"I tell you, Captain," Lieutenant Billings insisted, "something isgoing on. There's been increased activity in the fannish underground over the past few days. Weird activity."
Lee Arteria nodded to the AP lieutenant standing stiffly before the desk; reached out and rifled through the thick stack of reports. "Yes. Though how can you tell when fannish activity is weird?"
"They've been quiet for so long. The timing must be significant, wouldn't you agree, ma'am?"
"Someone must be hiding the spacemen, or we would have found them by now."
"But sci-fi fans? Really, Lieutenant. Could a bunch of nerds and geeks have slipped the aliens past the search parties on the Ice? With virtually no notice, mind you." She grinned. "Maybe the Ice Folk have them."
Billings made a face. "Ice Folk. Supermarket tabloid nonsense. A newly evolved race of humans who can live naked on the Ice? And there's that Sherrine Hartley. She never reported back to work. And her boyfriend with the maroon van called in to report he has typhus. Typhus! And vanished. Captain Arteria, this other fannish activity must be related to the spacemen, too."
"Cornish game hens, Lieutenant? How will that help hide the fugitives?"
"I don't know, ma'am. They might be stocking a hidden hideaway with food."
"Bull semen, Lieutenant? Earthworms?" Arteria leaned forward, hands placed flat upon the desk. "Dung?"
Billings turned red. "Maybe they're hiding on a ranch or a farm."
"Could be, actually. Anyway, you've convinced me. Something's up. Get reports on all unusual activity by known or suspected fans. Let's get 'em!"
Lee Arteria thumbed idly through the file folders. They're up to something. But what? Fans were technophiles, so they were watched; but they were mostly flakes, so the effort was sporadic and incomplete. And they kept trying to recruit the cops, lecturing them, giving them reading material, driving them crazy.
More fanac would surface presently. Bull semen, earthworms, dung, game hens? Worse than the Stardust Motel Westercon Banquet! Bouncing potatoes, bouncing potatoes-—A known fan in Portland bought rabbits. One buck and several females. How did that fit the pattern? Impregnating rabbits with bull semen? A secret gengineering project? But to what purpose? You'll come abouncing potatoes with me!
Angels down. Fans to the rescue. That, said the waitress, is roast beef and a salad, too! You'll come a-bouncing potatoes with one! But what would they want with Cornish game hens?
* * *
The St. Louis Society for Creative Anachronism were not exactly fans. But there was considerable overlap between SCA and fandom; and Oliver Brown had been King Roland II, which made him a Royal Duke, and the SCA people were deferential to their aristocracy. The place was used by fans; but it was an SCA fief.
The museum was a large, low-ceilinged space broken up by partitions and display cases into quasi-rooms ill-lit by kerosene lanterns and candles. Men practiced with padded weapons in cleared spaces. Women showed each other intricate ways of making cloth with their fingers. Men, women, children huddle around the light sources, reading tattered old books; talking and arguing with animated gestures; or, in a few cases, writing intently on smudged tablets of lined paper.
Two knights brought Gordon inside, one at each elbow, and helped him to a chair. He was pale with effort . . . no, Gordon was stronger than that now. Pale with shock. He'd walked under four corpses.
Alex said, "Still think the Well is worth saving, tovaritch?"
Gordon nodded. "Desperately so."
"Helping Pins with docking maneuvers. A squire has shown them where to hide the truck. Why, are you lonely, Alex?"
"We're to meet the King all together. Never mind, that must be them." There was activity at the door. Passwords were exchanged, while the silent giant Fafhrd took his defense position. Duke Hugh ushered them in: Sherrine, Bob Needleton, Harry Czescu and Jenny Trout. Gordon and Alex stood to join them. Duke Hugh whispered instructions before they were led to meet the King.
The procession was short. All eyes were on them. Alex enjoyed having Sherrine on his arm, though she was supporting him. The King was a large young man whose nose had once been smashed flat against his face. It was fun to watch him try to balance hero worship against his royal dignity. Still, he was the man who had beaten every other fighter in St. Louis; that was how you got to be King. The four bowed, with Sherrine and Bob supporting the Angels.
They were turned loose into a party that was just starting to turn raucous.
Harry and Jenny stayed behind, by invitation of the King. Some of the court settled in a circle. Some had lutes or tubes that turned out to be musical instruments. Alex listened for a bit. Songs of past and future-—
"Wanted fan for plain sedition, like the singing of this tune.
If NASA hadn't failed us we'd have cities on the moon.
If it weren't for fucking NASA we'd at least have walked on Mars.
If I never can make orbit, then I'll never reach the stars."
Never can make orbit . . . Harry and Jenny were singing to Alex's soul. Alex wasn't in the mood for that much gloom. He moved away, toward laughter.
Jenny's voice followed him. "How's this, Majesty?"
"Wanted fan for mining coal and wanted fan for building nukes;
Wanted fan by William Proxmire and a maddened horde of kooks.
Washington, D.C., still wants me 'cause I tried to build a dam.
If they're tearing down the cities I'll help any way I can."
"Yeah, Jenny, I know you would . . ."
Gordon gravitated to one of the fans who was writing furiously on a legal pad. He stood a little aside so as not to distract the woman; but Alex could see that she was aware of the Angel's hovering presence.
Alex wandered among mannequins dressed in the style of mountain man, Plains Indian, cowboy. They stood ghostly sentinel amid prairie dioramas and reconstructed Conestogas. Sunbonnets and calico and flintlocks. A moldboard plow. A la riata coiled to loop over a steer's horns. Chaps and Stetson hat. Buckskin shirt and leggings done up with beads and quillwork. A birchbark canoe bearing a coureurde bois. The opened diary of a woman who had crossed the Plains in an 1840's wagon train. Alex tried to read what was written there, but the light was too dim.
All the ages interfaced. No wonder fans were comfortable here.
Gordon, he saw, was deep in conversation with an aspiring writer named Georgina. The stilyagin was sitting lotus beside her on the floor and was pointing to something on her pad. They had gathered a small audience-—all femmefans, Alex noted-—and she was nodding with a very serious look on her face to whatever Gordon was saying.
Alex found a chair and sagged into it, a bit too tired to be sociable.
Somebody brought him a pewter flagon of fairly powerful punch. A younger fan brought an elderly couple over and introduced them as Buz and Jenn. "Have you made much use of the shuttle tank?" Jenn asked. "The one that went up with the last shuttle?"
Alex nodded. Noblesse oblige. "We couldn't live without it. And the other one. I've heard the story, of how the pilots and a friend in Mission Control brought the first tank to orbit. It was supposed to splash, but the pilots pulled the circuit breakers for the separation charge igniters."
Buz nodded. "The astronauts and cosmonauts had already decided to try to build a civilization. They had to have the tanks for living space."
"You were in on that?" Alex asked.
"A little," Jenn said. "They couldn't do that but once, though. Then came-—"
"Oh. I'm sorry," Jenn said. She turned to her husband. "They had twenty years together. Up there."
"And we're still here," Buz said. He turned to Alex. "It was Ian and Alicia or us," he said. "When the astronauts decided to take the last shuttle up. The space program was winding down, and we thought it would be important to get more people into the habitats. Peace and Freedom. Cooperation between U.S. and Russia. Symbols of peace and progress. They already had a shuttle tank in orbit, and we wanted to send another, but mostly we wanted to send up families. Jenn and I were candidates. So were Ian and Alicia, and you, only you didn't know it. You were about six, as I recall, and your mother was small, so the two of you weighed less than I do."
Georgina and Gordon had come to listen, and others gathered around. "What happened to the last shuttle?" Georgina asked. "You still have it, don't you?"
"Sure. It can't reenter. It was damaged."
"I heard-—there was a riot at the launch," a fan said. He was younger than Gordon, a small round teenager with thick glasses. "I read about it-—"
"It was Enterprise Two,"Alex said. "Like Buz said. There had been regular supply runs, but-maybe Buz should tell this."
"I've told it before," Buz said. "Let's hear how you tell it."
"I was six," Alex said. "My father and mother were mission specialists. Engineers. They'd heard the space program was being closed down, and thought-—they thought that if there were families in space, Americans as well as Russians, it would shame the government into supporting them. So they all volunteered to go. They thought there would be other ships. The NASA ground crew swore they'd stay on the job, refurbish the ship and send her back up with supplies. It wasn't supposed to be the last one."
"Some group had tried to get a court order to stop the launch," Jenn said. "Said there was a chance that a bad launch could fall on pleasure boats out in the ocean. Then they sent most of their membership down to man a fleet downrange of the pads."
Their audience had formed up in a circle. The younger fans were wide-eyed. A man in medievals, a troubadours outfit, with a lute slung across his shoulder, was jotting notes. Older fans, hanging farther back, showed a blacker mood. It wasn't just a yarn to them. They remembered.
"That was Earth First," Buz said.
Jenn snorted. "You mean Earth Only."
"Earth Last," another muttered. "Bastards."
"Nobody worried about their court order," Alex said. "But then the word leaked out that the launch was on, and a mob gathered around the perimeter. They tried to tear down the fences, but there was another group, the L-5 Society, supporters, trying to protect the ship. Not enough of them. There was fighting. Mom wouldn't let me watch. She had a death grip on me until she could get us aboard."
Alex noticed he was rubbing his arm, and stopped. "We squeezed into one couch. Everything was going wrong, Dad said half the control board was red, but they launched anyway. I remember the acceleration. Mother was holding onto me, the couch wasn't big enough, other kids were screaming, but Dad was grinning like a thief; I'll never forget his face. Or Mother's. "
"On the way up there was a clonk and a lurch. Didn't feel any worse than what was happening till I saw Dad's face. Scared. Snarling with fear."
"An eco-fascist Stinger," Jenn said. "It was a near miss. Ripped a shitload of tiles off her nose."
Alex nodded. "Punched nearly through. I've seen it. But we made it. Mission Control kept feeding corrections to the main computer. They're the real heroes, the NASA ground crew. I never knew their names."
"Why them?" asked one of the young fans.
"Because they stayed at their posts."
"The mob broke through."
"The fighting in Mission Control was hand to hand," Buz said. Long, hard muscles were jumping in the old man's arms. He'd learned to fight . . . but afterward, Alex thought. "The mob had baseball bats. Two had handguns. Some of the ground crew held them at the door until they took bullets and went down." He turned to the woman beside him and took her gnarled hand in his and stroked it. "The mob swelled inside, swinging bats and smashing panels. The crew held on, nobody left, nobody left a console until Enterprise Two was up." He sighed and looked at the floor. "The police showed up then; but it was too late to save anything."
"The MP's were pissed," said Jenn. "They'd been ordered to stand down because the organizers had assured everyone that the 'demonstration' would be peaceful; and an MP cordon would have been 'too provocative.' Not that the politicians needed much assurance. California and Florida both had Green governors."
"Skazhitye," said Gordon. "But how do you know so much about it?"
The elderly couple glanced at each other. Jenn said, "Jim here was Launch Control and SBR Separation. I was Flight Path Planning and RSO."
"You-—" Alex felt a lump rise in his throat. Buz's voice-—a younger Buz's voice-—had been the last words from Earth he had heard, fed through the speakers into the passenger cabin in the silence after the engines shut down. Goodluck, Enterprise. Our dreams are going with you. Alex took a step toward them and they rose from their chairs. A moment's awkward hesitation gave way to an embrace. Alex's cheeks were hot with tears.
"You knew, didn't you," he said, hugging the old woman. "You knew it would be the Last Shuttle up."
She said nothing, but he could feel her head nodding. "We knew we'd never see another," said Buz. "Not in our lifetimes. But we're still the lucky ones. Come."
He led them through the exhibits, past the trappers, the cowboys, the sod busters. Pioneers, Alex thought. Pioneers all.
Buz led them to a small case near the back of the museum. It was nothing but a scroll, done up on pseudovellum. One-inch-square photographs had been mounted beside a list of names. The lettering was an intricate Old English calligraphy.
Star Date 670127
Virgil J. [Gus] Grissom
Edward H. White II
670424 Vladimir Komarob
710629 Vladislav VolKob
860128 Francis R. Scobee
Michael T. Smith
Jubith A. Resnik
Ronald C. McNair
Ellison S. Onizuka
Gregory B. Forbis
Alex woke groggy on a museum bench.
Gordon sat in a plastic shell of a chair hunched over a scarred and warped desk. He was staring off into space with his mouth half-open. Writing a love poem? Sure. And to whom, Alex thought he could guess. Shoeless, he padded up silently behind Gordon and read over his shoulder:
The scoopship's cabin was a sounding box for vibrations far below the ears' grasp; as, high over the northern hemisphere, her hull began to sing a bass dirge. My bones could feel . . .
Gordon jerked suddenly and turned in his seat. "Alex, I did not hear you come." He covered the tablet with his forearm.
Alex grinned. "Does the hero get the girl?"
Gordon flushed a deeper crimson. "It is not that kind of story. Are no heroes. It is story about belonging; about one's place in the world. About being at home."
Alex's eyes flicked toward the hidden sky.
"No, Alyosha. Not home like that. Not accident of birth. Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Sometimes you find it in places you don't expect."
"That's fine, Gordon." Gordon did have a way of putting words together. Not just a subsonic hum, but a "dirge." The hum and the sweetness of flight-—yet with a touch of ominous anticipation. When Alex wrote, the words fell like stones in line: solid, serviceable prose for memos and technical reports and the occasionally informative letter; but it never sang like Gordon's did.
"May I ask you a question, Alex?"
"Sure. I can't sleep; and we'll be leaving soon anyway."
"About Sherrine." He looked up, locked eyes with Alex for a fraction, then looked away. "Alex. I burn. Sherrine . . . She is as Roethke wrote: I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, / When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them . . .' But I . . . she and I . . ." He shook head abruptly. "Nyet. I cannot assert myself. The time is not right." He turned and looked again at Alex. "What if she does not care for me?"
Alex almost laughed. "Is that what you wanted to ask me about? You want her, but does she want you? How would I know? Ask Bob. She doesn't confide her love life to me." Alex forced the words out between his teeth, surprised at how much they hurt. "Things are a lot looser down here in the Well, you know."
Gordon looked at him strangely. "I thought you . . ."
"You thought I what?"
Gordon shook his head. "Nichevo."
Alex shrugged and tried to recover his broken sleep. What was with Gordon, anyhow? Lost on frozen Earth, the authorities searching for him, and there he sat writing fiction in the middle of the night. A novel no one would read.
* * *
Sherrine drove the rig while Bob slept in the back. The hill country of southwest Missouri, trees shorn prematurely of their leaves, swept past on both sides of the nearly abandoned interstate. The setting sun nagged at the edges of her vision, not quite dead ahead and too low for the visor to help, painting the pastel clouds that hugged the horizon. She kept her speed down; from fear of the cops, but also because she had to watch each overpass as she came upon it.
Here the Ice was only a distant whisper beyond the horizon, borne on summer breezes that had become
crisp and cool. The fall came earlier, and the winter blizzards were more frequent.
And none of the overpasses had quite collapsed. But they were shedding. What had Fang called it? Spalling? Sometimes she had to steer the truck around chunks of concrete lying in the roadway under an overpass; and she sweated when she drove across a bridge. The dreadful blizzards of the smog-free 19th century Plains once more shrouded the heartland in winter, freezing and cracking the works of mankind.
Alex was crumpled against a pillow jammed between the passenger door and the seat back. He slumped loosely, dozing, bent like a contortionist, or a marionette. From time to time he would blink and raise his head and gaze around himself as if baffled before nodding off once more to the gentle rocking of the truck's suspension.
Gordon sat between them quietly reading a book. He had found it at the clubhouse in St. Louis and had pounced on it with unconcealed delight. A thick squat paperback with cracked and dog-eared covers. The Portable Kipling. The fans had made him a gift of it.
He closed it now, because it had grown too dark to read. Gordon gazed out the windshield into the gathering dusk, where sunset stained the western horizon. He whispered so as not to wake Alex. "I saw nothing like this in Freedom. Always we see sunsets from above."
Sherrine was glad of conversation. Driving in silence disembodied you. It was talk that made you real. "I've seen the old pictures, looking down on the Earth. They made my heart ache."
"Each place has its own beauties. We can learn to love the one, and still yearn for the other."
"What were you reading?"
"A story. A character sketch. 'Lispeth.' It tells of Indian hill country girl raised by English missionaries. She wears English dress and acts in English manner. When a young official of the Raj passes through, she falls in love. He swears he will return and marry her; but he never has such an intention and abandons her without a thought. Finally she realizes truth. So she gives up the mission and returns to her village and her gods and becomes peasant wife."
"A sad story."
"A tragedy." She could hear his smile in the dark. "I am half-Russian. We are not happy without a tragedy. Kipling saw the tragedy of India. Lispeth thought she was English, but the English never did."
"I haven't read much Kipling. His books are hard to find these days."
"Oh, but you must. I will lend you mine. Kipling. And Dickens. And London. And Twain. Wonderful writers. I have. . . . No. I have only this one book now. Real book, of real paper. Still, you may borrow it."
Sherrine smiled to herself. "You like to read."
"Yes. Yes. Though much I do not understand. References. Shared assumptions of Downers. I read Austen one time; but her world is like alien planet. Still, I laugh and cry with her characters."
"I had a math teacher in college who had read Pride and Prejudice fifteen times, in fifteen different languages."
Gordon blinked. "Math professor?"
"Math professors read literature, Gordon. But it's not commutative. Lit profs never read math."
He laughed. "Russian literature is harder than maths. Do you smile, that I find Russian literature difficult? My matushka made me read Tolstoy, Gorki, Pushkin. It was so different from my father's Western literature. In the West, novel was biographical. About characters. About Lispeth or David Copperfield. In Russia, was writing about ideas. War and Peace. Crime and Punishment. Characters, even central characters like Karenina only illustrate the Idea. Very hard for each people to read the other kind. But my mnatushka said it was important I live in two worlds, the Rodina and the West. A new society is evolving in the habitats. Western optimism and Russian gloom.
Sherrine laughed. "It sounds . . . appropriate. It needs a new literature, then. A synthesis. Floater literature."
"Perhaps. Gloomy optimism. Optimistic gloom. I have tried . . . " Silence.
"Light-hearted pessimism. Mark Twain?" She turned on her headlights. Had Gordon said-—"You've tried to write something?" Scratch any eager reader and you'll find a wannabee writer.
"Nichevo. Story fragments. A few poems. Such things are not survivalrelated activity. I must steal time to do them. So they are not very good. Nothing good enough for you to hear."
"Have you ever read a fanzine? No, really. I read some pretty awful stuff in my grandfather's old pulps. Go ahead. Recite one of your poems for me."
Next to him, Alex stirred shifted positions.
"No, I cannot," Gordon whispered.
She took a hand from the steering wheel and laid it on his arm. "Please?"
"I . . . If you will not laugh?"
"I won't laugh. I promise."
"I hold you to promise." Gordon coughed into his fist, straightened in the seat. He looked off into the black distance, not meeting her eyes, and spoke gently:
"Lying softly, white as snow is snow, With delicate beauty, borne delightful to the eye, Reflected in the silver, skydropped moon: Her face, upturned and smiled on by the stars. Asleep is she more lovely and at peace; Her skin would glow a light unsnowlike warm. She sleeps. Touched by the moon And me.
He fell silent; still he would not look at her. Bashful. "Why, that's lovely, Gordon."
He turned at last. "You like it?"
"Certainly." Sherrine probed: "She must have been pretty."
"Your girlfriend. The one you wrote the poem to."
"She is. Very beautiful."
Aha! "Have you, ever recited for her?"
"Yeah-da. I did." Sherrine smiled broadly out the windshield. Gordon was caught on that cusp where he wanted to keep his love a deep, delicious secret and shout it to the world at the same time. She had been caught there once before. She and Jake. A long time ago, but she could remember the wonderful glow. With Bob it had been different fun, good times, a lot of laughs; but she had never glowed. "What did she say?"
"She said my poem was lovely."
"Well, that's a pretty tepid response to a love poem."
A long pause, then, "Ah. I had forgotten."
"You do not live in such close quarters as we do. You do not have to be so careful to avoid offense or to rub against your neighbor's feelings. So few of us, and still there has been murder, because we cannot escape from one another. One does not speak of love until one is sure."
"Then how can you ever be sure?"
He may have shrugged in the dark, but he did not answer. Sherrine returned her attention to the road. She kept it at thirty and slowed for every shadow in the road. Some shadows were hard and rigid. Approaching bridges, she crawled.
Ten minutes or an hour later, something went click inher head.
Oh, no. He means me!
It had been obvious for some time that both Angels lusted after her. Lord knew why. Tall and skinny was the Angel ideal, but . . . Lust she could deal with. A little recreational workout; fun for everyone and no hard feelings. It was impossible to sit between two horny males-—three, counting Bob, who was in a perpetual state of rut without picking up the pheromones. She was more than a little horny herself.
But Gordon was not just horny. He was in love; and that she could not deal with; because . . .
Because Jake is still living there, somewhere in the back of my skull.
Oh, great. Now she had four men to deal with. Three live and present; one a ghost. An old rhyme capered through her thoughts. Its gude to be merry and wise. / It's gude to be honest and true; / It's gude to be off with the old love, / Before you are on with the new.
Was he asleep? Or studying her in the dark?
She said nothing; concentrated on her driving. He loves me? She craned her neck and looked in the large side-view mirror. A smaller Sherrine, distorted by the convex shape, stared back. He loves me? The truck had a lot of inertia; a lot of momentum.
Gordon said, "You are offended."
"No!" She paused; spoke again. "No, I'm not. I'm flattered. It has been a long time since anyone loved me."
Gordon seemed appalled. "Shto govorish? How can that be? There is Bob-—"
"He only thinks he's in-—"
The cab was silent except for the older Angel's deep, regular breathing.
"Yeah-da. You do not see it? He is Earthborn American: more direct than most, but still a Floater. Still, even he may have been too oblique for you. Alex loves you; though he writes no poems. Is why I have hesitated so long to speak. He is my captain, and-—and I wish to be fair." He shook his head again. "Life is complicated for my generation. If I was all Russian or all American, there would be no dilemma."
"Fair! And he treats you so badly. I mean, I like Alex, too; but he's so stern and unforgiving. Especially over the crash."
Gordon nodded slowly. "That is true."
"And it wasn't really your fault."
"My fault? Oh, no. It is himself he cannot forgive. He was hero once. Now he feels neglected. After the first missile we could have aborted to orbit. Alex chose not to. Because he wished again to be the hero, da? Now he feels shame. He feels he has failed Freedom;has failed Mary Hopkins; has failed me."
"How would you like some advice, Doctor Freud?" The voice was low and thick with sleep. Sherrine twisted her head to look past Gordon. Alex's eyes shone in the dim, reflected light. The cab fell silent. The tires hummed on the roadway.
"Mind your own business, Gordon." Alex twisted, punched the pillow into a shapeless lump, and lay back into it with his back to the rest of the cab.
After a while Gordon leaned over and spoke in a whisper. "I was wrong. This truck cab is as close quarters as anywhere in orbit."
Sherrine sucked on her lip. The Interstate was a pale ribbon under the rising moon. A single car distant in the northbound lanes was the only movement other than the wind-tossed trees. It would not do to laugh.
* * *
Arteria stared at the Alderman. The platoon of Air Police stood by waiting, their weapons held at a casual order arms. The Alderman's court cast wary eyes at their visitors and kept their hands away from their own motley collection of hunting rifles and bows. Bows! Outside, the shoop-shoop of helicopter blades interrupted the silence. "Well?" Arteria put an edge of menace into the question.
The Alderman looked up from the photographs he had been given. He licked his lips and looked around at his ward heelers. The ward heelers would not meet his eyes.
"Yeah. Sure." Alderman Strauss stuck his chin out. "They was here. What about it?"
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Alderman. It confirms what we learned from the truck drivers and your own stevedores." Though those farmers in Millville were certainly tight-lipped. HAH! "Big Front Yard Sale." And that van the Kilbournetowners confiscated . . . Lieutenant Billings says it's maroon under the new paint job. Thank God I saw that deputy's report on the funeral in Millville. The engine's VIN had matched a van owned by Robert K. Needleton of Minneapolis, a materialist science professor at U. Minn. Called in sick, with typhus. Whereabouts unknown.
"Now, where did they go when they left here?" God, we should clean out this nest of barbarians, too. Why haven't they been evacuated south? If the government knew how far they've fallen under the cloak of anarchy . . . The Green Weenies would love to arrest an entire city for air pollution. Unless they don't care, or don't dare let the rest of the country know what's happened here.
Arteria studied the bitter and edgy men and women clustered around the Alderman's throne; smelled the ripe smell of fear. Sure. Move them south. And when conditions to the south worsen, too, move them farther south. I'm glad it's not my job to do anything about it. Maybe they've got the right idea. Stay and fight. Like Scithers and his engineer cadre at Fargo Gap.
The Alderman tugged at his spade-like beard, clearly wondering if he should try to hold out for some advantage, but Arteria's face decided him. "They went west," he said. "They escaped from the de-lousing station, stole some horses and rode west. We didn't bother to chase 'em because of the typhus."
West didn't make sense . . . though typhus did. If Needleton had been here . . . "Are you sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure. You can ask over at Yngvi De-Lousing, if you want."
Arteria nodded slowly, eyes hooded. "You're right. Maybe I should ask over there." Arteria turned to leave, and the MP platoon followed, not quite relaxing, not quite turning their backs.
"Hey!" The Alderman's voice stopped them and Arteria lifted a questioning eyebrow.
"You're from the government, aina?" The Alderman was out of his seat and the arrogance and contempt had dropped from his face. "When's the government gonna come and help us out of this? I've got people dying up here!"
Arteria said nothing for a long moment. He still believes in government bailouts. What can I tell him? That the government is too busy chasing polluters and nuclear scientists and secular humanists? And people who cut wood without permission. That the government can't afford it any more and wouldn't know how, anyway?
A curt nod. "I'll let them know the way things stand. Things are tough all across the northern tier."
The Alderman licked his lips. "Yeah. Sure." He looked around at his cronies. "Things must be a lot worse other places, right? Otherwise they'da gotten to us by now."
Arteria wouldn't meet his eyes. A crafty machine politician. He wasn't fooled. It was the Titanic all over again. Not enough lifeboats to go around.
Outside at the command chopper Arteria contacted Redden on the radio. "Your reports seem to have been correct, sir. That's right. We found the van. We can confirm Needleton as well as the Hartley woman. Plus four other males, three Caucasian and one black." Twoof them were tall and skinny and havingtrouble walking. Things were getting interesting. "There's a lead here I want to follow up on. No, sir, I don't need anything more. I'll go solo on this."
Arteria rang off and handed the set back to the tech sergeant. The sergeant looked worried. "Do you think that's wise, Captain? You could send one of the troops, instead."
"No, Sergeant, this is something I've got to do personally."
"But you'll be out of touch. Shouldn't you . . . ?"
"Soldier, ask not what my plans might be." Arteria looked left, then right, then added in a lower voice, "It's a crazy idea; and if it doesn't pan out . . ."
The sergeant blinked, then slowly brightened. "I get you. No one will know."
"Right you are. Besides, I won't be any further out of touch than the radio in my car, will I? We'll just have to make sure that the Rapid Deployment Team is ready to go anywhere, anytime, on my signal. Now tell Lieutenant Billings I want a staff meeting in ten minutes."
The sergeant saluted and dogtrotted off to find the platoon commanders. Arteria smiled a slow smile. Solo and in civilian clothes. That was the best way. No committees to second guess and hamper you. Just your own wits and reactions. Follow the clues wherever they led, without a lot of silly debate. Redden and the military brass would want periodic reports; but that was no problem. Moorkith would be worried that he wasn't getting all the skinny; let him stew. If the others wanted the credit of finding the Angels first, they would have to do the same thing. Get off their asses and scour the highways and byways. Especially, the fannish byways.
And who better to scour those byways than a gafiated fan?
Lee parked outside Yngvi's De-Lousing. Her car was plain back, with civilian license plates from Ohio, because this wasn't the first time she'd needed to look like a civilian. She went up to the door and waited to see a sensitive fannish face.
"FIAWOL," Arteria said.
Terri Whitehead gave her a blank look. "What?"
"FIAWOL, and it's damned well true of you if not me."
"I don't know-—"
"Look, I don't have a lot of time," Arteria said. "Yngvi is a louse, but throwing a handful of rotten snow at me isn't going to get rid of me."
"Who are you?" Terri asked grimly. "The only people here are the Alderman's slaves-—and police. And you?"
"Air Force," Arteria said. "I'm in charge of finding the Angels."
"Look, Dr. Whitehead, if I wanted you in jail I'd have come with a squad and taken you away." Lee took a photograph from her jacket pocket. "Here. Sherrine Hartley and Bob Needleton. They were here. Incidentally, Dr. Needleton called in to his university claiming he had typhus. I suppose he got that idea from you. Ideas are contagious."
"So why should you tell me anything?" Lee asked. "Because they're going to get caught. Be real clear about it. That picture's being circulated all over the country. If I find them, I can help them. And will."
"How do I know that?" Terri asked. She was near tears.
"You don't, but you know damned well nobody else cares," Lee said.
"Who are you-—""
"Hah. Got it," Lee said. "WackyCon at Waikiki Beach. Lex Nakashima's convention. You were on a panel with Will Waxman. The Miracles Panel. Cheap superconductor wire, cold fusion-—"
"My God, that was fifteen years ago!" Terri said. "You were there all right. But-—you're police now."
"Air Force," Lee said. "Air Police. Office of Special Investigations. Yes. Look, Dr. Whitehead, this is it: you tell me where they went, or-—"
"Or I walk out of here, of course, and keep looking on my own. You're safe no matter what you do. But you won't know who finds them."
"What will you do with them?"
Lee shook her head. "I won't kid you. I don't know myself. Let me point out that I can always find them. I can go back and take the Tre-house apart. Somebody there knows. Save your friends a lot of trouble, Terri. Where'd they go?"
"I won't tell you."
Lee shrugged. "Ok but you're making a lot of trouble for 3MJ, and the result will be the same no matter what. I sort of like the old boy, but-—anyway, good luck." She turned to go.
"Damn you. Leave the others alone. Chicago. They wanted to go to Chicago, so we took them there. To the museum. The big one, Science and Industry."
"Museum. Right. Thank you. Now we've got one more problem. You'll want to call them. I'm afraid I can't let you do that, so a couple of my troops will sit with you for the rest of the day. You're not under arrest unless you want to be, but you're incommunicado for a few hours." Lee went toward her car, stopped, looked back. "FIJAGH," she said.