-—Ghost, with both hands, you couldn't find your-—
-—That's why I'm here, you pitiful Primary Ego. This is too serious for me to sit back and watch you screw things up. Did you think I would stay down there amusing myself by burning those old copies of The Intergalactic Reporter-—?
-—Well, an imp has to keep itself warm somehow. If you would heat the dungeon I wouldn't have had to ignite that stack of Lan's Lanterns last week-—
-—Or the FOSFAXs or Mimosas. They're getting dry and crumbly. Make good tinder
-—Point? Point? Oh, very well. Friends, don't trust The Ghost. His minds aren't what they used to be. Send your contributions to the usual places. DUFF, SKIFFY, TAFF, they're all in this. The final drawing hasn't been scheduled yet; but the big prize is still the Trip of a Lifetime. Remember, two Grand Prize winners have already been chosen, but don't let that stop you from giving them the boost they need. They're feeling a little Down.>
-—Don't count on it, Ghost. I'm the Prime Self now. Remember? The fans voted for me in Galaxy years ago. Me, not you, Ghost. Eh? No! Not the Spell! Not the Spell! Arrgh!-—
* * *
Anonymous note on electronic bulletin board.
Anonymous reply on same bulletin board.
* * *
Captain Doom flashed the light briefly at the big wooden sign. PUTNAM'S WORM FARM. WORMS FOR SOIL CULTIVATION; WORMS FOR BAIT; WORMS FOR ALL PURPOSES. He pondered that, wondering what other purposes worms might have. Then he shrugged and touched his throat mike. "Captain, Doom to SMOF-One," he whispered. "I am in position."
"Roger, Captain Doom," he heard Benjamin Orange's voice tinny in his ear. "Go for it."
Captain Doom nodded to his three companions. He grabbed a section of chain-link fence while Mark and Lisha Hartz worked their wire cutters in unison. Then he lifted the loose flap like a trap door. He clapped the third fan on the shoulder. "Chain up! We're going in."
Andy ducked swiftly forward with a shovel in his hand. Captain Doom began counting in his head. "One one-thousand; two one-thousand; three one-thousand . . ." Then he tapped Mark and Lisha, who dropped their bolt cutters, grabbed plastic sacks, and scurried through the hole in the fence.
While his teammates were gone Captain Doom tied twisties to the cut sides of the fence flap. Then he waited. When his mental count reached three minutes the bag carriers slip back through the fence, followed in another minute by Andy with the shovel. The four plastic sacks bulged and Captain Doom caught a whiff of the contents. "Better double-bag that," he said. "It's a long ride back."
His three companions nodded and slipped away into the darkness. As he fastened the loose fence section back in place with the twisties, Captain Doom triggered his throat mike. "Captain Doom to SMOF-One. Mission accomplished. Have the deodorizers ready."
Captain Doom rejoined the others. Benjamin Orange stood by the open back doors of the panel truck they had come in. Doom's teammates and two other teams were already seated inside the truck, wiping greasepaint from their faces. Orange was garbed in slacks and dress shirt and sported a prominent bow tie in the Black Watch tartan. He wore a headset and throat mike that left his hands free for a clipboard and checklist. SMOFs always made lists.
"Can you hear me, Team Gamma? Can you hear me?" He glanced up as Captain Doom approached. "How'd the worm farm go?"
"It went like clockwork, Orange."
"Good." The SMOF nodded. "Good. Wait." He put a hand to his earphone. "Ah, there you are, Henry. I can hear you now. Have you got the bull semen? Yes, I know it's kept cold. We've got a refrigerated container in the truck; so hurry it back here. SMOF-One, out." He grinned at Captain Doom. "Let's see the Lunarians top that one. With that plus the ova from the agricultural school . . . if the Angels can't culture a bit of laboratory beef, then we aren't the Fanoclasts."
* * *
The clerk at the checkout counter raised his eyebrows. "Starting a garden, miss?"
Winnie Null piled more seed packets on the counter. "Sure am."
The clerk studied the packets. "You must have a mighty big plot."
"You've got too much there, miss. They'll choke each other out."
Winnie sighed. Why did men assume that, because she looked like a covergirl, she did not have a brain in her head? "I know what I'm doing."
"If you'd like a little advice on gardening, I get off at five."
"That's very generous. My husband and I will be glad to have your help." Husbands were useful, she reflected, as the clerk suddenly busied himself with his job. One of these days she would have to get one.
* * *
Thor waited by the checkout lane at the supermarket, holding a place in line while Fang scurried back and forth with small purchases. That earned him a glare from the lumpy, dough-faced woman who was next in line. Probably upset because, due to Fang's ploy, she was one place behind her rightful place in line. Thor considered letting her go ahead; decided against it. Her shopping basket was piled so high that by the time she was through at the cash register the glaciers would be in the parking lot.
The doughy woman gave him one last glare before, rustling the pages with a flourish, she dived behind the anonymity of a checkout tabloid. This one, called the international Global Celebrity Tattle-Tail, featured a lurid headline in 72-point type:
"ICE NUDES ON GLACIER!!!"
It was accompanied by a rather fuzzy photograph of a nude woman in unidentifiable surroundings. The remainder of the headlines lined the margin of the front page like wallflowers at a school dance. One of them proclaimed a new "Thermal Diet" to help keep one warm and comfortable during the colder winters. From what he could glean, it involved a considerable amount of curry and jalapeño peppers.
The woman caught him reading the front page and, with a sniff of righteous indignation, folded it over and returned it to its rack. Thor wondered what unspoken rule he had transgressed. Could one freeload on a freeloader?
Fang scurried up to him with an armful of spice cans, dumped them into the arm basket Thor held, and dashed off for one more run. Thor scanned Fang's choices. A little bit of everything, with an emphasis on the preservative spices. When the contents were used up, the light tin-plated containers would still be valuable. He considered for a moment sending Fang after some jalapeños, but decided it would take too long to explain.
Where were the Angels by now? Halfway to St. Louis, probably. Thor toyed idly with the spice cans. Was he right to drop out? After all, Fang was sticking with it. He'd be setting out in Larry as soon as they bought the supplies.
But someone had to watch over Ron Cole. And the fewer people hanging around the Angels the better. And the Phoenix would never fly anyway.
See what free men-—
Thor sighed unhappily. He had really believed in the Cole legend. A naive belief, he saw now. His parents had always been after him to "be realistic." Especially after catching him with "that" literature. So he had always associated realism with a world where dreaming was suspect.
Ninety-nine out of a hundred dreams came crashing down around you. But if life always fell short of your expectations, that was no argument for lowering them. There was always the hundredth dream.
The shopper in front of him finished her check through and Fang returned to line with a jumbo jar of multivitamins just in time. Madam Doughball pointedly did not move aside for Fang, but that didn't stop the crusty old guy. He lobbed it.
Now, there was someone who had the Talent. Fang could dream realistically. The Titan had not fazed him at all. An option had failed to pan out; there were other options.
Fang watched the tally carefully. Programming skills were deteriorating and scanners had been known to commit egregious errors as a result. But all Thor could see in his mind's eye was the magnificent ascent of Phoenix from her desert home. With ten berths in her crew cabin module. Eight of them up for grabs. He wondered if any of the others had had the same dream he had.
But it wasn't realistic.
* * *
Riding in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler tank truck southbound on I-55 for the Gateway City, with the pavement humming beneath their tires and off-highway neonlit diners flashing past in the darkness, Sherrine had a barely controllable urge to tune into a country/western station. Bob was hunched over the steering wheel, eyes glued on the road ahead. He looked like a trucker. They'd found him a yellow baseball cap with the name of a feed store on it, which he wore pushed back on his head. Between them, Gordon dozed fitfully.
Sherrine had thought that the truck cabin would be crowded with four of them aboard; but she found that the big Peterbilt could fit three across the seat while the fourth could rest in a smaller sleeping compartment behind the cab. The two Angels did not mind the cramped conditions. In fact, they seemed to relax. Sherrine judged that they were accustomed to sleeping quarters not much roomier than the back of the Peterbilt.
They passed the turn-off for Winnemucca, which made her think of Cordwainer Bird. Bird had taken the National Endowment for the Arts advance for The Very, Very Last Dangerous Visions; Really. And This Time I'm Not Foolin' and vanished without a trace. Rumor speculated that he was preparing the ultimate diatribe; the one that would rock the Establishment to its very foundation.
There were stories about Bird. Some of them were true.
I wonder ifBob misses his van. Foolish question. Of course he did. He had had that van a long time and had kept it in careful condition. It was comfortable, like an old slipper. Lots of memories there.
Lots. The quilts and blankets in the back of the van were not entirely meant for insulation. Sherrine gave Bob a sidelong glance. She was not opposed to marriage, in principle. Not for sex, although the new laws made it safer that way, but for the comradeship. She had even tried it once, and it had been the happiest three years of her life . . . though the marriage had lasted five.
Whatever had become of Jake? Had his liaison with Heather lasted? The Cookie had struck her as one who enjoyed the chase more than the prize. Suppose, after dumping his wife for a better looker, Jake had been dumped in turn for a more virile stud?
Or else Jake and Heather were living a life of connubial bliss in a suburban bungalow somewhere, with a miniature Jake and Heather scampering around them.
Well, well. How little we know ourselves. She had not thought about Jake in a long, long time. Yet, the recollection still drove her heart to flutter. Not the end-Jake, but the early Jake. He with the wide, smiling mouth and the perpetually shadowed jaw and the audacity to wander through the timescape of undreamed lands. Somehow, beneath the bitterness, beneath the anger, there was . . . not love, but the shadow of a love that once was.
She was glad when Bob pulled over and turned the wheel over to her. Gordon half-woke, then settled back. Alex climbed out of the sleeper box like a sleepy spider monkey. Bob crawled in. Sherrine put the monster in gear.
The task at hand was to honcho an eighteen-wheeler to St. Louis. Other cars drifted past like windup toys. There weren't many in these early morning hours.
The truck turned majestically, less like a car than a seagoing liner. A lot of momentum in an eighteen-wheeler. But if they stuck mainly to the interstates she would be okay. No sharp turns. What was it that Bill Vukovich had said after winning his second strait Indy 500? "There's no secret. You just press the accelerator to the floor and keep turning left."
"What did you-—?"
"Did I say that out loud? Sorry, Gordon. Back to sleep."
"Can you drive and talk?"
"Sure, Gordon. How are you holding up?"
"I was asked, 'Am I still having fun?' I am. You?"
"I haven't had time to stop and think since Bob rousted me out of bed to pull Angels off the Ice." She remembered the comfort and security of the computer room with a longing that shocked her. There was an animal contentment to living only in the present, snug under the covers and comforters, giving no thought to the future.
The future was a sneaky tense that crept up a day at a time, each tomorrow just a little different from the last, until one day you looked back along the path you had traveled and saw how very, very far you had come from your roots. Safe and secure; but with your dreams cauterized. In the bright light of day, she could see that that path of accumulated tomorrows was a smooth and slippery one that led down, down, down. The bottom of a Well was the point of minimum energy; which was why it was so easy to rest there unmoving.
To move, however . . . Ah, that was another matter entirely. There were other paths, other tomorrows. One could choose among them. And she had made her choice.
And having made that choice, having left behind everything in her life but a change of clothes—"Yeah. Yes, Gordon, I'm still having fun."
But both Angels were asleep, slumped into each other as if boneless.
Sherrine felt more at peace than she had had at any time since Jake had left. Yet, all the psychologists would agree that she should be feeling terrible tensions and insecurity. Abody at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. She had never thought of Newton as a psychologist before.
They passed an interchange. A neon sign on the feeder road below them glided out of the darkness and then faded behind them. HARRY'S ALL NIGHT HAMBURGERS. She felt a sudden passion for cheeseburger and fries.
* * *
He licked the pencil tip with his tongue, tucked the receiver more firmly against his ear, and held his hand poised over the order pad. "All right, go ahead. You want what? Cornish hens. Fine, ma'am. Yes, we do. All sorts of barnyard animals. A half-dozen? And what? I see. Is there some reason why they should be pregnant? How about a nice rooster, instead? Fine. Yes, you can pay when you pick them up."
* * *
The clapboard building was falling apart. The porch roof sagged, and the windows were boarded up. Shutters and sidings loose and brittle with time ratted in the prairie wind. Behind the building, black and rotted husks dotted a weed grown field. Mike Glider gingerly got out of the truck and looked around. "Harry?"
"Here." Harry and Jenny came down from the decaying porch.
"I thought this was the place," Mike said. "Now I'm not so sure."
"This is it," Harry said. He held up a piece of broken board. IOWA STATE COLLEGE AGRICULTURAL RESEA-—The end of the sign was charred black.
"Sure is run down," Bruce said.
Mike nodded. "Yeah, but it was once the pride of the Agricultural Service. They did a lot of good work here."
"Closed by court order," Harry said.
"Worse than that," Mike said. "They didn't even wait. A Green flying squad burned the main building out. Killed four of the research staff-—and got off as justifiable manslaughter."
"Wasn't the only place that happened," Harry said. "The big pogrom-—lot of scientists killed that year. Okay, what's next?"
"We get shovels," Mike said. "They buried the bacterial cultures out in the cornfield when they heard the mob was coming."
"I better watch the bike," Harry said.
"It's all right, I can see it," Jenny said.
Harry shrugged. "Okay." He looked around at the wasted fields. "Shovels. Dig where?"
"They faxed me a map," Mike said. He grabbed the doorknob and shook it. The door would not budge. "They used student labor during the school year; then used volunteers so they could continue working the land"-—again, he tried the door-—" into summer sessions. There are probably all sorts of tools-—" He kicked the door. "If we can just get inside."
The doorknob was pulled from his grasp. "I came in through the back," Harry said.
Mike looked at Bruce and Bruce looked at Mike. "I would have tried that next," Mike said. He stepped inside the building to the musty smell of cobwebs and rotted wood. A thick layer of dust coated the floor, broken by the tracks of rodents.
The building was a warren of rooms and closets. Abandoned offices. Desks with empty drawers hanging open. File cabinets overturned. Papers scattered about the floor, stained with rodent droppings and the leak of rain through the roof.
"God damn them," Mike said reverently. "They did good work here. Milk. We had a way to synthesize hormones. Natural hormones, what cows make themselves. Give the cows more and get half again as much milk. Only they wouldn't let us use it."
"With people starving?" Jenny demanded. "How long has that been going on."
"They discovered how to do it back before the turn of the century," Mike said. "In 1987."
"They're still testing to see if it's safe. That's what the Greens said. The dairy corporations didn't fight very hard. The last thing they need is cheap milk. Oversupply, they called it."
He found Bruce at the back door of the building. The door was hanging loose on its hinges, and the jamb around the latch was broken and splintered. Bruce pointed to the shattered door. "When Harry said he came trough the back door-—"
"He's got a helluva knock, doesn't he?"
Harry approached them from the farther hallway carrying two shovels over his shoulder. " I found a store room," he announced. He gave one shovel to Bruce; the other, to Mike. "And there were just enough shovels."
* * *
* * *
The plant manager spoke in such a broad Texan accent that you would never guess he was not originally from Texas. Just as some people were "more Catholic than the Pope," Ron Ellick reflected, others were more Texan than the Texans. Johns even kept a stuffed rattlesnake in his office. It all seemed very strange, because they were in the Pennsylvania coal country, nowhere near Texas. Ellick felt right at home.
The plant manager led him past the beds of enormous NC machines jigged to shape different parts from the base material. All but one were silent and shrouded. The plant was weirdly quiet with only a handful of people at work. The echo of hammer, saw and drill sounded small in its cavernous spaces. "Not very busy, Mr. Johns," Ellick ventured.
"Call me Johnny," the manager said. "And you're right. We aren't very busy, 't all. Because of the all."
"Right. Pollution laws won't let anyone drill for all anymore. So, less fuel for the airlines. And they cut back on the number of flights because it might damage the ozone layer. So fewer planes are being built." Johns shrugged. "Bunch of guano, if you ask me. But I'm an interested party. The aerospace people were our biggest customers. Now all we get are maintenance and spares orders. There's an example, on that pallet. See where Mitch is gluing the details in place? Now, what does that remind you of?"
"A bee's honeycomb."
Johns nodded. "Right. We call it structural honeycomb. That there is part of the nose assembly for a 737b."
Ron Ellick studied the part dutifully. He had flown from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, courtesy of 3MJ, on an old 737b. He wasn't sure he wanted to know how much of it was held together with glue. "You work on some mighty big parts, Johnny. Awkward shapes. Must be a problem handling the stuff."
"Oh, not the raw material you were asking about. That comes in blocks. Come on, let me show you."
Johns led him to an area of the plant filled with shelving. Each shelf held a stack of what looked like solid oblong blocks. "The way the industry's been ruined, we have enough honeycomb in stock here to last a generation." Johns shook his head sadly. "Anyhow, the stuff was shipped collapsed into blocks like this. Easier to handle. We set the blocks on an extender, put hooks in each end, and stretch 'em open like an accordion." He pointed to another machine which to Ellick looked like a rack from a medieval torture chamber. His mind toyed with the notion: a modern day horror story . . ..
"So the original honeycomb block," Johns went on, "takes up hardly any room at all. Ginny, show Ed here what happens when you put a block in water." He nudged Ron Ellick with his elbow. "Watch this."
The worker pulled on a pair of metal reinforced gloves. Glaives, thought Ron Ellick. Chain mail. It seemed appropriate for someone who worked on a rack. She pulled a block from the shelves and began to lower it end-first into a barrel filled with water.
"This one is aluminum," Johns told him. "But we have honeycomb, in all sorts of metallic and non-metallic composites."
The block was completely immersed in the water now and the level in the barrel had hardly risen at all. "Ninety percent air," Johns assured him. I doubt there's any structural material on the face of the earth that combines the structural strength with the lightness of honeycomb."
Ron Ellick nodded. Or offthe face of the earth, either. "How much for the blocks?"
Johns rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "The aluminum kind or the-—"
Johns cited a list of prices from memory. Ron Ellick wrote them down on a notepad. "OK, Johnny, I'll talk to my people. You can ship it to California?"
Johns nodded. "Son, the way the market is right now, I'll carry it to California."
* * *
* * *
Ted Marshall was a young man, round of face and soft of muscle. At 5' 11" and 160 pounds, he gave the odd impression of being both skinny and overweight. He had an aversion to athletics of any sort. Every morning he watched a run of joggers pound by his home, lifting them up and putting them down; a peculiarly elaborate form of self-torture. In high school, he had taken remedial gym.
He held the chip up to the light and looked at it. "How many books does it hold?"
"About five hundred," said Will Waxman. The old man with the bushy patriarch's beard laid four more on the table. "This is almost my entire library. The last one, there? That's the Encyclopaedia Britannica."
Ted grunted and laid the first chip down. All five had been modified to look like Nintendo "Game Boy" cartridges. "Cyberbooks. And you want to know if I can duplicate them?"
Will Waxman nodded. "And the reader." He set a Sony Bookman on the table between them. "Maybe a dozen of each?"
Ted picked up the Bookman. "Where did you get this baby? I thought their import was banned."
Ted inserted one of the cartridges into the Bookman and touched the "game buttons." "How does it-—Never mind, I got it. This is page forward; and this is page back. Hey! You've of the entire Heinlein canon in here! And Asimov and de Camp and . . . What does this button do?"
"It moves the cursor around so you can tab hypertext buttons. Go ahead, move it to the story title you want to read and then press the 'A' button."
Ted did so and smiled when he saw the title page appear on the screen. He glanced at the other cartridges. "This must be a lot of fun when you're browsing through the encyclopedia."
"Flying through the encyclopedia," Will corrected him, "like a stone from David's sling skipping over the water. No, more like jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination or the stepping discs in Niven's Ringworld. Did you ever hear Philip José Farmer's definition of a dullard?"
Ted shook his head. "No."
Will grinned. "Someone who looks a thing up in the encyclopedia, turns directly to the entry, reads it, and then closes the book."
Ted laughed. "It's a damn shame they banned these things. The trade problem-—"
"Trade friction had nothing to do with it." Will took the Bookman from Ted, saw that it was open to Pebble in the Sky and flipped through the electronic pages. "Can you imagine any gadget better designed to seduce the Video Generation into reading?"
Ted frowned. "Nah. Conspiracy theories are fun, but it's usually just ineptitude or-—"
"A well-read, educated public is more difficult to lead around by the nose ring." Will leaned across the table. "Can you duplicate the chips and the reader, Ted? I need to know."
Ted Marshall shook his head. "No, I can't. The programming? No problem. But the chips themselves . . . I'm not a hardware man."
The old man sighed. "I was hoping to keep my originals. Oh, well."
Ted held out a placating hand. "Hold on, Will. I don't know how to duplicate the hardware, but I know someone who knows someone."
Free-lance electrosmithing was almost as incriminating as free-lance programming. Will didn't ask further. Ted Marshall made the Bookman and its chips vanish. "I'll see what I can do. You won't mind if I make copies for myself, will you?"
"Of course not."
"Still. Won't the, uh . . ." He cast his eyes toward the ceiling. "Don't our friends need things like algae for their hydroponics a lot more than they need books?"
Will shoo his head. "Man does not live by pond scum alone."
* * *
* * *
"Oh, what a cute little bunny rabbit!" said Adrienne Martine-arnes, stooping over to peer into the cage. The oversize rodent inside laid her ears back and sniffed. The Gnawing incisors lay bucktoothed over the lower lip. Yes, aren't you cute." And plump, too. Rabbits gave good meat per volume. So did guinea pigs.
"May I help you?" The pet store manager had come up behind her.
Adrienne rose and turned. "Yes, you may." She had the commanding presence of the queen of Olympus. A white streak accented her otherwise black hair, as lightning does the night sky. "How much are the rabbits and the guinea pigs? The manager told her and she nodded. She pulled a checkbook from her handbag. "And do you give quantity discounts?"
* * *
When they came to the Interstate bridge over the Mississippi, they slowed, and Harry and Jenny came by on the motorcycle. Harry held up his hand, thumb and forefinger in a circle.
"All clear," Bob said. "At least from outside."
Alex could see the St. Louis waterfront laid out below him. Many of the docks and wharfs along the river stood dry and inaccessible, since so much of the river's source water was locked up in northern ice. Starved as she was, though, the Mississippi was still a mighty stream; and tug barges and riverboats crowded her like a Manhattan street. The Missouri, which entered a few miles upstream, was still running near strength wind and rain patterns having so far kept her watershed nearly ice-fee.
Even so, Alex noticed two barges aground o a mud bar near the East St. Louis side of the river. Grain barges from the north, Bob told him. Files of people, ant-mall in the distance, marched on and off the barges, balancing baskets full of grain on their heads. He wondered how much of the cargo they could salvage before rats and rot did for the rest.
Gordon, sitting between them, suddenly perked, up and pointed through the windshield. "What is that?" he asked.
"That is the Gateway Arch," said Bob, taking the exit onto Memorial Drive. "Our destination."
"But what does it do? What is its function?"
"The Arch? There's an elevator inside that takes you to an observation platform on top. And there used to be a Pioneer Museum underneath; that's closed up now for lack of funds."
"That's all? Not for microwave relay or, your word . . . weather observation or such?"
"No, it was a tourist attraction. A monument. Why?"
Gordon shook his head in wonder. "I have never seen such an artifact built for no useful purpose. Could make poem about such beauty. Building under constraint of gravity field is like building poem under constraint of sonnet form. Requires craft and artistry."
Alex noticed Gordon's lips move and grunted. The stilyagin was probably trying to compose a poem on the spot. It was that sort of distraction that got him put on probation, then on the dip trip.
But Gordon was right about its beauty. In orbit Alex would not have wondered twice about the Arch. Such construction would have been easy, given the mass . . . which is never given, in orbit. That's why we need Moonbase so badly. All that free mass! But in a gravity field . . . how did they keep it up? Its soaring lines seemed to defy gravity. He tried to imagine the forces acting on the arch. The downward vectors must be translated into vectors along the length of the arch itself. A neat problem in basic physics. It was a fascinating planet. His eyes travelled along the sleek parabola until, in an odd echo to his thoughts, he saw what looked like vector arrows pointing down from the top of the Arch. As he watched, the arrowheads swayed slightly in the wind.
"What are those?"
Bob squinted through the windshield. "Beats me." He reached back over his shoulder and rapped on the back ofthe cab. "Coming up on the Arch," he said.
The panel separating the sleeping cubicle from the cab slid back and Sherrine stuck her face through. "The fan club meets in the underground museum, right?"
"That's what Violetta said. They'll give us a place to spend the night." He pulled to the side of the street and turned on his blinkers. A car and two horse carts drove around him. "All clear," he announced.
Alex heard the door to the sleeping cubicle open and shut. He squirmed a bit in his seat; then he gripped his cane, unlatched the passenger door and slid to the sidewalk.
"Hey," said Bob, "where are you going?"
"With Sherrine," he answered. He flourished his cane. "For the practice. And just in case."
* * *
Sherrine saw him coming and waited politely on the tiled plaza. She was framed by the gleaming Arch against the backdrop of the river. A barge drifted lazily behind her, keeping carefully to the cannel buoys. He was struck again by her fragile beauty; a beauty she herself seemed oddly reluctant to acknowledge. Most Earth girls seemed terribly short and muscular to him; and he had seen enough by now to realize that pudgy and burly were the norm. Yet, Sherrine continued to allure him.
Was it only a physical thing? Or was it a fixationé-—imprinted like a baby duck!-—brought on by the fact that she was the first woman he had seen after Mary had . . . had betrayed him? Now there was a thought!
Betrayed you how, Alex? Because she didn't order you back upstairs after that first missile attack? Because she left it up to your own stupid pride? Ifanyone betrayed you, Alex, it was yourself.
A sudden horn jolted him from his reverie. Two men in a horse jitney shook their fists at him as they pulled around. As if they hadn't the whole street to themselves, Alex thought sourly.
Sherrine said, "Alex? What's up?"
"You don't want me with you?"
Her lips parted to answer him, then she shook her head. "Come on, then. I think the entrance to the old museum is over this way." Alex wondered what she had been about to say. He thought he could make a reasonable guess. Couldn't stick to the flight plan, could you, Alex? And why? To moon along after a woman who . . . He wanted to say that he found her attractive; that he admired the way she had abandoned her career and freedom to help him; that he wanted to get to know her better. But the words stuck awkwardly in his throat. Held down by gravity.
She led him down a concrete ramp festooned with gaily-colored graffiti and handbills. One large poster, plastered overtop the others, announced a closed-circuit TV address by Emil Poulenc, "Discoverer of the Ice Folk." Whatever that meant. The sun was high in the sky, brushing the shadows from the ramp. Four odd, circular shadows wavered like black spotlights on the paving stones.
Why can't I ever pick a woman who'll choose me back?
Sherrine knocked three times on the boarded-up doors at the bottom of the ramp. A face like a side of beef peered down at her from behind a plywood partition, too high up. With a bit of a stutter she said, "We're knights of Saint Fantony."
His face showed nothing. "Here for the High Crusade?"
"To win victory or sleep with the Angels. By order of Duke Roland."
"Duke Roland" was Oliver Brown.
The giant's face withdrew into shadow. A minute or two later the door opened.
The young man who opened the door was considerably smaller. In the midday brightness he seemed shy and awkward. He blinked up at Alex and held out his hand. "Welcome," he said. "I'm Hugh." He indicated his companion, a giant to rival Thor. "We call him Fafhrd."
"What are those things up there?" asked Sherrine, staring up against the glaring sun at the four bundles dangling from the Arch.
The young man looked up, shading his eyes with his hand. "Scientists from the University. They were accused of practicing nuclear physics."
Sherrine stared at Hugh. "They hanged them for that? Because they were convicted of being nuclear physicists?"
The young man shook his head. "They weren't convicted. We think they were four of the people who ran the museum here. The place was empty after that, and we moved in." Hugh had led them inside. Alex saw a flash of silver at his left hand, then jumped as a huge hominid shadow caught the corner of his eye.
Hugh had a knife in his left hand. He'd had it ready while his right immobilized Alex, while the giant doorman guarded him from overhead. "Duke Roland says you're to be trusted. I trust my senses when I can. Alex, how do you take a shower in free fall?"
Alex said, "It takes forever to get wet and forever to get dry. Wherever water is, it wants to stay. We don't have enough water anyway. Mostly we-—Hugh, how would a Downer know if I was lying?"
"This Downer was a physics teacher at KC High. Milady, I might grant you're an angel, but not an astronaut."
Sherrine smiled and colored. "No. I was one of the rescuers."
"I see." Hugh's arm swept in a circle. "Well, welcome all!" Others came from out of the shadows beyond the entryway. Many people, some in armor. "You have friends?"
"Yes. I'll go for them," Sherrine said, but she didn't move at once. "Hugh, if the locals are hanging scientists, are you safe here?"
Hugh's face closed like a wall . . . and then he said, "We are safe indeed. I am Duke Hugh Bloodcup because I was King Hugh of the Middle Kingdom six years ago. The locals-—the Downers-they hanged four scientists here, once. But when others came to disturb us, we buried those bodies and replaced them. The locals see four bodies hanging from the Arch. They never think to examine them, to see if they've been cycled. But there are rumors enough to protect us, and if they won't-—"
"Yes. I see. Your Grace, Alex MacLeod will need to sit even in your presence-—"
"Yes, of course. A chair for our saintly guest! And an escort for Lady Sherrine!"