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CHAPTER NINETEEN: STARTING OVER

I was sixteen when my great aunt, Mary-Lou Altman Frazier—the woman who had raised me as her daughter—had a stroke and ended up in a nursing home. Her husband was long dead and all she had was me. All around her in that place, people were giving up and dying, but she wouldn’t. Whenever she couldn’t get them to put her in a wheelchair, she got out of bed and crawled, rather than be left helplessly dependent on others. In the end, she recovered nearly completly, It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: anything is better than helplessness.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Was that seven rotations, or eight?” Llyra asked in admiration—although back home she could have eventually worked up to twice that number.

Here on Earth’s Moon, it was a very different matter altogether. Bad enough that her legs ached and trembled from hip to ankle at the end of every day, she thought. It was even worse to begin the day that way, as she had done each and every morning since first coming to this place. Her legs had ached and trembled when she woke up, they’d ached and trembled all through this morning’s therapy session, they’d ached and trembled all the way over here, and they ached and trembled right now.

Probably thinking many of the same thoughts, Jasmeen answered somewhat abstractedly, “Was not counting, my little. Whoever she is, she is good skater. Will count next time.”

Eyes on the half dozen figures out on the ice, Llyra nodded. She’d been paying most attention to the landings, and to what was happening with her own body. Her back hurt, too, and her shoulders and arms. It seemed like months, but they’d been on the Moon less than a week. She thought Jasmeen was starting to recover, maybe because she’d been born and brought up in twice this much gravity. At least she was spending more time standing up, and once or twice had even crossed the living room of the little apartment they shared without one of the magnesium alloy walkers they were using these days to get around and see the sights.

“Me, too,” Llyra said. She wondered how these skaters, with their Lunar muscles, would fare on Ceres or Pallas. Probably land on their heads.

The sight they both wanted to see most was the sight they were seeing now and had longed to see every day until they’d been cleared to travel by themselves. They were visiting the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Memorial Ice Arena in a suburb of Armstrong, the principal city on the Moon—or “in the Moon”, as the natives insisted putting it, and with justice, since its main streets lay several hundred feet beneath that world’s surface, far from its heat, cold, radiation, and micrometeorites.

Heinlein had foreseen that. He was regarded here as one the great writers of the twentieth century, an early advocate of space travel and settling other worlds, a prophet. Julie had told them that there might never have been cities in the Moon—or much of anywhere else except for Earth—if he hadn’t lived. Most of what he’d written—especially about the Moon—had come true, and what he’d written about settling the moons of the gas giants had come true in the Asteroid Belt. He’d even predicted that someday people—like Julie, for instance—would be virtually immortal, although he’d thought the answer lay in selectively breeding people like hothouse plants, instead of in techniques like the various DeGrey therapies. When he’d first written on the subject, DNA hadn’t yet been discovered.

Heinlein and his wife had also been ice dancers where they lived in West America, another reason this cavernous facility bore their name. The space it occupied was artificial, according to a brochure Llyra still clutched, forgotten, in her hand, created by setting off some sort of thermal explosive in a hole drilled deep under the Moon’s surface. The walls of the cavern were fused into glass two feet thick, and the remainder of the vaporized rock had been allowed to vent into space.

“Look at that!” Llyra exclaimed. “An octuple Axel!” An Axel was a turn and half, which meant they had just seen a jump of twelve whole turns.

At the moment, she and Jasmeen leaned on their walkers, observing (not without envy) a “contract” session through the thick, heavy plastic transparencies around the rink, one of six at this facility. This was time that individual skaters had paid for in advance, so they could practice what they’d learned in their formal lessons—with a guarantee that there would never be more than a certain number of them on the ice at any given time. The skaters (mostly girls, just as it was everywhere else) were doing fabulous things: waltz jumps that covered half the rink, and ten-turn Salchows that carried them seventy feet into the air.

The rinks were laid out in two rows of three, separated by ranks of bleachers. Bleachers also ran around the perimeter of the facility. There were plans, the brochure said, to add another row of three rinks.

Exactly the same signs were hanging here that hung in the Brody Memorial rink at home: no stick-and-puck games off ice, no hanging from the overhead netting. And, just the way it was back home, the walls everywhere in the facility were covered with black neoprene marks.

Abruptly, Llyra overheard a sort of stage whisper behind her back, in the narrow aisle between the boards—the walls of the rink—and the foot of the bleachers. “Why are those cripples hanging around here?” The rubber carpeting had kept her from hearing their approach, but Llyra didn’t need to turn to see who was behind her, ostensibly headed for one of the girls’ locker rooms under the bleachers. Their images were reflected in the transparent plastic in front of her face, almost as well as if it were a mirror. In any case, she’d seen these four young women huddled together in the lobby when she and Jasmeen had arrived. What she didn’t know was that they were a type that could be found at almost any rink. They were burdened with their coats, purses, skate bags, school books, and an attitude she thought could have used some adjustment.

“Shhh!” another of the girls insisted. “I heard at the desk that one of them is an Intermediate—or was it a Novice?—and the other is her coach.” That was the black girl speaking, Llyra was certain, with an English accent. One of the girls was Asian, and the other two were white, a tall blond and a redhead. Llyra was fairly certain the one who had spoken first was the redhead, skinny, covered in freckles, and with a small pointy nose and chin like a Japanese cartoon girl. They all wore the ponytail, tightly pulled back, that came close to being the uniform of figure skaters everywhere.

“I heard that, too,” said another of the girls, the Asian, Llyra thought. “I heard they’re from the Outer Worlds, somewhere. Maybe the Asteroid Belt or even the moons of Jupiter. Somebody said something about the Martian Figure Skating Association. I was never any good at geography.” They kept walking to their locker room, but Llyra could still hear them. This place served a second purpose, as an emergency air storage facility—another Heinlein prediction come true. The air pressure was about twice what was normal in the rest of Armstrong, and sound carried.

“Not geography, dummy,” The blond observed. She was tall and gangly, with angled features people sometimes refer to as “hatchet- faced”. “Planetography. The coach’s certifiction is Martian, all right, but she’s also registered with the SFSU. Say that ten times fast!”

“Yeah, and you can tell which one she is by the way she stands—even in a walker.” That was the redhead again. “I can recognize a born trouble-maker when I see one! Who does she think she is, the colonial trash!”

The blond snorted. “Just because your father’s the East American ambassador—”

“Ambassador of the United States of America—all sixty-five of them!”

“Whatever. Look, Janna Kolditz, you’re new out here. Maybe back where you come from, everything and everyone belongs to the government and people slink along the street with their heads down, like whipped dogs.”

“Why, I—!”

“Out here, in Free Space, in the Moon, way out in the Asteroids, everybody holds himself up proudly and walks like a free individual—especially the Martians, who had to win their independence the hard way, if you’ll recall your history. They belong to themselves, Janna, they believe in themselves. That’s what you’re seeing that you don’t like.”

The Asian girl added, “Danita is right. My parents were refugees from East America, you know. My guess is that these two are trying to get used to our Lunar gravity, like we’d have to do on Earth. I don’t envy them a bit, either. It must hurt all the time, even in their sleep.”

“Well I don’t care who or what they are, Kelly Tran. Or what their problems happen to be,” the redhead sniffed. “My father would know what to do with them back home, and they’d just better stay out of my way!”

The redheaded girl reached the end of the bleachers, pushed her way through the locker room door, and disappeared. The other girls followed her. Llyra gave Jasmeen a look of exasperated disbelief. The Martian atmosphere is thin, and Martians have excellent hearing as a result. Jasmeen had heard the whole thing, too, and shook her head in agreement. “I thought all that political stuff was settled long ago,” Llyra said.

Jasmeen said, “Politics is never settled.”

******

“Okay, folks, tellya what I’m gonna do … ” Lafcadio Guzman leaned back behind his desk and clasped his large hands, fingers interlaced, over his ample abdomen. It would have been a more effective posture, Wilson thought to himself, if the used spaceship salesman had been sitting on a reclining swivel chair, instead of the same thin air that he and his grandmother were sitting on. “Three hundred platinum for the ship,” Guzman suddenly looked serious. He was more impressive when his shriveled legs were hidden by his desk. “I’ll pay for half the repairs and refitting, up to another fifty.”

He’d nodded politely at Wilson before stating his proposition, but it was Wilson’s grandmother he was actually bargaining with, and all three of them knew it. Now, giving her some time to think his offer over, Lafcadio took a heroic gulp from a baggie of steaming, heavily creamed coffee that floated within easy reach, tethered near his right elbow. In the sudden quiet, Wilson took a sip from his own baggie. He had always been partial to mocha. He was glad that he had Julie with him. He felt a little disoriented by the conditions here. For a moment he’d considered asking the man to turn on the gravity. When they’d first come in, he’d noticed huge metal pivots on which this part of the building was hung. The room was basically cylindrical, and seemed to be designed to use the circumferencial wall as a floor. But aside from this desk, with its steel top and magnetic paperweights, and assorted business machinery scattered here and there, there didn’t seem to be any furniture. The man’s disability might be why he preferred freefall. Also, the room had been turned (no coincidence there, Wilson knew) so he could look at the little asteroid hunter as they bargained over her. It would have been an effective tactic if his grandmother weren’t here.

“Two hundred,” Julie answered her old friend matter-of-factly. “And you’ll pay for all necessary repairs, no limit, until the ship passes a reputable insurer’s inspection. If you do the work yourself, which I’m pretty certain you planned to all along, Wilson can help you out.”

“What’s this?” Guzman’s eyes widened dramatically, and he swore briefly in what Wilson assumed was Puerto Rican Spanish. He waved his arms around, which set him drifting off at an angle. “A measly two hundred, and you would have me tutor this untried boy for nothing? Why do you always do this to me, Julie Segovia? How am I supposed to make any money out of the deal? What are my poor children supposed to live on?”

Lafcadio had precessed until the back of his head was toward them and he had to flail around and pull on the coffee tether anchored to his desk to face them once again. It was very funny, Wilson thought, but all of this harsh talk between old friends disturbed him—until he observed that both the salesman and his grandmother seemed to be enjoying the process immensely. It had to be a New Jersey thing, he concluded.

Julie laughed, “You don’t have any children, Lafcadio. I know your wife from the last Ganymede venture, remember? You keep Jack Russell terriers.”

“They seem to flourish,” the man admitted sheepishly, “in zero gravity.” “And this ‘boy’, here is hardly untried. Think back to when you were seventeen, Lafcadio, back on the street in Newark. Were you a boy then or a man? He had a man’s job on the Ceres Terraformation Project, where he did for seven ecoterrorists singlehandedly, and captured the other five. That’s why he’s here; the Curringer Corporation gave him a reward.”

Lafcadio raised both of his hands, palms turned up and outward, in apparent anguish. “I know, Julie Ngu. I saw the whole thing on 3DTV. Still—”

“Still,” she told him, “you’ll end up making quite a tidy profit, my old friend, because when I get back to my apartment in Armstrong tonight, I’ll persuade the museum in Curringer—I’m on the board of directors—to take that mysterious white elephant of yours off your hands at a fair price, and cart it away to orbit Pallas. They’ll end up running two excursions a day and three on Saturdays and Sundays. I’ll even see that you’re mentioned as a contributor, with a big bronze plaque and everything.”

A look of astonishment and delight wrote itself briefly across the ship-trader’s features until he caught himself and erased it with the best poker face he had. “How much do you think they’ll pay?” he asked, trying to look shrewd. Will they spell my name right? One Z, and one N?”

Julie laughed. “They’ll spell your name right, Lafcadio, I’ll see to it myself. And we’ll repeat everything in Chinese ideograms. As to their price, well, I shouldn’t say it, but I happen to agree with you that it’s a genuine Drake-Tealy Object, absolutely the largest ever found. It could be important, and it begs for proper examination. I wish my mother-in-law could have seen it. Anway, it’s priceless and unique, certainly worth at least five to ten times what you paid for it.”

“Five to ten times … ” Lafcadio leaned forward and had to stop himself on the desk to keep from tumbling. “Then you got yourself a deal.” He turned at last to Wilson. “Good luck, kid—pardon, not-a-kid. You got yourself a ride. Your grandma is a bargainer. And I, Lafcadio Guzman himself, hope that you catch a rhodium nugget the size of your head, or maybe the Diamond Rogue.”

It was theoretically possible, but unlikely. Still, it was a very nice wish—for everybody but DeBeers, Ltd. Wilson accepted it with thanks.

Julie raised her baggie. “To Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend!”

“To Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend.” Wilson answered.

“Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend?” Lafcadio said. “Why not just call her Minnie?”

******

Llyra shook her head—and nearly lost her balance. It was difficult to decide which was more humiliating, what she was doing at this minute, shuffling along across the ice like an old lady behind a trainer—a sort of icegoing walker made of lightweight metal tubing—or what she’d gone through earlier in the rink office suite.

“Welcome to the Heinlein,” the woman with the frizzy red hair had told them. She was probably about her mother’s age, Llyra thought, but like most people born and raised away from Earth’s gravity—like her own mother, in fact—she looked younger. Virtual letters neatly painted on the virtual glass set in her virtual office door had read, “Armstrong/Heinlein Representative, Lunar Figure Skating Association”. The door had vanished when they’d started to knock. Jasmeen, who knew about such things, had explained that if they were going to buy contract ice time for the foreseeable future, it would be best to be affiliated with the local figure skating club.

One entire wall of the woman’s office was transparent, and looked down on the rink area, two hundred feet or more below. The view was breathtaking—and dizzying. The woman led them from the door—back in place again, Llyra noticed—to a pair of chairs in front of her desk. Politely turning her back while they made an awkward transfer from their walkers, she went around the desk to seat herself behind it. “I’m Shirlene Hofstaedter, local representative of the Lunar Figure Skating Association. And what can I do for you ladies this afternoon?”

Llyra’s coach leaned forward in her chair. “I am Jasmeen Khalidov, instructor certified with Martian Figure Skating Association and Solar Figure Skating Union. Home club is small, only fifty members so far, but growing.”

The woman nodded and smiled. “Then everybody knows everybody else in your home club. That must be nice. I’m afraid we have over thirty thousand LFSA members. Figure skating is a very popular sport in the Moon.”

“Hockey, too,” Jasmeen observed, gazing through the windows for a moment down onto the ice. She and Llyra had stayed down in the rink area gawking for an hour before coming up here. “You do have very beautiful facility here. Six rinks under one roof. Is flabbergasting spectacle.” The woman smiled again, but didn’t laugh at Jasmeen’s choice of words. “Why, thank you, my dear. We’re building three more ice sheets on the far side of those you see. But wait until we’ve finished with our surface facility. Unlike our other sheets, it’ll be up there in the sunshine and starlight, under a dome.” She punched a few buttons on the virtual keyboard showing on her desktop. “Here you are, all right, Khalidov, Jasmeen Mohammedova, Adult Gold, Certified SFSU Instructor. Let’s get your student signed up, shall we? Your name, dear?”

For some reason, she felt nervous. “Llyra Ayn Ngu—two Ls, one Y.”

“You don’t say. What a pretty name, Llyra. It is Welsh? No? Ayn must be A Y N, like the novelist. How do you spell your last name, dear?”

Llyra told her. It was extremely strange not to hear her last name recognized. It was the first time in Llrya’s life that it had ever happened. “And you are from—not Mars?”

“Not Mars. Curringer, on Pallas.” “Curringer, on Pallas. That’s an asteroid, I know that much.” The woman had been making quick-fingered notes on the virtual keyboard in her desktop. “Very well, dear. And what would you say is your best jump?”

“My best jump … ” She glanced over at Jasmeen, who gave her an encouraging smile, but otherwise said nothing. “Well, my Salchow, I guess.”

“Salchow,” the woman tapped it all down. “And how many turns—documented?”

Llyra blinked. “Well, Jasmeen has movies. Best I’ve ever done is nineteen.”

It was the woman’s turn to blink. “Nineteen turns. And you landed it?”

Llyra grinned at the memory and saw Jasmeen do the same. It had been a good day, Llyra’s twelfth birthday. “Yes, I landed it—that time.”

The woman stopped typing and looked up her. “And how many here?”

“Here? None, now. I haven’t even skated here, yet.” She pointed a thumb to the walker standing beside her chair. “Here, I can hardly stand.”

The woman made more notes on her desktop. “Do you think you can you manage a waltz jump? No? Then how about a bunny hop? Not even swizzles?”

Llyra shook her head slowly, feeling ashamed, although she knew she had no reason to be. In one of those unmartian gestures she was given to, Jasmeen reached across the space between their chairs and took her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “I’m going to have to put you down as a Beginner One.” She sighed. “I guess you’d better have this, too—rink rules.”

She reached back toward a stack of bright fabric piled on a shelf behind her desk, and handed Llyra a small vest made of interplanetary safety-orange mesh. Stencilled across the back, in fluorescent lime green, were two words:

BEGINNER ONE

The woman said, “Wear this at all times when you’re out on the ice. I’ll get one of our rink guards to find you an adult trainer frame.”

“Please,” Jasmeen asked, “to give me Beginner One vest and trainer also.”

******

Wilson was buried in antiquated wiring when he heard the airlock cycle. Twisting his torso and craning his neck, he saw his grandmother skim through the inner door, fly to the opposite wall of the ship, and seize a handhold with one hand. In her other, she held a large mesh bag.

“Good morning, Captain my Captain!” Julie had taken to calling him that ever since they’d signed the papers transferring ownership of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend from the Guzman Brothers (Lafcadio Guzman, Prop.) to the partnership of Wilson and Julie Ngu. He didn’t know if he liked it or not. Maybe he’d feel better about being called captain once he’d finished the classes on shiphandling he’d signed up for as a condition—one of several conditions—she’d insisted on before becoming his partner.

In the course of acquiring a spaceship, Wilson had discovered, to his dismay, that, even with the bargaining Julie had done for him, he didn’t have enough money for operating expenses, port fees, initial reaction mass, provisions, and so on. Julie had offered to become his partner and “grubstake” him. But first, he had to take shiphandling lessons.

Wilson had agreed.

“Look,” she exclaimed now, laughing and holding up the mesh bag. “I’ve brought you a shrubbery! And you didn’t even have to say, ‘Niii!’”

Shaking his head, he squirmed out of the utility access niche, gave a little tap of his foot, and floated toward her. He’d meant to start replacing the vegetation that had once carpeted the cylindrical walls of the ship. It was just one of those things he hadn’t gotten to yet.

It was weird, sometimes, having Julie for a grandmother. Filled to the brim with energy and enthusiasm, she looked about a quarter of her genuine age. He was glad they weren’t on Pallas, where he’d have to explain her to his friends before they embarrassed themselves. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t want him to explain. Now there was a sobering thought.

Still, Julie was a pioneer. These were circumstances the human race in general was going to have to get used to. He certainly didn’t intend to get old and die, himself. Which meant, with any luck, that he’d look nineteen when he was ninety. (He’d heard that there were sects on Earth that forbade life extension therapy to their members as evil and unnatural.) Nor did he want old age to happen to anyone he loved. If they lived long enough—say a thousand years—maybe his parents could finally work things out.

Wilson had always liked freefall. Alighting gracefully beside her on the wall just aft of the pilot’s canopy, he asked, “Why would I say ‘knee’?”

“No, it’s ‘Niii!’ It’s from an old movie. I brought you this, too.”

She held out a bright blue metallic object the size of an aspirin tablet, meant for use in his personal computer. He squeezed it between thumb and forefinger and in the air, above his thumb, colorful letters formed:

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL

Python (Monty) Pictures 1974

Before he could say anything, a buzzer sounded. The comm system had been startling him with false alarms all day. He gave another kick and floated to the pilot’s chair. It would be a long trip by ladder when the ship was underway. The screen was activated and showed a familiar face.

“Willie darling!” It was Amorie, speaking in what was almost real time. “We’re headed for the Earth-Moon system! We’ll be there in 24 hours!”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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