Remember the Starving
Pp. 1018 - 1039
We're back, finally, with the Chums of Chance.
The Chums are now working mainly on their own stick, as the National Office has been so cheap with the budget that the organization is crumbling. Everybody's negotiating their own prices and choosing their own missions. This has proved to be marvelously profitable, and the Chums are rolling in scratch -- champagne with dinner, improvements and upgrades on the Inconvenience...
It's a very hot summer, and the Saharan updrafts are spectacular. Goaded by Pugnax's companion Ksenija, the dog who was protecting Reef's "family exfiltration" back on 969, the Chums vote to dive into the updraft to see where it will take them, picking up the costs out of overhead, just, it seems, for the hell of it.
And dive they do. As they're borne upward, Chick Counterfly muses a notion that comes to us from the very beginning of the book (hey, we've gotta tie up some loose ends, nicht wahr?), the dark warning from Randolph back in Chicago that "going up was like going north," and that if you ascend high enough, you'll eventually begin to descend to the surface of another planet. "And if going up is like going north, with the common variable being cold, the analogous direction in Time, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics [Hey! It's Pynchon!] ought to be from past to future, in the direction of increasing entropy."
Chick takes the air temperature and pressure outside in the sand-cloud, and is alarmed to see that the pressure is increasing, not decreasing: The ship is heading for a crash landing on the surface of some other Earth! Unable to discern where the hell they actually are, the "two-lad Navigational Committee" concludes they have reached the Pythagorean or Counter-Earth once postulated by Philolaus of Tarentum (but shorten that throttle, Aristotle), which posits a second Earth, the Antichthon. In the Chums' conception, it's a second planet whose orbit is 180 degrees opposite "our" Earth's, and is thus never seen from Earth.
No, Darby, they didn't just fly through the sun, but maybe it's "more like seeing though the Sun with a telescope of very high resolution so clearly that we're no longer aware of anything but the Aether between us."
"Oh, like X-Ray Spex."
So the Chums find themselves on the Counter-Earth, a planet that some days perfectly resembles Earth, and on others holds "an American Republic...passed...irrevocably into the control of the evil and moronic." Now they appear to inhabit two Earths, and yet belong in any true sense to neither.
A shadowy Russian agent, one Baklashchan (backlash?) sends them off on a mission to find their "old friendly nemesis" Padzhitnoff. In performing this undertaking, the Chums seem strangely oblivious to the First World War going on on the earth beneath them. "'Trenches,'" muses Miles, "as if it were a foreign technical term."
(Oddly, I've noticed at least two grammatical terms, verbal moods, used in this section: Here (1023:3) we have the Chums' freedom from "enfoldment by the indicative world below"; and on 1033:14 Noseworth's "I am as fond of the subjunctive mood as any...". Not sure what to make of it...)
Chick notes that Padzhitnoff's travels have been closely mirroring the Chums' own: "Where we haven't been yet, he seems to have left no trace." "Swell," sez Darby. "We;'re chasing ourselves now."
Foreshadowing from earlier in the book now begins to pay off. Miles recalls his bicycle ride through Flanders with Ryder Thorn, back on 552-3, in which Thorn says, "Our people know what will happen here...and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know." It's worth going back and reading that passage, where Thorn blurts out that "Flanders will be the mass grave of History." Back in this section, some sort of scales fall away from Miles' eyes, and he has an insight that the other Chums fail to see: the noble youth of Europe "cringing in a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death."
The lads find Padzhitnoff, his Bolshai'a Igra now "dozens of times its former size," colored solid red, and renamed "Remember the Starving." He's engaged in charity work now, dropping not brickwork but food, clothing and medical supplies to "whatever populations below were in need of them." He's based in Switzerland, in a "private Alp" stuffed full of contraband chocolate and coffee. The Chums decide not to turn Padzhitnoff in to the "cringers" but to become fugitives from justice themselves.
(Want to call your attention to 1025:35-38, in which artillery shells can be seen "reaching the tops of their trajectories and pausing in the air for an instant before the deadly plunge back to Earth." But this time, the Rainbow of Gravity is observed from above, a reverse parabola. Just sayin'.)
The Chums now find themselves, owing to "special situation" and the Inconvenience's superior speed, repatriating "persons of particular interest who cannot be repatriated without certain awkwardness," when one day, Martinmas (November 11), the Armistice is signed and the war is over. Pugnax brings in an offer from California, an offer of unbelievable remuneration, so it's ho for Los Angeles.
The wind blows them off course, south of the Rio Bravo, where they are rescued by the Sodality of Aethernauts. Here my expertise in Steampunk Science fails me somewhat, as the explanation of the girls' ability to use the Aether as a medium of flight goes whizzing over my fuzzy little head, but I do get the fruity import of Viridian's tart retort: "Burning dead dinosaurs and whatever they ate ain't the answer, Crankshaft Boy."
Also well within my intellectual grasp is the pairing off of Chums and Sodalites (hee!).
The winds finally shift in the Chums' favor, and Los Angeles heaves into view. "Where on Earth is this?" wonders Heartsease. ""That's sort of the problem," muses Chick. "That 'on Earth' part."
The passage that follows tugs at my heartstrings a bit: As a rural sort, living in the shadow of a mountain, I marvel at the stars I can see on a clear, cold night; in my former, light-polluted suburban existence, I missed them terribly, and thought with nostalgia of a time when the cities of Earth didn't blot them almost completely from the sky. In the Chums' day, this process, in which "a triumph over night" meant that shift-work was now possible, meant either "the further expansion of an already prodigious American economy," or "groundhog sweat, misery and early graves," depending on how you see it.
The Chums discover that the lucrative mission they've been sent on is a phony, and they find themselves at a loose end. Wandering around in Hollywood "whom should he run into" but his old dad, "Dick" Counterfly (love those quote marks!). "Dick" (everybody in the world calls him that!) is doing mighty well for himself and this third wife, possibly younger than Chick, named Treacle. "Dick" shows Chick a machine he's invented that has all the appearances of being a primitive Steampunk television; the program -- a submoronic bit of monkey-slapstick -- being broadcast from somewhere "not on the surface of the Earth so much as" -- "Perpendicular," fills in Chick.
The next day, "Dick" picks up Chick in his Packard and takes him to meet up with ol' Merle Rideout and Roswell Bounce, who are running a research facility on Santa Monica Bay. Merle quizzes "Dick" as to some "muscle" to protect their operation -- Roswell's a hair paranoid. Who should "Dick" recommend but our old friend Lew Basnight!
Turns out the device Merle and Roswell are working on is pretty miraculous. Having thrown together some worm drives, Nicol prisms, Navy-surplus Thalofide cells and some baling wire and chewing gum, they've invented a machine that can actually make a photograph come to life! "Ain't that just the damnedest thing you ever saw?"
We end with "Dick" driving Chick back to the Inconvenience in Van Nuys, and some father-son bonding; "Dick" offers to teach Chick to drive, and Chick extends an invitation to go for a spin in the airship. "Well. Thought you'd never ask," sez Dick, and our cold, cold hearts melt just a little tiny bit.