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

Authors: Penny Publications

Tags: #Asimov's #453 & #454

Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 (6 page)

I waited twenty minutes, tiptoed to my room, and threw on some clothes. My backpack was still in the airlock's detox port, so I grabbed the pink elephant pack I used in grade school and stuffed it with underwear, my blue sweater, and a few tops, and tucked the glowscreen in the front pocket. Then I crept back downstairs, went to the airlock, and punched in the keycode.

No matter how many times I jabbed the "unlock" button, the door stayed shut, its suction tight. I tried the code again and swiped my thumbprint on the ID pad. An alarm pinged upstairs. Before I could make it back to the couch Mom appeared, wearing dark sunglasses. She paused on the landing.

"Hey, Mom," I mumbled, kicking the pink pack underneath the aquarium stand.

"You said you had a headache."

"I still do."

"Um, I just wanted to take a walk."

"Maxie. You're grounded. Not allowed to go outside." She crossed her arms over her chest. "If it makes you feel better, no one else is, either."

"It doesn't."

"Too bad. I've changed all the keycodes. You don't have a choice."

"Can I voicecom Clare? To see how she's doing?"

"No. You can read. Play cards. Wean yourself from that vidscreen."

"What about Dad and Becca? Can I voicecom them?"

"You know they're out of voicecom range in Brazil."

"But what if they get back soon? Or hear about the bioalert and want to check if I'm okay?"

She pulled the system control pod out of her back pocket and held it over the banister. "If any message comes through from your father, I'll tell you. And if he calls the old-fashioned way, using the phone function"—she waved the pod at me—"I'll come and get you."

"What if it's Becca?"

"Becca, too."

"What if I'm not available?"

"Maxie. You're grounded. Why wouldn't you be available?"

"But Mom—"

"I'm going to bed. Please, try to relax."

Mom tucked the pod into the breast pocket of her overalls and went upstairs. Of course, she wouldn't leave the phone function on if she planned to sleep. So I absolutely had to find a way out. Once I got to Dad and Becca's place, I could use their system to call Brazil and tell them I was safe. Then I'd stay and welcome them home, no matter how long they took to return.

The next day, Mom hunkered down in her dark bedroom like some kind of mole. That gave me the chance to case the house.

I started with the windows. Mom had had the glass replaced with triple pane photosensitive polycarbonate that the workmen finished off, inside and out, with microspore-proof sealant. I watched them do it, so I knew that breaking out would be tough. But I had to try. In the basement laundry room, I hauled myself onto the dryer and pushed as hard as I could against the window. Nothing budged. I spent the next hour throwing my weight against every other window in the house except Mom's—even the tiny one in the downstairs bathroom. No luck.

I tried to find other ways out. The house had an attic, but that was sealed off, except for the ventilation system's fans and filters, and Mom had the access keycodes on her pod. I searched the closets and found an old pipe in the upstairs bathroom, then returned to the basement to see if I could ram the pipe through the laundry room window seals and jimmy the panes off. The seals held. I smashed the pipe against the panes. Nothing happened to the window—not even a scratch. I tried again and the pipe bent, and I swore and slammed it against the laundry tub, and it bent some more. My hands ached from clutching that pipe so tight, and my finger joints swelled.

The next day, Mom felt better and spent time downstairs. The petals outside turned into an oily mess, and after another couple of days, the house began to stink. The odor was sharp, so strong in the mornings when I woke that my eyes watered.

I could smell it big time, but Mom claimed she didn't—even after the newsvids announced that the decaying petals released an astringent odor. People living without air filters compared it to chemical cleaners, and the Neo-Naturists said that the odors maybe came from the biofoams sprayed on the petals by the emergency crews. The smell followed me everywhere, but Mom called our system "state-of-the-art" and said the filters worked fine. She probably thought I was lying, just to annoy her, especially because the crews hadn't taken care of our street yet.

By the end of the week, the gossipvids showed disgusting photos of people from the New Sierra coast with black lines all over their bodies, which the newsvids dismissed as a hoax. The Morning Spectacular's celebrity scientists claimed that people had been abducted by giant spiders, because the lines crisscrossed the skin like webs. I was so sick of solitaire that I got hypercrazed one afternoon and began drawing lines all over my arms and legs with my lumino-kohl pen and then ambushed Mom on her way down the stairs. But she didn't jump, or even pretend to, like she did when I was a kid. When she saw those lumino-kohl webs, she just rolled her eyes and said she'd had enough of my "acting-out."

She never laid down a term for how long I was supposed to be grounded. It was beyond mean that she wouldn't let me contact Clare, or listen to my earplants, or use any interactive vids except those she deemed "educational."

When I asked if Dad had called from Brazil, she said no, but not to lose heart because the newsvids said the petal muck had screwed up com lines everywhere. But with Mom monitoring everything, how could I know if he called or not? Or when he and Becca came home?

So early in the second week, I tried again to escape. My best hope was the courtyard that stood in the center of the house. Once, it had been an outdoor garden, open to the sky. I'd played hide and seek there with Dad, when I was little enough to crouch behind the holly bushes. When he moved out, Mom ripped up all the garden plants to make room for her aquaponics system and installed a dome over the top to keep the house airtight. The dome had a hatch so that the plants could get fresh air. Maybe I could climb up the metal ladder attached to the courtyard wall, reach up and pull back the hatch doors, then swing myself onto the roof.

The problem was, now that Mom didn't have to go to work, she spent all her time in the courtyard. In her overalls, floppy straw hat, and sunglasses, she puttered around the gravel-lined tables of the growbeds, trimming the greens and adjusting the water flow from the plastic tanks below, where she nurtured fingerling perch before transferring them into the five-hundred-gallon tank that stood in the middle of the courtyard. I had boycotted the place ever since she'd turned it into her geeky food farm. But if I couldn't lure her out, then I needed a reason to hang out there. So I volunteered to help.

"I thought you hated the courtyard," she said when I approached her.

"Well, I can't go outside. I guess this place isn't so bad. At least there's sun."

"That's wonderful, Maxie." She reached up and touched my cheek with a hand that smelled like compost. "I'm glad that you're finally adjusting to quarantine life. You'll see"—she smiled—"gardening will make the time pass productively. It's very meditative."

I didn't see. But I played along. And, yeah, spending time in the filtered sunlight felt better than flopping on the couch. But it was no substitute for the park. And I hated the fish.

Mom was nice about that. She said I wouldn't have to deal with the perch. So I tucked tomato seedlings into the growbed gravel and restocked the germination pods with beans to sprout, while she did the icky stuff like clean out the tanks.

Things changed a few days later. We were in the courtyard when the phone pinged. Mom had just plunged her hands into the main tank to wipe fish slime off the walls, so she told me to hurry up and answer. I ran over, almost tripping on the water pump, and grabbed the pod from her back pocket.

"Dad! Where are you? Can I come over?" I squealed, but it was Mom's boss. I wanted to throw the pod into the tank, but Mom dried her hands on a tea towel and took the call.

She tried to sound cheery, but I could tell she was faking it. The boss had ordered her back to work—not outside, but online, to troubleshoot with customers about their ventilation systems.

Mom hung up her gardening hat and apron and went into the dining room to initialize the vidscreen. She sat with her back to me, but left the sliding door open. I waited until I heard her leading a customer step-by-step through a repair job, and then I scrambled up the ladder.

At the top, I clambered onto the ledge where the roof 's old gutter stuck out over the wall, just inside of where the dome attached. I squirmed over to the corner, where there was room to plant my feet on each side of the ledge. The smell from the fish tank below made me queasy. I tried not to breathe through my nose as I squatted on the corner and curved my shoulders into the dome for balance.

The hatch had two door panels designed to slide backward into the dome. I stood up slowly, arching my back against the dome, and jiggled the housing that held the hatch doors. It moved, and the doors slid back an inch.

The breeze flew in, and I wanted to cheer—no more fish smell! I squatted again, planted both hands on the gutter for balance, then leaped up, grabbed the top edge of the closest hatch door, and kicked off from the ledge. I dangled for a second, as if hanging from a chandelier. My arms felt like they would rip from their sockets, but I hung on. Then—whoosh!—the hatch doors slid open, my fingers slipped, and I fell, butt first, into the fish tank.

Mom screamed and ran into the courtyard. Grabbing me under the armpits, she managed to lift me out. I glimpsed the wreckage as she dragged me across the cement floor into the dining room: water sloshed everywhere, perch flipped back and forth on the ground, and an entire row of growbeds had gone down like dominoes, throwing seedlings and gravel into a soggy mess.

Mom felt along my body for broken bones and then she turned to survey the courtyard. Her eyes drifted to the open hatch.

"Contaminated!" she said and slammed the sliding doors.

Mom forced me to stay awake for the next couple hours, so she could check that I didn't have a concussion. She actually allowed me to stream music into my ear-plants, so that I wouldn't fall asleep! I lay on the couch and watched her smear sealant over the edges of the sliding doors. She didn't speak—just squared her shoulders and painted the sealant on, blocking off access to the courtyard from the living and dining rooms. When she gave me the okay to go up to my room and sleep, she moved into the kitchen to seal those doors, too.

When I woke the next morning, I ached everywhere and smelled like dead fish. Purple bruises splotched my arms and legs. In the shower, I traced tiny magenta veins curled like tendrils inside each bruise.

Mom and I stayed clear of each other for the next few days. I lay around in my room or on the living room couch. Mom didn't yell at me for ruining the garden—I mean, I was already grounded, so what more could she do? But mealtime felt like punishment anyway. Now that we no longer had fresh veggies, Mom cooked pre-sanitized goop or reconstituted powdered stuff. I lost my appetite—everything I put in my mouth made me puke—so I avoided eating with her and snuck the so-called meals into the compost chute.

I kept wondering if Dad and Becca were back. All I wanted was to walk through the park to their place. By that point I was willing to wear coversuit, air mask, helmet—everything, just to get out.

Mom said no, of course, and I called her a hypocrite: wasn't that why I was grounded? Because I hadn't worn the gear? And now I had finally caved and said I would. And did she admit that? Of course not.

Despite all her concern about the bioalert, Mom seemed happy because it was proof perfect of her superpowers as a know-it-all. Whenever a newsvid came on speculating about the petals, she called me downstairs to watch. Okay, by then, I got it: no one knew where the petals came from or what they might do. But did that mean they were evil? And was the whole Midwest really quarantined? I saw cars going by out the window sometimes, and the street sweepers, too.

Maybe the bioalert wasn't as bad as Mom claimed. She always took the side of the Eco-Alarmists, and mocked Dad and Becca for being Neo-Naturists, so I began to think she kept me from seeing the other side of the story.

Maybe Dad and Becca had come home, and Mom wasn't telling me. I owed it to them to continue trying to escape. My body ached, but I paced the house, looking for defects. When Mom asked what was going on, I told her I was exercising, and she congratulated me for getting my ass off the couch.

Although I snooped around maybe ten times a day, I couldn't find a way out. But I kept looking. One morning, in the shower, I noticed that the bruises on my arms had turned from purple to green. A few of the tendrilly veins curled beyond the bruises. I lathered them and wrinkled my nose at the soap smell.

Then it hit me. Last year, Mom taught me how to make soap—another survival skill, she said. She made a big deal about the dangers of lye and showed me how to mix it. The container still sat in the basement, with her soap-making supplies, on the laundry room shelf.

I played good girl for the rest of the day, even volunteering to help with dinner. Afterward, I went to my room, flicked off the light, and sat in the dark until I heard Mom come upstairs to go to sleep.

I waited another hour, then snuck downstairs, grabbed my gear and the emergency flashlight from the hook beside the airlock, and crept into the basement. Dressed in my gear to protect myself from the lye fumes and spatter, I poured water into a plastic container and sifted in the granules. Even through my gloves, I could feel the heat as I stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon. After about five minutes, I smeared lye over the sealant on the window edges and dribbled some extra along the bottom. Soon, the sealant began to bubble.

I waited a few more minutes, until I could feel the pane move under my hands. Kneeling on the washing machine, I pushed hard and the whole thing came loose—toward me instead of away! Yellow brown muck oozed down the wall and all over my suit—the window well must have been full of it. For the first time, I felt glad about wearing my gear!

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