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As she began to be able to speak to the Old Ones they began to seem more like individuals to her. They were not really old, either. Or at least the three that most often guarded her and fed her and led her to her sessions in the long night of the dreams were not. They learned to call her Janine, or at least something close enough. Their own names were complicated, but each name had a short form-Tar, or Tor, or Hooay-and they responded to them, at need or just for play. They were as playful as puppies, and as solicitous. When she came out of the bright blue cocoon, racked and sweating from another life and another death-from another lesson, in this course that the Oldest One had prescribed for her-one of them was always there to coo and murmur and stroke.
But it was not enough! There was no consolation enough to make up for what happened in the dreams, over and over.
Every day was the same. A few hours of uneasy and unrestful sleep. A chance to eat. Maybe a game of tag or touch-tickle with Hooay or Tor. Perhaps a chance to wander about the Heaven, always guarded. Then Tar or Hooay or one of the others would tug her gently back to the cocoon and put her inside and then, for hours, sometimes for what seemed like the entire span of a life, Janine would be someone else. And such strange someones! Male. Female. Young. Old. Mad. Crippled-they were all different. None of them were quite human. Most were not human at all, especially the earliest, oldest someones.
The lives she "dreamed" that were the closest in time were the nearest to her own. At least, they were the lives of creatures not unlike Tor or Tar or Hooay. They were not usually frightening, though all of them ended in death. In them she lived random and chaotic snatches of their stored memories of the short and chancy, or dull and driven, lives they had known. As she came to understand the language of her captors she found out that the lives she lived were those which had been specially selected (by what criteria?) to be stored. So each had some special lesson. All of the dreams were learning experiences for her, of course, and of course she learned. She learned how to speak to the living ones; to understand their overshadowed existences; to comprehend their obsessed need to obey. They were slaves! Or pets? When they did what the Oldest One told them they were obedient, and therefore good. When, rarely, they did not, they were punished.
Between times she saw Wan sometimes, and sometimes her sister. They were kept apart from her as a matter of policy. At first she did not understand why; then she did, and laughed inside herself at the joke too secret to share with even jokey Tor. Lurvy and Wan were learning too, and taking it no better than she.
By the end of the first six "dreams" she could speak to the Old Ones. Her lips and throat would not quite form their chirping, murmuring vowels, but she could make herself understood. More urgently, she could follow their orders. That saved trouble. When she was meant to return to her private cell they did not need to push her, and when she was supposed to bathe they did not have to strip her of her clothes. By the tenth lesson they were almost friendly. By the fifteenth she (and Lurvy and Wan as well) knew all they ever would about Heechee Heaven, including the fact that the Old Ones were not, and never had been, Heechee.
Not even the Oldest One.
And who was the Oldest One? Her lessons had not taught her that. Tar and Hooay explained, as best they could, that the Oldest One was God. That was not a satisfying answer. He was a god too much like his worshipers to have built Heechee Heaven or any part of it, including his own body. No. The Heaven was Heechee-built, for what purpose only the Heechee knew, and the Oldest One was not a Heechee.
Through all this the great machine was immobile again, motionless, almost dead, conserving its dwindling remnant of life. When Janine crossed the central spindle she saw it there, still as a statue. Occasionally there was a sluggish flicker of pale color around its external sensors, as though it were on the verge of awakening, perhaps following them through half-closed eyes. When that happened, Hooay and Tar would quicken their step. There was no touch-tickle or joking then. Mostly it was absolutely still. She passed Wan in its very shadow one day, she going to the cocoon, he coming away, and Hooay dared to let them talk for a moment. "It looks scary," Janine said.
"I could destroy it for you, if you like," Wan boasted, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the machine. But he had said it in English, and had the wisdom not to translate it for their guards. But even the tone of his voice made Hooay uneasy, and he hustled Janine away.
Janine was becoming almost fond of her captors, as one might be of a great, gentle Malemute that could talk. It took her a long time to think of a young female like Tar as either young or female. They all had the same scraggly facial hair and the heavy supraorbital lobes characteristic of the mature male primate. But they began to become individuals, rather than specimens of the class "jailer". The heavier and darker of the two males was called "Tor," but that was only one syllable out of a long and subtle name from which Janine could only understand the word "dark". It did not refer to his coloring. If anything, he was fairer than his fellows. It had something to do with an adventure of his childhood, in a part of the Heaven so strange and so seldom visited that there was little light from even the eternal Heechee-metal walls. Tor trimmed his beard so that it jutted down from his jaw in two inverted horns. Tor made the most jokes, and tried to share them with his prisoner. Tor was the one who jested with Janine, saying that if her male, Wan, was as infertile as he seemed to be while penned with Lurvy, he would ask the Oldest One for permission to impregnate her himself. Janine, cherishing her secret joke about their infertility, was not frightened. She was not repelled, either, because Tor was a kindly sort of satyr, and she believed she could recognize the jest. All the same, she began to think of herself as no longer a snotty kid. Each long dream aged her. In them she experienced the sexual intercourse she had never known in life-sometimes as a woman, sometimes not-and often pain, and always, at the end, death. The records could not be made from a living person, Hooay explained in a nonplayful moment; and his manner was not playful at all as he described the way in which the brain was opened and fed into the machine that made the records. She grew a little older while he was telling her.
As the dreams went on, they became stranger and more remote. "You are going to very old times," Tor told her. "This one now..." he was leading her toward the cocoon "-is the very oldest, and therefore the last. Perhaps."
She paused beside the gleaming couch. "Is this another joke, Tor, or a riddle?"
"No." He tugged soberly at the forks of his beard with both hands. "You will not like this one, Danine."
He grinned, to crinkle the corners of his sad, soft eyes. "But it is the last I can give you. Perhaps-perhaps the Oldest One will then give you a dream out of his own. It is said that he has sometimes done that, but I do not know when. Not in any person's memory."
Janine swallowed. "It sounds scary," she said.
He said kindly, "It frightened me very much when I had it, Danine, but remember that it is only a dream, for you." And he closed the cocoon over her, and Janine fought for a moment against the sleep, and failed as always... and was someone else.

Once there was a creature. It was female; but it was not an "it", if Descartes is to be believed, because it was aware of its own existence, and therefore it was a "she".
She had no name. But she was marked among her fellows by a great scar from ear to nose, where the hoof of a dying prey-beast had nearly killed her. Her eye on that side had healed with the lid pulled out of shape, and so she might be called "Squint".
Squint had a home. It was not elaborate. It was no more than a trampled-out nest in a clump of something like papyrus, partly sheltered by a hummock of earth. But Squint and her relatives returned to those nests every day and in this they were unlike any of the other living things that resembled them. In one other respect they were quite unlike anything else they grew up with, and that was that they used objects that were not parts of their bodies to do work for them. Squint was not beautiful. She stood not much over a meter tall. She had no eyebrows-the hair on her scalp merged with them, and only her nose and cheekbones were bare-and she had no chin to speak of. Her hands had fingers, but they were usually clenched so that the backs of them were scarred and callused, and the fingers did not separate well-not much better than the fingers of her feet, which were almost as good at grasping things, and better at gouging out the vulnerable parts of a creature unfortunate enough to find her arms wrapped around its neck as it tried to run away. Squint was pregnant, although she did not know that this was so. Squint was full grown and fully fertile by her fifth rainy season. In the thirteen years she had been alive she had been pregnant nine or ten times, and had never known it until she was forced to note that she could no longer run quite as fast, that the bulge in her belly made it more difficult to rake the guts out of a prey-animal and that her dugs began to swell again with milk. Of the fifty members of her community at least four were her children. More than a dozen of the males were, or might have been, the children's fathers. Squint was aware of the former relationship, but not of the latter. At least one of the young males she knew to be a child of hers might well have been the father of another-a notion which would not have disturbed Squint, even if she had been capable of entertaining it. The thing she did with the males when the flesh beneath her skinny buttocks swelled and reddened was not in her mind related to childbirth. It was not related to pleasure, either. It was an itch that she suffered to be scratched whenever it happened. Squint had no way of defining "pleasure," except perhaps as the absence of pain. Even in those terms, she knew little of it throughout her life.
When the Heechee lander bellowed and flamed above the clouds, Squint and all her community ran to hide. None of them saw it come to earth.
If a trawl scoops a starfish from the bottom of a sea, a spade lifts it from the bucket of ooze and dumps it in a tank, a biologist pins it down and dissects out its nervous system-does the starfish know what is happening to it?
Squint had more self-awareness than a starfish. But she had little more background of experience to inform her. Nothing that happened to her from the moment she saw a bright light shining in her eyes made sense. She did not feel the point of the anesthetic lance that put her to sleep. She did not know she was carried into the lander and dumped into a pen of twelve of her fellows. She did not feel the crushing acceleration when she took off, or the weightlessness for the long time they floated in transit. She did not know anything at all until she was allowed to waken again, and did not understand what she then experienced.
Nothing was familiar!
Water. The water Squint drank did not any longer come from the muddy brink of the river. It came in a shiny, hard trough. When she bent to lap it up nothing lurked beneath its surface to lunge at her.
Sun and sky. There was no sun! There were no clouds, and there was no rain. There were hard, blue-gleaming walls, and a blue-gleaming roof overhead.
Food. There was no live thing to catch and dismember. There were flat, tough, tasteless clods of chewy matter. They filled her stomach, and they were always available. no matter how much she and her fellows ate, there was always more.
Sights and sounds and smells-these were terrifying! There was a stink she had never smelled before, sharp in her nose and scary. It was the smell of something alive, but she never saw the creature that owned it. There was an absence of normal smells almost as bad. no smell of deer. no smell of antelope. no smell of cat (that one a blessing). no smell even of their own dung, or not very much, because they had no rushes to tramp into a home, and the places where they huddled together to sleep were sluiced clean every time they left them. Her baby was born there, while the rest of the tribe complained at her grunts because they wanted to sleep. When she woke to lift it to her, to relieve the hot pressure in her teats, it was gone. She never saw it again.
Squint's newborn was the first to disappear immediately after birth. It was not the last. For fifteen years the little australopithecine family continued to eat and copulate and bear and grow old, its numbers dwindling because the infants were taken away as soon as born. One of the females would squat and strain and whimper and give birth. Then they would all go to sleep, and awaken with the little one gone. From time to time an adult would die, or come close enough to it to lie curled and moaning so that they knew it would not rise again. Then too they would all go to sleep; and that adult, or that adult's body, would be gone when they woke. There were thirty of them, then twenty, then ten-then only one. Squint was the last, a very, very old female at twenty-nine. She knew she was old. She did not know she was dying, only that there was a terrible crushing pain in her belly that made her gasp and sob. She did not know when she was dead. She only knew that that particular pain stopped, and then she was conscious of another sort of pain. Not really pain. Strangeness. Numbness. She saw, but she saw queerly flatly, queerly flickeringly, in a queerly distorted range of colors. She was not used to her new vision, and did not recognize what she saw. She tried to move her eyes and they did not move. She tried to move head, or arms, or legs, and could not because she did not have any. She remained in that condition for some considerable time.
Squint was not a preparation, in the sense that the live but exposed nervous system of a biologist's brittle star is a preparation. She was an experiment.
She was not a very great success. The attempt to preserve her identity in machine storage did not fail for the reasons that had terminated the earlier trials, with the other members of her tribe: poor match of chemistry to receptors; incomplete transfer of information; wrong coding. One by one the Heechee experimenters had met all of those problems and solved them. Her experiment failed, or succeeded only in part, for a different reason. There was not enough of an identity in the being that could be recognized as "Squint" to preserve. She was not a biography, not even a journal. She was something like a census datum, punctuated by pain and illustrated with fear.
But that was not the only experiment the Heechee had in progress.
In another section of the immense machine that orbited Earth's sun from half a light-year out, the stolen babies were beginning to thrive. They were leading lives quite different from Squint's-lives marked by automatic care, heuristic tests and programmed challenges. The Heechee recognized that, although these australopithecines were a long way from intelligent, they contained the seeds of wiser descendants. They decided to hurry the process along.
Not much development occurred in the fifteen years between the removal of the colony from its prehistoric African home and Squint's death. The Heechee were not discouraged. In fifteen years, they did not expect much. They had much longer-range plans than that.
As their plans also called for them, all of them, to be somewhere else long before any true intelligence could look out of the eyes of one of Squint's descendants, they built accordingly. They so constructed and programmed the artifact that it would last indefinitely. They arranged for it to be supplied with CHONfood from a convenient processor of cometary material, which they had already set operating to serve other of their installations, and which was potentially equally long-lived. They constructed machines to sample the skills of the descendants of the newborns from time to time, and to repeat, as often as necessary, the attempt to file their identities in machine storage for later review if any of them ever came back to see how the experiment had gone. They would have estimated this as very improbable, in view of their other plans.
Still, their plans encompassed very many alternatives, all going simultaneously; because the object of their plans was of great concern to them. None of them might ever come back. But perhaps someone would.
Since Squint could not communicate, or act, in any useful way, the Heechee experimenters thriftily wiped the effective sections of her storage and kept her on the shelves only as a sort of library book, for consultation by later individuals of whatever kind they might be. (It was this that Janine was forced to consult, by reliving what Squint had lived all those hundreds of millennia before.) They left certain clues and data for use by whatever generations might be able to understand them. They tidied up behind them, as they always did. Then they went away and allowed the rest of that particular experiment, among all their experiments, to run.
For eight hundred thousand years.

"Danine," Hooay was moaning, "Danine, are you dead?"
She looked up at his face, unable at first to focus, so that he looked like a blurred, broad-faced moon with a double comet's tail wagging below. "Help me up, Hooay," she sobbed. "Take me back." Of them all, this had been the worst. She felt raped, violated, expanded, changed. Her world would never be the same again. Janine did not know the word "australopithecine," but she knew that the life she had just shared had been an animal's. Worse than an animal's, because somewhere in Squint had been the spark of the invention of thinking, and thus the unwanted capacity to fear.
Janine was exhausted and she felt older than the Oldest One. At just-turned fifteen, she was not a child any more. That account had been overdrawn. There was no more childhood left for her. At the slope-walled chamber that was her personal pen she stopped. Hooay said apprehensively, "Danine? What's wrong?"
"There is a joke to tell you," she said.
"You do not look like joking," he said.
"It is a funny joke, though. Listen. The Oldest One has penned Wan with my sister to breed them. But my sister cannot breed. She has had an operation so that she can never again bear a child."
"That is not a good joke," he protested. "No one would do a thing like that!"
"She did it, Hooay." She added quickly, "Do not be frightened. You will not be punished. Only now bring the boy to me."
Her soft eyes were brimming with tears. "How can I not be frightened? Perhaps I should awaken the Oldest One to tell him..." Then the tears spilled over; he was terrified.
She comforted him and coaxed him, until other Old Ones came and he spilled his terrible joke to them. Janine lay down on her pad, closing her ears to their excited, woeful chatter. She did not sleep, but she was lying with her eyes closed when she heard Wan and Tor come to the door. When the boy was pushed inside she stood up to meet him.
"Wan," she said, "I want you to put your aims around me."
He looked at her grumpily. no one had told him what this was about, and Wan, too, had had his hour in the couch with Squint. He looked terrible. He had never really had a chance to recover from the flu, had not rested, had not accustomed himself to the great changes in his life since he had met the Herter-Halls. There were circles under his eyes and cracks at the corners of his mouth. His feet were dirty, and so were his frayed clothes. "Are you afraid you will fall down?" he shrilled.
"I am not afraid of falling, and I want you to talk to me properly. Don't squeak."
He looked startled, but his voice settled into the lower register she had tried to teach him. "Then why?"
"Oh, Wan." She shook her head impatiently and stepped forward into his personal space. It had not been necessary for her to tell him what to do. His arms went around her automatically both at the same height, as though she were a barrel to lift, the palms pressing against her shoulderblades. She pressed her lips against his, hard, dry and closed, then pulled away. "Do you remember what this is, Wan?"
"Of course! It is 'kissing'."
"But we are doing it wrong, Wan. Wait. Do it again while I do this." She protruded the tip of her tongue between almost closed lips and ran it back and forth across his closed ones. "I think," she said, moving her head away, "that that is a better way, don't you? It makes me feel-it makes me feel-I feel a little bit as though I were going to throw up."
Alarmed, he tried to step back, but she followed him closely. "Not really throw up, just real funny."
He stayed tensely near her, face held away, but his expression was troubled. Carefully keeping the pitch of his voice down, he said, "Tiny Jim says people do this before copulating. Or one person does it sometimes to see if the other person is in heat."
"In heat, Wan! That stinks. Say 'in love'."
"I think that 'in love' is different," he said stubbornly, "but anyway to kiss is related to copulating. Tiny Jim says..."
She put her hands on his shoulders. "Tiny Jim isn't here."
"No, but Paul doesn't want us to..."
"Paul isn't here," she said, stroking his slim neck with the tips of her fingers to see what that felt like. "Lurvy isn't here either. Anyway, none of what they think matters." The way it felt, she decided, was quite strange. It wasn't really as though she were going to throw up, but as though some sort of liquid readjustment were going on inside her belly, a sensation like nothing she had ever known before. It was not at all unpleasant. "Let me take your clothes off, Wan, and then you can take off mine."
After they had practiced kissing again she said, "I think we should not be standing up now." And some time later, when they were lying down, she opened her eyes to stare into his wide-open ones.
As he raised himself for better leverage he hesitated. "If I do that," he said, "perhaps you will get pregnant."
"If you don't do that," she said, "I think I will die."
When Janine woke up, hours later, Wan was already awake and dressed, sitting at the side of the room, leaning against the gold-skeined wall. Janine's heart went out to him. He looked like himself fifty years later. The youthful face seemed to have lines graven by decades of trouble and pain.
"I love you, Wan," she said.
He stirred and shrilled, "Oh, yes..." Then he caught himself and dropped his voice to a grumble, "Oh, yes, Janine. And I love you. But I do not know what they will do."
"Probably they won't hurt you, Wan."
Scornfully, "Me? It is you I worry about, Janine. This is where I have lived all my life and sooner or later this would have happened. But you-I am worried about you." He added gloomily, "They are very noisy out there, too. Something is happening."
"I don't think they will hurt us-any more, I mean," Janine corrected herself, thinking about the dreaming couch. The distant chirping cries were coming closer. She dressed quickly and looked around, as Tor's voice hailed Hooay outside the door.
There was nothing to show what had happened. Not even a drop of blood. But when Tor opened the door, fussed and worried, he stopped to squint at them suspiciously, then sniffed the air. "Perhaps I will not have to breed you, Danine, after all," he said, kind but frightened. "But Danine! Oowan! There is a terrible thing! Tar has fallen asleep and the old female has run away!"
Wan and Janine were dragged to the spindle, filled with nearly all of the Old Ones. They were milling around in panic. Three of them lay sprawled and snoring where they had been dumped-Tar and two others of Lurvy's guards, failures in their missions, found sound asleep and brought back in fear and disgrace for the judgment of the Oldest One. Who lay motionless but alert on his pedestal, cascades of color rippling around his perimeter.
To the flesh-and-blood creatures the Oldest One showed nothing of his thoughts. He was metal. He was formidable. He could be neither understood nor challenged. Neither Wan nor Janine, nor any of his near hundred quaking children, could perceive the fear and anger that raced through his circulating memories. Fear that his plans were in jeopardy. Rage that his children had failed to carry out their orders.
The three that had failed would have to be punished, to set an example. The hundred-odd others would also have to be punished-somewhat more lightly, so that the race would not become extinct-for failing to keep the three to their duty. As for the intruders-there was no punishment grave enough for them! Perhaps they should be abolished, like any other challenging organism that threatened to damage its host. Perhaps worse than that. Perhaps nothing within his powers was quite severe enough.
But what was still in his power? He forced himself to stand. Janine saw the ripple of lights flicker and freeze into a pattern as the Oldest One rose to his extended height and spoke. "The female is to be recaptured and preserved," he said. "This is to be done at once."
He stood there, wobbling uneasily; the effectors for his limbs were performing erratically. He allowed himself to kneel once more while he pondered his options. The exertion of going to the control room to set course-the turmoil in his mind that had led him to do it-half a million years of existence, all had taken their toll. He needed time to "rest"-time, that is, for his autonomic systems to retrace and repair what damage they could, and perhaps time no longer would be enough. "Do not wake me again till this is done," he said, and the lights resumed their random flicker, and slowly dwindled to darkness.
Janine, circled in Wan's arm-his body half toward the Oldest One, half sheltering her, trembling with fear-knew without being told that "preserved" meant killed. She was frightened, too.
But she was also puzzled.
The Old Ones who lay snoring through their trial and judgment had not fallen asleep by chance. Janine recognized the results of a sleep-gun. Janine knew also that none of her party had had one.
For that reason, Janine was not entirely surprised when, an hour later and back in their pen, they heard a stifled grunt from outside.
She was not surprised to see her sister run in, waving a gun and calling to them; not surprised that behind Lurvy a tattered Paul stepped over the sleeping form of Tor. She was not even surprised, or not very much surprised, to see that with them was another armed man she almost recognized. She was not sure. She had met him only when she was a child. But he looked like the person she had seen on the relayed PV broadcasts from Earth, and in jolly messages that came from him on anniversaries and holidays: Robin Broadhead.


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