Bruce called a rest break atop the Minnesota glacier. Satellite recon had located a path up the side, but it had been an arduous climb. Thor and Steve were winded. The others stood around the two snowmobiles, slapping themselves with their arms, warming themselves with the meager engine heat. Everyone seemed drawn and introspective.
"I tell you," said Bruce, "that Engineer captain had to be a closet fan. Why else would he have told us about the river being frozen?"
"That doesn't make sense," Mike said. "How would he have known what we were up to?"
"He might have guessed from your questions about the Angels. One fan knows another."
Warmly wrapped and trundled by sledge, Alex chafed at his helplessness while others did the work of rescue. "I'm just not used to being so useless," he told Sherrline. Actually, I'm here because I was expendable. He thought of telling her that, but he didn't want to.
Sherrine laughed. "Alex, sitting in that sledge, you've done more to help us than anyone standing up."
The Angel flushed. "I'm a link to Freedom, that's all. They do the work."
Sherrine shook her head. "Don't be modest." Was Alex serious, she wondered, or was it just the usual macho self-deprecation? It seemed as if the older space pilot never missed a chance to put himself down, since putting himself down on Earth. And the kid spent most of his time in a kind of sullen silence. And these were space heroes?
Be fair, she chided herself. They were injured and in shock. Give them time to recover.
She said, "Who had Big Momma beam down the IR decoys? Who arranged the rendezvous with Bob when we couldn't go back to Mapleton? Who had the old Hubble pinpoint the best route up onto this glacier?"
"It was a rough climb anyhow. Almost too steep for the snowmobiles."
"It would have been rougher if we'd had to find our own way up, or just climb straight up the sheer wall."
Alex grunted. "We also serve who only lie and wait."
She patted him on his shoulder. "That's the spirit. Don't worry. Steve will have you on your feet in no time once we et off the Ice."
"Steve's a bodybuilder. Didn't you notice his muscles?"
He had. Steve seemed grotesque, thick and bulging, like a creature from another world; but they all looked like that, more or less. "What's he going to do? Lend us a few?"
He liked the sound of her laugh. "You'll have to ask him."
"You're breathing rainbows!"
"Breathing rainbows!" She was. Sparkling circles of color came out of her mouth every time she exhaled. They reminded him of radar pulses. He said, "You're magical."
"So are you!" She bent closer to his face. "Hey, guys, look at this! Rainbow smoke rings."
Soon, everyone was laughing and puffing rainbows into the air. Even Gordon was smiling, for the first time since the crash. Steve tried to make patterns in the air by moving his head around.
"We're a lot higher here than on the Dakota," Mike announced. "Its so cold that the moisture in our breath freezes as soon as we exhale. That creates a cloud of millions of tiny ice particles." His own beard glistened with frost as he spoke.
Bruce made a snowball and threw it at Mike. Sherrine grinned and made a rainbow ring. "A lot of my mundane friends," she said to Alex, "think that explaining a phenomenon 'ruins the magic.' I think the explanations just make it more magical than before. 'Danes live in a world where everything happens on the surface; where everything is a symptom-—like the rainbows. But a cloud of microscopic crystal prisms is as magical as an unexplained rainbow any day."
When they set out again, Bruce and Mike took the skis to give Steve and Thor a rest. The tall, brawny Thor took over as Alex's sledge driver. He seemed drawn and introspective. He was the only one who had not joined in the rainbow making. His breath sparkled with colors the same as everyone else's, but it didn't seem to delight him.
After a few minutes of riding, Alex leaned his head back and studied Thor's face. "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?" he asked.
"Wrong?" Thor wouldn't meet his eyes.
"You've been acting distracted ever since we left the Valley."
The hum of the snowmobile motor and the hiss of the sledge runners over the ice were the only, sounds, until Thor said, "There was a family in that car."
Alex remembered tail fins protruding from an ice wall. "People? Dead?"
"Sure, dead. I got a look in while the tank was draining. The front seats had filled in with snow and ice, but I could see the shoulders and the backs of the parents' heads. The back seats-—" He paused and swallowed.
"The back seats were clear. There were two kids there. A boy and a girl; maybe six and four. I don't know. They were lying there with their eyes wide open, as white as parchment, coated with frost. There was ice around their eyes where they'd been crying."
"Nothing decays in this endless cold. If it weren't for the frozen tears, I might have thought they were staring back at me."
Alex glanced at Sherrine driving the snowmobile. She did not seem to be listening. He remembered thinking about mammoths earlier. He pitched his voice low. "You didn't tell the others."
"No. Would you a have?"
"We should have done something."
Thor nodded thoughtfully. "See if you can describe it."
"I don't know. Dig them out. Bury them?" On Earth, he'd heard they buried their dead. It seemed a waste of organics to Alex, but "custom is king of all."
"The glacier will bury them," said Thor. "The job's half done."
"It doesn't seem right to just leave them there."
"No, it doesn't. But what could we have done? Broken our necks trying to et them out? What would we have dug the graves with inside the car, at least they're safe from wolves. You know what bothers me the most?"
"The accident must have happened ten, twelve years ago, when most of these towns were evacuated. Hundreds of cars must have driven past. My mother told me that this country once spent millions of dollars to free two whales trapped in the Arctic ice. Why didn't anyone stop to help those people back then? Those children might have still been alive!"
Alex couldn't think of any way to answer him. It wasn't his planet. He hadn't been there. He wondered what the evacuation had been like. A panicked flight? A black, depressing recessional? A car skids off the gassy roadway and plows into a snowbank. No one stops. No one cares enough to stop. The country has turned its back on technology. Small is beautiful but small is also poor; and the country could no longer afford to care.
As the sun dropped toward the horizon, a curious green tint came over everything. The ice and the clouds, perfect white but moments before, glowed like emeralds. To the right, the sky itself was green from the horizon halfway to the zenith. Sherrine and Doc stopped their snowmobiles and everyone stared.
"The sky looks like a lawn in spring," said Sherrine.
"Yeah," said Thor. "And the clouds look like bushy summer treetops. It's a floating forest."
Green was not a color Alex was used to seeing. Black, white, silver, yes. But green was the color of control panel lights; of shoulder patches; the plant rooms, of course, and the spider plants in every compartment; and a few corridor walls here and there. Still, of all the places he had thought to see green, the heart of a glacier was not one.
He asked Sherrine, "Is sunset always like this?"
She turned in her saddle. "No. Sunsets are normal, red. I'd heard it was different when you got far enough onto the Ice. Nobody knows why."
Mike was uncharacteristically silent. He muttered something about static discharge, but neither too loudly nor too confidently. Finally, Bruce shouted. "Come on! This isn't getting us any closer to Brandon." His voice was harsh and had a ragged edge to it. When the others looked at him, he turned his head and looked abruptly away.
"Right," said Steve. "Doc, rev it up. It'll be dark soon." The other sledge pulled out ahead and Sherrine fell into line behind.
For a moment, Alex could not figure who had called him. Then he realized that it was Gordon on the comm link. The kid was finally communicating. He tongued his radio. "Yeah?"
"How much farther must we go?"
Alex shook his head; but Gordon couldn't see him from his sledge. "I don't know. I've lost track. Should we be broadcasting?"
"Is low power. Carries how far?"
"Don't know. I guess it's all right. We're a long way from anything."
"I think the one they call Robert is worried."
"Yeah." Alex thought he knew why. Bruce had been keeping track of their progress. The others might get distracted by rainbows and green skies, but Bruce always kept the goal firmly in mind.
"I'm cold," said Gordon. "But my readouts tell me it's only minus fifteen degrees Celsius. That doesn't make any sense. Neg fifteen isn't very cold."
"Ever hear of wind chill, Gordo?"
"Wind chill. No, what is?"
Oh, Gordo, Gordo. Of course he didn't know. The only wind in Freedom was Lonny Hopkins making a speech. "Gordon, the human body cools by convection, right? We dump excess heat into the surrounding air."
"Yes? Is why we need radiators on the station."
"Uh-huh." The main problem in the habitats was to keep from roasting. No one ever heard of too cold. "Well, what if the air around your body was constantly moved away and replaced by fresh, unheated air. It would seem colder, wouldn't it?"
Gordon thought that one over. "I guess so."
"Look, as your body heat warms the surrounding air, it reduces the heat fall and the rate of heat loss slows. So you feel warmer. But keep the cold air coming in and you'll dump your excess calories faster. It's-—What did you say, minus fifteen degrees Celsius? The wind is enough to lift granular ice particles. Call it forty kilometers per hour. So the temperature feels as if it were, oh, minus thirty seven degrees Celsius."
"Well, it doesn't help me feel any warmer, but at least when I freeze to death, I'll know why."
Okay, Gordo, be a snot. But he's right. We are not going to make it. It was too cold, and Brandon was too far. The space suits, with their heaters, had been left behind with the scoopship. They would have been incriminating, too hard to dispose of; and the trip was supposed to have been a short one. The suits wouldn't have saved them anyway. Sherrine and the others would freeze; Gordon and Alex could wait on their backs until the batteries gave out. Better that they all go together.
It was getting colder and the wind was picking up. And it wasn't just Gordo depending on him. There were these Downers as well. It was his fault they were out here. Sure, he was going to freeze along with them; but do passengers really feel better because the captain went down with his ship? Soon enough, he and his friends would be frozen as solid as those children in the car.
Alex looked up. Thor knew. He had the most experience with the Ice, and he knew.
"You get sleepier and sleepier. Then you don't wake up," Thor said. "They say it's even easier if you don't fight it."
"And do you give up?"
Thor shrugged. "I probably won't. But I won't last much longer than you do."
The glacier at night was as dark as the leeside of Freedom Station. But Freedom Station could turn on the spotlights for EVA work. Alex didn't think any of the rescue party had realized how dark it would be. They hadn't expected to still be on the Ice come nightfall; so he couldn't blame them for not brining any flashlights. They had only the two that Sherrine's grandfather kept in the kits strapped to each sledge, and a small trouble light salvaged from Piranha. They didn't make much light; but, with them and with ropes tying everyone together, Bruce could hope that no one would get lost in the dark. If only there were some way to turn on the spotlights.
Spotlights. By God!
"Something interesting?" Thor asked.
"Damn right, if I can raise the ship. You don't need the Sun to get heat from the sky."
"You'll see. I hope. Aim the antenna for me, due south. Big Momma. Big Momma, Big Momma, this is Piranha. Priority One. Mayday."
Sherrine looked around with a frown.
"Shut up, Gordon! Big Momma, Big Momma, this is Piranha. Mayday."
* * *
Captain Lee Arteria relaxed in a chair well to the sideof the meeting room, the better to watch the proceedings. One should always have a clear field of fire, just in case. Several of the other attendees threw repeated glances in that direction. Arteria, returning their gazes, could almost read their minds. Slim and fine-featured, pointed chin; short-cropped red hair; noncommittal first name, and a grip like a Junkyard dog. Gay man or butch woman? They couldn't tell. It made them uneasy.
Arteria parted her lips in a thin faint smile. They were bothered less by the thought that she might be skew than by not knowing the direction of skew. They liked to put people in categories, even unorthodox categories. It was more comfortable than dealing with individuals and their idiosyncrasies. Deny them that and you put them at a disadvantage. Arteria liked to leave it like that. It was always sound tactics to leave your opponents at a disadvantage.
"Can we take it then," said Ike Redden, "that the subjects have died on the Ice?" Redden represented the INS on the Special Task Force. He was also the chair. Inter-service wrangling and high-level compromise had left the Immigration and Naturalization Service in nominal charge of the search. The space stations had declared their independence almost a generation ago; so their residents were, ipsofacto, aliens. And illegal immigration was, according to counsel, the most impeccable grounds for apprehension of the stranded astronauts. Still, Arteria was sure that all the task force members were looking for ways to bend the mission to their own advantages.
The State Police captain shook his head. "I don't see how they could have gotten off the Ice before nightfall without being apprehended."
Arteria could think of three or four ways. She kept her peace. The others were paid to do the thinking.
"There was no one aboard the spacecraft when we found it." Air Force was reluctant to mention finding the craft; no doubt because it had taken so long to do so. Never mind that the shuttle was painted a reflective silver; that it blended into the surrounding ice; that it had apparently been deliberately buried. The failure to achieve instant results was always ammunition for one's opponents. "We assume that the astronauts wandered out onto the Ice and froze. We've done IR scans of the immediate area and found no trace of them. So their bodies must have cooled to ambient. We may never find them."
"They are not dead."
Captain Arteria sighed quietly. Staff meetings were always tedious, especially to the worker bees; but even tedium was better than listening to Shirley Johnson. Redden sucked on his lips and exchanged glances with the State Police and Air Force representatives. "Why do you say that, Johnson?" he asked.
"Ice is a crystal, and crystals focus the life power. Yes, yes, I know people have frozen on the Ice in spite of that; but all sickness comes from negative thinking. One must be open to the life-affirming powers of the crystal."
"The aliens are technophiles, pointed out Jheri Moorkith, the Green representative, and therefore life-denying. However, I agree that they have escaped. Why else would the techno-scientific elite in their artificial worlds have beamed their death rays at the search teams?"
"There were tracks in the snow," State Police admitted, "weren't there, Captain Arteria?"
"There certainly were." Arteria's voice was a husky contralto. No sexual clues there, either. Nor clues of any sort. Arteria intended to participate as little as possible in the conference. The Angels weren't any threat to the United States, and tracking them down was using resources better employed for something else.
"The tracks came to the spaceship from the south. We lost them on the hard ice," State Police continued. "But they were headed toward the interior. There's no chance of finding tracks at night, but come morning we'll start a search pattern around the projected route. The tracks looked like dogsleds, though.
Air Force spoke up. "One of our IR searches turned up a bogey to the east, on the Minnesota Glacier; but close overflight positively identified it as an Eskimo band. Those dogsled tracks are probably another band that saw the ship come down and mushed over to investigate."
State Police: "There have been a number of Eskimo sightings around here over the last few months. There was a fight over poaching out by Anamoose. The white folks chased them off."
"Eskimos," said Moorkith, rubbing his chin. "Good. Native Americans live close to nature. They respect the other lifeforms with which we share this fragile planet. I'm sure they will help us locate the polluting technocrats."
The Angels had help, thought Arteria. Someone came up from the south and took them away to the east. Probably not Eskimos, if they came from the south. That should be obvious, even to this crowd. So. If not Eskimos, who? Given the timing involved, it had to have been impromptu. And, if they had been caught-—
People who would risk anything to rescue spacemen, instantly, knowing the government would be searching, too. People who could head straight for the spacecraft without aerial spotters. People who could call down power beams from the stations.
People who thought they could improvise a rescue on the Ice on the spur of the moment and pull it off without getting caught.
Fanac! It had to be fanac.
And if you could think like a fan again, Arteria thought, you might figure out where they'd show up next. She smiled wolfishly.
* * *
The response was faint, almost lost in the hiss of static. "Da, we readink, Piranha. Chto khochesh? What want?"
"Thank God. Big Momma, it's cold here. We're going to freeze, all of us. We need heat. Can you give us a microwave spotlight? Have SUNSAT lock one of its projectors onto our transponder frequency and track us across the ice."
"Skazhite. One moment." Alex waited while Big Momma conferred-—probably with the Peace Station chief and the SUNSAT engineer. Sherrine asked him what he was doing and he told her. She and Thor exchanged glances.
"Is that possible?" she asked. "To beam enough microwave energy down to keep us from freezing?"
"It won't be, uh, too much, will it?"
Alex grinned. "I'll have them set it for thaw, not bake. Seriously, the beam density is only twenty-three milliwatts per square centimeter at the center of the rectenna farm. I figure if we keep it to a couple of milliwatts, it will take the edge off the cold without cooking us. We'll have to take off whatever rings or jewelry we're wearing, wrap them in cloth maybe pack them in snow. Belt buckles. Anything metal. Microwaves penetrate meat, wood or plastic, but metal absorbs them. If you kept your ring on, Sherrine, it would probably burn your finger.
Thor grinned. "I'm not sure I'd mind-—if it did cook us." He looked over his shoulder. "Ever since we found that car. When Bruce raised this expedition, it sounded like good fanac. The ultimate sercon. A quick dash onto the ice and, back off. They'd be filking about it for generations."
Alex made a mental note to find out later what language Thor was speaking.
"The trouble was, we didn't make any contingency plans. Heck. We didn't make any plans." Thor grinned. Well, Ghu takes care of idiots, small children, and fen. Who knows what the Great Roscoe has in store for us next?"
"Roscoe?" Alex asked, but they didn't hear him.
Alex barely managed to confirm the beam density with the Angels before losing contact completely. They must have been at the very fringe of the scoopship relay's range. When he had completed the message, Alex sighed and spat out the tongue switch. "Well, that's that, he said.
"Do you think they got the message?" Sherrine asked. "About the microwaves?"
Alex's eyes were dull with exhaustion and the endless acceleration. "I hope so. They're supposed to lock onto the transponder location and track it all the way to Brandon. We should be warm as toast in a while. If not-—" Shrugging would be too much effort.
As they picked their way across the ice, Sherrine waited for evidence of microwave warming. She worried about their equipment. The sledges contained little metal. Her grandfather had made them of wood poles and hide lashings. The two snowmobiles were largely fiberglass, but she wondered what microwave heating would do to the metal engines. Probably nothing. Engines run at high temperatures anyway. But suppose they can't take it? Better than freezing. . .
Aftera while, began to feel warm. Was it the microwaves? Or was it only her anxiety? Or just the heat from the snowmobile engine? She saw a crevasse that Mike had flagged and steered around it. Cans of gasohol. What will microwave heat do to those?
The moon rose, half full, over the eastern horizon, creating a startling amount of light on the icy landscape. The crust of snow, reflecting the moonlight, seemed to glow from within itself. She breathed out slowly and saw the flickering rainbow of her breath. She was happy. Even if they died here, it had still been worth the attempt.
Astronauts down. Crashed. She loosened the collar on her parka. Hunted by the government. What else would a trufan have done? Fen loved their bickering and fannish politics. Pohl and Sykora still wouldn't talk to each other; but take a few years off them and they would both have been here on the Ice together, because it was the right thing to do. Fandom, after all, was a Way of Life.
She unzipped her parka. 'Tis a proud and lonely thing to be a fan. She was glad to be back. When she thought of all the years she had wasted in the "danelaw" . . .
"Yes. Alex?" She kept her eye glued on Mike's back where he broke trail ahead of her.
"Could you take a blanket or two off me?"
She turned around. "What? Oh!" Alex's face was damp with sweat. She realized that she was perspiring heavily herself. She brought her snowmobile to a halt just as Will stopped his and jumped off into the snow and began stuffing ice in his mouth. Now what?
"Fillings," Will mumbled. "Gold caps, teef." He settled back on his heels and breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'm sorry," Alex said. "The calculations must have been off slightly."
"Can you do something about it?" Will asked. "It's like using hot coffee for mouthwash."
Thor rubbed his jaw and agreed. Mike, who had returned from the point and overheard, grinned. "Makes me glad I have, plastic fillings. No metal in my mouth."
"Me neither," Sherrine agreed. "But I'm glad I'm not wearing braces anymore." The others laughed.
"Very funny," said Doc, chewing on a snowball. Thor and Bruce were sucking in cold air. Sherrine winced. Whenever she did that, it hurt her teeth.
"No good," said Alex, spitting out his communicator once more. "Damn thing's hot. I can't raise them. Either we're out of range or the radio finally went kaput."
"No big deal,' said Doc. "I'll just keep a mouth full of snow." He took off his parka. "Meanwhile," he said, "it's a little warm for this."
The layered look, Sherrine reflected as she removed her own parka had its advantages. She unstrapped Alex and pulled a blanket off him. Microwaves created heat by friction. They agitated the molecules of an object, penetrating to a certain depth, depending on the material. When the microwaves were shut off, the object continued to heat by conduction to greater depths. She suspected that she would be removing another sweater or two as the night went on.
"Say," said Mike, "you know what we forgot to bring?"
Thor gave him a suspicious look. "What?"
"Beach umbrellas. Aluminum beach umbrellas. In case it gets too hot."
Doc studied the snowball in his hand, looked at Mike, shook his head and stuck the snowball back in his mouth. Sherrine grinned. Mike had a point. Later, they might wish they had a means of reflecting the microwaves. They laughed and moved on.
"Hey, guys," said Bruce. "Don't look now, but we got company."
Sherrine looked to the sky. "Oh, God-—"
"No," said Bruce. "Not up there. Over here."
She looked. Eskimos.
In retrospect, it was probably something she should have expected. Eskimos lived on the ice and the ice was flowing south, so why shouldn't there be Inuit in Minnesota? She said as much to Mike about the small, ragged band that had appeared suddenly in the ghost-light created by the flashlights and the ice-reflected stars and moon. Mike shrugged, scratched his beard and dug into his limitless store of miscellany.
"Maybe," he said. "But the Inuit are a coastal folk. Except for the caribou-hunting bands, they don't live inland. If anything, the Ice should have driven them west along the coast into Alaska, not south into the heart of the glacier."
Krumangapik's face was a deep copper, creased into a permanent squint. He had thrown back the hood of his parka showing straight-cropped black hair. His own sledge and dog team waited nearby with his partner and their families. Krumangapik grinned, showing the gaps in his teeth.
He smiled at Bruce and the others. The Angels, he wasn't sure of. He kept giving them quick glances from the corners of his eyes.
He said, "You must not thank for the meat. It is bad manners to thank."
Bruce seemed flustered. "I didn't mean to give offense," he said.
"It is our people's custom to thank for gifts," said Sherrine.
Krumangapik did not look at her. Sherrine thought he wasn't sure if she was a woman or not. By his standards, she was too thin to be female; but he evidently had no wish to take chances. Bruce had facial hair and was obvious the leader, so he spoke exclusively to Bruce.
"We do not give gifts. I know that it is different among the upernatleet; but in this land, no one wishes to be dependent upon another. 'With gifts you make slaves; as with whips you make dogs.' "
"Then why," asked Mike, "have you shared your meat?"
The old inuk seemed puzzled by the question. "You have shared your magical heat so that we are all wonderously warm." His breath made frosty clouds in the icy darkness, so Sherrine guessed that warm depended on what you were used to. "What could I offer in return but these poor scraps of meat. Offal that has been dirtied by the dogsled. I am ashamed to offer it to such excellent guests."
Mike and Steve looked thoughtfully at the skewers in their hands. Sherrine hissed at them. "Not literally! If gift-giving makes slaves, you have to disparage the gift." They looked relieved and Steve took a bite and chewed.
"It is really very good meat," he said. "Tasty. What is it, walrus?"
"Dog," said Krumanepik. "But it was a very sick dog," he added hastily. "Mangy. We have lost most of our team on this journey."
Steve gave a journeyman grin. "Delicious," he said.
Krumangapik's band had intended to camp, but when Bruce told them that he was going to press on to Brandon, they elected to join up. "It is safer to travel together," he said. "You carry the warmth with you; and the sooner we get off this wretched ice, the better."
"Get off the Ice?" Steve seemed surprised. "This is your world isn't it? The land at the top of the world."
Mala, the other hunter, laughed and the old man shook his head. "It is ours because neither the Indians nor the whites want it. The legends say that when we first came into this country, many ages ago, it was already inhabited by those you call Indians. In the white man's school, we learned that these folk were called the Athabascans and the Crees. We fought mightily to take the land from them. The grass ran red with their gore. Ah, there were massacres to whet even the wildest fancy! Even today, to cry! 'Indians!' among the Greenlanders is enough to throw everyone into a panic; even though the word has long lost its meaning there. But the Indians were crueler and wiser in the ways of war than we; and, even though the forests were spreading north, there was not room in them for both peoples, and we retreated before them. Soon we came to a strange, white land where the Indian would not follow. Life here became a contest with death, but we learned that if we followed the proper customs, we could live. Later, we found that Sila had arranged all this to harden us against the day of our vengeance. Now, the ice is bringing us back again into the land that was ours." The old man scratched his chin and asked in a perfectly matter-of-fact voice, "You have not seen any Cree, have you?"
Sherrine could not be sure whether old Krumangapik was putting them on. By his own admission, he had been to the white schools. He would have learned there about the ice ages and about ancient folkways. How much of his tale was genuine Inuit legend and how much embellishment to entertain guests? "Why did you say it would be safer if we traveled together?" she asked.
Once again, the old man spoke to Bruce and not to her. It was irritating. "Because of the cannibals," said Krumangapik.
Even Mike was speechless.
"Cannibals?" asked Bruce in a strained voice.
"Yes. Two hunters named Minik and Mattak who accompanied us at first from Baffinland. They were the strongest, so they always took bigger portions of the food than they were entitled to. Every day as we crossed the ice they grew more savage. Several days ago, while we were hunting, Minik and Mattak returned to the camp and attacked the women and children. Oomiliak, my son, fought well and lost an eye." He put an arm around a small boy with an empty eyesocket who stood beside him. "But his sister and mother were stabbed to death and dragged away to be eaten. When Mala and I returned to camp and learned what had happened, we tried to take vengeance, but the dogs were too weak to chase them across the ice."
Bruce swallowed and looked out into the surrounding night. "Where are they now?"
The old man shrugged. "Somewhere out there. Perhaps they are following us. Or perhaps they have gone elsewhere." His face closed up and he looked away, into the night.
For a man, one of whose wives had been killed and eaten along with his daughter, Sherrine thought Krumangapik was taking his loss remarkably well. She wondered if Eskimos felt tragedy differently than other folk.
And the Angels? Alex did not appear shocked at Krumangapik's casual attitude. Why not?
Bruce let the Eskimos take the point. They knew more about traveling on the Ice and would be more aware of dangerous conditions, especially in the dark. Sherrine thought Bruce was more than a little glad to have someone else shoulder the responsibility for a while. Now and then he consulted the transponder and sent word to Krumangapik to alter course. The old Eskimo never revealed what he thought of these directions; but Sherrine suspected that if he ever disagreed with them, he and his band would simply strike out on their own.
Two hours later, they stopped again to shed clothes. The heat, mild as it was, was working its way through their bodies. Sherrine tried to balance the heat and the clothing against the windchill and found, much to her surprise, that she was dressed for a walk on a brisk spring day.
We're in the heart of the Minnesota glacier, she thought, and I'm dressed lighter than in my own home. If only there were more SUNSATs in orbit.
When Krumangapik and his band began stripping, Sherrine's jaw dropped. The Eskimos shed their parkas and even their undergarments. She noticed that all of them, hunters and women, wore long johns from Sears. Krumangapik was not the unspoiled savage he liked to pretend. Soon they were standing in the buff.
The two women strung a clothesline between two light poles and hung the discarded clothing to it with pins made of walrus bone. Sherrine had to admit that the younger hunter, Mala, was rather well-hung. Naterk, his wife, was-—Well, round. She had curves in places where other women did not have places. Sherrine saw Alex and Gordon staring at the woman and turned away. Sooner or later, she knew, they would run into a woman who was not a stick; but they did not have to make such a spectacle of their interest.
Krumangapik invited them to air out their own clothing as well. 'Normally, we do this only in the igloo. It is usually not warm enough outside. But with this wonderful heat-—" He raised his arms and turned slowly, as if basking in the sun on Miami Beach.
"Aren't you even a little chilly?" she asked.
Krumangapik grinned his gap-toothed grin again. "Better to be chilly," he quote "and also be alone inside one's clothing."
Then she noticed that the women were picking through the furs for lice. It figured. There wouldn't be too many opportunities to change on the glacier. They must spend a great many days wearing the same clothes.
Sherrine looked at Thor, who looked at Mike, who looked at Steve, who looked at Doc, who looked at Bruce. No one moved. Then Steve grinned and pulled his sweater over his head. He cried, "Gentlebeings and sapients all, how can you resist? How often do you get a chance to sunbathe on a glacier?"
They stripped down practically to the buff. Sherrine and Doc both drew the line at shucking their underwear.
Thor and Steve did not; but looking at them they seemed less a pair of naked males than a pair of Greek statues, one in ivory, one in ebony. Nude, not naked. Naterk kept throwing glances at them, like she was inspecting livestock. Thor gave her a look back and ran his fingers through his beard.
"Don't even think it," Mike told him.
Thor raised his eyebrows and leered. "Think what?"
You know. Adultery is the major cause of murders among Eskimos. He jerked his head at Mala, who had watched the byplay with no expression.
"All the cartoons-—"
"This isn't the suburbs. They don't give gifts, remember? Wife-swapping is the way they seal bargains. If Mala makes the offer-—and remember that he has to make the offer-—then you have to help him when he goes hunting. Either that or you have to offer him your wife."
Sherrine was arranging Alex atop a pile of discarded clothing. Alex was trying to smile hard enough to mask the winces caused by the pain in his ribs. She pulled the strap snug, but not tight.
"Thor," she said, "don't even think it." And she whipped around with a snowball in her hand and blasted him on the chest.
Then all fandom was plunged into war. Even the Eskimos joined in. It was such a relief to know that they would not freeze! Sherrine wondered if she might even get a tan out of it. She was laughing and dancing and dodging snowballs when the spotlight from the helicopter caught them dead center.
* * *
Lieutenant Gil Magruder studied the shapes dancing in the spotlight below. There were two sleds piled high with clothing and blankets. Nestled in the clothing, he saw two naked corpses, long dead of starvation by the looks of them. Cavorting around them in some sort of ritualistic dance were a dozen naked and near naked men and women, including at least two children. When the light hit them, they froze in place and stared up at the helicopter. Magruder pivoted the copter, keeping the beam centered.
"Sergeant. What do you see down there?"
Staff Sergeant Emil Poulenc looked and swallowed his gum. "It looks like some kind of funeral, sir," he said in a Louisiana drawl. "Those are Eskimos, aren't they? But-—"
"But they're naked, aren't they, Sergeant. They're on the Ice at thirty below and they're naked."
"I mean, she's not completely naked." Poulenc's voice sounded wistful.
"Sergeant, what possible difference can a pair of pink panties make at thirty degrees below zero?"
Poulenc scratched his chin. "Well, sir, since you put it that way."
Magruder stared at the group on the ground. "HQ ain't never gonna believe this," he muttered. He straightened and adjusted the rotor. "You know what I think we saw, Sergeant?"
"Sir, I can't imagine."
Magruder turned off the spotlight and banked the copter away to the west. "Nothing, Sergeant. I think we saw absolutely nothing at all."
* * *
The General Mills station at Brandon was a gleaming beacon in the dark for the last few miles of the trip. Alex sighed. The madcap trip across the Ice was nearly over. Sherrine drove the snowmobile down the state highway toward the station, where Alex saw a man-—presumably Bob Needleton-—sitting in a lawn chair reading a magazine beside a blazing fire he had built in an oil drum. When he heard them coming, he folded the magazine and stood up.
"It's about time you got here," he said. If he thought there was something extraordinary about a procession of naked people coming off the glacier, he did not say. Instead he gave directions for loading the van.
Alex and Gordon were trundled into the back of the van and laid out flat on a pair of old mattresses. The last sight Alex saw before they slid the door closed was a bunch of naked Eskimos dancing around the blazing oil drum. It was probably a measure of how accustomed he had already become to Earth, that the sight seemed perfectly natural. So far, all the Earthlings he had met had behaved oddly.
Maybe gravity pulled blood from the brain . . .
Bob climbed into the pilot's seat. "That's that," he said. "Sherrine, honey, your grandparents stayed behind in Mapleton just in case you managed to get back there after all. As soon as we find a working telephone we'll call and tell them you're okay and where to find their equipment. Your pal Krumangapik agreed to wait here until they came by, if I would let him have the fire I built in the oil drum." He started the engine. "I guess that takes care of everything."
"Not quite everything," Alex said. "It's going to get cold. We told SUNSAT to turn off the beam when we got to Brandon."
"Sigh," Thor said. "I suppose we'd be too easy to locate if we kept it. But it was nice to be warm."
There was a mad scramble in the back of the van as everyone hastened to don clothes. Conditions were crowded with seven people in the back of the van. Alex didn't mind the occasional elbow or knee as the others pulled on sweaters and pants, because their body heat warmed the place nicely. He supposed that was how Krumangapik and his friends could sit around naked in a house made of snow bricks. Besides, Sherrine took charge of dressing him, and he rather enjoyed it.
* * *
Alex relaxed to the rhythm of the van over the highway. He closed his eyes. The rescue was over. For the first time since he'd seen the missile on the radar, he knew he would live for one more day.
A couple miles farther on, he felt a hand shake his shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw Steve's dark face above him.
Steve grinned. "It's too close in here to run through any asanas; and you're not up to it physically yet. So let's begin your conditioning with some pranayama. I want you to practice breathing."
Alex wondered what it was that his lungs had been doing all his life. "I already know how to breathe," he told him.
"I don't want you to breathe from your diaphragm. I want you to breathe from your little potbelly." He set his hand on Alex's stomach. "Make your stomach go in and out, not your chest."
Steve wasn't kidding. Alex looked at Gordon and Gordon looked at him and he shrugged with his eyebrows. Didn't everyone breathe from their stomachs? He studied the Earthlings surrounding him and, yes, it was indeed their chests that rose and fell. He watched Sherrine's chest more closely, just to make sure. Maybe their rib muscles were better developed. Gravity again, he supposed.
"That's very good!" Steve seemed genuinely surprised and delighted. "Now I want you to breath using only your left nostril."
He still wasn't kidding. Alex looked around the van, but Mike and Sherrine and even Doc Waxman showed no reaction to Steve's bizarre request; and Thor was trying to follow his directions.
"Come on," Steve said in an encouraging voice. "Practice along with me. In through the left nostril. Out through the mouth." When he breathed out he chanted, "Om mane padme om."
Hot damn! thought Alex. We're in the hands of crazy people. He had never felt safer.