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Chapter Five: Old Curringer

The way a culture treats its past is the best indicator
of how that culture will be treated by the future.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“I would appreciate,” said Jasmeen, “if you would not try
back-flip again without consulting me. Is dangerous, even when I am
there to spot for you.”

The walk home wasn’t long. Chattering to one another about the
morning’s session on the ice, Llyra and Jasmeen left the rink by the
south doors, following the footpath where it paralleled the east side
of Curringer’s main street. Chopped by a light wind, Lake Selous was
at their left. Its opposite shore could be seen from the rooftops of
some of the taller buildings in town, but not from ground level. From
here it looked like a small ocean.

Llyra said, “Okay, coach—but I warn you, next time I’m going
for a double!”

“Is fine,” Jasmeen scowled at her. “You want remains cremated or
buried at sea?” She pointed at the lake.

Llyra made a scoffing noise that her coach found particularly
annoying. “Jasmeen, a little thing like a double backflip isn’t going
to kill me.”

Jasmeen’s eyes widened, suddenly and menacingly. It was a
technique she’d learned from her father, who called it his Rasputin
expression. “No, but if you try without proper preparation, I kill
you!”

“Then how about shooting my remains into orbit?” Llyra laughed and
Jasmeen laughed with her. They picked up the pace a little because
they were both very hungry and looking forward to a big lunch at home.
Figure skaters are always hungry.

It was early on a warm, bright, sunny afternoon. Lake Selous was
dotted with small boats, many of them with brightly-colored sails,
others under power. One pulled a water skiier in a bright red bikini,
sending spray high into the air. People of every possible sort, native
and tourist, stood along the shore, and on the railed porches of
lakefront buildings, fishing. Overhead, all over town, and all over
the lake, others hung from flying belts like Llyra’s. Some of those
had fishing poles, too. The street was full of the lightweight,
spindly-looking three-wheeled vehicles that were characteristic of
Pallas.

On a red brick traffic island in the middle of the cobbled street,
stood an heroic-scale bronze statue of William Wilde Curringer. “Wild
Bill”, as he’d been known, was the billionaire genius who had caused
Pallas to be terraformed, even before Llyra’s own great grandfather,
Emerson Ngu, had arrived here with his parents. Curringer—one of
his companies had created and produced the tough, self-healing plastic
that the Pallatian atmospheric envelope was made of—had brought
tens of thousands of human beings to the little planetoid in his great
fusion-powered space liners. And he’d died here, in an ultralight
aircraft accident, helping to seed the barren, crater-pocked surface
with life.

Curringer’s statue stood in the exact spot where he’d “screwed his
little plane into the ground,” as her father always put it
unsentimentally. Someone had actually proposed that a bronze replica
of the crash itself might be more appropriate. City builders had
chosen a more conventional design and left an a empty lot, a small
park, directly across the street, between two buildings, so that he
could always “see” Lake Selous.

In the wild old frontier days of her great grandfather’s youth, at
least half of the buildings standing around her now had been notorious
and historic saloons, the other half what her Uncle Arleigh referred
to as “houses of swell repute”. Llyra understood perfectly what that
meant—she couldn’t understand why anybody would want to do that for
a living—and why her mother invariably scowled at Arleigh whenever
he said it.

These days, it had been whispered among the older girls at the
rink, such establishments had moved away from Lake Selous with its
elderly tourists and its souvenir shops, up into the fashionable hills
above the old town. However in one former saloon or bordello, some
member of her own family had established the Drake-Tealy Museum, named
in honor of Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy, the famous and innovative
anthropologist who had founded the unique Pallatian culture that Llyra
had grown up in.

Drake-Tealy had reckoned that the adoption of agriculture as a way
of life had, for many reasons, been humanity’s greatest mistake. It
had given rise, for example, to the tyranny of government. He had
persuaded Wild Bill Curringer (who had wanted to avoid such tyranny
for reasons of his own) to avoid that mistake and charter a high-tech
hunting culture on Pallas that was still going strong after more than
a century.

However the principal attraction of the museum had nothing to do
with any of that. Soon after people had come to the asteroid, they had
discovered fist-sized oddly-shaped lumps of metal that Drake-Tealy had
declared to be ancient alien artifacts, perhaps as old as a billion
years. Established scientists had made fun of him until a brilliant
young woman whose specialty was “speculative xenotechnology” had
pronounced his theories to be correct—and presented scientific
proof to that effect.

That brilliant young woman, Rosalie Frazier, born on Pallas but
raised and educated on Earth, had eventually married Llyra’s great
grandfather Emerson. Decades later, she disappeared with him aboard
the Fifth Force.

The museum now housed the largest collection of what were known as
Drake-Tealy Objects in the Solar System. They had so far been found on
every asteroid explored, as well as Mars and a couple of the moons of
Jupiter. To this day no one knew what they were or why they had been
created, only that they were artificial, and clearly non-human in
their manufacture.

Mysteriously, the greatest number of Drake-Tealy Objects were to
be found on barren Vesta, third largest of the asteroids, but made of
solid granite. Vesta was not inhabitable, not worth terraforming, and
was the best proof so far that the makers of the artifacts were
completely alien.

Llyra exclaimed, “Okay, here we go!”

“About time,” Jasmeen answered. “I’m getting famish-ed!” She’d
pronounced the last word with three syllables.

They had come at last to the part of the walk home she liked best.
There was a geologic fault here, resulting in a vertical drop of about
fifty feet. Continuing straight ahead, where the road became a long
ramp, there was a steep flight of stairs, built of stone and stainless
steel. Llyra had never used them. On the Lake Selous side of the walk,
two big steel poles, two inches in diameter and also stainless, stood
side by side, placed there by some whimsical individual more concerned
with fun than practicality. Each was cut with a single heavy square
thread. One of them—the “down” pole—constantly rotated
clockwise, driven by a small motor powered by a shoebox-sized fusion
reactor. The other—the “up” pole—rotated counter clockwise.

At the top of the “up” pole, where they’d run out of thread, half
a dozen objects stood away from the smooth portion of the pole where
they’d been waggling and clanking as it turned. They were something
like open ended wrenches (and indeed, that’s what people called them),
with eighteen inch handles. But they were made to fit the thread of
the pole.

Llyra took a wrench off the “up” pole and placed it on the smooth
part of the “down” pole, above the thread. Looking less enthusiastic
about the whole undertaking, Jasmeen took another of the wrench-like
objects and awaited her turn. Here on Pallas, the long drop to the
bottom could have been safely made simply by jumping, but Jasmeen was
from Mars, a world with almost seven times the gravity of Pallas. She
might also have taken the stairs, but for some reason that had never
occurred to her.

Llyra let the wrench fall onto the thread and stepped off the
sidewalk. She hung there by one hand for a moment, with her skate bag
in the other hand. Then the rotating pole carried her smoothly and
gently to the ground—although the metal-on-metal squealing of the
wrench and pole set her teeth on edge. She pulled her wrench from the
pole and placed it on the “up” pole so that it would be there for
others to use. There were already half a dozen of the things piled up
at the bottom of the “down” pole, for people headed in the opposite
direction, toward town.

“I love it!” Llyra shouted.

“You may have my share to love, as well.”

Amidst more metallic squealing, Jasmeen alighted behind her, skate
bag dangling from her shoulder, and shifted the wrench she’d used to
the “up” pole. She wrinkled her nose and was about to make the same
comment about the noise that she always did, when Llyra’s phone rang.
The girl touched the breast pocket of her light denim jacket and said,
“Hello?”

“Llyra?” It was her mother Ardith’s voice, sounding not quite as
cool and detached as it usually did. The girl could see her mother’s
face clearly in her mind—delicate features and enormous dark eyes,
framed by wavy dark hair. “Llyra, I’ve just heard from your father on
Ceres. Something has happened. Something—it’s about your brother
Wilson.”

It was Llyra’s turn to wrinkle her nose. She knew perfectly well
that her father was on Ceres—he was the chief engineer there. And
she knew who her brother was, as well. Why did her mother always talk
to her like a—then her heart froze as she realized that this was
probably bad news.

Jasmeen had heard the message and put a sympathetic hand on
Llyra’s shoulder.

“Is Wilson okay?” the girl haltingly asked her mother. It was her
second attempt at it. The first attempt had only produced a nervous
squeak.

Ardith replied, “Yes, dear, Wilson is just fine, and I’m sorry I
didn’t tell you that right way. He’s fine, but apparently he’s done
something … well, extremely heroic and extremely foolish at the same
time. The Curringer Foundation is planning to hold a special ceremony
at your father’s headquarters to give him some kind of an award. Your
father would like very much for us to be there when it happens, and so
would Wilson.”

Amazing—and a little scary. Her mother actually sounded worried
and proud of Wilson at the same time. She’d mentioned their father
without any trace of bitterness in her tone. She’d even called her
daughter “dear”.

“Then when do we start?” Llyra asked. Unbelievable! She was
finally going to get a real ride on a real spaceship! The furthest
she’d been, so far, was in a tourist jumpbuggy to Pallas B, the
asteroid’s tiny moon. They hadn’t even EVAed. She’d had better views
of the surface of Pallas B through a telescope from her bedroom
window.

Her mother was speaking. ” … sending an ionopter to pick us up
at the house and take us to Port Peary. I’ll close the lab and meet
you at home. It’s an eighteen hour trip from Pallas to Ceres right
now, so pack your toothbrush. Oh—and please ask Jasmeen to come
along, will you? Your father was quite insistent about that, although
he didn’t say why.”

Maybe, Llyra thought, it was to save his daughter the fate of
being cooped up alone in a small spaceship with her mother for
eighteen hours.

But what she said was, “Okay, Mother. We’re almost home right now.
See you.”

“Yes, dear. Goodbye.”

Amazing.

******

The Ngu house, just outside of Curringer—some called it the Ngu
mansion—had been constructed from native stone by Llyra’s great
grandfather, Emerson. It was here that he’d brought his bride Rosalie
Frazier, the famous archaeologist, and here that their eight children
had been born. Mystery still shrouded their eventual fate. They had
headed for the Cometary Halo, made a few reports that had taken hours,
at lightspeed, to get back to Pallas, and then no more had been heard
of them.

Their last communication had been garbled but had mentioned alien
artifacts.

Llyra’s grandfather William had been born here, like the rest, and
grown up on the hospitable shores of Lake Selous. He’d been the eldest
of Emerson and Rosalie’s children. When he was barely in his twenties,
he’d left the family homestead and gone with his younger brother Brody
to Mars, to help keep colonists from Earth from dying of what he’d
called “a faulty space program”. Several years later, he’d returned
with one of those colonists, former East American Marine Lieutenant
Julie Segovia, married her, and settled back into the Ngu family
dwelling.

Llyra’s father Adam, William’s eldest son, had been born here,
too, although by then there was a genuine hospital in Curringer. He’d
studied engineering over the Solar Internet, apprenticed himself to
one of the engineers who’d terraformed Pallas, grown up, opened his
own practice, and married another native Pallatian, Llyra’s mother,
Ardith Zacharenko.

Thus the house, to Llyra, was like another member of her family,
as ancient as her missing great grandfather, but always there to
protect and comfort her. Like most of the buildings on Pallas, it was
built from the asteroid’s native gray-brown stone—carbonacous
chondrite with the petroleum-like kerogen carefully baked out. The
kiln still stood, like a concrete igloo, on a remote corner of the
property. Three generations of Ngu kids and their cousins had cleaned
it out and used it as a playhouse.

Unlike most other buildings on Pallas, however, the Ngu house had
not been made to resemble the architecture of any other place or time.
Most of the buildings downtown, for example, looked like they’d come
from a western movie set.

The Ngu house was wide, where it sat along the Lake Selous shore,
made up mostly of bold horizontal strokes, raw stone interspersed with
balconies and broad, deep-set windows. In most places the house was
four stories tall, and not symmetrical. It fell, rather, into “split
levels”. The design had sprung from the inventive mind of Emerson Ngu,
who referred to the style as “Frank Lloyd Wright without the useless
spaces”.

Leaving the sidewalk from town, Llyra and Jasmeen descended a
flight of broad, gentle steps, and crossed a swinging footbridge made
up of huge blond-colored wooden planks and “musket-browned” steel
cable. They came to the big front door, which overlooked a broad stone
terrace, so closely surrounded by trees that they practically made a
canopy over it. Llyra thought this was a perfect place to sit on a hot
summer day, have lunch, and study. Through the trees at either end of
the terrace, she could see the lake. The balcony of her bedroom looked
out over the lake, as well.

The family kept several boats in their boathouse on the shore. One
was a contraption with pontoons and a canopy they could go out and
have barbecues on. They hadn’t used it since Adam and Wilson had gone
to Ceres. Another was a little canoe with an outrigger and a big
wind-driven rotor that turned a shaft that turned a gear that turned
another shaft that drove a propellor. It actually sailed faster into
the wind than running from it—and Llyra had built it, by herself,
from the keel up.

But what was truly magical about the Ngu house was the fact that
from nearly every level, water fell in broad and shining curtains,
sometimes onto the level below where it fell again, sometimes all the
way to the ground, where it was collected, filtered, and sent back to
the rooftops once more. The noise of all this falling water was deeply
relaxing. Llyra had grown up with it and missed it whenever she was
away.

“There it is!” Before Llyra and Jasmeen could reach the front door
of the house, they heard the breathy roar of an ionopter high
overhead. Jasmeen shielded her face from the sun and from wind-driven
spray from the waterfalls being thrown around by the machine.
Together, she and Llyra watched it begin to settle on the rooftop
landing pad.

Even to those accustomed to it, it was quite a sight. Jutting out
and upward at about a forty-five degree angle, two dozen feet above a
boxy metal and plastic body the size of a small city bus, three large
booms, two forward and one aft, cut through with circular lightening
holes, each supported a twenty foot double disk—one set above the
other—of metallic mesh. The upper disk put an electric charge on
the air molecules above it, and the lower disk pulled them through and
expelled them, creating enough thrust to lift the ionopter and pull it
through the air.

Occasionally, some foreign object—a large insect or the feather
of a bird—got between the disks, and there was a flash of momentary
lightning and an alarming crackle as it was reduced to its constituent
ions.

Ionopters were the fastest means of transportation on Pallas.
Between them, various corporations and individuals maintained a fleet
of fewer than a hundred of the peculiar vehicles. This asteroid was
the one place in the Solar System where such a craft could operate.
Mars had too much gravity, Earth’s Moon had never been terraformed and
lacked the necessary atmosphere, and terraformation had only begun on
Ceres, for which a bigger, more powerful ionopter was already being
designed.

In some ways Curringer was the System’s largest small town. Both
young women knew the pilot, R.G. Edd—a frequent drop-in hockey
player—who waved at them cheerfully from his tinted plastic window
as the big fusion-powered aircraft’s ridiculously tiny landing gear
touched the roof.

Precisely at that moment, Llyra’s mother Ardith wafted onto the
terrace in her flying belt. As her feet lightly touched the
flagstones, she said, “Aren’t you two inside, yet? We’ve got to get
packed and going!”

“But Mother,” Llyra protested as she felt her stomach growl. “What
about lunch?”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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