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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, August 7, 2009 18:55 EDT



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

    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 –”



    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.

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