<< Главная страница


Essie and I were water-skiing on the Tappan Sea when my neck radio buzzed to tell me that a stranger had turned up on the Food Factory. I ordered the boat to turn immediately and take us back to the long stretch of waterfront property owned by Robin Broadhead, Inc. before I told Essie what it was. "A boy, Robin?" she shouted over the noise of the hydrogen motor and the wind. "Where in hell a boy comes to Food Factory?"
"That's what we have to find out," I yelled back. The boat skillfully snaked us in to shallow water and waited while we jumped out and ran up the grass. When it recognized that we were gone, it purred down the shoreline to put itself away.
Wet as we were, we ran directly to the brain room. We had begun to get opticals already, and the holo tank showed a skinny, scraggly youth wearing a sort of divided kilt and a dirty tunic. He did not seem threatening in any way, but he sure as hell had no right to be there. "Voice," I ordered, and the moving lips began to speak-queer, shrill, high-pitched, but good enough English to understand:
"From the main station, yes. It is about seven seven-days...weeks, I mean. I come here often."
"For God's sake, how?" I could not see the speaker, but it was male and had no accent: Paul Hall.
"In a ship, to be sure. Do you not have a ship? The Dead Men speak only of traveling in ships, I do not know any other way."
"Incredible," said Essie over my shoulder. She backed away, not taking her eyes off the tank, and came back with a terrycloth robe to throw over my shoulders and one for herself. "What do you suppose is 'main station'?"
"I wish to God I knew. Harriet?"
The voices from the tank grew fainter, and my secretary's voice said, "Yes, Mr. Broadhead?"
"When did he get there?"
"About seventeen point four minutes ago, Mr. Broadhead. Plus transit time from the Food Factory, of course. He was discovered by Janine Herter. She did not appear to have had a camera with her, so we received only voice until one of the other members of the party arrived." As soon as she stopped speaking the voice from the figure in the tank came up again; Harriet is a very good program, one of Essie's best.
"...sorry if I behaved improperly," the boy was saying. Pause. Then, old Peter Herter:
"Never mind that, by God. Are there other people on this main station?"
The boy pursed his lips. "That," he said philosophically, "would depend, would it not, on how one defines 'person'? In the sense of a living organism of our species, no. The closest is the Dead Men."
A woman's voice-Dorema Herter-Hall. "Are you hungry? Do you need anything?"
"No, why should I?"
"Harriet? What's that about behaving improperly?" I asked. Harriet's voice came hesitantly. "He, uh, he brought himself to orgasm, Mr. Broadhead. Right in front of Janine Herter."
I couldn't help it, I broke out laughing. "Essie," I said to my wife, "I think you made her a little too ladylike." But that wasn't what I was laughing at. It was the plain incongruity of the thing. I had guessed-anything. Anything but this: a Heechee, a space pirate, Martians-God knows what, but not a horny teen-aged boy.

There was a scrabble of steel claws from behind and something jumped on my shoulder. "Down, Squiffy," I snapped.
Essie said, "Just let him nuzzle neck for a minute. He'll go away."
"He isn't dainty in his personal habits," I snarled. "Can't we get rid of him?"
"Na, na, galubka," she said soothingly, patting the top of my head as she got up. "Want Full Medical, don't you? Squiffy comes along." She kissed me and wandered out of the room, leaving me to think about the thing that, to my somewhat surprise, was making all sorts of tiny but discomforting stirrings inside me. To see a Heechee! Well, we hadn't-but what if we did?
When the first Venus explorers discovered the traces the Heechee had left, glowing blue-lined empty tunnels, spindle-shaped caves, it was a shock. A few artifacts, another shock-what were they? There were the scrolls of metal somebody named "prayer fans" (but did the Heechee pray, and if so to whom?) There were the glowing little beads called "fire pearls", but they weren't pearls, and they weren't burning. Then someone found the Gateway asteroid, and the biggest shock of all, because on it were a couple of hundred working spaceships. Only you couldn't direct them. You could get in and go, and that was it... and what you found when you got there was shock, shock, shock, shock.
I knew. I had had the shocks, on my three silly missions-No. Two silly missions. And then one terribly unsilly one. It had made me rich and deprived me of somebody I loved, and what is silly about either of those things?
And ever since then the Heechee, dead half a million years, not even a written word left to tell what they were up to, had permeated every part of our world. It was all questions, and not very many answers. We didn't even know what they called themselves, certainly not "Heechee", because that was just a name the explorers made up for them. We had no idea what these remote and godlike creatures called themselves. But we didn't know what God called Himself, either. Jehovah, Jupiter, Baal, Allah-those were names people made up. Who knew by what name He was known to His buddies?
I was trying to let myself feel what I might have felt if the stranger in the Food Factory had actually been Heechee when the toilet flushed, Essie came out and Squiffy made a dash for the bowl. There are indignities to having Full Medical coverage, and a mobile bio-assay unit is one of them.
"You are wasting my program time!" Essie scolded, and I realized that Harriet had been sitting patiently in the tank, waiting to be told to get on with her information about the other claims on my attention. The report from the Food Factory was all being taped and stored in any case, so Essie went to her own office to deal with her own priorities, I told Harriet to start the cook on lunch, and then I let her do her secretarial duties.
"You have an appointment to testify before the Senate Ways and Means Committee tomorrow morning, Mr. Broadhead."
"I know. I'll be there."
"You're due for your next checkup this weekend. Shall I confirm the appointment?"
That's one of the penalties of Full Medical, and besides Essie insists-she's twenty years younger than I, and reminds me of it. "All right, let's get it over with."
"You are being sued by one Hanson Bover, and Morton wants to talk to you about it. Your consolidated statement for the quarter came in and is on your desk file-except for the food mine holdings, which will not be complete until tomorrow. And there are a number of minor messages-most of which I have already dealt with-for your review at your convenience."
"Thank you. That's all for now." The tank went transparent and I leaned back in my chair to think.
I didn't need to see the consolidated statement-I already pretty well knew what it would say. The real estate investments were performing nicely; the little bit I had left in sea farming was moving toward a record profit year. Everything was solid, except for the food mines. The last 130-day fever had cost us. I couldn't blame the guys in Cody, they weren't any more responsible than I was when the fever bit. But they had somehow let the thermal drilling get out of control, and five thousand acres of our shale were burning away underground. It had taken three months to get the mine back in operation at all, and we still didn't know what it was going to cost. no wonder their quarterly statement was late.
But that was only an annoyance, not a disaster. I was too well diversified to be killed by any one sector going bad. I wouldn't have been in the food mines except for Morton's advice; the extraction allowance made it a really good thing, tax-wise. (But I'd sold most of my sea-farming holdings to buy in.) Then Morton figured out that I still needed a tax shelter, so we started The Broadhead Institute for Extra-Solar Research. The Institute owns all my stock, but I vote it, and I vote it for what I want to do. I got us into the coownership with the Gateway Corporation that financed probes to four detected but unvisited Heechee-metal sources in or near the solar system, and one of them had been the Food Factory. As soon as they made contact we spun off a separate exploitation company to deal with it-and now it was looking really interesting.
"Harriet? Let me have the direct from the Food Factory again," I said. The holo sprang up, the boy still talking excitedly in his shrill, squeaky voice. I tried to catch the thread of what he was saying-something about a Dead Man (only it wasn't a man, because its name was Henrietta) speaking to him (so it wasn't dead?) about a Gateway mission she had been on (when? why hadn't I heard of her?). It was all perplexing, so I had a better idea. "Albert Einstein, please," I said, and the holo swirled to show the sweet old lined face peering at me.
"Yes, Robin?" said my science program, reaching for his pipe and tobacco as he almost always does when we talk.
"I'd like some best-guess estimates from you on the Food Factory and the boy that turned up there."
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, tamping the tobacco with his thumb. "The boy's name is Wan. He appears to be between fourteen and nineteen years of age, probably toward the young end of the spread, and I would guess that he is fully genetically human."
"Where does he come from?"
"Ah, that is conjectural, Robin. He speaks of a 'main station', presumably another Heechee artifact in some ways resembling Gateway, Gateway Two and the Food Factory itself, but without any self-evident function. There do not appear to be any other living humans there. He speaks of 'Dead Men', who appear to be some sort of computer program like myself, although it is not clear whether they may not in fact be quite different in origin. He also mentions living creatures he calls 'the Old Ones' or 'the frog-jaws'. He has little contact with them, in fact avoids it, and it is not clear where they come from."
I took a deep breath. "Heechee?"
"I don't know, Robin. I cannot even guess. By Occam's Razor one would conjecture that living non-humans occupying a Heechee artifact might well be Heechee-but there is no direct evidence. We have no idea what Heechee look like, you know."
I did know. It was a sobering thought that we might soon find out.
"Anything else? Can you tell me what's happening with the tests to bring the factory back?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, striking a match to the pipe. "But I'm afraid there's no good news. The object appears to be course-programmed and under full control. Whatever we do to it it counteracts."
It had been a close decision whether to leave the Food Factory out in the Oort cloud and somehow try to ship food back to Earth, or bring the thing itself in. Now it looked as though we had no choice. "Is there-do you think it's under Heechee control?"
"There is no way to be sure as yet. Narrowly, I would conjecture not. It appears to be an automatic response. However," he said, puffing on his pipe, "there is something encouraging. May I show you some visuals from the factory?"
"Please do," I said, but actually he hadn't waited; Albert is a courteous program, but also a smart one. He disappeared and I was looking at a scene of the boy, Wan, showing Peter Herter how to open what seemed to be a hatch in the wall of a passage. Out of it he was pulling floppy soft packages of something in bright red wrappings.
"Our assumption as to the nature of the artifact seems to be validated, Robin. Those are edible and, according to Wan, they are continually replenished. He has been living on them for most of his life and, as you see, appears to be in excellent health, basically-I am afraid he is catching a cold just now."
I looked at the clock over his shoulder-he always keeps it at the right time for my sake. "That's all for now, then. Keep me posted if anything that affects your conclusions turns up."
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, disappearing.
I started to get up. Talking of food reminded me that lunch should be about ready, and I was not only hungry, I had plans for an afterlunch break. I tied the robe around me-and then remembered the message about the lawsuit. Lawsuits are nothing special in any rich man's life, but if Morton wanted to talk to me I probably ought to listen.
He responded at once, sitting at his desk, leaning forward earnestly. "We're being sued, Robin," he said. "The Food Factory Exploitation Corp., the Gateway Corp., plus Paul Hall, Dorema Herter-Hall and Peter Herter, both in propria persona and as guardian for codefendant Janine Herter. Plus the Foundation and you personally."
"I seem to have a lot of company, at least. Do I have to worry?" Pause. Thoughtfully, "I think you might, a little. The suit is from Hanson Bover. Trish's husband, or widower, depending on how you look at it." Morton was shimmering a little. It's a defect in his program, and Essie keeps wanting to fix it-but it doesn't affect his legal ability and I kind of like it. "He has got himself declared conservator of Trish Bover's assets, and on the basis of her first landing on the Food Factory he wants a full mission completed share of whatever comes out of it."
That wasn't too funny. Even if we couldn't move the damn thing, with the new developments that bonus might be quite a lot. "How can he do that? She signed the standard contract, didn't she? So all we have to do is produce the contract. She didn't come back, therefore she doesn't get a share."
"That's the way to go if we wind up in court, yes, Robin. But there are one or two rather ambiguous precedents. Maybe not even ambiguous-her lawyer thinks they're good, even if they are a little old. The most important one was a guy who signed a fifty-thousand-dollar contract to do a tightrope walk over Niagara Falls. no performance, no pay. He fell off halfway. The courts held that he had given the performance, so they had to pay up."
"That's crazy, Morton!"
"That's the case law, Robin. But I only said you might have to worry a little. I think probably we're all right, I'm just not sure we're all right. We have to file an appearance within two days. Then we'll see how it goes."
"All right. Shimmer away, Morton," I said, and got up, because by now I was absolutely sure it was time for lunch. In fact, Essie was just coming through the door, and, to my disappointment, she was fully dressed.
Essie is a beautiful woman, and one of the joys of being married to her for five years is that every year she looks better to me than the year before. She put her arm around my neck as we walked toward the dining porch and turned her head to look at me. "What's matter, Robin?" she asked.
"Nothing's the matter, dear S. Ya.," I said. "Only I was planning to invite you to shower with me after lunch."
"You are randy old goat, old man," she said severely. "What is wrong with showering after dark, when we will then naturally and inevitably go to bed?"
"By dark I have to be in Washington. And tomorrow you're off to Tucson for your conference, and this weekend I have to go for my medical. It doesn't matter, though."
She sat down at the table. "You are also pitifully bad liar," she observed. "Eat quickly, old man. One cannot take too many showers, after all."
I said, "Do you know, Essie, that you are a thoroughly sensual creature? It's one of your finest traits."
The quarterly statement on my food mines holdings was on my desk file in my Washington suite before breakfast. It was even worse than I had expected; at least two million dollars had burned up under the Wyoming hills, and another fifty thousand or so more was smoldering away every day until they got the fire all out. If they ever did. It did not mean I was in trouble, but it might mean that a certain amount of easy credit would no longer be easy. And not only did I know it, but by the time I got to the Senate hearing room it appeared that all of Washington knew it too. I testified quickly, along the same lines I had testified before, and when I was through Senator Praggler recessed the hearing and took me out to brunch. "I can't figure you out, Robin," he said. "Didn't your fire change your mind about anything?"
"No, why should it? I'm talking about the long pull."
He shook his head. "Here's somebody with a sizeable position in food mine stocks-you-begging for higher taxes on the mines! Doesn't make sense."
I explained it to him all over again. Taken as a whole, the food mines could easily afford to allocate, say, ten percent of their gross to restoring the Rockies after scooping out the shale. But no company could afford to do it on its own. If we did it, we'd just lose any competitive position, we'd be undersold by everybody else. "So if you put through the amendment, Tim," I said, "we'll all be forced to do it. Food prices will go up, yes-but not a lot. My accountants say no more than eight or nine dollars a year, per person. And we'll have an almost unspoiled countryside again."
He laughed. "You're a weird one. With all your do-gooding, and with your money, not to mention those things..." he nodded at the Out bangles I still wore on my arm, three of them, signifying three missions that had each scared the hell out of me when I earned them as a Gateway prospector, "why don't you run for the Senate?"
"Don't want to, Tim. Besides, if I ran from New York I'd be running against you or Sheila, and I don't want to do that. I don't spend enough time in Hawaii to make a dent. And I'm not going to move back to Wyoming."
He patted me on the shoulder. "Just this once," he said, "I'm going to use a little old-fashioned political muscle. I'll try to get your amendment through for you, Robin, though God knows what your competitors are going to do to try to stop it."
After I left him I dawdled back to the hotel. There was no particular reason to hurry back to New York, with Essie in Tucson, so I decided to spend the rest of the day in my hotel suite in Washington-a bad decision, as it turned out, but I didn't know that then. I was thinking about whether I minded being called a "do-gooder" or not. My old psychoanalyst had helped me along to a point where I didn't mind taking credit for things I thought deserved credit, but most of what I did I did for me. The revegetation amendment wouldn't cost me a dime; we'd make it up in raising prices, as I had explained. The money I put into space might pay off in dollar profits-probably would, I figured-but anyway it was going there because space was where my money had come from. And besides, I had some unfinished business out there. Somewhere. I sat by my window on the penthouse floor of the hotel, forty-five stories up, looking toward the Capitol and the Washington Monument, and wondered if my unfinished business was still alive. I hoped so. Even if she was hating me still.
Thinking about my unfinished business made me think of Essie, by now arriving in Tucson, and that gave me a twinge of worry. We were about due for another attack of the 130-day fever. I hadn't thought about that early enough. I didn't like the idea of her being three thousand kilometers away, in case it was a bad one. And, although I am not a jealous person, even if it was a mild, but lecherous and orgiastic one, as they seemed to be becoming more and more frequently, I really preferred that she be lecherous and orgiastic with me.
Why not? I called Harriet and had her make me reservations on an afternoon flight to Tucson. I could conduct my business as well from there as anywhere else, if not quite as comfortably. And then I started conducting some of it. Albert first. There was nothing significantly new, he said, except that the boy seemed to be developing a bad cold. "We've instructed the Herten-Hall party to administer standard antibiotics and symptom-suppressants," he told me, "but they will not receive the message for some weeks, of course."
He frowned, puffing at his pipe. "Wan has never been exposed to most viruses and bacteria," he said, "so I can't make any definite statement. But, no, I would hope not. In any case, the expedition has medical supplies and equipment capable of dealing with most pathologies."
"Do you know anything more about him?"
"A great deal, but not anything that changes my previous estimates, Robin." Puff, puff. "His mother was Hispanic and his father American-Anglo, and they were both Gateway prospectors. Or so it would seem. So, apparently, in some way, were the personalities he refers to as the 'Dead Men,' although it is still unclear just what those are."
"Albert," I said, "look up some old Gateway missions, at least ten years back. See if you can find one that had an American and a Hispanic woman on it-and didn't come back."
"Sure thing, Bob." Some day I must tell him to change to a snappier vocabulary, but actually he works very well as he is. He said almost at once, "There is no such mission. However, there was a launch which contained a pregnant Hispanic woman, still unreported. Shall I display the specs?"
"Sure thing, Albert," I said, but he is not programmed to pick up that sort of nuance. The specs didn't tell much. I hadn't known the woman; she was before my time. But she had taken a One out after surviving a mission in which her husband and the other three crew members had been killed in a Five. And had never been heard of again. The mission was a simple go-out-and-see-what-you-get. What she had got had been a baby, in some strange place.
"That doesn't account for Wan's father, does it?"
"No, Robin, but perhaps he was on another mission. If we assume that the Dead Men are in some way related to unreturned missions, there must have been several."
I said, "Are you suggesting that the Dead Men are actual prospectors?"
"Sure thing, Robin."
"But how? You mean their brains might have been preserved?"
"Doubt it, Robin," he said, rekindling his pipe thoughtfully. "There's insufficient data, but I'd say whole-brain storage is no more than a point-one probability."
"Then what are the other points?"
"Perhaps a readout of the chemical storage of memory-not a high probability, perhaps put it at point-three. Which is still the highest probability we've got. Voluntary interface on the part of the subjects-for instance, if they talked all their memories onto tape somehow-really low. Point-zero zero one, tops. Direct mental link-what you might call telepathy of some sort-about the same. Means unknown, point-five plus. Of course, Robin," he added hurriedly, "you realize that all of these estimates are based on insufficient data and on inadequate hypotheses."
"I suppose you'd do better if you could talk to the Dead Men direct"
"Sure thing, Bob. and I am about to request such a hookup through the Herter-Hall shipboard computer, but it needs careful programming beforehand. It is not a very good computer, Robin." He hesitated. "Uh, Robin? There is one other interesting thing."
"What's that?"
"As you know, several large ships were docked at the Food Factory when it was discovered. It has been under frequent observation since, and the number of ships remained the same-not counting the Herter-Hall ship and the one in which Wan arrived two days ago, of course. But it is not certain they are the same ships."
"It isn't certain, Robin," he emphasized. "One Heechee ship looks very much like another. But careful scan of the approach photos seems to show a different orientation on the part of at least one of the large ones. Possibly all three. As though the ships that were there had left, and new ones had docked."
A cold feeling went up and down my spine. "Albert," I said, finding it hard to get the words out, "do you know what that suggests to me?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said solemnly, "it suggests that the Food Factory is still in operation. That it is converting the cometary gases to CHON-food. And sending them somewhere."
I swallowed hard, but Albert was still talking. "Also," he said, "there is quite a lot of ionizing radiation in the environment I have to admit I don't know where it comes from."
"Is that dangerous to the Herter-Halls?"
"No, Robin, I would say not. no more than, say, piezovision broadcasts are to you. It is not the risk, it is that I am puzzled about the source."
"Can't you ask the Herter-Halls to check?"
"Sure thing, Robin. I already have. But it'll take fifty days to get the answer."
I dismissed him and leaned back in my chair to think about the Heechee and their queer ways..
And then it hit.
My desk chairs are all built to maximum comfort and stability, but this time I almost tipped it over. In a split second, I was in pain. Not just in pain; I was dizzy, disoriented, even hallucinating. My head felt as though it were about to burst, and my lungs seared like flame. I had never felt so sick, in both mind and body, and at the same time I found myself fantasizing incredible feats of sexual athletics.
I tried to get up, and couldn't. I flopped back in the chair, absolutely helpless. "Harriet!" I croaked. "Get a doctor!"
It took her a full three seconds to respond, and then her image wavered worse than Morton. "Mr. Broadhead," she said, looking queerly worried, "I cannot account for it, but the circuits are all busy. I... I... I..." It was not just her voice repeating, her head and body looked like a short loop of video tape, over and over shaping the same beginning of a word and snapping back to begin it again.
I fell off the chair onto the floor, and my last coherent thought was:
The fever.
It was back. Worse than I had ever felt it before. Worse, perhaps, than I could live through, and so bad, so painful, so terrifyingly, psychotically strange that I was not sure I wanted to.

далее: 5 JANINE >>
назад: 3 WAN IN LOVE <<

Фредерик Пол. За синим горизонтом событий (ENGL)
   1 WAN

На главную