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2 ON THE WAY TO THE OORT CLOUD




On the twelve hundred and eighty-second day of our all-expense-paid joyride on the way to the Oort Cloud, the big excitement was the mail. Vera tinkled joyously and we all came to collect it. There were six letters for my horny little half-sister-inlaw from famous movie stars-well, they're not all movie stars. They're just famous and good-looking jocks that she writes to, because she's only fourteen years old and needs some kind of male to dream about, and that write back to her, I think, because their press agents tell them it's going to be good publicity. A letter from the old country for Payter, my father-in-law. A long one, in German. They want him to come back to Dortmund and run for mayor or Blirgermeister or something. Assuming, of course, that he is still alive when he gets back, which is only an assumption for any of the four of us. But they don't give up. Two private letters to my wife, Lurvy, I assume from ex-boyfriends. And a letter to all of us from poor Trish Bover's widower, or maybe husband, depending on whether you considered Trish alive or dead:
Have you seen any trace of Trish's ship?
Hanson Bover

Short and sweet, because that's all he could afford, I guess. I told Vera to send him the same reply as always-"Sorry, no." I had plenty of time to take care of that correspondence, because there was nothing for Paul C. Hall, who is me.
There is usually not much for me, which is one of the reasons I play chess a lot. Payter tells me I'm lucky to be on the mission at all, and I suppose I wouldn't be if he hadn't put his own money into it, financing his whole family. Also his skills, but we've all done that. Payter is a food chemist. I'm a structural engineer. My wife, Dorema-it's better not to call her that, and we mostly call her "Lurvy"-is a pilot. Damn good one, too. Lurvy is younger than I am, but she was on Gateway for six years. Never scored, came back next to broke, but she learned a lot. Not just about piloting. Sometimes I look at Lurvy's arms with the five Out bangles, one for each of her Gateway missions; and her hands, hard and sure on the ship controls, warm and warming when we touch... I don't know much about what happened to her on Gateway. Perhaps I shouldn't.
And the other one is her little jailbait half-sister, Janine. Ak, Janine! Sometimes she was fourteen years old, and sometimes forty. When she was fourteen she wrote her gushy letters to her movie stars and played with her toys-a ragged, stuffed armadillo, a Heechee prayer fan (real) and a fire-pearl (fake) which her father had bought her to tempt her onto the trip. When she was forty what she mostly wanted to play with was me. And there we are. In each other's pockets for three and a half years. Trying not to need to commit murder.
We were not the only ones in space. Once in a great while we would get a message from our nearest neighbors, the Triton base or the exploring ship that had got itself lost. But Triton, with Neptune, was well ahead of us in its orbit-round-trip message time, three weeks. And the explorer had no power to waste on us, though they were now only fifty light-hours away. It was not like a friendly natter over the garden hedge.
So what I did, I played a lot of chess with our shipboard computer.
There's not an awful lot to do on the way to the Oort except play games, and besides it was a good way to stay noncombatant in The War Between Two Women that continually raged in our little ship. I can stand my father-in-law, if I have to. Mostly he keeps to himself, as much as he can in four hundred cubic meters. I can't always stand his two crazy daughters, even though I love them both.
All this would have been easier to take if we had had more room-I told myself that-but there is no way to go for a cooling-down walk around the block when you are in a spaceship. Once In a while a quick EVA to check the side-cargos, yes, and then I could look around-the sun still the brightest star in its constellation, but only just; Sirius ahead of us was brighter, and so was Alpha Centauri, off below the ecliptic and to the side. But that was only an hour at a time, and then back inside the ship. Not a luxury ship. A human-made antique of a spaceship that was never planned for more than a six-month mission and that we had to stay cooped up in for three and a half years. My God! We must have been crazy to sign up. What good is a couple million dollars when getting it drives you out of your head?
Our shipboard brain was a lot easier to get along with. When I played chess with her, hunched over the console with the big headset over my ears, I could shut out Lurvy and Janine. The brain's name was Vera, which was just my own conceit and had nothing to do with her, I mean its, gender. Or with her truthfulness, either, because I had instructed her she could joke with me sometimes. When Vera was downlinked with the big computers that were in orbit or back on Earth, she was very, very smart. But she couldn't carry on a conversation that way, because of the 25-day round-trip communications time, and so when she wasn't in link she was very, very dumb-"Pawn to king's rook four, Vera."
"Thank you..." Long pause, while she checked my parameters to make sure who she was talking to and what she was supposed to be doing. "Paul. Bishop takes knight."
I could beat the ass off Vera when we played chess, unless she cheated. How did she cheat? Well, after I had won maybe two hundred games from her she won one. And then I won about fifty, and then she won one, and another, and for the next twenty games we were about even and then she began to clobber me every time. Until I figured out what she was doing. She was transmitting position and plans to the big computers on Earth and then, when we recessed games, as we sometimes did, because Payter or one of the women would drag me away from the set, she would have time to get Downlink-Vera's criticism of her plans and suggestions to amend her strategies. The big machines would tell Vera what they thought my strategies might be, and how to counteract them; and when Downlink-Vera guessed right, Shipboard-Vera had me. I never bothered to make her stop. I just didn't recess games any more, and then after a while we were so far away that there just wasn't time for her to get help and I went back to beating her every game.
And the chess games were about the only games I won, those three and a half years. There was no way for me to win anything in the big one that kept going on between my wife, Lurvy, and her horny fourteen-year-old half-sister, Janine. Old Payter was a long time between begats, and Lurvy tried to be a mother to Janine, who tried to be an enemy to Lurvy. And succeeded. It wasn't all Janine's fault. Lurvy would take a few drinks-that was her way of relieving the boredom-and then she would discover that Janine had used her toothbrush, or that Janine had unwillingly done as she had been told and cleaned up the food-preparation area before it began to stink, but hadn't put the organics in the digester. Then they were off. From time to time they would go through ritualized performances of woman talk, punctuated by explosions-"I really love those blue pants on you, Janine. Do you want me to tack that seam?"
"All right, so I'm getting fat, is that what you're saying? Well, it's better than drinking myself stupid all the time!"-and then back to blow-drying each other's hair. And I would go back to playing chess with Vera. It was the only safe thing to do. Every time I tried to intervene I achieved instant success by uniting them against me: "Fucking male chauvinist pig, why don't you scrub the kitchen floor?"
The funny thing was, I did love them both. In different ways, of course, though I had trouble getting that across to Janine.
We were told what we were getting into when we signed up for the mission. Besides the regular long-voyage psychiatric briefing, all four of us went through a dozen session hours on the problem during the preflight, and what the shrink said boiled down to "do the best you can." It appeared that during the refamilying process I would have to learn to parent. Payter was too old, even if he was the biological father. Lurvy was undomestic, as you would expect from a former Gateway pilot. It was up to me; the shrink was very clear about that. It just didn't say how.
So there I was at forty-one, umpty zillion kilometers from Earth, way past the orbit of Pluto, about fifteen degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic, trying not to make love to my halfsister-in-law, trying to make peace with my wife, trying to maintain the truce with my father-in-law. Those were the big things that I woke up with (every time I was allowed to go to sleep), just staying alive for another day. To get my mind off them, I would try to think about the two million dollars apiece we would get for completing the mission. When even that failed I would try to think about the long-range importance of our mission, not just to us, but to every human being alive. That was real enough. If it all worked out, we would be keeping most of the human race from dying of starvation.
That was obviously important. Sometimes it even seemed important. But it was the human race that had jammed us all into this smelly concentration-camp for what looked like forever; and there were times when-you know?-I kind of hoped they would starve.

Day 1283. I was just waking up when I heard Vera beeping and crackling to herself, the way she does when there's an action message coming in. I unzipped the restraining sheet and pushed myself out of our private, but old Payter was already hanging over the printer.
He swore creakily. "Gott sel dammt! We have a course changing." I caught hold of a rail and pushed myself over to see, but Janine, busily inspecting her cheekbones for pimples in the wall mirror, got there ahead of me. She ducked her head in front of Payter's, read the message, and slid herself away disdainfully. Payter worked his mouth for a minute and then said savagely, "This does not interest you?" Janine shrugged minutely without looking at him.
Lurvy was coming out of the private after me, zipping up her skivvies. "Leave her alone, Pa," she said. "Paul, go put some clothes on." It was better to do what she said, besides which she was right. The best way to stay out of trouble with Janine was to behave like a puritan. By the time I fished my shorts out of the tangle of sheets, Lurvy had already read the message. Reasonably enough; she was our pilot. She looked up, grinning. "Paul! We have to make a correction in about eleven hours, and maybe it's the last one! Back away," she ordered Payter, who was still hanging over the terminal, and pulled herself down to work Vera's calculator keys. She watched while the trajectories formed, pressed for a solution and then crowed: "Seventy-three hours eight minutes to touchdown!"
"I myself could have done that," her father complained.
"Don't be grouchy, Pa! Three days and we're there. Why, we ought to be able to see it in the scopes when we turn!"
Janine, back to picking at her cheekbones, commented over her shoulder, "We could have been seeing it for months if somebody hadn't busted the big scope."
"Janine!" Lurvy was marvelous at holding her temper in-when she was able to do it at all-and this time she managed to stay in control. She said in her voice of quiet reason, "Wouldn't you say this was an occasion for rejoicing, not for starting arguments? Of course you would, Janine. I suggest we all have a drink-you, too."
I stepped in quickly, belting my shorts-I knew the rest of that script. "Are you going to use the chemical rockets, Lurvy? Right, then Janine and I will have to go out and check the side-cargos. Why don't we have the drink when we come back?"
Lurvy smiled sunnily. "Good idea, dear. But perhaps Pa and I will have one short one now-then we'll join you for another round later, if you like."
"Suit up," I ordered Janine, preventing her from saying whatever inflammatory remark was in her mind. She obviously had decided to be placatory for the moment, because she did as she was told without comment. We checked each other's seals, let Lurvy and Payter double-check us, crowded one by one into the exit and swung out into space on our tethers. The first thing we both did was look toward home-not very satisfying; the sun was only a bright star and I couldn't see the Earth at all, though Janine usually claimed she could.. The second thing was to look toward the Food Factory, but I couldn't see anything there. One star looks a lot like another one, especially down to the lower limits of brightness when there are fifty or sixty thousand of them in the sky.
Janine worked quickly and efficiently, tapping the bolts of the big ion-thrusters strapped to the side of our ship while I inspected for tightness in the steel straps. Janine was really not a bad kid. She was fourteen years old and sexually excitable, true, but it was not at all her fault that she had no satisfactory person to practice being a woman on. Except me and, even less satisfactorily, her father. Everything checked out, as of course we bad been pretty sure it would. She was waiting by the stub of the big telescope's mounting by the time I finished, and a measure of her good humor was that she didn't even say anything about who let it crack loose and float away in the crazy time. I let her go back in the ship first. I took an extra couple of minutes to float out there. Not because I particularly enjoyed the view. Only because those minutes in space were about the only time I had had in three and a half years to be anything approaching alone.
We were still moving at better than three kilometers a second, but of course you couldn't tell that with nothing around to compare. It felt a lot as though we weren't moving at all. It had felt that way, a lot, for all of the three and a half years. One of the stories we had all been hearing for all that time from old Peter-he pronounces it "Pay-ter"-was about his father, the S. S. Werewolf. The werewolf couldn't have been more than sixteen when The Big One ended. His special job was transporting jet engines to a Luftwaffe squadron that had just been fitted out with ME210s. Payter says his daddy went to his death apologizing for not getting the engines up to the squadron in time to cream the Lanes and the B-17s and change the outcome of the war. We all thought that was pretty funny-anyway, the first time we heard it. But that wasn't the real funny part The real funny part was how the old Nazi freighted them. With a team. Not horses. Oxen. Not even pulling a wagon-it was a sledge! The newest, up to the minute, state of the art jet turbines-and what it took to get them operational was a tow-headed kid with a willow switch, ankle deep in cowflop.
Hanging there, creeping through space, on a trip that a Heechee ship could have done in a day-if we had had one, and could have made it do what we wanted it to-I felt a kind of a sympathy with Payter's old man. It wasn't that different with us. All we were missing was the cowflop.

Day 1284. The course change went very smoothly, after we all struggled into our life-support systems and wedged ourselves into our acceleration seats, neatly fitted to our air and vital-signs packs. Considering the tiny delta-V involved, it was hardly worth the effort. Not to mention that there wouldn't be much use in life-support systems if anything went wrong enough for us to need them, five thousand A. U. s from home. But we did it by the book, because that was the way we had been doing it for three and a half years.
And-after we had turned, and the chemical rockets had done their thing and stopped and let the ion-thrusters take over again, and after Vera had fumbled and clucked and hesitantly announced that it looked all right, as far as she could tell, of course pending confirmation some weeks later from Earth-we saw it! Lurvy was the first one out of her seat and at the visuals, and she snapped it into focus in a matter of seconds.
We hung around, staring at it. The Food Factory!
It jiggled annoyingly in the speculum, hard to keep in focus. Even an ion rocket contributes some vibration to a spaceship, and we were still a long way off. But it was there. It gleamed faintly blue in the darkness punctuated by stars, strangely shaped. It was the size of an office building and more oblong than anything else. But one end was rounded, and one side seemed to have a long, curved slice taken out of it. "Do you think it's been hit by something?" Lurvy asked apprehensively.
"Ah, not in the least," snapped her father. "It is how it was constructed! What do we know of Heechee design?"
"How do you know that?" Lurvy asked, but her father didn't answer that; didn't have to, we all knew that he had no way to know, was only speaking out of hope, because if it was damaged we were in trouble. Our bonuses were good just for going out there, but our hopes for real payoff, the only kind of payoff that would pay for seven round-trip years of misery, rested on the Food Factory being operable. Or at least studyable and copyable. "Paul!" Lurvy said suddenly. "Look at the side that's just turning away-aren't those ships?"
I squinted, trying to make out what she saw. There were half a dozen bulges on the long, straight side of the artifact, three or four smallish ones, two quite large. They looked like pictures I had seen of the Gateway asteroid, right enough, as far as I could tell. But-"You're the ex-prospector," I said. "What do you think?"
"I think they are. But, my God, did you see those two end Ones? They were huge. I've been in Ones and Threes, and I've seen plenty of Fives. But nothing like that! They'd hold, I don't know, maybe fifty people! If we had ships like that, Paul-If we had ships like that..."
"If, if," snarled her father. "If we had such ships, and if we could make them go where we wanted, yes, the world would be ours! Let us hope they still work. Let us hope any part of it works!"
"It will, Father," caroled a sweet voice from behind us, and we turned to see Janine, propped with one knee under the digester hose, holding out a squeeze bottle of our best home-made genuine recycled grain neutral spirits. "I'd say this really calls for a celebration." She smiled.
Lurvy looked at her thoughtfully, but her control was in good shape and she only said, "Why, that's a nice idea, Janine. Pass it around."
Janine took a ladylike small swig and handed it to her father. "I thought you and Lurvy might like a nightcap," she said, after clearing her throat-she had just graduated to drinking the hard stuff on her fourteenth birthday, still did not like it, insisted on it only because it was an adult prerogative.
"Good idea," Payter nodded. "I have been up now for, what is it, yes, nearly twenty hours. We will all need our rest when we touch down," he added, handing the bottle to my wife, who squeezed two ounces into her well-practiced throat and said:
"I'm not really sleepy yet. You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to play Trish Bover's tape again."
"Oh, God, Lurvy! We've all seen it a zillion times!"
"I know, Janine. You don't have to watch if you don't want to, but I kept wondering if one of those ships was Trish's and-Well, I just want to look at it again."
Janine's lips thinned, but the genes were strong and her control was as good as her sister's when she wanted it to be-that was one of the things we were measured on, before they signed us for the mission. "I'll dial it up," she said, pushing herself over to Vera's keyboard. Payter shook his head and retired to his own private, sliding the accordion-pleated barrier into place to shut us out, and the rest of us gathered around the console. Because it was tape we could get visual as well as sound, and in about ten seconds it crackled on and we could see poor, angry Trish Bover talking into the camera and saying the last words anybody would ever hear from her.
Tragedy can only be tragic just so long, and we'd heard it all for three and a half years. Every once in a while we'd play the tape, and look at the scenes she had picked up with her handheld camera. And look at them. And look at them, freeze-frame and blowup, not because we thought we'd get any more information out of them than Gateway Corporation's people already had, although you never knew. Just because we wanted to reassure ourselves it was all worth it. The real tragedy was that Trish didn't know what she had found.
"This is Mission Report Oh-Seventy-Four Dee Nineteen," she began, steadily enough. Her sad, silly face was even trying to smile. "I seem to be in trouble. I came out at a Heechee artifact kind of thing, and I docked, and now I can't get away. The lander rockets work. But the main board won't. And I don't want to stay here till I starve." Starve! After the boffins went over Trish's photos they identified what the "artifact" was-the CHON-Food Factory they had been looking for.
But whether it was worth it was still an open question, and Trish surely didn't think it was worth it. What she thought was that she was going to die there, and for nothing, not even going to cash in her awards for the mission. And then at the end, what she finally did, she tried to make it back in the lander.
She got into the lander and pointed it for the sun, and turned on the motors, and took a pill. Took a lot of pills; all she had. And then she turned the freezer up to max and got in and closed the door behind her. "Defrost me when you find me," she said, "and remember my award."
And maybe somebody would. When they found her. If they found her. Which would likely be in about ten thousand years. By the time her faint radio message was heard by anybody, on maybe its five hundredth automatic repetition, it was too late to matter to Trish; she never answered.
Vera finished playing the tape and quietly restowed it as the screen went dark. "If Trish had been a real pilot instead of one of those Gateway go-go prospectors, jump in and push the button and let the ship do its thing," said Lurvy, not for the first time, "she would have known better. She would have used what little delta-V she had in the lander to kill some angular momentum instead of wasting it by pointing straight in."
"Thank you, expert rocket pilot," I said, not for the first time either. "So she could've counted on being inside the asteroids a whole lot sooner, right? Maybe in as little as six or seven thousand years."
Lurvy shrugged. "I'm going to bed," she said, taking a last squeeze from the bottle. "You, Paul?"
"Aw, give me a break, will you?" Janine cut in. "I wanted Paul to help me go over ignition procedures for the ionthrusters."
Lurvy's guard went up at once. "You sure that's what you want him to go over? Don't pout, Janine. You know you've gone over it plenty already, and anyway it's Paul's job."
"And what if Paul's out of action?" Janine demanded. "How do we know we won't hit the crazy time just as we're doing it?"
Well, nobody could know that, and as a matter of fact I had been forming the opinion that we would. It came in cycles of about a hundred and thirty days, give or take a dozen. We were pushing it close. I said, "Actually, I'm a little tired, Janine. I promise we'll do it tomorrow." Or whenever one of the others was awake at the same time-the important thing was not to be alone with Janine. In a ship with the total cubage of a motel room, you'd be surprised how hard that is to arrange. Not hard. Practically impossible.
But I really wasn't tired, and when Lurvy was tucked alongside me and out of it, her breathing too quiet to be called anything like a snore, but diagnostic of sleep all the same, I stretched against the sheets, wide awake, counting up our blessings. I needed to do that at least once a day. When I could find any to count.
This time I found a good one. Four thousand A. U. plus is a long trip-and that's as the crow flies. Or, actually, as the photon fires, because of course there aren't a lot of crows in near-interstellar space. Call it half a trillion kilometers, near enough. And we were spiraling out, which meant most of a revolution around the sun before we got there. Our track wasn't just 25 light-days, it was more like 60. And, even power-on the whole way, we weren't coming up to anything like the speed of light. Three and a half years... and all the way we were thinking, Jeez, suppose someone figures out the Heechee drive before we get there? It wouldn't have helped us a bit. It would've been a lot more than three and a half years before they got around to doing all the things they wanted to do when that happened. And guess where on that list the job of coming after us would have been?
So the good thing I found to dwell on was that at least we weren't going to find the trip was for nothing, because we were almost there!
All that remained was to strap the big ion-thrusters onto it see if it worked... start the slow return trip, shoving the thing back down toward the Earth... and, somehow, survive till we got there. Call it, oh, another four years; I went back to cherishing the fact that we were almost there.

The idea of mining comets for food wasn't new, it went back to Krafft Ehricke in the 1950s anyway, only what he suggested was that people colonize them. It made sense. Bring along a little iron and trace elements-the iron to build a place to live in, the trace elements to turn CHON-chow into quiche lorraine or hamburgers-and you can live indefinitely on the food around you. Because that's what comets are made of. A little bit of dust, a few rocks, and a hell of a lot of frozen gases. And what are the gases? Oxygen. Nitrogen. Hydrogen. Carbon dioxide. Water. Methane. Ammonia. The same four elements over and over again. CHON. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and what does CHON spell?
Wrong. What comets are made of is the same thing you are made of, and what C-H-O-N spells is "food."
The Oort cloud was made up of millions of megaton-sized servings of chow. Back on Earth there were ten or twelve billion hungry people looking toward it and licking their lips.
There was still a lot of argument about what comets were doing there, out in the cloud. It was still arguable about whether they even came in families. Opik a hundred years ago said more than half the comets ever sighted fit into well-defined groups, so there, and so did his followers ever since. Whipple said bullshit, there's not a group you can identify that has more than three comets in it. And so did his followers. Then Oort came along to try to make sense of it. His idea was that there was this great shell of comets all the hell around the solar system, and every once in a while the sun would reach out and pluck one out, and it would come loping in to perihelion. Then we would have Halley's comet, or the one that was supposed to have been the Star of Bethlehem, or whatever. Then a bunch of the guys began kicking that around, asking why exactly that should happen. It turned out it couldn't-not if you assume Maxwellian distribution for the Oort cloud. In fact, if you assume normal distribution, you also have to assume that there isn't any Oort cloud in the first place. You can't get the observed nearly parabolic orbits out of an Oort cloud; so said R. A. Lyttleton. But then somebody else said, well, who says the distribution can't be non-Maxwellian? And so it proved. It's all lumpy. There are clusters of comets, and great volumes of space with almost none.
And while no doubt the Heechee had set their machine to graze in rich comet pastures, that had been a lot of hundreds of thousands of years ago, and it was now in a kind of cometary desert. If it worked, it had little left to work on. (Maybe it had eaten them all up?)
I fell asleep wondering what CHON-food would taste like. It couldn't be a lot worse than what we had been eating for three and a half years, which was mainly recycled us.

Day 1285. Janine almost got to me today. I was playing chess with Vera, everybody asleep, happy enough, when her hands came around the big earpieces and covered my eyes. "Cut it out, Janine," I said. When I turned around she was pouting.
"I just wanted to use Vera," she said.
"For what? Another hot love letter to one of your movie stars?"
"You treat me like a child," she said. For a wonder, she was fully dressed; her face shone, her hair was damp and pulled down straight to the back of her neck. She looked like your model serious-minded young teen-ager. "What I wanted," she said, "was to go over thruster alignments with Vera. Since you won't help me."
One of the reasons Janine was along with us was that she was smart-we all were; had to be to be accepted for the mission. And one of the things she was smart at was getting at me. "All right," I said, "you're right, what can I say? Vera? Recess the game and give us the program for providing propulsion for the Food Factory."
"Certainly," she said,"... Paul." And the board disappeared, and in its place she built up a holo of the Food Factory. She had updated her specs from the telescopic views we had obtained, and so it was shown complete with its dust cloud and the glob of dirty snowball adhering to one side. "Cancel the cloud, Vera," I ordered, and the blur disappeared and the Food Factory showed up like an engineering drawing. "Okay, Janine. What's the first step?"
"We dock," she said at once. "We hope the lander facsimile fits, and we dock it. If we can't dock we link up with braces to some point on the surface; either way, our ship becomes a rigid part of the structure, so we can use our thrust for attitude control."
"Next?"
"We all dismount the number-one thruster and brace it to the aft section of the factory-there." She pointed out the place on the holo. "We slave it to the board here, and as soon as it is installed we activate."
"Guidance?"
"Vera will give us coordinates-oops, sorry, Paul." She had been drifting out of orientation with me and Vera, and she caught my shoulder with her hand to pull herself back. She kept her hand there. "Then we repeat the process with the other five. By the time we have all six going we have a delta-V of two meters per second per second, running off the 239pu generator. Then we start spreading the mirror foils..."
"No."
"Oh, sure, we inspect all the moorings to see that they're holding under thrust first; well, I take that for granted. Then we start with solar power, and when we've got it all spread we should be up to maybe two and a quarter meters..."
"At first, Janine. The closer we get in, the more power we get. All right. Now let's go through the hardware. You're bracing our ship to the Heechee-metal hull; how do you go about it?"
And she told me, and kept on telling me; and by gosh she knew it all. The only thing was her hand on my shoulder became a hand under my arm, and it moved across my chest, and began to roam; and all the time she was giving me the specs for coldwelding and how to get collimation for the thrusters, her face serious and concerned, and her hand stroking my belly. Fourteen years old. But she didn't look fourteen, or feel fourteen, or smell fourteen-she'd been into Lurvy's quarter of an ounce of remaining Chanel. What saved me was Vera; good thing, everything considered, because I was losing interest in saving myself. The holo froze while Janine was adding an extra strut to one of the thrusters, and Vera said, "Action message coming in. Shall I read it out for you... Paul?"
"Go ahead." Janine withdrew her hand slightly as the holo winked away, and the screen produced the message:

We've been requested to ask you for a favor. The next
outbreak of the 130-day syndrome is estimated to occur
within the next two months. HEW thinks that a full-coverage
visual of all of you describing the Food Factory and
emphasizing how well things are going and how important it
is will significantly reduce tensions and consequent damage.
Please follow the accompanying script. Request compliance
soonest possible so that we may tape and schedule broadcast
for maximum effect.

"Shall I give you the script?" Vera asked.
"Go ahead-hard copy," I added.
"Very well... Paul." The screen turned pale and empty, and she began to squirt out typed sheets of paper. I picked them up to read while I sent Janine off to wake up her sister and father. She didn't object. She loved doing television for the folks back home, it always meant fan letters from famous people for the brave young astronette.
The script was what you would expect. I programmed Vera to roll it for us line by line, and we could have read it in ten minutes. That was not to be. Janine insisted her sister had to do her hair, and even Lurvy decided she had to make up and Payter wanted his beard trimmed. By me. So, all in all, counting four rehearsals, we blew six hours, not counting a month's power, on the TV broadcast. We all gathered before the camera, looking domestic and dedicated, and explained what we were going to be doing to an audience that wouldn't be seeing it for a month, by which time we would already be there. But if it would do them any good, it was worth it. We had been through eight or nine attacks of the 130-day fever since we took off from Earth. Each time it had its own syndrome, satyriasis or depression, lethargy or light-hearted joy. I had been outside when one of them hit-that was how the big telescope got broken-and it had been about an even bet whether I would ever make it back inside the ship. I simply didn't care. I was hallucinating loneliness and anger, being chased by apelike creatures and wishing I were dead. And back on Earth, with billions of people, nearly all of them affected to one degree or another, in one or another way, each time it hit it was pure bell. It had been building up for ten years-eight since it was first identified as a recurring scourge-and no one knew what caused it.
But everybody wanted it stopped.

Day 1288. Docking day! Payter was at the controls, wouldn't trust Vera on a thing like that, while Lurvy was strapped in over his head to call off course corrections. We came to relative rest just outside the thin cloud of particles and gas, no more than a kilometer from the Food Factory itself.
From where Janine and I were sitting in our life-support gear it was hard to see what was going on outside. Past Payter's head and Lurvy's gesticulating arms we could catch glimpses of the enormous old machine, but only glimpses. no more than a glimmer of blue-lit metal and now and then a docking pit or the shape of one of the old ships-
"Hellfire! I'm drifting away!"
"No, you aren't, Payter. The goddam thing's got a little acceleration!"
-and maybe a star. We didn't really need the life-support; Payter was nudging us gently as he would a jellyfish in a tank. I wanted to ask where the acceleration came from, or why; but the two pilots were busy, and besides I did not suppose they knew the answer.
"That's got it. Now bring her in to that center docking pit, middle of that row of three."
"Why that one?"
"Why not? Because I say so!"
And we edged in for a minute or two, and came to relative rest again. And we matched and locked. The Heechee capsule at the forward end mated neatly with the ancient pit.
Lurvy reached down and killed the board, and we all looked at each other. We were there.
Or, to put it another way, we were halfway. Halfway home.

Day 1290. It was no surprise that the Heechee had breathed an atmosphere we could survive in. The surprise was that any of it was left in this place, after all the tens or hundreds of thousands of years since anyone breathed any of it. And that was not the only surprise. The others came later, and were scarier and worse.
It was not just the atmosphere that had survived. The whole ship had survived-in working condition! We knew it as soon as we were inside and the samplers had shown us we could take off our helmets. The blue-gleaming metal walls were warm to the touch, and we could feel a faint, steady vibration. The temperature was around twelve-cool, but no worse than some Earthside homes I've been in. Do you want to guess what the first words were spoken by human beings inside the Food Factory? They came from Payter, and they were:
"Ten million dollars! Jesus, maybe even a hundred!"
And if he hadn't said it, one or another of us would. Our bonus was going to be astronomical. Trish's report hadn't said whether the Food Factory was operational or not-for all we knew, it could have been a riddled hulk, empty of anything that made it worthwhile. But here we had a complete and major Heechee artifact, in working condition! There was simply nothing like it to judge against. The tunnels on Venus, the old ships, even Gateway itself had been carefully emptied of nearly all their contents half a million years before. This place was furnished! Warm, livable, thrumming, soaked with weak microwave radiation, it was alive. It did not seem old at all.
We had little chance to explore; the sooner we got the thing moving in toward Earth, the sooner we would cash in on its promise. We allowed ourselves an hour to roam around in the breathable air, poking into chambers filled with great gray and blue metal shapes, slithering down corridors, eating as we wandered, telling each other over the pocket communicators (and relayed through Vera to Earth) what we found. Then work. We suited up again and began the job of derigging the side-cargos.
And that was where we ran into the first trouble.
The Food Factory was not in free orbit. It was accelerating. Some sort of thrust was driving it. It was not great, less than one percent of a G.
But the electric rocket assemblies weighed more than ten tons each.
Even at one percent of perceived weight, that meant over a hundred kilograms of weight, not counting ten tons worth of inertia. As we began to unship the first one it pulled itself free at one end and began to fall away. Payter was there to catch it, but it was more than he could hold for long; I pulled myself over and grabbed the side-cargo with one hand, the brace it had been fastened to with the other, and we managed to keep it in place until Janine could secure a cable over it.
Then we retired inside the ship to think things over.
We were already exhausted. After three-plus years in confined quarters, we were not used to hard work. Vera's bio-assay unit reported we were accumulating fatigue poisons. We bickered and worried at each other for a while, then Payter and Lurvy went to sleep while Janine and I schemed out a rigging that would let us secure each side-cargo before it was released and swing it around the Food Factory on three long cables, belayed by smaller guiding cables so that it would not smash into the hull at the far end of its travel and pound itself into scrap. We had allowed ten hours to move a rocket into position. It took three days for the first one. By the time we had it secured we were stark, staring wrecks, our heartbeats pounding, our muscles one solid ache. We took a full sleep shift and a few hours of loafing around the interior of the Food Factory before we went back to securing the rocket so that it could be started. Payter was the most energetic of us; he went prowling as far as he could go down half a dozen corridors. "All come to dead ends," he reported when he came back. "Looks like the part we can reach is only about a tenth of the object-'less we cut holes through the walls."
"Not now," I said.
"Not ever!" said Lurvy strongly. "All we do is get this thing back. Anybody wants to start cutting it up, it will be after we've collected our money!" She rubbed her biceps, arms folded across her chest, and added regretfully, "And we might as well get started on securing the rocket."
It took us another two days to do that, but finally we had it in place. The welding fluxes they had given us to secure steel to Heechee metal actually worked. As far as we could tell from static inspection, it was solid. We retired into the ship and commanded Vera to give it a ten percent thrust.
At once we felt a tiny lurch. It was working. We all grinned at each other, and I reached into my private hold-all for the bottle of champagne I had been saving for this occasion-Another lurch.
Click, click, click, click-one after another our grins snapped off. There should have been only one felt acceleration.
Lurvy jumped to the cyber board. "Vera! Report delta-V!" The screen lighted up with a diagram of forces: the Food Factory imaged in the middle, force arrows showing in two directions. One was our thruster, doing its job of pushing against the hull. The other was not.
"Additional thrust now affecting course... Lurvy," Vera reported. "Vector result now same in direction and magnitude as previous delta-V."
Our rocket was pushing against the Food Factory. But it wasn't doing much good. The factory was pushing back.

Day 1298. So we did what we obviously had to do. We turned everything off and screamed for help.
We slept, and ate, and wandered around the factory for what seemed like forever, wishing the 25-day delay did not exist. Vera wasn't much help. "Transmit full telemetry," she said, and, "Stand by for further directives." Well, we were doing that already.
After a day or two I pulled the champagne out anyway, and we all drank up. At . 01G the carbonation had more muscle than gravity did, and actually I had to hold my thumb over the bottle and my palm over each glass to squirt and catch the spraying champagne. But after a fashion we toasted. "Not so bad," said Payter when he had chug-a-lugged his wine. "At least we've got a couple million each."
"If we ever live to collect it," snarled Janine.
"Don't be such a downer, Janine. We knew when we started out that the mission might bum out." And so we had; the ship was designed so that we could start back on our basic fuel, then rerig the photon-thrusters to get us home-in another four years or so.
"And then what, Lurvy? I'll be an eighteen-year-old virgin! And a failure."
"Oh, God. Janine, go explore for a while, won't you? I'm tired of the sight of you."
And so were all of us, of each other. We were more tired of each other, and less tolerant, than we had been all the way out in the cramped quarters of the ship. Now that we had more space to lose each other in, as much as a quarter-kilometer of it at farthest stretch, we were more abrasive on each other than ever. Every twenty hours or so Vera's small, dull brain would stumble through her contingency programs and come up with some new experiment: test thrusts at one percent of power, at thirty percent of power, even at full power. And we would get together long enough to suit up and carry them out. But they were always the same no matter how hard we pushed against the Food Factory, the artifact sensed it, and pushed back at exactly the right magnitude and in exactly the right direction to keep its steady acceleration to whatever goal it had in mind. The only useful thing Vera came up with was a theory: the factory had used up the comet it was working on and was moving on to a new one. But that was only intellectually interesting. It did not do a practical thing to help. So we wandered around, mostly alone, carrying the cameras into every room and corridor we could reach. What we saw they saw, and what they saw was transmitted on the time-sharing beam to Earth, and none of it offered much help.
We found where Trish Bover had entered the factory easily enough-Payter did that, and called us all to look, and we gathered silently to inspect the remnants of a long-decayed lunch, the discarded pantyhose and the graffiti she had scratched on the walls:

TRISH BOVER WAS HERE

And

GOD HELP ME!

"Maybe God will," said Lurvy after a while, "but 1 don't see how anybody else can."
"She must have been here longer than I thought," Payter said. "There's junk scattered all around in some of the rooms."
"What kind of junk?"
"Old spoiled food, mostly. Down toward the other landing face, you know where the lights are?" I did, and Janine and I went to see. It was her idea to keep me company, and not an idea I had been enthusiastic about at first. But maybe the 12C temperature and the lack of anything like a bed tempered her interest, or maybe she was too depressed and disappointed to be very interested in her ambition to lose her virginity. We found the discarded food easily enough. It didn't look like Gateway rations to me. It seemed to come in packets; a couple of them were unopened, three biggish ones, the size of a slice of bread, wrapped in bright red something or other-it felt like silk. Two smaller ones, one green, one the same red as the others but mottled with pink dots. We opened one experimentally. It stank of rotten fish and was obviously no longer edible. But had been.
I left Janine there to go back to find the others. They opened the little green one. It did not smell spoiled, but was hard as rock. Payter sniffed it, then licked It, then broke off a crumb against the wall and chewed it thoughtfully. "No taste at all," he reported, then looked up at us, looked startled, then grinned.
"You waiting for me to drop dead?" he inquired. "I don't think so. You chew on it awhile, it gets soft. Like stale crackers, maybe."
Lurvy frowned. "If it really was food..." She stopped and thought. "If it really was food, and Trish left it there, why didn't she just stay here? Or why didn't she mention it?"
"She was scared silly," I suggested.
"Sure she was. But she did tape a report. She didn't say a word about food. The Gateway techs were the ones who decided this was a Food Factory, remember? And all they had to go on was the wrecked one they found around Phyllis's World."
"Maybe she just forgot."
"I don't think she forgot," said Lurvy slowly, but she didn't say any more than that. There wasn't anything more to be said. But for the next day or two we did not do much solitary exploring.

Day 1311. Vera received the information about the food packages in silence. After a while she displayed an instruction to submit the contents of the packages to chemical-and bio-assay. We had already done that on our own, and if she drew conclusions she did not say what they were.
For that matter, neither did we. On the occasions when we were all awake together what we mostly talked about was what we would do if Base could not figure out a way for us to move the Food Factory. Vera had already suggested that we install the other five side-cargos, turn them all on full-power at once and see if the factory could out-muscle six thrusters. Vera's suggestions were not orders, and Lurvy spoke for all of us when she said, "If we turn them on full and they don't work, the next step is to turn them on to over rated capacity. They could get damaged. And we could get stuck."
"What do we do if we hear from Earth and they make it an order?" I asked.
Payter cut in ahead of her. "We bargain," he said, nodding sagely. "They want us to take extra risks, they give us extra pay."
"Are you going to do the bargaining, Pa?"
"You bet I am. And listen. Suppose it don't work. Suppose we have to go back. You know what we do then?" He nodded to us again. "We load up the ship with everything we can carry. We find little machines that we can take out, you know? Maybe we see if they work. We stuff that ship with everything it can hold, throw away everything we can spare. Leave most of the side-. cargos here and load on big machines outside, you see? We could come back with, God, I don't know, another twenty, thirty million dollars' worth of artifacts."
"Like prayer fans!" Janine cried, clapping her hands. There were piles of them in the room where Payter had found the food. There were other things there, too, a sort of metal-mesh couch, tulip-shaped things that looked like candleholders on the walls. But hundreds of prayer fans. By my quick guess, at a thousand dollars each, there was half a million dollars' worth of prayer fans in that room alone, delivered to the curio markets in Chicago and Rome... if we lived to deliver them. Not counting all the other things I could think of, that I was inventorying in my mind. I wasn't the only one.
"Prayer fans are the least of it," Lurvy said thoughtfully. "But that's not in our contract, Pa."
"Contract! So what are they going to do with us, shoot us? Cheat us? After we give up eight years of our lives? No. They'll give us the bonuses."
The more we thought about it, the better that sounded. I went to sleep thinking about which of the gadgets and what-you-call 'ems I'd seen could be carried back, and what among them seemed the most valuable, and had my first pleasant dreams since we had tested the thruster-
And woke up with Janine's urgent whisper in my ear. "Pop? Paul? Lurvy? Can you hear me?"
I swam up to a sitting position and looked around. She wasn't speaking in my ear; it was my radio. Lurvy was awake beside me, and Payter came hurrying around a corner to join us, their radios going too. I said, "We hear you, Janine. What..."
"Shut up!" the whisper came, hissing out with white sound as though her lips were pressed against the microphone. "Don't answer me, just listen. There's someone here."
We stared at each other. Lurvy whispered, "Where are you?"
"I said shut up! I'm out at the far docking area, you know? Where we found that food. I was looking for something we could bring back with us, like Pop said, only-"Well, I saw something on the floor. Like an apple, only it wasn't-kind of reddish brown on the outside and green on the inside, and it smelled like...I don't know what it smelled like. Strawberries. And it wasn't any hundred thousand years old, either. It was fresh. And I heard-wait a minute."
We did not dare answer, just listened to her breathing for a moment. When she spoke again her whisper sounded scared. "It's coming this way. It's between me and you, and I'm stuck. I-keep thinking it's a Heechee, and it's going to be..."
Her voice stopped. We heard her gasp; then, out loud, "Don't you come any closer!"
I had heard enough. "Let's go," I said, jumping toward the corridor. Payter and Lurvy were right behind me as we hurried in long, swimming leaps down the blue-walled tunnel. When we got near the docks we stopped, looking around irresolutely.
Before we could make a decision on which way to search, Janine's voice came again. It was neither whisper nor terrified cry. "He-he stopped when I told him," she said unbelievingly. "And I don't think he's a Heechee. He looks like just an ordinary person to me-well, kind of scruffy. He's just standing there staring at me, kind of sniffing the air."
"Janine!" I shouted into the radio. "We're at the docks-which way from here?"
Pause. Then, strangely, a kind of shocked giggle. "Just keep coming straight," she said shakily. "Come on quick. You-you wouldn't believe what he's doing now!"


далее: 3 WAN IN LOVE >>
назад: 1 WAN <<

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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