He woke up hard, tried to move, and thought better of it. Memories flowed back slowly.
Consciousness was a mixed blessing, thought Alex MacLeod. It meant that he was alive; but it also meant that he hurt. His left arm throbbed with a dull ache. To draw breath took immense, frightening effort, and his rib cage burned every time he succeeded.
Groggily, he took inventory. He figured that if a bodily part hurt, he still had it. By that criterion he had at least come down in one piece.
He tried to lift his head to see how Gordon was doing.
He couldn't move. Paralyzed? A moment of panic washed over him as he imagined himself lying here slowly freezing to death, unable to do anything but wait. But, of course, it was only gravity. When he realized that, he laughed out loud, which was a mistake, because his ribs hurt worse than ever.
What difference did it make why he was unable to move? Helpless was helpless.
He tried the suit radio. "Gordon?"
Static for answer. Gordon must be dead or unconscious. In either case, there was nothing he could do for him. Come to that, there wasn't much he could do for himself. He tongued the uplink on his radio.
"Big Momma? Piranha here."
Hiss and crackle. Maybe the radio was broken. He tried again. "Big Momma, do you read me?"
Mary's voice came through the noise. "Alex? Is that you?"
Who did she think it was? . . . Churlish. "Big Momma, this is MacLeod, I am conscious. I do not appear to be seriously injured except that I cannot move. This must be due to gravity. Tanner does not respond, I say again, Gordon does not respond. Can you give me a reading on Gordon?"
"Roger your situation report, MacLeod. Alex, I'm glad to hear your voice. Stand by one for report on Tanner."
Alex waited while she scanned the medical monitors. Medi-probes were a pain in the ass-—literally-—but they had their uses. He wondered if Mary had been standing by in Mission Control the whole time he was unconscious, and whether it had been from duty or something else. That's right, Alex. Build yourself a few fantasies. You've got nothing else to do.
"Tanner is all right I say again, no serious injuries," she said. "He's all right, Alex. Unconscious, but his vital signs look good. I can't tell you about broken bones or such. Your readouts are okay, too. That was one hell of a landing, Alex. The book says you can't land a scoopship."
"The book's not far wrong. Where are we, Mary?"
"On what our contacts call the Ice. Not the Great Ice, but the vanguard glaciers. You're only a few hundred meters from the Edge. If the ship hadn't stopped, you'd have gone over a ninety meter ice cliff. Do you want your latitude and longitude?"
"Sure, but I don't see how that will help."
"Sorry. We're feeding the Navstar data to your rescue party, so-—Oh, I forgot, you don't know."
"Rescue party?" He started to sit up, but gravity and his ribs kept him flat. He stifled a groan. "You mean you're coming to get us?"
"No," said Mary. "You know better than that." He heard the chill embarrassment in her voice. Some things weren't talked about. There was an etiquette to being marooned.
So much for fantasy, Alex thought. They say Love Conquers All; but it doesn't conquer the fuel-to-thrust ratio or the law of diminishing returns. Peace and Freedom were barely hanging on. There was nothing that could be spared; least of all the rocket fuel needed to land and take off again, even if there had been a ship capable of doing it. "I understand." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. It wasn't her fault he was here.
It was not that they wouldn't come that bothered him. They wouldn't come to get him if he were Lonny Hopkins himself. But Station Chief Hopkins would never have been on a dip trip in the first place. You don't send indispensable personnel on potentially one-way missions. Dippers were folks the station could afford to lose. Good at what they did, but not particularly useful at anything else. Janitors, gophers, day-care fathers, stilyagi like Gordon. A brotherhood of mediocrity, he thought. The habitats would still function without him. Even the variety of the gene pool, small as it was, was unthreatened. Gordon and he had already made their deposits at the sperm bank.
"Then who is coming to get us?" he asked.
"I told you we have friends on Earth. There's a team heading for you right now. They have an illegal Navstar link, so they know your precise bearing. The government search parties are still wandering around on the Ice thirty kilometers to the northwest. They don't have you located, yet. From what we can overhear of their radio traffic, they got a bum steer from a local peasant who couldn't estimate distances properly. But it won't be long before they expand their search pattern. With any kind of luck, we'll get you out of there before they read your position."
Alex grunted. Not with any kind of luck, he thought. It had to be good luck, currently in short supply. "How long before this rescue party arrives?"
"Make it half an hour. They got a late start onto the Ice. It took them a while to find enough bedsheets. Watch for them to the south of you. The team leader is code-named Robert."
Code name? Alex snorted. "Roger. I'll let you know when they arrive."
He saw no point in asking which way was south. He couldn't move, and all he could see through the windshield was a white wall of ice. They would get here when they got here. Staring southward would not make them come faster.
He closed his eyes. Maybe if he slept, he could forget how much he hurt. And how cold the cabin was growing. The space suit's heater ran on batteries. A half hour wouldn't exhaust them; but he wasn't sure how long he would need them. He decided to keep the heater on low. Just warm enough to remind him how chilly it was.
Lying there, he had the oddest sensation that Piranha was accelerating, hard; but that her engines were located under the deck rather than aft. It was gravity, of course. Gravity was acceleration and his body interpreted it as movement because one kind of acceleration felt like any other.
He reminded himself that Downers would say "up," not "forward." Crazy planet. Still, he remembered what gravity had been like. He would get used to it again. It would just take a little time.
His eyes jerked open. Bedsheets?
The second time, he was wakened by the muted sound of motors outside the hull. Alex listened carefully, holding his breath. Yes, definitely motors. He tongued the radio. "Big Momma?"
"I'm here, Alex." Her voice came faintly through the spitting and crackle. There was definitely something wrong with the radio. He prayed that the comm would not fail.
"I hear noises outside. Friendlies or government?"
"It's the rescue party. I think they just spotted you. Look, Alex, one thing.
"Your rescuers. They may seem, well, a little strange at first. Just bear with them. They're good folks. Considering how things stand on Earth these days, they're risking a lot to help you."
And beggars can't be choosers. He hadn't known the space dwellers had, any friends on Earth; let alone strange ones. "Roger. Out."
He waited and listened uneasily to the sounds of feet moving around atop the scoopship. Strange. What had Mary meant by that? Sure, Downers were a different breed. Yet, how strange could they possibly be? People were people, right?
A face appeared upside down in the windshield and stared at him. Alex blinked. Someone atop the scoopship had leaned over the cockpit and looked in. A hand appeared by the face. It waved.
Alex raised his right hand as much as he could and wiggled his fingers. Greetings, Earthling. Take one to your leader.
The face turned away and he heard a faint voice shouting, "Told you so. They're half-buried in the ice!" It turned back and waved again. It was an effort to return the gesture, and after a moment Alex lay back and waited for them to open the hatch. There was more banging and stomping over his head. Strange, Mary had said. So far they didn't seem strange. No stranger than anyone who could move about freely in this horrible gravity.
Scoopship cabins were built for two people and Alex marvelled that so many more had managed to crowd inside. It seemed as if they all wanted to talk at once. They asked questions about the ship, about the habitats and Luna City, about space travel. About everything. Finally, an older man with bushy white hair and beard hollered and drove them out.
"Let me apologize for my friends," he said as he crouched by Alex's side. "They're a little excited at the idea of meeting you."
"Me?" Alex was surprised. "Why should that excite anyone?"
The other man raised his shaggy eyebrows. "Not many spacemen stop here these days."
"Spaceman. I was born on Earth. Kansas."
The white-haired man grunted. "I don't think you're in Kansas anymore, Toto. He set a black bag on the deck and opened it. Alex twisted his head to look inside.
"Are you a doctor?"
"No, I'm a plumber. Lie still. Of course, I'm a doctor. Will Waxman, M.D. We're not irresponsible, you know. We knew you might be hurt; so I came along."
"It was the house call that probably fooled you," he said, unfastening the space suit.
Alex watched him reach inside the bag and pull out a stethoscope. The black bag didn't float away like Newton said it should. It stayed put. Gravity field. He would have to remember that. Things wouldn't behave naturally groundside. His reflexes would be all wrong. He wondered how Earthlings could teach physics properly, hampered by gravity that way; then he remembered that they probably didn't bother anymore.
"Breathe slow and deep."
He did, and gritted his teeth at sudden pain. Waxman listened to whatever it was that doctors listened to when they did that. Alex had heard all the jokes about the cold feel of stethoscopes. This one had been carried across a glacier.
"Hurts when you breathe?"
"Yes." He tried to sound blasé.
"Couple cracked ribs." Waxman put the stethoscope away. "Don't worry, though. Lungs aren't punctured. Well tape you up, and in a few weeks you ought to be good as new."
Alex grunted. Good news from all over. What the hell; he was due for some good news. "Doc, how's Gordon? Have you looked at him yet?" The stilyagi was his responsibility. He was the captain; and if it hadn't been for his stupid pride, Gordon would be sitting warm and snug and conscious back in Freedom.
"Gordon? Ah, your copilot. I checked him first. Concussion. No broken bones, no bleeding, no shock. Your people upstairs say there's nothing wrong internally, but we'll be careful until we can get you to a clinic. How does the arm feel?"
"What? Oh, a little numb. Is it broken?"
Waxman ran his hands down the left arm, squeezing gently. When he reached the wrist, Alex sucked his breath in. Waxman nodded. "Sprain, I'd say. We'll tape that, up, too. Sherrine, could you help me here with his ribs?"
A woman came around from behind the pilot's seat. Her parka was unzipped and its hood was thrown back, revealing the loveliest woman Alex had ever seen. Tall and thin, even under layers of sweaters, with prominent, fragile bones. "Hi. Sherrine Hartley," she said in a low, throaty voice.
"Alex MacLeod." He managed to reach up to take her hand despite the gravity. It was a hell of an effort, but worth it; but he couldn't hold it up long. She patted his hand with a firm but gentle touch.
"Welcome to Earth."
"Meeting you makes it almost worth the trip."
She blushed, as if unused to hearing such compliments. How could that be, Alex wondered? A woman as tall and gangly as Sherrine must hear them every day. He studied her as she helped the Doc tape him up. She leaned close into his face as she ran the tape behind his back. How did men and women do it in a gravity field, he wondered? They probably did not need to use Velcro. Gravity would keep everything aligned.
When they lifted him out of the scoopship Alex saw what had happened. Piranha had come in hot, melting an ever deeper trough across the Ice as she slowed to a halt. In the end, she had sunk into the glacier like a hot iron and rested now half-buried in a cave of snow and ice. The giant they called Thor was using a snow blower to put a light covering of ice on top of the scoopship.
Nearby were two sledges rigged to snowmobiles. That accounted for the motors he had heard earlier. Both sledges and snowmobiles were festooned with miscellaneous items of equipment and jerry cans exuding a chemical smell.
Sherrine was suited up now, hiding her figure. "That was a piece of luck, wasn't it?" she said, pointing to the half-buried ship. "Thor figured you'd be melted into the Ice; that's why we brought Pop—pop's snow blower. The 'danes will never spot your ship unless they're right on top of it. Even the landing path blends into the glare of the Ice if you're not looking for it."
"Danes?" Alex was startled. "We were nowhere near Greenland!"
"No, not Danes. Apostrophe—danes, as in 'mundanes.' People with no imagination. People who couldn't imagine space travel even after it had happened. The 'danes have inherited the Earth."
He sensed bitterness in her voice and gave her an appraising look while her friends strapped him into a sledge. He was already wearing her grandfather's parka. Now they wrapped him in blankets and covered him over with a white bedsheet. A pair of wrap-around sunglasses cut the intensely white glare.
"What now?" Thor said. "Those suits. You going to wear them?"
"No way," Bruce said. "One look at those and the dumbest cop would know where we got them."
"They're not easy to get out of," Alex said.
"They are if we cut you out." Thor had a huge knife in his hand.
Alex felt a moment of panic. His suit was not replaceable. Nor was Gordon's. When the suits were gone they weren't space pilots any more.
And so what? You can't go to space without a spaceship. We're not going back, not now, not ever, so we don't need pressure suits.
"All right. Be careful with Gordon-—"
"We will," Doc said. "You worry about the gear. What are we taking, what do we leave?"
"Antenna," Alex said. He pointed to something that looked like a megaphone. "Directional. Not too well focussed, but good enough. Otherwise they'll hear us. When you cut Gordon out of his suit, be sure to get the radio system out of his helmet. And leave it turned off. Should I explain? The suit-to-suit radios broadcast all around; anyone listening will hear and can lock in to trace us. The suit-to-ship radio can be hooked up through the directional antenna so you'd have to be more or less in front of it to catch the signal-—"
"Gotcha," Mike said. "Well get the stuff. You relax."
Relax while a giant named Thor cuts me out of my suit. Sure.
They wrapped them in blankets. Sherrine and Thor had to carry him to the sled. He couldn't walk, and could barely stand. Gordon was still out. They carried him over as well. Sherrine settled him onto the sled and put on more blankets, then a white sheet. "Should I?" she asked.
"Should you what?"
"Like the way the 'danes run things."
Alex tried to shrug under the blankets. "It's not my world; but they did try to shoot me down."
Mike Glider-—he called himself "Mycroft"-—loomed over him. "They did more than try, Gabe—boy," he said. "They did it."
"That they did." If I'd turned back, after the first missile-— But damn all, we needed the nitrogen. "My name's Alex, not 'Gabe.' " Talking wasn't easy. The air was cold, horribly cold.
The fat man spread his arms out. "Code names. You're Gabriel; the kid is Raphael. Two angels. Get it?" He took his place on the sledge runners.
Alex wondered how any human being could become as fat as Mike. Perhaps it was an adaptation to the ice age. Heat loss was proportional to surface area; and the sphere had the lowest surface area to volume ratio of any solid.
"Saint Michael was an angel, too," he pointed out.
Mike brightened. "Hey, that's right. Do you think I could go up with you guys when they come to get you?"
Alex didn't say anything. MacLeod's First Rule of Wilderness Survival: Don't piss off your rescuers. But Lonny would never take someone like Mike aboard. Whatever Mike's intellect and training, he was just too damn big. It would take too many resources to fuel that much mass.
They're not corning down for us anyway. We are here for keeps, and Mike is a hell of a lot better adapted to local conditions than I am. "Where to now?" he asked.
"Back to my grandparents' place," Sherrine answered. "So we can return the equipment they loaned us. Bob's waiting for us there with the van." She shook out a bedsheet and hauled it over her head. A slit cut in the middle let her wear it like a poncho. Alex saw that the others were doing the same. But the sheets were too thin to give much warmth, so why-—
"To hide yourselves," he said. "Right?"
She paused and grinned at him. "It was my idea," she said. "Camouflage. Not even Bruce thought of it. This way, if a search plane flies over, we'll be hard to spot. Gran said it would be worth the work sewing the sheets back up if it meant getting you two safely off the Ice."
"Your grandparents sound like good folks."
"They are. Gran was a plant geneticist before they outlawed it. Pop—pop was a farmer. They still do a little bootleg bioengineering in their basement. Developed a cold-resistant strain of wheat that let them bring in a crop for three years after their neighbors went under. They had to stop last year, though. Gran seeded a rust virus that killed off their crop."
"What? Why? If they'd continued-—Sherrine, it's going to get a lot colder before it ever gets warmer."
She looked away; beat her mittens together. "Hungrier, too." Her voice was hard and angry. "But their neighbors-—their good, kindly, salt-of-the-earth neighbors were starting to talk about witchcraft. They couldn't imagine any other reason why my grandparents' wheat thrived while theirs died. Peasants always believe in witchcraft." She seated herself on the snowmobile attached to his sledge. Her back was turned and he could not see her face.
Bruce Hyde, code-named "Robert," planted himself behind the other sledge. "Everybody ready?" he asked. Doc Waxman took the second snowmobile. Thor and Steve Mews, the black man, were on cross-country skis. They adjusted their sunglasses and waved. Bruce checked his Navstar transponder and circled his arm above his head. "Warp factor five, Mr. Sulu!"
The snowmobiles started with a roar. Searchers might find us hard to see, Alex thought, but we sure as hell would be easy to hear.
And, dammit, they would stick out for sure on an IR screen. Eight warm-bodied needles in a very cold haystack. And the two snowmobile engines would glow like spotlights.
Alex tried to scan the skies for search planes, but found himself oddly disoriented. The sky was white and the ground was white, and it was hard to tell which was which. "White-out," Mike had called it. "Sky" was "forward," the direction along the acceleration vector. Yet, the visual cues-—the ice sliding past the sledge-—were at right angles to his sense of acceleration. He began to feel dizzy. He closed his eyes. Give it time, he thought. Let the reflexes catch up to his intellectual awareness. The old-time astronauts had always readjusted quickly to gravity.
Except they hadn't been in free fall as many years as he had. The stations had drugs to compensate for calcium losses, and two tethered ships that spun to make a quarter gee, but it wasn't the real thing. Besides, everyone hated it.
Alex looked at his watch. "Aim this thing south." He indicated the antenna. "South and up. It's not too directional, just get it aimed in the right general direction. We have a relay in geosynch."
Sherrine nodded. None of them wanted to talk. It was too cold.
He tongued his uplink. "Big Momma, this is Piranha." More hiss and crackle. "Big Momma, this is Piranha." Sherrine looked the question at him. He shook his head. "Big Momma, this is Piranha."
"Piranha, da. Eto Mir. We relay you. Please to be standink by."
He waited. Freedom would be below the horizon. Fortunately, there was always something in the sky. The RCA communications satellites, capable of relaying half the long-distance calls of the world, only the world didn't want them anymore. Now this splendid system, capable of thousands of simultaneous calls, served the space stations and the few people on Earth who wanted to talk to them.
"Alex, this is Mary. What is it?" Alex thought she sounded tired, and who could blame her? She had been standing by in Mission Control ever since the launch. She must have been catnapping right at the console. Quickly and concisely, he told her of their IR visibility.
"I don't know what we can do about that, Alex, except to keep you posted on troop movements so you can avoid them. Their search planes have been quartering steadily southeast toward your position."
"Give them decoys."
"Give them bogeys. I've got it scoped out. Have SUNSAT beam down a few hotspots here and there around the glacier. If they're, looking for IR targets, let's give 'em their heart's desire."
Mary fell silent and Alex could sense her working through the calculations. Power was the one thing besides people that the habitats could spare. Space was full of power, supplied by a friendly, all-natural nuclear fusion generator. All you had to do was catch it . . .
SUNSAT did that. The U.S. government had nearly completed a demonstration power satellite before the Congress changed their minds and proxmired it. They'd needed the money for dairy farm subsidies or corporate bailouts or something else real useful. The entire space budget, start to finish, was less than what HEW had spent in a decade, less than the cost overruns at the Defense Department; but space was "frills," so they always cut there first. The station had floated in orbit, nickels and dimes away from being operational, until the crunch came and the habitats decided to cut loose from Earth.
Peace and Freedom had pooled their resources and finished SUNSAT, so light, heat and power were the few things that Mary never worried about. The space habitats might starve, or asphyxiate, or die in a solar flare; but they would have power.
"Roger, Piranha," Mary said finally. "I will check with Winnipeg Rectenna Farm on power demand and see how much we can divert."
Alex could tell when Lonny entered the comm room from the way Mary talked. When she was alone, he was Alex. When Lonny was there, he was Piranha. Piranha non grata.
"Winnipeg Rectenna is down, I say again, Winnipeg Rectenna will not be operational for three days." Knocked out by an eco-terrorist bomb thirty hours before Alex took the scoopship down. He'd read about it and wondered if that was significant to his mission. It wouldn't be operational yet. The bomb had done in some of the electronics.
Winnipeg was the only human habitation still functioning that far north, except along the ice-free Alaska Corridor. It had held out so long because of the powersat ground station, built by the Canadian end of the original staging corporation. They had heat and power in plenty, but they couldn't hold the Ice at bay forever; there were too many tons encircling them. And when Winnipe finally went under, would the U.S. take in the survivors. It was well known in orbit that the Last of the Canadians were also the last friends of the habitats, which did not make them popular in the U.S.A.
"Understood, Piranha. I willlet you know."
Alex cut contact. So far, Lonny Hopkins, Grand El Jefe and Lord High Naff-naff of Freedom Station had not deigned to speak to him directly, which was fine by Alex. Lonny had a grudge against him and, in all fairness, if Mary had been his wife he might have felt the same way. But Lonny had no quarrel with Gordon, nor with Gordon's family, who had powerful connections on Peace; nor with the Earthlings who were helping out. So, while Lonny might not go out of his way to help, he would not stand in the way, either. Alex sighed. It wasn't so much that you could depend on him to do the right thing; but Lonny was very careful not to do the wrong thing.
Good old Lon. No wonder he loved him so much.
The first search planes broke the southwestern horizon to the right a half hour later. Tiny black specks in the white sky drifted slowly back and forth as they circled. Sherrine throttled back on the snowmobile and watched them.
They look like vultures," she said.
Alex wasn't sure what a vulture was, but it sounded unpleasant. "Are they coming this way?" He asked in a whisper, not because he thought the search planes could overhear, but because the cold air had made his throat hoarse.
"No," said Mike, the sledge driver. "But that's the good news."
"What's the bad news?" Alex asked.
"The search planes are moving west," said Sherrine. "Whether they know it or not, they've cut us off from Pop—pop's farm. Damn! Another half hour and we'd have been home."
"Can we go around them somehow? Or head somewhere else?"
She shook her head. "Bob and the van are waiting at the farm. If we go somewhere else, how will he know where to find us?"
Oh, that part is easy," Alex said. "Pick some coordinates-—does Bob have a Navstar link too? No? Then pick a place that he'll know how to find. I'll tell Big Momma; and Big Momma can tightbeam the contact person-—"
"The Oregon Ghost."
Whatever that meant. "And then this ghost can call Bob at your grandparents' place."
Alex grinned. "Sure. Maybe not straightforward, but easy. There's a difference."
"All right. I'll tell the others." She pointed to the other sledge. "Your friend's awake."
Gordon was watching Alex from within his cocoon of blankets on the other edge. Alex tried to grin, but his face was nearly frozen.
"We live," Gordon said.
"Da. How're you feeling?"
"Not good," Gordon said. "These are droogs?"
"Da. Good friends." And they can hear anything I say, so I can't tell him Mission Control says they may be a trifle weird.
"It was-—almost good landing," Gordon said. "I read once that any landing you walk away from is good. But we do not walk."
"Not just yet."
"It is cold. I see why you laugh when I think that because it only freezes water it is not cold. It is very cold." With an effort Gordon pulled a scarf over his face.
"I didn't mean to laugh-—" No response. Alex drew his own scarf over his mouth so that only his eyes, protected by sunglasses, were exposed, and turned his head away from the wind. Can't blame him if he's a bit surly. All my goddam fault we're here. But we needed the goddam nitrogen.
So what about the nitrogen that was already in the tanks? Eh, Lonny?
"Is difficult to move," Gordon said. Alex could barely hear him. "How do people live in this? I try to sleep now."
He didn't, though. Alex could see that. Gordon wrapped himself up, but he watched everything.
The conference ended and Mike and Sherrine returned to the sledge.
"Problem?" he asked.
"We have a place. I don't like it," Sherrine said. "But it's the only possible one."
Steve Mews and Thor set their goggles, dug their poles into the ice, and whisked forth. Their job was to scout ahead for crevasses and other obstacles. "So where to?" Alex asked Sherrine when she resumed her seat.
"How far is that?"
"About a hundred fifty kilometers across the Ice."
Alex didn't say anything for a while, doing some arithmetic in his head. About ten hours' travel, assuming a reasonable pace. He glanced at the sun, wondering how many hours of daylight were left. It was already high in the sky, and the earth seemed to be spinning awfully fast. When was sunset for this latitude and season? He closed his eyes and tried to picture the globe as he was used to seeing it. What was it like on the Ice at night? Cold. Colder than it was already. "Don't fret," he said aloud. "It's only water ice."
When Alex reestablished the link, Mary wasn't at the comm anymore. It was a woman he did not know. Well, Mary had to crash sooner or later. Lonny might have suggested that she was spending too much time downlinking.
Talk was cheap. The delta vee might cost too much for a rescue trip; but the solar power for the comm links was practically free. He and Mary could talk until Hell froze over; which, judging by his surroundings, would be real soon now.
He let Gordo handle the comm. Not that he was sulking over Mary's absence, but he felt it was about time that the kid took a hand in his own rescue. Alex listened in.
"Skazhitye, Big Momma," he heard him say. "Team Leader 'Robert' points out that, uh, Fargo Gap is uzkiy-—is a choke point, and sure to be roadblocked by now. He requests that you contact their driver, code-named 'Pins,' by secure channel and tell him to 'meet us at the gas station.' Tell 'The Ghost' that 'Pins' can be reached at 'FemmeFan's Gramp.' Katya, did any of that make sense to you?"
"Obkhodimiy, Gordon. As long as makes sense to you and to contact. We are letting you know transponder frequency soon."
Mike told Alex that "Pins" was Bob Needleton. "Pins and Needles get it? just like 'Robert is 'the Bruce.' "
Alex wondered what the point was of having code names if Mike kept explaining what they meant. Don't mean anything. It's a game to Mike. High stakes, but stilljust a game.
The decision to head for Brandon obviously pleased no one, but there was little choice in the matter. As Bruce explained it, they could not return to Mapleton; they could not risk running the road block at Fargo Gap; and they could not easily set up a rendezvous with Bob Needleton short of a landmark they all knew about. From the glum expressions, they must know they'd still be on the Ice after sunset. Alex wondered if they were having second thoughts about the rescue.
Alex knew that rivers were free-flowing streams of water propelled by gravity rather than pressure. He had seen pictures. He could even close his eyes and remember them. He had swum in one once, a majestically slow stream with banks choked by trees, as close to weightlessness as he had come in those days. But memory did not prepare him for the sight of the Red River from atop the Dakota Glacier.
Sherrine stopped the sledge at the head of a vast ramp of ice while Thor and Steve probed ahead for crevasses. Mike pointed downward. "There she is," he said. "The Red River of the North. It carries warmer water from the south into New Lake Aggaziz. If it weren't for the river and the rectenna farm, Winnipeg would be under the Ice by now."
Alex looked where he pointed. The valley was partially filled in, with ice and snow forming a broad shallow U. The river itself gleamed a perfect silver, the sunlight dancing on it where it showed between the choking ice floes. At first the river seemed merely large; but the nearby hills and ice banks gradually brought it into scale in his mind. The largest free-flowing stream he had seen in recent years was when the laundry basin in the daycare center had plugged up and the rinse water overflowed. He'd gotten three kinds of hell over it and spent a day and a half sponging loose globules out of the air. What he saw now was vast beyond belief. Hundreds ofliters of water, at the very least!
He shivered, and not from the cold. Even the trip across the glacier had not prepared him for this sight. The white sky and white land had blended together, destroying all sense ofdistance. He had halfway convinced himself that he was in a small, sterile room. Now an immense vista opened below him, and-—oddly-—he felt more dwarfed than during an EVA.
Sherrine must have seen him studying the river because she asked him what he thought.
Alex shook his head. "I've never seen anything so big." He laughed nervously. "In fact, I'm feeling a touch of agoraphobia."
"You're kidding," said Mike. "You live in orbit. You should be used to wide open spaces."
"Well, yes and no," Alex answered him. He kept his gaze fixed on the panorama below him, forcing his mind to accept it. "Inside the habitats, everything is cramped; outside, everything is so vast you can't even relate to it. Life consists of things you can reach out and touch and things you could never touch in a lifetime of reaching. Somehow this intermediate scale seems much bigger.
Sherrine laughed. "You should see the Mississippi."
"He may," said Mike. "When the Great Ice builds up enough weight, it'll tip the North American Plate and the Mississippi'll start running north. I'd hate to be in California when that happens. The whole tectonic boundary'll go at once." He dismounted from the sledge and trudged across the Ice to where Bruce Hyde stood watching the skiers through a pair of binoculars.
Alex turned to Sherrine. "Is he always like that?" he asked.
"Mike? Sure. We call him the 'Round Mound of Profound.' " She was perched tailor-fashion atop the snowmobile engine housing, taking advantage of the break to warm herself from the engine heat. "He'll talk about anything and everything. Sometimes he even knows what he's talking about."
Alex shook his head. "Why do you put up with it?"
She gave him a look of surprise. "Fen are a tolerant bunch. You'd be shocked at some of what we put up with. Besides, every now and then he comes up with something useful."
"So, were to now?" he asked. It was irritating to sit bundled in the sledge while others took charge. He knew he should be used to that. MacLeod do this. MacLeod do that. Don't forget to clean up. Help the kids put their toys away. Try to be useful for a change. But piloting Piranha had wakened something. For a short time he had been making the decisions. Poor ones maybe; but his decisions.
Sherrine twisted and faced the river valley. Directly east was the sheer wall of another glacier, higher than the one they were on. "Over there," she said, pointing. "The Minnesota Glacier." For a time she stared silently into the valley. Then, "When I was a little girl, the Red was a 'mean and cantankerous river.' It was either too high or too low. Mostly too low. Filled with sandbars and driftwood. And, oh God, the mosquitoes! They were this big!" She held her hands out an improbable length. "The riverbanks were lined with thick strands of chokeberry and pussywillow, some box elder and elm, even a little cottonwood here and there." She sighed. "It's all gone now. Living in the Minneapolis heat sink, it's easy to forget how much has already been swallowed up under tons of ice. The trees, the fish, even the damn mosquitoes. Whole environments. Soon, the river will be gone, too. It'll freeze and become just another tongue of the glacier."
"So fast," she said. "It came on so fast. Positive feedback. Once it gets started, it runs away before you know it's begun." She turned and looked at him over her shoulder; gave a little shrug. "Sometimes it gets me down, you know what I mean?"
Bruce and Mike were walking back to the sledges, waving their arms. Sherrine and Doc resumed their seats in the snowmobiles. "It's ironic, don't you think," she asked him before starting the engine, "that the biggest environmental disaster in history was caused by environmentalism?"
* * *
The Valley was as quiet as a Christmas postcard scene. Everything was shrouded in a blanket of light powdery snow. There were ghostly hummocks from which protruded the odd chimney or tree branch. Steve spotted an automobile embedded in the side wall of the glacier itself, its tail end protruding several meters past ground level.
Alex remembered reading about the mammoths found frozen in the Siberian glaciers of an earlier ice age and wondered what future generations would make of this relic when and if the Ice released its grip.
Thor shucked his skis, climbed the ice wall, and pierced the car's gas tank from underneath with an ice pick. Using a funnel attached to a syphon hose, he refilled one of the depleted jerry cans with what gasohol remained in the tank.
So easy. With gravity to help, the fuel didn't have to be pumped; it just streamed toward the Earth's center. But why were Sherrine's fists clenched into tight balls while she watched Thor work?
He asked. She said, "If he slips, he could break his neck."
Right. It was just as well that he was strapped into the sledge. Free to help, he'd be worse than useless. He'd be an embarrassment. Thirty years of conditioned reflexes could not be forgotten overnight. If it had been him scavenging the gasohol, he would have tried to jump over to the car and stand on the ice wall. You can't stand on walls in a gravity field, Alex. The car didn't just drift there, it must have been lifted and held by the ice. And, if Thor lost his grip, he would not simply float away in a slow spin; he would accelerate to the ground. It did not seem a terribly long way to fall, but what did he know about falling?
When they set forth again, Thor lagged behind a bit as if reluctant to leave. He kept glancing back over his shoulder. Then he set his poles and pushed off hard, racing past Steve Mews, who had taken the point. Steve gave him a curious glance as he slid past, but did not quicken his own deliberate pace to catch up.
I-29 was poorly maintained. It had been plowed in places, but long stretches had been engulfed by the Dakota Glacier just as the car had been. Alex could see where another highway-—US 83-—had been cleared as an alternate route wherever the interstate was impassable.
"They don't spend as much effort on this road as they do on I-94, "Mike explained. "There are only a couple of towns in the Valley still open"-—he wave a mittened hand north-—"and only Winnipeg at the dead end."
They halted at the riverbank. Sherrine turned off the snowmobile's engine and stared at the turgid water choked with "pancake ice and slush-—an open expanse of water even vaster than Alex had imagined from the glacier overlook. The scale of the planet was just beginning to hit him. It was huge; everything in it was immense. And it was convex. He held on tightly to his boyhood memories. At one time he had regarded all this as normal.
He wondered how Gordon was taking it. The gravity and the scale were completely new to him. When Alex glanced over at the other sledge, he saw Doc Waxman was bent over Gordon. "Gordo?" Alex fumbled for a moment with the tongue switch, then thought better of it. No point in sending a beacon for someone to home in on. "Are you all right, Gordon?" he shouted.
"Nye khorosho, Alex. Leave me alone." He moaned.
"Doc," Alex called out. "What's wrong with Gordon?"
Waxman turned his bushy, white patriarch's beard toward him. "Motion sickness," he said. "He threw up and it froze all over him. He'll be fine once he gets used to things down here." He shook his head. "I've heard of people getting motion sickness in free fall. First time I ever saw it work the other way."
No one ever died from motion sickness; they only wished they could. Yes, Gordon would get over it, just as Alex already had. It was a matter of synchronizing the sense of balance with visual perception. Gordon was born in free fall and a constant acceleration frame screwed up his motion cues a lot worse than it did Alex's. Like everyone else, he'd gone to "Spinning Kiddies." The centrifuge sessions were required for children-—for bone development, Alex thought. But stilyagi like Gordon generally dropped out, and most adults avoided spin exercises when they could. Alex considered his own condition. Gone to flab, with bones of rubber, and he'd been born down here.
"There's no way across that," said Mike, pointing toward the river of slush. "We'll have to turn south."
"Can't do that," said Bruce from the other sledge. "South takes us to the interchange at Fargo Gap. There's a police barricade there now. Besides, Bob is waiting for us at Brandon."
"Pins," Mike corrected him. "Use the code names, like we agreed."
Bruce gave him a look. "There ain't nobody here but us tribbles; so who gives a-—"
"And Gabe can call Big Momma and change the rendez-—"
"The code name idea was stupid, anyway-—"
Doe Waxman stepped between them. "This isn't helping us cross the Red," he said.
They both fell silent. Thor and Steve shuffled their skis back and forth across the ice. "We can't stay here," Thor said. "We'll freeze." He looked back the way we had come.
Mike studied the river. "Maybe we could leap from floe to floe. You know. Like Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom's Cabin."
"Why, Mike," said Bruce, "what a wonderful idea. Did you hear that, Alex? You can leap from floe to floe."
Alex smiled weakly. "I'm game, but I don't think the snowmobiles are up to it."
"Well, now, wait," said Mike. "Sure the plan has a hole in it, but-—"
Sherrine: "Not just a hole, Mike. A black hole."
Thor: "Yeah, the plan sucks."
Mike stuck his chin out. "You have a better plan, maybe?"
Steve Mews interrupted. "I do. Head north."
They all looked at one another. "North," said Bruce. "You mean go to Winnipeg? But that's a dead end."
Steve clapped his mittens together. "Hey, maybe I'm wrong. I don't know the local geography. But didn't that Engineer captain at Fargo tell us that the Red was frozen north of Perley? Well, that's gotta be north of here, right?"
Alex never saw so many mouths hang open at once.
Crossing the Red was easy Alex thought, if you didn't count holding your breath while doing it. The river was frozen; but the ice was ragged and cracked. A rough ride, and if the ice had given way-—
Well, he didn't want to think about that. He supposed he was in less danger than he had been in Piranha. A hot ship, miles high, hypersonic speeds. Even without a missile up the arse, there were a million things that could have gone wrong. But it was one thing to face danger with your hands around the stick. It was another thing to face it while bundled into a sledge, dependent on another's skills. It was the impotence, he decided; not the danger.
The glaciers on both sides of the river growled and popped as they flowed south-—an odd and disconcerting sound. Every snap made him jerk, thinking it was the river ice breaking up beneath them. He had not expected sounds. But then, he didn't suppose a mountain range of ice could slide across the landscape in silence. He wondered whether, if the glacier sounds were recorded and played back at high speed, they would sound like a rushing river.