Tradition told that a convention committee could win the bid and then vanish. The Worldcon would happen anyway. Chuck Umber believed it. He'd seen conventions, like Nolacon in New Orleans, where the committee's disappearance would have saved the convention. But he didn't believe that this committee could hide in a crowd of less than sixty!
The Con was ready to go. Fans had been arriving for several days and the official program had already started . . . but Bruce Hyde and the rest of the Con Committee seemed to have vanished into thin air, all but one or two and they weren't talking. Something was up . . . and even Crazy Eddie seemed to be in on it.
Chuck Umber had published fandom's most successful news magazine for more than twenty years, in formats growing gradually more cryptic and secretive for an audience growing gradually smaller. He'd always kept secrets that had to be kept. He smuggled copies of Hocus to closet fans with mundane jobs. He knew were Thor hid out.
He was even pretty sure he knew where the Oregon Ghost was hiding. What kind of secret was it that Edward Two Bats could be trusted with it and Chuck Umber couldn't?
He stalked down the first-floor hallway of the Fielding Mansion, counting the doors as he went. Crazy Eddie had said to try the third door on the right in the west wing. Ordinarily he rated Crazy Eddies reliability as no better than that of a network newsreader; but so far he was the only person who allowed as how he might have seen Bruce Hyde around the mansion.
He opened the third door and stepped inside. "Bruce?"
A semicircle of femmefans twisted in their chairs to stare at him. They were variously dressed in gossamer robes and chain mail bikinis, a sight in which he might ordinarily have shown more interest. Instead, he looked left and right around the room. He stuck his goatee out. "Is Bruce Hyde here?"
The panel moderator, with her short-cropped hair and 15th century breast-and-back plate armor, looked like Joan of Arc as played by Ingrid Bergman. She shook her head. "You want the Con Suite I think it's on the third floor, south wing. This is a panel on medieval and barbarian costuming. You're welcome to join us, if you want."
"Uh, no, thank you." Chuck apologized for interrupting. He was revising his estimate of Crazy Eddie's reliability.
When he left the room he noticed Fang lounging against the opposite wall of the corridor. Five-eleven, muscular, tough as old leather, Fang was batting a rubber ball tethered to a wooden paddle. He wore a small propeller beanie on his head.
At last, Chuck thought. Someone reliable. "Fang!"
"Hey, Chuck." The ball was a blur of motion. Fang frowned at it in concentration.
"Have you seen anybody on the Con Committee?"
"Saw Crazy Eddie."
Arrgh. "How about Bruce? He's the Chair. He's gotta be around someplace."
"Think I saw him. North wing. Second floor." Fang missed a swat on his paddle and the tether ball Zigzagged crazily. He fumbled with it for a moment, then tucked paddle and ball into the back pocket of his jeans. "Library? Yeah, the library. I'm sure that was him."
"Thanks, Fang. I owe you one." Chuck turned and strode off toward the stairwell. Fang watched him walk out of sight. When Chuck was gone, Fang rapped three times on the door beside him. Crazy Eddie stuck his head out.
Edward Two Bats was a lean, hawk-faced old man, at least part Indian-—although from what tribe he had never said. He had been writing science fiction forever, and movie scripts before that. He wore a yellow nylon jacket and a red bandanna tied around one leg just above the knee. His beard was stringy like a Chinese mandarin's.
His voice was gentle. "Where d you send him?"
"Library. North wing."
Crazy Eddie ran his hand across his jaw. He had odd hands. The fingers were bigger at the tips than at the knuckles. "Good," he said. "Good. Who's waiting up there?"
Eddie gave Fang a sham look. "You didn't tell Shew about this, did you. He isn't very reliable."
Fang shrugged. "He's kept Throop hidden for donkey's years . . . I didn't tell him anything. Too many in on it already. Shew's helping out because Chuck gave him a bad review once."
Crazy Eddie gazed toward the stairwell. "How long can we keep this going?"
"Not much longer. You know how sharp this crowd is. I feel bad about giving Chuck the runaround. He should be in on it."
Eddie clapped him on the shoulder. "Sure, he should. And Wade Curtis and Dick Wolfson and 3MJ and everyone else, including fen who couldn't make it to the con. It's just until the committee decides what to do. More than three people can't keep a secret for very long."
Fang sighed. "There's ten of us already."
* * *
Chuck Umber stepped aside to let the tall, lanky femmefan past. She pushed a wheelchair bearing an even more gaunt-looking fan, a thin young man with a vaguely Swedish look. Chuck wondered briefly if the poor kid had myasthenia gravis, like Waldo in Heinlein's story. Then he looked again at the femme and wondered if they were brother and sister. Who was she?
He searched through the back of his mind. Ah. A computer programmer, hiding out, gafiated years ago, even dropped her subscription to Hocus. He'd remember her name presently.
As he turned to continue his mission, his arm was grasped by Chuck. a thin man with long, wild brown hair.
"Hi, Chuck. I'm Anthony J. Horowitz the Third," the man said. "Remember me? I I've got two books out on the samizdat network. My latest is a volume of critical essays, Vampire Unicorns from Planet Thraxisp. And I have a novel, Living lnside. About the first spaceship to Venus. Would you like to interview me for Hocus? I do wonderful interviews. And I did Trash World. It's the ultimate synthesis between science fiction, cyberpunk, and horror."
The book or the interviews? Chuck shook his head. "Not now, Tony. I don't have time."
Horowitz said, not too forcefully, "Anthony, please. I gave up trying to write as Tony . . ."
Umber left Horowitz and entered the foyer by the main entrance. The foyer had a floor of Mexican tile and was brightly lit through the tall windows that flanked the front door. A great crystal chandelier hung from the two-story cathedral ceiling. A three-foot model of the space shuttle hung from the chandelier, and below that, an antique tin Buck Rogers spaceship. Chuck smiled when he saw that touch. Sometimes dreams did come true. If you made them.
Three hallways branched off into the three wings of the mansion and a grand staircase curved up to the balcony on the second floor. No question about it, Chuck thought, the Tre-house was a fantastic place.
Without Tremont J. Fielding-—3MJ as he was known to all trufans-—and his sprawling mansion, Minicon might not have come off at all. A public venue was naturally out of the question; and very few fen owned homes large enough to house even a small con. Chuck marvelled, as he often did, that the Fantasy Fund had ever had enough equity to help buy this place. It didn't hurt that 3MJ had inherited some money. Maybe a lot of money.
The Tre-house often served as a station on the Underground Fanway. It was stuffed with SF and fantasy memorabilia, usually hidden in secret vaults in the sub-basement, but they'd brought out a lot of it for the Con. The walls were hung with paintings: the usual ones of dryads and wood elves and other fantasy scenes, but now many of them sported a second picture hung to cover the First. There were prints of old Astounding covers, suns and starwisp nebulas in wild colors spaceships, men in fishbowl helmets and women in brass brassieres menaced by bugeyed monsters. It was so beautiful Chuck wanted to cry.
Much of the mansions treasure had been reduced to holograms. Without a projector, they were not incriminating. What was on display here were prints; but Chuck knew that Tremont would never have thrown away the originals. He remembered what the place had been like in its glory days, when everything was out, when you couldn't look anywhere without seeing another marvel. Original paintings. Movie posters for long-forgotten B pictures. The little paperweight made from one of George Pal's models for War of the Worlds. The Lensman costume. George Pal's pen.
And once-—once Chuck had seen the original typewritten manuscript for Fahrenheit 451. That would be well hidden now! He looked around, but they hadn't put out the movie poster. Too dangerous-—but sometime over the weekend they'd certainly show the film. Could that be the big secret? But nobody would cause Chuck to miss that. Chuck was Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land! He had two-thirds of the book memorized perfectly, and could recite most of the rest.
In that far corner had been the original Gort robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. A tyrannosaur model from King Kong was there now. There had been so much. Now-—now they did their best, but the walls and alcoves seemed empty and forlorn.
And Thor was coming down the east wing, pushing a wheelchair. Another crippled stranger. What was going on?
Hey, Thor!" Chuck moved to intercept them.
Thor froze in mid-stride. "Hi, Chuck."
"Where have you been?"
A blank look. "Here and there."
"Haven't seen you."
A shrug. "You know how it is. The Tre-house is a big place."
"Yeah. It reminds me of a scaled down Noreascon III. Remember that one? Seven thousand fen rattling around a convention center bigger than the Ringworld." He extended his hand to the man in the wheelchair. "Hi. I'm Chuck Umber. I publish Hocus."
"Gabe," said the other. "Gabe dell'Angelo."
Gabe's arm was coming up in a help less jerky wobble. Chuck dropped his own hand. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't know-—" He coughed to hide his embarrassment. "Er. . . dell'Angelo, you say. You don't look Italian." In fact, this Gabe looked kind of Swedish, despite the dark hair. Gaunt and thin, with prominent facial bones. Like Max von Sydow without the beard. "Where are you from?"
"I came here from North Dakota."
That explained the Swede look, Chuck thought. A lot of Scandinavians had settled the upper Midwest. "I saw another guy in a wheelchair a few minutes ado. Younger. Looked enough like you to be your brother."
Gabe looked uncomfortable. He seemed to be breathin&, funny. "That was Rafe. We were in a flying accident."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
Gabe shrugged philosophically. "With a little therapy, they tell me we should be up and walking in no time."
Chuck nodded. "That's good. So, you're a friend of Thor's, are you? I haven't seen you around before. At cons, I mean. Fandom is a small world these days."
"It seems like a big world to me. I just dropped in recently."
A neofan, then. Chuck grinned and gestured broadly. "And how do you like things so far?"
"Everything is very heavy."
Chuck laughed. "Sercon," he explained. " 'Serious and constructive activities.' Not 'heavy.' You'll have to learn the language if you're going to stay with us. Don't worry. You'll find plenty to entertain you. Not every fan activity is sercon." Chuck looked the question at Thor. Is this guy all right? There had been a time when fandom had few secrets, but no more. Can we trust him?
"Gabe and his brother haven't been able to get to cons," Thor said. "Too close to high tech. But they've lived in the future."
Chuck smiled. Thor was an undergrounder. Thor knew a lot of people who couldn't let fan sympathies show. And dell' Angelo wouldn't be their real names, either. "You've known them a long time, then?"
It was Thor's turn to grin. "Long enough."
"Great." He put his hand on Gabe's shoulder. "Really good to meet you. Have you met 3MJ yet?"
Gabe looked puzzled. "Not yet. Thor told me that this is his house."
"We call it the Tre-house. Wait'll you see his collection. Movie posters. Props. Costumes. Books. Original manuscripts. You know what 3MJ's greatest attribute is? He's got no taste at all."
The man in the wheelchair blinked his eyes rapidly and said, like a good straight man, "That's good?"
"Yes." Chuck waved an arm down the hallway. "See, he saves anything and everything. He doesn't pick and choose what suits one particular clique or literary style. His whole life is dedicated to SF."
Thor nodded agreement. "Maybe we'll have time to look at some of the collection." His grin faded. "Hope you don't have to, though."
These guys must be as hot as Thor! Wish I"-—Chuck suppressed his curiosity. It was hard to remember that there were some things he really didn't need to know. He knew he'd never tell, but-—
If the Feds could declare you homeless, they could help you. Help included all kinds of things: psychotherapy, drugs, electrical brain stimulus. Chuck had seen Henry Stiren after the Department of Welfare caught him hitchhiking with a half-done manuscript in his day pack. He'd been a hell of a promising writer before they helped him. Now he read what he'd once written and asked people if they liked it, and when they said they did, he cried.
Chuck shuddered. "Well, I hope you don't have to see it, but if you do get a chance to visit the collection, you'll see cyberpunk next to space opera; hard core next to New Wave. Science fiction, fantasy and horror. This is as close to its `national archives' as the Imagi-Nation comes. Thor, have you seen Bruce Hyde around anywhere?"
Thor stroked his beard. "Not lately. But I'm sure he's around someplace."
"Then I better be going. Someone thought he saw him upstairs in the library. Glad to have met you, Gabe." He patted the invalid on the shoulder. "Not many neofans drop in on us these days." And he hurried off.
* * *
Alex watched Chuck climb the stairs. "Can't we trust him?" he asked Thor. The roly-poly man looked like a baby-faced Mephistopheles, complete with goatee; but he had seemed pleasant enough.
"Sure, we can trust him," said Thor. "But it's one more risk. He runs Hocus Pocus, the biggest fanzine around. The authorities tolerate it because it's focused on fantasy, but Chuck manages to slip in some good old, technophile SF propaganda now and then."
"So, he's on our side, is he?"
Thor twisted a strand of his beard around his finger. "As much as anybody here. But you guys are Big News, and the Library Advisory Boards all read Hocus. Thor's face turned ugly. "I don't know how they get copies. Somebody sold out. But the fewer who know, the better. That minimizes the risk. Not Just to us but to Chuck Umber." He chuckled. "One day he'll realize that you answered his every question literally and kick himself."
"What did he mean by the `Imagi-Nation'?"
Thor released the brake on the wheelchair. "The danelaw is where the mundanes rule. Downers, you called them. The Imagi-Nation is us."
"I see." A small group, persecuted by its government, forced to hide its treasures and meet in secret. Arguably crazy, every one of them he'd seen, except for Sherrine. And they had risked everything, all their treasures, to rescue him from the Ice. It would hardly be polite to let them know that they were Downers, too.
Alex said, "I'm starting to realize what Mary meant."
"Mission control told us we had strange friends on Earth."
"None stranger," Thor agreed.
"Now I see what you're up against. It's like David facing Goliath."
Thor grunted, disparagingly. "Big deal. Remember who won that fight?"
"But why-—" He wanted to ask, why would someone like Sherrine do it? These others he could understand. Thor, running away, looking for some way to hit back. The others, some losers, none of them ding anything important-—but Sherrine with her looks and brains could do anything. He couldn't say any of that. "Why do you do it?"
Thor shrugged his massive shoulders. What else can we do? We believe in the future. We don't turn our backs on it, like the 'danes, and pretend that everything will always be the way it is today. Have you ever read science fiction?"
Alex shook his head. "A little."
"Well, you can see it in our stories. Mainstream literature is about Being. For character studies, it's probably the best genre around; but nothing happens, nothing changes. Imaginative literature is about Doing. About making the future, not just bemoaning it. We'll all be living in the future by and by. Some of us like to scout ahead."
"You make it sound like more than just a hobby."
"FIAWOL. Fandom is a way of life."
Alex opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment a small crowd of people emerged into the foyer from the west wing. They were pushing a large cardboard carton on a handcart. Inside the carton sat a burly, bearded man wearing a snorkle. He was grinnning while the others poured styrofoam packing chips into the carton, chanting, "Kill Seth! Kill Seth!"
The parade circled the base of the staircase, flowing around both sides of the wheelchair, and disappeared down the east wing. Silence descended. Alex had trouble finding his voice for several seconds. Finally, he croaked, "Er, Thor?"
He turned around and looked at the Nordic god. "What was that?"
Thor checked his watch. "They must be getting ready for the book auction. Hunh. I didn't think they'd scheduled it this early in the program."
"Book auction? Who were those lunatics?"
They turned right, into the north wing. Thor said, "No no no. Lunarians. A New York fan club. They raffle off books at the auction. Seth always wins, so now they kill him at every con so he can't buy any tickets. Last year, they made him `The Wicker Man.' "
Alex didn't ask him what "The Wicker Man" was. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
When they arrived at the meeting room, Alex saw Sherrine evicting a group of young women dressed in outlandish robes and armor. "Costumers," Thor told him, "preparing for the Masquerade." Neither the fabric nor the chain mail concealed very much and he noticed Gordon staring at the women with considerable interest. Alex stared, too.
The women were not grotesquely fat; but they may have massed as much as 60 kilos each. Parts of them bulged and hung in unusual ways. Gravity, he supposed. Their breasts and hips were nearly as rounded as those of the Eskimo women. They needed special clothing to hold their breasts in place. Some wore their hair so long that it hung to their waists in back.
Only one, a woman dressed in armor, wore hers sensibly short. In fact, if he pretended the armor was a space suit, she looked halfway normal. All in all, he admitted, Earth women did have a vague, exotic appeal. But true beauties like Sherrine were apparently rare down in the Well.
"I'm sorry," Sherrine told the costumers. "There's been a program change. Didn't you get the update? All costuming panels have been moved to the north wing, third floor."
"Third floor! No, we weren't told," the panel leader said. "How disorganized is this Con Committee an anyway? People have been looking for them all day. If they're hiding, I don't blame them!"
"I'm sorry," Sherrine said again. She pointed to Gordon and Alex. "It's a question of handicapped access. If you'd like to help keep the programming on course, I'll pass your names on to Ops-—"
"No thanks. We didn't come here to run errands for Bruce Hyde and his elitist gang." The costumers gathered themselves together and left in a billow of robes.
They settled into the meeting room and waited. The others dribbled in by ones and twos. Everyone behaved so furtively that Alex was sure they would draw attention to themselves. Bruce arrived grinning. "This is the one room," he announced, "where Chuck won't look for us."
Soon most of the rescue party was present. Doc (Sherrine told him) was a costumer himself and was busy on one of the panels; and Bob had to make a guest appearance at his mundane job at the University. Two strangers had joined them; Sherrine introduced them as Fang and Crazy Eddie.
Bruce rapped his chair arm with his knuckles. "Let's get this show on the road. First order of business is: What do we do with our guests, now that they are here?"
Fang tilted his head back. "Excuse me, Bruce; but let's follow form. I'm Con-Guest-of-Honor Chair, so I'd better lead this discussion."
Crazy Eddie frowned. He turned to Fang. "Besides, the Angels aren't Guests of Honor, so your subcommittee's jurisdiction-—"
"Sure they're GoH's," Mike interjected. "Who could be more honored at a Worldcon than a pair of spacemen? And they are our guests, Ergo: Guests of Honor."
"Spoken like a faaan, said Edward Two Bats. "Can't you understand? This is big. Bigger than Worldcon."
His eyes lit up, as if he had had a vision of the Holy Grail. There was a moment of hushed silence.
Alex spoke into it. "Excuse me. Do Gordon and I have any say in this?"
No, Fang replied after a moment's thought. "You aren't convention members. You don't get a vote."
"Say, that's right," said Mike. "They haven't paid the membership fee."
`That's silly," said Thor. "I'll lend them the ten bucks."
"We could DUFF them," Bruce suggested. "Plenty of money in the Down Under Fan Fund.
Fang shook his head. "No, that's to help Australians come to Worldcon. You guys aren't Australians, are you?"
Gordon looked bewildered. Alex shook his head.
Mike tried to look serious. "Well, but at the moment they are Down Under."
This announcement was greeted with respectful silence. Bruce nodded his head slowly. "I like it. I like it." He rapped the arm of his chair. "They are officially the DUFF members of this convention. As Con Chair, I so rule."
Three people spoke at once. "You can't do that! We have to take a vote."
Alex sighed and closed his eyes. Do they ever settle anything? He breathed in through his left nostril and out through-his right. It didn't help, but he was fascinated to learn he could do it, and it seemed at least as constructive as anything he was watching.
"Look," Crazy Eddie said, "this is serious!"
And yet-—things were being settled. It was always a pleasure to watch a master craftsman at his job. Alex began to enjoy the way Bruce ran the meeting. Bruce played the committee the way a jazzman played his sax.
He played Mike and Fang against Eddie Two Bats and against each other. He worked subtly and indirectly, only rarely resorting to direct action. Bruce ran the show. Crazy Eddie tended to forget this every now and then, but nobody made an issue of it. Alex made a whispered comment to Sherrine.
"Bruce is good at this."
She said, Bruce is SMOF-Three."
"A SMOF is a Secret Master of Fandom. Fen are a quirky and individual bunch and there aren't many who can handle them. Bruce is one. Benjamin Orange is another. Thank goodness he isn't here. Could you imagine two SMOFs at one con?"
Incredibly enough, he could. My God, he thought. I actually understood her.
"The first order of business," said Bruce for the fourth time in an hour, "is what do we do with the Angels."
Alex seized the opportunity. "Now that we re members of this committee-—"
Fang cut him off. "Only of the Convention, not the committee. But of course as guests you can-—"
"This is serious," Crazy Eddie protested. His big eyes were nearly filled with tears. "Can't you understand that?"
"You have a suggestion?" Bruce prompted.
Alex looked around helplessly. I guess not. We can't really do anything for ourselves until we can move around better."
"Steve's helping them," Sherrine said. "Teaching them asanas. For older people."
"Appropriate," Alex said. "We feel old."
It is an ancient mariner, he stoppeth one of three-—" Gordon said.
"Lousy fielding average," Mike said. "No long gray beards, either."
"You have read it!" Gordon exclaimed. "Coleridge and Pushkin, no one reads any more. You have-—"
Bruce bellowed, "QUIET!" For an instant the room was shocked silent.
"What's the problem anyway?" Thor asked. "We just keep them hidden until the other Angels send a ship. Then we whisk them off to the rendezvous."
"Well, sure," said Steve. "But how do we keep them hidden? And where? Here in Minneapolis? What if the pickup ship has to land in Arizona? Can we get them there in time?"
Alex glanced at Gordon, who bit his lip and lowered his eyes. No point putting this off he thought. He took a deep breath-from the stoma and through the left nostril. "There won't be a pickup ship," he told the committee.
Sherrine nodded to herself. Bruce's expression didn't change.
"Why not?" Fang demanded.
"They won't come down the Well."
Everyone spoke at once. "Gravity well, Earth is deep in it." "Niven's Belters called planets 'holes."' "Come off it, they'll come, these are ANGELS'!' "I knew we needed contingency plans-—"
Bruce made a whistle of his fingers. Into the silence that followed he asked, "What do you mean? The Angels won't come to get you?"
Alex looked around the circle of faces. Angels. A sulky adolescent stilyagin and a construction worker who can't go Out anymore. Maybe I should have said to hell with it, work EVA until my brains pour out through my nose. Why not?
"It's impossible," he said.
Sherrine nodded again, a tiny movement. "I thought so. Jesus, I'm sorry."
"But you're space pilots," Crazy Eddie said. "They need you-—"
Gordon laughed. Everyone looked at him. "What's funny?" Fang demanded.
"Alex is hero. They would come for him, but there is no way."
"They don't need me," Alex said. "And it doesn't matter anyway. There is no way for them to come get us."
"Coming down is no problem," Mike said. His voice lost the bantering tone. "Going back up-—"
"Exactly," Alex said. "Going back up. We don't have any ships that will land and take off again. We never did."
Sherrine was looking at him strangely. "You knew it all along."
"There here never was a time to tell you."
"Why is Alex a hero?" Edward Two Bats demanded.
"I'm a novelist, damn it! I'm not sure I ever met a hero before. Gordon?"
"Flare time," Gordon said. "Solar flares expand atmosphere. Mir became unstable. Major MacLeod brought a crew from Freedom . . ." He sensed incomprehension in the background murmur and the twisted frowns. "I start over.
"Flare on the sun. Too much energy floods day side of Earth. Top of air becomes hot. Atmosphere inflates like vast balloon, reaches far into space, wraps ghostly tendrils around Mir. Mir Space Station, made to fall free through vacuum, begins to slow and drift closer to Earth.
"Major MacLeod brought a crew from Freedom. They attached booster rockets to lift Mir to higher orbit without disruption. With Mir safe, he had to return to bolt rockets onto Freedom, because Freedom was dangered, too. His suit blew out. Had to patch it and use it again. Pressure suit, it must fit more closely than wife. Cannot borrow someone else's." Alex choked back a laugh. Gordon never noticed. "Once, twice, five times his suit spewed air. One can live through that, but not many times.
"Now he cannot go outside again. Alex MacLeod cannot live in vacuum, even short time will kill him."
"But you flew the scoopship!"
"Dipping takes a good pilot," Alex said. "I'm that. Paint stripes on a brick, I can fly it." He liked the look that Sherrine gave him. But-— "Dipping wants an expendable pilot. I'm that, too. Look, everyone knew we might not come back."
"So you're here for the duration," Bruce said.
"Looks that way."
Everyone was quiet. Alex looked from face to face. It was beginning to sink in: This wasn't just a short jaunt. These . . . fans hadn't signed on for a long haul. Pretty soon the novelty would wear off. Some already had second thoughts. And I can't blame them.
Sherrine put her hand on his arm. "So you volunteered knowing it might be one way."
He shook his head. "No, this is the first time like this. Usually nothing happens to dippers."
"Except sometimes they don't come back," Mike said. "Yeah, I can see it."
Sherrine hugged them, first Alex, then Gordon. "Orphans of creation," she said. "At least you're stuck among friends." Steve put a hand on each of their shoulders and squeezed gently but didn't say anything. Alex could feel the impression of Sherrine's ribs an cheekbones where she had pressed against him. Careful, he cautioned himself. Sherri is Bob's girl, like Mary was Lonny's. Like borrowing another man's space suit. Look where it got you.
Bruce looked thoughtful. "This changes things."
"Sure does," Crazy Eddie said.
"Look, I don't blame you," Alex started to say.
Bruce cut him off. "We'll have to find you both a niche here on Earth. Not going to be easy on you. We all read Heinlein's story."
" 'It's Great to Be Back,' " Sherrine said. "Yes. It must be that way. Living among the stars and then stranded on Earth."
Mike said, "First thing you need is Social Security and driver's license."
Gordon looked puzzled. "Driver license? For what, mass driver? Disk drive?"
Mike sighed. "Never mind."
"Identity papers," Alex said.
"Why do we need identity papers?" Gordon asked. "We are all droogs here, no?"
How they knew that "droog" meant "friend," Alex couldn't guess; but Mike actually, smiled. "Sure, we're all droogs," he said. "Illegal droogs."
"You need an ID," said Thor, "because 'the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave' has become 'the Land of the Fee and the Home of the Slave.' "
"Do you have ID?" Alex asked him.
He smiled. "Sure. Three or four."
"Free enterprise. They're the best kind."
"Sherrine?" Bruce asked.
"Risky. It was easier when I set things up for Thor. Now they have programs to watch for hackers."
"You probably wrote them," Steve said.
"Well, Ted Marshall and I worked on the Bytehound program, and we left a backdoor in, so I can probably manage it-—Sure. We can do it, maybe, but it's going to take some time at my terminal and I have to get hold of Ted."
"He's not coming," Bruce said. "Thinks he's being watched."
"It's important we don't give him away," Crazy Eddie said.
"So we make do until then," Fang said.
"Tricky, though," Thor said.
"What is this Eye Dee?" Gordon asked. "May I see?"
Fang took out a driver's license and handed it to him. Gordon looked at it carefully, turning it over and over in his hands. He read the form on the back. "It says here consent to have organs recycled. You can refuse, then? Very rich place." He held the card up to the light. "Does not look difficult if you have photograph. You do not have scanner and laser printer?"
"No, we have those," Mike said. "Just making a card isn't the problem. Everything's cross-linked now. If we make a bogus drivers license for Alex or Gordon, the IRS computer looks into the DMV computer and wonders why they never paid taxes before." He looked at Alex.
"But it can be done," Bruce said. "Just not easy anymore."
Alex frowned. "Computers are high technology. I thought everyone down here-—except you-—I thought most Downers hated technology."
Thor laughed. "They hate it all right. Computers, too. But they still use them."
"For themselves," Steve said. "They don't like others having them."
"Is illegal to own computer?" Gordon frowned.
"How do-—how can people read what you write? Like poetry? Stories?"
"It's illegal to own an unlicensed computer," Sherrine said. "But there are a lot of licensed ones, and-—well, the licensing laws are hard to enforce. So there are networks, and some private boards "
""There are still publishers," Bruce said. "A few good books get out. And like Sherrine says, there are private boards-—"
"Computer bulletin boards," Thor said.
"People exchange files. Not so common as they used to be, now that the phone system keeps crashing. But FAPA is still going," Sherrine said.
"I was in line for full membership in the Cult until I had to drop for missing deadlines," Fang said. "But Bruce is-—"
And disks are harder to get," Mike said. "But I still manage to publish File 880. . . "
"He's won twelve Hugos," Fang said.
For one glorious minute I thought I understood them-—
Crazy Eddie raised his hand and waved it. "I've got an idea."
Bruce looked worried, but nodded at him. "The Chair recognizes Eddie Two Bats."
Crazy Eddie stood and looked across his blade-like nose. "There are still technophiles in Southern California," he said. "Enclaves clustered around the old, defunct aerospace centers. I say we take the Angels there."
There were nods of agreement. "Makes sense," said Steve. "Angels would be welcomed there. Some places."
"That's right, you still live down there," Fang said. "Do you ever get to the Denny's on-—"
Bruce tapped his ring on the desk. "Edward Two Bats has the floor."
"I bet it would work!" Sherrine said.
Crazy Eddie nodded vigorously. "Damned straight! Then, after building our strength, we stage a coup! Take over in Sacramento, install the Angels as symbolic governors, and devote the State's resources to building a space shuttle to take them home again."
"So the question is how to get them to California," Bruce said.
"The Angels have to go underground," Fang said. "Work off the books. Doesn't pay so well as out front, but with no taxes you keep more, and nobody checks ID and credit cards." He and Thor exchanged glances. "It ain't so bad."
For a moment Alex felt panic. Then he realized that they took the good parts of Crazy Eddie's ideas and simply ignored the rest. And we don't have many choices anyway. "You're used to living underground," Sherrine said. "They're not. Look at them! No, I'll do something-—"
"The Greens lynched a hacker in Chicago," Mike said carefully. "Last month, but I think the boy's still hanging from the old Water Tower. Of course you know that."
"That was Flash. Flash couldn't resist letting his friends know what he did. So I'm more careful, that's all," Sherrine said.
"No, we can't let you risk that," Alex said. " I mean-—"
"Work underground, off books," Mike said. "Great. What can you do?"
Alex grunted. "I fly spaceships."
Bruce grinned. "Right. We'll send out your resume. But what did you do between flights?"
"I write poetry," Gordon said. "I would like to write science fiction."
"So would everyone here," Steve said. "Do you know how many people make a living writing science fiction? There weren't thirty in the whole country, at peak. Now, none."
"There's Harry Bean-—" someone said.
"He's a whore. He writes for the Greens," Bruce said. "Odd jobs. Alex? What can you do besides fly ships?"
"Construction engineer." He looked at his emaciated limbs. "And if Steve's right, I'll be able to do that again in about nine years."
"He is also teacher," Gordon said.
"Kindergarten. I was a day-care father," Alex admitted. The main advantage of the truth was that you didn't have to remember a lot of details. There were other advantages, too, he supposed.
Sherrine looked at him closely. Now she knows.
Thor shook his head. "Too bad. They do background checks on day-care workers, ever since the witch hunts. Even the centers who pay 'off the books' have to be careful. Lot of work for Sherrine, and you sure can't do that until she sets it up."
In the lengthy silence that followed, everyone looked at each other, but no one said anything. Finally Sherrine sighed.
"I'm not sure I can do it," she said. "Thor's right, they're paranoid about child molesters. I'd have to build you a whole history, everything, traffic tickets, education-—Look, it won't work. We can't fit them in, and we can't hide them." Fan and Thor started to object, but Sherrine overrode them. "We've just been over that. Short term, sure; but sooner or later they'd be discovered. No, there's only one option, and it took Crazy Eddie to find it. We've got to find a way to get them back into space."
"We?" said Bruce.
Mike beamed. "Of course. We'll get them high with illegal droogs."