I began to become aware of the Front somewhere in Montana; I think just outside of Butte
, in a diner run-down by time and the economics of mining. I was putting away my burger platter when I started hearing words from the next table that sounded familiar.
"...dwell time sucks, but with electronic steering?"
I stopped chewing and listened.
"No, I don't know about OTH-B. I know the Woodpecker used to do that, but without a serious cliff face of a waveguide you'd never manage it..."
The diner was too small to surreptitiously turn around. I had vague memories of a group of four somewhat shaggy-looking type in lumberjack shirts and jeans sitting down behind me. I started in on the (excellent) fries.
"...but what's the cross-section? We just don't know. We're not gonna know before the meet, and so what's the point in singing before then?"
Almost dying of curiousity, I nevertheless finished my meal, paid, and stood to leave. Adjusting the kevlar and leather riding armor, I strode out of the bar wishing I weighed maybe forty pounds less; I'd look pretty damn badass then. The Torp was waiting outside as it always was.
Look, I'm not suicidal. I have no idea what the Torp's top speed is. I'm too damn afraid to find out. It's a custom frame scooter, with an aeroshell to both slick me down and hold baggage, and a half a Chevy small-block set in the middle. The shell is reflective silver, and the front of the bike is artistically blackened as if by re-entry. Twin straight flaring pipes carried the furor of the half-8 back and fired it out over the tarmac when I turned the key: ka-BLAMMM BLAMM poppoppoppoppop.
I dawdled, putting on the helmet, trying to determine what vehicle belonged to the unlikely search team in the diner. There were two station wagons, two RVs, and three sedans of various makes parked outside, and honestly? I didn't have a clue.
I shrugged, poured myself into the aeroshell, and torqued the throttle. The Torp torqued me the hell out of Montana.
* * *
I built the Torp over a year and a half while I was waiting for my hindbrain's notion of quitting my tech job to catch up with my consciousness. It was therapy, fitting the bits together and watching the thing come alive; at the end, it took only two weeks after first riding it and knowing it was done before I'd quit my job and cashed in my stacks of yuppie shit, simplifying down to what I could fit inside the aeroshell. My apartment was a rental, my car's lease was up, and I was out of there, smoke on the water, mist on the field.
The sound of the thing in action is legend. It sounds like an old-school Corvette trying hard to misfire on every rotation, due to half the cylinders going missing and the supercharger compensating by stuffing gas into the block. The timing has been adjusted, the crank modded and balanced, but somehow the steel DNA of that engine knows it's missing half its pipes and it just won't go easy, grumbling its way through the daytime splendor of the Western US. Tweak the throttle and feed it gas, though, and you're off into the wild black - enough gas and it doesn't care about misfires, it just wants to go.
I was feeding it fuel in Tucson, Arizona when the pair at the next pump started arguing.
"Look, they don't know the cross-section. Nobody does. We gotta get the waveguides connected because we're not gonna have any warning, really."
"We can't keep the waveguides locked, the damn thing starts to roll like a three-balled bitch if you do that!"
"So you'd rather miss it? 'Cuz you're that concerned about ride quality?"
I turned slowly. There were two of them, yep; both bearded, both gesticulating while they ignored the patiently ticking pump stuck into the side of their RV. I looked over the land yacht while they continued to harangue. It looked entirely unremarkable, if a little decrepit, save for something that bothered me but I couldn't identify. It took my own pump dinging completion and my replacing the gas cap on the Torp before I figured it out, and by then they were climbing back in. The RV's main body had no windows.
It was definitely an RV, down to the cream-and-brown 'speed striping' and the aircraft-style door in the side. But where the windows should have been there was a strip of dull gray, all along the side of the truckster. While I was sliding my credit card through the pump, it racketed to life and putted off onto the highway.
I turned the Torp around and followed it. I hadn't anything better to do.
They took me perhaps seven exits before they pulled off onto the side of the road and stopped. I could see the driver staring at me in his enormous wing mirror, so I stopped behind them and got off the Torp, walking towards the RV. The sliced reflection of the driver watched me come, turning occasionally to talk to his companion in the cab. I approached the driver's door, pulling my helmet off. He rolled down his window.
"You a cop?"
"Do I look like a cop?" I asked him, raising my open hand, palm up. "I mean, look at that thing."
"Didn't answer my question."
I squinted at him. "No. I'm not a cop."
"Then why you following us?"
"I heard you two talking at the pump."
"What kind of target are you guys looking for, anyway?"
They looked at each other, the driver in black jeans and a faded logo T-shirt and the passenger in blue jeans and a white T, then looked at me. I looked back, short beard and sweat-stained riding armor. "Who's asking?"
"Just a guy."
"Fuck you, mister. You won't tell me your name, why should I talk to you?"
"Fair enough." I reached into the leathers and pulled out a card case, handed one into the RV. The driver looked at it, raised his eyebrows and passed it over to the passenger.
"Is that really you? No bullshit?"
"Nope. No bullshit."
"Well shit." He sat there, hands on the wheel, for a few moments, just looking down the road. "Tell you what, you want to know, you follow us a spell."
I looked him over. He turned his head to look at me. I nodded. "All right."
I went back to the Torp. They fired up their roadwhale and we puttered off into the growing night, an unlikely convoy.
They led me off the Interstate onto an Arizona state road. After twenty-five miles or so, they turned off that, then again, onto smaller and smaller tracks; the last one was rutted dirt. Five miles along that, we came to a small congregation of Moby homes parked haphazardly around a central spot hidden by their bulk. The two ahead of me parked and disembarked; I stood the Torp on its stand and moved to join them. They just nodded at me and walked towards the center of the group.
In the middle of the circled wagons was a bonfire, maybe sixty people - about the number of people I'd have expected from the cubic meters of autowurst surrounding us. Next to the fire, maybe ten feet away, was something I surely hadn't expected.
It was a phone booth. It had a faded Bell logo on the side, shot-out glass windows, graffiti and an honest-to-god pay phone in it. The group was all watching the phone booth, where one of their number was standing next to the phone holding what looked like a boom box. The boom box was wired to the phone's receiver.
"What the hell?" I asked, in an undertone. People looked like they were taking this seriously, and no matter how stupid you think something is, well, I'd learned a time before that there's always someone who'll react badly if you show scorn.
"Waiting for his call," muttered the driver I'd followed in. His partner nodded rapidly in agreement. I recognized the mien with which he did so; it was filed in my threat recognition under religion, faith, extreme.
"Should I even ask-" I started to say, but right then, the phone rang. The guy standing there with the boom box picked up the receiver, spoke into it.
"Da, zdrastvuitye...hello?" The voice was airy, warbly, sounding badly tuned in shortwave and like a harmonic of its carrier wave. The phone man waited a few beats, then turned to the crowd. "Fire 'em up, go, go, now." His voice was excited. The crowd almost instantly dispersed back to the RVs, some at a run; there was the coughing ongoing roar of starting engines and then the RVs all began to move. They didn't drive off, but somehow writhed around each other in what looked like a precision dance before, as one, their engines died and doors slammed as their occupants jumped out. Looking around me, I could see that they'd formed themselves into a rough arc, with the fire at the locus. As I watched in curious delight, the various shapes of the boxy things were changed, panels flipping down, dishes rising from aircraft aluminum roofs. Around me, the engines began to start up again, but no motion could be seen. Somewhere I could feel a tightness.
"What-" I turned to look for my guides, but they were gone, back to their own vehicle. I sat on a handy rock and just watched as the phone holder shouted into the handset.
"The dump valve, Vladislav, check the dump valve. Underneath the couches, man, the dump valve. It's gonna open, do you hear me? It's gonna open..." He was crying, I could see now, tears running down his face into the red sands, drying in the radiant heat of the fire. The phone warbled and sang in interference patterns for a time, then there was a shout from one of the RVs.
"Got it! WE GOT IT! They're rotating now, they're rotating now!"
"Volkov, damn it, under the couches, do you hear? UNDERNEATH!"
Faintly, from the phone, came the reply: "Da, underneath? Underneath?"
"Spasebo," then a word I couldn't make out. There was silence for a time as everybody waited, myself included; I had a guess what was going on but the very thought was freezing my blood.
There was confused babbling over the phone, then a slight banging noise. Then silence. One of the crew back at the RVs said, in a solemn voice, "They've missed the roll." There was a small sound, of despair plucking the strings of several dozen throats, and then everyone around me slumped.
Slowly, they started moving back to the trucks. The phone man had disconnected his boom box and was walking towards the crowd of machines. I stood and hastened over to him, holding a hand out to stop him. He looked up, startled, and waited. I looked at him for a second before my mouth asked "That was Soyuz 11?"
"Of course. Wait, who are you?"
"Not important. Not important." I was tripping over my tongue in my rush. "They died in 1971, damn it!" I was shouting.
He sagged slightly. "Yeah. They did. We watched them." He waved vaguely upward, then at the welter of RVs which were all packing high-power radar now that I looked at them.
"What the hell is going on?"
"We don't know." He looked down, then back at me. "But we can talk to them. And to Challenger, and Columbia, and sometimes to Komarov, and once in a while to people who we don't know, haven't heard of. But they were up there. All died."
He shrugged. "Doesn't matter. We keep trying to warn them, is all. We have to be able to see them to talk to them, and we have to talk to them to save them, and one day, we will."
"But they're all dead!"
"In this world? Yeah. Yeah, they are. But sometimes when we warn them, they stop transmitting. We lose the image. All we can guess is that if they save themselves, they rotate out of this universe selection, somewhere else. Somewhere where they didn't die."
"That's all you've got? That faith?"
He looked at me quietly for a moment. "I know you. You used to sit CAPCOM."
"That was a long, long time ago, man."
"But you're one of the Front, then. You know. They were your guys. Wouldn't you do anything if there was even a chance one of them would survive? Even if he survived in a world you'd never see?"
I stood in the quiet evening, listening to RV engines warming up again and the crackling of the dying bonfire. Then I looked up at the stars, laughing at me.
I turned and walked away.
* * *
There's a way to get a phased-array radar into the Torp. It's got all that excellent side surface area. I don't know how I'll power it, but maybe I can beg a feed from someone. I can reorient faster than they can, too.
I'm told Christa McAuliffe might phone next week. We have to be ready.