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Chapter Zero: THE MASCON

It never fails to surprise me how innovative Pallatians
can be. I think it must come from the example of Wild Bill
Curringer, who, for all practical purposesl, invented the
very planet they live on and call home.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

She descended like an angel, from the blood-scarlet heavens high
above, into a flurry of microscopic ice crystals, swirling in great
spirals all about her.

Seen through a carefully-arranged summer blizzard from a thousand
feet in the air, the little crater lake didn’t look like much, but she
had measured it very carefully before the first time she’d used it—
this was, perhaps, the fiftieth—referring to orbital photographs.
She knew that it was two thousand yards across its shortest expanse
(and about the same across its longest), more than adequate for the
day’s exercise.

The light, glittering snow continued falling. It lay, where it had
already settled, in a feathery, weightless blanket that spread across
the smooth, hard, level surface of the frozen lake, which was
surrounded everywhere by a low, natural wall. Beyond that wall lay
dense forest and unnumbered perils, including dangerous animals. By
the time she hovered over the lake, the color of the snowy surface a
hundred feet beneath her titanium-shod toe-tips, and of the sky—and
of the very air around her—had shifted to a bright and promising
orange.

These were only two of the many colors of a Pallatian sunrise.

Climate Control had done its job perfectly. The sky was thinly
overcast and she knew from orbital radar scans taken by the same folks
who had made it snow for her, that the surface of the lake was solid
to a depth of at least eighteen inches. She’d be baking lots of peanut
butter cookies for the crew manning the giant mirrors that controlled
the weather on Pallas, second largest, and first settled, of the Belt
asteroids.

Her gloves were made of the same slick and shiny material, in the
same brilliant metallic blue, as the rest of her close-fitting
excerise suit, which covered her from head to the soles of her boots.
She brushed snow from the horizontal surfaces of what those who didn’t
live on Pallas often called a “flying belt”. It was actually a toroid,
more like an old-fashioned life preserver—like the ones that hung
here and there on ancient ships—with two smaller toroids fused to
it, 180 degrees apart. The largest toroid went around one’s waist and
the smaller pair each held a powerful electrostatic grid that ionized
the air and pushed it through to keep the whole device and its rider
aloft.

She had flown a very long way, mostly in pitch darkness, to be
here at dawn. If she had to walk back it would probably take weeks or
months.

At fifty feet, the silent fury of her passage, of the tiny twin
hurricanes holding her aloft, had begun to scour the ice until she
saw herself reflected, surrounded by a gauzy halo of brilliant canary
yellow, yet another color of the Pallatian morning. The effect had
something to do with sunlight refracted through the asteroid’s plastic
atmospheric canopy—the same phenomenon occurred at sunset, only in
reverse order—but nobody seemed to know much more than that about
it.

As the serried tips of her twin gleaming blades touched the ice,
she toggled the dual releases of the harness that had supported her,
raised her arms gracefully above her head, and let the machine that
had borne her to this place, across hundreds of miles of untamed
wilderness, rise gently around her until it floated free above her
head.

Hanging in its holster from the same harness that had supported
her was the ten millimeter pistol her mother had insisted that she
take with her. Early in its history, Pallas had been stocked with all
sorts of wildlife, including some of Earth’s most ferocious predators.
To any extent that they had explained it at all, the little world’s
founders had said they wanted to remind their posterity that safety is
a dangerous illusion—and besides, they happened to like ferocious
predators.

At her command, the little flying machine drifted to the edge of
the ice, set itself down upon the shore amidst a miniature flurry of
wind-driven snow, and obligingly shut itself off to await her later
need.

By then the sky above her head, the very air around her, and the
ice beneath her feet had turned to an emerald so deep and pure that it
was almost enough to break her heart—except that it was perfectly
normal to her, perfectly natural. She had arisen with it almost every
morning of her young life—more than forty-seven hundred of them,
she quickly calculated—and returned home with it almost every
evening.

As usual, she began warming up with several waltz jumps. It was an
easy exercise, and she could do them in either direction—a talent
fairly rare among skaters—starting off on the right foot or the
left. In either case, the trick was getting up onto the toe before the
jump.

All around her, the ice, the sky above it, and the snow-covered
land were all a rich, soul-rending blue.

Suddenly she left the ice, rising twice her height into the air—
a feat impossible on humanity’s homeworld—covering at least 50 feet
in a long, graceful arc. At the end of it, she alighted without a
sound, indulgently skimming another hundred feet before she prepared
for another jump.

Next came the Salchow, beginning with a three-turn on the takeoff.
She remembered not to jump off the left back inside edge, as she was
reflexively inclined to do, but to turn and jump sideways, almost, off
the toepick.

By now, everything around her was bathed in violet light.

The trouble with her next jump, the toe loop, was the axis of its
rotation. She took off on her left toepick, then had to flip her body
around to change the center of her turn until it was over her right
foot rather than her left.

Now for the loop. Leg position during the jump was critical, and
she had to remember to tuck the left leg over right, instead of
bringing the left ankle to the right knee.

The flip started with a Mohawk—a change from the right forward
inside edge to the left backward inside edge. On the takeoff, she
pointed her right toe toward the back to fight the natural tendency to
start the jump by kicking down with a bent right knee.

There were similar problems with the Lutz—a tendency to “flutz”
it by taking off as with the flip, as opposed to being on the left
backward outside edge. Instead, she put her right toepick in and
jumped.

At long last, she came to the Axel, the prize most sought after by
new figure skaters, and gateway to the double jumps, The Axel was a
turn and a half, and she had to fight a tendency to “pop out” after
only a single rotation.

Now, as the landscape began to be bathed in the yellow-white light
that most human beings would regard as normal, she excuted a double
Salchow—the same moves as before, but with two rotations. Then came
the double toe loop, followed by the double loop and double flip,
ending the sequence with a double Lutz, and then the double Axel it
had taken her a year, a thousand falls, and cost her family a hundred
platinum ounces to get right.

The double Axel—two and a half turns—led to a series of
triple jumps, and those led to a series of quadruples, quintuples, and
sextuples. By now she was soaring forty feet into the air, carrying
with her, in her wake, a trail of powdery snow that made her think of
a rocket’s climb from ground to sky. On her home ice, the rink where
she’d been skating since she was an infant, this is where she had to
stop—the netting over the ice and the ceiling above it interfered
with further progress.

Here, she could jump he full seventy feet she was capable of.

She had yet to land a septuple jump, although the power was there,
and Pallatian gravity permitted it. One simply became too disoriented
after seven turns to land on a single foot. She had already begun
working on that, however, and had vowed never to stop—it might take
years; it had taken years already—until she could make a dozen
turns and land cleanly.

Finally it was time to go home. The snow had stopped falling, the
ice had begun to look wet, and she had a long flight ahead of her.
Touching a band on her wrist, she summoned her flying belt. Impellers
humming and throwing snow—obscuring the pawprints, each the size of
both her hands, of an African leopard she had been too preoccupied to
notice inspecting her belongings—the device lifted itself into the
air, obediently flew to her, and lowered itself over her head and
shoulders.

She fastened the support straps and pushed forward on the control
stick. Rising rapidly, she punched a course into the autopilot, and
watched the uncharted wilderness roll by a thousand feet below her
blades.

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