"The Ice Was Here, the Ice Was There, the Ice Was All Around . . ."
Bob noticed the lights of a General Mills gasohol station shining like a baby's smile just off the highway. A barely legible sign proclaimed the town of Brandon. He turned onto the exit ramp and drove into town. Twenty-four-hour gas stations were on the endangered species list. The van was down to a quarter tank and he didn't want to pass up the opportunity.
The snow on the state road was a foot deep and unplowed. The van with its oversized tires was an ice breaker on a frozen sea. The snow made eerie crackling sounds in the night as the van drove through it.
Brandon was deserted. Everything in town was dark, except the few streetlights. The moon reflecting off the crusted snow cast a dim, pearly light over the blank houses. There was not so much as a porch light on. Sherrine didn't suppose that Brandon had ever been very lively at four-thirty in the morning, but this felt different. Not just sleepy, but empty.
Bob pulled into the General Mills station and honked the horn, but no one responded. After a minute or so, Thor said the hell with it and climbed outside. His boots broke through the crust and he sank into the snow to his knees. He waded through the snow to the row of pumps. "Premium okay?" he asked. He unhooked the hose and flipped the switch. "Power's still on." When he squeezed the pump handle nothing happened.
"Mechanism's frozen," he called out. He unscrewed the gas cap and stuck the nozzle in. Then he stood there squeezing and releasing, squeezing and releasing until the gasohol began to flow into the tank. Mike gave a huzzah and he and Bruce slapped each other's hand.
"Sherrine," Bob said, "there's a two-gallon Jerry can back there somewhere. Pass it up, would you? We might as well get as much gas as we can."
She rummaged around under the greasy blanket and tool kit and came up with a sturdy, red plastic container. She passed it up and Bob rolled down the window and gave it to Thor.
Thor climbed back inside a few minutes later. He handed the gas can to Steve, who stowed it in the back.
"Shouldn't we pay for the alcohol?" she asked.
"Pay who?" said Thor, clapping his hands together. "This town is dead. Everyone's gone. The Ice chased 'em out."
"Yeah." He pulled his gloves off with his teeth and stuffed his hands under his armpits. "Ghu, but that pump handle was cold! I wonder how close the Edge is to town?"
Bruce turned around in his seat. "I think we should see if there are anymore gas cans inside the station. We should fill them up, too. We mightn't get another chance like this."
That was Bruce; a take-charge kind of guy, although she noticed that he didn't leap out into the snow himself. Thor gave him a disgusted look. Why think of it after he had gotten back into the van? Thor didn't volunteer, either; he had done his stint.
Steve shrugged and untwisted himself from his lotus position. Like Thor, he opened the sliding van door only wide enough to squeeze through. There was plenty of residual heat inside the van from the heater and from their bodies, and no need to waste it.
She watched him try the door to the station. It was open. Steve hesitated and glanced back at the van. Then he shrugged and disappeared inside. A few minutes later he emerged juggling five more gas cans, which he filled at the pump that Thor had unfrozen.
When everyone was back inside and the cans strapped in place, Bob started the engine and pulled back out onto the state road. Steve held his hands palm out over the car heater vent. "Thor was right," he said. "The town is abandoned. The gas station was stripped. All of the tools and most of the stock is gone." Steve bounced as he talked, rocking on the balls of his feet. "I found a couple of packing crates that had broken open. Empty; contents salvaged. When folks left here, they left in good order. No panic. No looting. I'll bet there's not a U-Haul or rental truck left in town."
"Good." Will Waxman crossed his arms over his chest and settled back against the quilted wall of the van. "That's the way it should be. A fighting retreat, not a rout. I'll bet the station owner left the lights and pumps running on purpose. For travelers like us."
Sherrine didn't say anything. She stared out the back window as the night swallowed the town. It was only Labor Day and already there was a foot of snow on the ground. By midwinter Brandon would be half-buried. By next winter it would be gone; and the shared memories that had given it life would be gone with it. No more bake sales. No more Harvest Queens or church socials. In a generation, its very name would be forgotten. As gone as if it had never been, more forgotten than Lake Woebegon . . .
"They took all their stuff with them," Steve continued. "But they didn't bother to lock things up or turn things off."
Bob shifted the van into high and pulled off the ramp onto the interstate. "They knew they'd never be back," he said.
The Edge was a faerieland sculpted by winds and summer meltings and the inexorable, constant pressure of the Great Ice behind it. For miles it ran along parallel to the highway, as abrupt and high as the Great Wall of China, glowing faintly with trapped moonlight. Then it would recede once more into the night. Sherrine saw great ice slides, where the vertical wall had buckled and collapsed to strew giant white boulders onto the desiccating prairie lands ahead. Landbergs, they were called. Those that were big enough would survive the summer and grow back into the glacier come winter, as if the Ice were a living organism casting its seeds abroad.
At Evansville, the Edge loomed close by the Interstate and she could see the caverns and crevasses that made up the wall of ice. A playground of the imagination. There were castles with battlements of crenels and merlons; cathedrals of buttresses and spires. Wormholes bored by fantastic creatures. Faerie pillars of gleaming crystal standing isolated like sentinels on the prairie, yards in front of the tidal wave of ice. In other places, the Edge was a gradual sloping ramp leading up to the frozen plateau above.
Steve and Will were entranced by the sight; and even Sherrine and the other hardened Northerners gazed in awe. It was one thing to live near the Ice, to see it in pictures and photographs. It was another thing to look upon it in all its cold and terrible beauty.
"I never thought it would be like this," said Steve. "I expected-—I don't know. A solid wall. A slab of ice a mile thick sliding south. The boulder fields I can understand; but why does it slope upwards like a ramp in places?"
"The Edge is only two, three hundred feet high," Mike told him. "But it gets thicker toward the northeast. It's easily a mile thick over Ontario. Ice melts under pressure. There's actually a thin film of pressurized water underneath the ice. Acts like a lubricant. The bottom layers of the ice are less rigid than the upper layers; so they crack and slide along sheer planes. The top layers usually raft on the bottom layers; but if there's rotten snow in between, the weight of the top layers can extrude the bottom layers like toothpaste." He grinned.
Sherrine listened to the byplay. Mike so loved playing the expert; but she supposed most of what he said was nearly enough true to rely on. Rotten snow. The Eskimos had dozens of different words for snow and ice to describe its many different phases and properties. We'llhave to learn them all by and by.
Just past the Fergus Falls exit, Bob grunted and hit the brakes. The van fishtailed and slewed across the road. There was a confusion of arms and legs and a great deal of shouting as Sherrine and everyone else tumbled around in the back. When the van had stopped, she untangled herself and gave Mike a dirty look. He spread his hands.
"Hey, I just grabbed something to keep from bouncing around."
She gave him another look to suggest he should be careful of what he grabbed in the future. "Bob, what happened?" she called.
"Take a look at this, you guys." Bob reached under the dash and flipped the switch for his outside flood lights. Sherrine crowded forward with the others and stared through the windshield. She sucked in her breath, and even Mike was uncharacteristically silent.
A great half-completed arch of ice was poised over the westbound lanes, like a tremendous wave frozen in the moment of breaking. "Shit," said Steve. It sounded like a prayer.
"Sometimes," said Mike, finding his voice at last, "the upper layers slide out over the bottom layers."
Bob kept the engine running, but he opened the cab and stepped outside. Sherrine followed. She pulled her parka hood closed as tightly as she could and stood in the glare of the van's floods. The others huddled around her. Beneath the hum of the engine the silence of the night was broken by muted sounds. The ice snapped; it creaked like an ancient door. A subsonic groan surrounded them, wrenched at their teeth. " 'The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around—' "
"Onk?" Mike asked.
Bob said, "The Ancient Mariner. Do you think the road to Fargo is still open?"
"Looks bad," Mike said.
"What do you think?" asked Bruce, scowling at this latest obstacle to his plans. "Can we make it through? How far does it go?"
Bob whirled on him. "How far? All the way to Regina! How the hell should I know? The people at AAA told me the road was open, but their last report was a week old."
A week old! Sherrine looked up at the star-studded night sky. The last weather satellite had reentered years ago. She remembered sneaking outside her parents' house in the middle of the night, bundled up against the chill (oh, to be that warm again!) and watching for the spark that marked its fall. The newsreaders played it up: the final remnant of discredited Big Technology was no more. The fact that all low orbits decayed from atmospheric friction and that all such satellites were temporary was somehow supposed to prove the folly of "spending money in outer space." Better to spend the money here on Earth relocating the people of Newfoundland, made homeless by "an unusually severe winter."
She remembered feeling as if the world had lost an eye. Time was, a celestial pickup truck could have climbed skyward on a pillar of fire and put the satellite back where it belonged. No longer.
Bruce scowled and pulled at his beard. "Do you want to take a chance driving under that, Bob? It looks strong enough."
Drive underneath several tons of unsupported ice? She thought only Crazy Eddie came up with notions like that.
And Bob was shaking his head. "Too chancy."
As if to punctuate his remarks, the ice moaned and the sound of far-off thunder rolled in their ears. A cloud of ice crystals as fine as mist billowed toward them out of the darkness. Somewhere farther down the road a part of the frozen wave had broken off.
She was starting to feel the cold. She gazed longingly at the van. The others stood around, shuffling their feet and looking at each other. She waited a moment longer. This has gone on long enough. "The eastbound lanes are clear," she pointed out.
Bruce looked shocked. "You want us to turn back?"
She rolled her eyes up. "For Ghu's sake, no!" It took them a moment longer to catch on, then Will began chuckling.
"For a gang of taboo-shattering imagineers," he said, "we sure do let the Accepted Customs of our tribe blinker us. Drive on the left side of the road? What a revolutionary notion!"
They drove more cautiously headed west in the eastbound lanes. Bob put the flood lights on blinker so oncoming traffic would notice. Not that he expected much oncoming traffic at six in the morning in rural Minnesota, not along the edge of the glacier, but it never hurt to be careful. A few miles farther on, Steve pointed silently out the side window at the westbound lanes and they saw where the ice had collapsed across the roadway, blocking it completely with landbergs. Bob and Bruce exchanged glances and Bob hunched his shoulders over the steering wheel. Sherrine's fingernails dug into her palms. Two Angels had been down on the Ice now for four and a half hours.
Past Elizabeth, the glacier had flowed entirely across the road, and the Army Corps of Engineers had blasted and dug a channel right through it.
Fargo Gap. Sherrine's heart beat slightly faster. A name of romance and bravery and determination. Fargo Gap;. Minneapolis's last link to the ice-free West. Arc lights staged around the worksite made the area almost as bright as daylight. Portable generators chugged and men and women with picks and airhammers fought the encroaching ice. They didn't look heroic; they only looked tired. But wasn't that how heroes always looked? She saw a cadre wearing Army Corps of Engineer uniforms, but most of the workers were civilians, with only a brassard on the left arm to show that they had been drafted into the corveé.
A state trooper stopped them well short of the work area. He walked toward the van and Bob rolled down the window and waited. The trooper wore sunglasses even though it was dark. For the glare of the arc lights, she supposed. Or for the macho look. He pulled a pad of traffic tickets from under his parka.
"Where do you think you re going," he said without preamble.
"Fargo, officer." Bob could be very sincere and submissive when he wanted to be. "Our friends here from California have never seen the Ice, so we drove them up here from Minneapolis."
Sherrine thought it was a pretty good story for having been made up on the spot; but the trooper just shook his head. "Ice tourists. Now I've heard everything." His face, what they could see of it, showed what he thought of Californians who drove to the Ice for kicks. "You're driving on the wrong side of the highway," he said. She wondered if he thought they didn't know that, and saw Mike bite his tongue to keep from making a smartass remark.
Bob explained about the ice wave that had broken over the westbound lanes and the trooper lowered his pad. "Ah, shit," he said without feeling. He turned and called over his shoulder. "Captain!"
A short, stocky man in an Engineer uniform broke away from a small knot of people and trotted over. His name tag read Scithers, and he was wearing a headset with a throat mike. The trooper had Bob repeat the story. The captain listened carefully and nodded. Then he keyed his mike and barked orders. Within minutes, a tank outfitted with a plow and carrying a work gang on its skirts had rumbled east. A conscripted civilian pickup truck followed, pulling a portable generator and work lights. Scithers watched them out of sight. Then he sighed. "We've kept the Gap open all summer," he said to no one in particular, "but this winter will kill the road for good."
The trooper didn't respond. He laid a hand on the door of the van. "You might as well turn around," he said. "We're going to be evacuating Fargo in the next couple weeks anyway."
Sherrine felt her stomach go into free fall. We can't turn around. We can't! The Angels were depending on them. But they couldn't tell the trooper that.
"Oh, let them through, trooper," said Scithers. "What the hell's the point of keeping the Gap clear if we don't let people through?"
The trooper shrugged. "Suit yourself. But stay on the right side of the road from here on. There's two-way traffic. And try not to freeze to death." Sherrine couldn't tell if his request was sincere or pro forma.
Mike, of course, couldn't leave well enough alone. "We heard that a spaceship crashed on the Ice earlier tonight. Do you know where that was?" She wanted to kick him, but he was out of reach. The trooper adjusted his sunglasses and Scithers, who had been turning away, stopped to listen.
"Where did you hear that?" the trooper asked.
Since Mike couldn't exactly mention a tightbeam downlink from Freedom, he was at a temporary loss for words. And while normally Sherrine might have enjoyed that, she didn't think a long, strained silence would be too smart. So she spoke up. "My grandparents live near Fargo," she said. "They saw a fireball go down on the Ice and called me and told me about it. As long as these guys were coming this way to sightsee, I thought I'd tag along and see if I could pick up some souvenirs."
The trooper rubbed a heavily gloved hand across his chin, and she wondered why he didn't wear a beard like most men did these days. Dress policy? "Yeah, we heard about it, too, at the barracks. Goddam Angels. A couple of planes from Ellsworth flew over a few hours back; though I don't know what they hoped to see at night. IR, maybe. Come daylight the glacier'll be crawling with helicopters and search parties. No rush. Those Angels will be froze dead by then."
"Froze," she repeated.
"And serves them right, too."
She noticed Mikes jaw twitch an instant before he spoke. "Why?"
Mike, she thought, don't let your mouth talk us into trouble. So far, they were just a van load of jerks out joyriding. If the trooper began to suspect that they were "Angel-loving technophiliacs," they would be in serious shit.
"Why?" The trooper waved his arm at the glacier. "Because they started this, asshole! They did it to us. Stealing our air until the Protective Blanket was too thin to keep us warm."
Captain Scithers nodded. "Damn right," he said. "All that air they took, hundreds of tons-—" His voice was serious.
Sherrine nodded her head as if she agreed. So did Steve and Will. Thor said nothing, but he twisted his finger in his right ear as if to unplug it. She prayed to Ghu that Mike would take the hint and keep quiet.
Bob decided not to trust in Ghu. He put the van in gear. "We better get going," he said over his shoulder, "if we're going to reach your grandparents' house in time for breakfast. Thanks for your help, officer." He gave a wave that was half-salute.
The trooper turned away, but Captain Scithers lingered. He leaned an elbow on the frame so Bob couldn't roll the window up. "Thought you might be interested," he said. "The Red River is pretty much frozen solid north of Perley. Bad news for Winnipeg, but I heard you could drive a truck across without falling through." He straightened and nodded to them. "Good luck," he said.
Bob rolled the window up and pulled through the break in the median into the westbound lanes. Mike frowned and looked out the rear window, where the engineer captain was deep in conversation with his lieutenants. "Why the hell should we care about Winnipeg and the Red River of the North?"
"The Corps has been fighting a losing battle trying to keep I-94 and I-29 open," Bruce responded. "He probably hasn't thought about anything else but ice conditions for the last five years."
Thor ran his fingers through his beard. "Must be one hell of a dinner conversationalist."
"I don't know," said Bob. "Some of the strange stories I've heard about conditions on the Ice, he must have some weird tales to tell."
And with that they entered Fargo Gap, the ice on both sides of the highway rearing straight and high as canyon walls and sparkling with the reflections of the work lights behind them.