Remorselessly, the middle finger joined its fellows. “Point three. You don’t care about marriage anyway. You’re only telling yourself that because you’re still” — he paused for a moment, his heavy features disfigured by a caricature of thought — “at least four months away, by my best estimate, from the liberating realization that you don’t need to be married to get laid — which is actually what your Mongol horde of hormones has got you worked up about, when it comes to Cousin Jennifer.”

“That’s really not –”

But it was hard to divert Uncle Andrew once he was on a roll. The ring finger came up to join the others. To add to the unfairness of the moment, despite Andrew Artlett’s anything-but-gracile appearance, he was actually very well coordinated. Coordinated enough to be one of those rare people who could lift his ring finger while leaving the pinkie still curled in the palm of his hand.

“Point four. Once that realization comes to you, of course, the relief will be only temporary — since it will also become obvious to you the first time you attempt to act upon your newfound knowledge that Cousin Jennifer has no more interest in humping you than wedding you.” He bestowed a cheerful smile upon his nephew. “Whereupon you will suddenly realize you are condemned to a life of chastity — that means not getting laid — as well as a life of celibacy, which merely refers to remaining single.”

Despite himself, Brice had been intrigued. “I didn’t know there was a difference.”

“Oh, hell, yes. Ask any churchman. They’ve been parsing the distinction for eons, the lecherous bastids. And don’t try to interrupt me. Because it’s at that point –”

Inexorably, the pinkie took its place. “– point five, if you’ve lost track — when you’ll go completely off the deep end of early adolescence and start writing poetry.”

Brice’s protest died aborning. As it happened, he’d already started writing poetry.

“Really, really bad poetry,” his uncle concluded triumphantly.

Sadly, Brice had already come to suspect as much.


Brice brought the cab to a halt at the very apex of the curve. He couldn’t have done that with most of the roller coaster’s cabs, of course. Even those which were functional — still more than three-quarters of them — had been originally designed for tourists. Tourists were a species of the genus imbecile. Hardly the sort of people any sane amusement park would allow to control the vehicles on the various rides.

However, despite the unfortunate results of Uncle Andrew’s enthusiasm on that memorable day, Elfride Margarete Butre had not tried to impose tourist rules on her family. She had not remained the undisputed head of the clan because there was anything creaky about the old lady’s brain. She knew perfectly well that preventing recklessness altogether, in a clan which had as many children as hers did — not to mention the childlike nature of some of its adult members — was impossible anyway. Far better to provide suitable channels for excessive enthusiasm.

So, although she’d rendered most of the roller coaster cabs dysfunctional, she’d seen to it that three of them were brought fully up to snuff — which included turning Uncle Andrew’s jury-rigged controls into something approximating a professional design. And she’d imposed no restrictions on their use, except for the obvious rule that no one was allowed to ride the roller coaster without someone else in the control room — and not more than one cab at a time was allowed on the track. She went even further and enforced that last rule by re-engineering the track so that the power would automatically cut off if more than one cab entered it. Only the Mysterious Lord of the Universe knew how rambunctious teenagers could manage to stage races on a roller coaster, but Ganny El knew perfectly well that the youngsters in her clan would certainly give it a try if she let them.

She probably also knew that her great-great-nephew Brice Miller had managed, with his uncle’s help, to circumvent the controls enough to allow the youngster to ride the track any time he wanted to, whether or not the requisite observer was present in the control room. But, if she did, she chose to look the other way. Elfride Margarete Butre, being a wise old woman in fact as well as theory, had learned long ago that rules were meant to be broken, so the savvy matriarch always makes sure to put in place a few rules for that very purpose. Let the children and would-be children break those rules, and hopefully the ones that really mattered would go untouched.

Besides, although she’d certainly never told him so and Brice himself would have been astonished by the news, the truth was that Brice was Ganny El’s second most favorite nephew of all time.

Her most favorite was Andrew Artlett.


Brice spent perhaps twenty minutes just gazing at the splendid vista that his perch on the curve provided him. In the distance, serving as a backdrop, was Yamato’s Nebula. It was actually a dozen light years away, but it looked much closer. Most of Brice’s attention, though, was given to the giant planet around which the station revolved. Ameta’s cool blue-green colors belied the fury that swirled in that thick atmosphere. Brice had spent enough time watching Ameta to know that the cloud belts and the periodic spots in them were constantly changing. For some reason, he found that continual transformation a source of serenity. Watching Ameta could remove for a time almost all of the fourteen-year-old angst that afflicted him.

Not all, of course. His two efforts to transfer that ringed glory into rhyme and meter had been . . .

Well. Disastrous. Truly putrid. Poetry so bad there was a good chance the spirit of ancient Homer had shrieked for a moment, back there on distant Old Earth.

About twenty minutes after arriving at the curve, all of Brice’s momentary pleasure vanished. He’d finally caught sight of the vessel coming toward the amusement park’s docking area.

Another slaver had arrived.

He’d better get back. Things were always a little tense when slave ships showed up to use the park’s facilities. They had no legal right to do so, but there were no effective authorities out here in the middle of nowhere to enforce the law. Soon enough, anyway, to make any difference. The mining boom that Brice’s great-grandfather had expected to develop on Hainuwele had never materialized, despite several false starts. The gas-mining operations that did take place in Ameta’s atmosphere required far less labor than old man Parmley had counted on to keep his amusement park in business — and those miners were in no position to serve as the system’s police force, even if they’d been so inclined.

Years back, the first two attempts by slavers to use the park’s mostly-abandoned facilities as a convenient and free staging area and transfer station had erupted in pitched battles with the clan. The family had won both fights. But two of them was enough to make it obvious that they couldn’t possibly survive many more — and they were now much too poor to abandon the park.

So, a combination truce and tacit agreement had developed between Ganny El and her people and the slavers. The slavers could use the park as long as they kept their activities restricted to specified areas, and didn’t bother the clan. Or the tiny number of tourists who still occasionally showed up.

And paid something for the privilege. Fine, it was blood money, and if the Audubon Ballroom ever found out about it there’d probably be hell to pay. But the clan needed the money to survive. There was even a little bit left over after each transaction for Ganny El to slowly build up a kitty that might, some day, finally allow the clan to give up the park altogether and migrate somewhere else.

Where? Elfride Margarete Butre had no idea. It wouldn’t happened in her lifetime, anyway, as slowly as the funds accumulated.