Wherever Lurvy moved in the ship, she was always conscious of the mottled gray pattern in the viewplate. It showed nothing she could recognize, but it was a nothing she had seen before, for months on end.
While they were traveling faster than light on the way to Heechee Heaven they were alone. The universe was empty around them, except for that pebbly, shifting gray. They were the universe. Even on the long climb to the Food Factory it had not been this solitary. At least there were stars. Even planets. In tau space, or whatever crazy kind of space Heechee ships drove through or tunneled under or sidestepped around, there was nothing. Last times Lurvy had been in that much emptiness had been in her Gateway missions, and they were not sweet memories at all.
This ship was far the biggest she had ever seen. Gateway’s largest held five people. This could have housed twenty or more. It contained eight separate compartments. Three were cargo, filled automatically (Wan explained) with the output of the Food Factory while the ship was docked there. Two seemed to be staterooms, but not for human beings. If the “bunks” that rolled out from the walls were bunks indeed, they were too tiny for human adults. One of the rooms Wan identified as his own, which he invited Janine to share. When Lurvy vetoed the notion he gave in sulkily, and so they roomed in segregated style, boys in one chamber, girls in the other. The largest room, located in the mathematical center of the ship, was shaped like a cylinder with tapered ends. It had neither floor nor ceiling, except that three seats were fixed to the surface facing the controls. As the surface was curved, the seats leaned toward each other. They were simple enough, of the design Lurvy had lived with for months at a time: Two flat metal slabs, joined together in a Vee. “On Gateway ships we stretched webbing across them,” Lurvy offered.
“What is ‘webbing’?” asked Wan; and, when it was explained, said, “What a good idea. I will do that next trip. I can steal some material from the Old Ones.”
As in all Heechee ships, the controls themselves were nearly automatic. There were a dozen knurled wheels in a row, with colored lights for each wheel. As the wheels were turned (not that anyone would ever turn them while in flight; that was well established suicide), the lights changed color and intensity, and developed bands of light and dark like spectrum lines. They represented course settings. Not even Wan could read them, much less Lurvy or the others. But since Lurvy’s time on Gateway, at great expense in prospectors’ lives, the big brains had accumulated a considerable store of data. Some colors meant a good chance of something worthwhile. Some referred to the length of the trip the course director was set for. Some-many- were filed away as no-nos, because every ship that had entered faster-than-light space with those settings had stayed there. Or somewhere. Had, at least, never returned to Gateway. Out of habit and orders, Lurvy photographed every fluctuation of control lights and viewscreen, even when the screen showed nothing she could recognize as worth photographing. An hour after the group left the Food Factory, the star patterns began to shrink together to a winking point of brightness. They had reached the speed of light. And then even the point was gone. The screen took on the appearance of gray mud that raindrops had spattered, and stayed that way.
To Wan, of course, the ship was only his familiar schoolbus, used for commuting back and forth since he was old enough to squeeze the launch teat. Paul had never been in a real Heechee ship before, and was subdued for days. Neither had Janine, but one more marvel was nothing unusual in her fourteen-year-old life. For Lurvy, something else. It was a bigger version of the ships in which she had earned her Out bangles-and precious little else-and therefore frightening.
She could not help it. She could not convince herself that this trip, at least, was a regular shuttle run. She had learned too much fear blundering into the unknown as a Gateway pilot. She pushed herself around its vast-comparatively vast-space (nearly a hundred and fifty cubic meters!), and worried. It was not only the muddy viewscreen that kept her attention. There was the shiny golden lozenge, bigger than a man, that was thought to contain the FTL drive machinery and was known to explode totally if opened. There was the crystal, glassy spiral that got hot (no one had ever known why) from time to time, and lit up with tiny hot flecks of radiance at the beginning and end of each trip, and at one other very important time.
It was that time that Lurvy was watching for. And when, exactly twenty-four days, five hours and fifty-six minutes after they left the Food Factory, the golden coil flickered and began to light, she could not help a great sigh of relief.
“What’s the matter?” Wan shrilled suspiciously.
“Just that we’re halfway now,” she said, noting the time in her log. “That’s the turnaround point. That’s what you look for in a Gateway ship. If you reach the halfway point with only a quarter of your lifesupport gone you know you won’t run out and starve on the way home.”
Wan pouted. “Don’t you trust me, Lurvy? We will not starve.”
“It feels good to know for sure,” she grinned, and then lost the grin, because she was thinking about what was at the end of the trip.
So they rubbed along together, the best way they could, getting on each other’s nerves a thousand times apiece a day. Paul taught Wan to play chess, to keep his mind off Janine. Wan patiently-more often impatiently-rehearsed again and again everything he could tell them about Heechee Heaven and its occupants.
They slept as much as they could. In the restraining net next to Paul, Wan’s teen-aged juices bubbled and flowed. He tossed and turned in the random, tiny accelerations of the ship, wishing he were alone so that he could do those things that appeared to be prohibited when one was not alone-or wishing he were not alone, but with Janine, so that he could do those even better things Tiny Jim and Henrietta had described to him. He had asked Henrietta any number of times what the female role was in this conjugation. To this she always responded, even when she would not talk about anything else; but almost never in a way that was helpful to Wan. However her sentences began, they almost always ended by returning tearfully to the subject of her terrible betrayals by her husband and that floozy, Doris.
He did not know, even, in just what physical ways the female departed from the male. Pictures and words did not do it. Toward the end of the trip curiosity overpowered acculturation, and he begged Janine or Lurvy, either one, to let him see for himself. Even without touching. “Why, you filthy beast,” said Janine diagnostically. She was not angry. She was smiling. “Bide your time, boy, you’ll get your chances.”
But Lurvy was not amused, and when Wan had gone disconsolately away she and her sister had, for them, a long talk. As long as Janine would tolerate. “Lurvy, dear,” she said at last, “I know. I know I’m only fifteen-well, almost-and Wan’s not much older. I know that I don’t want to get pregnant four years away from a doctor, and with all kinds of things coming up that we don’t know how we’ll deal with-I know all that. You think I’m just your snotty kid sister. Well, I am. But I’m your smart snotty kid sister. When you say something worth listening to I listen. So piss off, dear Lurvy.” Smiling comfortably, she pushed herself away after Wan, and then stopped and returned to kiss Lurvy. “You and Pop,” she said. “You both drive me straight up the wall. But I love you both a lot-and Paul, too.”
It was not altogether Wan’s fault, Lurvy knew. They were all smelling extremely high. Among all their sweats and secretions were pheromones enough to make a monk horny, much less an impressionable virgin kid. And that was not at all Wan’s fault, in fact exactly the reverse. If he had not insisted, they would not have lugged so much water aboard; if they had not, they would be even filthier and sweatier than their rationed sponge baths left them. They had, when you came right down to it, left the Food Factory far too impulsively. Payter had been right.
Astonishingly, Lurvy realized that she actually missed the old man. In the ship they were wholly cut off from communication of any kind. What was he doing? Was he still well? They had had to take the mobile bioassay unit-they had only one, and four people needed it more than one. But that was not really true, either, because away from the shipboard computer it was balled into a shiny, motionless mass, and would stay that way until they established radio contact with Vera from Heechee Heaven-and meanwhile, what was happening to her father?
The curious thing was that Lurvy loved the old man, and thought that he loved her back. He had given every sign of it but verbal ones. It was his money and ambition that had put them all on the flight to the Food Factory in the first place, buying them participants’ shares by scraping the bottom of the money, if not of the ambition. It had been his money that had paid for her going to Gateway in the first place, and when the gamble went sour he had not reproached her. Or not directly, and not much.
After six weeks in Wan’s ship, Lurvy began to feel adjusted to it. She even felt fairly comfortable, not counting the smells and irritations and worries; at least, as long as she didn’t think too much about the trips that had earned her her five Out bangles from Gateway. There was very little good to remember in any of them.
Lurvy’s first trip had been a washout. Fourteen months of round-trip travel to come out circling a planet that had been flamed clean in a nova eruption. Maybe something had been there once. Nothing was there when Lurvy arrived, stark solitary and already talking to herself in her one-person ship. That had cured her of single flights, and the next was in a Three. No better. None of them any better. She became famous in Gateway, an object of curiosity-strong contender for the record of most flights taken and fewest profits returned. It was not an honor she liked, but it was never as bad until the last flight of all.
That was disaster.
Before they even reached their destination she had awakened out of an edgy, restless sleep to horror. The woman she had made her special friend was floating bloodily next to her, the other woman also dead not far away, and the two men who made up the rest of the Five’s crew engaged in screaming, mutilating hand-to-hand battle.
The rules of the Gateway Corporation provided that any payments resulting from a voyage were to be divided equally among the survivors. Her shipmate Stratos Kristianides had made up his mind to be the only survivor.
In actuality, he didn’t survive. He lost the battle to her other shipmate, and lover, Hector Possanbee. The winner, with Lurvy, went on to find-again-nothing. Smoldering red gas giant. Pitiful little binary Class-M companion star. And no way of reaching the only detectable planet, a huge methane-covered Jupiter of a thing, without dying in the attempt.
Lurvy had come back to Earth after that with her tail between her legs, and no second chance in sight. Payter had given her that opportunity, and she did not think there would be another. The hundred and some thousand dollars it had cost him to pay her way to Gateway had put a very big dent in the money he had accumulated over his sixty or seventy years-she didn’t really know how many years-of life. She had failed him. Not just him. And she accepted, out of his kindness and forbearance to hate her, the fact that he really did love his daughter-and kind, pointless Paul and silly young Janine, too. In some way, Payter loved them all.
And was getting very little out of it, Lurvy judged.
She rubbed her Out bangles moodily. They had been very expensive to obtain.
She was not easy in her mind about her father, or about what lay ahead.
Making love to Paul helped pass the time-when they could convince themselves that they didn’t have to supervise the younger ones for a quarter of an hour or so. It was not the same for Lurvy as making love to Hector, the man who had survived the last Gateway flight with her, the man who had asked her to marry him. The man who asked her to ship out with him again and to build a life together. Short, broad, always active, always alert, a dynamo in bed, kind and patient when she was sick or irritable or scared-there were a hundred reasons why she should have married Hector. And only one, really, why she did not. When she was wrenched out of that terrible sleep she had found Hector and Stratos battling. While she watched, Stratos died.
Hector had explained to her that Stratos had gone out of control to try to slay them all; but she had been asleep when the slaughter started. One of the men had obviously tried to murder his shipmates.
But she had never known for sure which one.
He proposed to her when things were bleakest and grimiest, a day before they reached Gateway on the sorry return trip. “We are really most delightfully good together, Dorema,” he said, arms about her, consolingly. “Just us and no one else. I think I could not have borne this with the others around. Next time we will be more fortunate! So let’s get married, please?”
She burrowed her chin into his hard, warm, cocoa-colored shoulder. “I’ll have to think, dear,” she said, feeling the hand that had killed Stratos kneading the back of her neck.
So Lurvy was not unhappy when the trip was over and Janine called her out of her private room, all thrilled and excited; the great glassy spiral was filling with hot specks of darting golden light, the ship was lurching tentatively in one direction and another; the mottled gray mud was gone from the viewscreen and there were stars. More than stars. There was an object that glowed blue in patches amid featureless gray. It was lemonshaped and spun slowly, and Lurvy could form no idea of its size until she perceived that the surface of the object was not featureless. There were tiny projections jutting out here and there, and she recognized the tiniest of them as Gateway-type ships, Ones and Threes, and there a Five; the lemon had to be more than a kilometer long! Wan, grinning with pride, settled himself in the central pilot seat (they had stuffed it with extra clothing, a device that had never occurred to Wan), and grasped the lander control levers. It was all Lurvy could do to keep her hands off. But Wan had been performing this particular maneuver all his life. With coarse competence he banged and slammed the ship into a downward spiral that matched the slow spin of the blueeyed gray lemon, intersected one of the waiting pits, docked, locked, and looked up for applause. They were on Heechee Heaven.
The Food Factory had been the size of a skyscraper, but this was a world. Perhaps, like Gateway, it had once been an asteroid; but, if so, it had been so tooled and sculpted that there was no trace of original structure. It was cubic kilometers of mass. It was a rotating mountain. So much to explore! So much to learn!
And so much to fear. They skulked, or strutted, through the old halls, and Lurvy realized she was clinging to her husband’s hand. And Paul was clinging back. She forced herself to observe and comment. The sides of the walls were veined with luminous tracing of scarlet; the overhead was the familiar blue Heecheemetal glow. On the floor-and it was really a floor; they had weight here, though not more than a tenth of Earth-normal- diamond-shaped mounds contained what looked like soil and grew plants. “Berryfruit,” said Wan proudly over his shoulder, shrugging toward a waist-high bush with fuzzed objects hanging among its emerald leaves. “We can stop and eat some if you like.”
“Not right now,” said Lurvy. A dozen paces farther along the corridor was another planted lozenge, this one with slate-green tendrils and soft, squashed cauliflower-shaped buds. “What’s that?”
He paused and looked at her. It was clear he thought it was a silly question. “They are not good to eat,” he shrilled scornfully. “Try the berryfruit. They are quite tasty.”
So the party paused, where two of the red-lined corridors came together and one of them changed to blue. They peeled brown-green furry skins from the berryfruit and nibbled at the juicy insides-first tentatively, then with pleasure-while Wan explained the geography of Heechee Heaven. These were the red sections, and they were the best to be in. There was food here, and good places to sleep; and the ship was here, and here the Old Ones never came. But didn’t they sometimes wander out of their usual places to pick the berryfruit? Yes, of course they did! But never (his voice rising half an octave) here. It had never happened. Over there the blue. His voice sank, in volume as well as pitch. The Old Ones came there quite often, or to some parts of the blue. But it was all dead. If it were not that the Dead Men’s room was in the blue he would never go there. And Lurvy, peering down the corridor he pointed to, felt a chill of incredible age. It had the look of a Stonehenge or Gizeh or Angkor Wat. Even the ceilings were dimmer, and the plantings there were sparse and puny. The green, he went on, was all very well, but it was not working properly. The water jets did not function. The plantings died. And the gold—
His pleasure faded when he talked about the gold. That was where the Old Ones lived. If it were not for needing books, and sometimes clothes, he would never go to the gold, though the Dead Men were always urging him to. He did not want to see the Old Ones.
Paul cleared his throat to say: “But I think we have to do that, Wan.”
“Why?” the boy shrilled. “They are not interesting!”
Lurvy put her hand on his arm. “What’s the matter, Wan?” she asked kindly, observing his expression. What Wan felt always showed on his face. He had never had the need to develop the skills of dissembling.
“He looks scared,” Paul commented.
“He is not scared!” Wan retorted. “You do not understand this place! it is not interesting to go to the gold!”
“Wan, dear,” Lurvy said, “the thing is, it’s worth taking chances to find out more about the Heechee. I don’t know if I can explain what it means to us, but the least part of it is that we would get money for it. A lot of money.”
“He doesn’t know what money is,” Paul interrupted impatiently. “Wan. Pay attention. We are going to do this. Tell us how the four of us can safely explore the gold corridors.”
“The four of us can not! One person can. I can,” he boasted. He was angry now, and showed it. Paul! Wan’s feelings about him were mixed, but most of the mixture were unfavorable. Speaking to Wan, Paul shaped his words so carefully-so contemptuously. As though he did not think Wan were smart enough to understand. When Wan and Janine were together, Paul was always near. If Paul was a sample of human males, Wan was not proud to be one. “I have gone to the gold many times,” he boasted, “for books, or for berryfruit, or just to watch the silly things they do. They are so funny! But they are not entirely stupid, you know. I can go there safely. One person can. Perhaps two people can, but if we all go they will surely see us.”
“And then?” Lurvy asked.
Wan shrugged defensively. He didn’t really know the answer to that, only that it had frightened his father. “They are not interesting,” he repeated, contradicting himself.
Janine licked her fingers and tossed the empty berryfruit skins to the base of the bush. “You people,” she sighed, “are unreal. Wan? Where do these Old Ones come?”
“To the edge of the gold, always. Sometimes into the blue or the green.”
“Well, if they like these berryfruits, and if you know a place where they come to pick them, why don’t we just leave a camera there? We can see them. They can’t see us.”
Wan shrilled triumphantly, “Of course! You see, Lurvy, it is not necessary to go there! Janine is right, only-“ he hesitated- “Janine? What is a camera?”
As they went, Lurvy had to nerve herself to pass every intersection, could not help staring down each corridor. But they heard nothing, and saw nothing that moved. It was as quiet as the Food Factory when they first set foot in it, and just as queer. Queerer. The traceries of light on every wall, the patches of growing things-above all, the terrifying thought that there were Heechee alive somewhere near. When they had dropped off a camera by a berryfruit bush in a space where green, blue, and gold came together, Wan bustled them away, directly to the room where the Dead Men lived. That was first priority: to get to the radio that would once again put them in touch with the rest of the world. Even if the rest of the world was only old Payter, fidgeting resentfully around the Food Factory. If they could not do that much, Lurvy reasoned, they had no business being here at all, and they should return to the ship and head for home; it was no good exploring if they could not report what they found!
So Wan, courage returning in direct proportion to his increasing distance from the Old Ones, marched them through a stretch of green, up several levels in blue, to a wide blue door. “Let us see if it is working right,” he said importantly, and stepped on a ridge of metal before the door. The door hesitated, sighed and then creakily opened for them, and, satisfied, Wan led them inside.
This place at least seemed human. If strange. It even smelled human, no doubt because Wan had spent so much time there over his short life. Lurvy took one of the minicameras from Paul and settled it on her shoulder. The little machine hissed tape past its lens, recording an octagonal chamber with three of the forked Heechee seats, two of them broken, and a stained wall bearing the Heechee version of instrumentation-ridges of colored lights. There was a tiny sound of clicks and hums, barely perceptible, behind the wall. Wan waved at it “In there,” he said, “is where the Dead Men live. If ‘live’ is the right word for what they do.” He tittered.
Lurvy pointed the camera at the seats and the knurled knobs before them, then at a domed, clawed object under the smeared wall. It stood chest high, and it was mounted on soft, squashed cylinders to roll on. “What’s that, Wan?”
“It is what the Dead Men catch me with sometimes,” he muttered. “They don’t use it very often. it is very old. When it breaks, it takes forever to mend itself.”
Paul eyed the machine warily, and moved away from it. “Turn on your friends, Wan,” he ordered.
“Of course. It is not very difficult,” Wan boasted. “Watch me carefully, and you will see how to do it.” He sat himself with careless ease on the one unbroken seat, and frowned at the controls. “I will bring you Tiny Jim,” he decided, and thumbed the controls before him. The lights on the stained wall flickered and flowed, and Wan said, “Wake up, Tiny Jim. There is someone here for you to meet.”
Wan scowled, glanced over his shoulder at the others and then ordered: “Tiny Jim! Speak to me at once!” He pursed his lips and spat a gobbet at the wall. Lurvy recognized the source of the stains, but said nothing.
A weary voice over their heads said, “Hello, Wan.”
“That is better,” Wan shrilled, grinning at the others. “Now, Tiny Jim! Tell my friends something interesting, or I will spit on you again.”
“I wish you would be more respectful,” sighed the voice, “but very well. Let me see. On the ninth planet of the star Saiph there is an old civilization. Their rulers are a class of shit-handlers, who exercise power by removing the excrement only from the homes of those citizens who are honest, industrious, clever, and unfailing in the payment of their taxes. On their principal holiday, which they call the Feast of St. Gautama, the youngest maiden in each family bathes herself in sunflower oil, takes a hazelnut between her teeth, and ritually-“
“Tiny Jim,” Wan interrupted, “is this a true story?”
Pause. “Metaphorically it is,” Tiny Jim said sullenly.
“You are very foolish,” Wan reproved the Dead Man, “and I am shamed before my friends. Pay attention. Here are Dorema Herter-Hall, who you will call Lurvy, and her sister Janine Herter. And Paul. Say hello to them.”
Long pause. “Are there other living human beings here?” the voice asked doubtfully.
“I have just told you there are!”
Another long pause. Then, “Good-bye, Wan,” the voice said sadly, and would not speak again, no matter how loudly Wan commanded or how furiously he spat at the wall.
“Christ,” grumbled Paul. “Is he always like that?”
“No, not always,” Wan shrilled. “But sometimes he is worse. Shall I try one of the others for you?”
“Are they any better?”
“Well, no,” Wan admitted. “Tiny Jim is the best.”
Paul closed his eyes in despair, and opened them again to glare at Lurvy. “How simply bloody wonderful,” he said. “Do you know what I’m beginning to think? I’m beginning to think your father was right. We should have stayed on the Food Factory.”
Lurvy took a deep breath. “Well, we didn’t,” she pointed out. “We’re here. Let’s give it forty-eight hours, and then-And then we’ll make up our minds.”
Long before the forty-eight hours were up they had made up their minds to stay. At least for a while. There was simply too much in Heechee Heaven to abandon it.
The big factor in the decision was reaching Payter on the FTL radio. No one had thought to ask Wan if his ability to call Heechee Heaven from the Food Factory implied that he could call in the other direction. It turned out he could not. He had never had a reason to try, because there had never been anyone there to answer the phone. Lurvy drafted Janine to help her carry food and a few essentials out of the ship, fighting depression and worry all the way, and returned to find Paul proud and Wan jubilant. They had made contact. “How is he?” Lurvy demanded at once.
“Oh, you mean your father? He’s all right,” Paul said. “He sounded grouchy, come to think of it-cabin fever, I suppose. There were about a million messages. He patched them through as a burst transmission and I’ve got them on tape-but it’ll take us a week to play them all.” He rummaged through the stuff Janine and Lurvy had brought until he found the tools he had demanded. He was patching together a digitalized picture transmitter, to make use of the voice-only FTL circuits. “We can only transmit single frames,” he said, eyes on the picture-tape machine. “But if we’re going to be here for very long, maybe I can work out a burst-transmission system from here. Meanwhile, we’ve got voice and-oh, yeah. The old man said to kiss you for him.”
“Then I guess we’re going to stay for a while,” said Janine.
“Then I guess we’d better bring more stuff out of the ship,” her sister agreed. “Wan? Where should we sleep?”
So while Paul worked on the communications, Wan and the two women hustled the necessities of life to a cluster of chambers in the red-walled corridors. Wan was proud to show them off. There were wall bunks larger than the ones the ship had offered-large enough, actually, for even Paul to sleep in, if he didn’t mind bending his knees. There was a place for toilet facilities, not quite of human design. Or not of very recent human design. The facilities were simply lustrous metal slits in the floor, like the squat-toilets of Eastern Europe. There was even a place to bathe. It was something between a wading pool and a tub, with something between a shower head and a small waterfall coming out of the wall behind it. When you got inside tepid water poured out. After that they all began to smell much better. Wan, in particular, bathed ostentatiously often, sometimes beginning to undress to bathe again before the last drops of unsopped water had dried on the back of his neck from the bath before. Tiny Jim had told him that bathing was a custom among polite people. Besides, he had perceived that Janine did it regularly. Lurvy watched them both, remembered how much trouble it had been to get Janine to bathe on the long flight up from Earth, and did not comment.
As pilot, therefore captain, Lurvy constituted herself head of the expedition. She assigned Paul to establish and maintain communication with her father on the Food Factory, with Wan’s help in dealing with the Dead Men. She assigned Janine, with her own help and Wan’s, to housekeeping tasks like washing their clothes in the tepid tub. She assigned Wan, with anyone who could be spared, to roam the safe parts of Heechee Heaven, photographing and recording for transmission to Payter and Earth. Usually Wan’s compaanion was Janine. When someone else could be spared, the two young people were chaperoned, but that was seldom.
Janine did not seem to mind either way. She had not finished with the preliminary thrill of Wan’s companionship and was in no hurry to move to a further stage-except when they touched. Or when she caught him staring at her. Or when she saw the knotted bulge in his ragged kilt. Even then, her fantasies and reveries were almost as good as that next stage, at least for now. She played with the Dead Men, and munched on berryfruit, brown-skinned and green-fleshed, and did her chores, and waited to grow up a little more.
There were not many objections to Lurvy’s rule, since she had taken care to assign tasks that the draftees were willing to do anyhow, which left for herself such drudgery as going through the backed-up cormuands and persuasions from Payter, and faroff Earth.
The communication was a long way from satisfactory. Lurvy had not appreciated Shipboard-Vera until she had to get along without her. She could not command priority messages first, or have the computer sort them out by theme. There was no computer she could use, except the overtaxed one in her own head. The messages came in higgledy-piggledy, and when she replied, or transmitted reports for downlink relay to Earth, she had no confidence at all that they were getting where they were supposed to go.
The Dead Men seemed to be basically read-only memories, interactive but limited. And their circuits had been further scrambled in the makeshift attempt to use them for communication to the Food Factory, a task for which they had never been designed. (But what had they really been designed for? And by whom?) Wan blustered and bluffed, in his pose as expert, and then miserably confessed that they were not doing what they were supposed to do any more. Sometimes he would dial Tiny Jim and get Henrietta, and sometimes a former-English Lit professor named Willard; and once he got a voice he had never heard before, shaking and whispering on the near side of inaudibility, muttering on the far side of madness. “Go to the gold,” whimpered Henrietta, fretful as ever, and without pause Tiny Jim’s thick tenor would override: “They’ll kill you! They don’t like castaways!”
That was frightening. Especially as Wan assured them that Tiny Jim had always been the most sensible of the Dead Men. It puzzled Lurvy that she was not more terrified than she was, but there had been so many alarms and terrors that she had become used to them. Her circuits were scrambled, too.
And the messages! In one five-minute burst of clear transmission Paul had recorded fourteen hours of them. Commands from downlink: “Report all control settings shuttle ship. Attempt secure tissue samples Heechee/Old Ones. Freeze and store berryfruit leaves, fruits, stems. Exercise extreme caution.” Half a dozen separate communications from her father; he was lonesome; he didn’t feel well; he was not receiving proper medical attention because they had taken the mobile bioassay unit away; he was being barraged by peremptory orders from Earth. Information messages from Earth: their first reports had been received, analyzed and interpreted for them, and now there were suggestions for follow-up programs beyond counting. They should interrogate Henrietta about her references to cosmological phenomena-Shipboard-Vera was making a hash of it, and Downlink-Vera could not communicate in real time, and old Payter did not know enough astrophysics to ask the right questions, so it was up to them. They should interrogate all the Dead Men on their memories of Gateway and their missions-assuming they remembered anything. They should attempt to find out how living prospectors became stored computer programs. They should-They should do everything. All at once. And almost none of it was possible; tissue samples of the Heechee, forsooth! When an occasional message was clear and personal and undemanding, Lurvy treasured it.
And some of those were surprises. Besides the fan letters from Janine’s pen-pals and the continuing plea for any information they might come across from Trish Bover’s relict, there was one for Lurvy personally, from Robinette Broadhead:
“Dorema, I know you’re being swamped. Your whole mission was important and hazardous to begin with, and now it turns out about a million times more so. All I expect from you is that you do the best you can. I don’t have the authority to override Gateway Corp orders. I can’t change your assigned objectives. But I want you to know I’m on your side. Find out all you can. Try not to get into a spot you can’t retreat from. And I’ll do everything I can to see that you get rewarded as fully and lavishly as you can hope for. I mean it, Lurvy. I give you my word.”
It was a strange message, and oddly touching. It was also a surprise to Lurvy that Broadhead even knew her nickname. They had not exactly been intimates. When she and her family were interviewing for the Food Factory assignment they had met Broadhead several times. But the relationship had been of suppliant and monarch, and there was not much close interpersonal friendship involved. Nor had she particularly liked him. He was candid and amiable enough-high-rolling multimillionaire with an easy-going manner, but sharply on top of every dollar he spent and every development in every project he was involved in. She did not like being a client to a capricious Titan of finance.
And, to be fair, she had come to their meetings with a faint prejudice. She had heard about Robinette Broadhead long before he played any part in her own life. In Lurvy’s own time on the Gateway asteroid and in its ships, she had once gone out in a three-person ship with an elderly woman who had once been shipmate with Gelle-Kiara Moynlim. From the woman Lurvy had heard the story of Broadhead’s last mission, the one that made him a multimillionaire. There was something questionable about it. Nine people had died on that mission. Broadhead was the only survivor. And one of the casualties had been Kiara Moynlin, with whom (the old woman said) Broadhead had been in love. Maybe it was Lurvy’s own experience with a mission in which most of the crew had died that colored her feelings. But they were there.
The curious thing about the Broadhead mission was that maybe “died” was not the right word for the casualties. This Kiara and the rest had been trapped in a black hole, and perhaps they were still there, and perhaps still alive-prisoners of slowed-down time, maybe no more than a few hours older after all the years.
So what was the hidden agenda in Broadhead’s message to Lurvy? Was he urging them on to try to find a way to penetrate Gelle-Kiara Moynlin’s prison? Did he know himself? Lurvy could not tell, but for the first time she thought of their employer as a human being. The thought was touching. It did not make Lurvy feel less afraid, but perhaps a little less alone. When she brought her latest batch of tapes to Paul, in the Dead Men’s room, to record at high speed and transmit when he could, she tarried to put her arms around him and cling, which surprised him very much.
When Janine returned to the Dead Men’s room from an exploration with Wan, something told her to move quietly. She looked in without being heard, and saw her sister and brother-in-law sitting comfortably against a wall, half listening to the maniac chatter of the Dead Men, half chatting desultorily with each other. She turned, put her finger to her lips and led Wan away. “I think they want to be alone,” she explained. “Anyway, I’m tired. Let’s take a break.”
Wan shrugged. They found a convenient spot at an intersection of corridors a few dozen meters away and he settled himself pensively beside the girl. “Are they conjugating?” he asked.
“Cripes, Wan. You’ve only got the one thing on your mind all the time.” But she was not annoyed, and let him move close to her, until one hand approached her breast. “Knock it off,” she said mildly.
He withdrew his hand. “You are being very disturbed, Janine,” he said, pouting.
“Oh, get off my back.” But when he moved millimeters away, she let herself move a little closer again. She was quite content to have him want her and quite serene in believing that when anything happened, as “anything” sooner or later surely would, it would be when she wanted it to happen. Nearly two months with Wan had made her like him, and even trust him, and the rest could wait. She enjoyed his presence.
Even when he was grouchy. “You are not competing properly,” he complained.
“Competing at what, for the Lord’s sake?”
“You should talk to Tiny Jim,” he said severely. “He will teach you better strategies in the reproduction race. He has fully explained the male role to me, so that I am sure I can compete successfully. Of course, yours is different. Basically, your best choice would be to allow me to copulate with you.”
“Yes, you’ve said that. You know what, Wan? You talk too much.”
He was silent for a moment, perplexed. He could not defend himself against that charge. He did not even know why it was a charge. In most of his life the only mode of interaction he had had was talk. He rehearsed all of Tiny Jim’s teachings in his mind, and then his expression cleared. “I see. You want to kiss first,” he said.
“No! I don’t want to kiss ‘first’, and get your knee off my bladder.”
He released her unwillingly. “Janine,” he explained, “close contact is essential to ‘love’. This is true of the lower orders as well as of us. Dogs sniff. Primates groom. Reptiles coil around each other. Even rose shoots nestle close to the mature plant, Tiny Jim says, although he does not believe that is a sexual manifestation. But you will lose the reproductive race if you are not careful, Janine.”
She giggled. “To what? Old dead Henrietta?” But he was scowling and she took pity on him. She sat up and announced, kindly enough, “You’ve got some really wrong ideas, do you know that? The last thing I want, even if we ever do get around to your goddam conjugation, is to get caught in a place like this.”
“Pregnant,” she explained. “Winning the goddam reproductive race. Knocked up. Oh, Wan,” she said, nuzzling the top of his head, “you just don’t know where it’s all at. I bet you and I are going to conjugate the hell out of each other, some time or other, and maybe we’ll even get married, or something, and we’ll just win that old reproductive race a whole bunch. But right now you’re just a snotty-nosed kid, and so am I. You don’t want to reproduce. You just want to make love.”
“Well, that is true, yes, but Tiny Jim-“
“Will you shut up about Tiny Jim?” She stood up and regarded him for a moment, and said affectionately, “Tell you what. I’m going back to the Dead Men’s room. Why don’t you go read a book for a while to cool off?”
“You are silly!” he scolded. “I have no book here, or reader.”
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake! Then go somewhere and whack off until you feel better.”
Wan looked up at her, then down at his freshly laundered kilt. No bulge was visible, but there was a pale, spreading spot of damp. He grinned. “I guess I don’t need to any more,” he said.
By the time they got back, Paul and Lurvy were no longer cozily nestling each other, but Janine could detect that they were more at peace than usual. What Lurvy could detect about Wan and Janine was less tangible. She looked at them thoughtfully, considered asking what they had been up to, decided against it. Paul was, in any event, more interested in what they had just discovered. He said, “Hey, kids, listen to this.” He dialed Henrietta’s number, waited until her weepy voice said a tentative hello and then asked: “Who are you?”
The voice strengthened. “I am a computer analog,” it said firmly. “When I was alive I was Mrs. Arnold Meacham of mission Orbit Seventy-four, Day Nineteen. I have a bachelor of science and master’s from Tulane and the Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and my special discipline is astrophysics. After twenty-two days we docked at an artifact and were subsequently captured by its occupants. At the time of my death I was thirty-eight years old, two years younger than-“ the voice hesitated, “than Doris Filgren, our pilot, who-“ it hesitated again, “who-who my husband seemed to-who had an affair with-who-“ The voice was sobbing now, and Paul turned it off.
“Well, it doesn’t last,” he said, “but there it is. Poor dumb old Vera has sorted out some kind of a connection with reality for her. And not just for her. Do you want to know your mother’s name, Wan?”
The boy was staring at him, pop-eyed. “My mother’s name?” he shrilled.
“Or anybody else’s. Tiny Jim, for instance. He was actually an airbody pilot from Venus who got to Gateway, and then here. His name is James Cornwell. Willard was an English teacher. He embezzled money from the students’ fund to pay his way to Gateway-didn’t get much out of it, of course. His first flight brought him here. The downlink computers wrote an interrogation program for Vera, and she’s been working at it all along, and-what’s the matter, Wan?”
The boy licked his lips. “My mother’s name?” he repeated.
“Oh. Sorry,” Paul apologized, reminded to be kind. It had not occurred to him that Wan’s emotions would be involved. “Her name was Elfega Zamorra. But she doesn’t seem to be one of the Dead Men, Wan. I don’t know why. And your father-well, that’s a funny thing. Your real father was dead before she came here. The man you talk about must have been somebody else, but I don’t know who. Any idea why that is?” Wan shrugged. “I mean, why your mother or, I guess you’d call him, your step-father doesn’t seem to be stored?” Wan spread his hands.
Lurvy moved closer to him. The poor kid! Responding to his distress, she put her arm around him and said, “I guess this is a shock to you, Wan. I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more.” She gestured at the mare’s nest of recorders, encoders and processors that littered the once bare room. “Everything we find out gets transmitted back to Earth,” she said. He looked up at her politely, but not entirely comprehendingly, as she tired to explain the vast complex of information-handling machinery on Earth, and how it systematically analyzed, compared, collated, and interpreted every scrap from Heechee Heaven and the Food Factory-not to mention every other bit of data, wherever derived. Until Janine intervened.
“Oh, leave him alone. He understands enough,” she said wisely. “Just let him live with it for a while.” She rummaged through the case of rations for one of the slate-green packages, and then said casually, “By the way. Why is that thing beeping at us?”
Paul listened, then sprang to his clutter of gadgets. The monitor slaved to their portable cameras was emitting a faint Queep. Queep. Queep. He spun it around so they could all see, swearing to himself.
It was the camera they had left by the berryfruit bush, set patiently to record the unchanging scene and to sound an alarm whenever it detected movement.
It had. There was a face scowling out at them.
Lurvy felt a thrill of terror. “Heechee,” she breathed.
But if so, the face showed no evidence of concealing a mind that could colonize a galaxy. It seemed to be down on all fours, peering worriedly at the camera, and behind it were four or five others like it. The face had no chin. The brow slanted down from a fuzzy scalp; there was more hair on the face than on the head. If the skull had had an occipital ridge, it would have looked like a gorilla. Taken all in all, it was not far from the shipboard computer’s reconstruction of Wan’s description, but on a cruder, more animal design. Yet they were not animals. As the face moved to one side Lurvy saw that the others, clustered around the berryfruit bush, wore what no animal had ever spontaneously worn. They were clothed. There were even evidences of fashion in what they wore, patches of color sewn to their tunics, what looked like tattoos on exposed skin, even a string of sharp-edged beads around the neck of one of the males. “I suppose,” Lurvy said shakily, “that even the Heechee might degenerate in time. And they’ve had lots of time.”
The view in the camera spun dizzily. “Damn him,” Paul snapped. “He’s not so degenerate he doesn’t notice the camera. He’s picked the damn thing up. Wan! Do you suppose they know we’re here?”
The boy shrugged disinterestedly. “Of course they do. They always have, you know. They simply do not care.”
Lurvy’s heart caught. “What do you mean, Wan? How do you know they won’t come after us?”
The view in the camera steadied; the Old One who had picked it up was handing it to another. Wan glanced at it and said, “I have told you, they almost never come into this part of the blue. Or ever, into the red; and there is no reason to go into the green. Nothing works there, not even the food chutes or the readers. Almost always, they stay in the gold. Unless they have eaten all the berryfruit there, and want more.”
There was a mewling cry from the sound system of the monitor, and the view whirled again. It stopped momentarily on one of the female Old Ones, sucking a finger; then she reached out balefully for the camera. It spun and then went blank. “Paul! What did they do?” Lurvy demanded.
“Broke it, I suppose,” he said, failing to get the picture back after manipulating the controls. “Question is, what do we do? Haven’t we got enough here? Shouldn’t we think about going back?”
And think about it Lurvy did. They all did. But however carefully they questioned Wan, the boy stubbornly insisted there was nothing to fear. The Old Ones had never troubled him in the corridors walled with red skeins of light. He had never seen them in the green-though, to be sure, he seldom went there himself. Rarely in the blue. And, yes, of course they knew there were people here-the Dead Men assured him the Old Ones had machines that listened, and sometimes watched, everywhere-when they were not broken, of course. They simply did not care very much. “If we don’t go into the gold they will not trouble us,” he said positively. “Except, of course, if they come out.”
“Wan,” Paul snarled, “I can’t tell you how confident you make me feel.”
But it developed that that was only the boy’s way of saying that the odds were very good. “I go to the gold for excitement often,” he boasted. “Also for books. I have never been caught, you know.”
“And what if the Heechee come here for excitement, or books?” Paul demanded.
“Books! What would they do with books? For berryfruit, maybe. Sometimes they go with the machines-Tiny Jim says they are for repairing things that break. But not always. And the machines do not work very well, or very often. Besides, you can hear them far away!”
They all sat silent for a moment, looking at each other. Then Lurvy said, “Here’s what I think. Let’s give ourselves one week here. I don’t think that’s stretching our luck too much. We have, what is it, Paul?-five cameras left. We’ll plant them around, slave them to the monitor here and leave them. If we take care, maybe we can conceal them so the Heechee won’t find them. We’ll explore all the red corridors, because they’re safe, and as many of the blue and green as we can. Collect samples. Take pictures-I want to get a look at those repair machines. And when we’ve done as much of that as we can, we’ll-we’ll see how much time we have. And then we’ll make a decision about going into the gold.”
“But no more than one week. From now,” Paul repeated. He was not insisting. He was only making sure he understood.
“No more,” Lurvy agreed, and Janine and Wan nodded.
But forty-eight hours later they were in the gold, all the same. They had decided to replace the broken camera, and so, all four of them together, they retraced their steps to the three-way intersection where the berryfruit bush rose, bare of ripe fruit. Wan was first, hand in hand with Janine, and she detached herself to swoop down on the wreck of the camera. “They really bashed it,” she marveled. “You didn’t tell us they were so strong, Wan. Look, is that blood?”
Paul snatched it from her hand, turning it over, frowning at the crust of black along one edge. “It looks like they were trying to get it open,” he said. “I don’t think I could do that with my bare hands. He must have slipped and cut himself.”
“Oh, yes,” shrilled Wan absently, “they are quite strong.” His attention was not on the camera. He was peering down the long gold corridor, sniffing the air, listening more for distant sounds than to the others.
“You’re making me nervous,” Lurvy said. “Do you hear anything?”
He shrugged irritably. “You smell them before you hear them but, no, I do not smell anything. They are not very near. And I am not afraid! I come here often, to get books or to watch the funny things they do.”
“I bet,” said Janine, taking the old camera from Paul while he hunted a place to conceal the new one. There were not many places. Heechee decor was stark.
Wan bristled. “I have gone down that corridor as far as you can see!” he boasted. “Even the place where the books is is far down-do you see? Some of them are in the corridor.”
Lurvy looked, but was not sure what Wan meant. A few dozen meters away was a heap of glittering trash, but no books. Paul, peeling tape from a sticky bracket to mount it as high as he could on the wall, said, “The way you carry on about those books of yours. I’ve seen them, you know, Moby Dick and The Adventures of Don Quixote. What would the Heechee be doing with them?”
Wan shrilled with dignity, “You are stupid, Paul. Those are only what the Dead Men gave me, they are not the real books. Those are the real books.”
Janine looked at him curiously, then moved a few step down the corridor. “They’re not books,” she called over her shoulder.
“Of course they are! I have told you they are!”
“No, they aren’t. Come and look.” Lurvy opened her mouth to call her back, hesitated, then followed. The corridor was empty, and Wan did not seem more than usually agitated. When she was halfway to the glittering scatter she recognized what she was looking at, and quickly joined Janine to pick one up.
“Wan,” she said, “I’ve seen these before. They’re Heechee prayer fans. There are hundreds of them on Earth.”
“No, no!” He was getting angry. “Why do you say that I lie?”
“I’m not saying you lie, Wan.” She unrolled the thing in her hands. It was like a tapering scroll of plastic; it opened easily in her hand, but as soon as she released it it closed again. It was the commonest artifact of Heechee culture, found by the scores in the abandoned tunnels on Venus, brought back by Gateway prospectors from every successful mission. No one had ever found what the Heechee did with them, and whether the name that they had been given was appropriate only the Heechee knew. “They’re called ‘prayer fans’, Wan.”
“No, no,” he shrilled crossly, taking it away from her and marching into the chamber. “You do not pray with them. You read them. Like this.” He started to put the scroll into one of the tulip-shaped fixtures on the wall, glanced at it, threw it down. “That is not a good one,” he said, rummaging in the heaps of fans on the floor. “Wait. Yes. This is not good, either, but it is at least something one can recognize.” He slipped it into the tulip. There was a quick tiny flutter of electronic whispers, and then the tulip and scroll disappeared. A lemonshaped cloud of color enveloped them, and shaped itself to display a sewn book, opened at a page of vertical lines of ideographs. A tinny voice-a human voice!-began to declaim something in a staccato, highly tonal language.
Lurvy could not understand the words, but two years on Gateway had made her cosmopolitan. She gasped, “I-I think that’s Japanese! And those look like haiku! Wan, what are the Heechee doing with books in Japanese?”
He said in a superior tone, “These are not really the Old Ones, Lurvy, they are only copies of other books. The good ones are all like that. Tiny Jim says that all the tapes and books of the Dead Men, all the Dead Men, even the ones that are no longer here, are stored in these. I read them all the time.”
“My God,” said Lurvy. “And how many times have I had one of those in my hands and not known what it was for?”
Paul shook his head wonderingly. He reached into the glowing image and pulled the fan out of its tulip. It came away easily; the picture vanished and voice stopped in mid-syllable, and he turned the scroll over in his hands. “That beats me,” he said. “Every scientist in the world has had a go at these things. How come nobody ever figured out what they were?”
Wan shrugged. He was no longer angry; he was enjoying the triumph of showing these people how much more than they he knew. “Perhaps they are stupid too,” he shrilled. Then, charitably, “Or perhaps they merely have only the ones that no one can understand-except perhaps the Old Ones, If they ever bothered to read them.”
“Have you got one of those handy, Wan?” Lurvy asked.
He shrugged petulantly. “I never bother with those,” he explained. “Still, if you do not believe me-“ He rummaged around in the heaps, his expression making it clear that they were wasting time with things he had already explored and found without interest. “Yes. I think this is one of the worthless ones.”
When he slipped it into the tulip, the hologram that sprang up was bright-and baffling. It was as hard to read as the play of colors on the controls of a Heechee spacecraft. Harder. Strange, oscillating lines that twined around each other, leaped apart in a spray of color, and then drew together again. If it was written language, it was as remote from any Western alphabet as cuneiform. More so. All Earthly languages had characteristics in common, if only that they were almost all represented by symbols on a plane surface. This seemed meant to be perceived in three dimensions. And with it came a sort of interrupted mosquito-whine of sound, like telemetry which, by mistake, was being received on a pocket radio. All in all, it was unnerving.
“I did not think you would enjoy it,” Wan observed spitefully. “Turn it off, Wan,” Lurvy said; and then, energetically, “We want to take as many of these things as we can. Paul, take off your shirt. Load up as many as you can and take them back to the Dead Men’s room. And take that old camera, too; give it to the bioassay unit, and see if it can make anything out of the Heechee blood.”
“And what are you going to do?” Paul asked. But he had already slipped off his blouse and was filling it with the glittery “books”.
“We’ll be right along. Go ahead, Paul. Wan? Can you tell which are which-I mean, which are the ones you don’t bother with?”
“Of course I can, Lurvy. They are very much older, sometimes a little chipped-you can see.”
“All right. You two, take off your top clothes too-as much as you need to make a carrying-bag out of. Go ahead. We’ll be modest some other time,” she said, slipping out of her coverall. She stood in bra and panties, tying knots in the arms and legs of the garment. She could fit at least fifty or sixty of the fans in that, she calculated-with Wan’s tunic and Janine’s dress they could carry at least half of the objects away. And that would be enough. She would not be greedy. There were plenty more on the Food Factory, anyway-although probably they were the ones Wan had brought there, and thus only the ones he had found he could understand. “Are there readers on the Food Factory, Wan?”
“Of course,” he said. “Why else would I bring books there?” He was sorting irritably through the fans, muttering to himself as he tossed the oldest, “useless” ones to Janine and Lurvy. “I am cold,” he complained.
“We all are. I wish you’d worn a bra, Janine,” she said, frowning at her sister.
Janine said indignantly, “I wasn’t planning to take my clothes off. Wan’s right. I’m cold, too.”
“It’s only for a little while. Hurry it up, Wan. You too, Janine, let’s see how fast we can pick out the Heechee ones.” They had her coverall nearly full, and Wan, scowling and dignified in his kilt, was beginning to stuff the fans into his. It would be possible, Lurvy calculated, to wrap a few dozen more in the kilt. After all, he had a breechcloth under it. But they were really doing very well. Paul had already taken at least thirty or forty. Her coverall seemed able to hold nearly seventy-five. And, in any event, they could always come back another time for the rest, if they chose,
Lurvy did not think she would choose to do that. Enough was enough. Whatever else they might do in Heechee Heaven, they had already acquired one priceless fact. The prayer fans were books! Knowing that that was so was half the battle; with that certainty before them, scientists would surely be able to unlock the secret of reading them. If they could not do it from scratch, there were the readers on the Food Factory; if worst came to worst they could read every fan before one of Vera’s remotes, encode sound and image, and transmit the whole thing to Earth. Perhaps they could wrench a reading machine loose and bring it back with them. . . . And back they would go, Lurvy was suddenly sure. If they could not find a way to move the Food Factory, they would abandon it. No one could fault them. They had done enough. If there was a need for more, other parties could follow them, but meanwhile-Meanwhile they would have brought back richer gifts than any other human beings since the discovery of the Gateway asteroid itself! They would be rewarded accordingly, there was no question of that-she even had Robinette Broadhead’s word. For the first time since they had left the Moon on the searing chemical flame of their takeoff rockets, Lurvy let herself think of herself not as someone who was striving for a prize, but as someone who had won. And how happy her father would be. . .
“That’s enough,” she said, helping Janine grip the spilling sack of prayer fans. “Let’s take them right to the ship.”
Janine hugged the clumsy bundle to her small breasts and picked up a few more with a free hand. “You sound as if we’re going home,” she said.
“Maybe so,” Lurvy grinned. “Of course, we’ll have to have a conference and decide-Wan? What’s the matter?”
He was at the door, his shirtful of fans under an arm. And he looked stricken. “We waited too long,” he whispered, peering down the corridor. “There are Old Ones by the berryfruit.”
“Oh, no.” But it was true. Lurvy peered cautiously out into the corridor and there they were, staring up at the camera Paul had fixed to the wall. One reached up and effortlessly pulled it loose while she watched. “Wan? Is there another way home?”
“Yes, through the gold, but-“ His nose was working. “I think there are some there, too. I can smell them and, yes, I can hear them!” And that was true, too; Lurvy could hear a faint sound of mellow, chirrupy grunts, from where the corridor bent.
“We don’t have a choice,” she said. “There are only two of them back the way we came. We’ll take them by surprise and just push our way through. Come on!” Still carrying the tapes, she hustled the others ahead of her. The Heechee might be strong, but Wan had said they were slow. With any luck at all-They had no luck at all. As they reached the opening she saw that there were more than two, half a dozen more, standing around and looking toward them in the entrances to the other corridors. “Paul!” she shouted at the camera. “We’re caught! Get in the ship, and if we don’t get away-“ And she could say no more, because they were upon her; and, yes, they were strong!
They were hustled up through half a dozen levels, their captors one to each arm, stolidly chirping at each other, ignoring their struggles and their words. Wan did not speak. He let them pull him as they would, all the way up to a great open spindleshaped volume, where another dozen Old Ones waited and a huge blue-lit machine sat silent behind them. Did the Heechee believe in sacrifice? Or perform experiments on captives? Would they wind up as Dead Men themselves, rambling and obsessed, ready for the next batch of visitors? Lurvy looked upon all of these as interesting questions, and had no answers for any of them. She was not yet afraid. Her feelings had not caught up with the facts; it was too recently that she had allowed herself to feel triumph. The realization of defeat would have to wait.
The Old Ones chirruped to each other, gesticulating toward the prisoners, the corridors, the great silent machine, like a battle tank without guns. Like a nightmare. Lurvy could not understand any of it, even though the situation was clear enough. After minutes of jabber they were pushed into a cubicle, and found in it-astonishingly!---quite familiar objects. Behind the closed door Lurvy shuffled through them-clothing; a chess set; long desiccated rations. In the toe of one shoe was a thick roll of Brazilian currency, more than a quarter of a million dollars of it, she guessed. They had not been the first captives here! But in none of the rubble was anything like a weapon. She turned to Wan, who was pale and shaking. ‘What will happen?” she demanded.
He waggled his head like an Old One. It was the only answer he could give. “My father-“ he began, and had to swallow before he could go on. “They captured my father once and, yes, truly, they let him go again. But I do not think that is a rule, since my father told me I must never let myself be caught.”
Janine said, “At least Paul got away. Maybe-maybe he can bring help. . . .” But she stopped there, and did not expect an answer. Any hopeful answer would have been fantasy, defined by the four years it would take another vessel like theirs to reach the Food Factory. If help came, it would not be soon. She began to sort through the old clothing. “At least we can get something on,” she said. “Come on, Wan. Get yourself dressed.”
Lurvy followed her example, and then stopped at a strange sound from her sister. It was almost a laugh! “What’s so funny?” she snapped.
Janine pulled a sweater over her head before she answered. It was too big, but it was warm. “I was just thinking about the orders we got,” she said. “To get Heechee tissue samples, you know? Well, the way it worked out-they got ours instead. All of them.”