Read Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 Online

Authors: Penny Publications

Tags: #Asimov's #453 & #454

Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 (5 page)

She pulled the van up beside us. Of course, she wore full gear: helmet, air mask, coversuit, gloves. Her voice blared into my earplants. "Maxine Bianca Belucci! Why aren't you on the quarantine bus?"

I let the handful of petals sift through my fingers.

"Get in the van. Both of you."

Clare stuck her tongue out at me, and I rolled my eyes. We both knew I was grounded.

When I opened the door, Mom shouted at us to clean off, which was impossible because the petals fell so fast. Clare and I tried to brush them away, and then we slid into the backseat. Mom kept the driver's compartment sealed. She plugged her com-line into the dashboard. Her voice sounded tinny on the overheads.

"Where's your gear?"

"In my locker. Only one bus was running today, so we didn't feel like waiting. How was I supposed to know all these petals would appear? They didn't start until after we left school."

I expected Mom to yell, but petals gunked up the windshield. She clutched the wheel and concentrated on driving. I picked petals off my coat and rolled them between my fingers. They smelled sweet at first, then like burnt plastic when I crushed them.

Mom dropped Clare off at her house and drove me back to school. She parked in a guest space and then made me march in front of her, past the five quarantine buses waiting beside the airlocks. Hordes of kids crowded the vestibule, a few of them in coversuits. But most of them just wore normal clothes.

Keeping her mask and helmet on in the vestibule, Mom ordered me to grab my gear and be quick about it. I wished I could call Dad to pick me up, but he'd gone to Brazil on business, and of course Becca went too, like they were still honeymooning.

I tried to stall by taking the long way to my locker, but teachers were clearing everyone out, so they made me get my stuff and go.

Only one busload of kids had left by the time I got back. So there, in the vestibule, in front of half the school, Mom made me put on the suit. She even held it for me to step into, like I was a three-year-old. I looked over her shoulder—she's shorter than me—and saw Jill Heisman and Jasmine Duncan smooching their lips and blowing baby kisses at me. Other kids snickered and shoved close to watch. By the time I put on the helmet, I was ready to cry. I stared straight ahead and tried not to blink. When I walked toward the airlock doors, everyone backed away. Some of the girls held their noses and whispered, "bubble girl." If Mom heard them too, she didn't show it. She just strode into the airlock ahead of me and didn't look back.

The drive home took forever. We passed so many accidents on Broad Street that Mom turned off it and crept through the subdivisions. Every couple of blocks she had to get out and scrape off the windshield, because the petals gunked up the wipers. I cried so hard my faceplate fogged, so I took off the helmet. Petals littered the seat. I curled up on it anyway, and a bunch of them stuck to my cheek. I streamed some music into my earplants and stared at the baggy folds of my suit. Mom had gotten it a size too big—so I'd have growing room, she said. I took some colored pens out of my pack, and by the time we got home, I'd drawn three butterflies, purple and hot pink, on the right sleeve.

I made sure she noticed them when we went through the front door into the staging vestibule. She pointed her gloved hand at the bioshower and scowled through her faceplate: we would talk—meaning she would yell—later, after we went through decon. Scowling right back at her, I shook out my hair, leaving a pile of petals for her to deal with. I knew she'd dial the ultravac setting on top of the regular chem decon, so I thought: fine, let
her
take care of the mess.

I stuffed my gear and pack into the detox chute, threw my clothes—including my favorite tank top—into the incinerator, and stood naked in front of the porthole, mentally daring her to watch as the shower jets stung me. I gripped the handholds and shrieked when the vacs came on. They tore the hair right off my body, and the facial treatment didn't feel much gentler: the depil foam made me a baldy with no eyebrows.

The next round's chem sprays made my eyes burn, and the drying jets hurt almost as bad as the shower—but by then my skin was red and raw. When the green light flashed, I shimmied into the warm disposable tunic provided by the machine, went through the airlocks into the house, and stomped barefoot upstairs to my room.

I felt too tired to voicecom Clare—and too embarrassed to say that here I was again, a browless egghead. So I threw myself on the bed and surfed channels in my earplants. After about twenty minutes, the connection reset and Mom's voice blared into my skull: "Maxine. Get down here. This instant!"

I rolled out of bed, but first went to the mirror and drew in two jagged eyebrows, like cartoon lightning bolts, with my lumino-kohl pen. I didn't look menacing, but I knew she'd hate it.

I dragged myself downstairs and slunk into the kitchen, but she ushered me to the dining room, where she made me sit at the opposite end of the white acrylic table. I fidgeted, and the tunic's plastic crackled.

She sat still, her hands folded on the tabletop. In seventh grade, I'd grown three inches taller than her, but she still made me feel small. She always held her shoulders squared and her head high. The neckline of her tunic exposed her collarbones, and she breathed evenly, practicing that relaxation technique she'd once tried to teach me. Whenever she did that, I knew I'd gotten to her.

She'd chosen not to wear one of her stupid househats or sani-wigs, and her round-rimmed glasses made her look like a plucked owl. So there we were, two baldies facing off.

"Maxie—"

"I'm Xam, Mom. Call me Xam."

"Do you know why we're here, Maxie?"

"I do not like green eggs and ham."

"We're here at this table to have a summit. Do you know what that means?"

"I do not like them, Xam-I-am!"

"Stop it, Maxie. Just stop it." She waited until the crackles from my tunic quieted. I folded my hands on the tabletop, mirroring her, baldy to baldy.

"Listen," she went on, "I'm not happy either about having to go through the ultravac—"

"What's the difference if
you're
bald? I mean, it's not like you care about going out on dates or anything."

"Being bald isn't as bad as you think, Maxie. When I was your age, a lot of us, even girls, sometimes shaved our heads just to look cool. That was the fashion."

"Yeah, like those gross tattoos you had all over your arms? That you had to get a skin replacement for? And all those piercings you had to have refilled, for the sake of being
sanitary—
and not just on your face?"

She was already red from the ultravac, but I watched with satisfaction as a deeper flush rose from her neck to her cheeks and then up along the crown of her head. She took several even breaths and continued. "We're here to talk about
you,
Maxie."

"So you can ground me. Go ahead."

"Yes, and you need to understand why.

Look out the window. When I was a girl, white on the ground in winter was snow. These petals are unnatural. You can't risk exposing yourself to them—or exposing me by tracking them into the van or the airlocks."

"Dad wouldn't care. I don't have to wear my gear outside when I'm at his place, except when there's a bioalert. And Becca doesn't even own a coversuit."

"The point is," she said, "we don't know where these petals—if they are petals—come from, what risks they carry." She laid her palms flat on the table and leaned forward. "We've got to protect ourselves from exposure, keep ourselves safe through all these changes."

"Yeah, like you really believe in the Gardeners? Most people think everything's caused by global warming. And Clare's dad says it's our government doing the terraforming. Their family doesn't even have a bioshower, or airlocks—their house is
normal.
Clare's parents won't screech at her for walking home—they think it's healthy for us to be outside."

"I am not screeching," she said, lifting her chin. "And I don't care what other people think. If Clare wants to prance through alien petals, she damn well can. But not you."

"I don't want to spend my life indoors or crammed into a coversuit. I want to be natural. Like Becca."

"There's no such thing as 'natural' anymore, Maxie." Her voice broke. "And until you accept that and wear your gear whenever and wherever you go outside, then you'll have to stay here. With no voicecom or surfing privileges, except to upload your homework and communicate with your teachers."

"But that's not fair—"

"Honey," she stood and walked to my end of the table. "All this is to keep you safe." She stretched out her arms to indicate everything: the sealed windows, the air filtration system, our bodies scrubbed raw, our baldness.

She tried to hug me, but I shook her off. "Then I won't
be
safe. I want hair and friends and,"—I tried to think of what would shock her the most—"to run through the park naked!" I tore off the tunic and dashed upstairs.

Back in my room, I turned out all the lights except the glowscreen on my dresser and slipped into bed. I flicked through the pics until I found my fave: Dad and Becca holding hands—bare hands—at the gazebo in the park, just across the street from their house. Dad's air mask and helmet dangled from his belt. Becca wore an eyelet blouse and shorts, and her red hair hung below her waist.

The last time I went through the ultravac was two years ago. Afterward, Mom urged me to wear my hair short, but I swore I would grow it long, like Becca's. This month, finally, I could pull it into a ponytail. Now it was gone.

I snuggled into the pillows and stared at the glowscreen. That's when I made up my mind. So what if Dad and Becca were in Brazil? I could sneak across the park and hide out at their place—they probably hadn't changed the keycodes. When they came home, I'd call Mom's treatment of me cruel and unusual and beg them to keep me. They'd understand.

When I woke the next day, my pillow was smeared with lumino-kohl streaks. I felt stiff and my skin throbbed from the vac. Plus, the light was weird. The house's photosensitive windows changed the light a lot, but this felt different. I snicked the blinds open and peered out. The petals had congealed into a muck, yellowish white with an oily sheen.

I washed my face, threw on my robe, and went down to the kitchen. I expected that Mom would rush off to work, as usual, and then I could throw stuff into my backpack and head for Dad and Becca's house. But there she was, getting ready to make waffles—my favorite—with her mom's old waffle iron.

"Good morning, dear." She wore a black hat, the tri-cornered one that made her look like Ichabod Crane from the toonvids I watched as a kid, except Mom was short and had perfect posture.

She smiled and dipped a ladle into the batter. "Guess what? I'm grounded, too."

"Yeah, right."

"No, really, Maxie. Almost everyone is. The government called a level-ten bioalert and quarantined all non-essential personnel."

"Non-essential?"

"Everyone except police, medics, and emergency clean-up crews. Look."

She set the ladle down and turned up the volume on the wall screen. The newsvid flashed a stream of data and warnings, while the reporters discussed a story about a strip mall buried in petal drifts.

The maps showed that the petals had fallen across most of the northern Midwest, skipped the Dust Bowls south of us, and inundated the New Sierra coast. People were advised to stay indoors until the ecotechs called the all-clear.

"We're lucky to be safe at home," Mom said, pouring a slow stream of batter into the waffle iron, square by square. "I've stockpiled plenty of supplies."

Of course she would. She was always preparing for another disaster. And, yeah, she worked as an airlock ventilation tech, so any rumor of disaster on the newsvids was bound to flip her I-told-you-so switch. So I was sick of it. I thought about refusing to eat the waffles just to spite her, but I couldn't resist—they smelled so good.

I slathered four of them with strawberry syrup and pretended not to listen when she turned up the volume on the newsvid debates: Neo-Naturists versus Eco-Alarmists.

Both sides sounded crackpot. I mean, stufflike the petals had been happening ever since I could remember. There were the Des Moines and Chicago earthquakes, the wheat field wildfires, and those red algae blooms that clogged the Great Lakes. And the thirty-year cicadas appeared every fall when I was in grade school. They crawled all over everything, millions of them—a cicada carpet, Mom said—and their high-pitched s-s-s-s-s screeched so loud I could hear it indoors, even while streaming music full blast in my earplants. Each time the cicadas came, the newsvids called them a plague and made doomy predictions. But nothing changed, except that Mom started making me wear all my gear whenever I left the house, year round. That's when kids started calling me "bubble girl."

Anyway, I was tired of the theories, even if they gave me an excuse to needle Mom about believing in alien terraformers. I took a fifth waffle and poured enough syrup—blueberry this time—to fill each square. Mom sat across from me, a single waffle on her plate. She always ate everything in slow bites, while I wolfed food down. But that morning I stayed at the table to challenge her.

She claimed not to believe in the Gardeners, but then said that any rational person would have to side with the Eco-Alarmists about the unnaturalness of nature—which I then said was a self-canceling contradiction: Q.E.D. Mom sighed and said she wished she'd never taught me that term because I tried to pull it on her constantly.

She told me I lacked objectivity, but she refused to admit that our fights were completely insane. I mean, there we were, the Baldy Beluccis, ragging on about aliens, while we ourselves looked like a pair of B-movie ETs from the twentieth century.

Between the newsvids harping on about Dire Consequences and me pestering her, Mom felt one of her headaches coming on. She cleaned up from breakfast, taking extra time to pick dried flecks of batter off the waffle iron. I slumped on the couch playing solitaire—with
cards
because she'd cut off access to my game and com streams. Then she snagged one of her eye pillows from the freezer and tromped upstairs.

Other books

Iron Wolf by Dale Brown
STRONGER by Lexie Ray
Company Vacation by Cleo Peitsche
The Baron and the Bluestocking by G. G. Vandagriff
My Warrior Fae by Kathi S. Barton
All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
Moonstruck by Susan Grant
Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe


readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2022