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15 OLDER THAN THE OLDEST ONE




Not at his worst-not even when he was feeling older than the Oldest One himself and as dead as dead Payter-had Paul looked as bad as the pitiful creature waving a gun at him from the hatch of his own ship. Under the skungy, month-old beard the man's face looked like a mummy's. He stank.
"You'd better take a bath!" Paul snapped. "And put that silly gun away."
The mummy slumped against the hatch of the ship. "You're Paul Hall," it said, squinting at him. "For God's sake, do you have anything to eat?"
Paul stared past him. "Isn't there plenty still left in there?" He pushed into the ship and found that, of course, there were stacks of CHON-food packets exactly as they had been left. The mummy had been into the water bags, had ripped at least three of them open; the floor of the ship was puddled and muddied. Paul offered a ration. "Keep your voice down," he ordered. "And by the way, who are you?"
"I'm Robin Broadhead. What do you do with this?"
"Bite into it," snapped Paul, exasperated-less because of the man himself, or even because of the way he smelled, than because he was still shaking. He had been terrified that it would be an Old One he had come across so unexpectedly. But-Robin Broadhead! What was he doing here?
But he could not put the question just then. Broadhead was almost literally starving. He turned the flat pillow of food over in his hands, frowning and shaking, and then bit into a corner of it. As soon as he found it could be chewed he wolfed it down, crumbs spilling from his mouth. He stared up at Paul while he jammed his mouth full faster than his teeth could deal with it. "Take it easy," Paul said, alarmed. But he was too late. The unfamiliar food, after so long a deprivation, did what could have been expected of it. Broadhead choked, gagged and vomited it up. "Damn you!" Paul snarled. "They'll smell you all the way to the spindle!"
Broadhead leaned back, gasping. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I thought I was going to die. I pretty near did. Can you give me some water?"
Paul did, a couple of sips at a time, and then allowed the man just a corner of one of the brown and yellow packets, the blandest there was. "Slowly!" he ordered. "I'll give you more later." But he was beginning to realize how good it was to have another human being there after-what was it? it must have been two months, at least, of his solitary skulking and hiding and plotting. "I don't know what you're doing here," he said at last, "but I'm glad to see you."
Broadhead licked the last crumbs off his lips and managed to grin. "Why, that's simple," he said, eyes avidly on the rest of the food in Paul's hands. "I came here to rescue you."

Broadhead had been dehydrated and almost asphyxiated, but not really starved. He kept down the crumbs Paul let him have and demanded more; kept that down too, and was even able to help Paul clean up the mess he had made. Paul found him clean clothes from Wan's sparse store in the ship-the garments were too long and too slim by far, but the waistband of the kilt did not really need to close all the way-and led him to the largest of the water troughs to get himself clean. It wasn't daintiness. It was fear. The Old Ones did not hear any better than human beings, nor see even quite as well. But their noses were astonishingly acute. After two weeks of the narrowest of escapes, in his first terrified blundering around Heechee Heaven after Wan and Lurvy had been captured, Paul had learned to bathe three times a day.
And much more.
He took post at a juncture of three corridors, mounting guard while Broadhead got the worst of his thirty days in a Heechee ship off his skin. Rescue them! In the first place, it wasn't true. Broadhead's intentions were more subtle and complicated than that. In the second place, Broadhead's plans were not the same as those Paul had been maturing for two months. He had some notion of tricking information out of the Dead Men and only the haziest notion of what to do with the information when he got it. And he expected Paul to help him carry two or three metric tons of machinery around Heechee Heaven, never mind the risk, never mind that Paul might have ideas of his own. The trouble with being rescued was that the rescuers expected to be in charge of the operation. And expected Paul to be grateful!
Well, he admitted to himself, turning slowly to keep each corridor in view-though the Old Ones were less diligent in patrolling than they had been at first-he would have been grateful enough if Broadhead had showed up at first, in those days of panic when he ran and hid and did not dare either stay or leave; or again, a couple of weeks later, when he had begun to work out a plan, had dared to go to the Dead Men's room and make contact with the Food Factory-and learned that Peter Herter was dead. The shipboard computer was no use to him, too stupid and too overburdened even to relay his messages to Earth. The Dead Men were maddeningly. Were maddening. He was entirely on his own. And slowly his nerve came back and he began to plan. Even to act. When he found that he could dare coming quite near the Old Ones provided he bathed enough to leave no odor trace, he began his plan. Spying. Scheming. Studying. Recording-that was one of the hardest parts. It is very difficult to keep records of how your enemy behaves, what paths are frequented and on what occasions none of them are likely to be about, when you have nothing to write with. Or a watch. Or even the change of day and night, unheard of in the steady blue glow from the Heechee-metal walls. It had finally occurred to him to use the habits of the Old Ones themselves as his chronometer of their behavior. When he saw a party of them going back toward the spindle where the Oldest One lay motionless, they were getting ready to sleep. When he saw a party moving away, it meant the beginning of a new day. They all slept at once, or almost all, out of some imperative he could not imagine; and so there were times when he dared come nearer and nearer to the place where Wan, Janine and Lurvy were kept. Had even seen them once or twice, daring to hide behind a berryfruit bush as the Old Ones were beginning to stir, peering between the branches and then racing breathlessly away. He knew. He had it all worked out. There were no more than a hundred or so of the Old Ones, and they traveled usually in parties of only two or three.
Remained the question of how to deal with, even, a party of two or three.
Paul Hall, leaner and angrier than he had ever been in his life, thought he knew how to do that. In his first panicked days of flight and hiding, after the others had been captured, he had blundered far and far into the green and red corridors of Heechee Heaven. In some of them even the lights were fading and sparse. In some of them the air had a sour and unhealthful tang, and when he slept there he awoke with his head pounding and thick. In all of them there were objects, machines, gadgets things; some of them still purring or ticking quietly to themselves, some flickering with a ceaseless rainbow of lights.
He could not stay in those places, because there was no food or water, and he could not find what he most sought. There were no real weapons. Perhaps the Heechee had not needed them. But there was one machine that had a gate of metal strips at one side and, when he wrenched them away, it did not blow up or electrocute him, as he had half thought it would. And he had a spear. And half a dozen times he encountered what looked like smaller, more complicated versions of the Heechee tunnelers.
And some of them still worked. When the Heechee built they built forever.
It took Paul three frightened, thirsty, baffling days of experiment to make any of them function, stopping to creep back to the gold corridors or the ship for food and water, always sure that the thundering noise of the machine would draw the Old Ones down on him before he was ready. But it did not. He learned to squeeze the nipple that hung down from the steering yoke to make the ready lights spring into life, to shove the ponderous knurled wheel forward or back to make it advance or retreat, to tread on the oval floorplate that caused the blue-violet glow to lance out before the machine, softening even the Heechee metal it touched. That was the noisy part. Paul feared greatly that he would destroy something that would wreck Heechee Heaven itself, if he did not bring down a search party. When he came to move the machine to the place he had picked out it was almost quiet, oozing forward on its rollogons. And he stopped to consider.
He knew where the Old Ones went, and when.
He had a spear that could kill a single Old One, maybe could let him defeat even two or three if he came on them by surprise.
He possessed a machine that could annihilate any number of Old Ones, if he could only get them to mass in front of it.
It all added up to a strategy that might even work. It was chancy-oh, God, it was chancy! It depended on at least half a dozen trials by combat. Even though the Old Ones did not seem to seek him armed, who was to say that they might not learn? And what arms might they have? It meant killing some of them, one by one, so expertly and carefully that he did not attract the attention of the whole tribe until he was ready for it-and then attracting them all at once, or so large a majority of them that he could handle the rest with his spear. (Was that really a good gambling bet?) And, above all, it meant that the Oldest One, the great machine Paul had only glimpsed once or twice at long range and about whose powers he knew nothing, must not intervene, and how likely was that?
He had no sure answers. He did have hopes. The Oldest One was too large to move easily through any of the corridors but the gold-skeined ones. Nor did it seem to move frequently at all. And perhaps he could somehow trick it, too, before the devouring haze of the tunneling machine-which could not, in this place, really be a tunneling machine, but seemed to work in about the same way. At every step the odds were against him, true.
But at every step there was at least a slim chance for success. And it was not the risk that stopped him at the last.
The Paul Hall who stole about and schemed in the tunnels of Heechee Heaven, half crazed with anger and fear and worry for his wife and the others, was not entirely crazy. He was the same
Paul Hall whose gentleness and patience had made Dorema Herter marry him, who had accepted her saucy, sometimes bratty little sister and abrasive father as part of the bargain. He wanted very much to save them and bring them to freedom. Even at risk. There was always a way out of the risk for him, if only to crawl aboard Wan's ship and return to the Food Factory and thus-slowly, alone and mournful, but safe-ultimately to Earth and wealth.
But, apart from risk, what was the cost?
The cost was wiping out perhaps an entire population of living and intelligent creatures. They had taken his wife from him, but they had not really harmed her. And, try as he would, Paul could not convince himself he had the right to exterminate them.
And now here was this "rescuer," this nearly dead castaway named Robin Broadhead, who listened sketchily to Paul's plan and smiled loftily and said, politely enough, "You're still working for me, Hall. We'll do it my way."
"The hell we will!"
Broadhead stayed polite enough, and even reasonable-it was amazing what a bath and a little food had done for him. "The key," he said, "is to find out what we're up against. Help me lug this information-processing stuff to where the Dead Men are, and we'll take care of that. That's the first thing."
"The first thing is rescuing my wife!"
"But why, Hall? She's all right where she is-you said so yourself. I'm not talking about forever. One day, maybe. We find out what we can from the Dead Men. We tape it all, pump them dry if we can. Then we take the tapes and stick them in my ship, and then..."
"No."
"Yes!"
"No, and keep your God-damned voice down!" They squared off like kids in a schoolyard, both flushed and furious, their eyes locked. Until Robin Broadhead grimaced and shook his head and said, "Oh, hell. Paul? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Paul Hall let himself relax. After a second he said, "Actually, I'm thinking the two of us would do better to figure out what is the best thing to do, instead of arguing about who makes the decision."
Broadhead grinned. "That was what I was thinking, all right. You know what my trouble is? I'm so surprised to be still alive that I don't know how to adjust to it."

It only took them six hours to haul and set up the PMAL-2 processor where they wanted it, but it was six hours of hard work. They were both near the frayed end of exhaustion and it would have made sense to sleep, but they were itching with impatience, both of them. Once they had the main power source connected to the program banks Albert's prerecorded voice instructed them, step by step, on how to do the rest-the processor itself sprawled across the corridor, the voice terminals inside the Dead Men's chamber, next to the radio link. Robin looked at Paul, Paul shrugged to Robin, Robin started the program. From just outside the door they could hear the flat, wheedling voice from the terminal: "Henrietta? Henrietta, dear, can you answer me?"
Pause. no answer. The program Albert had written with Sigfrid von Shrink's help tried again: "Henrietta, it's Tom. Please speak to me." It would have been faster to punch out Henrietta's code to attract her attention, but harder to square with the pretense that her long-lost husband had reached her from some faroff outpost by radio.
The voice tried again, and once more. Paul scowled and whispered, "It isn't working."
"Give it a chance," Robin said, but not confidently. They stood there nervously, while the dead computer voice pleaded. And then at last, a hesitant voice whispered, "Tom? Tomasino, is that you?"

Paul Hall was a normal human being, squashed a little out of shape, perhaps, from four years of imprisonment and a hundred days of flight and fright. Normal enough, though, to share the normal prurience; but what he heard was more than he wanted to hear. He grinned in embarrassment at Robin Broadhead, who shrugged uneasily back. The hurt tenderness and spiteful jealousy of other people is humiliating to hear and can only be eased by laughter; the divorce detective passes around his bootleg tape of a wired bed for comic relief on a slow day at the office. But this was not comic! Henrietta, any Henrietta, even the machine revenant called Henrietta was not funny in her moment of heart's-desire, when she was being gulled and betrayed. The program that wooed her was skillfully done. It apologized and begged, and it even sobbed, in rustly tape-hissing sobs, when Henrietta's own flat tape voice broke with sobs of spent sadness and hopeless joy. And then, as it had been programmed to do, it settled in for the kill. Would you. Dear Henrietta, could you... Is it possible for you to tell me how to operate a Heechee ship?
Pause. Hesitation. Then the voice of the dead woman said:
"Why-yes, Tomasino." Another pause. It lengthened itself, until the programmed deceiver moved in to fill the gap:
"Because if you could, dear, I think I might be able to join you. I'm in a sort of a ship. It has a control room. If I knew how to work it..."
It was incredible to Paul that even a poorly stored machine intelligence could succumb to such transparent blandishments. Succumb Henrietta did. It was repellent to him to take part in the fraud, but take part he did, and once started Henrietta could not be stopped. The secret of controlling the Heechee ships? Of course, dear Tomasino! And the dead woman warned her fake lover to stand by for burst transmission and hurled out a whistling crackle of machine talk of which Paul could not understand a sound and in which he could not find a word; but Robin Broadhead, listening to the private status-report voice of the computer on his headset, grinned and nodded and held up thumb and forefinger in a circle of success. Paul signed silence and pulled him down the corridor. "If you've got it," he whispered, "let's get out of here!"
"Oh, I've got it!" chortled Robin. "She's got it all! She was in open circuit with whatever kind of machine runs this thing, it picked her brains and she picked its, and she's telling the whole thing."
"Great. Now let's find Lurvy!"
Broadhead looked at him, not angry but pleading. "Just a few more minutes. Who knows what else she got?"
"No!"
"Yes!"-and then they looked at each other, and shook their heads. "Compromise," said Robin Broadhead. "Fifteen minutes, all right? And then we go rescue your wife."
They edged back along the corridor with smiles of rueful satisfaction on their faces; but the satisfaction drained. The voices were not embarrassingly intimate now. They were worse. They were almost quarreling. There was somehow a snap and a snarl in the flat metallic voice that said, "You're being a pig, Tom."
The program was cloyingly reasonable: "But, Henrietta, dear, I'm only trying to find out..."
"What you try to find out," grated the voice, "depends on what your capacities to learn are. I'm trying to tell you something more important! I tried to tell you before. I tried to tell you all the while we were coming out here, but, no, you didn't want to hear, all you wanted was to get off in the lander with that fat bitch..."
The program knew when to be placatory. "I'm sorry, Henrietta, dear. If you want me to learn some astrophysics I will."
"Damn right you will!" Pause. "It's terribly important, Tom!" Pause. And then: "We go back to the Big Bang. Are you listening, Tom?"
"Of course I am, dear," said the program in its humblest and most endearing way.
"All right! It goes back to how the universe got started, and we know that pretty well-with one little hazy transition point that's a little obscure. Call it Point X."
"Are you going to tell me what 'Point X' is, dear?"
"Shut up, Tom! Listen! Before Point X, essentially the whole universe was packed into a tiny glob, no more than a matter of kilometers through, super-dense, super hot, so squeezed it had no structure. Then it exploded. It began to expand-up to Point X, and that part is pretty clear. Do you follow me so far, Tom?"
"Yes, dear. That's basically simple cosmology, isn't it?"
Pause. "Just pay attention," Henrietta's voice said at last. "Then, after Point X, it continued to expand. As it expanded, little bits of 'matter' began to condense out of it. First came nuclear particles, hadrons and pious, electrons and protons, neutrons and quarks. Then 'real' matter. Real hydrogen atoms, then even helium atoms. The exploding volume of gas began to slow. Turbulence broke it into immense clouds. Gravity pulled the clouds into clumps. As they shrank the heat of contraction set nuclear reactions going. They glowed. The first stars were born. The rest," she finished, "is what we can see going on now."
The program picked up its cue. "I see that, Henrietta, yes. How long are we talking about, now?"
"Ah, good question," she said, in a voice not at all complimentary. "From the beginning of the Big Bang to Point X, three seconds. From Point X to right now, about eighteen billion years. And there we have it."
The program was not written to deal with sarcasm, but even in the flat metal voice sarcasm hung. It did its best. "Thank you, dear," it said, "and now will you tell me what is special about Point X?"
"I would tell you in a thick minute, my darling Tomasino," she said sunnily, "except that you are not my darling Tomasino. That ass-head would not have understood one word of what I just said, and I don't like being lied to."
And no matter what the program tried, not even when Robin Broadhead dropped the pretense and spoke to her direct, Henrietta would say no more. "Hell with it," said Broadhead at last. "We've got enough to worry about in the next couple of hours. We don't have to go back eighteen billion years for it."
He hit a pressure release on the side of the processor and caught what came out: the thick, soft rag-flop tape that had caught everything Henrietta had said. He waved it aloft. "That's what I came for," he said, grinning. "And now, Paul, let's take care of your little problem-and then go home and spend our millions!"

In the deep, restless sleep of the Oldest One there were no dreams, but there were irritations.
The irritations came faster and faster, more and more urgent. From the time the first Gateway prospectors had terrifyingly come until he had written (he thought) the last of them off, only the wink of an eye-not more than a few years, really. And until the strangers and the boy were caught, hardly a heartbeat; and until he was awakened again to be told the female had escaped no time at all-none! Hardly even time for him to decouple sensors and effectors and settle down; and now there was still no peace. The children were panicked and quarrelsome. It was not their noise alone that disturbed him. Noise could not awaken the Oldest One; only physical attack, or being addressed directly. What was most irritating about this racket was that it was not quite addressed to him, but not quite not, either. It was a debate-an argument; a few frightened voices demanding he be told something at once, a few even more frightened ones pleading against it.
And that was incorrect. For half a million years the Oldest One had trained his children in manners. If he was needed, he was to be addressed. He was not to be awakened for trivial causes, and certainly not by accident. Especially now. Especially when each effort of waking was more of a drain on his ancient fabric and the time was in sight when he might not wake at all.
The fretful rumpus did not stop.
The Oldest One called on his external sensors and gazed upon his children. Why were so few of them there? Why were nearly half of them sprawled on the floor, evidently asleep?
Painfully he activated his communications system and spoke: "What is happening?"
When, quailing, they tried to answer and the Oldest One understood what they were saying, the bands of color on his shell raced and blurred. The female not recaptured. The younger female and the boy gone too. Twenty more of the children found hopelessly asleep, and scores of others, gone to search the artifact, not reporting back.
Something was terribly wrong.
Even at the very end of its useful life the Oldest One was a superb machine. There were resources seldom used, powers not tapped for hundreds of thousands of years. He rose on his rollogons to tower over the quaking children and reached down into his deepest and least-used memories for guidance and knowledge. On his foreplate, between the external vision receptors, two polished blue knobs began a faint drone, and atop his carapace a shallow dish glowed with faint violet light. It had been thousands of years since the Oldest One had used any of his more punitive effectors, but as information from the great stores of memories gathered he began to believe that it was time to use them again. He reached into the stored personalities, even, and Henrietta was open to him; he knew what she had said, and what the new interlopers had asked. He understood (what Henrietta had not) the meaning of the hand weapons Robin Broadhead had been waving around; in the deepest of all memories, the ones that went back even before his own flesh-and-blood life, there was the lance that made his own ancestors go to sleep, and this was clearly much the same.
Here was trouble on a scale he had never known before, of a kind he could not readily cope with. If he could get at them... But he could not. His great bulk could not travel through the artifact's passages, except the gold-skeined ones; the weapons that were ready to destroy would have no targets. The children? Yes, perhaps. Perhaps they could hunt out and overcome the others; certainly it was worth the effort to order them to do so, the few survivors, and he did. But in the rational, mechanical mind of the Oldest One the capacity for computation was unimpaired. He could read the odds well. They were not good.
The question was, was his great plan endangered?
The answer was yes. But there, at least, there was something he could do. The heart of the plan was the place where the artifact was controlled. It was the nerve center of the entire construct; it was where he had dared to set in motion the final stages of his plan.
Before he had finished framing the decision he was acting it out. The great metal bulk shifted and turned, and then rolled out across the spindle, into the wide-mouthed tunnel that led to the controls. Once there, he was secure. Let them come if they chose! The weaponry was ready. Its great drain on his dwindling powers was making him slow and unsteady to move, but there was power enough. He could blockade himself and let the flesh-and-blood things settle things however they might, and then... He stopped. Ahead of him one of the wall-aligning machines was out of place. It sat squarely in the center of the corridor, and behind it... If he had been just a trifle less drained, the fraction of a second faster.... But he was not. The glow from the wall aligner washed over him. He was blind. He was deaf. He felt the external protuberances burn off his shell, felt the great soft cylinders he rolled on melt and stick.
The Oldest One did not know how to feel pain. He did know how to feel anguish of the soul. He had failed.
The flesh-and-blood things had control of his artifacts, and his plans were at an end forever.


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Фредерик Пол. За синим горизонтом событий (ENGL)
   1 WAN
   2 ON THE WAY TO THE OORT CLOUD
   3 WAN IN LOVE
   4 ROBIN BROADHEAD, INC.
   5 JANINE
   6 AFTER THE FEVER
   7 HEECHEE HEAVEN
   8 SCHWARZE PETER
   9 BRASILIA
   10 THE OLDEST ONE
   11 S. YA. LAVOROVNA
   12 SIXTY BILLION GIGABITS
   13 AT THE HALFWAY POINT
   14 THE LONG NIGHT OF THE DREAMS
   15 OLDER THAN THE OLDEST ONE
   16 THE RICHEST PERSON THERE IS
   17 THE PLACE WHERE THE HEECHEE WENT


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