Produced by Greg Weeks, Bruce Albrecht, Stephen Blundell
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
Produced by Greg Weeks, Bruce Albrecht, Stephen Blundell
BY ANNE WALKER
Illustrated by Bernklau
n the dark, our glider chutes zeroed neatly on target—only Art Benjamin missed the edge of the gorge. When we were sure Invader hadn’t heard the crashing of bushes, I climbed down after him. The climb, and what I found, left me shaken. A Special Corps squad leader is not expendable—by order. Clyde Esterbrook, my second and ICEG mate, would have to mine the viaduct while my nerve and glycogen stabilized.
We timed the patrols. Clyde said, “Have to wait till a train’s coming. No time otherwise.” Well, it was his show. When the next pair of burly-coated men came over at a trot, he breathed, “Now!” and ghosted out almost before they were clear.
I switched on the ICEG—inter-cortical encephalograph—planted in my temporal bone. My own senses could hear young Ferd breathing, feel and smell the mat of pine needles under me. Through Clyde’s, I could hear the blind whuffle of wind in the girders, feel the crude wood of ties and the iron-cold molding of rails in the star-dark. I could feel, too, an odd, lilting elation in his mind, as if this savage universe were a good thing to take on—spray guns, cold, and all.
We wanted to set the mine so the wreckage would clobber a trail below, one like they’d built in Burma and Japan, where you wouldn’t think a monkey could go; but it probably carried more supplies than the viaduct itself. So Clyde made adjustments precisely, just as we’d figured it with the model back at base. It was a tricky, slow job in the bitter dark.
I began to figure: If he armed it for this train, and ran, she’d go off while we were on location and we’d be drenched in searchlights and spray guns. Already, through his fingers, I felt the hum in the rails that every tank-town-reared kid knows. I turned up my ICEG. “All right, Clyde, get back. Arm it when she’s gone past, for the next one.”
I felt him grin, felt his lips form words: “I’ll do better than that, Willie. Look, Daddy-o, no hands!” He slid over the edge and rested elbows and ribs on the raw tie ends.
We’re all acrobats in the Corps. But I didn’t like this act one little bit. Even if he could hang by his hands, the heavy train would jolt him off. But I swallowed my thoughts.
He groped with his foot, contacted a sloping beam, and brought his other foot in. I felt a dull, scraping slither under his moccasin soles. “Frost,” he thought calmly, rubbed a clear patch with the edge of his foot, put his weight on it, and transferred his hands to the beam with a twist we hadn’t learned in Corps school. My heart did a double-take; one slip and he’d be off into the gorge, and the frost stung, melting under his bare fingers. He lay in the trough of the massive H-beam, slid down about twenty feet to where it made an angle with an upright, and wedged himself there. It took all of twenty seconds, really. But I let out a breath as if I’d been holding it for minutes.
As he settled, searchlights began skimming the bridge. If he’d been running, he’d have been shot to a sieve. As it was, they’d never see him in the mingled glare and black.
His heart hadn’t even speeded up beyond what was required by exertion. The train roared around a shoulder and onto the viaduct, shaking it like an angry hand. But as the boxcars thunder-clattered above his head, he was peering into the gulf at a string of feeble lights threading the bottom. “There’s the flywalk, Willie. They know their stuff. But we’ll get it.” Then, as the caboose careened over and the searchlights cut off, “Well, that gives us ten minutes before the patrol comes back.”
He levered onto his side, a joint at a time, and began to climb the beam. Never again for me, even by proxy! You just couldn’t climb that thing nohow! The slope was too steep. The beam was too massive to shinny, yet too narrow to lie inside and elbow up. The metal was too smooth, and scummed with frost. His fingers were beginning to numb. And—he was climbing!
In each fin of the beam, every foot or so, was a round hole. He’d get one finger into a hole and pull, inching his body against the beam. He timed himself to some striding music I didn’t know, not fast but no waste motion, even the pauses rhythmic.
I tell you. I was sweating under my leathers. Maybe I should have switched the ICEG off, for my own sake if not to avoid distracting Clyde. But I was hypnotized, climbing.
In the old days, when you were risking your neck, you were supposed to think great solemn thoughts. Recently, you’re supposed to think about something silly like a singing commercial. Clyde’s mind was neither posturing in front of his mental mirror nor running in some feverish little circle. He faced terror as big as the darkness from gorge bottom to stars, and he was just simply as big as it was—sheer life exulting in defying the dark, the frost and wind and the zombie grip of Invader. I envied him.
Then his rhythm checked. Five feet from the top, he reached confidently for a finger hole … No hole.
He had already reached as high as he could without shifting his purchase and risking a skid—and even his wrestler’s muscles wouldn’t make the climb again. My stomach quaked: Never see sunlight in the trees any more, just cling till dawn picked you out like a crow’s nest in a dead tree; or drop …
Not Clyde. His flame of life crouched in anger. Not only the malice of nature and the rage of enemies, but human shiftlessness against him too? Good! He’d take it on.
Shoulder, thigh, knee, foot scraped off frost. He jammed his jaw against the wet iron. His right hand never let go, but it crawled up the fin of the strut like a blind animal, while the load on his points of purchase mounted—watchmaker co-ordination where you’d normally think in boilermaker terms. The flame sank to a spark as he focused, but it never blinked out. This was not the anticipated, warded danger, but the trick punch from nowhere. This was It. A sneak squall buffeted him. I cursed thinly. But he sensed an extra purchase from its pressure, and reached the last four inches with a swift glide. The next hole was there.
He waited five heartbeats, and pulled. He began at the muscular disadvantage of aligned joints. He had to make it the first time; if you can’t do it with a dollar, you won’t do it with the change. But as elbow and shoulder bent, the flame soared again: Score one more for life!
A minute later, he hooked his arm over the butt of a tie, his chin, his other arm, and hung a moment. He didn’t throw a knee up, just rolled and lay between the rails. Even as he relaxed, he glanced at his watch: three minutes to spare. Leisurely, he armed the mine and jogged back to me and Ferd.
As I broke ICEG contact, his flame had sunk to an ember glow of anticipation.
We had almost reached the cave pricked on our map, when we heard the slam of the mine, wee and far-off. We were lying doggo looking out at the snow peaks incandescent in dawn when the first Invader patrols trailed by below. Our equipment was a miracle of hot food and basic medication. Not pastimes, though; and by the second day of hiding, I was thinking too much. There was Clyde, an Inca chief with a thread of black mustache and incongruous hazel eyes, my friend and ICEG mate—what made him tick? Where did he get his delight in the bright eyes of danger? How did he gear his daredevil valor, not to the icy iron and obligatory killing, but to the big music and stars over the gorge? But in the Corps, we don’t ask questions and, above all, never eavesdrop on ICEG.
Young Ferd wasn’t so inhibited. Benjamin’s death had shaken him—losing your ICEG mate is like losing an eye. He began fly-fishing Clyde: How had Clyde figured that stunt, in the dark, with the few minutes he’d had?
“There’s always a way, Ferd, if you’re fighting for what you really want.”
“Well, I want to throw out Invader, all right, but—”
“That’s the start, of course, but beyond that—” He changed the subject: perhaps only I knew of his dream about a stronghold for rebels far in these mountains. He smiled. “I guess you get used to calculated risks. Except for imagination, you’re as safe walking a ledge twenty stories up, as down on the sidewalk.”
“Not if you trip.”