Fallen angels larry Niven Jerry Pournelle Michael Flynn



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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The LASFS


Steve Mews and George Long pedaled through the decaying neighborhood at dusk. Long looked around and whistled "Man, this place would make Harlem look like Bel Air!"

Mews grinned. "Yeah, but it's not so bad. Besides, we're the meanest S-O-B's in the valley."

George Long looked it. He was an enormous black giant. Steve had been trying to get him to work out for years, but Long always said, "Hell, I'm a nurse! Sometimes I wonder what a frail old geriatric patient thinks when he sees, or she sees, Rosey Grier bearing down on her with a bedpan and a mucking great hypodermic. You get me doing that black-belt stuff and they'll arrest me for breathing."

The house was huge, a six-bedroom mansion built in the 1920s during the Hollywood era. It hadn't been painted in years, and now stood almost isolated. There were houses on both sides of it but they'd sunk even further into decay, not quite abandoned, but inhabited by people who just didn't give a damn. Mews led Long up the driveway to the garage in back. There were other bicycles there. The garage was dimly lit by a single electric bulb.

"Big place," Long said. "I knew Los Angeles fans had a clubhouse, but this is something!"

"Heh, heh. You don't know the half of it." Steve swept his hand around. "There was a freeway going through. The Greens got that stopped, but the whole area had already been condemned. Nobody can get permits to build here, or to tear anything down either. It's all pretty stupid, but it's good for LASFS. Glen Bailey knew it first because he's a Green."

Long shied off a bit. "You've got a tame Green?"

"Glennie's not tame. But he's definitely one of ours, and he got us this house. They're paying us a caretaker fee to keep the druggies out!" He grinned. "Of course, they aren't paying the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Inc. They're paying the LA Safety First Society. The checks still read LASFS."

"You're still incorporated?"

"No, they yanked our Inc. 'Not in the public interest.' I keep forgetting."

There were more lights at the big house. Steve led the way to the back door and knocked, then stood in the dim pool of light from the porch lamp. After a moment the door opened. " 'Lo, Steve," a large elderly woman said.

" 'Lo, June. This is George Long."

"I know George," she said. "You're a long way from NESFA."

Long nodded. "New England's getting cold. I'm moving out here," he said. "By way of Worldcon."

"I ran into him at Minicon, then on the Amtrak," Steve said.

June opened the door and led them into a kitchen. There were a dozen fans talking, standing in doorways as fans did. Most didn't know George Long, but June was taking care of the introductions. "Is Merlin here yet?" Steve asked.

"Upstairs."

The stairway was ornate, with magnificent wood bannisters. There was mahogany wainscoting in the hallways, and the ceilings were carved plaster. Most of the splendor was in decay, but here and there someone had worked to restore it.

The upstairs room was locked. Steve knocked and waited. Finally the door was opened by a tall man with stringy gray hair and bad teeth. He stood in the doorway. "Steve."

"I need to get on-line."

Merlin Null, LASFS Senior Committeeman, frowned at Mews. "The rules are, you tell me, and I do it if I think it's safe."

"Merlin, this is Stone from Heaven business."

Null thought about it. "Have to check." He came out into the hall, carefully locking the door behind him, and led the way down the hall to another room.

C.C. Miller, often called Cissy for reasons no one remembered, was Chairman of the LASFS. He sat at a table in the old butlers pantry making a list. Miller was a large, round man, gray haired as most LASFASians were. His wife, Ginny, looked half his age, but she always had.

"Steve wants me to log him on," Null said.

Miller nodded knowingly. "It's all right. Steve, when you get done, we've got a package for you."

"Package?"

"Fan Express," Miller said. "From Curtis. Address 'Bottle Shop Keeper, care of Steve Mews.' I gather he wants you to deliver it."

"That figures. See you in a minute."

Back inside the locked computer room there were three people at a poker table. Hands had been dealt, and there were poker chips in front of the players. No one really cared much about illegal gambling, but it was a cover for the locked door.

Null locked the door again, then opened a cabinet. Inside were more poker chips and cards. Null reached past them to open the back of the cabinet, exposing a computer console. Null pulled it out. "OK, what?"

"FAPANET," Steve said. "I need to get on."

Null typed furiously. There were the odd tones of a modem dialing, then locking on. Finally Null stepped back. "You got it."

Steve typed gingerly. "They call me Bruce."

:

"I am new in town."



"Roger Dodger." Steve stepped back from the console.

"That's it?" Null asked.

"That's a lot," Steve said. "Now I need to see C.C. again. I'm going to need some help. Starting with a car and somebody to drive."



The drive from Los Angeles through Mojave took nearly three hours in C.C. Miller's underpowered car. Interstate 5, the main north-south California artery, was still maintained, but when they turned off into the Antelope Valley and headed toward Palmdale the decay in America's infrastructure was obvious.

They crossed the San Andreas Fault line. "Lucky so far," Miller said. "We've been expecting The Big One for years . . ."

"They said at Minicon that the Ice would definitely trigger it," Steve said. "Guess that would close the highway for good."

Palmdale was half-deserted. They passed a stand of dead trees and grapevines. "Can't say I disagree with the Greens on that one," Steve said. "Sucking water out of Sacramento to grow Christmas trees and grapes in the desert never did make sense."

"It would if you had enough electricity to make the fresh water," C.C. Miller said. "But, hell, that's science fiction."

They drove through Mojave, past the faded signs proudly announcing Phoenix and Voyager. Now Mojave was a small road town, as it had once been. They turned east.

A sign told them it was twenty-five miles to the turnoff to the Thunder Ridge Air Force Museum.



There had once been a fence and guard post at the North Entrance to Edwards AFB, but the guardhouse was boarded up, and the fence had been knocked down by tumbleweeds piling against it. There had been some maintenance, though. The blacktop road up the ridge from Highway 58 had potholes, but Steve didn't think it was much worse than 58 itself, and 58 still had traffic, if you could call a truck every five minutes traffic. The view across the Mojave Desert to the north was spectacular. So was the Rogers Dry Lake bed to the west. Where the spaceships used to land. A million people camped out on the desert to watch the first shuttle landing . . .

The museum stood at the top of a ridge: several concrete block buildings, a blockhouse, a large concrete pad, and big cylindrical storage tanks. The security shack at the main gate to the facility was empty, but the gate was open. They drove on up to the largest building, a huge structure. Most of the windows were boarded up, but not all, and there was a light inside one office.



Gary Hudson was tall and thin, graying a bit. He wore a silver-tan shirt and a desert hat, and looked a bit like the old films of Indiana Jones when he wasn't carrying a bullwhip and pistol. He came out of the office and watched as C.C. and Steve got out of their car.

"Museum's only open Friday and Saturday," he said. "Sorry, it's a long trip, maybe I can show you a little anyway." He waved toward a big corrugated aluminum structure. "The bird's in that hangar."

"We'd love to see it," Steve said. "Thanks."

Hudson led the way over in silence. The wind whistled off the Mojave Desert and howled around them, rattling the corrugated metal of the hangar building. They went in through the small, people door set in the enormous hangar door. It was almost as loud inside as out, but it was a relief to be out of the wind.

It was gloomy inside. Hudson gave them a moment to let their eyes adjust. The roof was eighty feet or more above them, held up by a network of girders that looked needlessly complicated just to hold up a roof.

Phoenix stood in the center of the enormous room. It looked like a giant ice cream cone, sixty feet high, standing on its big end. At the slightly rounded base it was half as big across as it was high. It stood alone, with no scaffolding around it.

Hudson threw a switch, and banks of spotlights came on.

The nose was rounded. Holes a foot and a half across ringed the base: not one big rocket motor, but a couple of dozen little ones. There was a small door, high up. The hull was grimy enough to need hosing down, but it didn't seem to have been cut in half or anything. The damn thing even had windows.

Steve stared up at it. Beside him C.C. said, "Your big mistake was, rockets are supposed to be phallic symbols."

Hudson nodded. "Wrong shape. Too short, too. The tailfin on a 747 stood taller than Phoenix."

"Yeah, oh, well, the shuttle wasn't any better-"

Normally Steve would have joined in. Somehow he didn't have the heart. There had been scaffolding; it had been wheeled into shadow to display the beast better. Like the last Saturn, laid out horizontally so the tourists could see it better.

"-—Saturn, too. What kind of a phallic symbol is it that comes apart during launch?"

"Yeah, but it did get there, Gary."

Pause. "Yes. Well, Phoenix hasn't been well maintained, as you can see," Hudson said. "She'll never fly again." He looked closely at Steve. "I've seen you before. You came with a tour about two years ago."

Mews nodded. "You must not get many people here."

"Not many black people," Hudson said. "And you cried then, too."

"Oh."

"Can I show you anything else?"

"Yes. What I'd like to see is outside," Mews said. He led the way away from the building, away from where Phoenix stood under the tin-roofed hangar. Away from the fuel tanks. Off past the parking lot.

Hudson frowned but followed as Steve went out to an empty area. "Safe to talk here?" Steve asked.

Hudson nodded. "Safe everywhere. No bugs here, if there ever were any. Things deteriorate, and nobody cares about a dead bird anyway. She'll never fly again. Talk about what?"

"She sure looks dead." Steve sighed. "But I've got a package for you. Wade Curtis says to tell you it's a Doherty Project."

Gary Hudson's face went quite slack. He shied back a bit from the small parcel Mews pulled from his jacket pocket. "Doherty Project."

"Absolutely."

Hudson took the package and opened it. Inside was a half-pint bottle of clear liquid. "Moonbeams?"

"Seawater," Steve said "And we took that shipping tag off a compressed air cylinder. It has a poem written on it. It's to be pinned to the ground with a knife."

Hudson stared out across the desert. "For Mare Imbrium," he said slowly. "Yeah. All right, you're real. At least you sure come from Curtis. Like a ghost after all these years. Now what's up?"

"Angels down. You heard about it."

"Sure. So?"

"We rescued them."

"Where? Where are they?"

Mews pointed east. "About ten miles that way. The Astroburger stand, at Cramer's Four Corners. Waiting for you to say it's all clear. They've got two tank trucks of jet fuel, and the ROMs that Cole was keeping for you."

Gary Hudson stared at him. "But-—you mean-—"

Hope you've got your bags packed," Steve said. "It's time."

* * *

The motorcycle came up an hour later. Harry and Jenny got off and stretched elaborately. "Hello, Gary."

"Hello, Harry. OK, you're real, too. Are there really Angels out there—"

"If the chili ortega Astroburgers didn't kill 'em," Harry said. He looked around the facility. "Can we work alone here?"

"Until Friday," Gary said. "And I can close the gate then, if there's good reason."

Harry had a small radio, the kind that used to be sold in pairs as children's toys. He extended the antenna. "Gabriel, this is Rover. All clear." He listened for a second and grinned. "OK. Now, do you have a beer? It's been days. I mean literally."

The tanker trucks wound slowly up the hill. Hudson watched with binoculars. "They look full," he said.

"They are full," Harry said. "One diesel fuel, one JP-4. Enough to make the hydrogen and LOX-—"

"For a bird that will never fly," Hudson said.

"Oh, bullshit," Harry said. "You haven't been saying that so long you believe it, have you?"

"Harry-—"

Harry shrugged. "Okay, but you're scaring the kids. Look at Steve. He's turning white."

"I am not."

"Get that man a mirror!"

"Harry, there's no launching pad, nothing."

"Sure," Harry said. "Gary, one thing, you better let the Angels in on this right away. When they finally set eyes on Cole's Titan, they were ready for self-immolation."

Hudson was sweating, and it wasn't the heat. "Harry, why don't I just put up a neon sign?"

"It's gonna get conspicuous anyway, isn't it?"

"This is just what I've been avoiding for fifteen years. More. Some of the Air Force types like to daydream, but a real launch? If they see . . ."

"You're gonna be conspicuous. That's all. What can you do that won't show right away? Making fuel is noisy. Your grocery bill is gonna go up. You'll have to wheel the beast out-—"

"No, that's the one thing I don't have to do. Bring them in, Harry. Just bring them."

* * *

It was crowded with four in the truck. The Angels hadn't wanted to be separated from each other, and Gordon hadn't wanted to travel without Barbara Dinsby. New love and true love, Bob Needleton thought. They look cute together. Of course it meant that Sherrine was riding with Fang in the other truck.

And maybe that's all right too. It was pretty clear that something was happening between Alex and Sherrine. And we're leaving her behind, too. If that rocket works I am by damn going. I have earned a place. I thought of the rescue!

Harry was waiting at the turnoff into Edwards. He waved them on, then passed both trucks to lead the way. Bob was glad that the road was twisty and full of holes. He welcomed the distraction.

* * *

Lee Arteria drove past the turnoff into Edwards and went on for another mile before stopping. Even then she stayed well inside her car, so that the sun wouldn't flash off the binoculars. She watched as the trucks ground slowly up the hill.

So far so good. And Moorkith was still looking for the Angels down by the Mexican border, certain that they were being smuggled out of the country. Arteria grinned wolfishly. It's too late, Moorkith, my lad. They're on Air Force property now. They're mine.

* * *

Gary Hudson shook hands with Alex, then Gordon. He prolonged his grip on Gordon's hand. "Weak arm, strong grip. Do you have any trouble standing?"

Gordon grinned broadly. "Stronger every day. Steve has-—"

Hudson pulled his arm to the right and back. Gordon fell over.

Hudson's left arm caught Gordon's elbow and pulled him back upright. Nobody laughed at Gordon's gaping astonishment.

Hudson said, "Sorry. I had to know. So. It's decision time."

"What's to decide?" Harry said. "They need to go to orbit, and you have the only rocket ship that will get them there."

"Harry-—" Miller said.

"He's right," Fang said. "God damn."

"So I just fire it up and go," Gary said. "So simple. Why didn't I think of that?"

Gordon asked, "is it real? Will it fly?"

"It's real but-—" Gary caught himself. He took a deep breath. "It's a real rocket ship. It really goes straight up on a pillar of fire. It even goes into orbit. Barely. Almost."

Nobody wanted to say it, so they all looked at each other until Jenny Trout said, "What good is that?"

"I don't get much chance to explain this. We have here a prototype, and it isn't the whole thing. When we were doing the planning, I took the most optimistic assumptions. Why not? But the FAA had some rules that apply to airplanes. My stockholders wanted a heavier heat shield. The landing, legs-—"

"Landing legs? Sorry," Alex said. "Of course it has to land. I'm too used to dippers."

"Sure. Phoenix comes down on its own tail fire, just like all the old Analog covers, just like the LEM. I made the legs so slender it won't stand up unless the fuel tanks are dead empty. But they still have to take a recoil, and my stockholders wanted them beefed up." Hudson's bony shoulders rose and fell. "Everything got just a little heavier.

"But, dammit! I'd have put a bigger cabin on the real thing. It'd fire passengers halfway around the world in under two hours. Every president of every company or country would want one. And with the zero stage it could have reached geosynchronous orbit, and that would have been . . ."

Nobody had said anything about a "zero stage." Alex was about to comment when Hudson went on. "The zero stage would have been cheap as dirt. Same fuel and oxygen tanks, same pump system, same legs-—because of course it lands independently! Half again as many motors and no heat shield. You could serve a dozen Phoenixes with two lousy Zeros because they recycle so fast."

"So where is our zero stage?"

"It paid the lawyers for awhile, and then I was bankrupt. The Greens sued me. Poking holes in the ozone layer, yada yada." Hudson shook his head violently. "Sorry. Way off the subject. You want to know what you need now."

C.C. said, "Yeah. You can't get to orbit?"

"I can barely get into an elliptical orbit with the low end eighty miles up. The atmosphere pulls it down fast. But another ship could rendezvous and boost it the rest of the way. That must be what you were planning with the Titan, wasn't it?"

"Yeah. What else do we need?"

"Quite a lot-—"

"Will these help?" Bob Needleton held out a package wrapped in foil. "Cole said these are the ROMs."

Gary took the package. "That's a spare set, but yeah, after all these years it's worth doing a program comparison."

"And we brought you the fuel to make the fuel," Sherrine said. And-—fans have been collecting things to go up with the Angels. Seeds, chemicals, supplies, all kinds of things-—"

"All that stuff isn't coming up here!" Hudson exclaimed.

"No, no, it's going to a safe place in Los Angeles," Miller said. "We'll bring whatever's needed from there."

Hudson nodded.

"Can-—may we see the ship?" Barbara Dinsby asked. She was holding tightly onto Gordon's hand.

Hudson sighed. "Yeah, sure." He led them into the hangar and turned on the lights.

"God, that's beautiful," Jenny said. "Beautiful. Starfire!"

Alex walked slowly over to the ship. He ran his hands along the sides, then stooped to look up into the engine chambers. When he stood again his face had changed.

"You can fly it, Alex?" Gordon asked.

"It doesn't need a pilot," Alex said. "It's up to Mr. Hudson, I think. But it's clear someone has been taking care of this ship. He looked up at the roof scaffolding. "Does that open?"

"Just once," Gary said.

"Once is all we need," Alex said. He looked straight at Hudson. "Commander Hopkins-—our leader in the habitats-—I'll start over. We thought it would be pointless to say anything to Lonny Hopkins about spaceships. Now . . . does he have a decision to make? Do I call him? I wouldn't want to unless this was all real."

"Let me think about it," Gary said.

"Don't think too long," C.C. Miller said.

Gary frowned at him.

"We heard from Ted Johnstone in Phoenix. He works for the Highway Department. The police are looking for milk trucks. They're being real quiet about it, but they're looking."

"Oh, shit," Fang said.

"The church," Harry said. "That's-—"

"That's fine," Jenny said. "So first thing is we get the damn trucks under cover, right? Looks like there's room in here."

"Actually, there's a garage made for tanker trucks," Gary said. "I'll show you." He turned toward the door, then turned back. "Hell, I don't know why I'm stalling. I've been waiting for this all my life. Major MacLeod, you can tell your boss that with any luck we'll be launching you within a week."

Three fans had wheeled the scaffold up to the Phoenix. Hudson climbed up to the door, used a key, tried to open it.

By then Alex was up there with him, climbing barefooted, using his toes. He felt no gut-fear climbing this spiderweb of metal, but he didn't trust gravity. He set himself and pulled alongside Hudson, and the oval plug-shaped door swung back.

Three heads poked in: Gary, Alex, Gordon. And a fourth: Sherrine. Sherrine said, "Four."

There were four seats, two with control consoles, two without. There were tanks, and bracing struts, and oxygen lines. Hudson waved and pointed and lectured. "We were set for up to a month in orbit. A lot of this could come out, because we don't need that much oxygen. I could have got another couple of seats in. Of course I don't have the seats, but that's no sweat. Glue in an exercise mat and two, pillows for knees and head, that's all it would take. It's a matter of what cargo you're willing to give up."

"Four." Gordon scowled. "I should be reassured that it will not shrink by more yet."

Alex said, "After Chicago, after Titan, I wouldn't have believed this much. Gordon, by God, we can get home again!"

"Da."

The stilyagin's enthusiasm left something to be desired. No seat for Barbara? Others must stay, too . . . but Gordon wouldn't meet Alex's eyes.



They sat in the large workroom outside Hudson's office. In better times a dozen engineers would have sat at the desks and drafting tables there. C.C. Miller had his notebook and was ready to make a list. "All right. Dr. Hudson, what do we have to do now?"

"Details," Gary said. "First things first. We clean out the tanks. The hydrogen tank won't need a lot of work, but there's a fair amount of work to clean the oxygen tank. We'll need alcohol."

"Alcohol," Miller said. "What kind?"

"Anything would work, but since there will be people working in that tank, we'll want ethanol so we don't poison them."

C.C. wrote it down on his list.

"How much alcohol?" Harry asked.

"Gallons."

"Gallons." Harry shook his head. "All right. I'll see what I can do." He grinned. "Going to be the first time I ever convinced LASFS that they ought to buy me enough to drink. God knows I've tried."

"How many people do we need?" C.C. Miller asked. "To clean the tanks, other stuff?"

"Well, maybe ten," Gary said. "Moving scaffolds, just standing watch, that sort of thing. But they'd have to be reliable."

"They will be," Miller said. "I've got Lee Jacobs rounding up a crew. They'll come up in a van, as soon as some of the other stuff from the treasure hunt comes in. Gary. you may be a bit surprised by some of what they've rounded up."

Hudson said, "Can you keep most of the LASFS away? I'll look conspicuous enough without a horde of fans looking over our shoulders."

"What I can do, maybe, is make it official. Announce that anyone who comes brings groceries. I worried about that. What are a dozen of us going to eat? Nobody gets in without a bag of groceries per. Nobody will do that twice. Fans can't afford it."

Hudson nodded reluctantly.

"After we clean the tanks," Alex said. "What then?"

"We have to get hydrogen. That's not hard, the pipeline's already in place, we just tap it off the main pipeline into Mojave. We'll have to go turn it on, but the valve's not guarded."

"Won't anyone notice?" Sherrine asked.

"Not for a couple of weeks," Gary said. "And by then with any luck-—"

"Right," Miller said. "What happens after the hydrogen's flowing?"

"Compression," Hudson said. "We run the turbo compressor and liquify the hydrogen. Takes about three days. Make it four to be sure."

"What about the LOX?" Harry asked.

"That takes about three days, too, but it's quieter," Hudson said. "That takes a diesel engine. The hydrogen compressor is run by a jet engine."

"Jet engine," Sherrine said. "Aren't they noisy?"

"A little," Hudson said. "Hell, a lot."

"So we have to run a jet engine for three days," Miller said. "Don't you think someone will notice?"

"I've thought about that for ten years," Hudson said. "I've got a cover story. This is a research facility as well as a museum. We'll say we're doing hydrogen energy research. I can double-talk it. I've even got a grant request to show around. It should work-—"

"And if it doesn't work, we're all dead," Alex said.

"Would it help if we had a high ranking Green space cadet up here?" Miller asked.

"Green space cadet? Contradiction in terms," Hudson said.

C.C. Miller grinned. "That's what you think. OK, what comes after you make the fuel?"

"We need the IMU," Hudson said. "I know where it is."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah, I actually get along pretty good with some of the Air Force johnnies over at Dryden. They keep hoping we'll be able to take Phoenix up again. But, you know, I'm not exactly a professional thief," Hudson said. "Somebody's got to break in and steal the IMU. I think we do that last thing. I can double-talk the compressor if we get unwanted company, but there's only one thing we could be doing with the IMU."

"How long does it take to install?"

Hudson shrugged. "Half an hour, but it's better if we can run some tests. Four or five hours of tests after installation."

"And then?"

"Launch," Gary said. "And I get to find out what free fall feels like."

"You're going then," Miller said. He made another note.

"Hell yes I'm going," Gary said. "I've waited all my life. Not to mention what they'll do to me for stealing my own ship. I'd take Annie, too, but she's in New York. Laid up for two weeks with a cracked ankle. Lousy timing."

Makes sense." C.C. wrote rapidly. "So. There's you, and the two Angels. Say about seven hundred pounds. How much more can we lift?"

"Four thousand pounds," Gary said.

"Hah. One seat open, and still room for supplies."

Alex shook his head. "Before you start filling those seats, you better let me talk to Commander Hopkins. He's going to have something to say about that."



"Big Daddy, this is Piranha. Big Daddy, this is Piranha."

"Da, Piranha, we relay you. Be standink by."

"Alex! Are you all right?"

"Better than all right, Mary. Is the Commander there?"

"I'm here, MacLeod. What's your situation?"

"Damned good, that's what my situation is," Alex said. "I feel like singing, that's what."

"Are you drunk?"

"No, sir, not drunk. Not on booze, anyway. Commander, we have a spacecraft."

There was a long pause. "The transponder says you're in the Mojave Desert. Phoenix?"

"Yes, sir. Phoenix. We can-—Gary Hudson says we can lift off in about five days. With cargo. About two tons of cargo. Seeds, computer chips, vegetables, minerals-—you name it, they seem to have found it for us."

"Hudson. Gary Hudson. He's still alive?"

"Yes, sir, alive and in charge. You know him?"

"I know about him."

Alex couldn't get any information from the tone of voice. "Sir, he wants to come up with us. But wait until you hear what all we can bring with us. Look, I know Hudson's a little old, and you don't want more crew, but—"

"That's funny," Hopkins said.

"Sir?"

"MacLeod, I'd far rather have Hudson than you; He's a ship designer. And that ship— Is Hudson there?'

"Yes, sir."

"Put him on."

Alex had set up the radio in Hudson's office. He motioned Hudson in and took off the headset. "He wants to talk to you. Commander, this is Gary Hudson. Gary, Commander Lonny Hopkins."

"Hello, Commander." Hudson put on the headset. "Yes. Yes, sir, it's the old Phoenix, and I believe she'll work, but it's going to be close. We'll get into an elliptical orbit, but there's not enough fuel to rendezvous. You'll have to come get us."

Alex listened for a moment, then felt useless. Maybe they wouldn't want him to listen? I'd far rather have Hudson than you. It made sense, but it still hurt. He went out into the main engineering bay. The others were grinning like crazy, but their faces fell when they saw Alex's expression.

"What did he say?" Gordon asked. "It is impossible after all?"

"Huh? No, as far as I know everything's fine. Last I heard they were talking details, but it didn't sound like anything was a showstopper."

"Then what is eating you?" Sherrine asked. "We're here! It's working!" Her expression didn't match her words. She looked almost as down as Alex did.

"It's-"

"Alex," Hudson called. "Your turn again."



"Yes, sir," Alex said. "Of course I can't tell without really inspecting the ship, but everything looks all right. Gary started the diesel compressor, and that works. We don't want to fire up the jet turbo expander until the hydrogen is flowing, but the unit's in place. I'd say it's just the way Hudson explained it, we make the fuel, steal an IMU, and go. About five days."

"All right," Hopkins said. "And meanwhile there's all that cargo." There was no video link but Alex could see Hopkins rubbing his hands together. "And the ship! The ship!-—OK. Now for passengers. I'm told it seats four. I don't have to tell you that we don't really need more drones up here. Hudson's fine. Hudson's wonderful. Gordon's people will be very pleased to get him back. That's two. But then there's a problem."

"Problem, sir? I'm all right, I won't have to do any EVA on this-"

"You might, but that's not the difficulty." Commander Hopkins paused for a moment. "Major MacLeod, I'll come get you. But bring your own woman."

"Sir."

"We understand each other, MacLeod. Shall I get Mary in on this loop? I can, and I will if I have to."

"MacLeod, I wouldn't risk the fuel for you. You know that, I know that, Mary knows that. But you're bringing up treasure beyond price, and you'll have a new job up here, coordinating with our friends on the ground, because, although you don't seem to have noticed it, I have: that ship can land and take off again. We can send it back down for more supplies."

Son of a bitch, Alex thought. Of course it can. We were so concerned with getting up there-" Yes. I see that."

"So someone will coordinate with the ground people. You seem to understand them, and there's nothing else for you to do between flights, so it's you. Only I don't want you hanging around Mary while you do it. She's pregnant, you know."

"No. I didn't know."

"It may be yours. It's not mine."

"Shut up. I've been sterile since the Lunar reactor flared. I was impotent for a while, too. Now I'm still sterile, but I'm not impotent. And you will stay away from Mary. I want to be sure of that. Bring your own woman, MacLeod."

"So I'm in."

"Yes. Smile?"

Sherrine considered that. "I'll come, of course. But you get to tell Bob."

"Sherrine, there's room for five, or six, or whoever we have to take. It's a trade, passenger for cargo-"

"Sure."

"We'll get him aboard. But without you, I don't go. And I'm on record, I could live with that. Would you live with me on the ground? Marry me?"

"I'll come."

"Why aren't we smiling?"

Sherrine lunged. Alex thought the impact would knock him backward, but she caught her mass and his, too. What muscles she had! And she felt so good. Why hadn't they been doing this ever since Flagstaff? And she buried her face in his throat and said, "It's, I wanted, damn. Four seats. Would you have asked me anyway?"

"When I got up the nerve."

"Time was getting damn short, Alex! How long would you have waited?"

"Oh . . . just about thirty seconds too long, judging by past performance. But it's all right, right? Lonny Hopkins as Cupid." He pulled back to see her face. "It's not okay."

"It's okay," Sherrine said. "I'm tougher than you think."
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