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Touching the Past

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When Yurgi Sarkoff was thirteen he went on a class trip to the museum.

He was prepared to be as bored as he always was in history class. It would be more of the same: Lindor's history was centuries-long but enervatingly (a word Yurgi had learned recently and liked) bland and uniform.

"And here," said Ms Matterli brightly, "is the famous Lindor packet—"

Of course it is, thought Yurgi. And there it was, displayed in a place of honour behind protective glass.

"—which the original Swiss settlers brought with them. It contained chocolate balls filled with creamed chocolate in various flavours, in this case hazelnut. They named the planet Lindor for the balls."

Which Yurgi had known all his life. "More to the point," he said, "was it a joke, nostalgia, or mere geometry?"

The class laughed. They usually did, even when "Sarky" Sarkoff's questions were perfectly serious.

"As I wasn't there," Ms Matterli said tartly (cue disbelieving sniggers), "I wouldn't know."

Pity. Yurgi trailed behind, uninterested in the old rusting bits of spacecraft and terraforming equipment, clothes worn by past politicians, the early examples of luxury food and wine exports.

Then, last of all, they visited the Earth Room. It wasn't very big because there wasn't very much to display. There was a Greek vase, back from when they'd got the whole idea of democracy. "Although only for land-owning males," said Ms Matterli with a sniff.

"What's that guy doing to that other guy?" someone asked.

Ms Matterli blushed slightly. "It was known as Graeco-Roman wresting," she said primly, unaware that she had given the class a life-long and beloved euphemism.

Then there was a Roman wine glass. It wasn't at all transparent; more like cracked alabaster. Yurgi leaned in to stare at it, fascinated. Whose fingers had lifted it, who had drunk from it, reclining on a couch in a cool courtyard with marble statues and a tinkling fountain, away from the sounds and smells of the city outside?

There was also an American coffee pot from back in the days when it was still a democracy. Yurgi wondered how democracies became dictatorships. And a chipped mug with a coat of arms and the words "Keep Calm and Carry On", dated early 22nd century in the reign of Queen Tracy who had said just that so very often during the Martian colony secession wars. Perhaps Tracy herself had used it, sprawled in her throne dressed in ermine robes. Why had the British monarchy endured until the Federation? And wow, three bent, smooth, flat pieces of wood painted in intricate spotted designs with the word "Australia", made by the people of the Dream Time, the plaque said, to give to people from other lands to throw ceremonially and lose. So many strange and wonderful cultures, all swallowed by the grey conformity of the Federation.

Yurgi was admiring an embroidered dragon robe thought to have been worn by Emperor Mao Tse Tung when Ms Matterli spoke. "Come along, Yurgi. Everyone else has gone."

"Why did they have so many political systems, and what stopped them working?"

"I didn't think you were interested in history."

"I am. In this sort anyway."

Ms Matterli smiled. "There's a saying that people who don't know the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes."

Yurgi considered this. "Or even if they do." Maybe it was like wet paint; you had to give touching it a go anyway.

"I can lend you some history books about Earth if you like."

"I would, thanks!"

Yurgi took a last look at the room as he left. He enjoyed historical novels, but until today he hadn't imagined that the worlds inside them were really quite real, so tangible and beautiful that he wanted to get hold of them.