Fallen angels larry Niven Jerry Pournelle Michael Flynn



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CHAPTER TWO

"One Moment in Childhood. . . "


The phone warbled and Sherrine Hartley pulled a pillow over her head, even though she knew it would do no good. She'd been allocated a phone precisely because they might want to call her in the middle of the night. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor cold of night shall keep the programmers from being rousted out of bed to untangle every little glitch in operations. Didn't anyone know how to run programs anymore?

The phone warbled.

It was warm in bed, buried beneath the down comforter. The thermostat was turned down to 55, as the law required, and the last thing she wanted was to get out into the chilly air. Her arm snaked out from beneath the comforter, groped for the phone set and pulled it under the covers with her. The plastic was cold, but she was bundled in flannel and felt it only in her hands.

"Dr. Hartley here." She winced. It was like holding an ice cube to her ear.

"Sherrine?"

Not the University, after all. That really ticked her off. The 'danes who signed her paycheck bought the right to wake her up, sometimes and for some things; but ex-boyfriends did not. "Bob," she said, "do you know what time it is?"

"Certainly. Two-forty-three. Plus or minus three sigma."

She sighed. Never ask a physicist a question like that. "What do you want, Bob? And why can't it wait until morning?"

"I need you, Sherrine. Now."

"What? Look, Bob, that's all over." And why couldn't some men ever believe that?

"I'll be there in five minutes."

"Bob!" But she was talking into a dead phone.

She thought about staying put under the comforter. It wouldn't help. Bob Needleton was persistent. He was quite capable of standing on her doorstep all night, banging on the door until she opened. Sometimes that sort of persistence was invaluable. In the lab, for instance. Other times it was just a pain in the ass.

Damn him. She was wearing heavy flannel socks, and she kept a pair of wooly slippers under the sheets with her. She played contortionist for a while finding them and putting them on. Then she slipped out of bed, leaving the covers carefully in place so the bed would stay warm. A heavy housecoat hung over the back of the chair next to the bed. She snuggled into it and shivered her way to the bathroom.

When she flipped the switch on the bulb glowed at about quarter-strength. Sometimes a brownout could be convenient. Real light would have blinded her just then. She brushed her teeth to get the nighttime fuzzies out. The water in the basin wasn't quite frozen, but it shocked her teeth when she rinsed. She spat out into the commode, because there was no sense in wasting the rest of the water in the sink.

"Conservation will see us through," the posters said. And when there's nothing left to conserve? She ran a comb through her hair. It needed brushing, but she was too cold.

"So what does Bob Needleton see in you," she asked her reflection, "that he's coming out in the dead of night?" The beanpole in the mirror did not answer. Big nose. Big mouth. Not quite pretty. She could explain why Jake left; but not why Bob wouldn't.

She opened the door on the first knock and stood out of the way. The wind was whipping the ground snow in swirling circles. Some of it blew in the door as Bob entered. She slammed the door behind him. The snow on the floor decided to wait a while before melting. "Okay. You're here," she snapped. "There's no fire and no place to sit. The bed's the only warm place and you know it. I didn't know you were this hard up. And, by the way, I don't have any company, thanks for asking." If Bob couldn't figure out from that speech that she was pissed, he'd never win the prize as Mr. Perception.

"I am that hard up," he said, moving closer. "Let's get it on."

"Say what?" Bob had never been one for subtle technique, but this was pushing it. She tried to step back but his hands gripped her arms. They were cold as ice, even through the housecoat. "Bob!" He pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair.

"It's not what you think," he whispered. "We don't have time for this, worse luck."

"Bob!"

"No, just bear with me. Let's go to your bedroom. I don't want you to freeze."

He led her to the back of the house and she slid under the covers without inviting him in. He lay on top, still wearing his thick leather coat. Whatever he had in mind, she realized, it wasn't sex. Not with her housecoat, the comforter and his greatcoat playing chaperone.

He kissed her hard and was whispering hoarsely in her ear before she had a chance to react. "Angels down. A scoopship. It crashed."

"Angels?" Was he crazy?

He kissed her neck. "Not so loud. I don't think the 'danes are listening, but why take chances? Angels. Spacemen. Peace and Freedom."

She'd been away too long. She'd never heard spacemen called Angels. And-— "Crashed?" She kept it to a whisper. "Where?"

"Just over the border in North Dakota. Near Mapleton."

"Great Ghu, Bob. That's on the Ice!"

He whispered, "Yeah. But they're not too far in."

"How do you know about it?"

He snuggled closer and kissed her on the neck again. Maybe sex made a great cover for his visit, but she didn't think he had to lay it on so thick. "We know."

"We?"

"The Worldcon's in Minneapolis-St. Paul this year-—"

The World Science Fiction Convention. "I got, the invitation, but I didn't dare go. If anyone saw me-—"

"-—And it was just getting started when the call came down from Freedom. Sherrine, they couldn't have picked a better time or place to crash their scoopship. That's why I came to you. Your grandparents live near the crash site."

She wondered if there was a good time for crashing scoopships. "So?"

"We're going to rescue them."

"We? Who's we?"

"The Con Committee, some of the fans-—"

"But why tell me, Bob? I'm fafiated. It's been years since I've dared associate with fen."

Too many years, she thought. She had discovered science fiction in childhood, at her neighborhood branch library. She still remembered that first book: Star Man's Son, by Andre Norton. Fors had been persecuted because he was different; but he nurtured a secret, a mutant power. Just the sort of hero to appeal to an ugly-duckling little girl who would not act like other little girls.

SF had opened a whole new world to her. A galaxy, a universe of new worlds. While the other little girls had played with Barbie dolls, Sherrine played with Lummox and Poddy and Arkady and Susan Calvin. While they went to the malls, she went to Trantor and the Witch World. While they wondered what Look was In, she wondered about resource depletion and nuclear war and genetic engineering. Escape literature, they called it. She missed it terribly.

"There is always one moment in childhood," Graham Greene had written in The Power and the Glory, "when the door opens and lets the future in." For some people, that door never closed. She thought that Peter Pan had had the right idea all along.

"Why tell you? Sherrine, we want you with us. Your grandparents live near the crash site. They've got all sorts of gear we can borrow for the rescue."

"Me?" A tiny trickle of electric current ran up her spine. But . . . Nah. "Bob, I don't dare. If my bosses thought I was associating with fen, I'd lose my job."

He grinned. "Yeah. Me, too." And she saw that he had never considered that she might not go.

'Tis a Proud and Lonely Thing to Be a Fan, they used to say, laughing. It had become a very lonely thing. The Establishment had always been hard on science fiction. The government-funded Arts Councils would pass out tax money to write obscure poetry for "little" magazines, but not to write speculative fiction. "Sci-fi isn't literature." That wasn't censorship.

Perversely, people went on buying science fiction without grants. Writers even got rich without government funding. They couldn't kill us that way!

Then the Luddites and the Greens had come to power. She had watched science fiction books slowly disappear from the library shelves, beginning with the children's departments. (That wasn't censorship either. Libraries couldn't buy every book, now could they? So they bought "realistic" children's books funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, books about death and divorce, and really important things like being overweight or fitting in with the right school crowd.)

Then came paper shortages, and paper allocations. The science fiction sections in the chain stores grew smaller. ("You can't expect us to stock books that aren't selling." And they can't sell if you don't stock them.)

Fantasy wasn't hurt so bad. Fantasy was about wizards and elves, and being kind to the Earth, and harmony with nature, all things the Greens loved. But science fiction was about science.

Science fiction wasn't exactly outlawed. There was still Freedom of Speech; still a Bill of Rights, even if it wasn't taught much in the schools-—even if most kids graduated unable to read well enough to understand it. But a person could get into a lot of unofficial trouble for reading SF or for associating with known fen. She could lose her job, say. Not through government persecution-—of course not-—but because of "reduction in work force" or "poor job performance" or "uncooperative attitude" or "politically incorrect" or a hundred other phrases. And if the neighbors shunned her, and tradesmen wouldn't deal with her, and stores wouldn't give her credit, who could blame them? Science fiction involved science; and science was a conspiracy to pollute the environment, "to bring back technology."

Damn right! she thought savagely. We do conspire to bring back technology. Some of us are crazy enough to think that there are alternatives to freezing in the dark. And some of us are even crazy enough to try to rescue marooned spacemen before they freeze, or disappear into protective custody.

Which could be dangerous. The government might declare you mentally ill, and help you.

She shuddered at that thought. She pushed and rolled Bob aside. She sat up and pulled the comforter up tight around herself. "Do you know what it was that attracted me to science fiction?"

He raised himself on one elbow, blinked at her change of subject, and looked quickly around the room, as if suspecting bugs. "No, what?"

"Not Fandom. I was reading the true quill long before I knew about Fandom and cons and such. No, it was the feeling of hope."

"Hope?"

"Even in the most depressing dystopia, there's still the notion that the future is something we build. It doesn't just happen. You can't predict the future, but you can invent it. Build it. That is a hopeful idea, even when the building collapses."

Bob was silent for a moment. Then he nodded. "Yeah. Nobody's building the future anymore, 'We live in an Age of Limited Choices.' " He quoted the government line without cracking a smile. "Hell, you don't take choices off a list. You make choices and add them to the list. Speaking of which have you made your choice?"

That electric tickle . . . "Are they even alive?"

"So far. I understand it was some kind of miracle that they landed at all. They're unconscious but not hurt bad. They're hooked up to some sort of magical medical widget and the Angels overhead are monitoring. But if we don't get them out soon, they'll freeze to death."

She bit her lip. "And you think we can reach them in time?"

Bob shrugged.

"You want me to risk my life on the Ice, defy the government and probably lose my job in a crazy, amateur effort to rescue two spacemen who might easily be dead by the time we reach them."

He scratched his beard. "Is that quixotic, or what?"

"Quixotic. Give me four minutes."

She found five more fen waiting outside by Bob's van. Three she knew from an earlier life. She smiled and waved and they nodded warily.

That griped her, but she could see their point of view. She had been out of Fandom for a long time and they weren't quite sure about her.

Bob's van had less than half a tank of alcohol, so they topped it with the fuel from her car. She rolled her eyes up watching them. Typical fanac, she thought. Six people trying to work a syphon at the same time. Finally Thor took over the whole thing and Sherrine retired gratefully to the van with the rest and shivered while she waited.

Thor was outside, but he wasn't shivering. Sherrine watched him through the window. He was built like the god whose name he used, and nothing about him had changed since she had known him except for the beard.

Even with the last drop of alkey sucked from the car's tank, the van had less than a full tank. Thor climbed into the van and slid the door closed. He still had the syphon. Sherrine poked her nose out of her coat.

"Keeping the syphon?"

His grin was lopsided and too wide. Siphoning alcohol . . . He held the rubber hose up like an Appalachian snake handler. "We can't make it to Mapleton and back on one tank. Might not be too smart to gas up at a public station. 'Specially after we collect Rafe and Cabe."

"Who?"

"The Angels."

"Oh. You know their names?"

"Those are code names." That was Mike Glider, grinning on her right. "Gotta have code names on a clandestine operation."

"Sure you do; there are standards to keep up."

She shook her head. Mike knew everything there was to know and had opinions on the rest. He'd been a county agricultural agent since quitting the IRS; but that was just cover for his true identity as Oral Historian of Fandom. He was "tall and round and three hundred pound," in his own words. If they froze on the Ice, he'd freeze last.

Bob started the van and Sherrine felt that electric thrill surging deep and strong. Real spacemen. Oh, God, to talk to them! Space stations. Moon base. Angels down; fans to the rescue!

She looked around at her companions. "Thor, you look like a Mormon patriarch."

"The beard's for warmth. I shave the mustache off so snot won't freeze in it. Ever wonder why Eskimos don't grow more hair? Evolution in action."

"Hunh. No." Fans were a wellspring of minutiae, a peculiar mix of the trivial and the practical. Try asking about Inuit tonsorial practices in a group of mundanes! She tried to banish snot-encrusted mustaches from her thoughts.

"Welcome back, Sherrine." Bruce Hyde was riding shotgun. He twisted around in his seat to look at her. "We heard you'd gafiated."

"Fafiated." She looked him straight in the eye, daring him to disagree. She hadn't gotten away from it all; she'd been forced away from it all. She resented Bruce's probing. "The jobs I wanted I couldn't get if I were a known fan. My thesis advisor kept dropping subtle hints about getting down to earth and being realistic. So Jake and I went mundane."

Bruce was overweight, but not in Mike's league; and his bulk was more muscle than fat. He was stronger than he looked. His black beard was wild and bushy, wildly unlike Thor's silken, Nordic god look. "How is Jake these days?" he asked.

She dropped her eyes. "I wouldn't know."

Bob put in his two cents. "Jake left her for a New Cookie five years ago."

Thanks, Bob. You could hand out flyers! "Jake really did gafiate," she explained. "I became a 'dane because I had to; but he really wanted to. He kept making digs about 'sci-fi' and 'Buck Rogers stuff.' Trying to yank my chain. So . . ." A shrug. "We drifted apart." And in the end they couldn't even talk about it. The teasing turned into arguments; the arguments into fights. Eventually she had to watch what she said around him because she couldn't be sure that he wouldn't denounce her for fannishness to the University. And wasn't that a hell of a basis for a marriage?

Besides, that was certainly a better explanation for why he left than the one she saw in the mirror every morning.

"That's okay," said Bruce. "We couldn't have used him anyway."

She pulled her parka hood tighter around her face. That was like Bruce, to evaluate everything, even her personal life, in terms of its utility to the current fanac. "You never did like Jake, did you?"

He shook his head. "That's not right. But he had his chance, and he went mundane."

"So did I."

Bruce wasn't embarrassed at all. "Like you said, it was different with him."

She let it drop and looked at the two strange faces. "Hi. I'm Sherrine Hartley."

"I know." The man sitting to her left was massively built and had a shaggy mane of white hair circling his face. He looked like an elderly lion, or an Old Testament patriarch. "Will Waxman, from L.A. Bob told us we were stopping to pick you up." He dropped his hand onto the shoulder of the man next to him. "And this is Steve Mews. He's a Mean Dude."

Steve was sitting lotus position on the floor of the van. He was five-nine, black, and about the most perfect physical specimen she had ever seen. A moment ago he d been perfectly still, completely relaxed; but his name turned him on like a switch.

He grinned up at her, a wide white grin in a dark face. "Will exaggerates, as usual. I haven't maimed anyone in years." He reached up a heavily mittened hand that engulfed hers. A strong grip, but not overpowering. She had the feeling that, had he wanted to, he could have crushed the bones in her hand.

The van walls were insulated with blankets and comforters. Sherrine settled back into one. She loved car heaters. They were like blowtorches for warming up. The alcohol they burned would have been burned anyway, to move the car. In ten minutes she was warm and could stop huddling.

"I've been fafiated for years," she said by way of conversation, "but I keep hearing about the conventions. Weird ways. Cryptic notes in electronic bulletin boards, things like that. I think you guys really love playing undercover."

Mike grinned. "The word do get around."

"How's Worldcon?"

"It's Minicon. That's a pun. Minne-sota; but also 'mini-' because there's only fifty-four in attendance."

"Forty-eight," she corrected him. "You guys are here."

Mike couldn't just be clever; he had to know that you knew he was clever. A grin and a raised forefinger: "Wrong! This is a special Con Committee meeting, so we are still officially in attendance. In fact, counting you, there are now fifty-five."

"Anyhow," said Thor, "the Cruzcon was smaller. Only twelve people showed up in 2008. We camped out in pup tents on the lawn of the old Heinlein estate. So, if any con deserves the title Minicon—"

"Oh, sure, if you want to be numerical about it. But 'mini—' wouldn't pun with 'Santa Cruz' . . ."

Sherrine laughed. They were heading for the Dakota Glacier with less than a full tank of alcohol to rescue two downed spacemen from the clutches of the government. All of them but Thor were putting their mundane jobs on the line. And . . . and they were arguing about what to name the convention! She had forgotten what it was like to be among fans. Her gut relaxed like a fist unclenching after many years.

"Who showed up?" she asked. "At the con. Anybody I knew?"

Thor cocked his head. "It's been a while since you've been around. Let's see. You know Chuck Umber. He's there; but he's not in on this. Too much risk he might let something slip into his fanzine. You know Tom Degler and Crazy Eddie. Wade Curtis is supposed to show. There are even rumors that Cordwainer Bird is in town."

"Real pros?"

"Yeah, I know. They try to keep a low Pro-file." He grinned and nudged Mike with his elbow. "Ever since Archcon in '06. Somebody on the Con Committee forgot to tell the Pro Guest of Honor that it was cancelled. You know Nat Reynolds, he showed up anyway and said the hell with it, let's have a party, and the police nabbed him. So the professionals have been staying clear of cons."

"Now, there," said Mike, "is the real Minicon. It was cancelled. You can't have less than zero attendance." Sherrine guessed he had forgotten which side of the argument he was on.

Thor shook his head. "I think there were twenty or so at the party in his hotel room-—"

"That was a con party, not the con itself-—"

"-—before the cops busted us."

"Minicon is still going," Bruce said, breaking in. "It has to be going. The last thing we need is for the cops to find a broken convention and wonder where we all went."

"Hmm, yes." It was starting to hit her. She'd never been underground before. Now . . . One hint and her job was done. A couple of slips and she'd be a wanted woman. "Thor, you've been hiding out for a while-—"

"Eight years." He sounded proud.

"What's it like?"

A shrug. "Not too bad, if you have friends. And if the 'danes aren't hunting you too hard. There are folks in the midwest, farm country, who are only too glad for a hand with the chores; room and board and no questions asked. You try not to spend too much time in one place, though."

"No," she said. "I suppose not."

Bob glanced over his shoulder. "Having second thoughts?" he asked, turning back to his driving.

"Sure. And third and fourth." She took her mittens off and rubbed her hands together. "So. What are the plans once we get there?"

They all looked at her. "Plans?" said Mike in a simulated Mexican accent. "We don' need no stinking plans."

Sherrine snorted. Fans.

They sailed west on I-94, headed for the Dakota Glacier. Bob drove carefully, trading speed for certainty. On clear sections of the highway, he floored it; where roadside clutter and shrubbery provided cover for police cars, he slowed to a respectable sixty. After a while, the chatter died down and everyone settled into their own thoughts. Sherrine tried to imagine what they would need for a short trip onto the Ice. Her grandparents kept a lot of equipment in their barn.

Thor carried an Irish tin whistle because, as he put it, you never knew when you might need one. After a few miles had passed and the talk had died down, he pulled it from his pocket and began playing. His fingers fluttered through a few traditional tunes: jigs and reels and such; then he started in on some serious filking. Sherrine joined in the singing. Thor played "The Friggin' Falcon," "Banned from Argo," and the classic "Carmen Miranda's Ghost Is Haunting Space Station Three."

Just past St. Joseph, Sherrine stopped singing and stared north through the van's side window. One by one the others dropped out, their voices dying in mid-chorus, until Mike was singing alone.

" 'I wrote Dying Inside and you snubbed it! Son of Man's out of print totally! You'll be sorry you didn't buy Nightwings! No more damn science fiction for me!"

Mike trailed off. Following their gaze, he twisted and looked over his shoulder. "Great Ghu!" he said.

"Yeah," Sherrine said quietly.

The northern horizon glowed a pale, phosphorescent white, as if an artist had drawn a chalk line across a blackboard.

Steve hopped to the other side of the van and peered through the window. "I didn't know it was this far south," he said.

Mike peered out. "The Ice Line runs northwest from Milwaukee to Regina. It doesn't come as close to the big cities because of the waste heat."

The California fans had never seen the Ice. They stared in respectful silence.

Sherrine spoke up. "You can't live in the Twin Cities without feeling the weight of the Great Ice somewhere over the horizon, flowing toward you like crystal lava."

"Three years ago," said Bob, "you couldn't see it from the highway."

"And last year," she added, "you could only see it in midwinter." The Ice ebbed and flowed with the seasons, like tides on a hard, white ocean. But some of the snow that fell each winter failed to melt the next summer. The weight in the center of the pack forced the edges to flow outward, and the Line moved a few more miles toward civilization. She began to shiver uncontrollably, even though she was wearing a thick down coat and the car heater was running full blast.

Thor noticed and smiled. He blew a few plaintive notes on his whistle; then declaimed:

"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire."

Everyone chuckled. "That's from 'Fire and Ice,' " Thor said. "By Robert Frost."

"Frost," said "Mike. "That's appropriate."

Will Waxman grunted. "Finish the stanza," he said.

Thor stopped smiling and looked out the side window at the shimmering horizon. After a while, he continued in a voice so soft she had to strain to hear him.

"But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice."

The farther west they drove, the closer the Ice came to the highway. What had begun as a distant white smear on the horizon crawled closer and closer. She knew that the movement was an illusion, that the Ice was not actually moving toward them. It was only that the highway and the Ice Line were converging. Still, it was creepy to watch that slow, implacable approach. Mike started singing "The White Cliffs of Dover," but no one joined in, and he soon fell silent.
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