The Phantom of the Paradise leaped out of the TV screen, as the audience, as always, made helpful comments. Sherrine pretended to watch as her thoughts leaped more wildly than the masked phantom.
Sending the Angels home wouldn't be simple even if they had a ship. Some of it she could do. With Bob to analyze the ballistics she ought to be able to write the code. Some would be tougher. Fuel. They'd have to steal that.
First things first. Without a ship, everything else was moot.
Bob came into the lounge. Had he followed her? When he waved at her and headed in her direction, she sighed.
He was wearing his Rotsler badge. A cartoon face studied the SS ROBERT K. NEEDLETON and thought, "Pretentious." The sharp nose partly covered the letters. Bob dropped beside her on the sofa, just close enough to be within her personal space, and put an arm on the back of the sofa behind her. He leaned close to her ear. "Any ideas yet?"
He certainly had ideas. A couple of fen sitting nearby grinned at her. Oh, Ghu! she thought. After tonight, everyone will think we're back together.
To some men, "no" meant "maybe" and "maybe" meant "yes." She hadn't seen Bob in two months; now she couldn't get rid of him. He was cheerfully impervious to her rebuffs; as if he were not programmed to accept the data. Like Halley's Comet, no matter how shaken up he was at each encounter, he kept coming back. Only he didn't wait seventy-six years.
Not that he was unattractive. He had been among her better lovers, back in the days when she hung out with the spa set. And maybe she only needed to get used to him again. He had known how to do things in a hot tub that . . . For that matter, he knew how to talk with a woman, not simply at her. He had been as interested in hearing about her computer work-—about LISP and LAN's and baud rates-—as he was in telling her about his physics. There was only one thing he seemed incapable of understanding.
And that was endings.
Bob was a romantic. Most men were. They thought that a relationship had a beginning and a middle, but no end. Danny, the time traveler in The Man Who Folded Himself, had made that mistake. He kept going back and going back, trying to rekindle the romance with Donna; until finally he had kindled disgust and revulsion in her. The secret was to quit while you were at the top go out like a champion and not fade into an object of pity like a has-been fighter who couldn't quit the ring.
She didn't want that to happen between her and Bob. She liked him too much. So keep it neutral. Keep it professional.
"You know, that Gordon is kind of cute," she said. And how was that for a neutral, professional remark?
His arm made an aborted move toward her shoulder. "Oh?"
"Yes." She spoke in a whisper. "Not just his background-—a space pilot, by Ghu!-—but the way he looks. His facial bones and his little potbelly. And his puppy-dog eyes. He always seems so sad and withdrawn, it makes me want to cuddle him and cheer him up."
"Umm. I'm feeling a little sad and withdrawn myself," Bob said hopefully.
She slapped him backfingered on the arm. "Oh, you know what I mean. He seems so lonely, cut off forever from his home and his friends."
"It was his fault they were marooned, you know."
"What?" She had raised her voice slightly and someone sitting in a nearby chair shushed her. She lowered her voice and leaned closer to Bob. Bob helped her do that. "What do you mean?"
"He told me so himself." Bob whispered into her ear as if they were necking; and she flashed back to three nights ago, when he had woken her from the sleep of the innocent to recruit her into the Rescue Party. A good cover, he had said, in case anyone was listening. Yeah, a damned good cover. He probably thought of it himself. "This morning, when I brought them breakfast . . . Doc had taken 'Gabe' into the washroom to, uh, well, help him . . . you know."
"Yeah. Go on."
"Well, once we were alone, the kid let it all spill out. It seems that during the missile attack, he shouted out a warning in Russian and Alex didn't understand until too late; and that's why they were hit."
"Oh, no! It must be terrible to have to live with that."
Bob shrugged. "He's young. He'll get over it. That's the wonderful thing about being young. The point is, the kid-—"
She never learned what Bob's point was. Chuck Umber burst into the room waving a folded-up newspaper in the air. "Angels down!" he announced and flipped the lights on. "A scoopship went down on the Ice yesterday!" He shut off the VCR player.
"Hey!" someone shouted. "Turn the Phantom back on."
"No, wait! Look at this." Chuck opened the paper to the front page and held it up. AIR THIEVES CRASH ON ICE, screamed the headline. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm and began passing them out.
A storm of voices greeted him. "What? Where?" "How'd it happen?" "Are the Angels okay?" "How come we're just hearing about it?" "Turn the Phantom back on."
Bob leaned into her ear. "That tears it," he whispered. "How long before someone figures things out?" Sherrine grabbed a copy of the paper from Chuck as he went by and flipped it open. She and Bob huddled over it. She scanned the story quickly, as much to learn what hadn't been said as to learn what had. It wouldn't do to show too much familiarity with the story.
The newspaper report was reasonably straightforward, a bit long on loaded adjectives and short on detail, but not much worse than the usual news. There was no mention of what had happened to the Angels. A sidebar, entitled DEATH RAYS FROM OUTER SPACE, told of "beams of deadly microwaves aimed at the search parties" and cautioned the reader that "microwaves are a form of radiation, which causes cancer."
Sherrine pointed. "Nice placement on the comma."
Bob just shook his head. "You'd think they'd know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. They can't tell one type of asbestos from the other, either."
"Why do you think they don't know the difference?"
He looked at her for a moment. Then he grunted, "You're a worse pessimist than I am," and turned back to the reading. "The 'danes really think the microwaves were aimed at the search parties," he said. "They don't see it as a decoy maneuver."
A shadow fell across the paper. "What makes you think the microwaves were decoys?"
Sherrine looked up and saw Chuck Umber. Bob opened his mouth to speak and thought better of it. Sherrine said, "Just listen, Chuck." She shook the paper and folded it. " 'As is so often the case when people rely on computers, none of the death rays actually struck the search parties.' " She gave Chuck a twisted smile. "Chuck, they tell the public that computers are unreliable-—"
"Trust the Farce, Luke," Bob interjected.
"-—but do you swallow that? If the Angels didn't hit anyone, it means they weren't aiming at anyone. Can you think of any other reason why they'd divert part of the power beam from Winnipeg?"
Chuck pursed his lips and presently nodded. "If the targeting system snafued . . . No, you're probably right. The microwaves were meant to hide the scoopship's IR footprint. Damnation!" He ground one fist into his palm. "I wish some of us had been there. We'd've gotten the Angels off the Ice before the Government grabbed 'em."
It was a moment before Sherrine found her voice. "Yeah, Chuck. Too bad." She ducked back behind the newspaper.
More people were pouring into the lounge. Dick Wolfson ejected the video cartridge and turned on the all-news channel. "C'mon," someone cried, "it was just getting to the good part, where Beef gets electrocuted." Sherrine thought it must be Dennis, the comics artist who had created The Niki Birds. It was said that you could play a contraband copy of The Phantom of the Paradise anywhere in the country and Dennis would be there in time for the ending.
"Settle down, everyone!" roared a bull voice. "Let's hear what the 'danes have to say."
The lounge quieted as the fans concentrated on the tube. The impeccably groomed newsreader recited several items of war news. Swedish marines had forced a landing on the Pomeranian coast; but their Russo-Lithuanian allies had suffered a stunning defeat at Ukranian hands. No one had used nukes, yet; but the world was holding its breath.
Must be near the beginning of the headline cycle, Sherrine thought. She felt mildly offended that the Angels were not the top story. Let's get to the Angels. When the next story turned out to be a presidential photo opportunity, she almost screamed.
Finally, the screen displayed a shot of Piranha embedded in the ice. "This update on the forced landing of the air scooper from the space habitats. Scoopships are built to steal air from the Earth and take it to the space stations. Many experts blame the cold weather we are having on the loss of this air. Air Defense forced the latest scoopship to land in North Dakota."
The scene moved past the anchorman to a long shot of the glacier looking down the landing path toward the ship. "Experts now believe that the spacemen escaped from the glacier using inappropriate technology."
Bob snorted. "Inappropriate? It worked!"
"Hush, and listen," said Sherrine.
". . . the efforts of the space stations to stop the search with death rays. Meanwhile, the public should be on the lookout for possibly two illegal aliens believed to be on the loose."
Sherrine blinked at the artist's conception of spacemen. The spectrally thin creatures in the sketch looked like famine victims who had been stretched upon a rack. Someone in the room snickered. Others applauded.
"The aliens are believed to be very tall because of the unnatural environment they live in. But, because they live in zero gravity-—"
"Free fall, damn it; not zero gravity!" That sounded like Wade Curtis.
"-—must be extremely strong, as well . . ." Onscreen, stock footage from the construction of SUNSAT showed an astronaut handling an enormous solar collector panel. ". . . so citizens are advised to be cautious."
Sherrine did not know who was advising the government searchers, but they could not have helped the Angels more if they had tried. The exaggerated height and leanness, the misinterpretation of the effect of free fall on body strength . . .
The ruling coalition of proxmires, rifkins, falwells and maclaines scorned "the materialist science story." As if there were another kind of science; as if it were some thing invented, like myth, to be discarded when a better 'story' came along. It was hardly surprising that the government had not sought out scientific opinion.
Or had they? Hah! What if they'd asked a closet fan? For that matter the scientists themselves, the pariahs of academe, might not volunteer to educate the very people who shunned them. Sometimes you want an opponent to go on sounding like a fool.
S-s-sooo . . . She grinned and hugged Bob, who seemed surprised and not unpleased. Why, the Angels were nearly home free! If people were looking for emaciated supermen, they wouldn't look twice at Gabe and Rafe.
Harry and Jenny began a song.
"In a tower of flame in Capsule Twelve, I was there. I know not where they laid my bones, it could be anywhere, but when fire and smoke had faded, the darkness left my sight, I found my soul in a spaceship's soul riding home on a trail of light.
"For my wings are made of tungsten, and my flesh is glass and steel, I am the joy of Terra for the power that I wield. Once upon a lifetime, I died a pioneer, Now I sing within a spaceship's heart, Does anybody hear?"
"Anyone having knowledge of the whereabouts of the air pirates should call the police. Do not approach them, they are armed and dangerous."
"We have to do something." A man's voice. Crying.
"I don't know, I don't know, but we have to do something-—"
"It's too late, by twenty years."
"My thunder rends the morning sky, yes, I am here. The loss to flame when I was man, now I ride her without fear, for I am more than man now, and man built me with pride, I led the way and I lead the way to man's future in the sky.
"For my wings are made of tungsten, my flesh of glass and steel, I am the joy of Terra for the power that I wield. Once upon a lifetime, I died a pioneer, Now I sing within a spaceship's heart, Does anybody hear? Does anybody hear?"
The song faded out, and the room was quiet, except for Curtis, who stared at the wall and muttered over and over, "God damn them. We were so near. God damn them all."
The room spouted a geyser of talk when the newsreader finished. Most of the fen chattered excitedly to each other; but Sherrine noticed a few thoughtful faces. Chuck Umber was busily scribbling in a pocket notebook. Wade Curtis was sunk into himself, elbows on knees and chin in hands, mouth slack, eyes hooded . . . eyes touched Sherrine's, wandered away, wandered back. . .
Drunk. Can't say I blame him.
"Come on," said Bob, rising from the sofa and tugging her arm. "We've got to tell the others."
She pulled him back down. "I think they already know. Quiet. I want to hear what gets said here."
"This crowd? Why?"
"Ideas. That's what fen are for."
Someone in the room spoke through the din. "What are we going to do about it?"
The chatter died down. "Do? What can we do?"
Chuck Umber took center stage. "Look," he said, "the 'danes say that the Angels escaped. Well, they sure didn't escape on their own. They had to have had help. We've got to find out who's got them and offer to help."
"Maybe the Eskimos have them," Horowitz suggested. "The paper says that there were tracks around the scooper. "
"It doesn't matter," Chuck replied. "Well find out who has them, sooner or later."
Bob tried to sink down lower in the sofa. Sherrine's pressure on his elbow stopped him.
"Maybe we shouldn't try to contact them, Chuck," said Dick Wolfson. "Whoever's got the Angels might have to hide them for a long time. The fewer people who know who and where, the better."
Chuck shook his head. "Not when the people are fen. I'm going to try and reach the Oregon Ghost. He must know something."
"Sure, Chuck. The Ghost runs his own fanzine. You think he'd let a competitor in on whatever scoop he has?"
Chuck stood up taller. "He will. Because this is the-—biggest thing to hit fandom since Star Wars . . . orApollo Thirteen. We've, got to transcend factions and feuds and pull together."
Harry and Jenny had started a song, singing softly as background as the others talked. ". . . and he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die, but he rode her into history, on a fire in the sky!"
Wade Curtis uncurled and stretched and said, "They can't hide them."
There was an instant hush when the writer spoke.
Drunk or sober, the hard science fiction writers were supposed to know everything. Fans laughed at them when they made mistakes, but always listened . . . and Wade Curtis had a voice that filled every corner.
"Whoever it is, they can't hide the Angels forever. Think it through. No, there's only one thing to do, get the Angels back where they belong. God damn NASA. Where we all belong. God damn them, they ate the dream. For money. For money. The Angels belong up there. We have to send them back."
"That's crazy." "No Wades right." "Hell, he's drunk." "Wouldn't you be?" "But how?" "They'll need a rocket." "Where can you find a rocket these days?"
Sherrine clenched Bob's upper arm so hard he winced. Yes! Yes, where can you find a rocket? She leaned forward, to hear better.
Wade laughed. "The nearest rocket I know of is Ron Cole's Titan."
Chuck and some of the other older fen laughed, too. A younger fan spoke up. "What Titan is that?"
Wade flipped a hand. Someone put a drink in it. "Old fannish legend has it that Ron once cobbled a Titan Two together from spare parts he bought from government surplus sales. Cost him less than a thousand dollars, too. He was on the Board of Trustees for the Metropolitan Museum of Boston. He wanted it for an exhibit, of course. The Boston papers caught him trying to get the motors through the doors. They ran an article calling him 'the world's sixth nuclear power.' "
Sherrine clenched and unclenched her fists. But where is it now? She dared not draw attention to herself. But a Titan! Titans had lifted the Gemini capsules into orbit.
Chuck laughed. "I remember that article, Wade. Boy, was Ron mad! He tried to tell the papers that he did not have a nuclear warhead; but you know how 'danes are. Rockets equals missiles equals weapons equals nukes. Sometimes I wonder if Ron didn't go ahead and build a bomb just for the hell of it. As long as everyone thought he had one . . . "
"Building a warhead isn't as easy as the 'danes think. I don't care how many TV movies they show with terrorists and mad scientists whipping 'em up in their garage. Uranium hexafloride isn't just radioactive, it's toxic as hell. Refining U-235 is not something you can do in your garage; not without an ample supply of disposable terrorists," Wade said wistfully.
Chuck ran his fingers through his goatee. "Still, if anyone could do it, Cole could. He always had something wonderful in his pocket. A laboratory opal, a big chunk of artificial sapphire for armor, a couple of strips of platinum-—"
"I never knew why. Some failed project. And once he typed a guy a check on a sheet of soft gold. The first check bounced, see-—"
"Not Ron," Wade insisted. "Not a bomb. He knows better. But I did hear that he squirreled away a couple of tank cars of RP-1 and LOX. Just in case he decided to take a trip." He shook his head. "Poor guy is mad as a hatter these days. They kept booting him out of one museum after another. Didn't like his technophile leanings. Is it still paranoia when they really are out to get you?"
"Where is he now?" asked Wolfson. Sherrine held her breath.
Wade pursed his lips. "Ron and his Titan wound up in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry. Don't know where his fuel trucks went, maybe there. The LOX is long gone anyway, of course, but that's not so hard to make . . ."
Sherrine's heart pounded. Chicago! Why, that was just a short drive across Wisconsin. So close! She tugged on Bob's arm. "Let's get up to the room. We've got to tell the others."
* * *
Wade Curtis listened with half an ear while Chuck and Dick debated the wisdom of searching for the Angels.
Someone had to know something. Any two people in the country were connected by a chain of no more than two intermediate acquaintances. That was elementary probability. So, he knew someone who knew someone who knew the people who had the Angels. The question was who? He knew a lot of someones.
Reason it the other way. Start with the people who had the Angels. Figure out who they had to be.Government? Possible . . . but then the government would be bragging, the ACLU would be protecting their rights . . .
Inuit? Maybe, but not for long. The Inuits lived a physical life, and the Angels weren't going to be ready for that.
Some third group. Someone with medical resources, because if they didn't have medical resources the Angels would be dead already. Maybe they were. Assume they weren't, see where that got you. Like in playing bridge, decide what it takes to make the contract; then assume the cards did fall that way, and go for it.
Probably somebody here in this room knows. So close! But no, they'd have told me, Wade thought.
No. You're a goddam drunk, and sober you wouldn't trust a drunk with anything this big. Why should they?
He was distracted momentarily by two fans winding their way through the crowd. Bob Needleton, he recognized. Physicist at U-Minn. The other he recalled as a fafiated femmefan he had known years ago. Computer whiz. "What's their big hurry?" he asked, nodding toward the two.
Dick Wolfson grinned. "If you'd've seen them earlier, you wouldn't have to ask. I didn't know Sherrine and Bob were back together. Haven't seen her in years. "
Dr. Sherrine Hartley, only Hartley wasn't really her name, it was her first husband's. She'd been active in fandom once.
"Hunh." Chuck Umber seemed miffed. "There are more important issues at hand than that."
"Yeah," said another fan. "Like how to let the Angels know about the Titan."
Wade fell silent while the other fen debated. It was all moot anyway. Until they knew who had the Angels and how to contact them there was no point in composing a message. Someone handed him a drink, and he swallowed mechanically. Besides-—" It's the wrong message," he said, but nobody heard.
If the Angels did want to get back upstairs-—and Wade could not see where they had any other option-—then it was silly to try setting up Ron Cole's old terror weapon. There were better ways anyhow. He narrowed his eyes in thought. Yes, sir. Much better ways. But his head hurt. Someone handed him another drink.
* * *
Alex stared at the two-headed creature with the nubbled lips. Doc had wheeled him upstairs for the meeting, opened the door, and there it was.
"It" was a smallish skeleton. The heads, set at the ends of long, flexible necks, were flat and triangular. Each contained what Alex took for a mouth and an eye socket. Between the necks was a thick bulge of bone. The creature stood on three legs ending in clawed hooves, with the rear leg attached to the spine by a complex hip joint. There was a small plaque attached to it.
Alex gripped the wheels of his chair and rolled himself across the room. He squinted at the plaque.
SIMPSON: RESEARCH AND DESIGN
Contents: ONE MODEL OF PUPPETEER SKELETON
THIS MODEL, BASED ON A RARE SPECIMEN TRADED
FROM THE KZIN, SHOWS THE PUPPETEER JUST BEFORE
THE EXTENDED PHASE OF A HIGH-SPEED LOPE . . .
Alex shook his head. He could just imagine the consternation if, after the fall of civilization, paleontologists of the future were to unearth this . . . um . . . sculpture.
"Do you like him?" Doc Waxman wheeled Gordon into the room and parked him beside Alex. He was a gift from Speaker-to-Seafood."
Alex thought he should be used to this sort of thing by now. "Whom?"
"Nat Reynolds, the writer. It's a long story, involving a drunken conversation with a lobster Savannah. I'll tell you about it someday." He whistled cheerfully while he set up a tray with glasses and an ice bucket. Alex couldn't help grinning. Doc was the most determinedly cheerful man he had ever met. He was easily sixty; yet he had not hesitated to dash out onto the glaciers with the younger fans, on what might easily have become a fatal mission-of-mercy for two strangers. You had to like a man like that.
"You should see my collection . . . Hi, Fang, Bruce. Come on in. You should see my collection of fannish art. Or rather, you should have seen it. Statues, paintings. Worlds of the imagination. Kelly Freas . . . I have Hraani Interpreter. Bonestell. Jainschigg's 'Eifelheim' original. Aulisio's 'Mammy Morgan.' Pat Davis. Her 'Well-springs of Wonder' can bring tears to my eyes. She's here at the Con, Davis is. You saw her mermaid costume at the Meet the Pros?" He shook his head. "A lot of it's gone now; confiscated at busted cons. Now I only bring one object with me when I come. We keep the rest hidden in the bilge."
"What's a bilge?"
You could see the gears adjust in Waxman's head. "My wife and I live on a houseboat in the Marina. We've sealed everything into watertight containers and hid 'em in the, ah, bottom of the boat." He chortled. "Won't help in a thorough search; but it discourages the casual pest, now that we're not supposed to treat the sewage anymore . . . Stop by when you get the chance and we'll haul some pieces out to display."
Alex grinned. "How can I turn down such an invitation?"
"Easy," said Fang opening a can of beer with one hand. "We're sending you back upstairs, remember? On a fire in the sky."
Sure, thought Alex. "Have you found a rocket yet?"
Fang scowled at his drink. "No, but . . ."
"But we will," Bruce insisted. "Fen are nothing if not persistent. There are stories. Rumors. We'll trace 'em down. One or another's bound to be authentic. The Ghost may know something."
The others came in by ones and twos. Mike. Edward Two Bats. Steve was glowing, as if he had just finished a heavy workout, which Alex thought was rather likely. Thor was wearing faded jeans, with his tin whistle protruding from a back pocket. He had pulled his long, golden hair back into a ponytail. Not too long ago, Alex knew, such hairstyles on men were regarded as outré. Now they were becoming the norm. He wondered if the sudden advent of long hair and beards during the sixties had been an instinctive ecological response to the imminent ice age; like animals growing heavier pelts just before a severe winter.
"Got it," Mike announced. He searched the refreshment tray and came up with a wine bottle.
"Got what?" asked Bruce warily.
"A way to get the Angels upstairs."
The others waited. "Well?"
"Bang Bang." He opened the bottle.
Edward Two Bats looked at him. "Bang Bang?" Light dawned in his ekes. "Oh, no. No."
"Excuse me," said Alex, "but what the hell is Bang Bang?"
Crazy Eddies hands came up like a fence. "You're crazy, Mike! Orion is fucking radioactive! The whole world made a treaty-—"
Mike overrode him. "It's simple. You get a big, thick metal plate. Real thick. You put an H-bomb underneath and set it off. Believe me, that sucker will move." He smiled broadly. Edward Two Bats snarled.
Alex looked at Bruce. "He's not serious, is he?"
"Before you can come down again," Mike continued, "you throw another bomb underneath." He held his hand out, palm down, and jerked it upward in steps. "Bang, bang, bang. Get the picture?"
Alex got the picture. He liked his earlier idea about sticking a missile up his ass better. "I think there may be some difficulties with your plan," he said.
"Oh, sure. Details." Detail work, Alex could tell, was not Mike's forté.
Bob and Sherrine arrived, out of breath and flushed. They paused in the doorway, breathing, heavily and grinning from ear to ear. "We have a ship," Bob gasped.
Alex felt a shiver run through him. The others stiffened. A rocket ship? They'd found one? But a ship was only half the battle. There was fueling and guidance and . . . It was madness. So why should he be shaking?
It was a fragile thing, this imaginary spacecraft, and Alex feared to touch it. He asked, "What sort of bird is it? What kind of shape is it in?"
"We overheard Wade Curtis down in the movie lounge." Sherrine sank into a chair. "Thanks." She took the tea that Doc handed her. "They were listening to the news and jabbering about it and ol' Wade, Ghu bless him, he cut right to the heart of it. The Angels can't hide out indefinitely. And he mentioned that Ron Cole had a rocket, and-—"
Bruce snapped his fingers. "Cole! That's right! There were stories, years and years ago. I didn't think they were true, though. Isn't he in Washington, at the Smithsonian?"
Sherrine shook her head. "No. The rocket is at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. And get this. Wade says Cole has fuel for it!"
They all whooped except Alex. "How much fuel?" he insisted. "And what kind of bird is it? It won't do us any good if it just farts on the launch pad."
Sherrine looked at him. "I don't know how much fuel. Wade said it was a Titan Two. Does it matter?"
"A Titan?" He exchanged glances with Bob and Bruce. "Titans were smaller than the Saturns, weren't they?"
Bob nodded. "A two-stage rocket with a thrust of . . . well, enough oomph to put a Gemini into orbit. A Gemini held two men. Freedom's what . . . two hundred fifty miles up? One of the Geminis reached seven hundred, didn't it?"
"A Titan Two has more than enough lift," said Bruce, "if there's enough fuel."
"Meet them halfway," suggested Thor.
"Halfway?" said Alex.
Thor had his tin whistle out and was playing an imaginary tune with his fingers. "Seems to me that if we could just get enough fuel to put you on a decent suborbital, the Angels could rendezvous and pick you up. What did Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone? A hundred fifteen miles or so, wasn't it? That should be doable from Freedom."
"That's a good idea, Thor," said Sherrine.
The muscular blond smiled. "Baseball," he said.
"The Angels can't handle grounders; but I figured anybody can catch a pop fly."
Mike laughed and shook his head.
"What's so funny?" asked Bruce.
"Certainly not Thor's joke," said Fang.
Mike wiped his eyes. "It just hit me. Freedom orbits two hundred fifty miles straight up, right? That's less than the distance from here to Chicago! We have to travel farther to, get the rocket than we would travel in the rocket itself."
"There's a little more to it than that," Alex said. "Velocity matching is tricky."
"It's not the distance," Bob said. "It's the energy."
Mike sobered instantly. "I know that." He stuffed his hands in his pants pockets and wandered to the window. The blinds were open; and, outside, stars dusted the icy sky. He stared at the twinkling lights. "I know that," he said softly.
With the pollution gone, the stars were so clear. You'd think that was the point of the exercise.
Bruce turned to Alex. "How about it? If Cole doesn't have enough fuel to reach orbit, could the Angels at least rendezvous with a suborbital?"
"They could," Alex agreed reluctantly, "if it were high enough and on the right vector. It's trickier than just flinging it up, and it would cost fuel-—but yeah. They can do it."
He exchanged glances with Gordon. Would Lonny even bother: Good ol' Lonny would weigh the cost of the fuel for the rendezvous versus the benefit of getting two duds back; and, no matter how you sliced it, twice zero did not make for a respectable return on investment.
Gordon looked worried. He was probably imagining the trip. Arcing up on a nice smooth parabolic trajectory. Hitting the top. Earth curves away below, waiting . . . Sorry, we just couldn't afford to meet you. And then an equally smooth parabolic trajectory down.
Alex gave him a nod. Don't worry, Gordo. It'll never come off. So what's to worry? Gordon twitched a smile.
Mike frowned and half-sat on the window sill. Alex could see the stars over his shoulder; and damn if one of them wasn't moving!
Somebody's home, once his own, was tracing a curve across the lack sky. Navstar? Mir? Freedom herself? Without an ephemeris, he couldn't tell-— looking up from Earth's surface disoriented him-—but he was surprised at how much the sight of it ached.
He would have to go back. Have to. Or die trying. And no one was going to come and fetch him. So he would have to do it himself.
He looked at Gordon and saw the hope there. Gordon couldn't guess how many hurdles remained. Just find the bird and light it.
All right, he thought. Torch it off and I'll fly it. I owe it to the kid to take him back.
Bruce scowled. "We're just spinning our wheels here. We need a plan of action." He ticked points off on his fingers. "Number One, is the Titan for real? You know how fannish legends can build. For all we know, all Cole ever had were the components."
"Could still use those," said Edward Two Bats.
Bruce blinked at him.
"If we have to, we'll assemble the damned thing ourselves," he explained.
Bruce started to say something, then shrugged. "Second, we need fuel. Does Ron actually have any, or is that just story, too? If so, how much of it does he have and where is it and how do we load it aboard?"
Thor grinned. He pulled a rubber hose from his pocket. "Same way we fueled Bob's van."
Alex had a mental picture: Crazy Eddie with a giant syphon drawing off LOX from a convenient tank. Don't suck too hard on that hose . . .
"Third," continued Bruce, "we need a launch site where we can erect the Titan. And fourth, we need to get the Angels there, fuel the bird, and then light it off without being noticed or caught by the authorities."
Crazy Eddie rubbed his hands together. "Piece of cake," he said.
* * *
Bed-time exercises, Alex thought. He bent way back with his arms stretched out above his head so that his body formed a perfect bow. He could see the ceiling of the third-floor room he and Gordon shared in the mansion. His legs felt like rubber. Steve supported him with a hand beneath his shoulders.
"There, you see?" said Steve. "The muscles are there. It just takes some getting used to. Even falling free, you use your muscles to move things around; you still have to overcome the inertia. The difference down here is your legs have to learn to keep your body upright all the time, without conscious thought."
"If you say so," Alex responded.
"Think of it as bench-pressing one hundred eighty pounds all day long."
"Piece of cake." Alex suddenly realized that Steve was not supporting his shoulders anymore. He wobbled and semaphored with his arms.
"Steady," said Steve again putting a hand behind his shoulder blades. "Now, I'm going to take you through a simplified soorya namaskar. Youlet me know if anything overtaxes you. Now, exhale and bend all the way forward until your hands touch the floor. It's okay if you bend your knees. You, too, Gordon. That's right. No, in line with the feet. Good. Ordinarily, I'd have you tuck your head between your knees, but . . . Now, hold that position."
"I think I'm being overtaxed," said Alex. His arms and legs felt like bands of fire. His thigh muscles quivered.
"No, not yet. You're fooling yourself. You're working out, and your body says, 'That's enough, I can't take anymore.' But it's just trying to con you. If you quit, the rest of the day you'll hear your body laughing at you."
Alex's muscles were on fire, and the speech wasn't helping. He looked at Gordon. The kid was holding the pose and grinning. Smart-ass. just because he was younger . . . Alex kept staring at him until he saw the leg muscles tremble. Then he gave Gordon a smirk in return.
Steve took them through a series of twelve poses. Each one forced Alex to extend a muscle group that he was unaccustomed to using. Getting around at the bottom of the Well was certainly different from getting around in orbit. Upstairs, when he kicked off a wall surface, or flexed to a landing on another, he used those same leg muscles to oppose the same body mass. But here he had to do so constantly, not just at kickoff and touchdown. Just as if he were in the centrifuge or aboard an accelerating ship.
It was uncomfortable, but not exactly unpleasant. In fact, living in an acceleration frame had its advantages. Drinking was easier, for one thing. Objects stayed where you put them. And he always woke up in the same place he went to sleep, even without using straps.
That's the spirit! I'm a stranger in a strange land fullof wonders and delights. What was the point of being marooned if you couldn't enjoy it? He needed to embrace Doc Waxman's attitude; or Steve's, or even Mike's. The Round Mound paraded his seemingly inexhaustible store of knowledge with the same sort of delight as the kids Alex knew in the day-care center. Gee, Mister MacLeod, look what I found! Mister Mac! Mister Mac, look at this! Isn't it neat! That was Mike. Each nugget of information was fascinating. The world was full of new-found marvels and he wanted to share the excitement with everybody. They all did. They had a certain sense. It wasn't a sense of ennui or cynicism. It was . . .
A sense of wonder.
That was it. A sense of wonder, in the fine old original meaning of the word. They wondered at their world. Because when you did that, everything was wonder-full.
Later, after Steve had gone, Alex lay abed in the dark, breathing slowly and naturally, imagining the prana from the air streaming into his body, strengthening it. Prana was the universal energy, manifesting itself in gravitation, electricity, nerve currents, thought. A kind of Hindu unified field theory. It was nonsense, of course. There was no such energy, and Steve knew it as well as Alex did.
Still, the mind-body interface was a funny thing and nobody really knew how it worked. As a metaphor, a mental focus, prana worked quite well. He tried to imagine a ball of light in his body, with glowing strands coming from his mouth and nostrils connecting with the sun and distant stars. Images were the tools of the mind, and a practical person used whatever tools came to hand. Sometimes what was important was not what was true, but what you believed was true.
Like cobbling together a spaceship and flying into space.
Believing wouldn't make it happen; but not believing would make it not happen. Everything starts as somebody's daydream.
"What?" He turned his head. In the dark he could not see Gordon, but he could sense the youngster's presence in the other bed.
"About . . . About the dip trip . . ."
"What? That again?" Couldn't the kid let it be? I'd like to have seen him do better. "What about it?" he snapped.
"I'm sorry I didn't speak English."
". . . When?"
Gordon twisted around, painfully, to look at him. "When? In final innocent carefree moment before missile shred Piranha's fin!"
Idiot. "Gordon, it was too late. The missile must have been in flight before I, before, hell. I should have torched off and gone home. They'd found us. We knew it."
"Maybe we could have made another orbit. Only, we don't carry all that much oxygen. And we needed the nitrogen, we did, that's not . . . not just Lonny talking."
"Then it wasn't what I said. Or didn't."
It had really been bothering Gordon. The stilyagin must have flunked some math courses. "What do you picture me doing about anything, with a couple of seconds to work with? What kind of acceleration is that to move a mass like Piranha, with three tiny embarrassed fins and the scoop dragging us, too?"
Silence filled the blackness between them. Finally, Gordon spoke again. "Alex, do you think this Titan business will work?"
Alex crossed his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling. Blackness should have stars in it, he thought. "I don't know. If there is a ship and if we can find fuel . . . What do you think?"
He heard a heavy sigh in the darkness. "If we can rendezvous, no problem. If they have to come and snatch us as we go past . . . They will not do it."
"No, I don't think they would."
Gordon hesitated. "Maybe my family can . . ."
"Maybe they could what? Overrule Lonny or Sergei? Not a chance. They can count as well as we can. They've got enough fingers. Hell, you know it's not the personal anger. Not a Floater in orbit would hesitate to risk his life to save another. But when we use common resources, the entire station is at risk, and we have to draw the line. Start making exceptions and where do you stop? When everyone is dying because too much has been used up?"
He was beginning to sound unpleasantly like Lonny Hopkins. "No, your folks will cry as you arc past"-—Which is more than anyone will do for me-—" and they'll curse God that they can't come out and snag you; but they won't jeopardize the station for no other gain than two more mouths to feed."
Alex remembered the old Eskimo on the glacier describing how his wife and daughter had been killed and eaten by his erstwhile comrades. And he hadn't chased after the cannibals and he hadn't wasted any tears. Old Krumangapik hadn't been cruel or heartless. Alex had seen the pain in the old man's eyes. But when you lived on the edge, you learned to cut your losses. Krumangapik had never heard of cost-benefit ratios, but he knew that in his milieu he could waste nothing, not even tears.
Eskimos abandoned their aged and infirm to the Ice. Krumangapik had done it. During their nighttime trek across the Ice, warmed by that invisible beam of prana from SUNSAT, he had told of building his mother's Final Igloo.
She was old and frail and she had insisted. She even picked the spot. When it was completed they had hugged each other and said good-bye; and Krumangapik had sealed the entryway to keep the wolves out and left her there and never looked back.
Alex shivered as he remembered. "A duty to die."
How long would it be before elderly Floaters took themselves to the airlocks out of a similar sense of duty? Yes. That was how they would do it. No injections, because they had to conserve the medicines. No slashed wrists, no blood droplets to purge from the air system. They would climb into the airlock, nude, so as not to lose the fabric of their clothing. They would just turn on the pumps to evacuate the chamber. Alex remembered dying such a death. Later, a detail would reenter the airlock and salvage the valuable organics.
Perhaps that was the most unfortunate consequence of the new era of shortages, both in Orbit and down in the Well. That it forced them all, Downer and Floater alike, to be unkind.
"Is it right to string them along?"
Alex jumped. He'd thought Gordon was asleep. "What do you mean, Gordo?"
"These Downers. Fandom. They're risking a lot to help us, aren't they? Shouldn't we tell them they're wasting their time?"
"Don't burn bridges, Gordo. There might be enough fuel to reach orbit on our own."
"Or no fuel at all. Meanwhile, she puts her neck at risk for us. Maybe we should contact Big Momma for instructions."
"No!" Alex spoke sharply. "No," he repeated more softly. "We'd have to make contact through this Oregon Ghost character. If we do, the fans will know how iffy the whole scheme is and then . . ."
"And then they might give the effort up. Do you want to be stuck down here the rest of your life?"
"Look. They're already in deep enough for what they've already done. We'll just let things go long enough to see if there is any chance at all. Then . . . Then, we'll decide."
"All right, Alex," Gordon said doubtfully. "You're the boss."
Alex relaxed into the pillow and closed his eyes. The room did not become any darker. He listened to his pulse pushing the blood through his arteries. "Gordon?"
"She's too old for you."
Gordon didn't answer right away. "She's younger than she looks, Alex," he said after a moment. "Gravity."
"Go to sleep, Gordo." Alex tried to roll over on his side. He almost made it. Good news from all over.