High over the northern hemisphere the scoopship's hull began to sing. The cabin was a sounding box for vibrations far below the threshold of hearing. Alex MacLeod could feel his bones singing in sympathy.
Piranha was kissing high atmosphere.
Planet Earth was shrouded in pearl white. There was no break anywhere. There were mountain ranges of fluff, looming cliffs, vast plains that stretched to a far distant convex horizon, a cloud cover that looked firm enough to walk on. An illusion; a geography of vapors as insubstantial as the dreams of youth. If he were to set foot upon them . . . The clouds did not float in free fall, as was proper, but in an acceleration frame that could hurl the scoopship headlong into an enormous ball of rock and iron and smash it like any dream.
Falling, they called it.
Alex felt the melancholy stealing over him again. Nostalgia? For that germ-infested ball of mud? Not possible. He could barely remember Earth. Snapshots from childhood; a chaotic montage of memories. He had fallen down the cellar steps once in a childhood home he scarcely recalled. Tumbling, arms flailing, head thumping hard against the concrete floor. He hadn't been hurt; not really. He'd been too small to mass up enough kinetic energy. But he recalled the terror vividly. Now he was a lot bigger, and he would fall a lot farther.
His parents had once taken him atop the Sears Tower and another time to the edge of the Mesa Verde cliffs; and each time he had thought what an awful long way down it was. Then, they had taken him so far up that down ceased to mean anything at all.
Alex stared out of Piranha's windscreen at the cloud deck, trying to conjure that feeling of height; trying to feel that the clouds were down and he was up. But it had all been too many years ago, in another world. All he could see was distance. Living in the habitats did that to you. It stole height from your senses and left you only with distance.
He glanced covertly at Gordon Tanner in the copilot's seat. If you were born in the habitats, you never knew height at all. There were no memories to steal. Was Gordon luckier than he, or not?
The ship sang. He was beginning to hear it now.
And Alex MacLeod was back behind a stick, where God had meant him to be, flying a spaceship again. Melancholy was plain ingratitude! He had plotted and schemed his way into this assignment. He had pestered Mary and pestered Mary until she had relented and bumped his name to the top of the list just to be rid of him. He had won.
Of course, there was a cost. Victories are always bittersweet. Sweet because . . . He touched the stick and felt nothing. They were still in vacuum . . . thicker vacuum, that was heating up. If there wasn't enough air to give bite to the control surfaces, a pilot must call it vacuum.
How could you explain the sweetness to someone who had never conned a ship? You couldn't. He relaxed in the acceleration chair, feeling the tingling in his hands and feet. The itching anticipation. Oh, to be useful again, even if for a moment.
But bitter because . . . That part he did not want to think about. Just enjoy the moment; become one with it. If this was to be his last trip, he would enjoy it while he could. If everything went A-OK, he'd be back upstairs in a few hours, playing the hero for the minute or so that people would care. A real hero, not a retired hero. Then back in the day-care center wiping snotty noses. It would be years before another dip trip was needed. He'd never be on the list again.
Which meant that Alex MacLeod, pilot and engineer, wasn't needed any longer. So what do you do with a pilot when pilots aren't needed? What do the habitats do with a man who can't work outside, because one more episode of explosive decompression will bring on a fatal stroke?
Day care. Snotty noses. Work at learning to be a teacher, a job he didn't much like.
Look on the bright side, Alex, my boy. Maybe you won't make it back at all.
Sure, he could always go out the way Mish Lykonov had in Moon Rat, auguring in to Mare Tranquilitatis. They'd have a ceremony-—and they'd miss the ship more than him. Even Mary. Maybe especially Mary, since she'd got him the mission.
He straightened in his seat and touched the controls again. Maybe just a touch of resistance . . .
"Chto delayet? Alex!"
Something had prodded Gordon awake. Alex glanced to the right. "What is it?"
"I'm getting a reading on the air temperature gauge!"
"Right. There's enough air outside now to have a temperature."
Gordon nodded, still unbelieving.
Gordon had read the book. Come to that, Gordon read a lot of books, but books don't mean much. No one ever learned anything out of a book, anyway. This was why they always teamed a newbie with an old pro. Hands-on learning. The problem with on-the-job training for this job was that there was not a hell of a lot of room for trial and error. Alex moved the stick gently, and felt the ship respond. Not vacuum anymore! He banked and brought them up level, feeling the air rushing past just outside the skin. His eyes danced across the gauges. Here. There. Not reading them. Just a glance to see if something was wrong, or if something had changed since the last glance. Dynamic air temperature. Stagnation air temperature. The Mach number needle sprang to life, leaped from zero to absurdity, then hunted across the dial. A grin stretched itself across his face. No blues now. He hadn't forgotten at all; not a damned thing.
"What is funny?" Gordon demanded.
"Old war-horse heard the trumpet again. Now it's your turn. Take the stick." Fun was fun, but it was time for the kid to wrap his hands around the real thing. There was only so much you could do in a simulator. "There. Feel it?"
"Uh . . ." Gordon pulled back slightly on the copilot's stick. He looked uncertain.
He hadn't felt anything. "Take over," Alex growled. "You're flying the ship now. Can't you tell?"
"Well . . ." Another tentative move at the controls.
Piranha wobbled. "Hey! Yeah!"
"Good. Look, it's hard to describe, but the ship will tell you how she's doing if you really listen. I don't mean you should forget the gauges. Keep scanning them; they're your eyes and ears. But you've got to listen with your hands and feet and ass, too. Make the ship an extension of your entire body. Do you feel it? That rush? That's air moving past us at five miles per second. Newton's not flying us anymore. You are."
Gordon flashed a nervous grin, like he'd just discovered sex.
"What's our flight path?" Alex asked.
"Uh . . ." A quick glance at the map rollout. "Greenland upcoming."
"Good. Hate to be over Norway."
Why. Didn't the kid listen to the downside news broadcasts? Gordon, this is your planet! Don't you care? No, he probably didn't. It was his grandparents planet.
"There's war in Norway. If we flew over, somebody would cruise a missile at us sure as moonquakes, and we'd never even know which side did it."
The new tiling was wonderful. In the old days, the ship's skin would be glowing; but now . . . Four thousand degrees and no visible sign at all. Still, they'd be glowing like a madman's dream on an IR screen, new tiles or no, and that was all the Downers would need to vector in on.
"Which side?" Gordon mused. "What are the sides?"
Alex laughed. "That's one of the reasons we can't be sure. When it started, it was what was left of NATO defending the Baltics." Non-nuclear, but it just went on and on and on. Alex didn't really care who won any more than Gordon did. "After a while, the Scandinavians and the Russians took a nervous look over their shoulders at the glaciers, and East versus West became North versus South."
"Silly bastards. Nye kulturni."
"Da." It didn't surprise him anymore. All the younger Floaters spoke Russian as automatically as English. Russlish? Ever since Peace and Freedom had pooled their resources, everyone was supposed to learn each other's language; but Alex hadn't gotten past "Ya tebye lyublyu." Hello was "zdravstvuitye." Alex thought there was something masochistic about speaking a language that strung so many consonants together. "Be fair, Gordon. If you had ice growing a mile thick in your backyard, wouldn't you want to move south?"
Gordon mulled it. "Why south?"
He couldn't help the grin. "Never mind. Let me take her again. Hang on, while I kill some velocity. Watch what I do and follow me." He stroked the stick gently.
Here we go, baby. You'll love this. Drop the scoop face-on to the wind. Open wide. That's right. Spread your tail, just for a moment ... Alex realized that his lips were moving and clamped them shut. The younger ones didn't understand when he talked to the ship. Gordon was having enough trouble feeling the ship. "Okay," he said finally, "that's done. Take over, again."
Gordon did, more smoothly than before. Alex watched him from the corner of his eye while pretending to study the instruments. Piranha was a sweet little ship. Alex had flown her once, years before, and considered her the best of the three remaining scoopers. Maybe that was just Final Trip nostalgia. Maybe he would have felt the same about whichever ship he flew on his last dip; but he would shed a special tear for Piranha when they retired her. The scoopers were twenty-two years old already and, while there was not much wear and tear parked in a vacuum, screaming through the Earth's atmosphere like a white hot banshee did tend to age the gals a bit. Jaws was already retired. Here was Gordon at nineteen, just getting started; and the ships at twenty-two were ready to pack it in. Life was funny.
Alex ran a hand lightly across the instrument panel. Scoopships were pretty in an ugly sort of way: lifting bodies with gaping scoops that made them look like early jet airplanes. They could not land-—no landing gear-—but they didn't dip into the atmosphere deeply enough for that to matter. But they were the hottest ships around.
Piranha skimmed above the glare-white earth as hot as any meteor, but never too hot at any point. Humming, vibrating, functional.
Gordon was functional too. Alert, but not tense; holding her nose just right while flame-hot air piled through the scoop and bled into the holding tank. The velocity dropped below optimum on the dial and Gordon bled some of the air into the scramjet and added hydrogen until the velocity rose again. He did it casually, as if he did this sort of thing every day. Alex nodded to himself. The kid had it. He just needed it coaxed out of him.
"Alex?" Gordon said suddenly. "Why not Greenland?"
"Why isn't anyone in Greenland shooting missiles?"
Alex grinned. That was good. Gordon was flying a scoopship on a dip trip, sucking air at five miles per, and trying to make casual conversation. That's right, Gordo. You can't do this sort of thing all tensed up; you've got to be relaxed.
"Nobody there but Eskimos," he explained. "An Ice Age doesn't bother them any. Hell, they probably think they've all died and gone to Inuit Heaven."
"Eskimos I do not know. Gogol once wrote good story that speaks of Laplanders but I did not understand-—" The sky had turned from black to navy blue. Wouldn't want to get any lower. Gordon glanced out the windscreen and said, "Shouldn't we be seeing land by now?"
Alex shook his head, realized Gordon wasn't looking at him and answered. "No, the cloud-deck off the pole . . ." He stopped. The white below them wasn't the cloud shroud any more. They must have gone past the southern edge or hit a hole in it. White on white. Cloud or ice. If you didn't actually look you, might not notice. "Damn, damn. The ice is still growing."
Gordon didn't say anything. Alex watched him a moment longer then turned his attention to the gauges. Gordon was nineteen. There had always been an Ice Age, so it did not surprise him that the glaciers had crept farther south. Alex thought he remembered a different world-—green, not white-—before his parents brought him upstairs. He wasn't sure how much of it was genuine childhood memories and how much was movies or photographs in books. The habitats had a fair number of books on tape, brought up when they still got along with the Downers.
The green hills of earth, he thought. Now the glaciers-—not rivers of ice, but vast oceans of ice-—were spreading south at tens of miles a year. Hundreds of miles in some places. In the dictionary, "glacial" meant slow; but Ice Ages came on fast. Ten thousand years ago the glaciers had covered England and most of Europe in less than a century. They'd known that since the sixties . . . though no one had ever seen fit to revise his schoolbooks. But what did that matter? To a school kid a century was forever anyway.
As for Gordon . . . He glanced again at his copilot. Well, what the world is like in our lifetimes is what it should be like forever. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. It was funny to think of groundside environmentalists desperately struggling against Nature, trying to preserve forever the temporary conditions and mayfly species of a brief interglacial. Alex looked again through the cockpit windscreen and sighed.
"We could have stopped it," he said abruptly.
"Eh?" Gordon gave him a puzzled glance.
"The Ice Age. Big orbiting solar mirrors. More microwave power stations. Sunlight is free. We could have beamed down enough power to stop the ice. Look what one little SUNSAT has done for Winnipeg."
Gordon studied the frozen planet outside. He shook his head. "Ya nye ponimál," he admitted. "I faked the examiners, but I never did get it. The what-did-they-call-it, polar ice cap? It stayed put for thousands of years. Then, of a sudden it reaches out like vast white amoeba."
All of a sudden, Alex's earphones warbled. He touched a hand to his ear. "Piranha here."
"Alex!" It was Mary Hopkins's voice. She was sitting mission control for this dip. Alex wondered if he should be flattered . . . And if Lonny was there with her. "We've got a bogey rising," said Mary. "Looks like he's vectoring in on you."
So, they don't shoot missiles out of Greenland? Find another line of work, Alex—boy; you'll never make it as a soothsayer. "Roger, Big Momma." He spun to Gordon. "Taking over," he barked. "Close the scoop. Seal her up. Countermeasures!"
"Da!" He said something else, too rapid to follow.
"English, damn your eyes!"
"Oh. Yeah. Roger. Scoops closed."
Piranha felt better. Under control. "Close your faceplate." Alex pulled his own shut and sealed it.
"Alex, I have something." Gordon's voice sounded tinny over the radio, or maybe a wee bit stressed. "Aft and to the left and below," he said.
Seven o'clock low.
"Constant bearing and closing."
"Drop flares." That wouldn't do any good. Piranha was the hottest thing in the sky right now. But like the lady said, while spooning chicken soup to the dead man, it couldn't hurt. "How are they seeing us?"
He sure enough was. Alex grunted. At least Gordo had read that book. Alex squinted at his radar. There was the bogey, sure enough. Small. Constant bearing and closing. "Hang on." He peeled off to starboard and watched the heat gauge rise. Piranha didn't have wings for a near miss to tear off. Just small, fat fins and a big, broad, flat belly to be melted, evaporated or pierced. Alex bit his lip. Don't think about that. Concentrate on what you can do.
The sharp turn pushed him against the corner of his seat. Alex relaxed to the extra weight and prayed that his Earth-born bones would remember how to take it. Decades of falling had turned him soft. The acceleration felt like a ton of sand covering him. He felt the blood start in his sinuses. But he could take it. He could take it because he had to.
Gordon sat gripping the arms of the copilot's seat. His cheeks sagged. His head bowed. Gordon had been born in free fall and thrust was new to him. He looked frightened. It must feel like he'd taken sick.
The turn seemed to go on forever. Alex watched the bogey on the scope. Each sweep of the arm brought the blip closer to the center. Closer. He pulled harder against the stick. The next blip was left of center. Then it arced away. Alex knew that was an illusion. The missile had gone straight; Piranha had banked.
"You lost it!" Gordon shouted. He turned and looked at Alex with a grin that nearly split his face in two.
Alex smiled back. "Scared?"
"Yeah. Me, too. Anyone flying at Mach 26 while a heatseeking cruise missile tries to fly up his ass is entitled to be scared." He toggled the radio. It was Management Decision time. "Big Momma, we have lost the bogey. Do you have instructions?"
There was a pause; short, but significant. "We need that nitrogen," said Mary's voice.
Alex waited for her to finish, then realized that she had. We need that nitrogen. That was all she was going to say, leaving the ball in his octant.
Of course we need the nitrogen, he thought. Recycling wasn't perfect. Gas molecules outgassed right through the walls of the stations. Every now and then someone had to take the bucket to the well and get some more. The question was when. When someone with an itchy finger was sitting in a missile farm somewhere below?
He could pack it home and be the goat; his last trip a failure. Delta vee thrown away for no gain. Or he could fly heroically into the jaws of death and suck air. Either way, it was going to be his decision.
He sensed Lonny Hopkins's spidery hand behind things. If Mary was performing plausible deniability on his bones, it must be because her husband was floating right behind her at the comm console, one hand gentle on her shoulder, while she downlinked to the stud who had . . .
Jesus, but some people had long memories.
Well, Mary was a free citizen, wasn't she? If the wife of the station commander wants a little extracurricular, it's her choice. She had never pushed him away; not until that last night together. We're hanging on up here by our fingernails, she had said then. We've got to all pull together; stand behind the station commander.
Nobody could stand behind Lonny Hopkins because he never turned his back on anyone. With good reason. Maybe he's right. He is good at the goddam job, and maybe our position is so precarious that there's no room for democratic debate. That doesn't mean I have to like it.
And it's decision time.
"Understood, Big Momma. We'll get your air." Take that, Commander Lonny Hopkins. He clicked off and turned to Gordon. "Open the scoops, but bleed half of it to the scramjets."
"Alex . . ." Gordon frowned and bit his lip.
"They say they need the air."
"Yeah-da." Gordon's fingers flipped toggled switches back up.
Alex felt the drag as the big scoop doors opened again. The doors had just completed their cycle when Gordon bean shouting. "Ekho! Ekho priblizháyetsya!"
Something exploded aft of the cabin and Alex felt his suit pop out. His ears tried to pop, and Alex MacLeod whined deep in his throat.
He'd forgotten, but his nerves remembered. It wasn't falling he feared, it was air tearing through his throat, daggers in his ears, pressure trying to rip his chest apart. Five times his suit had leaked air while they worked to save Freedom Station. He wore the scars in ruptured veins and arteries, everywhere on his body, as if Lonny Hopkins had given him to a mad tattoo artist. There were more scars in his lungs and in his sinus cavities. A sixth exposure to vacuum would have his brains spewing through his nose. Alex couldn't come out to play; they had to keep him in the day-care center.
His fists clenched on the controls in a rigor mortis grip. He heard his own whine of terror, and Gordon's shout, and felt Piranha falling off hard to port. And his suit was holding, holding.
He fought the stick hard when he tried to steady her. Had he recovered too late? "Hold fast, baby," he said through clenched teeth. "Hold fast." Hold Fast was the ancient motto of the MacLeod. Alex wished fleetingly that he had the Fairy Flag that Clan MacLeod unfurled only in the gravest peril. Piranha vibrated and shuddered. Something snapped with the sound of piano wire. "Come on, baby. Steady down."
Incredibly, she did. "Good girl," he muttered, then tongued the uplink on his suit radio. "Big Momma, Big Momma. We've been hit." There was nothing for it now but use up all the air they'd scooped, and anything else, to light off the jets. Get back in orbit; out of the Well. When you're in orbit you're halfway to anywhere! Get in orbit and pickup would be easy. He toggled the switches.
The rocket wouldn't light. The rocket wouldn't light. Air speed was dropping steadily. The rocket wouldn't light. He suppressed the knot of panic that twisted itself in his gut. Time enough afterward, if there was an afterward. The scramjet alone was not enough to reach orbit again. It wouldn't be long before Piranha wouldbe moving too slowly to keep the jet lit. She would become a glider.
And not a terribly good glider.
Alex swallowed. It looked awfully cold down below. And the rocket wouldn't light.
"Mayday," he said. "Mayday. Piranha has a problem." A part of his mind was detached, admiring the cool way he reacted after that one moment of terror.
"This is Big Momma. What is your status?"
Well, I'm just fine, Mary; and how are you? "We're going in, Mary. Tell my family. It's all in my file directory. Access code word is dunvegan." He glanced over at Gordon, but the teenager just shook his head. His face was white through the plexiglass face shield. "And the Tanner family, too." Gordon didn't have any children yet. He was the child. Damned near unwanted child at that: a stilyagi, a JayDee on parole. Some parole! "Watch where we land and get the message out. Tightbeam."
The phones hissed for long seconds. "Sure, Alex. We have friends on Earth. Maybe not many, but . . . We'll tell them. They'll take care of you. Can you-—can you get her down?"
"I may not be good for anything else, but, by God, you paint stripes on a brick and I can fly her."
"Then that's two things you do well."
He felt warmth spreading outward from his belly. Was Lonny still there? Would he understand that message? Alex almost hoped he could. Mary said something else but he was too busy with the ship to hear her. Airspeed had dropped to near Mach 2, and he tilted her nose down to keep the scramjet lit and tried to turn south. Ice. Ice all around and the cloud deck closing in again. Piranha was shaped like the bastard daughter of an airplane and a cement mixer. The slower she flew, the more she acted like a cement mixer.
Not on the ice, baby. Not on the ice. Hang in there . . .
"Do you really fly that well?" Gordon asked tightly.
"I landed on Earth once before, Gordon. Who else do you know who can say that?" Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. That's me. Disguised as a washed-up day-care gopher, he is in reality Alex MacLeod, Hot Pilot. Lord, just let me get us down in one piece.
Fifteen miles up and the air was thick. Mach 3.5. The clouds below were puffy with turbulence. Piranha was diving into a storm. He wondered whether North Dakota was flat or mountainous.
Naybe an ice landing would be all right. Ice was smooth, wasn't it? Or was that only true in free fall? Piranha was hot from friction. She'd melt her own runway across the glacier.
Sure, but step outside afterward. Your eyeballs will freeze so cold they'll shatter when you blink . . .
The clouds closed in and he was flying by radar. Dropping. Dropping. Lose velocity in the turns. Mach 2.5 and falling.
Gordon couldn't lift his head against the acceleration. "At least we'll have life support," he said suddenly. "Life support for four billion people, my teacher told me. And it doesn't get really cold, right? Cold enough to freeze water, but not carbon dioxide."
Alex grunted. Cold enough to freeze water. Gordo, what is the human body made of? Another turn. "Right," he said. Gordon wasn't a distraction. He was just a voice. The last thing Alex wanted during his last moments was dead silence. There would be enough of that afterward.
Think positive, Alex boy. You'll live through the landing, so you can freeze to death on the ice.
Piranha shuddered as she dropped below Mach 1. The missile must have left some holes, creating turbulence in the airstream. Then the scramjet quit and she was diving at the ground. Ice crystals impacting on the skin created a rustling sound. When radar read a thousand feet up, Alex lifted the nose and waited.
Piranha didn't have wheels.
Friends on Earth, Mary had said. He wondered who she had meant. Earth's four billion hated the Peace and Freedom space stations with a passion. A dozen nations had declared war when the nitrogen dipping started; but they had no space capabilities, so it never meant anything but noise. Now Piranha was diving into their hands.
Two hundred feet up and slowing. He dropped the nose, trading altitude for speed, and pretended that the scoopship had wheels. Wind battered the ship. She yawed and Alex fought with the stick. Once the ship dipped suddenly and Alex fought a moment of pure panic. Don't lose it now! Don't lose it now! The ground looked smooth on the radar. Gordon's hands were on the dash, his elbows locked. It won't be too cold, Gordo. Not cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide.
It was the second best landing he had ever made. Second by a long, long margin. Piranha hit the ice and skipped like a schoolgirl hit and skipped again. There was probably a third or fourth skip, too; but Alex never knew.
* * *
Soren Haroldsson had watched the flame from his steading. He was wrapped in his fur parka, heavy boots, mittens like bowling balls, but still he shivered. His breath was frosty steam in the evening air. He always took a turn around the house before they battened down for the night checking the gate, the wolf-traps, making sure none of the animals had been accidentally left outside.
It came just at dusk, a fiery stream low across the sky still large and burning as it touched the ice and sent up clouds of steam. Not a shooting star. Not a sky stone like he'd heard of. It had come in too shallow, too controlled. A ship of some sort.
Ah, surely it was Angels.
He shook his swaddled fist at the sky. "Be damned, you air thieves! We've got you now. Heh!" His breath froze on his graying blond mustache and beard. Tomorrow he would saddle up Ozzie and ride into Casselton to notify the authorities. They were probably hunting the Angels already; but only a fool went riding at night, and Ozzie, at least, was no fool.
Inside, bundled in the warmth of family and livestock, he told Lisbet what he had seen and guessed. Haughty, technomaniac Angels down on the Great Ice. Poetic justice, he said. Poetic, she replied and, smiling, quoted from memory:
"In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies; All quit their sphere and rush into the skies! Aspiring to be Gods if Angels fell, Aspiring to be Angels men rebel."