The van was dark and cold and stank with a stale pungency Alex MacLeod could never get used to. Worse than a spaceship! He sat huddled under blankets with the others in the back of the van, sharing his warmth. The only light was the feeble glow of a flashlight. Alex took a breath of damp, moldy air. He wished Bob could start the engine so they could warm up; but, of course, that was impossible.
Sherrine was a goblin face half-lit by the weary flashlight. "This is cozy," she said. "I used to read science fiction books like this-—under my blankets with a light. Always with an ear cocked for the sound of my parents coming."
"Did they ever catch you?" asked Gordon.
"Oh, sure. I got a lecture the first time. The second time, they spanked me. They never caught me again. Maybe they got tired of watching. I always looked forward to the summers, though, when they'd send me to Gram's farm. Pop-pop kept two cartons full of old paperbacks hidden in a corner of the root cellar. I could read them in daylight."
Gordon laughed. "It sounds like fun."
"Yeah, lots of fun," said Alex. "How long are we going to be stuck here?"
Bob shrugged and the blankets shrugged with him. "I don't know."
"Relax," said Fang. "Here. It's cheddar."
It was a half-found wedge. Alex felt his throat close. "No thanks," he said. I'm going to be heartily sick of cheese by the time we get to Chicago."
"Cheese is fermented milk curd," Fang volunteered. "The Orientals think of it as 'rotten milk.' "
Sherrine turned to him. "Thank you for sharing that thoughtwithus."
"Well," said Thor. "Where there's a curd, there's a whey."
"Seriously," Alex insisted. "How long will we be stuck inside this trailer?" Surrounded by cheese. Encastled by cheesy ramparts. Breathing cheese with every breath. Sure, it saved gas on the van; sure, it hid them from the sheriffs deputies; but it seemed as if he had been buried in a tomb of . . . of fermented curds.
Fang nibbled on the wedge, looking for all the world like an oversized mouse. "How long?" he said. "Hard to say. The trailer takes the back roads to avoid the monties."
"Monties . . . Montereys. They high jack cheese."
Gordon cocked his head. "High-jack cheese? Poche-—Why would anyone do that?"
Fang held his wedge up and turned it so it caught the pale light. "Supply and demand," he said. "South and east of Chicago this stuff is rare. Infrastructure collapsing. Bridges, culverts, embankments. Roads are near impassible. Can't hardly get gas anywhere in Wisconsin. So not much cheese ever gets out of the state. Not until the farmers can hoard enough fuel to make a run like this one. Naturally, the monties are on the lookout. One cheese truck taken to . . . oh, Pittsburgh or St. Louis, could set you up for life."
"I've heard," said Sherrine, "that in some places they stamp the cheese wheels with official seals and use them for money."
Thor laughed. "I've heard that. What would you do for a wallet?"
"No, no," said Fang. "You put the cheese in a larder-—"
"-—and issue certificates—"
"Backed by the full faith and credit of-—"
"Issue certificates," Fang repeated more loudly. "Pay to the bearer on demand, so many pounds of cheese. Pound notes!"
"Would a Swiss cheese pound note be worth more than a cheddar?"
"Sure, you know how reliable those Swiss cheese bankers are . . ."
"How many Gorgonzolas to a Colby?" asked Steve. "What's the exchange rate?"
"Excuse me, sir," said Sherrine to Thor, "but do you have change for a Roquefort?"
"Keep your stinking money."
"Hey," said Bob laughing. "At least the money would be backed by something."
"Maybe," Thor ventured, "they could use jellies and jams . . . backed by the Federal Preserve Bank."
Alex simply could not believe it. Van and all they were riding in a back of a cheese-filled eighteen-wheeler trailer, rolling through territory infested by highway bandits, and his companions made . . . cheesy jokes. "It seems to me," he said, "that this is an awfully risky way to escape Wisconsin."
The others looked at him with their mouths half-open in smiles, waiting for his punch line. Alex plowed resolutely on. "I mean the montereys. They're real?"
"Sure, but. . ."
"Alex," said Sherrine. "The police are looking for a van."
"Hiram Taine gave us new plates and painted us orange."
"All the more reason not to risk being stopped."
"Besides," interjected Thor, "there's something I've always wanted to say."
Alex frowned at him. "What's that?"
"Cheese it! The cops!"
Everyone broke into laughter again. Alex scowled and shifted his right foot to a more comfortable siddhasan position. His companions couldn't seem to take things seriously. They had to make jokes. Just how dependable was this rescue? Was this to be his fate, his punishment for screwing up that one last time? To be shuttled aimlessly across the planet for the rest of his life?
Sherrine touched his arm and leaned past Thor who was cracking yet another joke to Steve. "Alex," she said. "We could never have scrounged enough gas for the van to drive out on our own. The farmers there have been saving fuel for a long time to send just this one truck out and back. They made a tremendous sacrifice by putting us back here instead of the same volume in cheese."
"It's not that, Sherrine. It's . . ."
Alex sighed and she leaned closer. He could smell the sweetness of her breath. "It's . . ." What was bugging him? Was it that the optimism he had felt at the Tre-house had leached out of him? That his resolution to enjoy his exile had foundered against huddling places and blizzards and crumbling roads and funerals? He jerked his head toward the other fans. "Don't they realize the gravity of our situation?" he whispered to her.
She whispered back, "You fight gravity with levity."
Later, as they dozed under the blankets, Alex was jarred awake. He raised himself on his elbows, momentarily delighted that he could raise himself on his elbows, and looked around. Not that he could see anything. Under a pile of blankets inside a van that was chocked up inside a trailer. It gave the word "dark" new meaning. He lay still and listened. The familiar grumble of the motor and the gentle rocking and bouncing were missing.
The truck had stopped.
"What is it?" Sherrine's voice sleepy beside him. He flashed a momentary fancy that they shared a bunk together, somewhere hidden from their five chaperones.
"Nothing," he said. "The truck stopped, is all. Rest break, maybe."
"Oh, good. I could use a rest break myself. Should we get out, do you think?"
"Wait." Doors slammed and the engine roared to life. "Changing drivers, I guess." First gear ground and caught. "The two guys up front must have switched seats."
"I hope we get there soon, or this van is going to smell like a New York subway station."
"Please," said Bob, yawning in the darkness, "if you have to go, go outside."
"On the cheese?"
"I really miss my space suit," said Alex.
"It had a catheter," he said dreamily.
* * *
Lee Arteria studied the list that Moorkith had passed around the table. It was several pages long. Eight-by fourteen-inch computer pages. Names and addresses ranked in severe columns. Not even alphabetized! Maybe it was sorted by address? No, there was no logical order to the sequence at all. A random dump. Maybe no one on Moorkith's staff knew how to run a sort.
That seemed likely. Computers might be necessary, but they were a necessary evil. Learn too much about them and you might be seduced into technophilia. Besides, competency was elitist. It was easy to imagine Moorkith's people gingerly pressing buttons and leaping back lest they be defiled by the touch.
"This is a lot of subversives for a small area like Fargo." The state policewoman was a new member of the Team, representing North Dakota. Arteria supposed that the various state jurisdictions had decided to pool their resources so they would not be left off the Team and miss out on the collar.
"I wouldn't know," said Moorkith. "But I believe it would be wise to investigate each lead for possible connections with Minneapolis technophiles."
Arteria stifled a grin. Pompous ass. They would be a long time checking out some of these leads. Verne, Jules. Gernsback, Hugo. Wells, Herbert George. Even Jefferson, Tom and Carver, G.W. Technophiles, all. Had Moorkith even looked at the printout before distributing it? No, he simply assumed it was correct. For someone who professed to disparage technology, he had a naive and trusting attitude toward it.
How long had Moorkith's database been compromised? Arteria would dearly have loved to know. A hack years old would have nothing to do with the current mission. A recent hack might be intended to muddy the search for the spacemen. In either case, the choice of phony names pointed straight toward fandom.
Arteria smiled. So far, no one else seemed to have noticed a fannish flavor to this mission. They might suspect sci-fi fans on general principle-—" technophiles is technophiles"-—but their general attitude was that fans were hare-brained and ineffectual adolescent nerds. A dangerous assumption, sometimes correct, but sometimes wildly off. Heh. I can crack this one solo and keep all the credit. Might even be good for a promotion.
* * *
The back door of the van was thrown open and raw sunlight filtered into the back of the trailer. Alex crouched with the others next to Bob's van, peering through the pallets of cheese that screened them from view. There were loud voices and shouted orders and the sound of an engine.
Thor scratched his beard and frowned. "Enoch said his friends would release us inside a warehouse before they drove the trailer to the cheese market."
Bob scratched his beard. "Maybe there's been a change in plans."
"Don't like it," said Fang shaking his head.
"What should we do?" asked Gordon.
"Can't run. Can't hide. Might as well enjoy the view."
The forklift pulled the cheese pallet from in front of them. A gang of men in heavy flannel shirts was counting and stacking the cheese wheels. They froze suddenly and stared at the trailer. The leader of the stevedores looked upfrom his clipboard and an unlit stogie fell from his lips. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
Thor studied the skyline. Gray, sooty clouds lowered over squat, blocky buildings. In the distance, twin spires of black smoke twisted skyward. He shook his head. "We're not in Chicago, gang."
"Welcome to Kilbourntown, gentlemen and lady." The Alderman graced them with a benign smile from atop his fur-lined throne. He was nearly as wide as he was tall. He wore a tawny-and-white cloak of fox skins. Aides and servants hovered around him like launch debris around a satellite. A number of the men wore sidearms and crossed bandoleers, but Alex also spotted swords here and there. A young girl, scantily clad, lounged insolently on the steps below the dais. Body odor was a miasma in the room.
Thor gave him his elbow to hang onto. "Great Ghu," he whispered out of the side of his mouth, "we're in Hyperborea. Where's Conan?"
The Alderman lifted a huge, carved stein toward them. "Have a beer," he said formally.
It was a signal. His aides rushed to hand out smaller steins to the travelers. Alex studied his stein doubtfully. Scenes of Teutonic pastoralism adorned the sides. A lid closed the top. Now, that was familiar. Open-topped mugs still seemed a trifle odd to him; but how do you drink from the damned thing? There was no nipple.
Alex noticed a little thumb lever that flipped the lid open. Aha. So, what was the point of the lid? They had gravity here. They didn't have to worry about the beer floating away.
The Alderman waited and his ward heeler motioned that they should drink. It was a thin, sour brew with insufficient carbonation. Alex smiled and pretended to drink some more. "It's very good," he said. No point in offending your host; especially one of an uncertain and barbaric temper.
The Alderman nodded his smiling head. "It tastes like horse piss, doesn't it? Oh, one thing. You're new here, so I'll let you get by just this once. But please, do not speak to me unless first spoken to." The voice twisted up at the end, almost like a question. The smile was still there. The jolly eyes still twinkled. Alex felt sweat in his armpits and groin. I've never been threatened so politely.
Alex had already opened his jacket. Now he loosened his shirt collar, as well. This was the first time he had felt really warm since the trek across the Ice. Was it really warm in the Alderman's palace-—a.k.a. the old Federal Building on Wisconsin Avenue-—or was he just nervous about their circumstances? Then he remembered that the stevedores at the loading dock had been working in no more than flannel shirtsleeves.
Odd. Hadn't Thor told him that Milwaukee was closer to the ice fields than any other major city, save Winnipeg? Something about the Lake Effect and the Jet Stream.
Setting his stein down on the tray proffered by his butler, the Alderman gusted a huge sigh and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He made staccato pointing motions with his hand and the other servants collected the remaining steins. Alex surrendered his willingly; but Fang held onto his and took a second pull from it before releasing the handle. The Alderman shook his head. "You're either a brave old cuss or you got no taste at all." He rubbed his hands together. "Now, to business. Who the hell are you and what were you doing in the cheeser?"
Sherrine exchanged lances with Bob and took a step forward. "May I speak?"
The Alderman raised his eyebrows. "I asked a question, didn't I?"
"I meant, may I make a request?"
The Alderman raised his chin and stroked it slowly with his thumb. "Sure. Why not? I might even grant it, even though you ain't registered voters."
"Two of my friends here are only recently out of wheelchairs. They cannot stand up for long periods. Would it be all right with you-—"
" 'Your honor' is the correct title."
"Thank you, your honor. Would it be all right with your honor if they sat down?"
There was an audible gasp from the assembled servants and courtiers. One of the waiters fumbled her tray and nearly dropped the steins she carried. The Alderman colored slightly; then he grinned. "Hey, sure. This is a democracy, aina?"
Two chairs were brought. Two only, Alex noted. "I can still stand," he told Sherrine.
"Don't be chivalric. Don't push yourself beyond what Steve tells you."
Alex settled himself into the chair. He glanced at Gordon. "Let them handle this," he said.
"I was planning to," Gordon responded.
The Alderman smiled his humors smile again. "Now. About your presence in the cheeser."
"We-—" Sherrine glanced at Bob, who shrugged.
"We were stuck in western Wisconsin, your honor. Some friends helped us save gas by letting us piggyback on the cheese delivery."
"That's a real expensive favor. I'm short a couple hundred kilos American because of you."
"There was a blizzard, your honor," Thor explained. "We saved the farmer's life."
"A square-head's life ain't worth his volume in cheese. But he might not know that." He stroked his chin again with his thumb. "You sure you ain't from Juneautown? Nah, I guess not," he answered himself. "If you was playing Trojan horse it woulda been a stupid stunt; and stupid ain't one of Alderman Wlodarczyck's sterling qualities." He shrugged his arms out wide and slapped them down on the arms of his throne.
"But I'm still out the cheese. So what do I do?"
Alex suspected the question was rhetorical; but Thor spoke up anyway.
"I thought the shipment was going to Chicago. Your honor. Did they put us on the wrong truck?"
The courtiers laughed. Even the waiters permitted themselves a supercilious snigger. The Alderman's smile turned tolerant.
"Did I say something funny, your honor?"
"Ah, those square-heads don't know nothing about economics. Sure, they was sending their cheese by Chi-town; but they coulda got a better deal here. So we did 'em a favor."
"You!" Sherrine blurted. "You're behind the monties!"
The Alderman turned a fierce glare on her. "You watch your mouth there, lady. If you wasn't a lady, you'd get six months hard for leeze majesty. We don't steal cheese here. We need it to negotiate with them gangsters in Chi ever since Juneautown cut us off from the Port and the Marina. Chi's gonna get their cheese sooner or later, don't you worry about that; but it might as well do us some good along the way."
Alex was having a hard time remaining seated. Floaters didn't lose the strength in their hands. Alex's hands were hard and sinewy; they could crush the fat Alderman's throat, if he would hold still for a moment.
An honest man beset by greedy neighbors. Was it simply hypocrisy? Self-deception? Or the lack of any moral code but relativity?
Or was it not so simple as that? The Alderman and his cronies were arrogant bandits at their center of power. But did the smiles seem forced? Did the eyes glitter with a hint of fear? The Ice was sliding down the west side of the Lake faster than anywhere else on the planet. Places like Fox Point and Brown Deer were already engulfed, according to Thor.
Then why was it so warm here?
Milwaukee was no longer a city: the two sides of the river had become separate waning towns. Maybe Alderman Strauss was just an old-time, city machine politician desperately fending off disaster from his bailiwick, knowing all the while that it was hopeless. The pressure of that sort of burden could deform a soul past its yield point, maybe even past its breaking point.
Look what it's done to Lonny Hopkins. And that was an odd notion, because it was the first sympathetic thought he had had about the station commander in a long, long time.
All right, Alex. What would you do if you were sitting on a plundered restaurant chair, wearing a cloak of animal skins, watching your beloved community be swallowed slowly by glaciers? Anything it took, right? There was nothing like disaster to focus one's loyalties.
"But the farmers, your honor," Sherrine insisted.
Back off, Sherri, he wanted to tell her. These are desperate, ruthless men and women. They aren't stealing cheese for fun. They are trying to save themselves and their families.
"Hey," the Alderman shrugged magnanimously. "They'll get their payment. We ain't thieves. They got more cheese than they know what to do with it. We got beer coming out our-—" He grinned. "Well, coming out, anyway. So we'll load up their stinking cheese wagon with enough barrels we figure equals the cheese and send it back by them. Value for value. We ain't got cheese here; they ain't got beer there. They even get their trailer and their drivers back."
"But, your honor, what can they do with a trailer load of beer?"
"Throw a party. Get drunk. What else is there to do in the sticks? The e should be happy we're bartering at all. Meanwhile . . ." And he rubbed his hands. "I figured out what to do with you folks. My city clerk will calculate the value of the cheese you displaced from the truck. Then we'll put you to work at standard wage-—minus room and board of course-—until you pay it off." He smiled an appeal to them. "That's fair, aina?"
Alex, for one, was not going to tell him otherwise.
The guard who took them to their new duties was full of enthusiasm and civic pride. If it hadn't been for the short sword at his belt and the crossbow on his back, Alex would have thought him a member of the chamber of commerce. Or maybe he was.
"Ain't the Alderman a piece of work?" he bragged. "I was in the fight when Juneautown burned the Clybourn Street bridge. He was all over the battlefield, rallying the men, leading that last charge to tear down the barricade. A damn shame we lost the battle; but you can't say the Alderman lost his nerve." The guard shook his head. "That harbor belongs to all of Milwaukee, not just the east siders. It ain't right that they keep us out. Same goes for the old City Hall. Juneautown thinks they're hot shit."
The horse cart pulled up at Zeidler Park and the guard ordered them all out. The park was enclosed in an immense plastic tent shored up by a wooden framework. The plastic was translucent, and through it Alex could make out the dim, distorted shapes of people and plants. He climbed down from the cart with the others and stumbled toward the tent. Despite support from Thor and Fang on either arm, each step sent a lance of fire up Alex's thighs.
"Hey Hobie!" the guard called out. "Got some new temps for you!"
Glancing up, Alex noticed again how gray the cloud deck was that hung over Milwaukee. And the twin plumes of black smoke to the north. "Guard," he asked, "are those fires?"
"Hunh? Oh, sure. That's how we get our steam heat. We're burning buildings down. So does Juneautown; but it was our idea first. Most everything north of Capitol Avenue is one now."
"What do you do when you run out of city?"
The guard blinked at him. "There are other cities, aina?"
Hobie was the head farmer for Zeidler Park Farm. Once inside the huge, low tent, Alex was assaulted by the warm, moist scent of compost and plant life. The entire park had been turned over to crops. Rows of corn and wheat were mixed with pea vines and bean plants. The plastic sheeting acted as a greenhouse, letting in the solar energy but trapping the ground-reflected heat, which was supplemented by steam hissing from radiators jury-rigged about the grounds. Shorewood is burning to keep the corn warm, Alex thought. It was actually warm inside the farm and, for the first time since falling to Earth, Alex saw men and women in shirt sleeves. They were bent silently over the plants, tending them with hoes and rakes. Some were kneeling, grubbing at the dirt with hand claws and weeders. A few of the . . . serfs? . . . glanced at the newcomers with a studied lack of curiosity.
There had been a popular joke on Freedom, started by a man named Calder. Looking down from space, he had said, the dominant life forms on Earth were obviously the cereals and other grasses. They occupied all the most desirable and fertile land; and they had tamed insects and animals to care for them. In particular, they had domesticated the bipeds to nurture and cultivate them and to save and plant their seed. Now, watching the farmers, Alex could easily imagine that they were worshiping and genuflecting before their masters.
Hobie looked them over. "New temps," he said. "Heh, heh."
"That's right," said Bob. "Just until we pay off the fine."
"And what fine is that, sonny?"
"Well, we were in the back of a cheese truck and . . ."
Hobie cackled. "Heh, heh, heh. In a cheeser, was you? And you gotta pay the Boss back for the cheese he couldn't steal because you, was back there instead? Heh, heh."
Bob scowled. "What's funny?"
"Well, you may be here a while."
"That's slavery," Bob pointed out without any real surprise.
Hobie affected a look of astonishment. "Why, so it is, sonny!" He leaned forward confidentially and added, "You want we should go tell the Boss? Maybe he'll stop it oncet he knows how illegal it all is. Heh."
Bob's face sagged. He turned to Sherrine and put his arm around her. "I'm sorry I got you mixed up in this," he said. "I truly am."
Sherrine leaned against him. "I'm a big girl. I make my own decisions. But come Monday when I don't show up for work . . ."
She shrugged. "They'll probably start looking for me; but who would ever think to look here?"
Gordon said, "I would like to sit down."
"Ain't too much sitting down here, sonny," Hobie told him. "Lots of bending and squatting though. Heh." Fang and Steve helped Gordon hobble over to the rude desk that was apparently Hobie's business office. Gordon sat against it, taking the weight off his legs. "Hey!" Hobie called, "you a farmer, too?"
Gordon's head hung down on his chest. He shook it wearily from side to side. "No. No, I'm not a farmer. I was, a hydroponic tech for a week; and I screwed that up, too."
"If you ain't a farmer," Hobie insisted, "why'd they lame you?"
Hobie stooped and made a slitting motion with the blade of his hand against the back of his leg "These city boys don't know from soil and growin' things. They're much better at burning stuff down. So any farmers they catch they hamstring so we don't try to run away." The telephone on the desk rang and, as if to demonstrate his last remark, Hobie went to answer it. He walked with a curious shuffling gait, almost dragging his left foot. Sherrine shoved her fist in her mouth and even Fang looked ill. Hobie picked up the receiver. He looked at the group.
"Ah, don't look so sad. It don't bother me no more. They just cut the one leg. They don't want us to be cripples."
The milk of human kindness, thought Alex. Great Ghu, he had just begun to gain the use of his legs. Was this barbaric chieftain going to take them away again?
"Yes, Edna?" Hobie spoke into the receiver. He lowered himself into an old swivel chair. The padding was old and ragged and the ticking stuck out from ripped seams. "Okay, put 'er through . . . Hey, Terri, you old bug stomper, what's up? Yeah. Yeah, they're here; they just got here. You need to what? Well, that's a new one on me. Naw, they don't look lousy to me; but if you say so, I'll send 'em right over." He hooked the phone and stared at it, pulling his lip. "Terri says you gotta come over by her place for delousing. Says she heard tell of the typhus over by Greenfield and West Allis. Your truck come through that way, so she's gotta check you out. The drivers have already been dusted. Now it's your turn."
And so back into the wagon. Go here; no, go there. Autocrats usually gave "efficiency" as the reason for centralizing the decision making. Good ol' Lonny sure enough did; and Alex was sure that Alderman Strauss did, too. But why did the underlings always have to cut and paste to make things work?
Terri Whitehead ran a pest control operation from a building alongside the Milwaukee River. As the guard said driving them over, you could wave to the guard on the Juneautown side and they could count how many fingers you used. The guard let the horse go at a walk. "You ain't in no hurry to start weeding, are you?" he asked. He wasn't in any hurry, either. He had pulled an easy duty and saw no reason not to relax while he had the chance.
Alex lay on his back in the wagon and stared up at the brown smudge of a sky. Bob, squatting beside him, followed his gaze.
"Filthy, isn't it?" he said. "All that soot and carbon from the fires. This may be the only city in North America with a smog problem, worse luck."
"Worse luck? Why?"
"Because if everybody was lighting fires and putting carbon dioxide into the air it would be a damn sight warmer. Like it used to be before they cleaned up the atmosphere."
Bob gestured with his head. "Take a look around you," he whispered. "Wisconsin has been devastated by the Ice more than any other state, except maybe Michigan. Yet Milwaukee is almost a tropic oasis. Why? Because, whether they admit it to themselves or not, the locals are trying to restore the Greenhouse Effect. They threw another log on the fire."
Steve had been listening quietly to Bob's whispered lecture. He leaned over to Alex an said sotto voce: Burn a log and see it through, with heat and soot and CO2!"
"We're here," announced Sherrine. "And-—" She stopped abruptly.
"And what?" Bob asked, twisting to his feet. He stood silently for a moment, swallowing laughter.
Alex grabbed the side of the buckboard and pulled himself to his knees. They were hitched before a wide storefront with double-paned plate glass windows. A wooden sign nailed above the entrance was painted in bright red and gold letters:
YNGVI'S DE-LOUSING AND PEST CONTROL CENTER
The guard finished hitching the horse to the rail and scowled at them. "All right, why's everyone grinning?"
My question exactly, thought Alex.
Terri Whitehead was a short, muscular woman with long, black hair and owlish glasses. She wore jeans and a man's dress shirt with rolled up sleeves, and elbow-length gloves. When she spoke, it was in a husky contralto.
She took care of the guard first. "Because you may have picked up lice from being around the new temps. She made him take off all his clothing and dusted it with malathion powder. Searched through his underwear, and recoiled in horror.
"What?" he demanded.
She held up forceps. "Louse, aina? I'll have to see if it's carrying anything." There was a microscope by the window. She put the insect on a slide and studied it. "You're lucky. This one's healthy. Get back to barracks and take a hot shower. Here's a prescription. Tell 'em I said hot water. Use this stuff." She handed him a small bottle of green liquid. "Use it good, all the hairy parts of your body. Scrub like hell. You'll be all right."
"Typhus," she said. "Dehydration. Babbling. High fever. After a while you dry up and die. You won't like it."
"You'll be all right. One thing, if you itch, don't scratch. Don't crush lice. That's really bad. Just wash them off. Then powder yourself. As for your clothes, change clothes. Take your old ones where they're doing a fire and get 'em good and hot, then smoke them good. Real good.
"Yeah, I will, but, Doc-—"
"You're all right now. I can tell. You don't have it. Get going before you do."
"What about them?"
She laughed and was suddenly holding a pistol, quite casually. "No problem. Now get going."
By this time Alex could feel tiny life forms crawling over his body looking for blood to drink. He kept his hands rigidly by his side. Life under Lonny Hopkins had its drawbacks; but at least lice wasn't one of them.
When Terri faced them, she was laughing. "Yngvi is a louse," she said.
"FIAWOL," Bob replied.
"FIJAGH," she responded. Then she and Sherrine and Bob and the other fans joined in a happy embrace.
Sherrine said, "A sensitive fannish face!I knew-—"
"There isn't time," Terri told them. "We have maybe an hour before they send another guard. Follow me." She led them to the back of the building and out the rear door. "Don't worry about the typhus, she said. "That was just to get you over here. It's a good thing you have that transponder, Bob. The Ghost knew right were you were." She paused and looked at them. "You guys must be awfully important." No one said anything and she shrugged. "None of my business, right? Come on, this way."
A path led across the ragged yard to the river bank, where a small sailboat bobbed at a decaying, wooden wharf. "Seamus will take you from here. Seamus deBaol. You may remember him. He used to publish a line of SF books in the old days. 'Books by deBaol'? He'll take you down the river as soon as he ties me up back in the shop."
Sherrine took her by the arm. "Aren't you coming with us?"
Terri shook her head. "No, someone's got to stay behind and give you an alibi. I can tell them how you overpowered me and headed west out St. Paul Avenue. My friend Allis Place belongs to Psi Phi Fraternity over by the University. They'll report some horses stolen, so the Alderman's stooges will go chasing off that direction. I'll tell them you're gonna die of typhus anyway. The Alderman will think you're a blessing. Maybe you'll go to Juneautown and start a plague."
"But-—you won't come, then?"
"This is my home," she said. "Such as it is. What if other fen find themselves in need of help someday?"
Sherrine hugged her. "It must be awful, living life undercover like that. Aren't you afraid of exposure?"
Terri grinned. "That's why I stay under the covers. Being a fan was a lot simpler in the old days; now we've all got new destinies to pursue. Here." She handed them a paper sack. "You'll need money. Take this. It's filled with cheese. Sorry, no apple pie. 'The best of all physicians is apple pie and cheese.' Quick, now. Into the boat. Seamus, hurry! You've still got to tie me up."
The short, bearded man grinned at them as he jogged past up to the house. "Some parts of this job, I like."
It was a gaff rigged catboat with plenty of room aboard. The mast was stepped well forward and wore a single quadrilateral sail.
The boat pushed off from shore, and the sail caught the wind. It heeled dangerously, then settled on course. They huddled in the bottom of the boat, out of the chill wind, and Alex managed to be next to Sherrine.
"How did you know she was a friend?"
"The sign. 'Yngvi is a louse'-well, it's a quote from an old fantasy, and it got to be sort of a catch phrase among fans. As soon as I saw 'Yngvi DeLousing . . .' "
Alex nodded. "I see. FIAWOL I know, but what means that other one?"
She grinned. "FIJAGH. Fandom Is Just A Goddamn Hobby.
* * *
The Museum of Science and Industry was located on the shore of Lake Michigan in Jackson Park on Chicago's south side. Seamus maneuvered the catboat to a spit of land just north of the museum and ran the bow aground. "Are you sure you want off here?" he asked.
"Yes," Sherrine told him. "We are supposed to meet someone."
Seamus glanced up at the imposing building. He ran a hand through his beard. "Well, be careful. It's not the museum it used to be. Time was this was Chi-Town's biggest tourist attraction. Four million people a year came to look at Science and Technolo exhibits. Like a damn city come to visit. A lot of the displays have been changed over now. They only left a few, and they don't keep the homeless out."
Alex wobbled as he stepped ashore. His legs felt like rubber and he grabbed Thor's shoulders to stay upright. "Sorry," he muttered. "I seem to have lost it." The long, leisurely sail down the Milwaukee River and then along the shore of Lake Michigan had, with its gentle rolling motion, put him back into a state of near weightlessness. Now the earth heaved to and fro as if tossed by waves.
Seamus waved to them as he cast off. The wind was off the lake, abeam to his course both coming and going. "Sailor's wind," he called. "Good luck."
"FIAWOL," Alex said tentatively.
"Don't you just know it," Seamus called. He hauled in the sheets and the boat moved rapidly away.
Bob and Sherrine disappeared and reappeared a short while later with a pair of wheelchairs with C.M.S.A.T. stenciled in yellow ink across the back. "Here you go, guys," Sherrine said. "You wouldn't believe what they wanted for a deposit on these things."
Bob led the way to the front of the building. The façade consisted of tall, fluted columns with voluted capitals. Statues of the Muses gazed serenely down. "It's a huge building," he said. "Covers five and a half hectares. It was built originally for the 1893 World Colombian Exposition; then rebuilt in the 1930s as the museum."
"Where would this Cole character have his Titan?" asked Alex.
"There used to be a wing, called the Henry Crown Space Center. It had Schirra's Aurora Seven Mercury capsule and the Apollo Eight, the first craft to orbit the moon. The Titan is probably back there. I figured maybe we could mount the Apollo on the Titan somehow. It seats three."
"Which means," Sherrine interjected, "that you could even take a friend with you. No, guess not. Seeds and stuff-—"
"The Titan was rigged for a Gemini," said Bob, "but I figured we should be able to . . ." His voice trailed off. Alex suspected that Bob was just beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the proposed rescue. As long as it was blue sky dream, there were no problems; but the closer they came, the more the difficult details emerged.
People didn't really build spacecraft in their backyards, or in museums. That was just science fiction.
So far so good!
They went up the handicapped ramp to the left of the main entrance. The mass of the building was beginning to get to Alex. Peace and Freedom were frail metal balloons next to this concrete habitat. It was, he thought, like being in a hollowed-out asteroid.
Bob secured a map of the museum and they huddled over it. The logo read, "Chicago Museum of Science and Appropriate Technology," with a footnote explaining that "science" did not mean only "materialist science."
Now, what might "non-materialist science" be? Alex wondered. Plasma physics?
"Here it is." Bob pointed. "I'll be damned. It's still in the same old spot. Henry Crown Space Center. What does it say in the description?" He bent closer. "This exhibit has been preserved as it was in the past as an example of Big Technology. Astonishing as it may seem, billions of dollars were once spent in outer space rather than here on Earth. See the actual capsules that were used to give a few military pilots joyrides at taxpayer expense."
"I don't understand, Bob," Alex said. "How could they spend money in space? There were no stores there back in those days."
"That's not what they meant, Gabe," Bob replied.
Thor spoke gently. "They meant that the money was spent on the space program rather than on Earthly problems."
Sherrine burst out, "They got so much from the space program! Fireproofing. Weather forecasting. Dammit, these"-—she kicked Alex's wheelchair-—" lightweight wheelchairs we're pushing around. Sorry."
Alex started to laugh. Sherrine said, "Sorry. My God, it's been so long since I could say this kind of thing!"
"Did these chairs really-—"
"Waste-water treatments. Medical instruments. Most people had no idea that any of that came out of the space program. Or for that matter, that it even existed. A new design lightweight wheelchair doesn't make the kind of headlines that a scrubbed launch or a flawed mirror makes, even if the structural analysis techniques and composite materials used to make the damn thing were aerospace from the beginning. What is everyone grinning at?"
"Welcome back," Steve said.
"Thanks. Oh, Bob, there was nobody to talk to."
Steve said, "All that stuff was just 'spin-off,' you know. Science happens because one day a scientist wakes up and says, 'Today I'm going to invent toothpaste.' If he didn't plan to invent a better wheelchair, he can't take credit for it."
"Come on," said Bob. "We're wasting time here. Let's get back to the Crown Center."
He led them through several exhibits on the way to the back room where the space exhibit was stashed. One was a Hall of Minerals that featured all sorts of crystals, together with detailed descriptions of the powers of each for " . . . clearing away negative attitudes, centering personal energies, enhancing communications, promoting healing, opening the heart to love and courage, simplifying decision making, balancing the spirit, focusing the mind, tapping into psychic powers, and using chakras and colors."
Another exhibit was entitled "Origins of the Earth." There were seven panels, one for each day. One large poster read "The Speed of Light: A Test of Faith?" and explained how light created "already on the way" could give the impression of a universe much larger and older an it really was.
There was a Green exhibit on alternate energy sources. Windmills, passive solar. Biomass. "Biomass?"
Bob said, "Burn wheat and corn. Real efficient. Well, at least they don't have an exhibit on generating energy by squeezing crystals."
"Why the grin, Alex?" Thor asked as they entered a stairwell and turned right into a dimly lit corridor. A faded sign on the wall read, "This way to Henry Crown Space Center."
Alex chuckled. "We grow perfect crystals in our electronics lab in Freedom. I could be rich if I had brought a handful with me."
The Crown Center was housed in a separate wing that could be reached only through a long, narrow corridor. A homeless pair huddled in a niche near the doorway. They were bundled up in torn blankets that covered everything but their eyes.
"Hey, man, you got any change?"
No one looked at them. Eye contact might humanize them . . .
Half the lights in the hallway were out and the edges at the floor and ceiling were thick with nitre and cobwebs. This was a part of the building long-—and deliberately-—neglected.
The center itself was dimly lit. The two space capsules were shadowy shapes suspended from the ceiling. A couple of teenaged boys who had found their way in were standing beneath the Mercury capsule. ". . . and all they ever brought back was a bung of dumb moon rocks," Alex heard the one tell his companion. He turned to them as he was wheeled past.
"Did you ever ask what those rocks were made of?" he asked.
The two kids gave him a wary look. "Rocks is rocks," the older said.
"Right, kid," murmured Thor. "Aluminum, titanium, zirconium, calcium. If we had mined the moon like some people wanted, we wouldn't have to disturb Mother Earth and ruin the environment here."
The younger kid stuck his chin out. "Yeah, but then we woulda ruined the moon's ecology."
Thor smiled. "I can't argue with that," he said mildly. "Mighty important, that lunar ecology."
One of the boys nodded solemnly. The other muttered something under his breath.
The two teenagers left casting a few careful glances behind. "You better be careful, you come back here," the younger one called. "Or the spook'll get you!"
"All right," said Bob when they were gone. "Let's spread out and see if we can find Cole."
They split into groups and explored the corners of the hall. Alex saw a shuttle simulator, now padlocked. A sign told how much taxpayer money had been spent so astronauts could play computer games."
"Over here!" Sherrine shouted. "The Titan!"
They converged on her voice. A tall cylinder stood in an ill-lit corner of the room, a majestic shadow among the shadows. "I can't believe it," Bob said, his head tilted back to seek its top. "We actually found it!"
Fang approached the behemoth in awe and fear. He ran his hand over its skin. He looked at his hand. He studied the ill-lit surface a few moments more, and said, "I'm going to be sick."
Alex yanked on his chair's wheels and rolled upto the artifact. Closer now, he could see rust sots, popped welds, holes where fittings should have been. There were no main thrusters mounted at the base.
Alex noticed a dark horizontal line running across the booster about halfway up. His own belly lurched and tried to turn over. The bird had been cut in half, he realized. Cut in half, to transport it or to get it through a door. He remembered that Bob had described Cole's rocket as a kind of Flying Dutchman, wandering from museum to museum.
This ship would never fly. It never could have flown.
I never thought it could. Never in a million years. Then why was he so disappointed? Why was he biting his lip so hard that he could taste blood? He heard a sob to his right and turned in time to see Gordon stagger out of his wheelchair and lean against the Titan. His arms stretched out to embrace it and he placed his cheek against its cool skin. Tears had pooled in his eyes.
"It won't work, Alex, will it? It won't fly. We'll be marooned down here forever. Crushed and tripping and staggering like drunken fools until they finally catch us. Never to see my semya again, never to plavat in the old ESO module. Never rift my broomstick on lazy orbit to Peace. If only-—" Gordon sagged and Steve grabbed him under the armpits to keep him from falling.
"If only what?" Alex snapped at him. "If only what? I'd strangle fucking Lonny if my arms were long enough, but it wouldn't change anything. If only I'd waited another orbit! We could have scooped our air on the next pass."
He tried to jerk his arm away from Thor, who was trying to calm him down. If Thor noticed, he didn't react. Sherrine stepped between them, saying something that Alex refused to hear. "We are stuck down here, Gordo," he persisted. "Stuck. Forever. It doesn't matter whose fault-—"
"Quiet, there! Quiet, I say!"
The sudden voice came from above. Alex looked up with the rest and saw wild hair and a long New Englander face, party white in the uncertain fluorescent light, staring down at them from an opening high up in the Titan. The face showed nothing. He said, "Get away from that. It's not yours."
A knotted rope snaked down from above and the tall, thin man came down hand over hand. He landed too hard, staggered, recovered. He took his place before the Titan, in no evident hurry.
"I bought the parts and put it together and held it together for forty years. You're not going to hurt it."
Thor stepped up to him and reached for his arm. "Ron? Ron Cole? Is that you?" His hand stopped, because that was a gun in Cole's hand.
The creature looked at him. "Yes." He squinted at Thor's face. "I know you. Don't I?" His other hand stroked the discolored flank of the Titan. He held the gun with evident negligence, but it was still pointed at Thor's belly.
"They took away her boosters, they did. Her boosters. Too dangerous, they said. Hah! What did they know? Without the fuel . . ." His lips clamped into a straight line.
Thor had backed away a bit. "What fuel is that, Ron?"
Cole backed against the Titan, shaking his head. "No, no. Things are seldom as they seem; skim milk masque . . . masquerades as cream." He nodded his head wisely. His gun hand drooped.
"Ron, what happened to you?" Thor demanded.
"Heh. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest-—"
"Electro shock," Fang said. "And drugs. They must have helped him, in one of the mental health centers."
When Thor turned back, Alex could see tears staining his beard. "I knew Ron," he said. "I knew Ron back in the old days, in Boston. We had dinner together at a Thai restaurant there. He told me stories, wonderful stories. About how the Boston Globe made him the world's sixth nuclear power; about Wade Curtis and the machete; and Reynolds and the Great Duel . . . He was the brightest man I ever knew, and look what they've done to him. Look what they've done." He bowed his head and Steve stepped to his side and put an arm around his shoulder.
It had all been in vain, Alex realized. The harrowing trip across Wisconsin; the blizzard; the narrow escape from slavery . . . All for nothing. The shining vision of the old Titan had gone before them like a pillar of fire in the desert night. And at the end, they had found only junk and an old man who had been helped by mental health professionals.
No one said anything. Bob studied the Titan, checking out every part of it; as if he could will it into flight worthiness, as if he could somehow find something they had overlooked that would make everything all right. Steve consoled Thor, while Sherrine comforted a weeping Gordon. Even Fang seemed bereft of ideas.
Alex watched Gordon cry. Thor had lost his friend. Sherrine had lost her job; or would when she failed to show up for work in the morning. Bob had lost his van, and probably his job, too. But Gordon cried uncontrollably. Okay, for Gordo this is a totally alien planet. I could acclimate myself. I was born here. I loved Kansas; I cried when my parents took me up. I could learn to love it here again. I could convince myself that I was only coming home again.
The Titan had given their sojourn a purpose. They had had a goal, as quixotic as that goal had been. Now, they had nothing.