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Chapter Four: Brody Memorial

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, as all unintended
consequences do. The parts were all there: the low gravity,
the availability of temperatures only a handful of degrees
above Absolute Zero, confined spaces that won’t permit wider-
reaching pastimes like baseball. But who could have guessed
that the asteroids’ favorite sport, to watch or play, would
turn out to be hockey?

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“I see you have again been pond skating,” Jasmeen Khalidov said.
“And over mascon.”

Somehow looking like a ballerina at rest, the young woman sat
cross-ankled on a long, low, slatted plastic bench running down the
center for most of the length of the women’s hockey locker room at the
Aloysius Brody Memorial Ice Skating Rink in Curringer, principal city
on Pallas, second largest body in the Asteroid Belt. She was holding,
in both of her long, slender-fingered hands, her only student’s left
boot, upturned just now to expose the gleaming double edges of the
blade.

The boots were perfectly conventional, handmade for their owner of
stiff, multilayered leather and various synthetics, nominally white on
the outside, but covered with scuffs and cuts from long, hard use. It
was the blades that were different, especially designed for the lower
gravity of Pallas. They were half again as thick as ordinary figure
skating blades, but lighter because they were made from an alloy of
titanium. Their undersurfaces were grooved, like those of ordinary
skates, but the radius was much smaller than normal—only three
sixteenths of an inch—to provide extraordinarily sharp, deep edges,
necessary for control at only one twentieth of the “standard” Earth
gravity.

The toepicks at the fronts of the blades were different, too,
longer and sharper. Ordinary toepicks, meant for use on Earth, would
only skid in the light gravity of Pallas, without biting into the ice
properly.

The other boot lay at Jasmeen’s feet.

There wasn’t a surface in the room that wasn’t marked where a
black rubber hockey puck had bounced off it at one time or another.
There were a dozen signs in the locker rooms, in the lobby, in the
bleachers, in the alleyway around the rink itself, warning in big red
letters against puck and stick play anywhere at Frazier Memorial but
on the ice. Nobody had ever paid the slightest attention to them or
ever would.

Similar warnings not to hang on the overhead netting, forty feet
above the ice—it was an easy jump for most Pallatian skaters—
were similarly ignored.

Three broken hockey sticks stood, stacked together like rifles, in
a corner of the room near the showers, and odd remnants of gear, armor
made of fiberglass—knee guards, shin guards, elbow guards, shoulder
pads, even a helmet—were strewn about the rubberized floor like
bits of molted dinosaur skin.

The heavy odor of athletic sweat, suffused with adrenaline, and
allowed to stand in lockers full of dirty clothing until it fermented,
permeated the room, but Jasmeen and her student were as accustomed to
it as anyone could get. After twenty minutes or so of adjustment, they
hardly noticed it. If it were her rink, the young coach had often said
nobody would be allowed to enter the rink with unwashed pads and other
equipment.

Jasmeen could see herself in the polished nickel-steel mirror at
one end of the locker room. (Glass wouldn’t have survived in here for
a minute.) What she saw was an extraordinarily slender, rather fragile
looking young woman who was not quite yet 20, and, at five foot four
inches, fully a head shorter than most of the Pallatian children
Llyra’s age.

Appearances can be deceiving. There was nothing fragile about
Jasmeen, nothing fragile at all. She was a pretty blonde—at the
moment, her shoulder-blade-length hair was bound up in a couple of big
pigtails—with rather strong features: enormous gray-green eyes with
very long, dark lashes, and lids that were a natural lavender color
and needed no makeup. Her eyebrows didn’t arch, but soared up and
outward above her eyes, She had a small dimple in her chin, and her
lips, especially the lower one, were full. Her nose, gracefully turned
up, was proportionate with the rest of her face.

Jasmeen looked thin, but she had good, broad shoulders. She was
also quite full-breasted for her size, and although her hips were
slender, they were set off by an exceptionally narrow waist. Just now,
having not yet put on her long, black, “official” coach’s coat, she
wore a delicate little white cotton top—no female needed more than
that at one twentieth of a gee, although in the cold of the rink it
could be embarrassing sometimes—that did nothing to disguise her
obvious assets. Its frilly hem left a bit of her flat belly exposed
over badly faded bluejeans with the waistband turned down.

Where she stood at her open locker, 13-year-old Llyra Ngu turned
abruptly, unconsciously standing on her toes. “How can you possibly
know I’ve been pond skating, Jasmeen?” She pronounced her coach’s name
correctly—”yahzz-MEEN”—as many others who knew her failed to do.
The 19-year-old was more than just a figure skating coach to the
younger girl. She was Llyra’s tutor in several other subjects, her
best friend, and only six years her senior. Sometimes she was Llyra’s
mother.

Jasmeen looked up at her student and laughed. It was a warm, happy
laugh, not intended to inflict pain. “Is elementary, my dear What’sit.
Bootsoles still damp, although I know you have had no ice booked here
yesterday or this morning. They are playing hockey all day long here,
yesterday and day before. So I deduce you must be skating outdoors,
somewhere.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Llyra was incredulous, but delighted. She
loved games like this. “But over a mascon?”

“Why else are you ever skating outdoors?” Jasmeen shook her head,
indicating her student with an upturned hand. “Where you have equal
chance of falling and breaking something or being eaten alive by wild
animal. Possibly both. This is not happy girl unless there is small,
extra risk to turn her mother’s hair white—not to mention hair of
little Russian coach!”

“You know why I do it, Jasmeen. Someday I’m gonna skate on Earth.”
Llyra gave her coach a good-natured frown and held up a stainless
steel object she’d just taken from her skate bag, a Ngu Departure
Pocket Ten her parents had given her on her twelfth birthday. “Anyway,
I had my little pistol with me—and you aren’t Russian, you’re
Chechen.”

“Mostly, I am Martian,” Jasmeen replied, with a sigh, and it was
true. She was the daughter of an intrepid (and desperate) couple who
had traveled to Mars under a United Nations program funded and
directed by the East American government. Fleeing the political and
military perils of the Earth, Mohammed Khalidov and his wife Beliita
had been among only a few to survive the Red Plant’s harsh environment
long enough to be rescued by Pallations.

To this day, any time someone mentioned the Earth, Father spat.
Due to his influence, she favored a Coprates Industries plasma-driven
Express Eleven.

******

Outside the locker room, in the rubber-paved space between the
locker room walls and the transparent “boards” of the rink, Jasmeen
paused.

The surface here was unique in all the Solar System—although
she suspected it wouldn’t be, once a rink was built on Ceres. At what
would normally have been the outer margin of the rink, it curved up
smoothly, toward the vertical, so that objects tended to slide back
down onto the flat. A dark-stranded net, stretching from the top of
the boards, up and completely over the ice, kept hockey pucks—and
the occasional involuntary skater—from leaving the rink in the low
Pallatian gravity.

It was the beginning of an “open” or “public” session. The ice
this morning was presently occupied by a dozen “recreational” skaters,
mostly gliding around the rink in elongated circles. But they had just
finished three hours’ worth of hockey practice in here. The cavernous,
high-ceilinged room reeked of adrenalin, sweaty bodies, and unwashed
pads and jerseys. The odor was tolerable only because it was the kids’
teams that had been practicing, boys and girls of Llyra’s age and
younger. If it had been a couple of the men’s teams, the air-scrubbing
machinery would be working at full tilt, and the air would still be
unbreathable.

Jasmeen stood momentarily with both of her hands against the
boards, one foot beneath her and the other far behind, stretching her
calves. It was more than a little awkward, encumbered by the long
plastic guards that protected her blades from dirt and grit on the
floor, but she’d been doing it all her life and was no longer
conscious of the difficulty. She liked doing it out here, where she
could see what was going on.

Llyra had gone to the rinkside weight room, a few doors back up
the corridor, to spend a useful 20 minutes or so warming up on one of
the treadmills her engineer father had redesigned for a world that had
only one twentieth of the gravity that the machine had been intended
for. She also enjoyed using the free weights (cast of solid tungsten,
a relatively cheap commodity among the asteroids, especially for this
facility) and machines, but it was always hard to get her to stretch
sufficiently.

Not for the first time, Jasmeen reflected on how was amazing it
was, how the lives and fortunes of their two families, the Khalidovs
and the Ngus, were so deeply intertwined. Llyra’s great-grandfather
Emerson had been one of the founders of the settlement here on Pallas,
before his notorious disappearance aboard the exploratory vessel
Fifth Force, and had helped convey it safely through many perils in
the early years.

Llyra’s grandfather William and his brother Brody (named after the
same individual this facility had been constructed to honor) had flown
to Mars, decades later, to rescue her—Jasmeen’s—mother and
father, and other colonists, after the East American government and
the United Nations had simply abandoned them there. Now she—Jasmeen—was
here, working for William’s son Adam and Adam’s wife Ardith,
helping to educate their daughter, whom she’d come to love as if she
were a little sister.

Llyra badly needed love, Jasmeen thought, although she would never
have said so aloud, to anyone. Adam, her father, was a good man, but
he was absent most of the time, lately on Ceres, which he was making
over as he had made over the exercise machines here—and as others
had made over Pallas itself. Jasmeen wasn’t absolutely certain, but
she believed that Llyra’s mother Ardith regarded affection as a sign
of weakness. It was possible that Jasmeen was prejudiced, but she
didn’t think so.

She put a heel up on the little unintentional shelf, four feet
high, that separated the upper and lower boards surrounding the rink.
She bent, wrapping both hands around her foot. As she stretched the
muscles of her back and legs, she watched three of Llyra’s friends.
She couldn’t remember their names, but she’d seen them here before. A
little boy, perhaps 10 or 11, sat on a big plastic footlocker the
hockey teams used sometimes, just outside the rink gate, with a little
girl, a tomboy. Neither of them looked at the other. Both stared down
self-consciously at their hockey skates. It was obvious that he was
working up to taking her hand, but was happy merely to be sitting
beside her. That most magical of instants was only a heartbeat away
when—

All at once, they were interrupted by another little boy who had
just come off the ice, pink-faced and breathless. He was begging the
first boy to come out into the rink and skate. “That’s the reason we
came, isn’t it?”

A long, silent struggle ensued, played out entirely on the first
little boy’s face. At long last he got up, mumbled a perfunctory
apology to the little girl, and dashed out onto the ice with his
buddy. The little girl stared back down at her skates again, lower
lip trembling.

Life’s little dramas, Jasmeen sighed to herself. Something inside
her wanted her to hurry to the little girl, put a comforting hand on
her arm, and tell her that she wouldn’t always lose this kind of
struggle—that, in fact, in the end, she’d always win, that being
the nature of life.

But it simply wasn’t in Jasmeen to intrude. Martians were almost
insanely reticent, and it had required a supreme effort on her part
not to be that way with Llyra, who required affection, required human
contact, as a beautiful flower requires sunlight and raindrops in
order to live.

Three of the raindrops—or rays of sunshine—in Llyra’s life
came down the corridor toward Jasmeen now, having emerged from the
girls’ locker room. All three were freshly showered and dragging big
hockey equipment bags behind them that they could have used as
sleeping bags.

Nikki Johnson had dark, curly hair, almost black, with threads of
auburn through it. Just now she wore it in a pair of braids. Her pale
Celtic skin was covered with freckles from hairline to chin, across
both cheeks and her turned-up nose. It always surprised Jasmeen that
her thoroughly Irish eyes weren’t blue. Ordinarily, she was a little
chatterbox, but she’d been playing this season with an ankle injury,
and practice this morning had worn her out. Her face was grim, and all
Jasmeen got from her was a reasonably cheerful “Hey-oh!” as the girl,
a year or two older than Llyra, but one of her closest friends, set
her hockey bag down and leaned against the transparency to watch the
rink.

Right behind her, dragging her own bag, followed Katie O’Hara.
Katie’s hair was straight and brown, and at some point in her young
life, laughter had moved into her amber eyes to stay. In Llyra’s
absence, Katie was the clown of the ensemble. When the two of them got
the giggles, it was as contagious as the Black Plague and they
couldn’t be shut off.

Emmy Morimura seemed to be constructed on a smaller scale than the
others, with glossy black shoulder-length hair, and eyes so dark that
they looked black, as well. It was impossible, Jasmeen often thought,
for a human being to be so beautiful. Third and last of Llyra’s trio
of closest friends, Emmy dragged behind her the extra-large bag and
extra-wide stick of a goalie, an odd position, Jasmeen thought, for
someone so withdrawn, quiet, and small. Ordinarily, even when an adult
asked her a direct question, she would simply look down at her shoes
and say nothing. Emmy apparently saw Jasmeen, however, as something in
between child and adult, for she sometimes engaged the older girl in
long, animated conversations.

Just then, Llyra emerged from the weight room in a brilliant
metallic blue leotard, with a towel around her neck, and her skate bag
dangling from two fingers. The girl’s dark blonde hair was pinned up,
with a few escaping strands around her face and at the back of her
neck.

“Here comes the ostrich!” Nikki hollered at her. The girls had
recently watched an old recording of Fantasia together, so they all
knew what she meant.

Katie echoed her. “Where’re your pink toe-shoes, ostrich?”

Emmy grinned, but said nothing. That was usually her part in this
ritual. Llyra stuck her tongue out at them as she passed, and patted
Emmy on the head. She set her bag down on the locker, sat, and began
lacing her skates. The other three girls gathered around her in a half
circle.

“Watch out!” she told them, pointing a jagged toepick at them. “My
toe-shoes are white—and have teeth!”

“Say,” remarked Emmy, startling them all. “Wouldn’t that be
assault with a sledly weapon?”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

“Mighty big talk,” Katie observed at last, “for somebody who
skates in her skivvies.”

Llyra pointed at Katie’s huge equipment bag, which contained her
helmet, armor, and padding. “Mighty big talk for somebody who skates
wearing a canoe.”

They all laughed. “Score one,” Nikki grinned, “for the underwear
lady!”

Jasmeen laughed, too, despite herself. She’d been alarmed until
she learned that they all prepared for these episodes days in advance.
She’d once caught Katie writing down comebacks on her pocket computer.
Llyra finished lacing her skates, stood, and strode toward the gate in
the boards where Jasmeen was waiting for her. Llyra used the public
sessions to warm up for her lessons.

“Excuse me, Miss?”

The voice behind her startled her. She turned to see a young man
in full hockey regalia. Judging by the smell it hadn’t been cleaned in
weeks.

Jasmeen patted Llyra on the arm as she passed. “Warm up and I’ll
be right with you.”

Then to the young man. “May I help you in some way?”

“Well I was going to ask about drop-in hockey hours…” he said,
just as Llyra sped by and executed a casual waltz jump that took her
six feet into the air and covered a dozen yards. She landed silently
and lightly as a snowflake.

“You were saying?” Jasmeen asked.

“Yeah—what the hell is that?” He pointed at Llyra as she did
a set of “stars”—low-bending single spins that ended in an inverted
camel so fast that she became a blur. Nikki, Katie, and Emmy stood
close by, noses pressed to the thick plastic transparency that wrapped
around the rink.

“Watch your mouth, jackass!” Katie jumped in. “That was a waltz
jump and a camel spin. Unless you meant Llyra herself. She’s a figure
skater—the only one on Pallas—and a real good one, too! That’s
her coach you’re talking to.”

The young man shook his head, sighed deeply, and muttered. “What a
waste of perfectly good ice.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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