Talk:XXI: Escape Velocity

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XXI: Escape Velocity

The source of every human misery, the cause of every war, the great issue before every society for six thousand years has been the question, “Who shall have the power?” The significance of the Whiskey Rebellion is that, for the first time in history, individuals created a civilization in which the answer to that question is “Nobody!”

—Rosalie Wilderlane

The Invention of Liberty

We jumped into the hovercraft to find Olongo Featherstone-Haugh at the wheel. “Hold onto your hat, Lieutenant!” Before he’d finished the sentence, we surged toward the end of the alley behind Liberty Hall. Leaning on the horn, he swerved right, and was doing three hundred before we hit the next intersection.

“I called the dispatcher,” the gorilla said. “Your transport should be hot by now. How’s the arm?”

“Only a scratch,” I mumbled, cringing as we whipped through another turn. “Did I really say that? Feels more like an amputation!” Another corner whirled sickeningly around the car.

“Don’t forget Captain Forsyth,” Lucy reminded. “Don’t wanna rush into a fracas without backup!”

“I’ll call as soon as you’re off,” Olongo promised. At the edge of town, the road curved around the mooring area, but he cut straight across, flashing beneath leviathan shadows, leaning on the horn as simians and humans scattered like fruit flies on a melon rind. We did a sudden nose dive as he killed the lift. “Here we are! Wish there were room for three in that cannonball! Keep me posted, and cheerio!”

There wasn’t time to answer. Attendants hustled us out of the hoverbuggy toward a stubby metal cylinder the size of a Volkswagen bus. The nose was sandblasted and missing paint, the stern scorched and blistered. Between them was an oval hatch, and the legend Columbiad. Then we were through the six-inch hull, being belted into deeply cushioned seats. The machine’s interior was almost featureless: two couches in tandem facing a Telecom screen, no windows, and, when the door slammed shut like a coffin lid, dimly lit by a few instrument pilots. “It itches!” Lucy complained. “Every time I get strapped down for acceleration, my uninsurable nose itches!”

As the vehicle began moving ponderously, a man appeared in the screen, head and shoulders, wearing coveralls like the attendants who’d sealed us in. “Columbiad, Traffic Control. We’ll have you chambered in a moment. Please don’t touch any controls, keep your arms and legs within the couches. You’ll be pulling close to six G’s. Questions?”

The vehicle slanted downward ominously, rocking from side to side. “Where will this frammis dump us out?” Lucy asked unperturbed.

The controller glanced down at his keyboard. “Right now you’re simply routed for LAP. You have a specific destination in mind?”

“How about eighty-nine Tucker Circle?” I asked sarcastically, trying to ignore my heartbeat. He punched his console, paused, punched some more, then looked up.

“We’ll shunt you into the underground system, to the south-east corner of that block. Be prepared to exit quickly—I could only get a thirteen-second window between two scheduled trains. Your restraints will release when you drop below five mph, door-releases to your left will be illuminated. Good luck. Keep your hands and feet inside the couches.”

The view cut to a circular metal tunnel-mouth in the center of a familiar-looking hill, the median crest of Greenway 200 seen in cross-section. Now I knew what a rifle shell feels like. We entered with a loud thump as they slammed the breech behind us. “Acceleration, five seconds … four, three, two, one, fire in the hole!”

An invisible hippopotamus suddenly draped its full weight the length of my body. I tried screaming, but couldn’t even breathe. My bruised arm began burning; I couldn’t move to see whether it hung over the edge of the couch. Too late anyway, I figured. I found myself wishing I’d taken time to arrange certain private parts a little more carefully. I was going to have bruises in some strange places.

Almost as an afterthought, I noticed the noise, the loudest thundering I’ve ever heard. More than noise, really; a bellow that excluded anything else, made it impossible to tell which was crushing me, the acceleration or the roar. And suddenly, it was gone. The screen glowed softly, the tunnel walls rushed toward us faster than anything has a right to be traveling. Blessed silence, and the weight had gone away.




“Aw c’mon, Pete, roll over! I can’t breathe!”


“What? Oh, sorry. What is it, Winnie?”

“What the hell is this thing?”

“Hunh? Oh—Express. Fastest transport on the planet, whatever needs hurried: rattler antitoxin, bodies in stasis, but mostly talent.”

“Talent?” I squirmed around in my seat, trying to get a look at her.

“Only irreplaceable commodity. You need a surgeon fast, you need the genius who puts out oil-well fires, you need Express. Knew a virtuoso banjoist who did it once, too. Expensive, but he was in time for the concert.”

“Talent,” I muttered. “Well, what is it—a rocket? Olongo called it a cannonball.”

“Sorta halfway between,” she said. “Up front it’s vacuum, maybe twenty miles ahead—big metal doors like a camera iris. During the squishy part of the trip, they were pouring in liquid hydrogen and oxygen behind us and torching ’em off. If we weren’t down in this titanium wormhole, we’d just shoot off the horizon and wind up in orbit. Planes goin’ this fast spend delta V just to stay down!”

“Are you serious? Wouldn’t we burn up or something?”

“If that vacuum fails ahead of us, you’ll see some fireworks! Rode one of these contraptions with Pete once, all the way from Tierra del Fuego. They haven’t made ’em any more comfortable since. I feel like a sack of broken—Whoops! Here comes turnaround!”

“Deceleration, five seconds …” A red light flashed above the view screen. I braced myself, but never heard the count. The chair slewed wildly, my insides going the opposite way. That hippopotamus hiccupped and sat down again. Another sudden lurch and the deceleration eased off. Suddenly we were in an ordinary subway tunnel. We rocked, gasping and screeching, to a halt. I let the belts fall from me, saw Lucy hit the door, and followed her into the coolness of a shopping center, up the escalator as fast as our elbows could push us, and out, blinking in the sunlight.

I’d left my coat in North Dakota. I wondered who was paying for the ride.

I SPENT AN exhausted moment leaning on the wrought-iron fence outside Madison’s front yard. A hovercraft on full fans skated up to the curb. Pistols drawn, Forsyth and two of his men jumped out.

I straightened. “Let’s hit the door!” I charged up the steps, bounded onto the porch, drawing my forty-one, and blasted the lock panel with three quick shots. The door creaked open. No one was there to greet us.

“Search the place!” I ran wildly through deserted corridors, nearly shooting several man-size pieces of covered furniture. The entire house seemed empty. I could hear the captain’s men rummaging around in other rooms. “Anybody find anything?” I hollered.

“Nary a sign,” Lucy said quietly. “Watch where you’re pointing that antique, will you son?”

“I’m sorry, Lucy. Where the hell do you suppose they are?”

“Vamoosed. Forsyth’s checking upstairs. Wanna try the basement?”

“I’ve seen it, thanks. I’ll bet it’s empty, too. That was Bealls’s equipment they shipped out in the freighter, had to be. Question is, did they take Clarissa and Ed too?” I sat down, scratching a vagrant itch with the front sight of my revolver.

Suddenly Lucy looked old and close to tears. “Might’s well face it—they only got shipped outa here one way. They’re no use to Madison, now we’ve testified. Ed and Clarissa are—”

“Here! According to Bertram, they are. You sure he won’t be conscious for—”

“At least a month.” She shook her head. “He was shot up something awful, Win. They’ll keep him quick-frozen and—”

“I know. Ed was right about lasers. Bertram tried to tell me they were here, but—Cold! He wasn’t talking about himself! Come on! We might still be in time! Forsyth!” I raced down the hallway, skidding on the turns. An eternity later, we finally reached the kitchen—and the freezer door.

“Help me!” I clawed the fastenings, about to shoot them loose, when they gave. Clarissa stumbled into my arms. We both fell sprawled on the floor in a hysterical heap. Ed hopped up and down, slapping his arms, while Lucy pounded on his back, laughing and cursing, great round tears rolling down her face.

“Clarissa! Clarissa! I thought you were dead!” I wiped my own face with a sleeve.

“N-no, you great big beautiful detective—just c-cold!”

Forsyth slammed the freezer door and reholstered his weapon. Mine was still in my hand. I sat back a little.

“What’s all this stuff?” I asked. They were both swaddled in aluminum.

“Clarissa’s idea,” Ed noted, stripping tattered foil from his arms and chest. “It’s how we stayed alive. Okay, doctor, what do we do now?”

“We could boil some water,” Clarissa suggested.

“Makes sense,” Lucy declared. “They always do it in the movies.” She rummaged for a pan in the cupboards. Forsyth looked us over carefully and signaled his way out the door.

“For tea,” Clarissa explained. “Or coffee, chocolate. There wasn’t enough of that foil to cover everything.” I brushed frost out of her eyebrows.

“The whole place is empty,” I told Ed. “Any idea where they’ve all cleared out to?” For once, he looked nearly as old as I did.

“No, an hour ago, I didn’t even know Clarissa was still alive.”

“That’s right,” she chipped in. “They kept us locked up separately, me in a closet, and—”

“Me in the boiler room downstairs, trussed up to the water heater. Funny—I thought I was going to roast to death. Brr!”

“We weren’t watched,” Clarissa said. “We weren’t spoken to, or even fed. I didn’t want you to see me like this, but I was so glad when you—” I put my arm around her. She pressed an ice-cold nose into my collarbone.

“A little while ago,” Ed said, “they brought me up and shoved me into that … thing. Clarissa a few minutes later. The one they called Mikva and a couple more I didn’t recognize.”

Lucy turned around, a pair of steaming mugs in her outstretched hands. “How come they left you two untied?”

“Great Albert, that tastes good!” Ed said, spilling as much as he drank. “I don’t know. They didn’t exactly let us in on their plans.”

“Maybe so it’d look like you’d wandered in there and died.” Clarissa’s frozen hands inside my tunic were giving me frostbitten armpits. “Like T-tricky D-dick M-m-milhous. Nice folks we’re dealing with. But I still don’t get the tinfoil bit.”

“Paratronic radiation,” Clarissa explained, “the kind used to keep patients in stasis. It damps molecular motion, but metallic objects interfere, slow the process down. It doesn’t matter with something like frozen food, but with patients you have to be very careful. That’s why you didn’t get stasis, Win. Too many bullet fragments. Anyway, we peeled foil off a lot of food in there, and wrapped it around ourselves.” She’d finished her hot drink. Lucy shoved another into her hand. “It wouldn’t have bought us much time, but—”

“Enough to save our lives!” said Ed. “Now we have to figure out Madison’s next move. How did the Congress go?”

“Lousy!” Lucy answered. “Except for Dead-Eye, here. He managed to—”

“Later, Lucy! We got here about five minutes after adjournment, Ed. Madison’s people carted off a lot of stuff yesterday. What’ll you bet Bealls is setting up somewhere else right now?”

“Agreed, but where?” He finished his second drink, looked around unsuccessfully for a chair, and sat down on the floor with Clarissa and me.

“You’re the great detectives around here,” Lucy said, piling food on a tray. “Start detecting … or does that Bear Brothers, Limited refer to intelligence! Wanna sandwich?”

“Sure, Delegate Kropotkin, Your Honor.” I took a sandwich and a cup of chocolate. “And what have you in the way of ideas to contribute?” Clarissa ate while I rubbed her cold-numbed arms and shoulders.

Lucy stood munching absently on one of her own creations. “Dunno, exactly. For starters, despite appearances, they didn’t really take it on the lam. They had us stopped in Gallatinopolis, and they knew it.”

“How did they stop you in Gallatinopolis?” Ed asked.

Together, with many interruptions and not a few contradictions we recounted our North Dakota adventures: Madison confounding Congress; Burgess’s demise and Bertram’s part in it; the wild ride back to Laporte. Clarissa insisted on looking professionally at my arm. “Ouch! It’s only a bruise! Say, you’re still cold. I’d offer my cape, but as far as I know, it’s still jammed in a teleprinter back at Liberty Hall. Want my tunic?”

“Why, Win, the very shirt off your back? I guess that means we’re going steady.” Her eyes crinkled appealingly.

“Not until I get a straight answer from somebody around here! I’ve been trying for weeks to find out whether you and Ed . . I mean, nobody will tell me …” I spluttered to a finish, more confused and embarrassed than ever. Lucy began laughing, and Clarissa actually blushed this time, eyes carefully on the floor.

Ed put up a hand. “We’re not laughing at you, Win. It’s just that—”

Clarissa whirled on him. “You let me tell it, Edward William Bear! Win, Ed and I practically grew up together. I guess everybody assumed we’d eventually—everybody but us, I mean. Anyway, you came along, and I—well …”

“There we were,” mused Ed, “freezing our asses off in there, and all she could do was blubber about never seeing you again, and how worried you must be. That’s why she thought of the aluminum foil—said it’d give you a little more time to rescue us! Never stopped hoping, right up to when we heard you blow the hinges off the front door. About half an hour after I’d given us up for dead.”

“I hate to break this up, folks.” Forsyth stood in the doorway, his arms full of clothing. “But the boys and I have to get back. Thought you could use these.” He passed the bundle to Clarissa. I looked up at the captain, all four and a half furry feet of him. Relieved of his burden, he automatically assumed the time-honored position, hands behind, rocking back and forward on his heels—all veteran beat-cop.

“Thanks,” I said. “You guys were a welcome sight. I assume that stuff’s from upstairs. Any clues to where they’ve gone?”

“Like tourist brochures from Ganymede?” He paused. “You might take a look at the basement. Lots of stuff moved out, very recently. Heavy stuff: scratches in the floor, torn-up wiring. Took off in a hurry, I’d say.” I looked at Lucy the Theorist. She stuck out her tongue.

“Thanks, Cap.” Ed rose stiffly to his feet. “Send me your bill—a big one.”

“Part of the service.” He touched his cap and turned. “C’mon, you monkeys, we got work!” He paused again, looking back over his shoulder. “I saw your little set-to on the ’com. Pretty fair pistol work, especially the head shot. If we’re going to have a war with these … people—well, look for me in the front lines. I’ll be there.” He turned again and left.

“So will I,” I muttered, watching Clarissa shiver. “So will I.”