Down . . .
Dropping from a high-altitude passenger rocket is not uncommon. Thousands of capsules are discharged every day, millions in a year, though I suppose the process will remain a marvel to the earth-bound masses for another twenty years. When you have an overcrowded world with billions of people who want to move often and rapidly, you cannot have a transportation system that stops at every station on the route. Not too many years ago, the answer was to change flights. Take a regular major airline into the nearest big city to your destination, then transfer to a smaller company for the last leg of the journey. But the ports grew too crowded, the air controllers too frantic. With the coming of the rockets, the best answer was found swiftly and employed even faster. You encapsulate the passengers who want off at backwater places and shoot them, like a bomb, out of the rocket’s belly without lessening the speed of the mother ship. They fall for a mile, two, three, then are caught by a control beam broadcast from the alerted receiving station and lowered gently into the receptor pod. But those first few moments of freefall . . .
After what seemed like an overlong fall, we were gripped by a control beam. For a moment, I had the fleeting paranoid fear that they had recognized us and deemed to eliminate us simply by letting us smash unbraked into the unyielding earth of Cantwell, Alaska. Then we were safe, floating softly, being drawn down. The beam settled us into a pod, and the officers there, a wizened old gentleman surely past retirement age and a young trainee who watched and listened to his superior with carefully feigned awe, unlatched the hatch and slid it back, helped us out. We signed our arrival forms with our fake names, waited while the old man copied our stub numbers in a ledger (the boy looking eagerly over his shoulder but unable to completely mask his boredom), and we were on our way.
From the capsule pods, we walked down a long, gray fluorescent-lighted service tunnel and into the main lobby of the Port Building. I found the passenger service desk and inquired about a package I had mailed myself when we had first set foot in San Francisco just a day earlier. We had gone to a ski shop and purchased complete arctic rigging, packaged it in two boxes, and mailed it from Kenneth Jacobson to Kenneth Jacobson, the pseudonym I was then using, to be held for pickup at the passenger service desk in Cantwell. I had to sign a claim check and wait while the clerk checked the signature with that on the stub. When he was satisfied, he handed over the packages. We each took one and moved outside to the taxi stalls.
Outside, it was snowing. The wind howled across the broad promenade and echoed like hungry wolves in the thrusting beams of the porch roof. It carried puffs of snow with it that clogged in the window ledges and drifted against the walls. The drop officer aboard the high-altitude rocket had been right. Cantwell was a place of cold and snow and, most of all, wind. Still in all, the place has an undeniable charm, especially if you were addicted to Jack London Yukon stories when you were a boy.
We went down a set of stairs into the auto-taxi docking area and found a four-seater in the line. The taxis were fairly busy with arrivals, and I realized we had been unlucky enough to arrive just before a scheduled rocket landing and pickup. I opened the back door of the taxi and put my box in, turned to take His. Just then, a taxi bulleted into the stall next to us and flung open its doors.
“Quick!” I said to Him, grabbing his box of gear and sliding it onto the back seat alongside my own.
A tall, elegantly dressed man got out of the other car and pushed past us toward the stairs without even an “excuse me” or a “pardon.” I didn’t really care, just so he kept going and left us alone. But that was not to be the way of things. He went up two steps and stopped as if he had just been knifed. He whirled, his mouth open, his hand fumbling for a weapon beneath his bulky coat.