Sputnik's Children: A Novel360
Sputnik's Children: A Novel360
Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.
Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved as well as her own past in the process.
Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best. A time-bending novel that delves into the origin story of the Girl with No Past, Sputnik’s Children explores what it was like to come of age in the Atomic Age.
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By Terri Favro
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2017 Terri Favro
All rights reserved.
A Tale of Two Timelines
Sputnik Chick was a child of Atomic Mean Time, different from the past you think you know. (FYI, you're living in Earth Standard Time, which you snobbishly regard as "Real Time.")
Up until the middle of the twentieth century, time was simply time: a single arrow flying through upheavals, bloodbaths, renaissances, revolutions and all the boring bits in between.
Then, in 1945, that self-described destroyer of worlds, Robert Oppenheimer, split the atom. Pow, crash, bam! Sub-atomic cracks and fissures appeared, shattering time's arrow into a quiver of alternate realities. Atomic Mean Time was calved during the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico — the first parallel world, but far from the last. Every detonation since then has created a new timeline, peeling away from the one before it like a stock car burning rubber at the start line.
In this vast spectrum of histories, Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time existed side by side — weakly coupled worlds, the pipe-smoking quantum physicists like to call them — separated by the thinnest imaginable membrane of dark matter.
(How do I know this? Patience, true believer. All will be revealed in due course.)
Despite quirky differences from Earth Standard Time — rogue viruses you've never caught, odd hem lengths, the sour-apple taste of Neutron Coke — if you were dropped into Atomic Mean Time, you would not feel totally out of place. You might even find it pleasantly nostalgic. All of the cultural touchstones of the pristine, pre-atomic age carried on undisturbed into Atomic Mean Time — Superman, Buster Keaton, Blondie & Dagwood, jazz, Casablanca, Mickey Mouse, the novels of Virginia Woolf, The Wizard of Oz and the Great American Songbook. Even after the split, many of the same cultural milestones popped up in both timelines: The Silver Surfer comics. Fins on cars. Disco. Beetle Bailey. Those smiley-face buttons that told you to Have a nice day! Sean Connery as James Bond, until he was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Scottish Parliament.
Everyone on Earth — correction, almost everyone — existed in both worlds. Some lived very different lives, while others unconsciously thrummed to the same sympathetic harmonies as their alt-time doppelgängers. In moments of distress or ecstasy, a few sensitive souls, like my friend Bum Bum, could sense the actions of their alt-time selves, naively chalking up the eerie sensation to déjà vu. A select few, however, were keenly aware of their existence in parallel worlds, David Bowie being an obvious example. But of course, Bowie was an Exceptional. (Not the kind of degraded Exceptional portrayed by Crusty and Gooey, known as Twisties, but a shape-shifting mutant gifted with the ability to explore a full spectrum of diverse possibilities. How else could he be both the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust?)
Suffice it to say that in Atomic Mean Time, we had many of the same hit TV shows, movies and comic books you knew and loved and most of the postwar world events that you slept through in history class, with one important exception: in Atomic Mean Time, the second great war of the twentieth century never ended, even after the surrenders had been signed. GIs segued from battlefields to factories. Their mission: the ceaseless manufacturing of nuclear weapons. As if the Cold War of Earth Standard Time was a flash-frozen fish stick that took thirty-odd years to thaw.
Atomic Mean Time saw no peace movement in its 1960s, except for a furtive, floundering one that wormed its way deep underground and stayed there. The few young radicals who attempted to organize a Ban the Bomb protest march in Washington, D.C., in 1965, were arrested as anarchists and swiftly exiled. Nothing would be permitted to get in the way of our world's highly profitable march toward self-destruction.
Fortunately, in the event that the superpowers blew up Earth, we were prepared to colonize the moon. By 1969, unmanned rockets were sending geodesic domes and lunar life-support systems to the Sea of Tranquility, ready for the first batch of refugees from Earth.
I liked the idea of moving to the moon, even if it did mean my home planet had to be nuked first. I longed to be shaken out of the monotony of a childhood where the biggest challenge was deciding which flavour of Pop-Tart to warm up in the toaster oven. Whether on a flying saucer or an intergalactic surfboard, I was determined to escape from Shipman's Corners. Population: 126,000. Economic activities: cross-border smuggling, the cultivation of local grapes into a sweet, bubbly wine known as plonk and the manufacturing of atomic bombs. Occasionally, rusty drums of radioactive leftovers heaved their way up out of vacant lots and construction sites where they had been dumped without much thought — until someone noticed things were a little off in those parts of town. Like kids being born with three ears and an extra set of teeth.
It was my father's job to make sure nobody decided to build a school or playground or subdivision on the hot spots before the drums could be quietly whisked away to the deep, distant waters of Hudson's Bay. Problem was, you couldn't stop kids from playing hide-and-seek on contaminated land. Dad had barbed wire fences put up, but as he pointed out, there was only so much you could do.
Every year at back-to-school time, he took Linda and me on his sweep of a decontaminated landfill known as the Z-Lands, just before the annual Labour Day company picnic. Dad's boss encouraged him to bring us along. Good public relations for the company's community cleanup program, he said. People were comforted knowing that Dad wasn't afraid to take his own kids to a former nuclear dumpsite.
The cleanup of the Z-Lands was one of Dad's big successes. A year earlier, he had been promoted to Senior Decontamination Supervisor, a really important job. The local newspaper took a picture of him with Linda and me, smiling over bouquets of mutated wildflowers. The story's headline read: "Z-Lands soon safe enough for underprivileged children to play in, ShipCo Decon Chief promises." Dad told us later that he'd promised no such thing, but the company framed the story and stuck it in the foyer outside Dad's office. His boss said that maybe now everyone would relax and stop writing letters to the big shots in Queen's Park, who really couldn't do anything about the dumpsites, anyway. We were answerable to a higher authority: the ShipCo Corporation, managing body of the North American federal jurisdiction officially known as the Industrial Nation of Canusa, a fertile peninsula that hung like a ragged tooth between two Great Lakes with the world's most potent waterfall leaking out of its tip. Canusa was a murky grey zone where territorial and commercial interests merged. Canadian laws were observed, as long as ShipCo didn't mind. When a new warfront opened up in Korea, quickly followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, New Guinea and New Zealand — a series of linked conflicts known as the Domino Wars — American draft dodgers were as welcome in Canusa as they were in Canada. ShipCo considered them useful. If they wouldn't fight, they could still build bombs.
* * *
In the summer of 1969 (A.M.T.), I was a couple of months shy of my thirteenth birthday. Linda was sixteen. We arrived in the Z-Lands at sunup, the daisies already turning their monstrous heads toward the sticky, honey-coloured sky. Dad's plaid clip-on tie dangled like a noose as he ran his Geiger counter over the hard-packed dirt. Linda hovered beside him in her skort and Keds, her volleyball-hardened arms crossed. Waiting for the verdict.
While Dad and Linda watched for the jump of the red needle, I wandered through Queen Anne's lace and black-eyed Susans the size of trees, to an iron ship's bollard squatting pointlessly beside the abandoned canal. I didn't need the bollard to warn me of the thirty-foot drop ahead. The stench of industrial chemicals floated up from the bottom of the canal, where wrecked cars sat half-submerged in a frothy sulfate soup the colour of day-old dishwater.
Despite a fence topped with barbed wire and a DANGER: NO TRESPASSING sign, a couple of new wrecks had been pushed over the edge since our last visit: a banana yellow school bus and a pickup with the truck bed ripped off.
Something else I hadn't seen down there before: a trespasser, crouched on top of the bus in the glare of the rising sun. At first I thought I was having a vision, like those kids at Lourdes. The figure slowly came into focus like a television picture tube warming up. An old man, with white hair to his shoulders. He was stooped over, his hands on his knees. He straightened himself up slowly and, it seemed to me, painfully. He couldn't catch his breath. As if he had been running a long, long way.
In the distance, Dad's Geiger counter started to click, no doubt picking up background radiation.
The Trespasser looked up at me, chest heaving. He was tall and as skinny as a twig, his face pink and peeling with something like a bad sunburn. He was dressed in a silver shirt and tight trousers that belled at the hems like a flamenco dancer's.
"Debbie?" As if he knew me.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," I told him.
"I'm not a stranger. We know one another very well."
Weirdly, I believed him, even though I'd never met anyone who wasn't from Shipman's Corners. Weirder still, I noticed that parts of his body were starting to shimmer and run like watercolours. Pink globs of flesh fell from the end of one arm into the frothy scum at the bottom of the canal.
"You're melting," I told him.
He looked down at himself, his mouth falling open at the sight of his liquefaction. Lifting his remaining hand, he pointed at me.
"You're it, Debbie. Never forget that."
I didn't know what to say so I stuck out my tongue. He responded by holding up two dripping fingers in the shape of a V — a lopsided one, because his middle finger ended at the knuckle.
Sunlight bounced off the roof of the banana bus, blinding me for a moment. When I could see again, the Trespasser had vanished. Mingled with the stench of the chemical soup, I caught a whiff of something pleasantly spicy. As if, in liquefying, the Trespasser had turned into cinnamon.
Before I could decide whether he was what Dad called "a Fig Newton of my imagination," the Geiger counter went nuts, chattering away like a set of wind-up teeth. Dad's voice came loud and sharp and even a little scared sounding, telling us it was time to get a move on.
"But Daddy, we just got ..." I heard Linda say.
Dad was already striding toward the gate, windmilling his arms to hurry us up. Linda moved toward me through the field of flowers. No time to tell her about the Trespasser. The two of us sprinted after Dad, Linda dragging me by the hand.
At the gate, a tendril of barbed wire, draped over the fence like a forgotten scarf, snagged my ponytail. The barbs clawed at my scalp as I struggled to free myself. My yelp of pain brought Dad rushing back.
"Hold still, Debbie, you'll only make it worse," he said, tossing my sister the car keys. "Linda, start the engine."
I could feel him breathing hard behind me, his fingers fumbling with my hair. He grunted a quiet swear as the barbs pricked his fingers. "You're hooked like a fish. I'm going to have to cut you free."
He gripped my scalp with one hand while he sawed at my hair with the jackknife he always carried in his trouser pocket. My ponytail, still in its elastic band, bobbed from the barbed wire like a foxtail. Warm air licked the back of my neck as Dad and I ran for the car.
In the driver's seat of the Country Squire, Linda was singing along with the radio. Dad shoved her over into the passenger seat as I jumped in back.
"But you said I could drive home!" she protested.
"Not this time." He threw the car into a fast reverse.
As we tore along the dirt track, kicking up a fog of probably radioactive dust, Linda said, "Mom's going to kill you, Dad. You made Debbie look like a boy!"
"It'll grow back." The station wagon hit a rut, bouncing me to the car floor. "There's no margin of safety for the levels I was getting. They've been going down steady as she goes, year after year. Now it's higher than it's been since '55."
"That doesn't make sense," said Linda.
"No, it sure as hell doesn't — pardon my French," said Dad.
I got up from the floor and draped my arms over the front seat, my chin on top of Linda's elbow, while Dad tore out of the Z-Lands. I'd never seen him drive so fast. In the rear-view, I imitated the V sign that the Trespasser had made.
"Don't do that," said Linda, slapping my hand. "It's rude."
I stared at her through my fingers. "What's it mean?"
"It's how anarchists say hello to one another."
I frowned. "Anarchists? Like spiders?"
"You're thinking of arachnids," said Linda. "No. Like Yammers."
A drop of blood rolled off the tip of my nose and lazily hit the beige upholstery. Linda pulled out a crumpled tissue and spit in it. She dabbed at the bloodstain, then pressed it to my forehead. The tissue came away all bloody.
We were well away from the gate, bouncing along the dirt road at high speed, when we hit a pothole. A big one. The car listed to one side, engine revving and back wheel spinning.
Dad made a swear again — twice in one day! — then got out, slamming the door so hard it made my teeth rattle. He stomped around to the back of the car and groaned. When he stuck his head in the window, his face looked as saggy and white as a dead trout.
"Blew the tire right down to the rim. You'll have to get home on your own. Debbie, tell Mom to draw you a decon bath right away. Linda, you scrub down over at Nonno's. Use those emergency kits in the basement I bought at Canadian Tire during the last missile crisis."
Linda groaned. "I hate that stinky old shower in Nonno's cellar. And I just set my hair, Daddy."
"Do as I say, for once, Linda. And make sure your clothes go in the incineration bags."
"But Daddy, how are we supposed to get home? It's five miles, at least. Debbie'll never keep up."
"Carry her piggyback if you have to. Now go!"
We got out of the car and started running, first on dirt, then on gravel. By the time we reached the second gate with itsPRIVATE PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING BY ORDER OF SHIPCO CORPORATION sign, we had slowed to a walk; Linda had a stitch in her side and I had a stone in my sneaker. Standing on one foot to shake it out, I looked back down the roadway. I could see the car but could barely make out Dad. I'd never seen him look so small before.
We started walking toward a hydro pole at the end of the gravel road, marking the beginning of Zurich Street — civilization, sort of. The pole reminded me of the lamppost at the entrance to Narnia. Maybe Mister Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be leaning against it, enjoying a cigarette and waiting for the floating craps game to start.
I rubbed the barbed-wire cuts on my head with my grubby fingers, trying to send germs into my skin to do battle. Linda slapped my hand away.
"Stop that. You'll get infected."
"I'm invulnerable, like Superman," I told her.
"Says the doctor, after he gave me the Universal Vaccine. 'This little lady's generation might just live forever, if the Ruskies don't drop the Bomb on us.' That's what he told Mom."
Linda snorted. "He was making a joke, Debbie. The Universal Vaccine is just a polio shot with some immunizations for other stuff. That does not mean you're invulnerable."
"You're just jealous 'cause you're too old for the U-shot."
"Change the subject," she said. "Better yet, don't talk at all. We should be saving our breath to find help for Dad."
For the first time, it dawned on me that Linda was worried about him. That we actually should be finding someone to rescue him. That he was in trouble and so were we. It hadn't occurred to me to be afraid for him, or Linda, or even myself. Nothing bad had ever happened to us before.
We had reached the cracked pavement of Zurich Street — or Z Street, as we liked to call it. End of the alphabet, end of the line. Wedged between the railway tracks and the canal, it was a neighbourhood of cottage-sized houses crammed haphazardly between grease-pit garages, butchers with skinned raccoon carcasses hanging in the windows and sad-looking groceterias with half-empty shelves. No trees, gardens or front yards. The houses squatted hard against the sidewalk, so that anyone passing by could look inside if the curtains weren't shut.
Dad told me once that the tiny homes had been thrown up on swampy ground as temporary shelters for troops of ShipCo workers during the '50s. After they moved on to bigger houses in the suburbs, poorer families moved in, insulating the walls with cardboard and sawdust and, if they had the cash, covering the wood frame exteriors with cheap aluminum siding.
Nothing was built to code on Z Street. If the city ever bothered to send in a fire inspector, most of the neighbourhood's houses would be condemned. Luckily for the Z Streeters, the city couldn't be bothered. There were even rumours that some of ShipCo's waste was buried deep under the basements of certain houses.
Excerpted from Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro. Copyright © 2017 Terri Favro. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsFALLSVIEW CASINO HOTEL: May 2011, E.S.T.
The Untold Origin Story of The Girl With No Past, Volume 1 Escape from the Z-Lands!
One: A Tale of Two Timelines
Two: Glow-in-the-Dark Pat Boone Lie Detector Test
QUEEN ELIZABETH HOTEL, MONTREAL: May 2011, E.S.T.
The Untold Origin Story of The Girl With No Past, Volume 2 Schrödinger Swings like a Pendulum Do
One: Superpowers, Secrets and a Side Order of Salami and Cheese
Two: There Be Dragons
Three: The Day of the Dead
Five: Torture Chamber of the Lizard King
HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS, SCARBOROUGH: June 2011, E.S.T.
The Untold Origin Story of The Girl With No Past, Volume 3 “We’re Looking for People Who Like to Draw”
Two: No Place Like Home
Three: Jesus Weirdo Superstar
Four: Collateral Damage
Five: Breakfast on Planet of the Mothers
Six: The Chronicles of Duff
Seven: Hotter Than Hell
Eight: Seduction by Comic Book
Nine: Tender Fruit
Ten: Shark Bite
Eleven: Truth and Justice
Thirteen: Break and Enter
LAKE SUPERIOR PROVINCIAL PARK: August 2011, E.S.T.
The Untold Origin Story of The Girl With No Past, Volume 4 A Nook in Time
One: Modern Bride
Two: Out-of-This-World Honeymoon
Three: Our Lady of the Algorithm
Four: Beautiful Nobodies
Five: A Nook in Time
CRAZY LADY ISLAND: October 2011, E.S.T.
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