Boys from the Neighborhood
by Dan Reed
Space pilot Tom Farrell finds the Benevento brothers naive in trying to confront a Gilded oligarch over a mining claim in the outer Solar System. But two things command loyalty: they're boys from the neighborhood, and they're family.
When I was young, I was a little selfish. Put a little more bluntly, I was a prick. I had joined the Air Force when interplanetary flight had been a dream of engineers and Trekkies. I’d just hoped that I’d get to fly fighter planes and meet girls. Then, when I was a young lieutenant with shiny new wings pinned to my shirt, microfusion went from an exotic bit of high science to the world’s energy source, seemingly overnight.
It was two years later when the first fusion-plasma prototypes rolled off the line, and three days after that the first hotshot pilot took his bird into low Earth orbit. A month later, I was doing the same thing, and as I looked out on the curve of the Earth, I knew I was going to be a space pilot.
But the competition for those early slots on missions to the Moon, and then Mars, and the asteroid belt were intense, and the only way I was going to get what I wanted was to work my ass off every day, and beat the hundreds of other guys who thought it was their destiny to be the Neil Armstrongs of the intrasolar age, and leave the first human footprints on various celestial bodies.
Considering how many asteroids there actually are, maybe we shouldn’t have gotten quite so excited about it. No one is going to care that I was part of the first crew on Pallas.
So Mom got sick at a very inconvenient time for me. I was one of fifty pilots testing out the early models of the C-210 Astrolifts, which were the first birds with the potential to move serious cargo to the Rocks. Those of us in the program were tacitly assured we would be assigned to exploration teams that were going to be hopping throughout the Belt, and eventually beyond. It was all I wanted, and going home would mean missing out on the long-haul trials that were the key to getting on the plum missions.
So when my dad told me my mother’s stomach cancer hadn’t responded to gene enhancement therapy, and asked me to come home, we wound up in a pretty big fight. He was asking me to give up my career to stand by the deathbed of a woman who realistically couldn’t be helped. I was part of the new order, the bright future of humanity being born. The slow, rotting death of cancer belonged to the old, Earthbound order of things.
My father and I never spoke again, and I may have never spoken to my mother again, either, if it wasn’t for Mrs. Quadrini. She showed up at the front door of my parents’ apartment three days after my Mom was diagnosed, holding a big dish of pasta and meatballs.
The next day, she walked her around Carroll Park, holding her gently by the arm. In the weeks after that, she was always coming by with food, or doing the little chores my Mom couldn’t anymore. When she needed to go into the lab to have her NK cells cloned and reinfused, Mrs. Quadrini would accompany her on the subway.
Mrs. Quadrini was about forty, a decade younger than my mother, with a young daughter at home and a husband who ground out a living as a caterer. She had only known my family to say hello, and we all had the impression she was cold, maybe one of those crabby old-family Italians who resented anyone else living in their neighborhood.
The image I had of her in my head, out in the dark thousands of miles from Earth, was of her yelling at kids running past her on the sidewalk as she walked her ancient dogs. She had a look, an evil eye you’d get for disrespecting an adult or cursing in front of her daughter. My dad once said to a buddy of his, in my hearing, that she thought a bit too much of herself, but after another sip of whiskey added that she was one of the last ladies in New York.
After a month of playing surrogate sister-mother-best friend, Mrs. Quadrini convinced my mother that she should reach out and call me, to give me a second chance. I’m sure her next move would have been to get me talking to my Dad, too, if he hadn’t died two days later in a bus accident. At that point, I was on a dry run for my epic landing on Pallas, and was months from home whether I liked it or not. I downloaded video of the funeral through a delayed feed, tying up the main receiver array for two hours.
Mrs. Quadrini called me two weeks later, as my Astrolift was chugging back across the empty space between the Rocks and Earth. My mother wasn’t eating, had been living on IVs since my father died, even though she still could digest. The doctors were predicting a rapid demise.
“So that’s why I want her to move into my building. There’s an apartment one floor down.”
“Don’t you think the move would be a little rough on her?”
“You don’t worry about that,” Mrs. Quadrini said, firmly. “I’ll be taking care of the move, and she won’t have to do anything but take a ride over when this place is ready.”
“Mrs. Quadrini, I’m grateful, but my parents never had a lot of money, and I’m not sure how we’re going to pay for it. Her apartment is subsidized, cheap. Now, I’m sure this place would be nice, and I’d pay what I can, but on a military salary we’re going to be short.”
“You send me what you can, Thomas, and I’ll see to it that it all works out.”
I paused, trying to think of a reply. This woman was nothing but a passing acquaintance to me, and yet since the last time I was home had become the most important person in my mother’s life. More important than her son. As I started to grope for a way to ask her why, she continued on.
“A long time ago, when my parents raised me, this neighborhood meant something more than a place to sleep near the city, or a collection of trend-chasing restaurants and shops opening and closing. It was a collection of people who were making a life together. We didn’t expect it to be easy, but we also knew we could count on each other. This neighborhood was strength for the ambitious, protection for the weak, and insurance for the unlucky. And I don’t want to abandon that if I can help keep it going.”
She paused, and I could hear from a sharp exhalation of breath that she was checking her emotions. But she quickly moved on.
“Thomas, maybe what you’re doing out there in these space ships will lead to something big and good for you. And it might not be possible for you to be a part of this neighborhood as you become a man. But wherever you end up, I want you to remember that you owe the best of yourself to the community you are a part of, that you have to find a way to make it stronger.”
Then, before I could say a word, she broke the connection. Ten minutes later, it was restored, but now my mom was on the line, breathless and weak with hunger. The doctors had officially taken her off solid food a few days before, and she would spend the rest of her life on protein slurry and infused amino acid formulas.
She didn’t talk much, just murmured approvals as I told her about flying millions of miles with dry rations and low gravity. As I talked, she succumbed to sleep, and a few minutes later I heard the quiet shuffling of Mrs. Quadrini putting a blanket over her before she broke the connection a second time.
When we were a week from Earth, the communications link was strong enough that I could get live video feeds, and soon I was looking at near-still images of a depleted old woman who bore a passing resemblance to my mother. It was only when she looked straight at the camera, and I could see the passion and wisdom that still declared themselves in her eyes, that I truly believed my mother was in that broken body. In the background, Mrs. Quadrini would zip past, never looking at the camera.
I thought I was going to make it in time, but Mom passed away with just a few thousand miles to go. The funeral was the day after I landed, and I still had gravity sickness. My whole body felt as though it were being squeezed through a rubber tube, and I had a hard time from separating the symptoms of grief from the sensations of weighing five times more than I had in six months. The ceremony was a blur of long-forgotten family: cousins who lived halfway across the world rocketed in, sat in the pews, and tried to affect a solemn dignity about a woman they barely knew.
I gave a brief eulogy, lamenting how children can only appreciate the greatness of a mother in her absence. I was dimly aware that Mrs. Quadrini was propelling the entire day forward, even mastering the details of an Irish wake that must have seemed foreign and crude to an Italian sensibility. But I barely said two words to her. A week later, after selling or donating most of my parents’ things and storing everything of my own, I launched my Astrolift on my glorious mission to conquer Pallas.
My mother was not a fashionable woman, and had never given much thought to adornment. But there was one piece of jewelry that she deeply cared about: a brilliant sapphire ring that had belonged to her grandmother. She wore it on special occasions; it reminded me of achievement, of happiness, of reunions.
On the day I left, I brought it to Mrs. Quadrini’s apartment. Part of me expected her to refuse it: she had never shown the least interest in recompense for the hundreds of hours she spent by my mother’s side, and I thought she might find it cheap. But she took it warmly, with a delighted expression on her face. She slipped it onto her finger, then took a moment to admire it. As she hugged me goodbye, she whispered, “You will always have a family here if you need it.”
As I aged and found myself wealthy, I was able to do little things for her: I bought her building to make sure the rent stayed affordable, subsidized the farmer’s market she loved to ensure it stayed open, made sure the local cheese shop was stocking parmesan brought in fresh from Italy. I always stopped by to say hello, and sometimes have a bite, but I was usually only on Earth a few days between runs, and I spent quite a bit of that time in Mad Mike’s.
Despite her words after my mother died, I never really felt a part of the Quadrini family, and I barely knew her husband or daughter. Eventually, I would miss his funeral and her wedding. But now, realizing that I had her grandson on my ship — he was a blood relative I was only vaguely even aware that she had — and was en route to rescue another, I felt the burden of family obligation just the same as if they were my sister’s kids.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Dan Reed