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By Larry Niven Jerry Pournelle Michael Flynn
Baen BooksCopyright © 1992 Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Aspiring to Be Gods ..."
High over the northern hemisphere the scoopship's hull began to sing. The cabin was a sounding box for vibrations far below the threshold of hearing. Alex MacLeod could feel his bones singing in sympathy.
Piranha was kissing high atmosphere.
Planet Earth was shrouded in pearl white. There was no break anywhere. There were mountain ranges of fluff, looming cliffs, vast plains that stretched to a far distant convex horizon, a cloud cover that looked firm enough to walk on. An illusion; a geography of vapors as insubstantial as the dreams of youth. If he were to set foot upon them ... The clouds did not float in free fall, as was proper, but in an acceleration frame that could hurl the scoopship headlong into an enormous ball of rock and iron and smash it like any dream.
Falling, they called it.
Alex felt the melancholy stealing over him again. Nostalgia? For that germ-infested ball of mud? Not possible. He could barely remember Earth. Snapshots from childhood; a chaotic montage of memories. He had fallen down the cellar steps once in a childhood home he scarcely recalled. Tumbling, arms flailing, head thumping hard against the concrete floor. He hadn't been hurt; not really. He'd been too small to mass up enough kinetic energy. But he recalled the terror vividly. Now he was a lot bigger, and he would fall a lot farther.
His parents had once taken him atop the Sears Tower and another time to the edge of the Mesa Verde cliffs; and each time he had thought what an awful long way down it was. Then, they had taken him so far up that down ceased to mean anything at all.
Alex stared out of Piranha's windscreen at the cloud deck, trying to conjure that feeling of height; trying to feel that the clouds were down and he was up. But it had all been too many years ago, in another world. All he could see was distance. Living in the habitats did that to you. It stole height from your senses and left you only with distance.
He glanced covertly at Gordon Tanner in the copilot's seat. If you were born in the habitats, you never knew height at all. There were no memories to steal. Was Gordon luckier than he, or not?
The ship sang. He was beginning to hear it now.
And Alex MacLeod was back behind a stick, where God had meant him to be, flying a spaceship again. Melancholy was plain ingratitude! He had plotted and schemed his way into this assignment. He had pestered Mary and pestered Mary until she had relented and bumped his name to the top of the list just to be rid of him. He had won.
Of course, there was a cost. Victories are always bittersweet. Sweet because ... He touched the stick and felt nothing. They were still in vacuum ... thicker vacuum, that was heating up. If there wasn't enough air to give bite to the control surfaces, a pilot must call it vacuum.
How could you explain the sweetness to someone who had never conned a ship? You couldn't. He relaxed in the acceleration chair, feeling the tingling in his hands and feet. The itching anticipation. Oh, to be useful again, even if for a moment.
But bitter because ... That part he did not want to think about. Just enjoy the moment; become one with it. If this was to be his last trip, he would enjoy it while he could. If everything went A-OK, he'd be back upstairs in a few hours, playing the hero for the minute or so that people would care. A real hero, not a retired hero. Then back in the day-care center wiping snotty noses. It would be years before another dip trip was needed. He'd never be on the list again.
Which meant that Alex MacLeod, pilot and engineer, wasn't needed any longer. So what do you do with a pilot when pilots aren't needed? What do the habitats do with a man who can't work outside, because one more episode of explosive decompression will bring on a fatal stroke?
Day care. Snotty noses. Work at learning to be a teacher, a job he didn't much like.
Look on the bright side, Alex, my boy. Maybe you won't make it back at all.
Sure, he could always go out the way Mish Lykonov had in Moon Rat, auguring in to Mare Tranquilitatis. They'd have a ceremony-and they'd miss the ship more than him. Even Mary. Maybe especially Mary, since she'd got him the mission.
He straightened in his seat and touched the controls again. Maybe just a touch of resistance ...
"Chto delayet? Alex!"
Something had prodded Gordon awake. Alex glanced to the right. "What is it?"
"I'm getting a reading on the air temperature gauge!"
"Right. There's enough air outside now to have a temperature."
Gordon nodded, still unbelieving.
Gordon had read the book. Come to that, Gordon read a lot of books, but books don't mean much. No one ever learned anything out of a book, anyway. This was why they always teamed a newbie with an old pro. Hands-on learning. The problem with on-the-job training for this job was that there was not a hell of a lot of room for trial and error. Alex moved the stick gently, and felt the ship respond. Not vacuum anymore! He banked and brought them up level, feeling the air rushing past just outside the skin. His eyes danced across the gauges. Here. There. Not reading them. Just a glance to see if something was wrong, or if something had changed since the last glance. Dynamic air temperature. Stagnation air temperature. The Mach number needle sprang to life, leaped from zero to absurdity, then hunted across the dial. A grin stretched itself across his face. No blues now. He hadn't forgotten at all; not a damned thing.
"What is funny?" Gordon demanded.
"Old war-horse heard the trumpet again. Now it's your turn. Take the stick." Fun was fun, but it was time for the kid to wrap his hands around the real thing. There was only so much you could do in a simulator. "There. Feel it?"
"Uh ..." Gordon pulled back slightly on the copilot's stick. He looked uncertain.
He hadn't felt anything. "Take over," Alex growled. "You're flying the ship now. Can't you tell?"
"Well ..." Another tentative move at the controls.
Piranha wobbled. "Hey! Yeah!"
"Good. Look, it's hard to describe, but the ship will tell you how she's doing if you really listen. I don't mean you should forget the gauges. Keep scanning them; they're your eyes and ears. But you've got to listen with your hands and feet and ass, too. Make the ship an extension of your entire body. Do you feel it? That rush? That's air moving past us at five miles per second. Newton's not flying us anymore. You are."
Gordon flashed a nervous grin, like he'd just discovered sex.
"What's our flight path?" Alex asked.
"Uh ..." A quick glance at the map rollout. "Greenland upcoming."
"Good. Hate to be over Norway."
Why. Didn't the kid listen to the downside news broadcasts? Gordon, this is your planet! Don't you care? No, he probably didn't. It was his grandparents planet.
"There's war in Norway. If we flew over, somebody would cruise a missile at us sure as moonquakes, and we'd never even know which side did it."
The new tiling was wonderful. In the old days, the ship's skin would be glowing; but now ... Four thousand degrees and no visible sign at all. Still, they'd be glowing like a madman's dream on an IR screen, new tiles or no, and that was all the Downers would need to vector in on.
"Which side?" Gordon mused. "What are the sides?"
Alex laughed. "That's one of the reasons we can't be sure. When it started, it was what was left of NATO defending the Baltics." Non-nuclear, but it just went on and on and on. Alex didn't really care who won any more than Gordon did. "After a while, the Scandinavians and the Russians took a nervous look over their shoulders at the glaciers, and East versus West became North versus South."
"Silly bastards. Nye kulturni."
"Da." It didn't surprise him anymore. All the younger Floaters spoke Russian as automatically as English. Russlish? Ever since Peace and Freedom had pooled their resources, everyone was supposed to learn each other's language; but Alex hadn't gotten past "Ya tebye lyublyu." Hello was "zdravstvuitye." Alex thought there was something masochistic about speaking a language that strung so many consonants together. "Be fair, Gordon. If you had ice growing a mile thick in your backyard, wouldn't you want to move south?"
Gordon mulled it. "Why south?"
He couldn't help the grin. "Never mind. Let me take her again. Hang on, while I kill some velocity. Watch what I do and follow me." He stroked the stick gently.
Here we go, baby. You'll love this. Drop the scoop face-on to the wind. Open wide. That's right. Spread your tail, just for a moment ... Alex realized that his lips were moving and clamped them shut. The younger ones didn't understand when he talked to the ship. Gordon was having enough trouble feeling the ship. "Okay," he said finally, "that's done. Take over, again."
Gordon did, more smoothly than before. Alex watched him from the corner of his eye while pretending to study the instruments. Piranha was a sweet little ship. Alex had flown her once, years before, and considered her the best of the three remaining scoopers. Maybe that was just Final Trip nostalgia. Maybe he would have felt the same about whichever ship he flew on his last dip; but he would shed a special tear for Piranha when they retired her. The scoopers were twenty-two years old already and, while there was not much wear and tear parked in a vacuum, screaming through the Earth's atmosphere like a white hot banshee did tend to age the gals a bit. Jaws was already retired. Here was Gordon at nineteen, just getting started; and the ships at twenty-two were ready to pack it in. Life was funny.
Alex ran a hand lightly across the instrument panel. Scoopships were pretty in an ugly sort of way: lifting bodies with gaping scoops that made them look like early jet airplanes. They could not land-no landing gear-but they didn't dip into the atmosphere deeply enough for that to matter. But they were the hottest ships around.
Piranha skimmed above the glare-white earth as hot as any meteor, but never too hot at any point. Humming, vibrating, functional.
Gordon was functional too. Alert, but not tense; holding her nose just right while flame-hot air piled through the scoop and bled into the holding tank. The velocity dropped below optimum on the dial and Gordon bled some of the air into the scramjet and added hydrogen until the velocity rose again. He did it casually, as if he did this sort of thing every day. Alex nodded to himself. The kid had it. He just needed it coaxed out of him.
"Alex?" Gordon said suddenly. "Why not Greenland?"
"Why isn't anyone in Greenland shooting missiles?"
Alex grinned. That was good. Gordon was flying a scoopship on a dip trip, sucking air at five miles per, and trying to make casual conversation. That's right, Gordo. You can't do this sort of thing all tensed up; you've got to be relaxed.
"Nobody there but Eskimos," he explained. "An Ice Age doesn't bother them any. Hell, they probably think they've all died and gone to Inuit Heaven."
"Eskimos I do not know. Gogol once wrote good story that speaks of Laplanders but I did not understand-" The sky had turned from black to navy blue. Wouldn't want to get any lower. Gordon glanced out the windscreen and said, "Shouldn't we be seeing land by now?"
Alex shook his head, realized Gordon wasn't looking at him and answered. "No, the cloud-deck off the pole ..." He stopped. The white below them wasn't the cloud shroud any more. They must have gone past the southern edge or hit a hole in it. White on white. Cloud or ice. If you didn't actually look you, might not notice. "Damn, damn. The ice is still growing."
Gordon didn't say anything. Alex watched him a moment longer then turned his attention to the gauges. Gordon was nineteen. There had always been an Ice Age, so it did not surprise him that the glaciers had crept farther south. Alex thought he remembered a different world-green, not white-before his parents brought him upstairs. He wasn't sure how much of it was genuine childhood memories and how much was movies or photographs in books. The habitats had a fair number of books on tape, brought up when they still got along with the Downers.
The green hills of earth, he thought. Now the glaciers-not rivers of ice, but vast oceans of ice-were spreading south at tens of miles a year. Hundreds of miles in some places. In the dictionary, "glacial" meant slow; but Ice Ages came on fast. Ten thousand years ago the glaciers had covered England and most of Europe in less than a century. They'd known that since the sixties ... though no one had ever seen fit to revise his schoolbooks. But what did that matter? To a school kid a century was forever anyway.
As for Gordon ... He glanced again at his copilot. Well, what the world is like in our lifetimes is what it should be like forever. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. It was funny to think of groundside environmentalists desperately struggling against Nature, trying to preserve forever the temporary conditions and mayfly species of a brief interglacial. Alex looked again through the cockpit windscreen and sighed.
"We could have stopped it," he said abruptly.
"Eh?" Gordon gave him a puzzled glance.
"The Ice Age. Big orbiting solar mirrors. More microwave power stations. Sunlight is free. We could have beamed down enough power to stop the ice. Look what one little SUNSAT has done for Winnipeg."
Gordon studied the frozen planet outside. He shook his head. "Ya nye ponimál," he admitted. "I faked the examiners, but I never did get it. The what-did-they-call-it, polar ice cap? It stayed put for thousands of years. Then, of a sudden it reaches out like vast white amoeba."
All of a sudden, Alex's earphones warbled. He touched a hand to his ear. "Piranha here."
"Alex!" It was Mary Hopkins's voice. She was sitting mission control for this dip. Alex wondered if he should be flattered ... And if Lonny was there with her. "We've got a bogey rising," said Mary. "Looks like he's vectoring in on you."
So, they don't shoot missiles out of Greenland? Find another line of work, Alex-boy; you'll never make it as a soothsayer. "Roger, Big Momma." He spun to Gordon. "Taking over," he barked. "Close the scoop. Seal her up. Countermeasures!"
"Da!" He said something else, too rapid to follow.
"English, damn your eyes!"
"Oh. Yeah. Roger. Scoops closed."
Piranha felt better. Under control. "Close your faceplate." Alex pulled his own shut and sealed it.
"Alex, I have something."
Excerpted from Fallen Angels by Larry Niven Jerry Pournelle Michael Flynn Copyright © 1992 by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn. Excerpted by permission.
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