Alex dreamed he had been strapped down in a runaway centrifuge. The module spun faster and faster. G-forces sat on his bones like mountains. Under the steady pull his face dripped away and pooled around his naked skull. He kept trying to cry out that he wanted off now; but he couldn't speak.
Then he heard drapes slithering, and sunlight warmed his face. "Wake up!" a cheerful voice insisted. "Time for soorya narnaskar!"Alex kept his eyes closed and practiced the savasam pose. Go away, Steve, I'm dead.
But the man would not be put off. He shook Alex by the shoulder. "Come on, you two. Discipline is the key. You've got to work at this every day."
Alex opened one eye. Steve stood between the two beds, legs akimbo and hands balled on his hips. He reminded Alex of a coiled spring. If the Downers could only find a way to tap Steve's energy, they could use it to melt the glaciers.
Beyond him, Alex saw Doc setting up two trays. Tall glasses of milk. A high-calcium diet. "Whatever happened to privacy?" he asked.
"Alex," said Gordon. "It snowed last night."
He opened both eyes and turned to see Gordon standing (standing!) with his hands braced on the window sill. His breath made little clouds in the air and steamed the glass. Alex stifled a groan. If Gordon could do it . . . He pushed the comforter and the blankets off his body. With that much weight removed he felt as if he could float out of bed. Careful, Alex. Watch those reflexes. Slowly, he swung his legs out over the edge of the bed and pushed himself to a sitting position.
"That's very good," said Steve, and Alex felt like one of his day-care charges who had just gotten a star on his forehead.
"They tell me it snows a little every night up here," said Doc. He brought the milk over. Even during the summer. It's colder in California than it used to be; but L.A. only gets snow a couple times a year. Here, drink this. It's good for you."
Alex took the glass with both hands and drank. Milk was good stuff. Too bad they didn't have milk in the habitats. That mix-it-with-water powder didn't count, and they would run out of it sooner or later. Sooner or later they would run out of everything, including time. He clenched his fists around the glass. He was probably better off on Earth. You could still run out of things on Earth, you could still die; but the margin for error was not nearly so thin.
There was a knock on the door. "Come on in," Alex called. "Everybody else has."
It was Mike Gilder. He waved. "Good morning, all." He found the most comfortable chair in the room and sank into it. "Bad news," he announced. "Bruce tried to contact Ron Cole last night through the Oregon Ghost. No go. The Ghost says Cole is reachable only through the Museum switchboard and no one wants to say anything over a line where there might be listeners. The Ghost says he can't vouch for the Titan, either. He says he heard the stories, too, back in the old days; but he doesn't know how close to the truth they were."
Doc looked up. "What are we going to do, then?"
Mike shrugged. "Bruce wants to take Bob and me down to Chi to check things out in person."
Alex grunted and noticed how his breath smoked. It was not cold, exactly; not like it had been on the glacier. But it was chilly. Pleasantly cool, actually. More comfortable than the shirtsleeve warm habitats. There was no problem dumping waste heat on this habitat! "Is it always this nippy in the morning?" he asked. Yesterday, he had been too groggy from the van ride to notice.
Steve struck a pose. " 'To conserve, we all should strive. Thermostats at fifty-five,' " he quoted. "It'll warm up later. Body heat from fifty-odd fans."
"Some of them very odd," said Mike. "Steve, who was that fellow who used the thermostat law to commit murder? What was it . . . two, three years ago?"
"Don't recall his name anymore. Papers on the Coast didn't play it, up very big. Massachusetts?"
"What are you two talking about?" Gordon demanded.
"There was a rich old man and an impatient young heir," Mike explained. "The old man had pneumonia. EPA said to turn our thermostats down; so the nephew did it. He was just being a good citizen." He scratched his beard thoughtfully. "He must have inherited enough money to hire a good lawyer, because it never came to trial."
"Government wouldn't want it to come to trial," said Steve. "Good-intentioned laws aren't allowed to have bad spin-offs."
Mike shrugged. "Whichever. The DA was really frosted, though."
Steve led them through their asanas. Stretch. Bend. Rest. Stretch. Bend. Rest. "I am your transcendental drill sergeant," Steve declaimed. "Meditate, you slugs! Yam, two, three, four!" As Alex came out of the Eight-Pointed Repose, he noticed that Doc was performing the asanas along with them.
He had to admit that he felt much better afterward. However, he and Gordon were so exhausted by the mild workout that they took refuge once more in their wheelchairs. "Don't worry about it," Steve told them. "Each day you'll be able to stay on your feet a little longer."
"That's right," said Doc. "You should have seen me before Steve took me in hand." He squeezed his left bicep with his right hand. "Muscles had gone soft. I tired easily. Now, I've never felt better."
Steve looked at him. "There's more to yoga than physical conditioning."
"Breakfast time," said Sherrine. She pushed her way through the door backward, her hands griping a tray stacked with steaming dishes. Alex admire the view. Then he noticed Gordon watching and scowled. Neither of them were up to that sort of exercise; but Gordon would beat him to it.
Sherrine set the tray on the lamp table. Mike tried to look over her shoulder to see what she had brought. "The kitchen is a madhouse," she said. "Ol' 3MJ is down there flipping flapjacks himself. But Shew and Wolfson and Curtis and a couple of others are helping out, too.
"Damn," Sherrine said.
"What?" Steve asked.
"Just remembering. Nat Reynolds used to make Irish coffee at conventions. Long time ago. What happened to him?"
"Exiled," Steve said. "After he got busted and they were all set to charge him with subversion-—"
"Subversion how" Alex asked. "I thought-—isn't the Constitution still in effect?"
"For most things," Mike said dryly. "There's freedom of speech for politics and so forth. But no one has the right to deceive people. Back in the '90s one of the Green organizations sued the publisher of a science fiction book and won. Didn't cost the publisher much, but the author was held liable as well. So after Reynolds wrote The Sun Guns-—
"I read this," Gordon said. "About satellite power plants to stop the Ice?"
"Yep, that's it," Mike said. "Well, Friends of Man and the Earth sued him. Class action suit for fifty million bucks for deceiving the people. Got a preliminary judgment suppressing publication of the book. Reynolds wouldn't take that and let the book be published anyway and that was contempt of court, so then they wanted him on criminal charges."
Sherrine shuddered. "And once you're a criminal, they can do anything to you. Reeducation. Community service."
"Well, they caught him, but he and his lawyers worked out a deal. Reynolds gave up U.S. citizenship and was deported to Australia. The Aussies always did like him. He didn't want to go, but he didn't really have much choice."
"Things are pretty rough down there, too," Doc said. "But better than here. Hell, everywhere is better than here."
Sherrine held a plate out to him. "Here. I brought you some." She gave plates to Alex and Gordon. Alex studied his meal and nearly wept. These people had no idea how wealthy and fortunate they were. Eggs. Real eggs from a real hen. And porridge made from cereal grain. None of it powdered or freeze dried or reconstituted or resurrected or derived from a vat of green slime. He savored a spoonful of oatmeal.
"That's one of the things I missed while I was fafiated," Sherrine continued.
Mike looked puzzled. "What? Crowded kitchens?"
"No, it's the way fans pitch in and help spontaneously. 3MJ didn't have to ask a single person for assistance."
Doc nodded. "They seen their duty and they done it."
"Out in the danelaw, nobody helps out unless there's something in it for them. I always had to watch my back at the University. You wouldn't believe the bureaucratic in-fighting that goes on there, and the goddam union laws-—"
"I would," said Mike, wagging an impaled fragment of waffle. "That's why I left the IRS. The grunts at the P.O.D.'s were okay. They were just trying to do their jobs-—almost impossible, considering how convoluted the law is-—but the political hacks . . ." He shook his head.
Alex could sympathize with him. Lonny Hopkins was a son of a bitch; but, to give the devil his due, he was a perfectly sincere son of a bitch. And up there, you did your part or you died. If you screwed up, maybe you killed someone whose relatives resented it, maybe you killed yourself, maybe something else, but the margins were too thin for drones.
Down here they were rich enough to support useless people, but there were so many! All concerned about their own careers and perks in the midst of the struggle for survival.
"Fen are different," Doc said. "At least since the fringe fans gafiated. That was one benefit of government intimidation. A lot of the cuttle fish are gone." His voice took on an edge. "You know the ones I mean. The exhibitionists. And the so-called fans who abused 3MJ's hospitality by stealing his memorabilia. Nowadays the camaraderie is more like it was during First Fandom. It's a smaller group, but closer knit."
"The Few, the Proud, the Fen," said Mike.
Steve nodded. "FIAWOL," he agreed.
Alex held up his bowl. "More gruel, please."
Gordon laughed. "No, no, it is 'Please sir, may I have some more?' "
Mike roared. "You like that stuff? Don't you have 'gruel' where you come from?"
"Oh, sure," Alex retorted. "We make it from the wheat we harvest on our limitless acres."
"Well, if it's cereal you want," said Sherrine, "you've come to the right place. What Wall Street is to junk bonds, Minneapolis is to cereal grain."
Mike scratched his beard again. "Take some home with you, why don't you? I'm sure we could stick a case of Quaker Oats or Cream of Wheat into the Titan with you. A gift from Earth."
"Hey!" said Sherrine. They all looked at her and she spread her arms apart. "Why not?"
"Why not what?"
She stood up and bounced to the center of the room. "If we're going to loft a rocket we should pack it with gifts. As much as it will take. Not just oatmeal, but . . . Oh, everything. Anything! Anything we've got down here that the Angels need!"
Doc raised his eyebrows. "That's a great idea, Sherri. It'll show the Angels that they've still got a few friends down here. What sort of stuff do your folks need, Alex?"
"What do we need? What don't we need?" Alex wondered how well-informed the fans were about conditions in the habitats. Not very, he suspected. "Bacon and eggs. Meats of any sort. Milk. Carrots, broccoli, everything you were serving at the Meet the Readers Party Hell, any vegetable. You have foodstuffs down here that some of our folks have never seen, let alone eaten."
"Chitlins and collard greens?" asked Steve.
"You guys must really be desperate."
"Have you ever lived on a diet of lettuce and mustard greens? Zucchini, sometimes. We do grow vegetables, but there are never enough. You can't eat spider plants! And some of our plant species have died off. We synthesize a lot of vitamins, but nutritional deficiencies are one of our biggest worries." Along with solar flares, nitrogen outgassing, shortages of metals and plastics, and you name it. But let's not disillusion anyone.
"Food, then," said Mike. "Geez, we should name the ship The Flying Greengrocer."
"Seeds, Mike," said Sherrine. "Not live plants. Call it Johnny Appleseed." She went to the small lamp table and rummaged in its drawer, emerging with a pencil and a small pad of note paper.
Mike scowled. "I knew that. I am the county ag agent, you know. Not that I know a damn thing about it-—"
"Then how the hell did you get the job?" Doc demanded. "As if I didn't know."
"Seniority, of course. I was able to bump out someone else. Helps that I can claim minority ancestry."
"Yes, just so. Native American," Mike said. "Doesn't show, does it?" He shrugged. "But we can claim it, so I do. The point is, I may be able to get stuff, and I can sure get access to the library records."
He pushed himself out of his armchair and paced the room, rubbing his fist with his hand. "You'll want plants to satisfy three needs," he continued, thinking aloud. "Hot damn! Who would ever have thought that a county agent and the space program . . . Well, okay, nutrition is one. You want maximum food value for minimum energy input. Oxygen production and CO2 scrubbing is another. And radiation hardening. So . . ." He paused and rubbed his face. "I should sit down and put together a list, balancing all three needs. But for a start . . . Sherrine, write these down: green leafy vegetables and yellow vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach."
"Tocopherol, vitamin E. That's good for radiation, too," said Steve.
"Sure. We can include a couple of bulk bottles of concentrated multivitamins."
"And tomatoes," Mike added. "Rich in vitamin A and they're easy to grow hydroponically."
"We have some of those," Alex said. "But they went bad. Started making people sick. We still grow tomatoes, but we make fertilizer out of them, mulch for the moon rock soil."
"Tomato seeds. Several varieties." Sherrine wrote rapidly. "You must need hydroponic chemicals, too. Even with closed loop recovery, there have to be losses. What do you need for that?"
"Nitrogen, for one thing," Alex said.
"Potassium nitrate," said Gordon. They all looked at him in surprise. "Potassium nitrate," he repeated. "You know. Saltpeter."
"Flower seeds," said Steve.
Alex looked at him in surprise. "Can't eat flowers," he said.
Steve shook his head. "Not for food. But as long as you need plants to produce oxygen, some of them might as well be pretty."
"Pretty is fine," Gordon said. "But pretty takes time, too." He shrugged. "Here you are rich. So much to eat. Not made of algae."
"Green slime," Alex said. "Good stuff. Bubble waste water through a vat of green slime. Takes out the ketones. Dissolve the carbon dioxide. It grows, and you can bake it into bread . . ."
"Okay," said Steve. "We send up everything we can get, though. Why not? Seeds are small. They weigh next to nothing; and they'll keep practically forever."
"Is good," Gordon said. "When we know how much mass we can take up, we can ask station commander what is needed. I think is not proper to ask until-—"
The room fell silent. "Until you believe in this," Sherrine said. "Don't get their hopes up."
"Something like that," Alex said. "I mean-—we're grateful, and you're risking everything, and-—"
"But it's pretty mad to talk about finding an old Titan, fueling it up, and lighting it off," Doe said. "Of course it is. But-—" He held up a finger. The others joined in unison as he said, "It's the Only Game in Town." Doc's eyes lit. "Spices. Pepper. Thyme. Savory. Oregano. Sweet Basil. Dill-—parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme . . ."
Alex's mouth watered. Mythical flavors from childhood. "Ketchup," he remembered. "And mustard. Peanuts. Gordon, you have never tasted peanut butter. And not just foodstuffs, either." As long as he was daydreaming, why not daydream big. "We could use all sorts of materials. Machine tools, too."
"Plastics," said Gordon. "They can be shredded and remolded. Could always use more."
Alex shook his head. "Plastics would be too bulky to lift in useful quantities. We need things that are small and valuable."
"Don't rule anything out, yet," said Sherrine. "We're brainstorming."
"Too bad you can't grow plastic from seeds," said Doe. "Like you can plants."
"But you can!" Mike said suddenly.
"Well, not quite; but . . . There was an experimental field-—in Iowa?-—where they grew plastic corn. Alcaligeneseutrophus isa bacterium that produces a brittle polymer. Eighty percent of its dry weight is a naturally grown plastic: PHB, poly-beta-hydroxybutyrate . . ."
"Contains only natural ingredients!" declared Steve with a grin.
"Researchers found they could coax the bug into producing a more flexible plastic by adding a few organic acids to the glucose 'soup.' They cloned the polymer producing enzymes-—oh, 1987 or so-—and spliced them into E. coli. Later, they spliced them into turnips, and finally corn. That was the bonanza. The mother lode of plastic. The corn grew plastic kernels. Think of it: plastic corn on the cob," he chuckled. "Shuck the cobs and you get pellets. Perfect for melting in a forming machine hopper."
Doc frowned. "And you plant some of the plastic seed corn and grow more? That doesn't sound right."
Mike shook his head. "No, that was the problem, plastic seeds don't germinate. So you'd still need the original bugs, but you can breed them in vats and harvest the polymers directly Not as efficient as the corn, but. . . They were this close to cracking the sterility problem when the National Scientific Research Advisory Board halted all testing."
"It sounds fantastic," said Alex. "Where can you find this bug?"
"A. eutrophus? In the hold of the Flying Dutchman. It's just a story that agents pass around. The test plot was abandoned when genetic engineering "was outlawed. Later, it was burned by a Green hit squad."
Doc grunted. "Hunh. Burning plastic corn? I'll bet it released a toxic smoke cloud."
"Sure. But that was the fault of the scientists, not the arsonists. They burned one of the scientists, too."
"My grandmother would know," said Sherrine.
"My grandmother. She's a genetic engineer, remember? If anyone knows where we could lay hands on a culture of this A. eutrophus, she would."
Alex felt a tingle in his limbs. They weren't just joking around any more. They could make it work. Foodstuff. Seeds. Vitamins. Spices. Plasi-facient bacteria, for crying out loud! They could actually make it happen. They knew where to find the stuff. Or they knew people who knew. He glanced at Gordon, who was looking straight at him, reading the hope in his eyes.
Sure. Make the payload valuable enough and Lonny Hopkins himself would fly out and grab it, Alex MacLeod and all.
"How would you handle meat, though?" asked Doc. "No seeds. No pills."
"Small animals. Rabbits. They breed fast and they're relatively meaty for their size."
"Guinea pigs? The Incas used those."
"Hold it. Hold it. This rocket is starting to sound like a Central American bus."
"Forget the chickens," said Mike. "Take fertilized eggs. They take up less space. Hatch 'em in an incubator. Use the hens for egg production. Keep a rooster or two for breeding stock and use the rest for meat."
"But we don't have a chicken incubator," said Gordon.
"Build one. We can put the design and operating manual on a disc."
"Hell's bells," interjected Doc. "Give 'em a whole library on disc. SF, too, of course. They must be getting tired of reading the same books over and over. As for the rabbits and guinea pigs, just take the germ plasm. You have a sperm bank, don't you?"
"Well, uh, yes. For humans."
"Good. Frozen sperm, then. Frozen ova, too. Mix 'em in vitro. Though you'll still want to take a few females along, just in case. Ova are more delicate than sperm."
"Is diversity problem in sperm bank," said Gordon thoughtfully. "Gene pool is limited."
"Mars Needs Women!" shouted Mike. Sherrine looked up from her notepad and blushed a deep crimson. Before she could say anything, Bruce Hyde spoke from the doorway.
"Do I want to know what this discussion is about?"
Sherrine and the others told him, all talking at once. He looked at Alex. "Will it work?"
Alex shrugged. "Why fly an empty truck? As long as we have enough fuel to lift the mass." And that would be a pretty problem! Trading altitude for cargo. There had to enough cargo to make a rendezvous cost-effective. The more, the better. But more cargo, less altitude; and Lonny would have to use more fuel to match orbits, and . . . Where was the break-even point? It was a question of minimizing the rendezvous costs while maximizing the cargo value. A minimax problem. But it wouldn't do any good to try and calculate an answer. Too many indeterminates-—Lonny would be making his own decisions anyway.
"Alex?" Steve was waving a hand at him.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked about spare parts and fittings," said Steve.
"We can fabricate most of what we need," Alex told him, "if we have the materials and the machine tools." Maintenance was the one activity in the habitats that was absolutely crucial. "We can scavenge and salvage most materials, although we're always short and more would always be welcome; but machine tools and dies for the machine shop are essential. Some of our blades and drill bits and molds have been reground or resharpened until they're useless."
"Machine tools would be small," said Mike, "but heavy."
"No critiques, yet," Sherrine reminded him as she wrote. "What else?"
"Surgical implements," said Doc. "I'm sure people up there still suffer injury and illness." He shuddered. "I'm trying to imagine resharpened scalpels and hypodermics."
Alex nodded. "You're right. I'd forgotten. Shots hurt."
"And medicines," continued Doc. "All sorts. You must have to ration what medicines you have mighty close."
Doc might as well have pierced him with one of his scalpels. Rationing . . . In a society of scarcity there was always rationing; and some people were on top of the rationing list and others were at the bottom. If Lonny or Mary or hydroponics chief Ginjer Hu fell sick, there would be medicine available. "Essential personnel." If Alex MacLeod fell sick . . .
And if he did climb back into orbit with a rocketful of goodies, would his name move up the list? More to the point, how much could they realistically take with them in a Titan, anyway? Brooding, Alex dropped out of the brainstorming session.
"Not only medicines," said Sherrine, "but other chemicals, too. 3MJ has chlorine for his pool right here. He might let us have some."
"Metals, too," said Gordon ". . . Nah. Too heavy. We would not lift enough metal to matter."
Bruce laughed. "What do you suppose the Titan is made of? If we can loft it hard enough, we can put the booster into a recoverable orbit. Then your people can mine it to their heart's content."
Later, when they were alone for a few minutes, Gordon looked at him with widened eyes. "It cannot work, but they believe-—do you believe, too?"
Alex arranged the blanket around his legs. He smoothed the green paid cloth, tucking the folds out of sight. Experimentally, he pulled on the chair's wheels and was pleased to see that he could roll himself across the room. As Doc had told him, the upper body strength would come first. It was the muscles needed for standing and walking that needed the training. That and replenishing the bone calcium. He looked at Gordon.
"I think it could work. The essence of trade is 'Cheap here; dear there.' Make the cargo valuable enough and get the rocket close enough and, yes, it damn well could work." Gordon's blanket was a dull monochrome, which secretly pleased Alex.
"But, there are so many things that could go wrong . . ."
Alex slashed the air with his hand. "Of course there are! Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs-—"
"-—We don't even know if we have a ship. Or whether we can fuel it. Or a thousand other things. We don't know how much cargo we can load; or what kind and how much will convince the station to bring us in. It's got to be the right stuff. And we can't ask Big Momma without tipping our hand and maybe losing the fans' help. There are a thousand details, and if any one of them fails, the whole idea collapses like a burnt-out star. So what do you want to do? Give up and stay down here in the Well for the rest of your life?"
"No, but you don't have to prove-—"
"What do you know what I have to prove?"
Gordon pressed his lips together and looked away. "Nichevo."
"Damn right." Alex turned his wheelchair away. So, why was he being so hard on the kid? Deep down, he knew that they were cut off from home forever. This business with the Titan was just half-baked wish fulfillment. What did the shrinks call it? Denial? Crash a scoopship, did you? Stupid dipper fell into the Well? Hey, no problem. We'll just patch together an old derelict missile; stuff it with a cornucopia of wonderful goods, and sail home to triumph. Lonny Hopkins will be humiliated, and Mary will be so enchanted that she will finally leave him and we will all live happily ever after.
"Ah, cheer up, Gordo," he said. "The damned rocket will probably blow up on the launch pad anyway."
He turned his head. "Hunh?"
Gordon tugged at his lap warmer. "Blankets. Cloth. How many times can you repatch worn-out shorts or halters?"
"Oh. Sure, sure. Tell Sherrine when she comes back."
"I didn't want to ask before, but what is corn on the cob?"
A flicker of images like an old silent movie. Golden corn glistening with melted butter. Picnic table spread on a bright summer's day. The merest of chills in the air, the distant kiss of infant glaciers. Hot dogs on the barbecue. Mom and Dad laughing to each other across the picnic table. The tangy smell of baked beans.
"Don't worry about it. We'll have a picnic and you'll see for yourself. Spread a blanket and . . ." He stopped suddenly and studied his lap blanket. Not just plaid. Light and dark green, with yellow and red pinstripes. It was the MacLeod tartan. And Gordon Tanner's blanket was ... a solid tan.
He laughed suddenly and Gordon gave him an odd look. So, launching them back into orbit involved thousands of details, did it? He felt a sudden illogical surge of optimism. These fans were people who cared about details. "Gordo," he said, "we've got to approach this whole thing in a more positive frame."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, there are a thousand things that could go right!"