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Less than two hours-the fever had never been so short before. Nor had it ever been as intense. The most susceptible one percent of the population had simply been out of it for four hours, and nearly everyone had been severely affected.
I was one of the lucky ones, because after the fever I was only stuck in my room, with nothing more than a bump on the head from falling over. I wasn't trapped in a wrecked bus, crashed out of a jet-liner, struck by a runaway car, or bleeding to death on an operating table while surgeons and nurses writhed helplessly on the floor. All I had was one hour, fifty-one minutes and forty-four seconds of delirious misery, and that diluted because it was shared with eleven billion other people.
Of course, everybody in all those eleven billion was trying to get in touch with everybody else, all at once, and so communications were jammed for fair. Harriet formed herself in the tank to tell me that at least twenty-five calls were coming in for me-my science program, my legal program, three or four accountancy programs from my holdings, and quite a few real, live people. None of them, she told me apologetically when I asked, was Essie; the circuits to Tucson were out entirely at the moment, and I couldn't place a call from my end either. None of the machines had been affected by the madness. They never were. The only time something went wrong with them was when some live person had injected himself into the circuit, for maintenance or redesign. But, as statistically that was happening a million times a minute, somewhere in the world, with some machine or another, it was not surprising that some things took a little while to get going again.
First order of business was business; I had to pick up the pieces. I gave Harriet a hierarchy of priorities, and she began feeding me reports. Quick bulletin from the food mines: no significant damage. Real estate: some minor incidents of fire and flooding, nothing that mattered. Someone had left a barrier open in the fish factories and six hundred million fingerlings swam out to lose themselves in the open sea; but I was only a minority stockholder in them anyway. Taken all in all, I had come out of the fever smelling of roses, I thought, or anyway a lot better than a lot of others. The fever had struck the Indian subcontinent after midnight of a day that already had seen one of the worst hurricanes the Bay of Bengal had produced in fifty years. The death toll was immense. Rescue efforts had simply stopped for two hours. Tens, maybe even hundreds, of millions of people had been simply unable to drag themselves to high ground, and southern Bangladesh was a swamp of corpses. Add in a refinery explosion in California, a train wreck in Wales, and a few as yet uncatalogued disasters-the computers did not yet have an estimate of deaths, but the news reports were calling it the worst ever.
By the time I had taken all the urgent-urgent calls the elevators were running again. I wasn't a captive any more. Looking out the window, I could see the Washington streets were normal enough. My trip to Tucson, on the other hand, was well bollixed. Since half the jets in the air had been on automatic pilot for two hours, seriously depleting their fuel, they had been landing where they could, and the lines had equipment in all sorts of wrong places. The schedules were scrambled. Harriet booked me the best she could, but the first space she could confirm was not until noon the next day. I couldn't even call Essie, because the circuits were still jammed. That was only an annoyance, not a problem. If I really wanted to get through, there were priorities at my disposal-the rich have their perks. But the rich have their pleasures, too, and I decided it would be fun to surprise Essie by dropping in on her.
And meanwhile I had time to spare.
And all this time my science program had been bursting with things to tell me. That was the dessert after the spinach and liver. I had put it off until I had a chance for a good, long natter; and that time had arrived, "Harriet," I said, "put him on." And Albert Einstein took form in the tank, leaning forward and twitching with excitement. "What is it, Al," I asked, "something good?"
"Sure thing, Robin! We've found out where the fever comes from-it's the Food Factory!"

It was my own fault. If I had let Albert tell me what was on his mind at once, I wouldn't have been just about the last person on Earth to find out that I owned the place all the trouble came from. That was the first thing that hit me, and I was thinking about possible liability and sniffing for advantages all the time he was explaining the evidence to me. First and conclusive, of course, was the on-the-spot pickup from the Food Factory itself. But we should have known all along. "If I had only timed the Onsets carefully," Albert berated himself, "we could have located the source years ago. And there were plenty of other clues, consistent with their photonic nature."
"Their what nature?"
"They are electromagnetic, Robin," he explained. He tamped tobacco into his pipe and reached for a match. "You realize, of course, that this is established by transmission time-we received whatever signal caused the madness at the same time as the transmission showing it happening."
"Wait a minute. If the Heechee have faster-than-light radio, why isn't this the same?"
"Ah, Robin! If we only knew that!" he twinkled, lighting his pipe. "I can only conjecture..." puff, puff, "that this particular effect is not compatible with their other mode of transmission, but the reasons for that I cannot even speculate on at this time. And, of course," he went on, "there are certain questions raised at once to which we do not as yet have any answers."
"Of course," I said, but I didn't ask him what they were. I was on the track of something else. "Albert? Display the ships and stations you drew information from in space."
"Sure thing, Robin." The flyaway hair and the seamed, cheerful face melted away, and at once the holographic tank filled with a representation of circumsolar space. Nine planets. A girdle of dust that was the asteroid belt, and a powdery shell far out that was the Oort cloud. And about forty points of colored light. The representation was in logarithmic scale, to get it all in, and the size of the planets and artifacts immensely enlarged. Albert's voice explained, "The four green ships are ours, Robin. The eleven blue objects are Heechee installations; the round ones are only detected, the star-shaped ones have been visited and are mostly manned. All the others are ships that belong to other commercial interests, or to governments."
I studied the plot. Not very many of the sparks were anywhere near the green ship and blue star that marked the Food Factory. "Albert? If somebody had to get another ship out to the Food Factory, which one could get there fastest?"
He appeared in the lower corner of the projection, frowning and sucking his pipe stem. A golden point near Saturn's rings began to flash on and off. "There's a Brazilian cruiser just departing Tethys that could make it in eighteen months," he said. "I have displayed only the ships that were involved in my radiolocation. There are several others..." new lights winked on in a scatter around the tank, "that could do better, provided they have adequate fuel and supplies. But none in less than a year."
I sighed. "Turn it off, Albert," I said. "The thing is, we're into something I didn't expect."
"What's that, Robin?" he asked, filling the tank again and folding his hands over his belly in a comfortable way.
"That cocoon. I don't know how to handle it. I don't even see the point of it. What's it for, Albert? Have you got any conjectures?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, nodding cheerfully. "My best conjectures are a pretty low order of probability, but that's just because there are so many unknowns. Let's put it this way. Suppose you were a Heechee-something like an anthropologist, say-interested in keeping an eye on a developing civilization. Evolution takes a long time, so you don't want to just sit there and watch. What you'd like to do is get a quick estimate, maybe every thousand years or so, sort of a spot check. Well, given something like the cocoon, you could just send somebody over to the Food Factory every once in a while, maybe every thousand years or more; climb in the couch, get an instant feel for what was happening. It would take only minutes." He paused consideringly for a moment, before going on. "Then-but this is a speculation on top of a conjecture; I wouldn't even assign a probability rating to it at all-then, if you found anything interesting, you could explore further. You could even do something else. This is really far out, Robin. You might even suggest things. The cocoon transmits as well as receives, that's what the fevers came from. Perhaps it can also transmit concepts. We know that in human history many of the great inventions sprang up all over the world, apparently independently, maybe simultaneously. Are they Heechee suggestions, via the couch?"
He sat there, puffing his pipe and smiling at me, while I thought about that.

All the thinking in the world didn't make it good, clean fun. Thrilling, maybe. But nothing you could relax to. The world had changed in fundamental ways since the first astronauts discovered Heechee diggings on Venus, and the more we explored the bigger the changes got. A lost kid, playing with something he didn't understand, had plunged the whole human race into recurring madness for more than a decade. If we kept on playing with things we didn't understand, what were the Heechee going to give us for an encore?
To say nothing of the queasiness of Albert's suggestion that these creatures had been spying on us for hundreds of thousands of years-maybe even throwing us a crumb, now and then, to see what we would make of it.
I told Albert to bring me up to date on everything else he knew about what was going on in the Food Factory, and while he was running through the physical facts I called up Harriet. She appeared in one corner of the tank, looking questioning, and took my order for dinner while Albert kept right on with his show and tell. He was continuously monitoring all the transmissions even as he was reporting on them, and be showed me selected scenes of the boy, the Herter-Hall party, the interiors of the artifact. The damn thing was still determined to go its own way. Best course estimates suggested that it was moving toward a new cluster of comets, several million miles away-at present rates, it would get there in a few months. "Then what?" I demanded.
Albert shrugged apologetically. "Presumably it will then stay there until it has mined them of all the CHON ingredients, Robin."
"Then can we move it?"
"No evidence, Robin. But it's possible. Speaking of which, I have a theory about the controls of the Heechee ships. When one of them reaches an operating artifact-the Food Factory, Gateway, whatever-its controls unlock and it can then be redirected. At any rate, I think that may be what happened to Ms. Patricia Bover-and that, too, has certain obvious implications," he twinkled.
I don't like to let a computer program think it's smarter than I am. "You mean that there may be a lot of stranded Gateway astronauts all over the Galaxy, because their controls unlocked and they didn't know how to get back?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said approvingly. "That may account for what Wan calls the 'Dead Men'. We've received some conversations with them, by the way. Their responses are sometimes quite nonrational, and of course we're handicapped by not being able to interact. But it does appear that they are, or were, human beings."
"Are you telling me they were alive?"
"Sure thing, Robin, or at least in the sense that Enrico Caruso's voice on a tape was once the voice of a living Neapolitan tenor. Whether they are 'alive' now is a matter of definition. You might ask the same question..." puff, pull, "about me."
"Huh." I thought for a minute. "Why are they so crazy?"
"Imperfect transcription, I would say. But that is not the important thing." I waited until he drew on his pipe to get ready to tell me the important thing. "It seems rather sure, Robin, that the transcription occurred by some sort of chemical readout of the actual brains of the prospectors."
"You mean the Heechee killed them and poured their brains into a bottle?"
"Certainly not, Robin! First, I would hazard the opinion that the prospectors died naturally rather than being killed. That would degrade the chemistry of brain storage and contribute to the degradation of the information. And certainly not into a bottle! Into some sort of chemical analogs, perhaps. But the point is, how did this happen to be?"
I groaned. "Do you want me to abolish your program, Al? I could get all this quicker from straight visual synoptics."
"Sure thing you could, Robin, but not," he twinkled, "perhaps, as entertainingly. At any rate, the question is, how did the Heechee happen to have equipment to read out a human brain? Think about it, Robin. It seems very improbable that the chemistry of the Heechee would be the same as the chemistry of a human being. Close, yes. We know that from general considerations, e. g., what they breathed and ate. Fundamentally their chemistry was not unlike ours. But peptides are quite complex molecules. It seems most unlikely that a compound which represents, e. g., the ability to play a Stradivarius well, or even toilet-training, would be the same in their chemistry as in ours." He started to relight his pipe, then caught my eye and added hurriedly, "So I conclude, Robin, that these machines were designed not for Heechee brains."
He startled me. "For humans, then? But why? How? How did they know? When..."
"Please, Robin. At your instructions, your wife has programmed me to make large deductions from small data. Therefore I cannot defend all that I say. But," he added, nodding sagely, "I have this opinion, yes."
"Jesus," I said. He did not seem to want to add anything to that, so I tucked it away and went on to the next worry. "What about the Old Ones? Are they human, do you think?"
He tapped his pipe out and reached for the tobacco pouch. "I would say not," he said at last.
I didn't ask him what the alternative was. I didn't want to hear it.
When Albert had run himself dry for the moment, I told Harriet to put my legal program on. I couldn't talk to him right away, though, because right then my dinner came up and the waiter was a human being. He wanted to ask me how I had got through the fever, so that he could tell me how he had, and that took time. But at last I sat down in front of the holo tank, sliced into my chicken steak and said, "Go ahead, Morton, what's the bad news?"
He said apologetically, "You know that Bover suit?"
"What Bover suit?"
"Trish Bover's husband. Or widower, depending on how you look at it. We filed the appearance, only unfortunately the judge had a bad attack of the fever and... Well. He is wrong in the law, Robin, but he denied our request for time to set a hearing date and entered summary judgment against."
I stopped chewing. "Can he do that?" I roared through my mouthful of prime rare chicken.
"Well, yes, or at least he did it. But we'll get him on appeal, only that makes it a little more complicated. Her lawyer got a chance to argue, and he pointed out that Trish did file a mission report. So there's some question whether she actually completed the mission, do you see? Meanwhile..."
Sometimes I think Morton is too humanly programmed; he does know how to draw out a discussion so. "Meanwhile what, Morton?"
"Well, since the recent, ah, episode, there seems to be another complication. Gateway Corp wants to go slow until they figure out just where they are with this fever business, so they've accepted service of an injunction. Neither you nor Food Factory Inc. is supposed to proceed with exploitation of the factory."
I blew up. "Shit, Mort! You mean we can't use it after we bring it all the way in from orbit?"
"I'm afraid I mean more than that," he apologized. "You're enjoined to stop moving it. You're enjoined to refrain from interfering with its normal activities in any way, pending a declarative judgment. That's Bover's action, on the grounds that if you prevent it from producing food by moving to a new comet cluster you're endangering his interest. Now, we can get that vacated, I'm sure. But by then Gateway Corp will have some sort of action to stop doing everything until they get a handle on the fever."
"Oh, God." I put down my fork. I wasn't hungry any more. "The only good thing," I said, "is that's an order they can't enforce."
"Because it will take so long to get a message to the Herter-Hall party, yes, Robin," he nodded. "On the..."
He disappeared, zit. He slid diagonally away out of the tank, and Harriet appeared. She looked terrible. I have good programs for my computer help. But they don't always bring good news. "Robin!" she cried. "There's a message from Mesa General Hospital in Arizona-it's your wife!"
"Essie? Essie? Is she sick?"
"Oh, worse than that, Robin. Total somatic cessation. She was killed in a car crash. They've got her on life support, but... There's no prognosis, Robin. She isn't responding."

I didn't use my priorities. I didn't want to take the time. I went straight to the Washington office of the Gateway Corp. who went to the Secretary of Defense, who squeezed space for me out of a hospital plane leaving Boiling in twenty-five minutes, and I made it.
The flight was three hours, and I was in suspended animation all the way. There were no comm facilities for passengers in the plane. I didn't even want them. I just wanted to get there. When my mother died and left me it hurt, but I was poor and confused and used to hurting. When the love of my life, or at any rate the woman who seemed to come to be the love of my life after she was safely gone, also left me-without quite dying, because she was stuck in some awful astrophysical anomaly and far out of reach forever-that also hurt. But I was hurting all over anyway then. I wasn't used to happiness, hadn't formed the habit of it. There is a Carnot law to pain. It is measured not by absolutes but the difference between source and ambience, and my ambience had been too safe and too pleasurable for too long to equip me for this. I was in shock.
Mesa General was a low-rise, dug into the desert outside Tucson. All you could see as we came up to it were the solar installations on the "roof," but under them were six subterranean floors of hospital rooms, labs, and operating theaters. They were all full. Tucson is a commuting city, and the madness had struck at drive time.
When I finally got a floor nurse to stop and answer a question, what I heard was that Essie was still on the heart-lung, but might be taken off at any moment. It was a question of triage. The machines might better be used for other patients, whose chances were better than hers.
I am shamed to say how fast conceptions of fairness went out the window when it was my own wife who was on the machines. I hunted out a doctor's office-he wouldn't be using it for some time-kicked out the insurance adjustor who had borrowed his desk and got on the wires. I had two senators on the line at once before Harriet broke in with a report from our medical program.
Essie's pulse had begun to respond. They now thought her chances were good enough to justify giving her the additional chance of staying on the machines for a while.
Of course, Full Medical helped. But the waiting room outside had all its benches full of people waiting for treatment, and I could see from the neck-bands that some of them were Full Medical too; the hospital was simply swamped.
I could not get in to see her. Intensive Care was no Visitors, and no visitors meant not even me; there was a Tucson city policeman at the door, forcing himself to stay awake after a very long, hard day and feeling mean. I fiddled with the absent doctor's desk set until I found a closed-circuit line that looked into Intensive Care, and I just left it on. I couldn't see how well Essie was doing. I couldn't even tell for sure which mummy she was. But I kept looking at it. Harriet called in from time to time to pass on little news items. She didn't bother with messages of sympathy and concern; there were plenty of those, but Essie had written me a Robinette Broadhead program to deal with social time-wasters, and Harriet gave callers an image and a worried smile and a thank you without bothering to cut me in to the circuit. Essie had been very good at that kind of programming. Past tense. When I realized I was thinking of a past-tense Essie is when I felt really bad.
After an hour a Gray Lady found me and gave me bouillon and crackers, and a little later I spent forty-five minutes in line for the public men's room; and that was about all the diversion I had on the third floor of Mesa General until, at last, a candystriper poked her head in the door and said, "Senor Broad'ead? Por favor." The cop was still at the door of Intensive Care, fanning himself with his sweaty Stetson to stay awake, but with the candy-striper leading me firmly by the hand he did not interfere.
Essie was under a positive-pressure bubble. There was a transparent patch just at her face, so that I could see a tube coming out of her nostril and a wad of bandaging over the left side of her face. Her eyes were closed. They had bundled her dirty-gold hair into a net. She was not conscious.
Two minutes was all they allowed, and that wasn't enough time for anything. Not enough even to figure out what all the lumpy, bulky objects under the translucent part of her bubble were all about. Not enough at all for Essie to sit up and talk to me or to change expression. Or even to have one.
In the hall outside, her doctor gave me sixty seconds. He was a short, pot-bellied old black man wearing blue-eyed contact lenses, and he looked at a piece of paper to see who it was he was talking to. "Oh, yes, Mr. Blackhead," he said. "Your wife is receiving the best of care, she is responding to treatment, there is some chance she will be conscious for a short time toward evening."
I didn't bother to correct him about the name and picked the three top questions on the list: "Will she be in pain? What happened to her? Is there anything she needs? -I mean anything."
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Evidently the contacts had been in too long. "Pain we can take care of, and she's already on Full Medical. I understand you are an important man, Mr. Brackett. But there is nothing for you to do. Tomorrow or the next day, maybe there'll be something she'll need. Today, no. Her whole left side was crushed when the bus folded in on her. She was bent almost double and stayed that way for six or seven hours, until somebody got to her."
I didn't know I had made a sound, but the doctor heard something. A little sympathy came through the contact lenses as he peered up at me. "That was actually to her advantage, you know. It probably saved her life. Being squeezed was as good as compression pads, otherwise she would have bled to death." He blinked down at the scrap of paper in his hand. "Um. She's going to need, let me see, a new hip joint. Splints to replace two ribs. Eight, ten, fourteen-maybe twenty square inches of new skin, and there's considerable tissue loss to the left kidney. I think we'll want a transplant."
"If there's anything at all..."
"Nothing at all, Mr. Blackeu," he said, folding up the paper. "Nothing now. Go away, please. Come back after six if you want to, and you may be able to talk to her for a minute. But right now we need the space you're taking up."

Harriet had already arranged for the hotel to move Essie's things out of her room and into a penthouse suite, and she had even ordered and had delivered toilet stuff and a couple of changes of clothing. I holed up there. I didn't want to go out. I didn't enjoy seeing the cheerful tipplers in the lobby bar, or the streets full of people who had got safely through the fever and wanted to tell each other what a close thing it had been for them.
I made myself eat. Then I made myself sleep. I succeeded in that much, but not in staying asleep very long. I took a long, hot whirly bath and played some music for background; it was actually quite a nice hotel. But when they went from Stravinsky to Carl Orff that lusty, horny Catullus poetry made me think about the last time I had played it with my lusty, horny, and, at the moment, seriously broken-up wife.
"Turn it off," I snapped and ever-vigilant Harriet stopped it in midshriek.
"Do you want to receive messages, Robin?" she inquired froth the same audio speaker.
I dried myself carefully, and then said: "In a minute. I might as well." Dried, brushed, in clean clothes, I sat down in front of the hotel's comm system. They weren't quite nice enough to give their guests full holo, but Harriet looked familiar enough as she peered at me out of a flat-plate display. She reassured me about Essie. She was continuously monitoring, and everything was going well enough-not far enough, of course. But not badly. Essie's own real flesh-and-blood doctor was in the picture, and Harriet gave me a taped message from her. It translated to don't worry, Robin. Or, more accurately, don't worry quite as much as you think you ought to.
Harriet had a batch of action messages for me to deal with. I authorized another half-million dollars for fire-fighting in the food mines, instructed Morton to get a hearing time with the Gateway Corp for our man in Brasilia, told my broker what to sell to give me a little more liquidity as a hedge against unreported fever losses. Then I let the most interesting programs report in, finishing with Albert's latest synoptic from the Food Factory. I did all this, you understand, with great clarity and efficiency. I had accepted the fact that Essie's chances of survival were measurably improving all the time, so I didn't need to spare any energy for grief. And I had not, entirely, allowed myself to understand how many gobbets of flesh and bone had been gouged out of my love's lovely body, and that saved me all sorts of expenditures, for emotions I did not want to explore.

There was a time when I went through several long years of shrinkery, in the course of which I found out a lot of places inside my head that I didn't much like having there. That's okay. Once you take them out and look at them-well, they're pretty bad, but at least they're outside, now, not still inside and poisoning your system. My old psychiatric program, Sigfrid von Shrink, said it was like moving your bowels.
He was right, far as he went-one of the things I found unlikeable about Sigfrid was that he was infuriatingly reliably right, all too much of the time. What he didn't say was that you never got finished moving your bowels. I kept coming up with new excreta, and, you know, no matter how much of it you encounter, you never get to liking it.
I turned Harriet off, except for standby in case of something urgent, and watched some piezovision comedies for a while. I made myself a drink out of the suite's adequate wet bar, and then I made another. I wasn't watching the PV, and I wasn't enjoying the drink. What I was doing was encountering another great glob of fecal matter coming out of my head. My dearest beloved wife was lying all beaten and broken in Intensive Care, and I was thinking about somebody else.
I turned off the tap-dancers and called for Albert Einstein. He popped onto the plate, his white hair flying and his old pipe in his hand. "What can I do for you, Robin?" he beamed.
"I want you to talk to me about black holes," I said.
"Sure thing, Robin. But we've been over this a goad many times, you know..."
"Fuck off, Albert! Just do it. And I don't mean in mathematics, I just want you to explain them as simply as you can." One of these days I would have to get Essie to rewrite Albert's program a little less idiosyncratically.
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, cheerfully ignoring my temper. He wrinkled his furry eyebrows. "Ah-ha," he said. "Uh-huh. Well, let's see."
"Is that a hard question for you?" I asked, more surprised than sarcastic.
"Of course not, Robin. I was just thinking how far back I should start. Well, let's start with light. You know that light is made up of particles called photons. It has mass, and it exerts pressure..."
"Not that far back, Albert, please."
"All right. But the way a black hole begins starts with a failure of light pressure. Take a big star-a blue Class-O, say. Ten times as massive as the sun. Burns up its nuclear fuel so fast that it only lives about a billion years. What keeps it from collapsing is the radiation pressure-call it the 'light pressure' from the nuclear reaction of hydrogen fusing into helium inside it. But then it runs out of hydrogen. Pressure stops. It collapses. It does so very, very fast, Robin, maybe in only a matter of hours. And a star that used to be millions of kilometers in diameter is all of a sudden only thirty kilometers. Have you got that part, Robin?"
"I think so. Get on with it."
"Well," he said, lighting his pipe and taking a couple of puffs-I can't help wondering if he enjoys it! -"that's one of the ways black holes get started. The classical way, you might call it. Keep that in mind, and now go on to the next part: escape velocity."
"I know what escape velocity is."
"Sure thing, Robin," he nodded, "an old Gateway prospector like you. Well. When you were on Gateway, suppose you threw a rock straight up from the surface. It would probably come back, because even an asteroid has some gravity. But if you could throw it fast enough-maybe forty or fifty kilometers an hour-it wouldn't come back. It would reach escape velocity and just fly away forever. On the Moon, you'd have to throw it a lot faster still, say two or three kilometers a second. On the Earth, faster than that-better than eleven kilometers a second.
"Now," he said, reaching forward to tap coals out of his pipe and light it again, "if you..." tap, tap, "if you were on the surface of some object that has a very, very high surface gravity, the condition would be worse. Suppose the gravity were such that the escape velocity were up real high, say around three hundred and ten thousand kilometers a second. You couldn't throw a rock that fast. Even light doesn't quite go that fast! So even light..." puff, puff, "can't escape, because its velocity is ten thousand kilometers a second too slow. And, as we know, if light can't escape, then nothing can escape; that's Einstein. If I may be excused the vanity." He actually winked at me over his pipe. "So that's a black hole. It's black because it can't radiate at all."
I said, "What about a Heechee spaceship? They go faster than light."
Albert grinned ruefully. "Got me there, Robin, but we don't know how they go faster than light. Maybe a Heechee can get out of a black hole, who knows? But we don't have any evidence of one of them ever doing it."
I thought that over for a moment. "Yet," I said.
"Well, yes, Robin," he agreed. "The problem, of going faster than light, and the problem of escaping from a black hole, are essentially the same problem." He paused. A long pause. Then, apologetically, "I guess that's about all we can profitably say on that subject, right now."
I got up and refreshed my drink, leaving him sitting there, patiently puffing his pipe. Sometimes it was hard to remember that there was really nothing there, nothing but a few interference patterns of collimated light, backed up by some tons of metal and plastic. "Albert," I said, "tell me something. You computers are supposed to be lightning-fast. Why is it that you take so long to answer sometimes? Just dramatic effect?"
"Well, Bob, sometimes it is," he said after a moment, "like that time. But I am not sure you understand how difficult it is for me to 'chat.' If you want information about, say, black holes, I have no trouble producing it for you. Six million bits a second, if you like. But to put it in terms you can understand, above all to put it in the form of conversation, involves more than accessing the storage. I have to do word-searches through literature and taped conversations. I have to map analogies and metaphors against your own mind-sets. I have to meet such strictures as are imposed by your defined normatives for my behavior, and by relevance to the tone of the particular chat. "'Tain't easy, Robin."
"You're smarter than you look, Albert," I said.
He tapped his pipe out and looked up at me under his shaggy white mop. "Would you mind, Bob, if I said so are you?"
I let him go, saying, "You're a good old machine, Albert." I stretched out on the jelly-bed couch, half asleep with my drink in my hand. At least he had taken my mind off Essie for a while, but there was a nagging question in my mind. Somewhere, sometime, I had said the same thing to some other program, and I couldn't remember when.
Harriet woke me up to say that there was an in-person call from our doctor-not the program, but the real live Wilma Liederman, M. D., who came to see us to make sure the machines were doing things right, every once in a while. "Robin," she said, "I think Essie's out of danger."
"That's-marvelous!" I said, wishing I had saved words like "marvelous" for when I really meant them, because they didn't do justice to the way I felt. Our program had already accessed the Mesa General circuits, of course. Wilma knew as much about her condition as the little black man I had talked to-and, of course, had pumped all of Essie's medical history back into the Mesa General store. Wilma offered to fly out herself if we wanted her to. I told her she was the doctor, not me, and she told me that she would get a Columbia classmate of hers in Tucson to look in on Essie instead.
"But don't go to see her tonight, Robin," she said. "Talk to her on the phone if you want to-I prescribe it-but don't tire her out. By tomorrow-well, I think she'll be stronger."
So I called Essie, and talked to her for three minutes-she was groggy, but she knew what was happening. And then I let myself go back to sleep, and just as I was dropping off I remembered that Albert had called me "Bob".
There was another program that I had been on friendly terms with, a long time ago, that sometimes called me "Robin" and sometimes "Bob" and even "Bobby". I hadn't talked to that particular program in quite a while, because I hadn't felt the need of it; but maybe I was beginning to.

Full Medical is-well, it's full medical. It's everything. If there's a way to keep you healthy, and especially to keep you alive, you've got it. And there are lots of ways. Full Medical runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Not too many people can afford it-something under one tenth of one percent even in the developed countries. But it buys a lot. Right after lunch the next day, it bought me Essie.
Wilma said it was all right, and so did everybody else. The city of Tucson had recovered enough for that sort of thing. The city had got over the emergency aspects of the fever. Its structures were back to business as usual, meaning that they once again had time to deliver what people paid for. So at noon a private ambulance trucked in bed, heart-lung machine, dialysis pack, and peripherals. At twelve-thirty a team of nurses moved into the suite across the hail, and at a quarter after two I rode up in the freight elevator with six cubic meters of hardware, in the heart of which was the heart of me, namely my wife.
Among the other things Full Medical bought were a trickle of pain-killers and mood-mediators, corticosteroids to speed healing and moderators to keep the corticosteroids from spoiling her cells, four hundred kilograms of plumbing under the framework of the bed to monitor all of what Essie did, and to intervene to help her do it when she couldn't. Just transferring her from the travel machine to the one in the master bedroom took an hour and a half, with Wilma's classmate supervising a team of interns and orderlies. They threw me out while that was going on, and I drank a couple of cups of coffee down in the hotel lobby, watching the teardrop-shaped elevators climb up and down the interior walls. When I figured I was allowed back I met the doctor from the hospital in the hail. He had managed to get a little sleep and he was wearing granny glasses instead of the contacts. "Don't tire her out," he said.
"I'm getting tired of hearing that."
He grinned and invited himself to share a third cup of coffee with me. He turned out to be quite a nice guy, as well as the best short basketball center Tempe had ever had, when he was an Arizona State undergraduate. There is something I like about a man of a hundred and sixty centimeters who goes out for the basketball team, and we parted friends. That was the most reassuring thing of all. He wouldn't have let that happen if he hadn't been pretty sure Essie was going to make it.
I did not then appreciate how much "making it" she was going to have to do.
She was still under the positive-pressure bubble, and that spared me from seeing quite how used up she looked. The dayduty nurse retreated to the sitting room, after telling me not to get Essie too tired, and we talked for a while. We didn't say anything, really. S. Ya. is not your talkative type person. She asked me what the news was from the Food Factory, and when I had given her a thirty-second synoptic on that she asked what the news was about the fever. By the time I had given her four or five thousand-word answers to her one-sentence questions it began to dawn on me that talking was really quite a strain and that I shouldn't tire her out.
But she was talking, and even talking coherently, and did not seem worried; and so I went back to my console and to work.
There was the usual raft of reports to get through and decisions to make. When that was done I listened to Albert's latest reports from the Food Factory for a while and then realized it was time for me to go to sleep.
I lay in bed for quite a while. I wasn't restless. I wasn't exhausted. I was just letting the tensions drain out of me. In the sitting room I could hear the night nurse moving around. On the other side, from Essie's room, came the constant faint sigh and hum and gurgle of the machines that were keeping my wife alive. The world had got well ahead of me. I was not taking it all in. I had not yet quite understood that forty-eight hours before, Essie had been dead. Kaput. Xed. no longer alive. If it hadn't been for Full Medical, and a lot of luck, I would along about now have been selecting the clothes to wear to her funeral.
And inside my head there was a small minority of cells of the brain that understood that fact and was thinking, well, you know, maybe, it just might have been tidier all around if she hadn't been brought back to life.
This had nothing to do with the fact that I loved Essie, loved her a lot, wished her nothing but well, had gone into shock when I heard she was hurt. The minority party in my brain spoke only for itself. Every time the question came up a thundering majority voted for loving Essie, whenever polled, however asked.
I have never been entirely sure what the word "love" means. Especially when applied to myself. Just before I fell asleep I thought for a moment of dialing Albert up and asking him to explain it. But I didn't. Albert was the wrong program to ask, and I didn't want to start up with the right one.

The synoptics kept coming in, and I watched the unfolding story of the Food Factory, and I felt like an anachronism. A couple of centuries ago the world-girdlers of England and Spain operated at a remove of a month or two from the action fronts. no cable, no satellites. Their orders went out on sailing ships, and replies came back when they could. I wished I could share their skills. The fifty days of round-trip time between us and the Herter-Halls seemed like forever. Here was I at Ghent, and there were they, Andy Jackson pounding the pee out of the British at New Orleans weeks after the war was over. Of course, I had sent out instant orders on how they were to conduct themselves. What questions they were to ask of the boy, Wan. What attempts they were to make to divert the Food Factory from its course. And five thousand astronomical units away, they were doing what occurred to them to do, and by the time my orders arrived all the questions would be moot.
As Essie mended, so did my spirits. Her heart pumped by itself. Her lungs kept her in air. They took the positive-pressure bubble off her and I could touch her and kiss her cheek, and she was taking an interest in what went on. Had been all along; when I said it was too bad she'd missed her conference she grinned up at me. "AU on tape, dear Robin; have been playing it back when you were busy."
"But you couldn't give your own paper..."
"You think? Why not? I wrote 'Robinette Broadhead' program for you, did you not know I also wrote one for me? Conference moved in full holographics and S. Ya. Lavorovna-Broadhead projection gave complete text. To considerable approval. Even handled questions," she boasted, "by borrowing your Albert program in drag."
Well, she's an astonishing person, as I have always known. The trouble is that I expect her to be astonishing, and when I talked to her doctor he brought me down. He was on the hop, between the suite and Mesa General, and I asked him if I could bring her home. He hesitated, peering up at me through the blue contacts. "Yes, probably," he said. "But I'm not sure you understand how serious her injuries are, Mr. Broadhead. All that's happening now is that she's building up some reserves of strength. She's going to need them."
"Well, I know that, Doe. There'll have to be another operation..."
"No. Not one, Mr. Broadhead. I think your wife will spend most of the next couple of months in surgery and convalescence. And I don't want you assuming that the results are a foregone conclusion," he lectured. "There's a risk to every procedure, and she's up against some hairy ones. Cherish her, Mr. Broadhead. We reanimated her after one cardiac arrest. I don't guarantee it'll happen every time."
So I went in to see Essie in somewhat chastened mood to get on with the cherishing.
The nurse was standing by her bed, and both of them were watching Essie's tapes of the computer conference on her flatplate viewer. Since Essie's plate was slaved to the big fullholographic interactive one I had had moved into my room, there was a little yellow attention light in the come; meant for me. Harriet had something she wanted to tell me about. It could wait; when the light began to pulse and brighten and turn to red was when it got important, and at the moment Essie was at the top of my priorities. "You can leave us for a while, Alma," Essie said. The nurse looked at me and shrugged why-not, so I took the chair next to the bed and reached for Essie's hand.
"It's nice to be able to touch you again," I said.
Essie has a coarse, deep chuckle. I was glad to hear it. "Touch more in a couple weeks," she said. "Meanwhile, no rule against kissing."
So, of course, I kissed her-hard enough so that something must have registered on her telltales, because the day nurse popped her head in the door to see what was going on. She didn't stop us, though. We stopped ourselves. Essie reached up with her right hand-the left was still in its cast, covering God knew what-and pushed her streaky dark-blonde hair away from her eyes. "Very nice," she judged. "Do you want to see what Harriet has to say?"
"Not particularly."
"Untrue," she said. "You have been talking to Dr. Ben, I see, and he has told you to be sweet to me. But you always are, Robin, only not everybody would notice." She grinned at me and turned her head to the plate. "Harriet!" she called. "Robin is here."
I had not until that moment known that my secretary program would respond to my wife's commands as well as my own. But I hadn't known she could borrow my science program, either. Especially without my knowing about it. When Harriet's cheerful and concerned face filled the screen I told her, "If it's business I'll take it later-unless it can't wait?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that," Harriet said. "But Albert's desperate to talk to you. He's got some good stuff from the Food Factory."
"I'll take it in the other room," I started, but Essie put her free hand on mine.
"No. Here, Robin. I'm interested, too."
So I told Harriet to go ahead, and Albert's voice came on. But not Albert's face. "Take a look at this," Albert said, and the screen filled with a sort of American Gothic family portrait A man and a woman-not really-a male and a female, standing side by side. They had faces and arms and legs, and the female had breasts. Both had skungy beards and long hair pulled into braids, and they were wearing wrap-around garments like saris, with dots of color brightening the drab cloth.
I caught my breath. The pictures had taken me by surprise.
Albert appeared in the lower corner of the plate. "These are not 'real,' Robin," he said. "They are simply compositions generated by the shipboard computer from Wan's, description. The boy says they are pretty accurate, though."
I swallowed and glanced at Essie. I had to control my breathing before I could ask, "Are these-are these what the Heechee look like?"
He frowned and chewed on his pipe stem. The figures on the screen rotated solemnly, as though they were doing a slow folkdance, so that we could see all sides. "There are some anomalies, Robin. For example, there is the famous question of the Heechee ass. We have some Heechee furniture, e. g., the seats before the control panels in their ships. From these it was deduced that the Heechee bottom was not as the human bottom, because there seems to be room for a large pendulant structure, perhaps a divided body like a wasp's, hanging below the pelvis and between the legs. There is nothing of this sort in the computer-generated image. But-Occam's Razor, Robin."
"If I just give you time, you'll explain that," I commented.
"Sure thing, Robin, but it's a law of logic that I think you know. In the absence of evidence, it is best to take the simplest theory. We know of only two intelligent races in the history of the universe. These people do not seem to belong to ours-the shape of the skull, and particularly the jaw, is different; there is a triangular arcade, more like an ape's than a human being's, and the teeth are quite anomalous. Therefore it is probable that they belong to the other."
"Is somewhat scary," Essie offered softly. And it was. Especially to me, since you might say that it was my responsibility. I was the one who had ordered the Herter-Hall bunch to go out and look around, and if they found the Heechee in the process..
I was not ready to think of what that might mean.
"What about the Dead Men? Do you have anything on them?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, nodding his dustmop head. "Look at this."
The pictures winked away, and text rolled up the screen:

| Vessel 5-2, Voyage 081D31. Crew A. Meacham, D.
| Filgren, H. Meacham.
| Mission was science experiment, crew limited
| to allow instrumentation and computational
| equipment. Maximum lifesupport time estimated 800
| days. Vessel still unreported day 1200, presumed
| lost.

"It was only a fifty thousand dollar bonus-not much, but it was one of the earliest from Gateway," Albert said over the text. "The one called 'H. Meacham' appears to be the 'Dead Man' Wan calls Henrietta. She was a sort of A. B. D. astrophysicist-you know, Robin, 'All But Dissertation'. She blew that. When she tried to defend it they said it was more psychology than physics, so she went to Gateway. The pilot's first name was Doris, which checks, and the other person was Henrietta's husband, Arnold."
"So you've identified one of them? They were really real?"
"Sure thing, Robin-point nine nine sure, anyway. These Dead Men are sometimes nonrational," he complained, reappearing on the plate. "And of course we have had no opportunity for direct interrogation. The shipboard computer is not really up to this kind of task. But, apart from the confirmation of names, the mission seems appropriate. It was an astrophysical investigation, and Henrietta's conversation includes repeated references to astrophysical subjects. Once you subtract the sexual ones, I mean," he twinkled, scratching his cheek with his pipestem. "For example. 'Sagittarius A West'-a radio source at the center of the Galaxy. 'NGC nag'. A giant elliptical galaxy, part of a large cluster. 'Average radial velocity of globular clusters'-in our own galaxy, that comes to about 50 kilometers per second. 'High-redshift OSOs'..."
"You don't have to list them all," I said hastily. "Do you know what they all mean? I mean, if you were talking about all those things, what would you be talking about?"
Pause-but a short one; he was not accessing all the literature on the subject, he had already done that "Cosmology," he said. "Specifically, I think I would be talking about the classic HoyleOpik-Gamow controversy; that is, whether the universe is closed, or open ended, or cyclical. Whether it is in a steady state, or began with a big bang."
He paused again, but this time it was to let me think. I did, but not to much effect "There doesn't seem to be much nourishment in that," I said.
"Perhaps not, Rabin. It does sort of tie in with your questions about black holes, though."
Well, damn your calculating heart, I thought, but did not say. He looked innocent as a lamb, puffing away on his old pipe, calm and serious. "That'll be all for now," I ordered, and kept my eyes on the blank screen long after he had disappeared, in case Essie was going to ask me about why I had been inquiring about black holes.

Well, she didn't. She just lay back, looking at the mirrors on the ceiling. After a while she said, "Dear Robin, know what I wish?"
I was ready for it. "What, Essie?"
"Wish I could scratch."
All I could manage to say was, "Oh." I felt deflated-no; plugged up. I was all ready to defend myself-with all gentle care, of course, because of Essie's condition. And I didn't have to. I picked up her hand. "I was worried about you," I offered.
"Yes, so was I," she said practically. "Tell me, Robin. Is true that the fevers are from some sort of Heechee mind-ray?"
"Something like that, I suppose. Albert says it's electromagnetic, but that's all I know." I stroked the veins on the back of her hand, and she moved restlessly. But only from the neck up.
"I am apprehensive about Heechee, Robin," she said.
"That's very sensible. Even temperate. Me, I'm scared shitless." And, as a matter of fact I was; in fact, I was trembling. The little yellow light winked on at the corner of the screen.
"Somebody wants to talk to you, Robin."
"They can wait. I'm talking to the woman I love right now."
"Thank you. Robin? If you are scared of Heechee as I am, how is it that you go right ahead?"
"Well, honey, what choice do I have? There's fifty days of dead time. What we just heard is ancient history, twenty-five days old. If I told them to break off and go home right now, it would be twenty-five days before they heard it."
"Surely, yes. But if you could stop, would you?" I didn't answer. I was feeling very strange-a little frightened, a lot unlike myself. "What if Heechee don't like us, Robin?" she asked.
And what a good question that was! I had been asking it of myself ever since the first day I considered getting into a Gateway prospecting ship and setting out to explore for myself. What if we meet the Heechee and they don't like us? What if they squash us like flies, torture us, enslave us, experiment on us-what if they simply ignore us? With my eyes on the yellow dot, which was beginning to pulse slowly, I said, mothering her, "Well, there's not much chance that they will actually do us any harm..."
"I do not need soothing, Robin!" She was distinctly edgy, and so was I. Something must have been showing up on her monitors, because the day nurse looked in again, hovered indecisively in the doorway, and went away.
I said, "Essie, the stakes are too big. Remember last year in Calcutta?" We had gone to one of her seminars, and had cut it short because we couldn't bear the sight of the abject city of two hundred million paupers.
Her eyes were on me, and she was frowning. "Yes, I know, starvation. There has always been starvation, Robin."
"Not like this! Not like what it will be before very long, if something doesn't happen to prevent it! The world is bursting at the seams. Albert says..." I hesitated. I didn't actually want to tell her what Albert said. Siberia was already out of food production, its fragile land looking like the Gobi because of overpressure. The topsoil in the American Midwest was down to scant inches, and even the food mines were straining to keep up with demand. What Albert said was that we had maybe ten years.
The signal light had gone to red and was winking rapidly, but I didn't want to interrupt myself. "Essie," I said, "if we can make the Food Factory work, we can bring CHON-food to all the starving people, and that means no more starvation ever. That's only the beginning. If we can figure out how to build Heechee ships for ourselves, and make them go where we like-then we can colonize new planets. Lots of them. More than that. With Heechee technology we can take all the asteroids in the solar system and turn them into Gateways. Build space habitats. Terraform planets. We can make a paradise for a million times the population of the Earth, for the next million years!"
I stopped, because I realized I was babbling. I felt sad and delirious, worried and-lustful; and from the expression on Essie's face she was feeling something strange too. "Those are very good reasons, Robin," she began, and that was as far as she got The signal light was bright ruby red and vibrating like a pulsar; and then it winked away and Albert Einstein's worried face appeared on the screen. I had never known him to appear without being invited before.
"Robin," he cried, "there is another emanation of the fever!"
I stood up shaking. "But it isn't time," I objected stupidly.
"It has happened, Robin, and it is rather strange. It peaked, let me see, just under one hundred seconds ago. I believe-Yes," he nodded, seeming to listen to an inaudible voice, "it is dying away."
And, as a matter of fact, I was already feeling less strange. no attack had ever been so short, and no other had quite felt like that Apparently somebody else was experimenting with the couch.
"Albert," I said, "send a priority message to the Food Factory. Desist immediately, repeat immediately, from any further use of the couch for any purpose. Dismantle it if possible without irreversible damage. You will forfeit all pay and bonuses if there is any further breach of this directive. Got it?"
"It's already on its way, Robin," he said, and disappeared.
Essie and I looked at each other for a moment. "But you did not tell them to abandon the expedition and come back," she said at last.
I shrugged. "It doesn't change anything," I said.
"No," she agreed. "And you have given me some really very good reasons, Robin. But are they your reasons?"
I didn't answer.
I knew what Essie thought were my reasons for pushing on into the exploration of Heechee space, regardless of fevers or costs or risks. She thought my reasons had a name, and the name was Gelle-Kiara Moynlin. And I sometimes was not sure she was wrong.

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