Incoming mail

Far to the east, down in the pink sky, something has just sparked, very brightly. A new star, nothing less noticeable. He leans on the parapet to watch. The brilliant point has already become a short vertical white line. It must be somewhere out over the North Sea . . . at least that far . . . icefields below and a cold smear of sun. . . .

What is it? Nothing like this ever happens. But Pirate knows it, after all. He has seen it in a film, just in the last fortnight . . . it’s a vapor trail. Already a finger’s width higher now. But not from an airplane. Airplanes are not launched vertically. This is the new, and still Most Secret, German rocket bomb.

“Incoming mail.” Did he whisper that, or only think it? He tightens the ragged belt of his robe. Well, the range of these things is supposed to be over 200 miles. You can’t see a vapor trail 200 miles, now, can you.

Oh. Oh, yes: around the curve of the Earth, farther east, the sun over there, just risen over in Holland, is striking the rocket’s exhaust, drops and crystals, making them blaze clear accross the sea. . . .

The white line, abruptly, has stopped its climb. That would be fuel cutoff, end of burning, what’s their word . . . Brennschluss. We don’t have one. Or else it’s classified. The bottom of the line, the original star, has already begun to vanish in red daybreak. But the rocket will be here before Pirate sees the sunrise.

The trail, smudged, slightly torn in two or three directions, hangs in the sky. Already the rocket, gone pure ballistic, has risen higher. But invisible now.

Oughtn’t he to be doing something . . . get on to the operations room at Stanmore, they must have it on the Channel radars — no: no time, really. Less than five minutes Hague to here (the time it takes to walk down to the teashop on the corner . . . for light from the sun to reach the planet of love . . . no time at all). Run out in the street? Warn the others?

Pick bananas. He trudges through black compost in to the hothouse. He feels he’s about to shit. The missile, sixty miles high, must be coming up on the peak of its trajectory by now . . . beginning its fall . . . now. . . .

Trusswork is pierced by daylight, milky panes beam beneficently down. How could there be a winter — even this one — gray enough to age this iron that can sing in the wind, or cloud these windows that open into another season, however falsely preserved?

Pirate looks at his watch. Nothing registers. The pores of his face are prickling. Emptying his mind — a Commando trick — he steps into the wet heat of his bananery, sets about picking the ripest and the best, holding up the skirt of his robe to drop them in. Allowing himself to count only bananas, moving barelegged among the pendulous bunches, among these yellow chandeliers, this tropical twilight. . . .

Out into the winter again. The contrail is gone entirely from the sky. Pirate’s sweat lies on his skin almost as cold as ice.

He takes some time lighting a cigarette. He won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in.

What if it should hit exactly — ahh, no — for a split second you’d have to feel the very point, with the terrible mass above, strike the top of the skull. . . .

Pirate hunches his shoulders, bearing his bananas down the corkscrew ladder.

— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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