Rocket’s Red: A Lady Astronaut Story

by Mary Robinette Kowal

HUMANITY’S SUCCESS ON MARS

BRADBURY BASE, Sep 19, 1973 — WITH fireworks and music, with games and speeches, the success of humanity’s settlement on Mars is scheduled to be celebrated at Bradbury Base tonight. Bradbury Base, which was established in 1953 with an initial population of four, is now a thriving city.

Watching his mother kneel awkwardly in her rented space suit, Aaron worried his lower lip inside his own helmet. She did not touch the fireworks, but her arm twitched as if she wanted to. Or was that twitch because of the Parkinson’s? He should have told her to stay on Earth, but she was so damn excited that he landed the Mars gig for Parkhill Pyrotechnics.

God. When had Mom gotten so small?

He turned away and scanned the horizon of Mars as if it were business as usual to be working here. The stars were amazing. He had dim memories of seeing them on Earth when he was a kid, before the asteroid hit. They sparkled like a silver peony aerial shell, with the dome of Landing a steady glow against the sky. The streets of the colony had been packed with people celebrating the tenth anniversary of Arrival Day. Hard to believe it was 1973 already.

Over the speaker, Mom’s voice crackled, “You adjusted the perchlorate balance?”

“Yep.”

She threw her arms into the air like an Olympic gymnast. “Triumph! I—Oh!”

Off-balance with unfamiliarity in the light Martian gravity, the sudden movement tipped her to the side. Aaron hopped forward and caught her before she could pitch over onto the small array of pyrotechnic devices.

“Sorry.” She patted his hand clumsily. “I was just so pleased I remembered my chemistry.”

“It was always second nature for you.”

“On Earth. The mix has to be different up here.” She nodded to the firework. “Did you think about using an oxygen chamber around the fuse instead?”

He rolled his eyes, grateful that his helmet kept his expression from being too obvious. Clearly, some things hadn’t changed. “Mom—The show is in an hour and a half. If I’ve screwed up, you aren’t going to fix it by quizzing me.”

“Well. Well… I’m proud of you. Your great-granddaddy would have split a side if he’d have known Parkhill Pyrotechnics would have a show on Mars someday.”

“Thanks. I—” He shouldn’t have taken the time to walk her past the fireworks staging area. He knew how she got. Always wanting to help out, despite being retired. “Listen, we should get a move on so I can load the program.”

She clambered to her feet. Aaron caught her arm and helped steady her.  Even in the bulky suit she was tiny. “You and your punch cards. It seems so lonely.”

“It’s safer. If you’re in a bunker, there’s darn little that can go wrong.”

“I’m just saying—”

“Can we not have this argument again?” He thumped the bag of punch cards slung over his shoulder. “There was no way I could have brought a team of twenty up to Mars. If I still did things the old-fashioned way, I’d never have landed the contract.”

“You’re right. Of course, you’re right.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped.”

“No, no. It’s good for me to remember that I’m only a tourist these days.” She turned away from the town to face the dome of the Bradbury Space Center. “Let’s go watch your show.”

#

In Landing, the city lights reflected off the interior of the dome and would have made the fireworks nearly invisible. The Bradbury Space Center, on the other hand, with its vast space for interplanetary rockets, could hold the whole town but, more importantly, it was easier to darken. Turn off the work lights and you had an unobstructed view of the sky.

Through the thick glass of the air lock’s window, Aaron spied banners proclaiming “1953-1973” inside the hangar. The interior of the space center had been swathed with red, green, and blue bunting for the celebration.

He held the door for his mother as she ducked into the chamber after him, kicking the ubiquitous red dust off her boots.  Aaron shifted the satchel over his shoulder while he waited for the air to cycle.

With a hiss, the door finally opened and they stepped onto the hangar floor.

People were already filling the hangar with a cheerful buzz of conversation. Some folks had even brought blankets and carried sacks with picnics like everyone was trying to recreate a holiday from Earth. Heck… the mayor had gone so far as to erect a bandstand and rounded up a horn section from somewhere. Darn good thing they’d have music, too, given that between the dome and the thin atmosphere, the fireworks made more of a snap than a bang.

People thought fireworks were about the flash and bang, but if his mom had taught him anything it was that they were about building community. For one night, everyone breathed with the same breath, with the intake of Oh and the exhale of Ah.

Aaron popped the seal on his helmet and pulled it off, switching from the steely recycled funk of suit air to the steely recycled burnt-hydrocarbon funk of the hangar. Burning things, at least, smelled comfortably familiar if you mixed in a little sulfur stink.

His mother’s hands fumbled with the latch on her helmet. The suit’s heavy gloves made her normally nimble fingers clumsy. No… No, it wasn’t just the suit. He’d never get used to thinking of her as fragile.

“Here.” He handed her the satchel with the punch cards in it. “Let me help.”

Her mouth quirked to the side in a sheepish grin. The external speaker on the suit crackled. “I’ll blame it on the suit instead of getting old.”

“Fair assessment—” He tugged on the latch and grunted. “Darn thing’s stuck.”

“Triumph! It’s not me!” His mom again flung her arms up in celebration.

With the movement, the catch on his satchel released and the bundle of punch cards came out, flying in a high inertial arc in the light gravity.

“Shit!” His mother jerked away, reaching for the punch cards.

For a moment, Aaron was more stunned that she had cursed than about the cards.

The cards—Shit. He turned and jumped, to try to catch them, but his gloved hand only batted at the bundle. The rubber band holding them slipped and the cards sprayed around them like a Waterfall Shell expanding. Each individual card tumbled free and fluttered to the ground. They dropped so slowly, it almost seemed as if he could catch them.

Not that it would do any good. They were already hopelessly out of sequence.

“Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry.” His mother stared at the cards, still falling to the blackened hangar floor.

He took a breath, trying to not completely lose it in front of his mother. There was nothing that could be done and she would already be feeling bad enough. He had to keep it together.

But the show was in an hour.

A barrage of curses ran rapid-fire through his mind, but he just took another breath of the recycled air and turned to his mom. “Let’s get you out of that suit first, okay?”

“But—your program.”

He held up a finger to silence her and turned the corners of his mouth up in a smile. “No way we can pick things up in the gloves, so let’s get that sorted.”

Pick things up? There were two hundred and fifty individual cards. Forget about picking them up, how was he going to re-sequence them fast enough? His sequencer was back in Landing proper and that was a good quarter-hour away from the hangar by train. Then he’d have to get to his hotel and back and… Shit. Aaron put his hand on the latch of his mother’s helmet and gave it a quick tug. The darn thing popped free immediately as if it had never been stuck.

“Well, turtle feathers.” His mother scowled and pulled the helmet off. “If it had done that in the first place…” Her voice trailed away as she stared at the cards.

Behind them, the airlock cycled open, and a family of five stepped into the hangar.

“Careful—” Aaron held up his hand to direct them around the pile of cards, but the smallest of the suited figures bolted away from the group, running toward the bandstand. The little booted feet kicked up the punch cards like dried leaves. “Turtle feathers” was not a sufficient level of expletive. Aaron compressed his lips to hold everything else in. Instead, he gestured to the cards and asked the rest of the family to go around.

When he turned back, his mother was on her knees, gloves discarded, gathering cards.

He yanked his own off and dropped to the hangar floor beside her. Picking up a card, he pointed to the notched corner. “These should all be facing the same way to load them into the computer.”

“How do we know what order they go in?” She rifled through the ones she’d already picked up and reoriented the cards that were upside down.

“See these last three columns of holes? That’s the sequence number.” A jump in numbers would cause the computer to throw an error. Damn it. He sagged on his knees. There was no way he could run the program out of sequence.

And what if one went missing? Or was folded?

God. That would jam the machine. If it choked on an early card,  the entire sequence would sit there in the middle of a field of red, without detonating. His claims that he could actually get fireworks to go off on Mars, with the thin atmosphere and the complications of the gravity—all of that was about to look like shameless boasting. His professional reputation would be ruined.

And the deposit. All that money to haul stuff up here. He’d have to eat the expenses and give them the deposit back. It would be the end of Parkhill Pyrotechnics.

Aaron’s hands shook as he snatched cards off the floor.

“Can we do it the old-fashioned way?”

“What? Run across the airless plains of Mars and light fuses?” He grimaced an apology for letting the sarcasm slip out. She looked miserable and that wasn’t what she’d meant anyway. “Sorry. No. There’s no way to manually drive the electronic initiator without the computer.”

“I am so sorry.” His mother glanced down at the cards in her hands and shook her head. “It takes me five minutes just to count the holes to figure out where they are in sequence.”

“I know.” He snorted. “If we had a team like Grandpa’s then maybe we could sequence them faster.”

His mother’s head snapped up. “You are brilliant.”

“Mom…” She’d always had faith in him, and this time he was going to fail, and she’d feel responsible. “It’s not your fault.”

“It is. And I’ll fix it.” She jumped to her feet and ran to the bandstand.

“What the…”

She took long, bounding strides and in a moment was talking to the mayor. Even from where Aaron was, he could see Mom turn on the charm. A moment later, the mayor handed her the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Her Southern twang sounded more apparent over the hangar loudspeakers. “Do y’all want to see some fireworks tonight?”

They cheered. God. How many times had he heard Mom pump up a crowd before they started a show on Earth? The roar went up from their bellies, full of enthusiasm for this new life.

And he didn’t have a show to give them.

“Then we need your help! My son, Aaron Parkhill, has programmed a brilliant show for you, but…” She let her voice drop to a conspiratorial whisper and held the microphone closer so it sounded like she was sharing a secret with each person individually. “But… I dropped the cards. What I need y’all to do is to help us get them back in order so the show can go on.” She held a card over her head. “On the right side, there’s a line of holes. That’s the number of the card. Go over there to where Aaron is—Wave, honey.”

Sheepishly, feeling like he was twelve again, Aaron got to his feet and waved.

“Go over there, grab a card, and sort yourselves into a line. Remember when you were in school and had to sort yourself by height? Just like that.” She gave a wink. “I used to be the tallest girl in my class. Wouldn’t know it to look at me now. Oh… And y’all know that rhyme? ‘Here he lies molding

his dying was hard,

they shot him for folding,

an IBM card.”

A wave of laughter went up. Aaron turned in a circle, watching the scattered individuals join together.

“So, careful with those cards. Now… can y’all help us out?”

They gave another cheer and the band struck up a march.

In moments, people were coming over and grabbing cards. They were laughing and sliding into line, trading places with their neighbor as someone with a higher number joined them. Good lord—he’d just handed a card to Elma York, one of the first astronauts to land on Mars. And there was the mayor snatching up a card. Was everyone helping?

Aaron handed out the cards till he only had one left. Number 92. He walked down the line full of people laughing and chatting as if this was the best game they’d ever played. His mother stood at position 67, giggling with a little girl who held her card in both hands.

Just like that—the cards were sorted. He’d been worried that this was the end of Parkhill Pyrotechnics. It hadn’t been the end when his mom retired and it wouldn’t be the end now. His mother had managed to turn a disaster into a success. He’d thought she’d gotten small with age, but he was wrong. His mother was still a giant.

She built something better than fireworks. She built community.

Laughing, Aaron threw his hands into the air like an Olympic gymnast. Like his mom. “Triumph!”

 

END

Originally published in F&SF in 2016

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5 Responses

  1. William Tracy

    This actually made me tear up remembering my own mother. Thanks so much for this story.

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