At the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of Uncle Teco's Homebrew Gravitics Club
a short story
Mirabella McAllister arrived at the meetpoint in Low Earth Orbit by submarine.
One of the new kids, a fifteen-year-old who went by the name Striker, was the first to spot her, a bright brassy glint rising from the deepening blue of the Earth so far below, just as the terminator crossed the U.S. Pacific coast. Typical Mira, to time her ascent for the most spectacular entrance. Striker called out "Hey, I think that's her!", and soon the habitat's viewing lobby fluttered with excited confirmations and speculations. Would Mira's ship be as outlandish as the dragonfly with the sixty-meter wingspan, or as ethereally beautiful as the abstract she'd called Aurora Occidentalis? Could her suit possibly outdo last year's feathery vacuum flower, or her co-pilot outshine the blonde who'd accompanied her back in '53?
The whole ensemble would be something spectacular, we all knew that. After all, this was TecoCon 25, and Mira was not one to let a major anniversary pass without a major observance. Which is why none of us had expected Gary to appear.
But, of course, that's exactly why he did.
Gary Shelton had arrived six hours earlier, at exactly 1200 hours Pacific time, exactly 400 kilometers above the summit of Mount Hood, exactly as he always had before Chimera. He was still flying the same silver-blue tetrahedron, the Edison, its every angle laser-sharp and its four faces still mirror-perfect. Sometimes it vanished from sight for long moments; other times it reflected a bright triangle of swirling clouds among the stars, or formed a hard-edged polyhedron of night against the Earth below. Technically brilliant, mercurial, and showing more of its surroundings than it did of itself; that was the Edison.
An uncomfortable silence fell across the airlock lobby when Gary removed his helmet and his beard unfurled into free-fall like a slow explosion. The beard had turned completely gray, and the hair that had been thinning the last time we saw it was now all but gone. Perhaps that reminder of our own mortality was what subdued us all, or perhaps it was the ten years of unanswered questions that came flowing out of his suit along with the beard.
I was the first to break the silence. I excused myself from the conversation I'd been in and kicked off the wall, bringing myself to a halt at a stanchion next to the suit locker where Gary was carefully folding and stowing each segment as he removed it. "Let me help you with that" is what I said, though it's not the first thing I thought.
"Thanks, Ken," he said, and turned his back to me so I could undo his airpack. It was still the same, a fifteen-year-old design but just as elegant and functional as the day Gary designed it. Without a word, I undid the catches as he had silently requested, both of us relying on functional routine to carry us over the awkward chasm of a friendship too long divided. Hilton and Luxus habitats have valets to help with unsuiting, but at the shabby Black Lion Inn where TecoCons were held it was strictly do-it-yourself, and helping friends unsuit is one of the convention's traditions.
After Gary's suit was removed and properly stowed, we shook hands as though we were business people meeting at a professional conference -- which, in a sense, we were. Things had changed a lot since the days when we were both "tickling Uncle Teco's feet."
"So..." I said, and at the same time he said "Well...", and we both stopped, and then we laughed a strained little laugh.
I tried again. "So where're you living these days?"
"Boulder," he said, with all that implied.
"Working for Gradient, then? What division?"
"No division. I have my own company now, and five employees. Most of our contracts are with the Big G, sure, but they aren't the only game in town."
"Probably doesn't leave you a lot of Up time."
"I get Up every now and again. But I didn't see your old rattletrap floating in the parking lot. Flying something new?"
His eyes brightened a bit as he asked the question, and I had to look at his chest. "No. I, uh... I flew Skylark."
"Ken Griswold, taking a commercial carrier? How are the mighty fallen!" He said it with that lighthearted mock-seriousness of his, but I heard the true disappointment behind the feigned disappointment.
"I still have Michelangelo's Dream," I said with defensive haste. "It's just... I've been too busy to maintain it properly." I swallowed, and looked out the window. "Hey, it's the Northern Lights."
He leaned in toward the glass. "Beautiful," he breathed. No matter how many times Gary came Up, he was one of those for whom the view never palled.
I had pointed out the aurora to Gary so I wouldn't have to admit that my ship hadn't been out from under its tarp in over five years. Unlike him, I'd fallen into the gravity well of the Big G, and now I flew spreadsheets sixty hours a week. But the sight was enough to raise even my spirits. Pale shimmers of pink and blue and gold streamed over the darkened polar horizon, fluttering silently like ribbons in the solar wind.
"This is why we come Up, isn't it?" I said, still looking out the window.
"Partly," he replied, and turned his head so that his reflected eyes met mine. "But mostly it's the people."
Gary's reflection and the aurora blurred together for a moment. "Damn, it's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back."
Six hours later, though, with Mira rising to the meetpoint, I wondered whether he still agreed with that assessment.
I was at the bar, in a crowd of old-timers catching up with Gary (but carefully avoiding the tender spots in our shared history), when Striker called out the news of Mira's approach. Immediately we floated up to the bar's big viewing window, a jostling flock of graying, overweight gravity hackers bumping lightly against each other like a school of tuna. Connie, a New Yorker whose ship looked like the Chrysler Building as a baby, had an image amplifier in her thigh pocket, and it got passed around in a flurry of impatient demands and gawps of wonder. Finally I snatched it from someone's hand and peered through the eyepiece at Mira's rising ship.
It was done up as a submarine. Not just any submarine, either -- Jules Verne's Nautilus, a Victorian confection of brightly polished copper and brass, sparkling with glass and bristling with filigree and gingerbread. Soft blue and green light rippled from its portholes, adding to the underwater effect. As the ship approached, details became apparent: spiraling sea shells and sensuous mermaids encrusted its hull, and for a figurehead it sported a huge brass narwhal, its unicorn tusk thrusting forward through the vacuum.
"She's still got it," I said, and offered Gary the image amplifier.
He waved it away. "Mira always said her work is best appreciated with the naked eye." The expression on his face was subtle as a fine wine -- sorrow and regret and anger mixed together, filtered through the mind of an engineer, and aged for ten years.
Gary and I floated side by side watching the sub grow from a fingerling to a whale. It was easily twice the size of any other ship in the parking lot, and the waves of light from its portholes made that collection of flying teddy bears, Christmas trees, and DeSotos look as though they too were under water. The force of Mira's personality transformed those other ships into mere setting for her latest creation.
Finally, majestically, the sub drew to a halt, and there was a scattering of applause. But Gary and I exchanged a knowing glance. A moment later, the crowd gasped as an enormous chartreuse tentacle came curling up from behind the sub, followed by another, and then another, and then the saucer-eyed head of a giant squid rose into view. The squid wobbled a bit as it inflated, but the illusion was otherwise nearly perfect, and the crowd applauded with greater and greater enthusiasm as the tableau stabilized. Fully inflated, the squid was even bigger than the sub itself; its eyes leered with menace as its tentacles held the sub in a death grip.
Gary applauded as hard as anyone. But his eyes shone with tears.
We moved into the airlock lobby as the applause dissolved into a babble of discussion and speculation. Was that real brass plating over the structural foam, or just paint? Were the squid's seven tentacles an error, or a reference to a movie from the last century? And who was her co-pilot du jour? Gary floated in the middle of it, saying nothing, his expression neutral. Connie came up to him and seemed about to speak, but her unspoken question collided with the look in his eye and she just shook her head and turned away.
Then came the whir of the inner door, and Mira floated into the lobby to thunderous applause. Her suit was done up as a diving suit, of course; a fantasia of a suit with a brass airpack as rococo as the ship. She undogged the helmet, red hair spilling into the air, and smiled her appreciation at the crowd, acknowledging old friends with blown kisses. And then she turned and gestured into the airlock.
Mira's co-pilot poked her head out of the airlock as nervously as a guppy in shark-infested waters, but with Mira's encouragement she slowly drifted into the lobby. "Everyone," Mira announced, "this is Babette."
Above the waist Babette's suit was close-fit, painted to match her own pale skin except for the twin scallop shells over her breasts; the helmet was a transparent bubble that almost wasn't there. Below the waist she wore a fish's tail, encasing both legs and shining with metallic scales in iridescent green. It wasn't much of a handicap in free fall.
I've never understood where Mira keeps finding such gorgeous girlfriends. This one was a blonde, slim and willowy as Mira always preferred, with large expressive eyes and perfect high cheekbones. She looked to be about twenty-five.
Mira herself, as even she would admit, was no beauty, having a long face and a substantial nose. She was fifty-one, the same age as me and a year younger than Gary. But she was a genius with clothing and make-up, her blue eyes crackled with intelligence, and her petite body hummed with creative energy. The substantial inheritance that supported her gravitics hobby didn't reduce her allure, either. But she was a woman of powerful opinions and her temper was legendary. Perhaps that was why her girlfriends rarely lasted a year.
Most of the crowd focused on Babette, who swam through the air with a lithe unconscious grace as she unscrewed her helmet, but Gary ignored her; his eyes were locked on Mira as though she were a closing door between him and Paradise. Mira, in turn, divided her attention between admiring Babette and enjoying the crowd admiring Babette. She contained herself well when she noticed Gary, I'll grant her that; she only nodded to him as she had to so many other old friends. But her eyes kept creeping back to him, then flicking away as she noticed he was still watching her.
Gradually the crowd broke apart, people forming knots of conversation, heading off for technical presentations, or wandering toward the bar. A few hours later I found myself at a gravity table in Foster's, the habitat's most expensive restaurant, with Mira, Babette, Connie... and Gary. I was surprised that Gary had wound up in Mira's dinner group; perhaps one of their other old friends had nudged the two of them together.
The conversation was light and witty, focusing on the latest gravity hacker gossip and the details of the Nautilus's construction, but the tension between Mira and Gary was palpable. Have you ever broken a magnet in half? The two halves, once a single unit that not only held itself together but drew other objects to itself, now repel each other. Mira and Gary were the same.
Service in Foster's was abominable, as always, and we'd already finished a bottle and a half of wine when the appetizers came. Connie celebrated the waiter's arrival with the traditional toast to Uncle Teco.
As we sipped, Babette asked, "So where is Uncle Teco, anyway?" Her voice had a cultured Southern sweetness, a slow expensive cadence that brought to mind cotillions among the magnolias.
Mira raised her glass to her lips, to hide her expression, and looked at Gary, who smirked and looked at me. It all took less than a second, and Babette didn't seem to notice.
I cleared my throat and said, "Uncle Teco is a very busy man. I'm not surprised he wasn't able to be there for your arrival, but I'm sure he'd love to meet you."
"Probably stuck in a meeting with the habitat," said Connie.
"Oh, that's all right," Babette drawled. "I'd hate to make a big important man like him waste his time with insignificant little ol' me."
"No, he's a real sweetheart once you get to know him," I said. "In fact... tell you what." I reached in my pocket and found a data chip. "I meant to give him this the next time I saw him. Why don't you give it to him for me? That'll give you an excuse to introduce yourself. Oh, and it's pronounced 'Teeco.' Only earthworms say 'Tecko.'"
Babette's eyes didn't budge from mine as she tucked the chip in her décolletage. "That's mighty considerate of you, Ken. But tell me now, what does he look like?"
Gary stepped into the gap. "Just ask anyone, they'll tell you where he is."
Babette nibbled her salad. "I can't wait to meet him. There are so many people here that Mira's told me all about, and they're all so friendly." She took a sip of her wine. "But Gary... you seem to know all the same people as Mira, but she's never mentioned you. Isn't that funny?" The statement seemed perfectly innocent, but in her eyes I saw a glint of the steel behind the magnolia. "And I keep hearing the name Janet Stein. Who's she?"
Gary seemed to crystallize, his expression becoming cold and brittle. Connie's mouth dropped open. Mira reached for the wine, but misjudged and knocked the bottle over. It rolled out of the table field and spun away, leaving a spiral of red droplets wobbling in the air behind it.
Gary didn't notice the wine. "I can't believe you didn't even tell her," he said to Mira. His words were ice-cold, but they boiled at the same time, like water leaking into vacuum.
Mira stared into her empty glass, clutching it with both hands. "I was going to. When the time was right."
"How long have you known her?"
"Eight months," said Babette.
"Eight months," Gary repeated, still looking at Mira, "and you just couldn't be bothered. Too busy with the present to acknowledge the past. How typical."
"I couldn't be bothered?" Mira's voice didn't get any louder, but her teeth were clenched. "Who vanished for ten years and then came waltzing back as though nothing had happened? Who left me and all our friends to pick up the pieces and move on?"
"It took me ten years to steel myself to see you again." He stood up. "I see it wasn't enough." He stepped out of the table field too quickly and went into a tumble, splashing into a glob of wine the waiter hadn't yet vacuumed up, but he caught himself on the floor with his hand, kicked off against a railing, and shot out of the restaurant.
The four of us stared at each other for a time. Then Mira raised her empty glass. "To Chimera." Her voice barely quavered. Connie and I touched our glasses to hers, and they rang in the silence. There was still a little wine at the bottom of mine.
"Mira, honey," said Babette, "Is there something you want to be telling me right about now?"
Mira rolled her glass around on the table with one finger. "Janet Stein died ten years ago," she said at last. "Ten years ago this weekend, at this very habitat. TecoCon 15. Chimera was the biggest thing we'd ever done, the biggest thing anyone had ever done. It was too big. It fell apart." She put her head down on the table. "Everything fell apart when Janet died," she muttered into the tablecloth.
"Janet was..." I began, then backed up and tried again. "Janet and Mira and Gary, they were the greatest ship design team TecoCon ever saw, and Chimera was their masterpiece. It was like they were one person. Gary was the brains, he pushed the technological envelope. Mira was the heart, she had the artistic talent. Janet... Janet was the soul. The fulcrum."
"I loved her," Mira said almost too softly to hear. The tablecloth under her cheek was dark with moisture.
"Gary loved her too," I said nearly as softly. "And she loved you both."
"She had too much love for just one person." Mira might have been talking to herself. "She had enough love to keep the three of us together. But with her gone, Gary and I spun off in different orbits."
Connie poked at her French onion soup, which had cooled and congealed. "I can't believe he came back after ten years."
The waiter, who had been drifting nearby for some time, cleared his throat. "Would you like your entrees now, or would you rather wait for the gentleman to return?"
"Just bring us the check," I told him. "I don't think any of us are hungry any more."
I went straight to my room after that, where I stayed up too late, emptying expensive little bottles from the mini-bar and staring down at the Earth, a clouded blue eye that blinked away tears every ninety minutes. But the next day, when I dragged myself to breakfast, Edison was still in the parking lot and Gary was giving an impromptu technical talk in the lobby. A bunch of new kids orbited around him like so many moons of Jupiter, enraptured by his history of the Yamaguchi coil.
A little while later he tracked me down in the Badger Hole, the habitat's casual restaurant, where I was holding my head and trying to convince myself the habitat's attempt at free-fall eggs was preferable to going hungry. "I suppose you're surprised to see me still here," he said.
"I have to admit I am, but I'm glad."
"It was what Mira said about leaving our friends to pick up the pieces. She made me realize I would be hurting more than just her and myself if I went away again."
"TecoCon really hasn't been the same without you," I said. "Join me for coffee?"
He attached himself to a sticky-strip next to me -- no gravity tables in the Badger Hole -- and we sat shoulder-to-shoulder, talking earnestly about old friends and looking out at the broad expanse of the viewing lobby. We had a good view of the Earth rolling by, the parking lot full of ships of all sizes and descriptions, and the members of the convention moving between program items or just drifting and talking.
"Hey, there's Babette," I said sotto voce, indicating her with a slight motion of my chin.
She was earnestly going from one group to another, her native grace warring with her obvious inexperience in free-fall, asking each the same question. Younger people shrugged or just looked puzzled; older ones gestured emphatically in different directions, and grinned at her back after she left them.
"Still looking for Uncle Teco," Gary said.
I watched her pilgrimage for a while before replying. "I feel a little bad about it."
"Maybe it's time to call off the snipe hunt."
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe it is."
We paid our tab, then looked around to see where Babette had gotten to. I spotted her first; she was pacing back and forth on the gravity landing in front of the men's restroom. She waved at us, rather frantically, and we pushed off from the Badger Hole and headed in her direction. As we floated toward her I wondered what the trouble might be.
Then Mira emerged from the women's restroom, and greeted Babette with a peck on the cheek. She hadn't spotted us yet, but she would in a moment, and I really didn't know what would happen then. Gary had calmed down quite a bit since last night, but there was no telling what Mira might do -- I'd hoped to be able to talk with the two of them separately before trying to bring them together again.
So I was thinking more about interpersonal than orbital dynamics when the impact occurred.
We later learned it was a piece of the old Prosperity station, thrown out of its orbit by a close encounter with an unauthorized heavy tripper. If we'd been at the Hilton it would have been vaporized by antimeteorite lasers, but TecoCon didn't have the money for the Hilton, and the Black Lion Inn was too old and too cheap for a comprehensive space junk defense. So a couple hundred kilos of plastic and metal slammed right into the lobby's big viewing window, splaying a white spiderweb of cracks all the way across it.
The sound of the impact was like five crystal chandeliers all crashing to the ground at once. For a moment after that there was a breath-holding silence, but then came a sound I hope never to hear again -- a groaning, creaking, and crackling, accompanied by a sharp increasing hiss of escaping air, as the fractured window began to bulge outward.
"Oh, shit," Gary said, just before the klaxons started.
Most of the TecoCon people were experienced space hands. They reacted quickly and with minimal panic, scrambling quickly for exits and refuges as emergency doors began to slide closed. But Babette and Mira stayed right where they were, arguing over something. We would be there in just a few more seconds, but by the time we arrived it might be too late to make it to the nearest exit before the doors sealed.
Gary reached over and gave me a shove, propelling himself toward Babette and Mira and me toward the nearest emergency door. I had enough velocity to reach it before it closed.
Leaving Gary, Mira, and Babette behind.
I grabbed an aluminum cross-brace and reversed my course. A moment later I was stumbling into the gravity field of the men's room landing.
"Couldn't reach it," I said.
I never could get a lie past Gary. "Damn fool," he said, and shook his head.
Mira pounded on the men's room door actuator with the heel of her hand. "Someone's trapped in there," she said, "and the door's stuck!"
"Leave it!" said Babette, tugging at Mira's sleeve. "There's no- -"
Gary pushed both women away from the door. "It's the pressure drop." He licked his palm, slapped it over a grille on the door's control panel, and pressed hard, pushing the actuator with his other hand. The door slid open -- he'd fooled it into opening by raising the pressure at the sensor. "Hello!" he called, holding the door open, but no answer came back.
"We'll have to get him out!" said Mira, and ran inside.
Babette's panic only deepened. "Mira! Come back!"
Gary looked back at the shattered window and closing emergency doors. "No more time!" He grabbed Babette's arm and ran into the bathroom with her. I followed.
The door slid shut. A moment later came a sound like a greenhouse being torn in half, and then -- silence.
The silence of vacuum.
The door strained against its seals as though someone large, heavy, and invisible were leaning against it from this side. It was airtight, like any door in an orbital habitat, but this restroom wasn't a designated blowout refuge so there was no guarantee it would stay that way.
Gary, Mira, and Babette lay gasping in a heap on the tile floor. I leaned heavily against the wall and slid down to a sitting position, clutching my knees to my chest to keep my hammering heart from bursting right out of my ribcage.
"That was too close," I said at last.
"Everyone all right?" asked Mira.
Gary said, "I'm okay, but my phone's dead. The local repeater must have been damaged in the blowout."
While Babette and I checked our phones -- equally dead -- Mira peered under the partitions into the stalls. There were two of them, and two urinals; there was no other exit, and no place for a person to hide. "Where is he?"
I had a horrible thought. "Mira, did you actually see anyone go in here?"
"No, but Babette told me she was waiting for someone to come out..."
Gary's face showed he'd had the same thought as me.
We all looked at Babette. Her face was stony. "Yes. It was Uncle Teco."
"Oh God," said Gary, and he shook his head slowly. Mira sighed heavily and put her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook, but I couldn't tell if she was laughing or crying. Maybe both.
Babette gave me a look as hard and cold as the vacuum outside the door. "This is all your fault! You sent me on a wild goose chase!" She pulled the chip from her cleavage and threw it at me.
I let it bounce off of me and land on the floor. It clattered lightly across the tiles. "Guilty."
Babette sat down on the floor and pushed back her hair with both hands, holding her head as though she were trying to keep it from exploding. "I tried to tell y'all... Why wouldn't y'all just save yourselves?"
Gary and Mira looked at each other across Babette. Their shared history stretched between them like a strand of barbed wire wrapped around both their hearts. "Babette," I said as gently as I could, "nothing you could have said would have kept either of them from trying to help someone in a vacuum emergency."
"Janet's faceplate blew off when Chimera's hull gave way," Gary said in a voice that echoed from a well ten years deep. "There was nothing we could do but watch her die."
"If only I had taken as much care on her suit's seals as I did on the paint job..." Mira whispered.
"It was my spaceframe design that failed," said Gary. "The suit would have been fine if the hull breach hadn't been so catastrophic."
"The inquest held that it was faulty materials in both the frame and the suit," I explained quietly to Babette. There was no point in repeating the fact to either Gary or Mira; I knew that facts alone could not open the locks of their personal hells.
Mira crumpled into a ball under the sinks. "I can't believe how much it still hurts," she muttered to her knees, then raised her head to Gary. "How could you bear to see me again, after the pain I've caused you?"
"I hoped that ten years might be enough time for you to learn to forgive me. Besides, I couldn't pass up the twenty-fifth convention." Gary's throat worked, and two little wrinkles appeared between his eyebrows. I thought it meant he was about to cry, but then I swallowed too.
My ears popped.
"The pressure's dropping," I said.
It didn't take us long to find the problem; the seal at the bottom of the door was hissing audibly. "Damn it," I said, "when will people learn not to step on the floor seal!" We stopped the leak with wet paper towels, but it had obviously been going the whole time we'd been in here. Gary and I both knew what that might mean.
"Do either of you have a gavel?" he said.
TecoCon had been using the Black Lion Inn for almost twenty years now, and some of us had managed to wangle key cards with staff access privileges. For reasons unknown, the staff called them "gavels." But neither Mira nor I had one on us.
"I do." Babette dug in her little purse and handed the card to Gary.
Before I could ask her where she had gotten it, Gary slotted the card into the maintenance panel next to the light switch, which obediently popped open. "Damn." He tapped the oxygen meter. "Empty."
"How can we be out of air already?" said Mira. "We haven't even been in here for an hour!"
"In an interior room like this," Gary explained, "the emergency air system is only designed to maintain the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide if the ventilation goes. With the overall pressure dropping, the stupid thing did its best to maintain the partial pressure of O2 by releasing more oxygen. That masked the larger problem until its little tank was empty."
"So how long do we have?" I asked.
Gary eyeballed the room. "Call it 50 cubic meters, standard orbital pressure, four people... maybe five hours."
"We can't just wait for help," said Mira. "I was stuck for more than five hours when we had that airlock problem back in '51, and that wasn't even a full-blown emergency."
We explored the space, but there wasn't a lot to work with -- even the storage for paper products was outside the room. "Maybe there's frost on the outside of the door," Mira said. "We could warm it with our hands, thaw out a message."
Gary brought a hand to within a centimeter of the door, then drew it back. "Our fingers would freeze first."
"What if we poked a little hole in the door seal, sent out a streamer of cloth?"
The two of them batted ideas back and forth like Ping-Pong balls for the next couple of minutes, falling into an old familiar rhythm -- Mira coming up with wild, offbeat ideas and Gary figuring out how they could be made practical. Or, unfortunately, determining that they couldn't.
"If we all yelled together..." said Babette.
I looked around. "Not much point. There's vacuum outside those two walls, and on that side is the women's room -- even if there's anyone there, they're in no position to help us. What's back there?"
Mira had been the convention's liaison with the habitat for a couple of years and knew the floorplans by heart. "The bar. But it opens to the lobby, and I don't think it had an emergency door."
Gary pounded on the back wall and got the tinny thud of sound vanishing into a void. "Vacuum. How about above and below?"
"The whole lower level is air and water tanks. Above..." she pondered for a moment. "I think it's the Mueller Ballroom."
Gary looked up. "That explains why the ceiling is soundproofed."
We all stared at it. Thick tiles of acoustic foam, and above that probably half a meter of ducts and lights. All of us shouting together wouldn't be enough to be heard through that. But on the other side would be people who could help us.
We tried shouting, anyway. We tried standing on the toilets. We tried standing on the sinks. Gary tried lifting Mira up. Nothing got us through the foam. The closest we came was when Gary and I together lifted Babette, who scratched at the ceiling with her fingernails for a few moments before we all collapsed in a heap.
We lay gasping for a while, considering our options. They didn't look good.
"I'm sorry about the Uncle Teco thing," I said to Babette. "If I hadn't sent you off on that snipe hunt none of us would be here now."
"I just don't understand it," she said. "Y'all're so smart -- why'd y'all have to go and play a dumb prank like that?"
"Sending new kids to look for Uncle Teco is an old tradition," Gary said. "It's a way of making sure they meet everyone and visit every part of the convention. And helping to pull the same gag on the next one in line makes you feel like you're part of a secret society."
"But if there's no Uncle Teco... why is the convention named after him?"
Mira sat next to Babette and put an arm around her shoulders. "The convention's named after an old Internet mailing list," she said. "Uncle Teco's Homebrew Gravitics Club. Most of the people who started TecoCon met through the list. But there was never anyone named Uncle Teco. I don't know why it was called that."
"It was before your time," Gary said. Though it was easy to assume Mira had been with us from the beginning, she hadn't shown up until TecoCon 3. "Babette, do you know what a Yamaguchi coil is?"
"It's the... whatsit that makes ships go Up. Gradient makes them."
"Close enough. Back in the Twenties it wasn't just Gradient -- there were dozens of companies making coils. The technology was still fresh; every couple of months someone would bring out a new improved model and we'd all jump on it. And there was a period of about six months in '23 when the best and hottest coil was a Shreveport Gravitics semi-super with part code NCATCO. We called it Unca' Teco."
"It was a bitch to stabilize," I said, remembering the smell of hot solder and cheap beer. "I once stayed up until five in the morning 'tickling Uncle Teco's feet' and even so the damn thing flipped right over the first time I took it Up."
"Ken and I started the list in May of '23, so the name was obvious. But by the time of the first TecoCon the hot coil was the Lift Systems GravBlazer and Uncle Teco was already forgotten. We kept the list name out of nostalgia, but I bet there aren't five people at this convention who remember who he really was. Not even you, Mira."
But Mira wasn't listening to Gary. Ever since I'd told my last story her eyes had gone all distant. "We've been going about this all wrong," she said. "We have to turn the problem on its head. Can you rewire it, Gary?"
I didn't follow her at first, but Gary's face lit up. "I think so, but it'll be a heck of a drop."
"Better a broken leg than asphyxiation. But what if we all stood on our heads first?"
A few minutes later Mira, Babette, and I were on our heads, with our backs against the walls and our feet in the air. Gary, having tried several ridiculous positions, had finally given up and was simply standing by the maintenance panel. "This is going to hurt," he said, and reached in and twisted a control.
With a stomach-wrenching jerk, the room turned over -- or rather, the gravity field provided by the room's Yamaguchi coil did.
We fell two meters to the ceiling, crashing through the foam and winding up in a tangle of ductwork and electrical wiring. The two toilets flapped open, drenching me with water, but Mira and Babette were against the other wall and stayed dry. Gary landed on his side; he said he was "in a world of hurt" but nothing seemed broken.
We struggled to our feet, as disoriented by the sight of sinks and toilets above us as by the gravity shift. The few undamaged lights shining up from our feet gave the whole scene a surreal quality. But we soon cleared a square meter of ceiling and began stomping out an SOS.
It turned out the Space Guard was setting up their command post right there in the ballroom. They cut through the floor and had us out of there in less than an hour.
I brought Babette a cup of Red Cross coffee, with cream and sugar, and we sat side by side on a folding cot. All around us people bustled, pointing at charts and yammering into communicators, while on another cot nearby a medic was splinting Gary's sprained wrist. Mira was sitting with him.
"So," I said to Babette, "when did you figure out that Uncle Teco was a wild goose?"
"As soon as I saw the look Mira gave you when I asked about him."
That took me aback. "You knew all along? So why did you go around looking for him anyway? And why did you tell Mira you thought he was in the bathroom?"
"Well... getting the two of them together at dinner didn't work because Gary just ran away again, but I figured if I could lock them into an enclosed space for a while they might work things out. And a 'dumb blonde' on a snipe hunt can learn an awful lot about a habitat, like which bathrooms have only one entrance and which of the staff can be sweet-talked out of a gavel card." She glanced over at Mira, who was talking quietly with Gary. "It worked, too, though not at all the way I'd planned."
"Why?" I asked at last.
"The only way she and I could ever have a future together was to lay Janet's ghost to rest, and the only way to do that was to reconcile her and Gary."
I thought about that for a long while. "My hat's off to you." I raised my paper coffee cup. "To forgiveness."
She tapped her cup against mine. "To the future."
Mira came back the next year with a ship called Uncle Teco, a huge Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon of a ship in the shape of a roly-poly man with big feet. Gary helped her out with the engineering, though he admitted to me she didn't really need his help any more. That was a good thing, because he was so busy helping to put together the convention's technical program he didn't have a lot of time to work on art ships.
Babette came back with her. Many people were surprised, but a few of us knew just how much steel there was in that magnolia. And Mira was happier and more creative than she'd been in years.
And me? I fixed up Michelangelo's Dream and came to the convention under my own power.
The view from the pilot's seat was spectacular. But, as Gary said, it was mostly the people that made the trip worthwhile.
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