Excerpt from the electronic journal of Surrealistic Housekeeping, Adrienne Martine-Barnes, ed.:
If a little lemon juice is good for stains, a bit of gallium and germanium will do wonders for dope. I mean how much flip-flopping can a body take, land's sake? PNP is not a supermarket abbreviation for pineapple, is it? And don't forget heavy metal music, either. (Who could? Such lovely melodies . . . .)
Orange is a Taurus, of course. (Boeuf l'Orange!) But what of the rest of the zodiac? What's your sign There is Pisces, after all. How many fish swim in the ocean of night? Or Sagittarius. No, I'm not sure what that means, either. But it must mean something! Tap into your cosmic connection and feel the vibes of the universe. I'm sure you'll come up with something useful. Let's see . . . Aquarius is obvious; a bit too obvious, I'm afraid. As for Gemini, they had better quit cloning around. And Aries has taken it on the lamb. Honestly. I wouldn't try to pull the wool over your eyes.
We all know how important the Sweepstakes is, so I know you'll all send your entries in promptly.
Now, the next article on surrealistic housekeeping is one you have all been asking for. How do you keep watches from melting on the arms and backs of your sofas and chairs? Why, it is simplicity itself, provided, of course, that you have enough lace Dalis . . .
* * *
Ike Redden threw the printout down in disgust. "All right," he said to Moorkith. "You tell me what it means!"
"Captain Arteria seems to understand this stuff," Moorkith said.
"She's on a special assignment," Redden said.
"Damned if I know," Redden said. "But she gets results."
* * *
There was a TV in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Appropriate Technology. Lee Arteria was just showing her credentials to the manager when the newscaster said, "More on the ice nudes, from Winnipeg. Gerald Cornelius and Anthony Rogers were found on foot on the Fargo highway, both suffering from frostbite. They told police of being rescued from their wrecked truck by a tribe of naked and near-naked savages."
All of Lee Arteria's assumptions came crashing down around her ears. They'd done it again, they'd moved the Angels out of the United States across the Ice in a microwave beam to keep them warm-—and Lee Arteria was haring south on a wild goose chase. Well done, Whitehead.
The broadcast continued. A black-bearded man said, "They were lovely. Thin, almost hairless, and their skin was pale blue. Some of the men offered us their wives. Maybe they were evolved from Eskimos, or maybe they just learned their mores from Eskimos. Their skin was cold to the touch. I mean, when in Rome, sure, but if I had it to do all over again-—"
Bruce Hyde. The breath went out of Arteria in a whoosh. So that's where they went, Hyde and Mike Glider, after they tried to get into Sherrine Hartley's house and almost got caught. Over the Ice.
And to hell with them. Lee Arteria was after bigger game.
She looked around the empty garage. "Milkheim Low Fat Milk," she said, and noted it in her casebook. "You're sure about this?"
The maintenance mechanic nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, ma'am, that's what they had painted on them. 'Milkheim.' Means 'Milk Home' in German. Now Mr. Cole, he called them trucks by names, a name for each one of 'em. One of them was Larry, and I disremember the other, but when there was three, one of them was Moe, I remembers that. Set a big store by those trucks, Mr. Cole did. Always taking care of 'em, giving me money to look after them, keep them ready to run, but he never took 'em noplace."
He eyed her suspiciously. "What call you got to be asking about Mr. Cole?" he demanded. "He's a nice man. Touched in the head some, yes, ma'am, some people thought he was plumb crazy, but he's a nice man, no trouble at all if'n you, didn't mess around with his trucks. Or his rocket ship."
"Rocket ship." Lee smiled. "We just want to help Mr. Cole. Dr. Cole, actually. He was very famous once, did you know that? He has earned a pension from the National Science Foundation, but there was something wrong with the paperwork."
Joe Jefferson nodded sourly. He understood mistakes in paperwork.
"So all I need is his signature, and he can collect his pension," Lee said. "It's not a lot of money, but I bet he can use it. Is he around?"
"No, ma'am, leastways I haven't seen him. He used to sleep in that rocket, but a couple of days ago a lot of people come here and took them trucks away, and his. . . and some other stuff that belonged to Mr. Cole, and I ain't seen him since."
"A lot of people," Arteria said. She smiled. "Tell me about them."
" 'Milkheim Low Fat Milk.' Two big Peterbilt tanker trucks," Arteria said. "Look, Billings this is a long shot, we'll really look like idiots if it doesn't work out. I can't afford to look like an idiot, can you? Right. So what I want is a quiet request to State Police to report the location of any truck that says Milkheim and report it to my fax number. Observe and report, but don't stop them. But don't ask Wisconsin or Minnesota or the Dakotas. Right, Billings. Do not ask them. Yes, Billings, exactly right, it means you have to send out requests to the others one state at a time, and I'm sorry, but you see how it is. Chances are this is nothing but if it pans out we may both get promotions. Right. Thanks."
* * *
Fang guided the milk truck through the interchange and onto I-25 South. The Denver skyline glittered before him: tall, boxy, glass towers cut at strange angles. Fang squinted his eyes and tried to imagine that they were a growth of immense quartz crystals set in the midst of the High Plains. By aliens. Uh-huh: aliens. After cutting their teeth on Great Pyramids and Easter Island self-portraits, the space gods had finally hit their stride with this immense crystalline structure. White quartz, black quartz. Quartz as clear as glass; opaque, stony quartz.
Suppose someone discovered Denver's alien origin, and the aliens were still around!Disguised as real estate developers. Good. That was good. Who was in a better position to "grow" a crystal city than its developers? Come to think of it, who was more alien? What hidden purposes did they have behind their weirdly shaped erections?
Okay. The aliens are metaphors for mindless, runaway development. That made the story literary. So, the aliens realize they've been found. What do they do?
They capture Our Heroes and turn them into bug juice. Alien Cliché number one, vintage 1950.
They capture Our Heroes and take them on a tour of the universe and invite them to join the galactic confederation. Alien Cliché number two, vintage 1980.
Damn Hollywood. No matter what kind of aliens you had, they were already used up.
No, wait. Remember Nancy Kress's "People Like Us?" That's it. The aliens are neither benign nor malevolent. They do what they do for their own reasons . . . like the aliens who built Clarke's Rama. Like the Europeans coming to America. The Spaniards came for gold; the Incas were just in the way. The destruction of the Amerind societies was simply a spin-off of Europeans doing European things for European reasons.
Good title: "Spin-off."
He was so deep in the story that he didn't see the flashing red light behind him for several seconds. Ohshit! But I wasn't speeding, dammit. He pulled over carefully and stopped on the shoulder.
The Colorado state trooper walked up to the cab window and smiled. "Sorry to stop you, sir, but I noticed one of your brake lights is out. The middle one on the left side."
"Aw, shit. Thank you, Officer, I'll get it fixed at the next truck stop."
"Yes, I think you ought to. OK, just wanted to let you know." The trooper turned away, then turned back again. "Driving alone? Where'd you sleep, last?"
"Only ten hours, Officer. Really."
"All right. We're strict on that in Colorado." He walked back to his cruiser.
Fang let out a deep breath. I am sleepy, he thought. And there's sure no hurry, they don't want me to be in Albuquerque until tomorrow afternoon. I'll get that light fixed and catch some z's. He was careful to accelerate smoothly and level out, his speed just at the limit. After a while the cruiser passed him and went on ahead, leaving him to his thoughts.
So, it's the same with the aliens who are building Denver-—and all the other strange glass-box downtowns. Aliens doing alien things for alien reasons. Only human egocentrism would suppose that they came to conquer or assist us.
So Our Heroes discover the aliens and the aliens don't do anything. Who would believe it anyway? They don't even bother to capture the protagonists and tell them . . . No, wait. The reader has to know what's coming down, so someone's got to explain. Unless he sent the story to Ted Bistrop at Fantasy & . . . Nothing was ever explained in the stories he published.
* * *
The fax machine was built into the car's dashboard. It startled Arteria with its "wheep, wheep."
PETERBILT 18-WHEELER TANKER MARKED MILKHEIM LOW FAT MILK PROCEEDING SOUTH ON I-25 AT DENVER. DRIVER OLD FART WITH BEARD. COLORADO STATE HIGHWAY POLICE OBSERVED MINOR SAFETY VIOLATION. NO CITATION ISSUED.
Denver. What in hell do they want with a truck full of rocket fuel in Denver? Whatever it is, I've got some driving to do if I'm going to catch up.
Her suitcase was already in the trunk. Her telephone and fax were connected to the cellular phone system, so she didn't have to tell anyone where she was going. She took out maps.
Not Denver. Colorado Springs? USAF Space Command had been there, when there was a Space Command. It was the reason Arteria had joined the Air Force. Fifteen years ago, even ten, you could kid yourself that the United States might go back to space, get moving again, stop retreating from the Ice.
Not now. Now-—
The Milwaukee alderman had upset her more than she wanted to admit.
Now I can never go to space. I catch criminals.
It was a job she mostly liked. She was good at it, good at solving puzzles, and she liked the power that being an OSI Special Agent aye her. Twitching the nerves of the mundanes, she liked that, too.
Not Denver! West of there. Edwards! It came as a sudden flash, as things often did for her, and it took her several minutes to construct what her subconscious had leaped past. Angels Down. Fans to the Rescue. What to do with Angels. Send them back to Heaven. How? Dr. Cole's broken Titan, but that wouldn't do it. What would? What was left?
What was left was the only working rocket ship in the United States. Phoenix, sitting on Thunder Ridge at Edwards Air Force Base.
* * *
Morning in the desert.
Alex watched the sun come up across Bob's shoulder, teasing streamers of fog from the sluggish Washita River that ran parallel to the highway. The fog slithered across the barren, dusty ground and wrapped itself around the sparse stands of Lone Pine and scrub grass that dotted the otherwise empty land. The pale light of dawn created a wash of white, green and brown; a weird, alien vista of mist and grass and sand.
"What do you think of it?" Bob asked. "Quite a sight."
Alex shook his head. "I was just getting used to the green."
"Oh, this part of Oklahoma used to be green, I'm told. You didn't see real hardpan desert until you hit west Texas. Now there's no rain and in a few years there won't be a speck of green left hereabouts."
Alex looked at the sleeping form beside him. "I should wake Gordon up. He could write a poem about it."
There must have been something in his voice, because Bob gave him an odd look. "You have something against poetry? "
Alex shook his head. "Never mind. It's not important." Bob said nothing. Finally, to fill the silence, Alex continued. "Gordon is irresponsible." He looked at the sleeping stilyagin, just to make sure he was sleeping. "He likes to write poetry when he should be doing something else."
"Poetry? About what?"
Alex scowled. "Love poetry, mostly. The last time he got inspired, we nearly lost an entire tray of tomatoes. So they put him on probation. That's why he was assigned to the dip trip with me." He rubbed a hand over his face. Two-day stubble scratched his palm. His skin felt oily, dirty. He hoped it was not much farther to the next safe house. He should let his beard grow out, like Gordon was doing. Clean-shaven Downer males were a rarity.
"Look, Bob, I haven't said this before because . . . well, because. But the only people they assign to dip trips are the expendables, like Gordon."
"Yeah-da. Me, too. Nothing more useless than yesterday's hero. I'm no good for outside work anymore. I can't even work in the command module because I get the shakes whenever-—oh, hell. I don't want your, pity. It's probably just as well that I'm stuck down here."
"Don't be too sure of that. Being stuck."
"No, Bob, don't mistake my orbit. I want to get back upstairs more than anything I've ever wanted. Almost anything. Not adventure; not glory. I'm just homesick. Freedom's my hometown, and I miss it. But I really don't expect it to happen. And if it doesn't . . . Well, I can make a life for myself down here."
"Hanging around the docks," Bob said with a half-smile.
"Never mind. Don't dismiss Phoenix out of hand, though."
"I haven't. But there's more to a successful launch than stealing a ship and taking off. Damn, I know what's involved. Maybe this Hudson character does have the ROMs. Maybe the IMU isn't locked up so tight as all that. But eighty-eight thousand liters of liquid hydrogen?"
"Forty-four thousand liters of LOX? Someone will notice!"
Bob shrugged. "You want me to tell you it's all worked
out. That we've got a plan? We don't. But, hell, we've got something better than a plan."
Alex didn't ask him what that was.
* * *
The fax wheeped again.
REDDEN AWARE OF MILKHEIM REQUEST AND REPORTS. PLEASE PHONE ME ON SECURE LINE SOONEST.
Aw, crap! She watched for a telephone.
"Yes, Captain. I don't know how Redden got onto it, but he found out about your request to the highway patrols. He's got all their reports coming to him, but there's more, he's set a trap in Albuquerque."
"Trap. What kind of trap?"
"I don't know, ma'am. Something about a fannish church, but he sure wasn't going to give me any details."
"The fans own a church? -—Albuquerque, fine. And he's intercepting reports about the trucks."
Lee thought for a moment. "All right. Quietly cancel our request for information on those trucks. Do it in a way that makes it look like we're embarrassed about asking. Then see what you can find out about that church. I'm nearly to Sante Fe, I'll get on to Albuquerque. Ask around and get me a clue. Any clue. But don't let them know I'm out here."
"I'm pretty sure I know where they're taking those Angels," Arteria said. "And why all the odd purchases. You were right, Billings, it's fans. Now if we do this my way, the Air Force will get all the credit. That means you and me."
"Yes, ma'am." He sounded enthusiastic.
"When you've got the other stuff done, get my chopper and our crew and take it to George Air Force Base in the Mojave. OSI official investigation."
"George Air Force Base. Bring your helicopter and crew, and come myself. That place is like the back side of the moon, Captain."
"All right, ma'am."
"Good man. I'll meet you there."
A fannish church in Albuquerque. There were a lot of fans in New Mexico. Fair number of writers, too. But a church? With luck Billings would find out something.
Lee Arteria drove steadily. She was just passing through Sante Fe when the fax began. "Wheep! Wheep!"
UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD OF THE WAY. FORMERLY CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY. NORTHEAST AREA ALBUQUERQUE BASE OF SANDIA MOUNTAINS NEAR TRAMWAY STATION. REDDEN AND MOORKITH ON THE WAY. MILKHEIM TRUCK AT OUTSKIRTS ALBUQUERQUE. TRUCK STOP. DRIVER ASLEEP. REDDEN DOESN'T KNOW YET.
Lee smiled faintly to herself. So. Redden can think ahead, too. Good move, setting a trap at that church. The Angels may well stop there on the way west.
If the Angels were caught by Redden and the New Mexico Police, the Air Force wouldn't get any credit at all. What I need, she thought, what I need is to get them to Edwards. Once on an Air Force Base, they're mine. All mine.
Which means I ought to do something about this trap . . .
* * *
Sherrine was almost tired enough to pull Bob out of the bunk alcove. She kept driving because they were already in Albuquerque. The church couldn't be far. A pew would make a hard bed, but a long one. Sherrine was looking forward to that. So, she guessed, were the Angels.
The roar of the huge motor changed timbre. Trouble? Something else? Numb in the ears and the mind, she still recognized the sound just before six motorcycles roared up into her rear-view mirror.
She held the truck steady. This ship-on-wheels must be terrifying to a cyclist.
They drove past. All but one. Harry Czescu (why had Harry joined a covey of strange bikers?). He was waving her over, arm windmilling in seeming terror.
There was no place to pull over. At a Y-intersection she angled right, no longer headed for the Universal Brotherhood of the Way. Still looking . . . but Harry was motioning her forward, to follow him.
Sherrine called, "Who's awake?"
"Alex, get Bob up. Shake him if he's settled." Like salad dressing . . .
Harry led and she followed. Onto the I-40 freeway and onward, west. Flagstaff was three hundred and forty miles away. She'd need fuel much sooner than that.
"Harry's got us back on the I-40."
Bob rubbed his eyes. "He wouldn't do that lightly. What happened exactly?"
She told him. He said, "The way to read Harry is, he's seen something seriously wrong, and he's right. He'll try to fix it, but badly. So stop when you see a decent chance."
She drove. She wondered about Fang and Larry. Both trucks had to reach the Mojave. What was going through Harry's mind? A man you couldn't trust to buy the beer . . .
A turnout. She eased into it . . . signal, keep it smooth, don't panic yet. Brought the behemoth to a stop.
Now panic. Sherrine eased out of the cabin and down. Where the hell was Harry? Long gone, it looked like. Nope, that was him coming back. The Angels were sliding out, too, slithering down to the dirt, distrusting gravity.
Harry pulled into the cloud of dust, bringing more. "It's a trap! We've got to keep moving!"
"What about Fang? And Jenny?"
"I left Jenny on watch in case I missed you. I'll have to go back for her. I found Fang sleeping it off while he waited for dark. Jesus. I think I lucked out. After I saw the church, I found a bunch of bikers and pulled into the middle of them. They got me close to Fang. I gave him the word, and then I caught up with the bikes." Harry patted the metal flank of his motorcycle. "Goood boy. I don't know if I was followed or not. But someone knows we're here, and someone else must have-—Jesus, we've got to get-—"
Bob's voice was soothing. "We can't outrun anything except on the straightaway. So why don't you tell us about this trap?"
Harry's head sagged. Then his body followed. He was doing a back stretch, hanging from the hip bones. He came up, rolling for full effect. "That's better. Yeah. The church looked fine. I went past it, figuring to park a decent distance away, and I saw the billboard. I saw just enough that I pulled into a Taco Bell and Jenny and I took a pew near a window so we could study it. Here."
He handed across a notepad. The printing was Jenny's:
SERMON BY THE REVEREND NEHEMIAH SCUDDER IF THIS GOES ON
"Uh . . . huh."
"What is it?"
The crushing power in an Angel's hand was always a shock. Bob said, "Literary reference, Gordon. Robert Heinlein, 'If This Goes On . . . ,' in which the Reverend Nehemiah Scudder turns the United States into a religious dictatorship . . . incidentally terminating space travel, come to think of it. So it's a definite warning."
"Too bad we can't rescue whoever left it," Harry said, "but those trucks come first."
"Yeah. Back aboard. Sherrine sleeps, I drive. Harry, you get Jenny now, and then we need the services ofthe Oregon Ghost. We need a source of gas not much more than eighty miles away, and refuge in Flagstaff."
The Ghost's instructions took them to a fueling station and a decent chili joint in Grants, New Mexico, sixty-five miles east ofAlbuquerque. Hours later, approaching Flagstaff, they switched from I-40 to the old, worn Route 66. Then to asphalt, then gravel: the roads grew narrower and harder to drive. Why were they being led here ineighteen-wheeler trucks?
Bob had to fight the wheel because of potholes. It was midafternoon; he had been driving since dawn, and he was puffing from fatigue and the thin air. Sherrine knew that she didn't have the strength in the arms to spell him.
Motel up ahead: long two-story buildings with porches. A more compact, more ornate structure must be Registration. A few bulbs in the signs were dark. There weren't many cars. The drive-in next door was dead. Nobody had bothered to change the letters on the marquee:
SCI FI RILLER
"The city must have moved a highway on them," Bob said. He was driving dead slow now, hunched like an ape over the wheel. "In Flagstaff they're always doing that. It's slow death for a motel. Or a drive-in." He pulled between paired pillars into the driveway.
"Octocon," Sherrine said, "used to be in Santa Cruz."
Two men were running to meet them . . . then a dozen. More. The first were guiding the truck. Bob was muttering to himself as he followed them toward one of the long, windowed buildings . . . with a face missing at the narrow end. They guided Curly into the opening, into a shell two stories high.
"Crazy. Do you suppose they never finished it?"
"Smuggling. The customers weren't stopping anymore and import duties kept going up. I'm guessing, of course," Sherrine said. "Pull up to the end. They re lowering some kind of false front behind us."
* * *
It was not a big con. Four long buildings enclosed brown lawn and a pool. They had taken over just one of the buildings; they stayed clear of the Registration building, including the hotel restaurant, newsstand, etc. Rooms along the side that faced a wall had become the dealer rooms, Con Suite, Art Show, and a couple reserved for programming.
Four people talking on a panel stopped when the procession hove into view; then the panel followed their audience over the low railings.
"Welcome to Microcon!" And the fans surged around them, hugging and shaking hands. Alex had time for one glimpse of Gordon's bulging eyes before they were borne away.
"Only Hotel Liaison eats at the hotel restaurant," a fan said. "We don't want to be too visible, but we do need to keep track. So far so good: nobody's been asking about tall supermen."
The rooms were all bedrooms, all the same size; but doors could be opened between. Three upstairs rooms were the Con Suite, and that was where everyone was eating.
There was a punch bowl filled with a pinkish liquid of uncertain genealogy. Several bottles of homemade wine lined the windowsills. Tables pushed against the walls had bowls of popcorn and corn chips and various dips, and a vat of soup sat on the floor. There was great variety to the food, and a flavor of panic and improvisation.
"I'm sorry there isn't more," Buck Coulson apologized. "Times are tight. Be sure to keep your glass handy so you don't accidentally use someone else's."
Numbers were hard to gauge because the convention was so broken up, but Alex hadn't counted more than thirty people.
He was half-reclined in a chair and footstool, delighting in his ability to sprawl. Sprawling was wonderful after scores of hours of being wedged into a bouncing truck cabin. He eavesdropped with half his attention, and watched the women.
Sherrine was asking Tom Degler, "You worked up a convention just for us?"
"We don't need a good excuse. A bad one is fine." Degler's face was surrounded by a sunburst of bright, red hair; full beard, hair tied up in back with a rubber band. His legs, which Alex could see between the knee socks and shorts that he wore, were also hairy. Perfectly adapted to an ice age, Alex thought.
"Fast work," Sherrine said.
"Well, but you're still carrying the Navstar transponder, right? And you had to have a place to rest. It's a long drive across Oklahoma and the panhandle. Ever since they caught S. B. O'Rafferty, there's been no safe house on that leg of the Fanway."
Maybe a third of those present were women. All pudgy or burly, of course, in Alex's estimation; but not bad looking. Not bad looking, at all. Either that or it had been a long time-—
"They caught O'Rafferty? Oh, Tom. The old guy was a past master at staying hidden."
Degler shrugged. "They reeducated him; but no one can tell the difference. He always did see everything skewed sideways and upside down from Tuesday. But of course he's being watched, so we stay clear of him, now." He shook his head sadly. "Anyway, The Ghost let us know when you'd be arriving; so last night I made a few phone calls. Kind of a welcoming party." He looked around the Con Suite, a bedroom with the beds removed, a few chairs, fans sitting on the carpet. "This is all that's left of Suncon and Bubonicon and the others. Slim pickings, eh?"
"Worldcon wasn't much bigger," Sherrine told him.
"Speaking of Worldcon," said Barbara Dinsby, "did you hear? Tony Horowitz got himself arrested to distract the cops during your getaway." Dinsby was a thin woman with long, dark red hair. She wore no makeup and tended to lean toward you when she spoke. Alex considered her the second prettiest woman present. According to Degler she already had several stories on the samizdat network, one of them critically praised.
Bob raised his eyebrows. "Horowitz?"
"Sure. When the chips are down, we all play on the same side."
"Did he make bail?" asked Sherrine.
"Tremont took care of everything. And Tony's book sales have tripled. Everyone on the Network has been downloading his manuscripts; and half the pros are lining up for his shared world project."
Sherrine craned her neck. "So, Tom. Who'd you snag for Guests of Honor?"
Degler beamed. "Well, you, actually."
"Sure. Are there any fans more worthy than you and Pins, here?"
Alex ginned at Sherrine's sudden discomfiture. "Don't fight it," he said. And, in a more serious voice, he added, "You deserve it."
"But . . . "
Degler put his hand on Alex's thin shoulder. "Gabe and Rafe, of course, are the Pro GoH's."
Alex looked at him. "Now, wait a-—"
"What do we have to do?" asked Gordon.
"Not much," Degler told him. Just mingle with the guests; talk to them. You get a "free con membership . . ."
"And you have to make a GoH speech later tonight."
Alex opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out.
"Tom," said Bob, "they aren't actually SF pros."
Dergler grinned. "They live science fiction. That's close enough."
"But I can't come up with a speech, just like that," Alex said. "Not that quickly." After the rescues of Peace and Freedom, when it was clear that the boosters had restabilized the orbits, and Lonny invited him to address the assembled Floaters from his hospital bed, he had been unable to say anything coherent. Lonny, damn his black heart, had probably known that.
"Don't worry," Degler said. "Just make it up as you go along. You're a spaceman! You could get up there in the pulpit and preach from the Albuquerque phone directory and still get a standing ovation."
Indeed, he could. As the fans milled around his chair, Alex discovered that anything he said was soaked up by his eager listeners. The little-orbit-to-orbit "broomsticks" that they rode between the stations? Fascinating. (And five minutes later he heard two fans blocking out a story about witches in space.) The details of hydroponic farming? Endlessly interesting. Especially the painstaking attention to detail that Ginjer Hu demanded.
Filkers were gearing up out by the pool; the laughter was louder than the singing.
Sherrine settled onto the narrow arm of his chair. "Comfy?"
"Very. Next best thing to floating."
"So let's float?"
He peered up at her elvish I've got-a-secret smile. He said, If you have antigravity, we've chased our tails a long way for your amusement."
She laughed like bubble-wrap popping. "Alex, it's possible to float in water. The Dinsby just took Gordon out to the spa-—""
"I forget how much water there is. We walked across a frozen river, I've seen the damn Mississippi, I don't know why it keeps hitting me like this-—"
"But if Gordon and Barbara Dinsby are out there, every horny male and curious fan is going to be stripping down, too, so if you want to float-—"
It was turning chilly. There was a stack of towels on a webbed recliner. The pool had long been empty, but the spa was bubbling and steaming. It was eight feet across, circular, with people-sized indentations in the rim. Gordon and the red-haired woman were already in, and nestled comfortably close. In the dark around them, fans were stripping down.
Sherrine began to strip off her clothes, standing up. Awesome. Like a dancer, Alex thought, or a gymnast. He sat on one of the webwork recliners to get his shoes and pants off. Bare-assed fans were beginning to slide into the water. Two had kept their underwear on.
"The law speaks," Sherrine said, "as follows: you can wear anything you want in the spa after dark. Bob really did go in in the top part of a tuxedo once."
Barbara Dinsby was scratching Gordon's back in slow, luxurious circles, while Gordon twisted around to talk to her. Thurlow Helvetian was scratching Barbara's back. Tom Degler slid into the water behind Helvetian, and a short woman moved up behind him. A circle-scratch.
Sherrine, entirely naked and entirely lovely, slid into the water ahead of Gordon. Gordon's hands rose in the air; his fingers flexed like a pianist's. Sherrine waved imperiously to Alex, and Alex slid in ahead of her.
She spoke against his ear, a warm breath within the steam and roar of bubbles: "Scratch or massage?"
The huckster was a skinny gent with an unruly mop of salt-and-pepper hair; somewhat elderly, but with a twinkle in his eye. He wore a colorful, billowing shirt and stood behind a table stacked high with books from which he importuned passing fans. He wasn't getting much action. They were all wet from the spa, and the night was driving them in.
"Hi," he said to Alex, "I'm Thurlow Helvetian. May I shamelessly try to sell you a book?"
"You can try," Alex allowed as he paused at the table. He was bundled up now, and nearly dry, and still warm. "You'd have better luck with Gordon. I'm not much of a reader. Then again, Gordon's still in the spa."
Helvetian nodded to himself. "Start slow." He rummaged about on the table and emerged triumphantly with a cloth-bound volume. "Here. A Night on the Town. This is a fair sampler of my work. All short stories, so you get it in small doses."
Alex studied the book. The cover bore a stamp: Certified Elf-Free! "Fantasy."
"Rational fantasy," Helvetian assured him. "Fantasy with rivets. It means getting the details right, making sure it all hangs together logically."
"My matushka once said-—" Alex turned and saw that Gordon had come up behind him. Gordon was surrounded by a group of five femmefans, including Barbara and Sherrine. "My matushka once said that the secret of realism was to describe the thumb so well that the reader thinks he has seen the entire hand."
Helvetian nodded. "That's right. It's got to be consistent and realistic or you lose the reader."
"What if it's a fantasy?" Alex asked.
"Especially in a fantasy," Helvetian replied.
"Yeah-da." Gordon's head bobbed vigorously. "A dragon you may believe in, or a time traveller, but a time-travelling dragon asks too much of the reader. H.G. Wells never used more than one—"
"Gordon? Save it," Barbara said. "It's time for your speech."
Gordon's mouth opened and closed, and he half-turned to run.
"Alex, isn't it? You're next. Or if Gordon freezes up, you're first. Work it out between you. Thurlow, you're not going to miss the GoH speeches, are you?"
"I didn't used to go to the program items . . ."
The Angels looked at each other. Neither had anything planned. Neither wanted to go first.
"Together," Gordon said.
"Mir was old. A tested, fully manned space station, more than the United States ever had, but old," Gordon said. "We had a Buryat shuttle up when everything stopped, but that was useless, not much more than a missile without guidance. We made it part of the habitat and rifled it for parts. There was not much on the moon, but we could work with what there was because of all that lovely working mass free for the taking-—"
"And oxygen. There's infinite oxygen in lunar rock."
"So we had Moonbase. We even expanded a little. And in orbit, Mir and two shuttle tanks from which to make Freedom. One shuttle, ruined. And three NASPS."
The room was filled with rows of chairs. Behind them there was still standing room; the balcony doors were opened wide.
These thirty people were more than he could have gathered aboard Freedom,without leaving crucial functions untended. All these solemn eyes . . .
"Now, each of the NASPS is different," Alex said, "and neither of them could carry cargo, because each was an, experimental hypersonic ramjet airplane. Piranha couldn't even reach orbit without an auxiliary tank at takeoff!"
"And of course these were no longer available."
"You get a bubble for two and the rest is fuel tank and motors. So landing it and coming back to orbit-—"
Gordon was really enjoying himself. Nobody in Mir or Freedom had ever looked at him like this. He said, "You would do only for the joy of it, and it would cost in hydrogen and wear. But we found we could convert all three to dive into the atmosphere and return without too much loss of delta-vee. Without that, we would not have nitrogen."
All these solemn eyes. Where was all this support when space was being abandoned like an unwelcome gift? Only thirty, though they seemed like more. But those who gathered on the desert to watch the shuttles land numbered up to a million. Where were they?
Running from the Ice.
Gordon was saying, "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 . . ."
"I've lost track of my cup," Alex said.
"In the old days," Sherrine whispered in Alex's ear, "there would have been plastic or styrofoam cups."
"Nonbiodegradable plastic or styrofoam cups," said Degler, appearing out of nowhere.
"Bullshit," said Sherrine. "Plastics are recyclable. Shred it and melt it and make more. The fact that no one bothered gave plastic a bad rep."
"Well, not quite," Degler said, fingering his beard and grinning. "There are EPA rules that forbid the recycling of certain plastics. The styrofoam used by fast-food chains was chemically recyclable; but the EPA forbade it because"-—he gave an exaggerated shudder-—"because it had once touched food."
"Yeah, and they replaced the stuff with coated paper, that was also nonbiodegradable and nonrecyclable. So the rules had zero impact on the environment and the landfills . . . And why are you laughing, Tom?"
"What if it was on purpose?"
"What do you mean? "
Alex noticed that a small crowd had gathered around them, listening intently to what Degler had to say. He saw Bob Needleton and Barbara Dinsby and the huckster, Thurlow Helvetian; Gordon's head topping them all. We really do stand out in a crowd. Gordon had been letting his beard grow ever since St. Louis, but it was not much to speak of yet. Sherrine had called it a beatnik beard, whatever that meant.
Dealer glanced left and right, and leaned forward. Everyone else instinctively leaned toward him. "I meant, what if it was on purpose? There was a company in California that bought chemical wastes from other companies; processed the waste and broke it down; and sold the end products as feed stock. Closed loop recycling. The state EPA shut them down."
"Why?" asked Alex.
Degler eyed him, and again glanced conspiratorially around the room. "Because the EPA rules required that chemical wastes be put in fifty-five-gallon drams and stored."
"Why, that is pomyéshanniy," Gordon said. "If we did so on Freedom, would soon die. Cannot afford to waste waste. Is too valuable."
If the Downer Greens were serious about recycling and waste reduction, Alex mused, they should be clamoring to communicate with the stations. Who-—on Earth or off-—knew more about the subject than the Floaters. It isn't just ourquality of life,it's ourlives.
"Exactly," said Degler. "So why do so many environmental regulations wind up, harming the environment? I say, what if it's on purpose?"
"Can't be," said someone in the crowd. "What purpose?"
"Yeah, who would gain?"
"The Babbage Society? "
"No, the Greens. The Greens would gain job security," said someone else.
"Job security how? They're pledged to clean things up."
"No they aren't," said Tom Degler with a grin. "They're pledged to advocate rules whose apparent purpose is to make someone else clean things up."
"That's right. There's a difference. The rules only require actions, not results."
"I have a question," said an elderly fan. "Why did the Greens become so popular back in the '90s, which was after the worst pollution had been already cleaned up? None of you kids remembers the old days, when coal smoke blanketed every city and the Cuyahoga River caught fire."
Alex had finally figured out why Degler grinned all the time. He was watching funny pictures inside his head. "This is your hobby, isn't it?"
Degler grinned at him. "What is?"
"Throwing out wild ideas and watching people play with them."
"No, this is my profession. Dropping seed crystals in a supersaturated solution. Plumbing is my hobby."
Chairman Buck Coulson produced a giant cake covered with chocolate frosting, baked in the shape of a manhole cover. He presented it to Degler as Con Chair. Degler wiped a tear from his eye. "I'm touched, folks. I am truly touched."
"Hell, Tom," said Bob. "We've known that for years."
"Okay!" said Buck rubbing his hands. "That's three uses." He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and made a note.
Alex looked around for help. He saw Sherrine nearby with a glass of bhlog in her hand and beckoned to her. Sherrine giggled and weaved her way to his side. "What did Buck mean, that's three uses?" He had to lean close to make himself heard over the noise of the room party. The jostling crowd pressed Sherrine against him just as he bent close. He wasn't about to complain.
"Mmmm," said Sherrine, lingering against him for just a moment, bracing herself with her arm around him. "Egscyooze-—I mean, excuse me. I'm sorry."
"Have some bhlog?" She held her glass up to him.
"No, thanks. I had one. It ripped the top of my head off. What's in that stuff?"
"Oh, I don't know. No one does. It's a closely guarded secret known to no one." Sherrine giggled again.
She pressed a finger against her lip. "Shhhhh. Maybe no one will notice." She drank the rest of her bhlog. Then she pointed at the cake. "Chocolate-covered manhole covers are, is the only idea Tom ever threw out that never went anywhere. What can you say about chocolatecovered manhole covers?"
Alex smiled. "Not much."
"A cake for Tom, that's three. A source of food on an alien planet, that was first."
"What was the second?"
Her diction became careful and solemn. "The American Dental Association thinks they are bad for children's teeth."
It must have been almost one in the morning. There was only a handful of fans still lolling about in the Video Room. Sherrine sat tailor fashion near the door, talking tete-á-tete with Dinsby. The others had wandered off. Some were dozing on the floor. Buck grew sufficiently bored to turn on the TV. He sat splayed in the sofa changing channels at random with his phaser. Tom Degler snored beside him.
Slouched in the armchair with his head buzzing, Alex let his mind drift with the TV. Buck would not stay on one channel long enough for anything to make sense. If, after five glasses of bhlog, anything could make sense.
"For relief of hemorrhoids," the TV declared, "use-—°!°-—the President of the United States-—°!°-—couldn't imagine anything more exciting-—°!°-—building value in every step of design and construction-—°!°-—don't miss all the action-—°!°-—with Barbie-—°!°-—But what if lance discovers us, darling-—°!°-—coming up next-—°!°-—Sherrine Hartley-—°!°—-—ll right, let's move em out-—°!°-—for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer-—"
"Wait!" said Alex suddenly alert. "Buck! Back up a couple channels."
°!°°!° and a photograph of Bob and Sherrine graced the screen. "-—of those suspected of harboring the fugitives. Hartley is a computer nerd. Her boyfriend, Needleton, is a scientist. Needleton's van was used in the getaway. It was found in Milwaukee-—"
"See Spot," snarled Buck. "See Spot run. Run, Spot, run."
"-—seeing them should contact the State Police. Captain Lee Arteria of the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations is leading the pursuit. Outdoor shot of a hard-looking officer in fatigues. "We're piecing the evidence together, Heather," Arteria told the newser. "There are several promising lines of inquiry-—"
Alex grabbed the phaser from Coulson's hands and stabbed at the buttons until the screen went black.
Bob spoke without turning from the screen. "The backdrop. It was the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago."
Coulson frowned. "Arteria looks familiar. I've seen him somewhere before. At a con? Art show?" He shook his head. "A long time ago."
Had Sherrine seen this? Alex twisted and looked by the door. Barbara and Sherrine were gone. But they were there earlier.
He left the Video Room and wandered down the corridor. An open room door showed fans carpeting the beds and floor. Other doors were closed and silent. The Con was shutting down for the night.
Downstairs in one of the function rooms, he found Dinsby in a circle of femmefans surrounding Gordon.
" . . . syllables, accents or feet," Gordon was saying.
"But English stresses are too strong for syllabic poetry, which is why haiku does not work in English. Accentual poetry is the native English structure. As in Beowulf, which has four beats per line with central pause. Is also the limerick like you hear in nursery rhymes and rap. But accent structure can degenerate into mere broken prose,' like free verse, which is basic form used for advertising copy. Was Chaucer who invented the foot, which combines accent and syllable-— "Yes, Alex, what is it?"
Alex put a hand on a table to steady himself. "I'm looking for Sherrine. Have you seen her?"
"She was with me earlier," Dinsby said. "I came out here for the midnight poetry panel. I saw her leave the room party a few minutes ago. I think she went outside." She pointed to the side door on the right.
Outside, the night air was a knife in his lungs and the stars hung like diamonds on velvet. He exhaled a cloudy breath. Not as cold as it had been up north; but still . . . The moon was low in the west, casting pale, pearly shadows. One of the shadows moved slightly and Alex headed toward it.
She was hunched up with her knees tucked under her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs. Alex hunkered down beside her. She looked at him; looked away and drew her sleeve across her nose.
"You shouldn't cry during an ice age," he told her. "Your eyes will freeze closed."
"Or open. I'd rather have them freeze open. Better to see if anyone's chasing you."
"You saw the news clip, then."
She said nothing, but Alex could sense her nod. "I won't make a very good 'wanted fan,' will I? If they showed Fang or Crazy Eddie on national TV with everyone in the country asked to turn them in . . . they'd throw a party."
"They think they can't be caught. They have faith in their own wits."
"I'm in real trouble, then. My instincts are no damned good."
Alex didn't think he could do much about the first two complaints. He put his arm around her. "Do you want to go back inside? It's warmer there."
He could feel her shake her head. "No. I'm fine now." She snuggled against him. "Who would have thought it could get so chilly in the desert?"
Alex pointed to the sky with his left hand. "No clouds. The ground radiates its heat into open space. I bet you could make ice that way."
"Lookat the moon," she said. It was three-quarters full and just kissing the horizon, swollen by the lens of air. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Not so beautiful as the Earth, looking back."
"Have you ever been there? To the moon."
"No." And now he could never go. Alex can't go out and play because he might get a nosebleed. I don't even have a suit anymore.
"I'd like to go there. I've always wanted to go there. Ever since I read Space Captives of the Golden Men. I forget who wrote it. A juvenile. These kids are kidnapped by Martians-—we could still imagine Martians in those days-—and taken to the moon; and I've always wanted to be . . . to be. . ."
She turned and buried her face against him and he hugged her tight. "I'll take you there," he promised. Don't make promises you can't keep. "Someday, I'll kidnap you and take you to the moon."
Oh, Alex." She put her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was a soft, lingering kiss, and Alex felt himself respond to the promise. He shifted his arms and hugged her tight and kissed her back. "Alex, make love to me."
"What, here? Now? It's too cold."
She laid her head on his shoulder. "You don't want to?"
"I-—yes, dammit. Yes, I do. But-—"
"Then forget your damned courtship rites and your damned propriety. You're in Faerie now. All the habitat rules are suspended."
"Except cold!" he laughed.
She grabbed him and ran her hands down his body. The moon had set and the desert night was as black as death. The galactic spiral was a garland draped across the sky. They fumbled under their clothing, exploring each other; never quite exposed to the night cold and growing warm enough with the effort. Alex discovered that if you were careful and if you wanted something badly enough, you could accomplish anything. None of it was planned.