PART II. 1921 Post-Diaspora.

(4023, Christian Era)

Because the Beowulfers imported a full, functional technological base, and because they were within such close proximity to Sol that scientific data could be transmitted from one planet to another in less than twenty years, they never endured any of the decivilizing experiences that other colonies did. In fact, Beowulf has remained pretty much on the cutting edge of science, especially in the life sciences, for the better part of two millennia. Following the horrific damage suffered by Old Earth after its Final War, Beowulf took the lead in reconstruction efforts on the homeworld, and Beowulfers take what is probably a pardonable pride in their achievements. Beowulf’s possession of a wormhole junction terminus — especially a terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, which is the largest and most valuable in known space — hasn’t hurt its economic position one bit. In short, when you arrive in Beowulf you will be visiting a very wealthy, very stable, very populous, and very powerful star system which, especially in light of the local autonomy enjoyed by members of the Solarian League, is essentially a single-star polity in its own right.

From Chandra Smith and Yoko Watanabe, Beowulf: The Essential Guide for Commercial Travelers. (Gonzaga & Gonzaga, Landing, 1916 PD)

February, 1921 PD

Chapter 8

Brice Miller began slowing the cab as he approached Andrew’s Curve, often called Artlett’s Folly by some of Brice’s less charitable relatives. The curve in the roller coaster track was also a rise, which tended to fool the rider into thinking the centrifugal force wouldn’t be as savage as it was if the cab went into the curve at full speed.

In the amusement park’s heyday, the cabs had been designed to handle such velocities. But that had been decades ago. Age, spotty maintenance, and the deterioration brought on by the nearby moon Hainuwele’s plasma torus had made a lot of the rides in the enormous amusement park in orbit around the giant ringed planet Ameta too risky for public use. Which, of course, just added to the downward spiral caused by the original folly of the park’s creator, Michael Parmley, who had thought up this white elephant and poured both a fortune and his extended family into it.

Brice’s great-grandfather, he had been. By the time Brice was born, the park’s founder had been dead for almost forty years. The small clan he left behind in possession of the now-ramshackle and essentially defunct amusement park was presided over — you couldn’t really use the term “ruled” to apply to such a contentious and disputatious lot as her multitude of offspring and relatives — by his widow, Elfride Margarete Butre.

She was Brice’s favorite relative, except for his two cousins James Lewis and Edmund Hartman, who were the closest to his own age. And, of course, except for his very very favorite relative, the same uncle Andrew Artlett for whom the curve or the folly — it had been both, really — were named.

Brice loved his uncle’s curve, although he always approached it very carefully since the accident. He’d been with his uncle when Andrew gave the curve its name. Coming into that section of the giant roller coaster at a truly reckless velocity, both of them whooping with glee, Andrew had managed to break the cab loose from the tracks. Not from the magnetic track, of course — it would probably have taken a shipyard tug or a small warship to do that — but from the magnetic grips themselves. The metal must have gotten fatigued over the long years.

Whatever the cause, the two grips had snapped as neatly as you could ask for. And there they were, a forty-two-year-old-going-on-twelve uncle and his eight-year-old-and-aging-rapidly nephew, in a cab not more than ten meters in any dimension, tumbling through space. The proverbially “empty” space, except this portion of the universe contained a lot of ionized particles vented from Hainuwele and swept into Ameta’s magnetosphere, along with gases from Yamato’s Nebula. They had no source of propulsion usable on anything except maglev tracks, and with only the meager life support systems you’d expect for an amusement park roller coaster cab which had never been designed to be occupied for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Still, they managed to eke out the air and power long enough to be rescued by the clan’s grande dame, who came after them with the somehow-still-functional yacht that had been one of the many follies left behind by her husband. Fortunately, Elfride Margarete Butre had been a renowned pilot in her heyday, and while that heyday was many decades behind her, the old lady still had the knack of flying by the proverbial seat of her pants. That was about the only way she could have managed to pull off the rescue before the cab’s shielding was overwhelmed by the harsh and lethal radiation in Ameta’s magnetosphere, given that the yacht’s instrument systems were in the same parlous state of repair as just about everything owned by the clan of a material nature.

On the negative side, the same Elfride Margarete Butre had an acid tongue that suffered no fools gladly and suffered downright screwballs not at all. As it happened, the comm systems on both the yacht and the now-adrift roller coaster cab had been among the few pieces of equipment still functioning almost perfectly. Nor, alas, could the comm system in the cab be turned off by the inhabitants. It had been designed, after all, to pass on instructions to idiot tourists. So, the entire rescue was accompanied, from start to finish and with not more than four seconds of continuous silence, with what had gone down into the clan’s extensive legendry as Ganny’s Second-Best Skinning.

(The Very Best Skinning had been the one she bestowed upon her deceased husband, when she first learned that he’d died of a heart attack in the middle of attempting to recoup his lost fortunes in a game of chance — right at the point where he’d triumphed but before his opponents had turned over the purse. Leaving aside the expletives, the gist of it had been: “Seventy years living on the edge, you put me through! And you couldn’t hold on for seven more seconds?”)

Fortunately for Brice, his age had sheltered him from most of the ferocious diatribe. Still, even the penumbra of the vitriol poured upon Uncle Andrew by Ganny El had scarred him for life.

So he liked to think, anyway. The incident was several years in the past, and Brice was now fourteen years old. That is to say, the age when all bright and right-thinking lads come to realize that theirs is a solemn fate. Doomed, perhaps by destiny, perhaps by chance, but certainly by their exquisite sensitivity, to the tormented life of the outcast. Condemned to awkward silences and inept speech; consigned to the outer darkness of misunderstanding; sentenced to a life of loneliness.

And celibacy, of course, he’d told himself until three days earlier — whereupon his uncle Andrew piled misery onto melancholy by explaining to him the fine distinction between celibacy and chastity.

“Oh, cut it out, Brice. You’re just in a funk because –”

He held up a meaty thumb. “Cousin Jennifer won’t give you the time of day, and for reasons known only to boys who have been turned into hollow mindless shells by hormones — yes, I knew the reasons myself way back then, but I’ve long since forgotten since I stopped being a teenage cretin — your ‘affections,’ as they are politely called, have naturally settled on the girl in your vicinity who is probably the best-looking and certainly the most self-absorbed.”

“That’s not –”

“Point two.” The forefinger came up to join the thumb. “You have therefore persuaded yourself that you are bound for a life of solitary splendor. If you can’t have Jennifer Foley, you’ll have no lass for a bride. Not that you’ve got any business daydreaming about brides, when you’ve got Tempestuous Taub riled at you for your dismal performance in trigonometry.”

Brice scowled. His much older cousin Andrew Taub was the very least favorite of his cousins, at the moment. It was preposterous to expect a fourteen year old boy gripped by life’s great despairs to attend to the tedious — no, leaden — dullness of sines and cosines and such. Even a teacher as anal-retentive as Andy Taub ought to realize that much.

“That’s not –”