the All-Thunder Fair as well.

I presume she sleeps, but I couldn’t vouch for it personally. Polly and I have never managed to wake her up, no matter how early or late we show up at her door with a new owie to treat.

She opened the door at thirty minutes till sun-on, sighed, and beckoned us in.

Dorothy, dressed in a nightgown and buttering some toast, smiled at us as we were led through the kitchen to Aunt Elizabeth’s small surgery overlooking the rose garden. Her office never smells medical; it’s always full of fresh-cut roses in every color of the spectrum, including a few that are blacker than Dorothy’s face.

“I’m not even going to ask how you bumbling puppies got banged up yet again,” she said. “Polly, let’s see that arm.”

She probed it gently, then got out her MRI. It was rolled up in a little box, four inches wide and long enough to wrap around a whole body. She only used a small part of it to take a look into Polly’s forearm. All three of us leaned closer to look at the 3-D color image. We could easily see the crack in the ulna.

“Okay, no big deal,” Aunt Elizabeth said.

“No big—”

“Hush, child.”

“Don’t be a crybaby,” I said.

“You hush, too, or I’ll spank you both. I’ll just immobilize it and start an internal bonding agent.” It took two minutes to spray on a cast from wrist to elbow and suspend the busted flipper from a sling.

“You should be good as new in forty-eight hours. Okay, turn around, drop that blanket, and bend over.”

Polly did, just as Dorothy entered the room with a tray of tea, jam, and toast.

“Woo-woo!” she warbled. Polly looked over her shoulder and blushed.

“This wound is filthy. Where did it happen?”

“Uh . . . sort of in a pigsty,” I admitted.

“Well, that explains the smell.”

I guess I’d been smelling it long enough that it wasn’t registering anymore.

“Can I go take a shower?” I asked.

“I’d recommend dunking them in a big jar of mouthwash,” Dorothy said.

“I’d prefer formaldehyde. Hold them under for ten minutes, then screw on the lid. Future generations will thank me.”

Aunt Elizabeth was looking at me from under her eyelids in that way she has of making you feel about five years old, and you’ve disappointed her once again.

She’s in her mid-seventies, and has never been inside a black bubble, so that’s both her real age and her virtual age. Her hair is snow-white and she has some wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, but like they say, seventy is the new forty. Gene therapy has extended human life expectancy quite a bit since my great-grandparents made the first trip to Mars. Regenerative techniques have done wonders for skin, too, and put a lot of plastic surgeons out of work. My aunt is a handsome woman with rather sharp features and a no-nonsense attitude. For most of her life she has been so dedicated to medicine that no one was even sure she was gay until she was in her fifties.

“I have done many odd things in my career,” she was saying as she prepared to disinfect the wound, “but digging pig manure out of somebody’s ass is a new one for me.”

Then she couldn’t help herself, she burst out laughing. Dorothy joined in. I tried to stop myself—honest I did, I already knew I was going to get enough grief from Polly—but in the end, I couldn’t help myself, either.

“It’s not funny,” Polly fumed. Which was so untrue, with her bent over naked with her hands on her knees, that we all got started again.

“The Sherlock Holmes part of me has already deduced that this was a flycycle accident,” Elizabeth said when we had control of ourselves again. “Don’t bother asking; I never reveal my methods. Someday, I’ll have you tell me how you two somehow always manage to avoid the manicured golf courses of life and land in the pigsties instead. Right now, it’s too much information.”

“The pigsty was probably a lot softer,” I pointed out, spreading some strawberry jam on a piece of toast and taking a big bite.

“Yes, but how many pigs died of heart failure? Hang on, this is going to hurt.”

Polly howled as Aunt Elizabeth squirted a jet of disinfectant into the wound. She kept it going for a while, until nothing that looked like manure was coming out.

“All done here,” she said, slapping Polly’s ass. She sighed.

“All right,” she went on. “Here, swallow these for now, and while you’re cleaning up I’ll send out for a nano. Dorothy, can you find a few dresses for them in my bedroom? Will your shoes fit them?”

“If their feet were any bigger, they could walk on water.”

“Oh, we can already do that,” I said.

“We’re still working on the raising-the-dead bit,” Polly said. She held up her good hand, and I gave her the high five. Dorothy sighed and turned away. She knows better than to mess with us when we gang up.

“But there’s no need to go to the trouble, Aunt Elizabeth,” I said, stepping right into it. “We can just walk home. Myself, I could do with a snooze.”

She gave me that under-the-eyebrow look again.

“Apparently your tiny brains can only hold on to one thought at a time. You seem to have forgotten what day it is.”

There was a short pause, and Polly slapped the side of her head.

Cassie! This morning is—”

Ohmigawd! Papa’s coming out of the bubble! What time is it?”

We only had ten minutes, it turned out.

We both crammed in the shower and scrubbed as hard as we could, jumped out, and put on the clothes Dorothy had found for us. The dresses would be the height of fashion if calico flour sacks ever came back in style. Aunt Elizabeth knows about as much about clothes as I know about surgery.

Dorothy had also found some flip-flops that would do. I slipped into my pair. Was that pig manure under my toenails? Too late to worry.

Back downstairs, the custom nano-dose had arrived by pneumatic mail. Polly swallowed the little metal pill that would release about a million ultratiny machines that would go to her busted arm and start pasting the bone back together.

We both had to take an antibiotic.

“What time is it?” In all the excitement, I had never turned my net connection back on. Can’t have it on during a game, too many opportunities to cheat if you’re plugged in. I blinked the clock on and groaned. There was no way we’d make it on time.

“Mom’s going to kill us,” I said. “How about a suicide pact instead? You want to go first?”

“I’d rather watch you and make sure you do it right.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dorothy said. “As soon as I saw you two standing at the door, I knew it was trouble. Come on, let’s go.”

She herded us all outside, and sitting at the curb was an ambulance.

Aunt Elizabeth was not one for breaking rules, but Dorothy had no such qualms. She’s a doctor, too, a psychiatrist.

Emergency services are just about the only powered flying vehicles in the ship. After all, nothing is more than a little over six miles from anything else, and the trains run every five minutes, twenty-four/seven. Why fly?

The only good excuse is when time is critical. Our uncle Travis, the Supreme Exalted Admiral of Rolling Thunder, has a personal flyer, and our elected officials can use one from time to time, but mostly they don’t, as it doesn’t sit well with the voters. This would be my first trip in a powered flying machine, if you don’t count the powered flycycles I’ve used a few times when officiating at a skypool game.

I found I didn’t like it much.

It was a boxy contraption, roomy enough for all of us inside though the walls were packed with medical gear.

Outside, it had no wings, just four humming fans in nacelles that twisted and turned for vertical takeoff and landing, then were in constant movement to adjust to the ship’s quirky atmosphere. There was a big windshield up front, and Polly and I sat facing it.

You wouldn’t think that a girl who loved nothing better than flying a mile over the ground would suffer from a fear of heights, and I don’t think that was exactly what it was, but the ground was going by underneath us too damn fast. I had never traveled that fast in the air, and probably not on the ground, either, for that matter. We just never speed in Rolling Thunder . . . if you don’t count the fact that we’re moving at .77c relative to Old Sun.

The computer that flew the ambulance had one prime command, and that was to get from Point A to Point B in the fastest possible time. You couldn’t ask it to slow down.

Luckily, the trip was only about a minute and a half. Otherwise I might have had to look around for an airsickness bag, and Polly would have never let me forget it. She seemed to be doing just fine.

We landed at our home, the Broussard Mansion, on the edge of the small town of Bayouville. The ambulance set down on Seven Acre Pond, which we own but share with the town, and turned itself into a hovercraft, then gently bumped us up against our dock. It was so sweetly done, I doubt if it even disturbed the turtles. We all piled out and hurried down the dock, past Papa’s pirogue and our canoe and the rowboat suspended in the little boathouse. Waiting for us at the far end was our mother, Podkayne, with her arms crossed and an angry look on her face. But she looked concerned when she spotted the cast on Polly’s arm.

“Can’t you limp a little more?” I whispered.

“That hasn’t worked with her since we were six.”

“What have you done to yourself this time?” Mom asked.

“Whatever happened to ‘Are you all right, my darling daughter?’”

“Don’t you get smart with me, Pollyanna Broussard.”

“She fell off her flycycle,” Aunt Elizabeth said. “Don’t worry, it was a minor fracture. I’m more worried about the possibility of infection from—”

Before she could say pigshit—or feces, more likely—I jumped in.

“We’re not actually late, Mom. It’s still . . .” I glanced at my clock. “. . . a few seconds to sun-on.”

On cue, the tube down the center of the ship began to glow. It takes about a minute for it to reach high noon, but already it was bright enough to turn off the pole lights strung on the dock.

“And what’s the deal with the ambulance?” Mom wanted to know.

“Don’t fret about it, Poddy,” our aunt said. “We were delayed a little while I treated her. And we did make it on time.”

With a rising hum, the ambulance lifted off and threw itself into the sky. Mom didn’t look happy, but she turned and went back into the house. No hugs today, at least not until Papa came out of his bubble.

When I say “Broussard Mansion,” I’m being ironic. That’s what we call it, that’s the address you’d write down if you were sending us a package, but it’s nothing like a mansion, not in size and especially not in looks. But as with many things in the ship, appearances can be deceiving.

From the outside it looks like a run-down bait shack. Or at least that’s what I’m told, since I’ve never seen a real one. The back end—which is the front end, to me, because I seldom use the front door—is on pilings over the water. The house has a steep tin roof with a lot of “rust spots,” is clad in pine siding weathered a lovely gray, and has a screen door on a spring. Most times when Polly and I hit it on the way outside to play, we’d hear Mom shout “Don’t let the door slam!” and one of us would do a quick reverse and make a diving catch.

The long dock widens to become our covered back porch. Papa says in Louisiana it would be screened in if the owner could afford it. We don’t need that because we don’t have skeeters in Rolling Thunder.

The porch has a big picnic table where we eat most of our meals, and is usually cluttered with fishing poles, nets, tackle, crawdad traps, and coolers. There is a live bait well full of minnows and a box for night crawlers, an ice machine, and a drink dispenser where you lift the lid and see the various kinds of soda in glass bottles hanging by their necks. It says RC Cola on the side. I usually choose the Grapette, Polly prefers Orange Crush, and Papa goes for Hires root beer. Mom likes Vernor’s ginger ale, a “Yankee drink,” according to Papa. We all like Dr Pepper.

They’re all zero calorie, by the way. I think some of those brands are no longer made back at Old Sun. Our beverage factory can whip up anything you like.

So, what I’m saying, from the outside the house looks like it’s about one big gator bite from falling into Seven Acre Pond. That’s all illusion, all for fun, done to keep everything in the ship from looking like everything else. The house is actually sturdy enough to weather hurricanes if we were dumb enough to have them.

The house is roomy enough. It’s all on one level, three bedrooms, one for Mama and Papa and one each for us twins. The parental units were not the sort to make twins dress identically, and they both thought that one’s own private room was important.

There’s a quite large family room with a raftered ceiling and room to seat several dozen on couches and around tables and window seats. There’s a big kitchen, Papa Jubal’s realm since Mama Podkayne doesn’t know which end of a wooden spoon to grab and which to stir with. She can somehow manage to make our smart toaster burn the bread, something the manufacturer claims is impossible. We learned to make our own breakfasts on the first day of school, when we were five.

That’s it for the house. Then there’s the boathouse, and a separate building with a guest bedroom, a study/lab/machine shop for Papa to do his work concerning picking apart the structure of the universe, and a music room for Mom. There’s a storage shed that looks as ramshackle as the other buildings, and isn’t. There’s a three-room Victorian playhouse that Polly and I can barely squeeze into anymore, and a two-story tree house in our huge Spanish moss–draped live oak, both of them built by Papa and the envy of all our friends when we were young.

And that’s about it for the grounds of Chez Broussard.

The main room of the Broussard Mansion was jam-packed when we entered. I figured that was a good thing. It would keep Mom’s mind off her kids. Wood smoke drifted in from the open windows, from dozens of chickens and racks of ribs out on the grill, being tended to by our grand-père Jim, who at the age of ninety-four clock time (eighty-four body time) still runs the best Martian restaurant in Rolling Thunder. He was responsible for the heaping bowls of jambalaya, dirty rice, andouille sausage, hush puppies, okra, and boiled crawdads on the tables all around. There were also a few platters of a real delicacy: jumbo peeled shrimp. It’s something that appears on our table only at Thanksgiving, and on very few other tables in the ship.

We farm all sorts of fish, but almost all of it is freshwater. We make some fairly good imitations of shrimp and crab, and we raise oysters, but we just don’t have the room to cultivate ocean fish or crustaceans. Neither Papa nor Uncle Travis wanted to face life without ever tasting shrimp or crab or redfish again, so they laid in what they called a hundred-year supply. It’s rationed out carefully, and it’s a good thing, because me and my sister could probably have run through the century’s worth of shrimp in a few months, and would weigh half a ton together.

There was a small bandstand in a corner with a four-piece band—squeeze box, two fiddles, and a girl who played everything from triangle to washboard—thumping out a zydeco beat.

It was a real fais do-do.

The only jarring note was at the far end of the room. It was a black hole in space, about six feet in diameter. When I say black hole, that’s exactly what I mean. It was as if somebody had used four-dimensional scissors to cut a circle in our reality, and filled it in with . . . nothing. No reflection, no sense of depth, nothing. I knew that if I touched it, my hand would feel it, but even if I put my nose right up to it, I would see nothing but total blackness. It reflected not a single photon of light.

I once asked Papa where all those photons went. He said they curved round and round ’bout a trillion time, cher, and then they done took off for some other universe somewheres. It’s a universe he spends a lot of his time in, when he’s thinking, and I know I’ll never be able to follow him in a thousand years. And that’s fine with me.

It was a black bubble, and Papa was inside it, not a nanosecond older than when he went in.

Those things give me the creeps. I know they’re perfectly safe; Papa has been in and out of them more times than I am years old, but Polly and I never have. I don’t know how sis feels about them, but I have always wished that at these parties they’d hide the damn thing behind a curtain until it’s time to uncork Papa Jubal and laissez les bons temps rouler. (“Let the good times roll,” if you’re Cajun French–challenged.)

I tried to keep my back to it as I did my best to play cohostess, greeting an endless stream of friends and relatives.

You’d think all the Broussard-Garcia-Strickland-Redmond clan was there, including third cousins, grandnephews, and assorted trailer trash, but it wasn’t even close. Great-grand-père Manny and Great-grand-mère Kelly were absent, both of them in a black bubble for five years now. Other family members, including some who had free passes to stay out all the time by virtue of being closely enough related to Captain Travis, had elected to hibernate, too.

The fact was that Earth-born and Mars-born people often found life inside Rolling Thunder to be, well, dull.

We’re definitely small-town in here. Our pleasures are bucolic, pastoral, not well suited to city folk who like to party on Saturday night. Oh, we party well enough, and there are dances and theater and music—mostly amateur—but some of it must look about as exciting as a barn dance or a quilting bee to the older folks.

Well, I have to say I’m a bit in sympathy with them. All us Thunder-born are quite aware of what life on Earth looked like—before the disaster—and what Mars still looks like. And the bright lights and fashions and huge concerts and stuff look like a lot of fun. But what’s the point of mooning over what you just can’t have? I get along okay with what we’ve got.

It wasn’t long until Mama Podkayne called us all to order.

We long ago decided not to make a big ceremony about turning off the bubble. Papa’s emergence was always the occasion for a party, but being the center of attention makes him uncomfortable. So we just all gather and somebody throws the switch; we pick Papa up from where he has fallen—you never know how the person inside is going to be oriented, which is why we have a soft pad under the bubble—and give him a short round of applause. Then somebody hands him a beer, and we carry on as normal.

Mom got everyone reasonably quiet, then gestured to me. It’s always me or Polly who presses the button. I thought it had been me last time, but what the hell. I knew this was no time to question Mom’s decision.

The percussion girl did a roll on a snare drum, and I pressed the button.

The bubble vanished without even a pop, and my father tumbled out and landed on his side. He was mumbling a Hail Mary, which is how he always goes into the bubbles. He was wearing a look of anxiety, which is his normal expression when he goes in, and therefore when he comes out.

But then he looked around and sat up with a big smile on his face . . .

. . . which lasted about three seconds. Then he looked horrified.

“Stop the ship!” he shouted.

Which, seeing as how we were traveling at 77 percent of the speed of light, I guess you could call a party-killer.



“Mom, what’s wrong with Papa?” I asked.

“Just stay calm, Polly,” she said. She was tugging Papa, looking a little dazed, toward their bedroom. Mom is six-foot-four, and Papa is just about exactly a foot shorter than that, though he’s wide enough to almost fill the hallway. Not fat wide, but muscular. The expression is “built like a fireplug.”

“You and Cass get back there and take care of our guests,” she added. “I’ll see to your father. Come on, don’t stand there gawking. Get a move on, cher.”

She pulled Papa through the bedroom door and closed it behind them. I looked over at my sister, standing there holding a leg of fried chicken.

“What’s going on, Cassie? Did he say stop the ship?”

“That’s what I heard.”

“But how? What do we do?”

She shrugged and took a bite of the chicken.

“I guess we turn the ship around and start slowing down. You want to take care of that while I see to our guests?”

Sometimes she drives me crazy. Her response to most emergencies is “Whatever.” Unless it requires immediate action, she’ll wait to see what happens. She’s just not a worrier. For some reason, it seems to work out that I do the worrying for both of us.

She looked at me, sighed, and took me by the shoulders. She turned me around and shoved me back in the direction of the family room.

“You heard Mom. Papa would be mortified to think there were guests in our house who weren’t being seen to. Now, you go put on a good show, and I’ll change out of this potato sack.”

So I stumbled forward, and I hope I managed to paste a smile on my face before I got back to the living room.

There was a muted murmur of conversation that paused for a moment when I entered, but quickly resumed. I hurried toward the band and made a rolling gesture with my hand. They got the message and started into another number.

I surveyed the crowd. Many of these people I only saw once or twice a year, when Papa came out of the bubble. They were mostly family, by blood or marriage, with a few good outsider friends.

There was Great-grandpa and Great-grandma Redmond, Jim and Audrey, ages ninety-four and ninety-three by the calendar, and almost the same by their body clocks. After a couple of years in a black bubble, they had elected to live in real time, even if it meant dying before we got where we were going. Some people feel that way. They feel that time is passing them by even though not much happens in the ship, most years.

Bottom line, my great-grandparents Redmond simply didn’t like the time jumps. They were content to do what they had always done on Mars, which is to run the best restaurant in town.

I chatted with them for a while, looked around for my other great-grandparents, Manny and Kelly, then remembered they were currently in time stasis. They tended to pop in and out at irregular intervals, taking to black-bubbling like born skippers. That’s what we call people who elect to skip over real time like stones on water. Skippers.

The result was that, although Great-grandfather Manny and Great-grandmother Kelly were almost the same age as my Redmond great-grandparents, by the calendar, they were only eighty by their body clocks, having spent a total of about seventeen years in black bubbles since the ship set out for the stars.

The next people I saw were two of my favorites, my uncle Mike and aunt Marlee. If you think my tall mom and short papa are a mismatched set, you should see Mike and Marlee.

Uncle Mike was found by a roadside somewhere in Africa as an infant, during one of the many conflicts on that continent. Possibly his parents had been killed; there was a lot of that going around. He was adopted by Granddaddy Ramon Strickland-Garcia and Grandma Evangeline Redmond when he was two, taken to Mars, and raised by them and his older sister, our mother, Podkayne, who was eight years older than him at the time. He’s very dark-skinned, and four feet three inches tall. He’s an achondroplastic dwarf. He doesn’t like the euphemism “little person,” reasoning that a child is a little person, but they grow up. “I won’t grow up,” he says, and he’s okay with it. Mom says he was the best baby doll a little girl ever had. They’re very close.

He’s married to Marlee, who is only a little shorter than me, and even paler.

And maybe I shouldn’t add, but will, that our family is easy about nudity. We enjoy nothing more than a skinny-dip in the pond, and I can tell you that the short arms and short legs are the only thing short about him, if you get my drift. Some of my girlfriends have been bug-eyed, and very interested.

I hugged Marlee and Mike, talked with them for a while, then looked around to see if they had brought their son, Patrick.

They had. He was standing by the band with a few others, clapping his hands and doing a little dance step.

My heart did a somersault, as usual.

If Cassie and I were ever to kill each other, it would probably be over Patrick. When we were younger we used to share our toys. We share all our clothes, we share flycycles, we share homework—she does my math, I do her literature—but we’ve never shared boyfriends. Oh, once I pretended to be her and broke up with her boyfriend. It would have been hard for her, and it wasn’t for me, since I didn’t like the creep anyway. And once she pretended to be me, chatted up a guy I was interested in, setting the hook firmly, then handing him off to me to reel in because she’s better at flirting than I am. Other than that, if we ever go on a double date, it’s always clear who is with whom. We’ve never traded.

Patrick was the first time we were both smitten with the same boy at the same time. But the cold hard fact was that he seemed able to resist our previously irresistible charms. We didn’t know how to account for it.

“Gay,” Cassie said one evening after she had given it her best shot, practically rolling over on her back with her paws in the air and her tongue hanging out. But we both knew it was sour grapes. Great-grandpa Jim once told me that he remembered a time when a lot of people hid their homosexuality, and that before his time, almost everybody was “in the closet,” as he put it. I don’t know what closet that was, but it doesn’t sound like fun. And in school we learned that before that, it was actually illegal most places.

The things you learn in history class, huh?

But who would hide it now? Who cares? So I have to admit that at first Cassie’s snide remark gave me a little hope—a guy being unavailable was a lot easier to handle than the idea that he just wasn’t interested in you. And it was true that he didn’t seem to date, girls or boys. He was a bit of a loner, though not antisocial.

What does he look like? Think Michelangelo’s David, only light brown instead of marble white. His skin was a lovely bronze—half Aunt Marlee and half Uncle Mike, I guess—and his golden hair fell in finger curls down almost to his shoulders. His eyes were amber, almost yellow-gold in the right light.

My knees wobbled just to feel the breeze from him as he walked by.

Hope springs eternal. I made my way toward the bandstand to take another stab at chatting him up.

He was engrossed in the music and didn’t seem to notice me. So I cleared my throat and put my hand on his arm.

“Hello, Patrick.”

He looked around and gave me a neutral smile and nod.

“Hi. Which one are you?”

Before I could answer, something happened. I can’t say a hush fell over the room, but there was a change in the atmosphere, some new vibe it was hard to put my finger on. I saw heads turning, maybe that was it. My own head turned, and I saw Cassie enter the room.

I love my sister, I really do. Except when I want to kill her.

She had been out of my sight for maybe ten minutes, and in that time had managed to transform herself. Her hair was clean and done up in a flip. She wore a black off-the-left-shoulder toga that would have looked right at home in the Roman streets, if they wore Paris designer clothes in the streets of Rome, made of a shiny silk that flowed around her like water. Black sandals on her feet. One strand of Mom’s pearls around her neck, two big pearls hanging from her earlobes, and a pearl-and-gold bracelet.

There were three things that really steamed me about it. One, that was the outfit I had intended to wear myself, as soon as she was finished dressing. Two, we didn’t have another dress like that, so I couldn’t match her and join her—both twins being dressed like that having four times the impact of just one, as we had discovered a long time ago. And three, I couldn’t even cry foul because we do share all our clothes, and our rule has always been first-come, first dressed to kill.

So there I was, outfitted like a ragamuffin from a Charles Dickens novel, hair looking like a haystack, probably still smelling of pig poop. I figured I might as well kill myself. There was nothing left to live for.

I looked back to Patrick, and he was smiling. A nice, big smile, much warmer than anything I’d ever gotten from him.

I decided to table the suicide motion for the time being and turned to the next item on the agenda, which would be murder. Sororicide, to be specific. Not a word you see every day.

Cassie made her way across the room, stalling conversations left and right, somehow managing to look spontaneous, at ease, unaware of the stir she was causing, with the bearing of a princess and just the right amount of concern—one tiny wrinkle in her brow—over Papa’s worrisome announcement. Whereas I knew that every step and gesture was as carefully calculated as the kata of an aikido master.


Excerpted from "Dark Lightning"
by .
Copyright © 2015 John Varley.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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