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THE MERCHANTS OF VENUS
Frederik Pohl has probably heard from too many readers about the pun in the title of this suspenseful novella. The answer to your question is: No. This has nothing much to do with Shakespeare's play. It has a lot to do with Venus, with people living on the edge, with the spirit of exploration, and the reasons people have for doing dangerous and otherwise risky business.
"The Merchants of Venus," first published in 1972, was also the first story Pohl wrote about the presence of mysterious alien Heechee in the solar system. Since then, he has written a lot about the Heechee, and readers have been much the better for his interest in the artifacts and other leavings of that race. Gateway(1976), his first novel about our discovery of the Heechee, won the triple crown of science fiction--the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards for best novel--and that was just the beginning of a memorable series of books.
Before Gateway came "The Merchants of Venus."
My Name, Audee Walthers. My job, airbody driver. My home, on Venus, in a Heechee hut most of the time; wherever I happen to be when I feel sleepy otherwise.
Until I was twenty-five I lived on Earth, in Amarillo Central mostly. My father, a deputy governor of Texas. He died when I was still in college, but he left me enough dependency benefits to finish school, get a master's in business administration, and pass the journeyman examination for clerk-typist. So I was set up for life.
But, after I tried it for a few years, I discovered I didn't like the life I was set up for. Not so much for the conventional reasons; I don't mind smog suits, can get along with neighbors even when there are eight hundred of them to the square mile, tolerate noise, can defend myself against the hood kids. It wasn't Earth itself I didn't like, it was what I was doing on Earth I didn't like, and so I sold my UOPWA journeyman's card, mortgaged my pension accrual, and bought a one-way ticket to Venus. Nothing strange about that. What every kid tells himself he's going to do, really. But I did it.
I suppose it would have been all different if I'd had a chance at Real Money. If my father had been full governor instead of a civil-service client. If the dependency benefits had included Unlimited Medicare. If I'd been at the top instead of in the middle, squeezed both ways. It didn't happen that way, so I opted out by the pioneer route and wound up hunting Terry marks at the Spindle.
Everybody has seen pictures of the Spindle, the Colosseum and Niagara Falls. Like everything worth looking at on Venus, the Spindle was a Heechee leftover. Nobody had ever figured out what the Heechee wanted with an underground chamber three hundred meters long and spindle-shaped, but it was there, so we used it; it was the closest thing Venus had to a Times Square or a Champs Elysées. All Terry tourists head for it first. That's where we fleece them.
My airbody-rental business is reasonably legitimate--not counting the fact that there really isn't much worth seeing on Venus that wasn't left there, below the surface, by the Heechee. The other tourist traps in the Spindle are reasonably crooked. Terries don't mind, although they must know they're being taken; they all load up on Heechee prayer fans and doll-heads, and those paperweights of transparent plastic in which a contoured globe of Venus swims in a kind of orange-brown snowstorm of make-believe fly ash, blood-diamonds, and fire-pearls. None of them are worth the price of their mass-charge back to Earth, but to a tourist who can get up the price of passage in the first place I don't suppose that matters.
To people like me, who can't get the price of anything, the tourist traps matter a lot. We live on them. I don't mean we draw our disposable income from them; I mean that they are how we get the price of what to eat and where to sleep, and if we don't have the price we die. There aren't too many ways of earning money on Venus. The ones that might produce Real Money--oh, winning a lottery; striking it rich in the Heechee diggings; blundering into a well-paying job; that kind of thing--are all real long-shots. For bread and butter everybody on Venus depends on Terry tourists, and if we don't milk them dry we've had it.
Of course, there are tourists and tourists. They come in three varieties. The difference between them is celestial mechanics.
There's the quick-and-dirty kind. On Earth, they're just well-to-do; they come every twenty-six months at Hohmann-orbit time, riding the minimum-energy circuit from Earth. Because of the critical times of a Hohmann orbit, they never can stay more than three weeks on Venus. So they come on the guided tours, determined to get the most out of the quarter-million-dollar minimum cabin fare their rich grandparents had given them for a graduation present, or they'd saved up for a second honeymoon, or whatever. The bad thing about them is that they don't have much money, since they'd spent it all on fares. The nice thing about them is that there are a lot of them. While they're on Venus, all the rental rooms are filled. Sometimes they'd have six couples sharing a single partitioned cubicle, two pairs at a time, hot-bedding eight-hour shifts around the clock. Then people like me would hold up in Heechee huts on the surface and rent out our own belowground rooms, and maybe make enough money to live a few months.
But you couldn't make enough money to live until the next Hohmann-orbit time, so when the Class II tourists came along we cut each other's throats over them.
They were medium-rich. What you might call the poor millionaires: the ones whose annual income was barely in seven figures. They could afford to come in powered orbits, taking a hundred days or so for the run, instead of the long, slow Hohmann drift. The price ran a million dollars and up, so there weren't nearly as many of them; but they came every month or so at the times of reasonably favorable orbital conjunctions. They also had more money to spend. So did the other medium-rich ones who hit us four orfive times in a decade, when the ballistics of the planets had sorted themselves out into a low-energy configuration that allowed three planets to come into an orbit that didn't have much higher energy cost than the straight Earth-Venus run. They'd hit us first, if we were lucky, then go on to Mars. If it was the other way around, we got the leavings. The leavings were never very much.
But the very rich--ah, the very rich! They came as they liked, in orbital season or out.
When my tipper on the landing pad reported the Yuri Gagarin, under private charter, my money nose began to quiver. It was out of season for everybody except the very rich; the only question on my mind was how many of my competitors would be trying to cut my throat for its passengers while I was cutting theirs.
Airbody rental takes a lot more capital than opening a prayer-fan booth. I'd been lucky in buying my airbody cheap when the fellow I worked for died; I didn't have too many competitors, and a couple of them were U/S for repairs, a couple more had kited off on Heechee diggings of their own.
So, actually, I had the Gagarin's passengers, whoever they were, pretty much to myself. Assuming they could be interested in taking a trip outside the Heechee tunnels.
I had to assume they would be interested, because I needed the money very much. I had this little liver condition, you see. It was getting pretty close to total failure. The way the doctors explained it to me, I had like three choices: I could go back to Earth and linger a while on external prostheses; or I could get up the money for a transplant. Or I could die.
The name of the fellow who had chartered the Gagarin was Boyce Cochenour. Age, apparently forty. Height, two meters. Ancestry, Irish-American-French.
He was the kind of fellow who was used to command. I watched him come into the Spindle as though it belonged to him and he was getting ready to sell it. He sat down in Sub Vastra's imitation Paris Boulevard-Heechee sidewalk cafe. "Scotch," he said, and Vastra hurried to pour John Begg over super-cooled ice and hand it to him, all crackling with cold and numbing to the lips. "Smoke," he said, and the girl who was traveling with him instantly lit a cigarette and passed it to him. "Crummy-looking joint," he said, and Vastra fell all over himself to agree.
I sat down next to them--well, not at the same table, I mean; I didn't even look at them. But I could hear what they said. Vastra didn't look at me, either, but of course he had seen me come in and knew I had my eye on them. But I had to let his number-three wife take my order, because Vastra wasn't going to waste any time on me when he had a charter-ship Terry at his table. "The usual," I said to her, meaning straightalk in a tumbler of soft drink. "And a copy of your briefing," I added, more softly. Her eyes twinkled at me over her flirtation veil. Cute little vixen. I patted her hand in a friendly way, and left a rolled-up bill in it; then she left.
The Terry was inspecting his surroundings, including me. I looked back at him, polite but distant, and he gave me a sort of quarter-nod and turned back to Subhash Vastra. "Since I'm here," he said, "I might as well go along with whatever action there is. What's to do here?"
Sub grinned widely, like a tall, skinny frog. "Ah, whatever you wish, sah! Entertainment? In our private rooms we have the finest artists of three planets, nautch dancers, music, fine comedians--"
"We've got plenty of that in Cincinnati. I didn't come to Venus for a nightclub act." He wouldn't have known it, of course, but that was a good move; Sub's private rooms were way down the list of night spots on Venus, and the top of the list wasn't much.
"Of course, sah! Then perhaps you would like to consider a tour?"
"Aw." Cochenour shook his head. "What's the point? Does any of it look any different than the space pad we came in on, right over our heads?"
Vastra hesitated; I could see him calculating second-order consequences in his head, measuring the chance of the Terry going for a surface tour against what he might get from me as commission. He didn't look my way. Honesty won out--that is, honesty reinforced by a quick appraisal of Cochenour's gullibility. "Not much different, no, sah," he admitted. "All pretty hot and dry on the surface, at least for the next thousand kilometers. But I wasn't thinking of the surface."
"Ah, the Heechee warrens, sah! There are many miles just below this settlement. A guide could be found--"
"Not interested," Cochenour growled. "Not in anything that close."
"If a guide can lead us through them," Cochenour explained, "that means they've all been explored. Which means they've been looted. What's the fun of that?"
"Of course," said Vastra immediately. "I see what you're driving at, sah." He looked noticeably happier, and I could feel his radar reaching out to make sure I was listening, though he didn't look in my direction at all. "To be sure," he said, "there is always the chance of finding new digs, sah, provided one knows where to look. Am I correct in assuming that this would interest you?"
The third of Vastra's house brought me my drink and a thin powder-faxed slip of paper. "Thirty percent," I whispered to her. "Tell Sub. Only no bargaining, no getting anybody else to bid--" She nodded and winked; she'd been listening too, and she was as sure as I that this Terry was firmly on the hook. It had been my intention to nurse the drink as long as I could, but prosperity loomed before me; I was ready to celebrate; I took a long happy swallow.
But the hook didn't have a barb. Unaccountably the Terry shrugged. "Waste of time, I bet," he grumbled. "I mean, really. If you knew where to look, why wouldn't you have looked there already, right?"
"Ah, mister," cried Subhash Vastra, "but there are hundreds of tunnels not explored! Thousands! And in them, who knows, treasures beyond price!"
Cochenour shook his head. "Skip it," he said. "Bring us another drink. And see if you can't get the ice cold this time."
Somewhat shaken, I put down my drink, half-turned away to hide my hand from the Terries, and looked at the facsimile copy of Sub's report on them to see if it could tell me why Cochenour had lost interest.
It couldn't. It did tell me a lot, though. The girl with Cochenour was named Dorotha Keefer. She had been traveling with him for a couple of years now, this being their first time off Earth; there was no indication of any marriage, or any intention of it, at leaston his part. She was in her early twenties--real age, not simulated by drugs and transplants. Cochenour himself was well over ninety.
He did not, of course, look anywhere near that. I'd watched him come over to the table, and he moved lightly and easily, for a big man. His money came from land and petro-foods; according to the synoptic on him, he had been one of the first oil millionaires to switch over from selling oil as fuel for cars and heating plants to food production, growing algae in the crude that came out of his wells and selling the algae in processed form for human consumption. So he'd stopped being a mere millionaire and turned into something much bigger.
And that accounted for the way he looked. He'd been on Full Medical, with extras. The report said his heart was titanium and plastic. His lungs had been transplanted from a twenty-year-old killed in a copter crash. His skin, muscles and fats--not to mention his various glandular systems--were sustained by hormones and cell-builders at what had to be a cost of well over a thousand dollars a day. To judge by the way he stroked the girl sitting next to him, he was getting his money's worth. He looked and acted no more than forty, at most--except perhaps for the look of his pale-blue, diamond-bright, weary and disillusioned eyes.
What a lovely mark! I swallowed the rest of my drink, and nodded to the third for another. There had to be a way to get him to charter my airbody.
All I had to do was find it.
Outside the rail of Vastra's cafe, of course, half the Spindle was thinking exactly the same thoughts. This was the worst of the low season, the Hohmann crowd were still three months in the future; all of us were beginning to run low on money. My liver transplant was just a little extra incentive; of the hundred maze-runners I could see out of the corner of my eye, ninety-nine needed to cut in on this rich tourist's money as much as I did, just for the sake of staying alive.
We couldn't all do it. Two of us, three, maybe even half a dozen could score enough to make a real difference. No more than that. And I had to be one of these few.
I took a deep swallow of my second drink, tipped Vastra's third lavishly--and conspicuously--and turned idly around until I was facing the Terries dead-on.
The girl was talking with a knot of souvenir vendors, looking interested and uncertain. "Boyce?" she said over her shoulder.
"What's this thing for?"
He bent over the rail and peered. "Looks like a fan," he said.
"Heechee prayer fan, right," cried the dealer; I knew him, Booker Allemang, an old-timer in the Spindle. "Found it myself, miss! It'll grant your every wish, letters every day from people reporting miraculous results--"
"Sucker bait," grumbled Cochenour. "Buy it if you want."
"But what does it do?"
He laughed raucously. "What any fan does. It cools you down." And he looked at me, grinning.
I finished my drink, nodded, stood up and walked over to the table. "Welcome to Venus," I said. "May I help you?"
The girl looked at Cochenour for approval before she said, "I thought this was very pretty."
"Very pretty," I agreed. "Are you familiar with the story of the Heechees?"
Cochenour pointed to a chair. I sat and went on. "They built these tunnels about a quarter of a million years ago. They lived here for a couple of centuries, give or take a lot. Then they went away again. They left a lot of junk behind, and some things that weren't junk; among other things they left a lot of these fans. Some local con man like BeeGee here got the idea of calling them 'prayer fans' and selling them to tourists to make wishes with."
Allemang had been hanging on my every word trying to guess where I was going. "You know it's right," he said.
"But you two are too smart for that kind of come-on," I added. "Still, look at the things. They're pretty enough to be worth having even without the story."
"Absolutely!" cried Allemang. "See how this one sparkles, miss! And the black and gray crystal, how nice it looks with your fair hair!"
The girl unfurled the crystalline one. It came rolled like a diploma, only cone-shaped. It took just the slightest pressure of the thumb to keep it open, and it really was very pretty as she waved it gently. Like all the Heechee fans, it weighed only about ten grams, and its crystalline lattice caught the lights from the luminous Heechee walls, as well as the fluorescents and gas tubes we maze-runners had installed, and tossed them all back in iridescent sparks.
"This fellow's name is Booker Garey Allemang," I said. "He'll sell you the same goods as any of the o thers, but he won't cheat you as much as most of them."
Cochenour looked at me dourly, then beckoned Sub Vastra for another round of drinks. "All right," he said. "If we buy, we'll buy from you, Booker Garey Allemang. But not now."
He turned to me. "And what do you want to sell me?"
"Myself and my airbody, if you want to go looking for new tunnels. We're both as good as you can get."
"One million dollars," I said immediately. "All found."
He didn't answer at once, though it gave me some pleasure to notice that the price didn't seem to scare him. He looked as pleasant, or anyway as unangrily bored, as ever. "Drink up," he said, as Vastra and his third served us, and gestured with his glass to the Spindle. "Know what this was for?" he asked.
"You mean why the Heechees built it? No. They were pretty small, so it wasn't for headroom. And it was entirely empty when it was found."
He gazed tolerantly at the busy scene, balconies cut into the sloping sides of the Spindle with eating and drinking places like Vastra's, rows of souvenir booths, most of them empty at this idle season. But there were still a couple of hundred maze rats around, and the number had been quietly growing all the time Cochenour and the girl had been sitting there.
He said, "It's not much to see, is it? A hole in the ground, and a lot of people trying to take my money away from me."
He grinned again. "So why did I come, eh? Well, that's a good question, but since you didn't ask it I don't have to answer it. You want a million dollars. Let's see. A hundred K to charter an airbody. A hundred and eighty or so to rent equipment, per week. Ten days minimum, three weeks a safer guess. Food, supplies, permits, another fifty K. So we're upto close to seven hundred thousand, not counting your own salary and what you give our host here as his cut for not throwing you off the premises. Right, Walthers?"
I had a little difficulty in swallowing the drink I had been holding to my mouth, but I managed to say, "Close enough, Mr. Cochenour." I didn't see any point in telling him that I already owned the equipment, as well as the airbody, although I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that he knew that too.
"You've got a deal, then. And I want to leave as soon as possible, which should be, um, about this time tomorrow."
"Fair enough," I said, and got up, avoiding Sub Vastra's thunderstricken expression. I had some work to do, and a little thinking. He'd caught me off base, which is a bad place to be when you can't afford to make a mistake. I knew he hadn't missed my calling him by name. That was all right; he'd known that I had checked him out immediately. But it was a little surprising that he had known mine.
The first thing I had to do was double-check my equipment; the second was go to the local, validate a contract, and settle up with Sub Vastra; the third was see my doctor. The liver hadn't been giving me much trouble for a while, but then I hadn't been drinking grain alcohol for a while.
It took about an hour to make sure that everything we would need for the expedition was i.s., with all the spare parts I might reasonably fear needing. The Quackery was on my way to the union office, so I stopped in there first. It didn't take long. The news was no worse than I had been ready for; Dr. Morius studied the readout from his instruments carefully. It turned out to be a hundred and fifty dollars' worth of carefully, and expressed the guarded hope that I would survive three weeks away from his office, provided I took all the stuff he gave me and wandered no more than usual from his dietary restrictions. "And when I get back?" I asked.
"About the same, Audee," he said cheerily. "Total collapse in, ah, oh, maybe ninety more days."
He patted his fingertips. "I hear you've got a live one," he added. "Want me to book you for a transplant?"
"How live did you hear he was?" I asked.
"Oh, the price is the same in any case," he told me good-humoredly. "Two hundred K, plus the hospital, anesthesiologist, preop psychiatrist, pharmaceuticals--you've already got the figures."
I did, and I knew that with what I might make from Cochenour, plus what I had put away, plus a small loan on the airbody, I could just about meet it. Leaving me broke when it was over but, of course, alive.
"Go ahead," I said. "Three weeks from tomorrow." And I left him looking mildly pleased, like a Burmese hydro-rice man watching another crop being harvested. Dear daddy. Why hadn't he sent me through medical school instead of giving me an education?
It would have been nice if the Heechee had been the same size as human beings, instead of being about 40 percent shorter. In the smaller tunnels, like the one that led to the Local 88 office, I had to half-crouch all the way.
The deputy organizer was waiting for me. He had one of the few good jobs that didn't depend on the tourists, or at least not directly. He said, "Subhash Vastra's been on the line. He says you agreed to thirty percent, and besides you forgot to pay your bar bill to the third of his house."
"Admitted, both ways."
"And you owe me a little too, Audee. Three hundred for a powderfax copy of my report on your pigeon. A hundred for validating your contract with Vastra. And if you want guide's papers, sixteen hundred for that."
I gave him my credit card and he checked the total out of my account into the local's. Then I signed and card-stamped the contract he'd drawn up. Vastra's 30 percent would not be on the whole million-dollar gross, but on my net; even so, he might make as much out of it as I would, at least in liquid cash, because I'd have to pay off all the outstanding balances on equipment and loans. The factors would carry a man until he scored, but then they wanted to get paid. They knew how long it might be until he scored again.
"Thanks, Audee," said the deputy, nodding over the signed contract. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"Not at your prices," I told him.
"Ah, you're putting me on. 'Boyce Cochenour and Dorotha Keefer, Earth-Ohio, traveling S. V. Yuri Gagarin, Odessa registry, chartered. No other passengers.' No other passengers," he repeated, quoting from the synoptic report he'd furnished. "Why, you'll be a rich man, Audee, if you work this pigeon right."
"That's more than I ask," I told him. "All I want is to be a living one."
But it wasn't entirely true. I did have some little hope--not much, not enough to talk about, and in fact I'd never said a word about it to anyone--that I might be coming out of this rather better than merely alive.
There was, however, a problem.
See, in the standard guide's contract and airbody leasing terms, I get my money and that's all I get. If we take a mark like Cochenour on a hunt for new Heechee tunnels and he finds something valuable--marks have, you know; not often, but enough to keep them hopeful--then it's his. We just work for him.
On the other hand, I could have gone out by myself any time and prospected; and then anything I found would be all mine.
Obviously anybody with any sense would go by himself if he thought he was really going to find anything. But in my case, that wasn't such a good idea. If I staked myself to a trip and lost, I hadn't just wasted time and maybe fifty K in supplies and wear and tear. If I lost, I was dead.
I needed what I would make out of Cochenour to stay alive. Whether we found anything interesting or not, my fee would take care of that.
Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I had a notion that I knew where something very interesting might be found; and my problem was that, as long as I had an all-rights contract with Cochenour. I couldn't afford to find it.
The last stop I made was in my sleeping room. Under the bed, keystoned into the rock, was a guaranteed break-proof safe that held some papers I wanted to have in my pocket from then on.
When I came down on to Venus for the first time, it wasn't scenery that interested me. I wanted to make my fortune.
I didn't see much of the surface of Venus then, or for nearly two years after that. You don't see much in the kind of spacecraft that can land on Venus; a twenty-thousand-millibar surface pressure means you need something a little more rugged than the bubble-ships that go to the Moon or Mars or farther out, and there's not much tolerance in the design for putting unnecessary windows into the hull. It didn't matter much, because anywhere except near the poles there's not much you can see. Everything worth seeing on Venus is in Venus, and all of it once belonged to the Heechees.
Not that we know much about the Heechees. We don't even rightly know their name--"heechee" is how somebody once wrote down the sound that a fire-pearl makes when you stroke it, and as that's the only sound anybody knows that's connected with them, it got to be a name.
The hesperologists don't know where the Heechees came from, although there are some markings on scraps of stuff that the Heechees used for paper that seem to be a star chart--faded, incomplete, pretty much unrecognizable; if we know the exact position of every star in the galaxy two hundred fifty thousand years ago, we might be able to locate them from that, I suppose. Assuming they came from this galaxy. There are no traces of them anywhere else in the solar system, except maybe in Phobos; the experts still fight about whether the honeycomb cells inside the Martian moon are natural or artifacts, and if they're artifacts they're no doubt Heechee. But they don't look much like ours.
I wonder sometimes what they wanted. Escaping a dying planet? Political refugees? Tourists that had a breakdown between somewhere and somewhere, and hung around just long enough to make whatever they had to make to get themselves going again? I used to think that they'd maybe come by to watch human beings evolving on Earth, sort of stepfathers beaming over the growing young race; but we couldn't have been much to watch at that time, halfway between the Australopithecines and the Cro-Magnards.
But, though they packed up nearly everything when they left, leaving behind only empty tunnels and chambers, there were a few scraps here and there that either weren't worth taking along or were overlooked: all those "prayer fans," enough empty containers of one kind or another to look like a picnic ground at the end of a hard summer, some trinkets and trifles. I guess the best known of the "trifles" is the anisokinetic punch, the carbon crystal that transmits a blow at a ninety-degree angle; that made somebody a few billion just by being lucky enough to find one, and smart enough to analyze and duplicate it. But all we've ever found is junk. There must have been good stuff worth a million times as much as those sweepings.
Did they take all the good stuff with them?
Nobody knew. I didn't know, either, but I thought I knew something that had a bearing on it.
I thought I knew where the last Heechee ship had taken off from; and it wasn't near any of the explored diggings.
I didn't kid myself. I knew that wasn't a guarantee of anything.
But it was something to go on. Maybe when that last ship left they were getting impatient, and maybe not as thorough in cleaning up behind themselves.
And that was what being on Venus was all about. What other possible reason was there for being there? The life of a maze rat was marginal at best. It took fifty thousanda year to stay alive. If you had less than that you couldn't pay air tax, capitation tax, water assessment, or even a subsistence-level bill for food. If you wanted to eat meat more than once a week, and demanded a cubicle of your own to sleep in, it cost more than that.
Guide's papers cost a week's life; when any of us bought them, we were gambling that week's cost of living against the chance of a big enough strike, either from the Terry tourists or from what we might find, to make it possible to get back to Earth--where no one starved, no one died for lack of air, no one was thrust out into the high-pressure incinerator that was Venus's atmosphere. Not just to get back to Earth. To get back in the style every maze rat had set himself as a goal when he headed sunward in the first place: with money enough to live the full life of a human being on Full Medical.
That was what I wanted. The big score.
Not by accident, the last thing I did that night was to visit the Hall of Discoveries.
The third of Vastra's house winked at me over her flirtation veil and turned to her companion, who looked around and nodded.
I joined them. "Hello, Mr. Walthers," she said.
"I thought I might find you here," I said, which was no more than the truth, since Vastra's third had promised to guide her this way. I didn't know what to call her. "Miss Keefer" was accurate, "Mrs. Cochenour" was diplomatic; I got around it by saying, "Since we'll be seeing a lot of each other, how about getting on to first names?"
"Audee, is it?"
I gave her a twelve-tooth smile. "Swede on my mother's side, old Texan on my father's. Name's been in his family a long time, I guess."
The Hall of Discoveries is meant to get Terry prospects hotted up, there's a little of everything in it, from charts of the worked diggings and a full-scale Mercator map of Venus to samples of all the principal finds. I showed her the copy of the anisokinetic punch, and the original solid-state piezophone that had made its discoverer almost as permanently rich as the guy who found the punch. There were about a dozen fire-pearls, quarter-inch jobbies, behind armor glass, on cushions, blazing away with their cold milky light.
"They're pretty," she said. "But why all the protection? I saw bigger ones lying on a counter in the Spindle without anybody even watching them."
"That's a little different, Dorotha," I told her. "These are real."
She laughed out loud. It was a very nice laugh. No girl looks beautiful when she's laughing hard, and girls who worry about looking beautiful don't do it. Dorotha Keefer looked like a healthy, pretty girl having a good time, which when you come down to it is about the best way for a girl to look.
She did not, however, look good enough to come between me and a new liver, so I took my mind off that aspect of her and put it on business. "The little red marbles over there are blood-diamonds," I told her. "They're radioactive and stay warm. Which is one way you can tell the real one from a fake: Anything over about three centimeters is a fake. A real one that big generates too much heat--square-cube law, you know--and melts."
"So the ones your friend was trying to sell me--"
"--are fakes. Right."
She nodded, still smiling. "What about what you were trying to sell us, Audee? Real or fake?"
The third of Vastra's house had discreetly vanished, and there was nobody else in the Hall of Discoveries but me and the girl. I took a deep breath and told her the truth. Not the whole truth, maybe; but nothing but the truth.
"All this stuff," I said, "is what came out of a hundred years of digging. And it's not much. The punch, the piezophone, and two or three other gadgets that we can make work; a few busted pieces of things that they're still studying; and some trinkets. That's all."
She said, "That's the way I heard it. And one more thing. None of the discovery dates on these things is less than fifty years old."
She was smart and better informed than I had expected. "And the conclusion," I agreed, "is that the planet has been mined dry. You're right, on the evidence. The first diggers found everything there was to be found ... so far."
"You think there's more?"
"I hope there's more. Look. Item. The tunnels. You see they're all alike--the blue walls, perfectly smooth; the light coming from them that never varies; the hardness. How do you suppose they were made?"
"Why, I don't know--"
"Neither do I. Or anybody else. But every Heechee tunnel is the same, and if you dig into them from the outside you find the basic substrate rock, then a boundary layer that's sort of half wall-stuff and half substrate, then the wall. Conclusion: The Heechees didn't dig the tunnels and then line them, they had something that crawled around underground like an earthworm, leaving these tunnels behind. And one other thing: They overdug. That's to say they dug tunnels they didn't need, lots of them, going nowhere, never used for anything. Does that suggest anything to you?"
"It must have been cheap and easy?" she guessed.
I nodded. "So it was probably a machine, and there really ought to be at least one of them, somewhere on this planet, to find. Next item. The air: They breathed oxygen like we do, and they must have got it from somewhere. Where?"
"Why, there's oxygen in the atmosphere--"
"Sure. About a half of one percent. And better than 95 percent carbon dioxide; and somehow they managed to get that half of one percent out of the mixture, cheaply and easily--remember those extra tunnels they filled!--along with enough nitrogen or some other inert gas--and they're present in only trace amounts--to make a breathing mixture. How? Why, I don't know, but if there's a machine that did it, I'd like to find that machine. Next item: Aircraft. The Heechee flew around the surface of Venus at will."
"So do you, Audee! Aren't you a pilot?"
"Sure, but look at what it takes. Surface temperature of two-seventy C. and not enough oxygen to keep a cigarette going. So my airbody has two fuel tanks, one for hydrocarbons, one for oxidants. And--did you ever hear of a fellow named Carnot?"
"Old-time scientist, was he? The Carnot cycle?"
"Right again." That was the third time she'd surprised me, I noted cautiously. "The Carnot efficiency of an engine is expressed by its maximum temperature--the heat ofcombustion, let's say--over the temperature of its exhaust. Well, but the temperature of the exhaust can't be less than the temperature of what it flows into--otherwise you're not running an engine, you're running a refrigerator. And you've got that two-seventy ambient air temperature; so you have basically a lousy engine. Any heat engine on Venus is lousy. Did you ever wonder why there are so few airbodies around? I don't mind; it helps to have something close to a monopoly. But the reason is they're so damn expensive to run."
"And the Heechees did it better?"
"I think they did."
She laughed again, unexpectedly and once more very attractively. "Why, you poor fellow," she said in good humor, "you're hooked on the stuff you sell, aren't you? You think that some day you're going to find the mother tunnel and pick up all this stuff."
Well, I wasn't too pleased with the way things were going; I'd arranged with Vastra's third to bring the girl here, away from her boyfriend, so I could pick her brains in private. It hadn't worked out that way. The way it was working out, she was making me aware of her as a person, which was a bad development in itself, and worse than that, making me take a good look at myself.
I said after a minute, "You may be right. But I'm sure going to give it a good try."
"You're angry, aren't you?"
"No," I said, lying, "but maybe a little tired. And we've got a long trip tomorrow, so I'd better take you home, Miss Keefer."
My airbody lay by the spacepad and was reached the same way the spacepad was reached. Elevator to the surface lock, a tractor-cab to carry us across the dry, tortured surface of Venus, peeling under the three-hundred-kilometer-an-hour wind. Normally I kept it under a foam housing, of course. You don't leave anything free and exposed on the surface of Venus if you want to keep it intact, not even if it's made of chrome steel. I'd had the foam stripped free when I checked it out and loaded supplies that morning. Now it was ready. I could see it from the bull's-eye ports of the crawler, through the green-yellow murk outside. Cochenour and the girl could have seen it too, if they'd known where to look, but they might not have recognized it.
Cochenour screamed in my ear, "You and Dorrie have a fight?"
"No fight," I screamed back.
"Don't care if you did. You don't have to like each other, just do what I want you to do." He was silent a moment, resting his throat. "Jesus. What a wind."
"Zephyr," I told him. I didn't say any more, he would find out for himself. The area around the spacepad is a sort of natural calm area, by Venusian standards. Orographic lift throws the meanest winds up over the pad and all we get is a sort of confused back eddy. The good part is that taking off and landing are relatively easy. The bad part is that some of the heavy metal compounds in the atmosphere settle out on the pad. What passes for air on Venus has layers of red mercuric sulfide and mercurous chloride in the lower reaches, and when you get above them to those pretty fluffy clouds you find some of them are hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid.
But there are tricks to that, too. Navigation over Venus is 3-D. It's easy enough toproceed from point to point; your transponders will link you to the radio range and map your position continuously on to the charts. What's hard is to find the right altitude, and that's why my airbody and I were worth a million dollars to Cochenour.
We were at the airbody, and the telescoping snout from the crawler was poking out to its lock. Cochenour was staring out the bull's eye. "No wings!" he shouted, as though I was cheating him.
"No sails or snow chains, either," I shouted back. "Get aboard if you want to talk! It's easier in the airbody."
We climbed through the little snout, I unlocked the entrance, and we got aboard without much trouble.
We didn't even have the kind of trouble that I might have made myself. You see, an airbody is a big thing on Venus. I was damn lucky to have been able to acquire it and, well, I won't beat around the bush, you could say I loved it. Mine could have held ten people, without equipment. With what Sub Vastra's purchasing department had sold us and Local 88 had certified as essential aboard, it was crowded with just the three of us. I was prepared for sarcasm, at least. But Cochenour merely looked around long enough to find the best bunk, strode over to it and declared it his. The girl was a good sport, and there I was, left with my glands all charged up for an argument and no argument.
It was a lot quieter inside the airbody. You could hear the noise of the wind right enough, but it was only annoying. I passed out earplugs, and with them in place the noise was hardly even annoying.
"Sit down and strap up," I ordered, and when they were stowed away I took off.
At twenty thousand millibars wings aren't just useless, they're poison. My airbody had all the lift it needed built into the seashell-shaped hull. I fed the double fuels into the thermojets, we bounced across the reasonably flat ground around the spacepad (it was bulldozed once a week, which is how come it stayed reasonably flat) and we were zooming off into the wild yellow-green yonder, a moment later the wild brown-gray yonder, after a run of no more than fifty meters.
Cochenour had fastened his harness loosely for comfort. I enjoyed hearing him yell as he was thrown about. It didn't last. At the thousand-meter level I found Venus's semipermanent atmospheric inversion, and the turbulence dropped to where I could take off my belt and stand.
I took the plugs out of my ears and motioned to Cochenour and the girl to do the same.
He was rubbing his head where he'd bounced into an overhead chart rack, but grinning a little. "Pretty exciting," he admitted, fumbling in his pocket. Then he remembered to ask. "Is it all right if I smoke?"
"They're your lungs."
He grinned more widely. "They are now," he agreed, and lit up. "Say. Why didn't you give us those plugs while we were in the tractor?"
There is, as you might say, a tide in the affairs of guides, where you either let them flood you with questions and spend the whole time explaining what that funny little dial means or you go on to do your work and make your fortune. What it came down to was, was I going to come out of this liking Cochenour and his girlfriend or not?
If I was, I should try to be civil to them. More than civil. Living, the three of us, for three weeks in a space about as big as an apartment kitchenette meant everybody wouldhave to work real hard at being nice to everybody else, and as I was the one who was being paid to be nice, I should be the one to set an example. On the other hand, the Cochenours of the worlds are sometimes just not likeable. If that was going to be the case, the less talk the better; I should slide questions like that off with something like "I forgot."
But he hadn't actually been unpleasant, and the girlfriend had actually tried to be friendly. I said, "Well, that's an interesting thing. You see, you hear by differences in pressure. While we were taking off the plugs filtered out part of the sound--the pressure waves--but when I yelled at you to belt up, the plugs passed the overpressure of my voice, and you understood it. However, there's a limit. Past about a hundred and twenty decibels--that's a unit of sound--"
Cochenour growled, "I know what a decibel is."
"Right. Past a hundred and twenty the eardrum just doesn't respond anymore. So in the crawler it was too loud; with the plugs, you wouldn't have heard anything."
Dorotha had been listening while she repaired her eye makeup. "What was to hear?"
"Oh," I said, "nothing, really. Except, well--" Then I voted to think of them as friends, at least for the time being. "Except in the case of an accident. If we'd had a gust, you know, that crawler could have flipped right over. Or sometimes solid objects come flying over the hills and into you before you know it. Or-"
She was shaking her head. "I understand. Lovely place we're visiting, Boyce."
"Yeah. Look," he said. "Who's flying this thing?"
I got up and activated the virtual globe. "That's what I was just coming to. Right now it's on autopilot, heading in the general direction of this quadrant down here. We have to pick out a specific destination."
"That's Venus?" the girl asked. "It doesn't look like much."
"Those lines are just radio range markers; you won't see them looking out of the window. Venus doesn't have any oceans, and it isn't cut up into nations, so making a map of it isn't quite like what you'd expect on Earth. That bright spot is us. Now look." I overlaid the radio-range grid and the contour colors with mascon markings. "Those blobby circles are mascons. You know what a mascon is?"
"A concentration of mass. A lump of heavy stuff," offered the girl.
"Fine. Now look at the known Heechee digs." I phased them in as golden patterns.
"They're all in the mascons," Dorotha said at once. Cochenour gave her a look of tolerant approval.
"Not all. Look over here; this little one isn't, and this one. But damn near all. Why? I don't know. Nobody knows. The mass concentrations are mostly older, denser rock--basalt and so on--and maybe the Heechee found it easier to dig in. Or maybe they just liked it." In my correspondence with Professor Hegramet back on Earth, in the days when I didn't have a dying liver in my gut and took an interest in abstract knowledge, we had kicked around the possibility that the Heechee digging machines would only work in dense rock, or rock of a certain chemical composition. But I wasn't prepared to discuss that with them.
"See over here, where we are now"--I rotated the virtual globe slightly by turning a dial--"that's the big digging we just came out of. You can see the shape of the Spindle. It's a common shape, by the way. You can see it in some of the others if you look, and there are digs where it doesn't show on these tracings but it's there if you're on the spot.That particular mascon where the Spindle is is called Serendip; it was discovered by accident by a hesperological--"
"--a geological team operating on Venus, which makes it a hesperological team. They were drilling out core samples and hit the Heechee digs. Now these other digs in the northern high-latitudes you see are all in one bunch of associated mascons. They connect through interventions of less dense rock, but only where absolutely necessary."
Cochenour said sharply, "They're north and we're going south. Why?"
It was interesting that he could read the navigation instruments, but I didn't say so. I only said, "They're no good. They've been probed."
"They look even bigger than the Spindle."
"Hell of a lot bigger, right. But there's nothing much in them, or anyway not much chance that anything in them is in good enough shape to bother with. Subsurface fluids filled them up a hundred thousand years ago, maybe more. A lot of good men have gone broke trying to pump and excavate them, without finding anything. Ask me. I was one of them."
"I didn't know there was any liquid water on Venus or under it," Cochenour objected.
"I didn't say water, did I? But as a matter of fact some of it was, or anyway a sort of oozy mud. Apparently water cooks out of the rocks and has a transit time to the surface of some thousands of years before it seeps out, boils off, and cracks to hydrogen and oxygen and gets lost. In case you didn't know it, there's some under the Spindle. It's what you were drinking, and what you were breathing."
The girl said, "Boyce, this is all very interesting, but I'm hot and dirty. Can I change the subject for a minute?"
Cochenour barked; it wasn't really a laugh. "Subliminal prompting, Walthers, you agree? And a little old-fashioned prudery, too, I expect. What she really wants to do is go to the bathroom."
Given a little encouragement from the girl, I would have been mildly embarrassed for her, but she only said, "If we're going to live in this thing for three weeks, I'd like to know what it offers."
I said, "Certainly, Miss Keefer."
"Dorotha. Dorrie, if you like it better."
"Sure, Dorrie. Well, you see what we've got. Five bunks; they partition to sleep ten if wanted, but we don't want. Two shower stalls. They don't look big enough to soap yourself in, but they are if you work at it. Three chemical toilets. Kitchen over there--well. Pick the bunk you like, Dorrie. There's a screen arrangement that comes down when you want it for changing clothes and so on, or just if you don't want to look at the rest of us for a while."
Cochenour said, "Go on, Dorrie, do what you want to do. I want Walthers to show me how to fly this thing anyway."
It wasn't a bad start. I've had some real traumatic times, parties that came aboard drunk and steadily got drunker, couples that fought every waking minute and got together only to hassle me. This one didn't look bad at all, apart from the fact that it was going to save my life for me.
There's not much to flying an airbody, at least as far as making it move the way you want it to is concerned. In Venus's atmosphere there's lift to spare. You don't worry about things like stalling out; and anyway the autonomic controls do most of your thinking for you.
Cochenour learned fast. It turned out he had flown everything that moved on Earth and operated one-man submersibles as well. He understood as soon as I mentioned it to him that the hard part of pilotage was selecting the right flying level and anticipating when you'd have to change it, but he also understood that he wasn't going to learn that in one day. Or even in three weeks. "What the hell, Walthers," he said cheerfully enough. "At least I can make it go where I have to, in case you get caught in a tunnel or shot by a jealous husband."
I gave him the smile his pleasantry was worth, which wasn't much. "The other thing I can do," he said, "is cook. Unless you're really good at it? No, I thought not. Well, I paid too much for this stomach to fill it with hash, so I'll make the meals. That's a little skill Dorrie never got around to learning. Same with her grandmother. Most beautiful woman in the world, but had the idea that was all there was to it."
I put that aside to sort out later; he was full of little unexpected things, this ninety years old young athlete. He said, "All right, now while Dorrie's using up all the water in the shower--"
"Not to worry; it all recycles."
"Anyway. While she's cleaning up, finish your little lecture on where we're going."
"Right." I spun the virtual globe a little. The bright spot that was us had moved a dozen degrees already. "See that cluster where our track intersects those grid marks?"
"Yeah. Five big mascons close together, and no diggings indicated. Is that where we're going?"
"In a general sense, yes."
"Why in a general sense?"
"Well," I said, "there's one little thing I didn't tell you. I'm assuming you won't jump salty over it, because then I'll have to get salty too and tell you you should have taken the trouble to learn more about Venus before you decided to explore it."
He studied me appraisingly for a moment. Dorrie came quietly out of the shower in a long robe, her hair in a towel, and stood near him, watching. "It depends on what you didn't tell me," he said.
"There's a no-trespassing sign on most of those mascons," I said. I activated the pilotage chart overlay, and bright cherry-red warning lines sprang up all around the cluster.
"That's the south polar security area," I said. "That's where the Defense boys keep the missile range and the biggest part of their weapons development areas. And we're not allowed to enter."
He said harshly, "But there's only a little piece of one mascon that isn't off-limits."
"And that's where we're going," I said.
For a man more than ninety years old, Boyce Cochenour was spry. I don't mean just healthy looking. Full Medical will do that for you, because you just replace whatever wears out or begins to look shopworn and tatty. You cannot, however, very well replacethe brain, so what you usually see in the very rich old ones is a bronzed, strong body that shakes and hesitates and drops things and stumbles. About that Cochenour had been very lucky.
He was going to be wearing company for three weeks. He'd insisted I show him how to pilot the airbody. When I decided to use a little flight time to give the cooling system a somewhat premature thousand-hour check, he helped me pull the covers, check the refrigerant levels and clean the filters. Then he decided to cook us lunch.
The girl took over as my helper while I restowed some of the supplies to get the autosonic probes out. At the steady noise level of the inside of an airbody our normal conversational voices wouldn't carry to Cochenour, less than three meters away, and I thought of pumping her about him. I decided against it. What I didn't know was just curiosity. I knew he was paying me the price of a new liver already. I didn't need to know what he and the girl thought about when they thought about each other.
So our conversation was along the lines of how the probes would fire charges and time the echoes, and what the chances were of finding something really good ("Well, what are the chances of winning a sweepstake? Bad for any individual who buys a ticket--but there's always one winner somewhere!"), and what had made me come to Venus in the first place. I mentioned my father's name, but she'd never heard of him. Too young, for one thing, no doubt. And she was born and bred in Southern Ohio, where Cochenour had worked as a kid and to which he'd returned as a billionaire. He'd been building a new processing center there and it had been a lot of headaches--trouble with the unions, trouble with the banks, trouble, bad trouble, with the government--so he'd decided to take a few months off and loaf. I looked over to where he was stirring up a sauce and said, "He loafs harder than anybody else I ever saw."
"He's a work addict. I imagine that's how he got rich in the first place." The airbody lurched, and I dropped everything to jump for the controls. I heard Cochenour howl behind me, but I was busy locating the right transit level. By the time I had climbed a thousand meters and reset the autopilot, he was rubbing his wrist and glowering at me.
"Sorry," I said.
He said dourly, "I don't mind your scalding the skin off my arm, I can always buy more skin, but you nearly made me spill the gravy."
I checked the virtual globe. The bright marker was two-thirds of the way to our destination. "Is it about ready?" I asked. "We'll be there in an hour."
For the first time he looked startled. "So soon? I thought you said this thing was subsonic."
"I did. You're on Venus, Mr. Cochenour. At this level the speed of sound is maybe five thousand kilometers an hour."
He looked thoughtful, but all he said was, "Well, we can eat any minute." Later he said, while we were finishing up, "I think maybe I don't know as much about this planet as I might. If you want to give us the usual guide's lecture, we'll listen."
I said, "Well, you pretty much know the outlines. Say, you're a great cook, Mr. Cochenour. I packed all these provisions, but I don't even know what this is I'm eating."
"If you come to my office in Cincinnati," he said, "you can ask for Mr. Cochenour, but while we're living in each other's armpits you might as well call me Boyce. And if you like it, why aren't you eating it?"
The answer was, because it might kill me, but I didn't want to get into a discussionthat might lead to why I needed his fee so badly. I said, "Doctor's orders, have to lay off the fats pretty much for a while. I think he thinks I'm putting on too much weight."
Cochenour looked at me appraisingly, but only said, "The lecture?"
"Well, let's start with the most important part," I said, carefully pouring coffee. "While we're in the airbody you can do what you like, walk around, eat, drink, smoke if you got 'em, whatever. The cooling system is built for more than three times as many people, plus their cooking and appliance loads, with a safety factor of two. Air and water, more than we'd need for two months. Fuel, enough for three round-trips and some maneuvering. If anything went wrong we'd yell for help and somebody would come and get us in a couple of hours at most--probably it would be the Defense boys, and they have supersonic bodies. The worst thing would be if the hull breached and the whole Venusian atmosphere tried to come in. If it happened fast we'd be dead. It never happens fast, though. We'd have time to get in the suits, and we can live in them for thirty hours. Long before that we'd be picked up."
"Assuming, of course, that nothing went wrong with the radio at the same time," said Cochenour.
"Right. You can get killed anywhere, if enough accidents happen at once."
He poured himself another cup of coffee, tipped a little brandy into it and said, "Go on."
"Well, outside the airbody it's a little more tricky. You've only got the suit, and its useful life, as I say, is only thirty hours. It's a question of refrigeration. You can carry all the air and water you want, and you don't have to worry about food, but it takes a lot of compact energy to get rid of the diffuse energy all around you. It takes fuel for the cooling systems, and when that's gone you better be back in the airbody. Heat isn't the worst way to die. You pass out before you begin to hurt. But the end result is you're dead.
"The other thing is, you want to check your suit every time you put it on. Pressure it up and watch the gauge for leaks. I'll check it too, but don't rely on me. It's your life. And the faceplates are pretty strong; you can drive nails with them without breaking them, but they can be broken if hit hard enough against a hard enough surface. That way you're dead too."
Dorrie said quietly, "One question. Have you ever lost a tourist?"
"No." But then I added, "Others have. Five or six get killed every year."
"I don't mind odds like that," said Cochenour. "Actually, that wasn't the lecture I was asking for, Audee. I mean, I certainly want to hear how to stay alive, but I assume you would have told us all this before we left the ship anyway. What I really wanted to know was how come you picked this particular mascon to prospect."
This old geezer with the muscle-beach body was beginning to bother me. He had a disturbing habit of asking the questions I didn't want to answer. There was a reason why I had picked this site; it had to do with about five years of study, a lot of digging, and about a quarter of a million dollars' worth of correspondence, at space-mail rates, with people like Professor Hegramet back on Earth.
But I didn't want to tell him all of my reasons. There were about a dozen sites that I really wanted to explore. If this happened to be one of the payoff places, he would come out of it richer than I would--that's what the contracts you sign say: 40 percent to the charterer, 25 percent to the guide, the rest to the government--and that should be enough for him. If it happened not to pay off, I didn't want him taking some other guide to one of the others I'd marked.
So I only said, "Call it an informed guess. I promised you a good shot at a tunnel that's never been opened, and I hope to keep my promise. And now let's get the food put away; we're within ten minutes of where we're going."
With everything strapped down and ourselves belted up, we dropped out of the relatively calm layers into the big winds again.
We were over the big south-central massif, about the same elevation as the lands surrounding the Spindle. That's the elevation where most of the action is on Venus. Down in the lowlands and the deep rift valleys the pressures run fifty thousand millibars and up. My airbody wouldn't take any of that for very long, and neither would anybody else's, except for a few of the special research and military types. Fortunately, the Heechee didn't care for the lowlands either. Nothing of theirs has ever been located much below twenty-bar. Doesn't mean it isn't there, of course.
Anyway, I verified our position on the virtual globe and on the detail charts, and deployed the autosonic probes. The winds threw them all over the place as soon as they dropped free. It doesn't much matter where they go, within broad limits, which is a good thing. They dropped like javelins at first, then flew around like straws until the little rockets cut in and the ground-seeking controls fired them to the ground.
Every one embedded itself properly. You aren't always that lucky, so it was a good start.
I verified their position on the detail charts; it was close enough to an equilateral triangle, which is about how you want them. Then I opened the scanning range and began circling around.
"Now what?" bellowed Cochenour. I noticed the girl had put the earplugs back, but he wasn't willing to miss a thing.
"Now we wait for the probes to feel around for Heechee tunnels. It'll take a couple of hours." While I was talking I brought the airbody down through the surface layers. Now we were being thrown around. The buffeting got pretty bad, and so did the noise.
But I found what I was looking for, a surface formation like a blind arroyo, and tucked us into it with only one or two bad moments. Cochenour was watching very carefully, and I grinned to myself. That was where pilotage counted, not en route or at the prepared pads around the Spindle. When he could do that he could get along without somebody like me.
Our position looked all right, so I fired four hold-downs, tethered stakes with explosive heads that opened out in the ground. I winched them tight and all of them held.
That was also a good sign. Reasonably pleased with myself, I opened the belt catches and stood up. "We're here for at least a day or two," I said. "More if we're lucky. How did you like the ride?"
The girl was taking the earplugs out, now that the protecting walls of the arroyo had cut the thundering down to a mere constant scream. "I'm glad I don't get airsick," she said.
Cochenour was thinking, not talking. He was studying the control board while he lit another cigarette.
Dorotha said, "One question, Audee. Why couldn't we stay up where it's quieter?"
"Fuel. I carry about thirty hours, full thrust, but that's it. Is the noise bothering you?"
She made a face.
"You'll get used to it. It's like living next to a spaceport. At first you wonder how anybodystands the noise for a single hour. After you've been there a week you miss it if it stops."
She moved over to the bull's-eye and gazed pensively out at the landscape. We'd crossed into the night portion, and there wasn't much to see but dust and small objects whirling through our external light beams. "It's that first week that I'm worried about," she said.
I flicked on the probe readout. The little percussive heads were firing their slap-charges and measuring each other's sounds, but it was too early to see anything. The screen was barely beginning to build up a shadowy pattern, more holes than detail.
Cochenour finally spoke. "How long until you can make some sense out of that?" he demanded. Another point: He didn't ask what it was.
"Depends on how close and how big anything is. You can make a guess in an hour or so, but I like all the data I can get. Six or eight hours. I'd say. There's no hurry."
He growled, "I'm in a hurry, Walthers. Keep that in mind."
The girl cut in. "What should we do, Audee? Play three-handed bridge?"
"Whatever you want, but I'd advise some sleep. I've got pills if you want them. If we do find anything--and remember, if we hit on the first try it's just hundred-to-one luck--we'll want to be wide awake for a while."
"All right," said Dorotha, reaching out for the spansules, but Cochenour demanded:
"What about you?"
"Pretty soon. I'm waiting for something." He didn't ask what. Probably, I thought, because he already knew. I decided that when I did hit my bunk I wouldn't take a sleeping pill right away. This Cochenour was not only the richest tourist I had ever guided, he was one of the best informed, and I wanted to think about that for a while.
What I was waiting for took almost an hour to come. The boys were getting a little sloppy; they should have been after us before this.
The radio buzzed and then blared: "Unidentified vessel at one three five, zero seven, four eight and seven two, five one, five four! Please identify yourself and state your purpose!"
Cochenour looked up inquiringly from his gin game with the girl. I smiled reassuringly. "As long as they're saying 'please' there's no problem," I told him, and opened the transmitter.
"This is Pilot Audee Walthers, airbody Poppa Tare Nine One, out of the Spindle. We are licensed and have filed approved flight plans. I have two Terry tourists aboard, purpose recreational exploration."
"Acknowledge. Please wait," blared the radio. The military always broadcasts at maximum gain. Hangover from drill-sergeant days, no doubt.
I turned off the microphone and told my passengers, "They're checking our flight plan. Not to worry about."
In a moment the Defense communicator came back, loud as ever. "You are eleven point four kilometers bearing one eight three degrees from terminator of a restricted area. Proceed with caution. Under Military Regulations One Seven and One Eight, Sections--"
I cut in, "I know the drill. I have my guide's license and have explained the restrictions to the passengers."
"Acknowledged," blared the radio. "We will keep you under surveillance. If you observevessels or parties on the surface, they are our perimeter teams. Do not interfere with them in any way. Respond at once to any request for identification or information." The carrier buzz cut off.
Cochenour said, "They act nervous."
"No. They're used to seeing us around. They've got nothing else to do, that's all."
Dorrie said hesitantly, "Audee, you told them you'd explained the restrictions to us. I don't remember that part."
"Oh, I explained them all right. We stay out of the restricted area, because if we don't they'll start shooting. That is the Whole of the Law."
I set a wake-up for four hours, and the others heard me moving around and got up too. Dorrie fetched us coffee from the warmer, and we stood drinking it and looking at the patterns the computer had traced.
I took several minutes to study them, although it was clear enough at first look. There were eight major anomalies that could have been Heechee warrens. One was almost right outside our door. We wouldn't even have to move the airbody to dig for it.
I showed them the anomalies, one by one. Cochenour just looked at them thoughtfully. Dorotha asked after a moment, "You mean all of these are unexplored tunnels?"
"No. Wish they were. But, one: Any or all of them could have been explored by someone who didn't go to the trouble of recording it. Two: They don't have to be tunnels. They might be fracture faults, or dikes, or little rivers of some kind of molten material that ran out of somewhere and hardened and got covered over a billion years ago. The only thing we know for sure so far is that there probably aren't any unexplored tunnels in this area except in those eight places."
"So what do we do?"
"We dig. And then we see what we've got."
Cochenour said, "Where do we dig?"
I pointed right next to the bright delta of our airbody. "Right here."
"Because it's the best bet?"
"Well, not necessarily." I considered what to tell him, and decided the truth was the best. "There are three that look like better bets than the others--here, I'll mark them." I keyed the chart controls, and the best looking traces immediately displayed letters: A, B and C. "A runs right under the arroyo here, so we'll dig it first."
"Those three because they're the brightest?"
I nodded, somewhat annoyed at his quickness, although it was obvious enough.
."But C over here is the brightest of the lot. Why don't we dig that first?"
I chose my words carefully. "Because we'd have to move the airbody. And because it's on the outside perimeter of the survey area; that means the results aren't as reliable as they are for this one right under us. But those aren't the most important reasons. The most important reason is that C is on the edge of the line our itchy-fingered friends are telling us to stay away from."
Cochenour laughed incredulously. "You mean you're telling me that if you find a real untouched Heechee tunnel you'll stay out of it just because some soldier tells you it's a no-no?"
I said, "The problem doesn't arise just yet; we have seven anomalies to look at that are legal. Also, the military will be checking us from time to time, particularly in the next day or two."
Cochenour insisted, "All right, suppose we check them and find nothing. What do we do then?"
I shook my head. "I never borrow trouble. Let's check the legal ones."
"Damn it, Boyce! How do I know?"
He gave it up then, but winked at Dorrie and chuckled. "What did I tell you, honey? He's a bigger bandit than I am."
For the next couple of hours we didn't have much time to talk about theoretical possibilities, because we were too busy with concrete facts.
The biggest fact was an awful lot of hot high-speed gas that we had to keep from killing us. My own hot-suit was custom made, of course, and only needed the fittings and tanks to be checked. Boyce and the girl had rental units. They'd paid top dollar for them, and they were good, but good isn't perfect. I had them in and out of them a dozen times, checking the fit and varying tensions until they were as right as I could get them. There's a lot of heat and pressure to keep out when you go about the surface of Venus. The suits were laminated twelve-ply, with nine degrees of freedom at the essential joints. They wouldn't fail; that wasn't what I was worried about. What I was worried about was comfort, because a very small itch or rub can get serious when there's no way to stop it.
But finally they were good enough for a first trial, and we all huddled in the lock and exited on to the surface of Venus.
We were still darkside, but there's so much scatter from the sun that it doesn't get really dark more than a quarter of the time. I let them practice walking around the airbody, leaning into the wind, bracing themselves against the hold-downs and the side of the ship, while I got ready to dig.
I hauled out our first instant igloo, dragged it into position, and ignited it. As it smoldered it puffed up like the children's toy that used to be called a Pharaoh's Serpent, producing a light, tough ash that grew up around the digging site and joined in a seamless dome at the top. I'd already emplaced the digging torch and the crawl-through lock; as the ash grew I manhandled the lock to get a close union, and got a perfect join first time.
Dorrie and Cochenour stayed out of the way when they caught sight of my waving arm, but hung together, watching through their triple-vision plugs. I keyed on the radio. "You want to come in and watch me start it up?" I shouted.
Inside the helmets, they both nodded their heads. "Come on, then," I yelled, and wiggled through the crawl lock. I signed for them to leave it open as they followed me in.
With the three of us and the digging equipment in it, the igloo was even more crowded than the airbody. They backed away as far as they could get, bent against the arc of the igloo wall, while I started up the augers, checked they were vertical, and watched the first castings spiral out.
The foam igloo absorbs more sound than it reflects. Even so, the din inside the igloo was a lot worse than in the howling winds outside. When I thought they'd seen enoughto satisfy them for the moment, I waved them out of the crawl-through, followed, sealed it behind us, and led them back into the airbody.
"So far, so good," I said, twisting off the helmet and loosening the suit. "We've got about forty meters to go, I think. Might as well wait in here as out there."
"How long is that?"
"Maybe an hour. You can do what you like; what I'm going to do is take a shower. Then we'll see how far we've got."
That was one of the nice things about having only three people aboard: We didn't have to worry about water discipline very much. It's astonishing how a quick wet-down revives you after coming out of a hotsuit. When I'd finished mine I felt ready for anything.
I was even prepared to eat some of Boyce Cochenour's gourmet cookery, but fortunately it wasn't necessary. The girl had taken over the kitchen, and what she laid out was simple, light, and reasonably nontoxic. On cooking like hers I might be able to survive long enough to collect my charter fee. It crossed my mind for a moment to wonder what made her do it; and then I thought, of course, she'd had a lot of practice. With all the spare parts in Cochenour, no doubt he had dietary problems far worse than mine.
Well, not "worse," exactly, in the sense that I didn't think he was quite as likely to die of them.
According to the autosonic probes, the highest point of the tunnel I had marked "A," or of whatever it was that had seemed like tunnels to their shock waves, was close to the little blind valley in which I'd tied down.
That was very lucky. It meant that we might very possibly be right over the Heechee's own entrance.
The reason that was lucky was not that we would be able to use it the way the Heechee had used it. There wasn't much chance that its mechanisms would have survived a quarter of a million years, much of it exposed to surface wind, ablation, and chemical corrosion. The good part was that if the tunnel had surfaced here it would be relatively easy to bore down to it. Even a quarter of a million years doesn't produce really hard rock, especially without surface water to dissolve out solids and produce compact sediments.
Up to a point, it turned out pretty much the way I had hoped. What was on the surface was little more than ashy sand, and the augers chewed it out very rapidly. Too rapidly; when I went back into the igloo it was filled almost solid with castings, and I had a devil of a job getting to the machines to switch the auger over to pumping the castings out through the crawl lock.
It was a dull, dirty part of the job, but it didn't take long.
I didn't bother to go back into the airbody. I reported what was happening over the radio to Boyce and the girl, staring out of the ports at me. I told them I thought we were getting close.
But I didn't tell them exactly how close. Actually, we were only a meter or two from the indicated depth of the anomaly, so close that I didn't bother to pump out all of the castings. I just made enough room to maneuver around, then redirected the augers; and in five minutes the castings were beginning to come up with the pale blue glimmer that was the sign of a Heechee tunnel.
About ten minutes after that I keyed on my helmet transmitter and shouted: "Boyce! Dorrie! We've hit a tunnel!"
Either they were sitting around in their suits or they dressed faster than any maze rat. I unsealed the crawl-through and wiggled out to help them, and they were already coming out of the airbody, staggering against the wind over to me.
They were both yelling questions and congratulations, but I stopped them. "Inside," I ordered. "See for yourself." As a matter of fact, they didn't have to go that far. They could see the color as soon as they knelt to enter the crawl-through.
I followed, and sealed the lock behind me. The reason for that is simple enough. As long as the tunnel isn't breached, it doesn't matter what you do. But the interior of a Heechee tunnel that has remained inviolate is at a pressure only slightly above Earth-normal. Without the sealed dome, the minute you crack the casing you let the whole twenty-thousand-millibar atmosphere of Venus pour in, heat and ablation and all. If the tunnel is empty, or if what's in it is simple, sturdy stuff, there might not be any harm. But if you hit the jackpot you can destroy in half a second what has waited for a quarter of a million years.
We gathered around the shaft and I pointed down. The augers had left a clean shaft, about seventy centimeters by a little over a hundred, with rounded ends. At the bottom you could see the cold blue glow of the outside of the tunnel, only pocked and blotched by the loose castings I hadn't bothered to get out.
"Now what?" demanded Boyce. His voice was hoarse with excitement, which was, I guessed, natural enough.
"Now we burn our way in."
I backed my clients away as far as they could get, pressed against the remaining heap of castings, and unlimbered the fire-jets. I'd already hung sheer-legs over the shaft, and they went right down on their cable with no trouble until they were a few centimeters above the round of the tunnel. Then I fired them up.
You wouldn't think that anything a human being might do would change the temperature of the surface of Venus, but those fire-drills were something special. In the small space of the igloo the heat flamed up and around us, and our hotsuit cooling systems were overloaded in seconds.
Dorrie gasped, "Oh! I--I think I'm going to--"
Cochenour grabbed her. "Faint if you want to," he said fiercely, "but don't get sick. Walthers! How long does this go on?"
It was as hard for me as it was for them; practice doesn't get you used to something like standing in front of a blast furnace with the doors off the hinges. "Maybe a minute," I gasped. "Hold on--it's all right."
It actually took a little more than that, maybe ninety seconds; my suit telltales were shouting alarm for more than half of the time. But they were built for these overloads, and as long as we didn't cook, the suits wouldn't take any permanent harm.
Then we were through. A half-meter circular section sagged, fell at one side and hung there.
I turned off the firejets, and we all breathed hard for a couple of minutes, while the suit coolers gradually caught up with the load.
"Wow," said Dorotha. "That was pretty rough."
I looked at Cochenour. In the light that splashed up out of the shaft I could see he was frowning. I didn't say anything. I just gave the jets another five-second burn to cut away the rest of the circular section, and it fell free into the tunnel. We could hear it clatter against the floor.
Then I turned on my helmet radio. "There's no pressure differential," I said.
The frown didn't change, nor did he speak.
"Which means this one has been breached," I went on. "Let's go back to the airbody and take a break before we do anything else."
Dorotha shrieked, "Audee! What's the matter with you? I want to go down there and see what's inside!"
Cochenour said bitterly, "Shut up, Dorrie. Don't you hear what he's saying? This one's a dud."
Well, there's always the chance that a breached tunnel opened up to a seismological invasion, not a maze rat with a cutting torch, and if so, there might be something worthwhile in it anyway. And I didn't have the heart to kill all Dorotha's enthusiasm with one blow.
So we did swing down the cable, one by one, into the Heechee dig, and look around.
It was wholly bare, as most of them are, as far as we could see. That wasn't actually very far, for the other thing wrong with a breached tunnel is that you need pretty good equipment to explore it. With the overloads they'd already had, our suits were all right for a couple of hours but not much more than that, and when we tramped about half a mile down the tunnel without finding a thing, they were both willing to tramp back and return to the airbody.
We cleaned up and made ourselves something to drink. Even squandering more of the water reserves on showers didn't do much for our spirits.
We had to eat, but Cochenour didn't bother with his gourmet exhibition. Silently, Dorotha threw tabs into the radar oven, and we fed gloomily on emergency rations.
"Well, that's only the first one," she said at last, determined to be sunny about it. "And it's only our second day."
Cochenour said, "Shut up, Dorrie; the one thing I'm not is a good loser." He was staring at the probe trace. "Walthers, how many tunnels are unmarked but empty, like this one?"
"How can I answer a question like that? If they're unmarked, there's no record of them."
"So those traces don't mean anything. We might dig one a day for the next three weeks and find every one a dud."
I nodded. "We surely might, Boyce."
He looked at me alertly. "And?"
"And that's not the worst part of it. I've taken parties out to dig who would've gone mad with joy to open even a breached tunnel. It's perfectly possible to dig every day for weeks and never hit a real Heechee tunnel at all. Don't knock it; at least you got some action for your money."
"I told you, Walthers, I'm not a good loser. Second place is no good." He thought for a minute, then barked: "You picked this spot. Did you know what you were doing?"
Did I? The only way to answer that question would be to find a live one, of course. I could have told him about the months of studying records from the first landings on. I could have mentioned how much trouble I went to, and how many regulations I broke, to get the military survey reports, or how far I'd traveled to talk to the Defense crews who'd been on those early digs. I might have let him know how hard it had been to locate old Jorolemon Hegramet, now teaching exotic archeology back in Tennessee, and how many times we'd corresponded; but all I said was, "The fact that we found one tunnel shows I knew my business as a guide. That's all you paid for. It's up to you if we keep looking or not."
He looked at his thumbnail, considering.
The girl said cheerfully, "Buck up, Boyce. Look at all the other chances we've got--and even if we miss, it'll still be fun telling everybody about it back in Cincinnati."
He didn't even look at her, just said, "Isn't there any way to tell whether a tunnel has been breached or not without going inside?"
"Sure," I said. "You can tell by tapping the outside shell. You can hear the difference in the sound."
"But you have to dig down to it first?"
We left it at that, and I got back into my hotsuit to strip away the now useless igloo so that we could move the drills.
I didn't really want to discuss it anymore, because I didn't want him to ask a question that I might want to lie about. I try the best I can to tell the truth, because it's easier to remember what you've said that way.
On the other hand, I'm not fanatic about it, and I don't see that it's any of my business to correct a mistaken impression. For instance, obviously Cochenour and the girl had the impression that I hadn't bothered to sound the tunnel casing because we'd already dug down to it and it was just as easy to cut in.
But, of course, I had tested it. That was the first thing I did as soon as the drill got down that far. And when I heard the high-pressure thunk it broke my heart. I had to wait a couple of minutes before I could call them to tell them that we'd reached the outer casing.
At that time, I had not quite faced up to the question of just what I would have done if it had turned out that the tunnel had not been breached.
Cochenour and Dorrie Keefer were maybe the fiftieth or sixtieth party I'd taken on a Heechee dig, and I wasn't surprised that they were willing to work like coolies. I don't care how lazy and bored they start out, by the time they actually come close to finding something that belonged to an almost completely unknown alien race, left there when the closest thing to a human being on Earth was a slope-browed furry little beast killing other beasts with antelope bones, they begin to burn with exploration fever.
So they worked hard, and drove me hard, and I was as eager as they. Maybe more so,as the days went past and I found myself rubbing my right side, just under the short ribs, more and more of the time.
The military boys overflew us half a dozen times in the first few days. They didn't say much, just formal requests for identification, which they already well knew, then away. Regulations say if you find anything you're supposed to report it right away. Over Cochenour's objections, I reported finding that first breached tunnel, which surprised them a little, I think.
And that's all we had to report.
Site B was a pegmatite dike. The other two fairly bright ones, that I called D and E, showed nothing at all when we dug, meaning that the sound reflections had probably been caused by nothing more than invisible interfaces in layers of rock or ash or gravel. I vetoed trying to dig C, the best looking of the bunch. Cochenour gave me a hell of an argument about it, but I held out. The military were still looking in on us every now and then, and I didn't want to get any closer to their perimeter than we already were. I half-promised that, if we didn't have any luck elsewhere in the mascons, we'd sneak back to C for a quick dig before returning to the Spindle, and we left it at that.
We lifted the airbody, moved to a new position, and set out a new pattern of probes.
By the end of the second week we had dug nine times and come up empty every time. We were getting low on igloos and probes. We'd run out of tolerance for each other completely.
Cochenour had turned sullen and savage. I hadn't planned on liking the man much when I first met him, but I hadn't expected him to be as bad as that. Considering that it had to be only a game with him--with all his money, the extra fortune he might pick up by discovering some new Heechee artifacts couldn't have meant anything but extra points on a score pad--he was playing for blood.
I wasn't particularly graceful myself, for that matter. The plain fact was that the pills from the Quackery weren't helping as much as they should. My mouth tasted like rats had nested in it, I was getting headaches, and I was beginning to knock things over. See, the thing about the liver is that it sort of regulates your internal diet. It filters out poisons, it converts some of the carbohydrates into other carbohydrates that you can use, it patches together amino acids into proteins. If it isn't working, you die. The doctor had been all over it with me, and I could visualize what was going on inside me, the mahogany-red cells dying and being replaced by clusters of fat and yellowish matter. It was an ugly kind of picture. The ugliest part was that there wasn't anything I could do about it. Only go on taking pills, and they wouldn't work past a matter of a few days more. Liver, bye-bye; hepatic failure, hello.
So we were a bad bunch. Cochenour was a bastard because it was his nature to be a bastard, and I was a bastard because I was sick and desperate. The only decent human being aboard was the girl.
She did her best, she really did. She was sometimes sweet and often even pretty, and she was always ready to meet the power people, Cochenour and me, more than halfway. It was clearly tough on her. She was only a kid. No matter how grown up she acted, she just hadn't been alive long enough to grow a defense against concentrated meanness. Add in the fact that we were all beginning to hate the sight and sound and smell of each other (and in an airbody you get to know a lot about how people smell). There wasn't much joy on Venus for Dorrie Keefer.
Or for any of us, especially after I broke the news that we were down to our last igloo.
Cochenour cleared his throat. He sounded like a fighter-plane jockey blowing the covers off his guns in preparation for combat, and Dorrie attempted to head him off with a diversion. "Audee," she said brightly, "you know what I think we could do? We could go back to that site that looked good near the military reservation."
It was the wrong diversion. I shook my head. "No."
"What the hell do you mean, 'No'?"rumbled Cochenour, revving up for battle.
"What I said. No. That's a desperation trick, and I'm not that desperate."
"Walthers," he snarled, "you'll be desperate when I tell you to be desperate. I can still stop payment on that check."
"No, you can't. The union won't let you. The regulations are very clear about that. You pay up unless I disobey a lawful directive; you can't make me do anything against the law, and going inside the military reservation is extremely against the law."
He shifted over to cold war. "No," he said softly, "you're wrong about that. It's only against the law if a court says it is, after we do it. You're only right if your lawyers are smarter than my lawyers. Honestly, Walthers, I pay my lawyers to be the smartest there are."
The difficult part was that he was even more right than he knew he was, because my liver was on his side. I couldn't spare time for arbitration because without his money and my transplant I wouldn't live that long.
Dorrie, listening with her birdlike look of friendly interest, got between us again. "Well, then, how about this? We just put down here. Why don't we wait and see what the probes show? Maybe we'll hit something even better than that Trace C--"
"There isn't going to be anything good here," he said without looking at her.
"Why, Boyce, how do you know that? We haven't even finished the soundings."
He said, "Look, Dorotha, listen close one time and then shut up. Walthers is playing games. You see where we are now?"
He brushed past me and tapped out the program for a full map display, which somewhat surprised me because I didn't know he knew how. The charts sprang up with virtual images of our position, the shafts we'd already cut, the great irregular edge of the military reservation overlaid on the plot of mascons and navigation aids.
"You see? We're not even in the high-density mass areas now. Is that true, Walthers? We've tried all the good locations and come up dry?"
I said, "You're partly right, Mr. Cochenour, but I'm not playing games. This site is a good possibility. You can see it on the map. We're not over any mascon, that's true, but we're right between two of them that are located pretty close together. Sometimes you find a dig that connects two complexes, and it has happened that the connecting passage was closer to the surface than any other part of the system. I can't guarantee we'll hit anything here, but it's not impossible."
"Just damn unlikely?"
"Well, no more unlikely than anywhere else. I told you a week ago, you got your money's worth the first day just finding any Heechee tunnel at all, even a spoiled one. There are maze rats in the Spindle who went five years without seeing that much." I thought for a minute. "I'll make a deal with you," I said.
"We're down here, and there's at least a chance we can hit something. Let's try. We'lldeploy the probes and see what they turn up. If we get a good trace we'll dig it. If we don't--then I'll think about going back to Trace C."
"Think about it!" he roared.
"Don't push me, Cochenour. You don't know what you're getting into. The military reservation is not to be fooled with. Those boys shoot first and ask questions later, and there aren't any policemen or courts on Venus to even ask them questions."
"I don't know," he said after a moment.
"No," I said, "you don't, Mr. Cochenour, and that's what you're paying me for. I do know."
"Yes," he agreed, "you probably do, but whether you're telling me the truth about what you know is another question. Hegramet never said anything about digging between mascons."
And then he looked at me with a completely opaque expression, waiting to see whether I would catch him up on what he had just said.
I didn't respond. I gave him an opaque look back. I didn't say a word; I only waited to see what would come next. I was pretty sure that it would not be any sort of explanation of how he happened to know Hegramet's name, or what dealings he had had with the greatest Earthside authority on Heechee diggings, and it wasn't.
"Put out your probes and we'll try it your way one more time," he said at last.
I plopped the probes out, got good penetration on all of them, started firing the noisemakers. I sat watching the first buildup of lines on the scan as though I expected them to carry useful information. They couldn't, of course, but it was a good excuse to think privately for a moment.
Cochenour needed to be thought about. He hadn't come to Venus just for the ride, that was clear. He had known he was going to be sinking shafts after Heechee digs before he ever left Earth. He had briefed himself on the whole bit, even to handling the instruments on the airbody. My sales talk about Heechee treasures had been wasted on a customer whose mind had been made up to buy at least half a year earlier and tens of millions of miles away.
All that I understood, but the more I understood the more I saw that I didn't understand. What I really wanted was to give Cochenour a quarter and send him to the movies for a while so I could talk privately to the girl. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to send him. I managed to force a yawn, complain about the boredom of waiting for the probe traces to build up, and suggest a nap. Not that I would have been real confident he wasn't lying there with his ears flapping, listening to us. It didn't matter. Nobody acted sleepy but me. All I got out of it was an offer from Dorrie to watch the screen and wake me if anything interesting turned up.
So I said the hell with it and went to sleep myself.
It was not a good sleep, because lying there waiting for it gave me time to notice how truly lousy I felt, and in how many ways. There was a sort of permanent taste of bile in the back of my mouth not so much as though I wanted to throw up as it was as though I just had. My head ached, and I was beginning to see ghost images wandering fuzzily around my field of vision. When I took my pills I didn't count the ones that were left. I didn't want to know.
I'd set my private alarm for three hours, thinking maybe that would give Cochenour time to get sleepy and turn in, leaving the girl up and about and perhaps conversational.But when I woke up there was Cochenour, cooking himself a herb omelette with the last of our sterile eggs. "You were right, Walthers," he grinned, "I was sleepy. Had a nice little nap. Ready for anything now. Want some eggs?"
Actually I did want them; but of course I didn't dare eat them, so I glumly swallowed what the Quackery had allowed me to have and watched him stuff himself. It was unfair that a man of ninety could be so healthy that he didn't have to think about digestion, while I was--well, there wasn't any profit in that kind of thinking, so I offered to play some music, and Dorrie picked Swan Lake, and I started it up.
And then I had an idea and headed for the tool lockers. They needed checking. The auger heads were about due for replacement, and I knew we were low on spares; and the other thing about the tool lockers was that they were as far from the galley as you could get and stay inside the airbody, and I hoped Dorrie would follow me. And she did.
"Need any help, Audee?"
"Glad to have it," I said. "Here, hold these for me. Don't get the grease on your clothes." I didn't expect her to ask me why they had to be held. She didn't. She only laughed.
"Grease? I don't think I'd even notice it, dirty as I am. I guess we're all about ready to get back to civilization."
Cochenour was frowning over the probe trace and paying us no attention. I said, "Meaning which kind of civilization, the Spindle or Earth?"
What I had in mind was to start her talking about Earth, but she went the other way. "Oh, the Spindle, Audee. I thought it was fascinating, and we really didn't get to see much of it. And the people. Like that Indian fellow who ran the cafe. The cashier was his wife, wasn't she?"
"One of them. She's the number-one wife; the waitress was number three, and he has another one at home with the kids. There are five of them, all three wives involved." But I wanted to go in the other direction, so I said, "It's pretty much the same as on Earth. Vastra would be running a tourist trap in Benares if he wasn't running one here, and he wouldn't be here if he hadn't shipped out with the military and terminated here. I'd be guiding in Texas, I suppose. If there's any open country left to guide in, maybe up along the Canadian River. How about you?"
All the time I was picking up the same four or five tools, studying the serial numbers and putting them back. She didn't notice.
"How do you mean?"
"Well, what did you do before you came here?"
"Oh, I worked in Boyce's office for a while."
That was encouraging; maybe she'd remember something about his connection with Professor Hegramet. "What were you, a secretary?"
"Something like that. Boyce let me handle--oh, what's that?"
That was an incoming call on the radio, that was what that was.
"So go answer," snarled Cochenour from across the airbody.
I took it on the earjack, since that is my nature; there isn't any privacy to speak of in an airbody, and I want what little crumbs of it I can find. It was the base calling, a comm sergeant I knew named Littleknees. I signed in irritably, regretting the lost chance to pump Dorotha about her boss.
"A private word for you, Audee," said Sergeant Littleknees. "Got your sahib around?"
Littleknees and I had exchanged radio chatter for a long time, and there was somethingabout the cheerfulness of the tone that bothered me. I didn't look at Cochenour, but I knew he was listening--only to my side, of course, because of the earjack. "In sight but not receiving," I said. "What have you got for me?"
"Just a little news bulletin," the sergeant purred. "It came over the synsat net a couple of minutes ago. Information only. That means we don't have to do anything about it, but maybe you do, honey."
"Standing by," I said, studying the plastic housing of the radio.
The sergeant chuckled. "Your sahib's charter captain would like to have a word with him when found. It's kind of urgent, 'cause the captain is righteously kissed off."
"Yes, base," I said. "Your signals received, strength ten."
The sergeant made an amused noise again, but this time it wasn't a chuckle, it was a downright giggle. "The thing is," she said, "his check for the charter fee bounced. Want to know what the bank said? You'd never guess. 'Insufficient funds,' that's what they said."
The pain under my right lower ribs was permanent, but right then it seemed to get a lot worse. I gritted my teeth. "Ah, Sergeant Littleknees," I croaked, "can you, ah, verify that estimate?"
"Sorry, honey," she buzzed sympathetically in my ear, "but there's no doubt in the world. Captain got a credit report on him and it turned up n.g. When your customer gets back to the Spindle there'll be a make-good warrant waiting for him."
"Thank you for the synoptic report," I said hollowly. "I will verify departure time before we take off."
And I turned off the radio and gazed at my rich billionaire client.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Walthers?" he growled.
But I wasn't hearing his voice. I was hearing what the happy fellow at the Quackery had told me. The equations were unforgettable. Cash = new liver + happy survival. No cash = total hepatic failure + death. And my cash supply had just dried up.
When you get a really big piece of news you have to let it trickle through your system and get thoroughly absorbed before you do anything about it. It isn't a matter of seeing the implications. I saw them right away, you bet. It's a matter of letting the system reach an equilibrium state. So I puttered for a minute. I listened to Tchaikovsky. I made sure the radio switch was off so as not to waste power. I checked the synoptic plot. It would have been nice if there had been something to show, but, the way things were going, there wouldn't be, of course, and there wasn't. A few pale echoes were building up. But nothing with the shape of a Heechee dig, and nothing very bright. The data were still coming in, but there was no way for those feeble plots to turn into the mother lode that could save us all, even broke bastard Cochenour. I even looked out at as much of the sky as I could to see how the weather was. It didn't matter, but some of the high white calomel clouds were scudding among the purples and yellows of the other mercury halides. It was beautiful and I hated it.
Cochenour had forgotten about his omelette and was watching me thoughtfully. So was Dorrie, still holding the augers in their grease-paper wrap. I grinned at her. "Pretty," I said, referring to the music. The Auckland Philharmonic was just getting to the partwhere the little swans come out arm in arm and do a fast, bouncy pas de quatre across the stage. It has always been one of my favorite parts of Swan Lake. "We'll listen to the rest of it later," I said, and snapped it off.
"All right," snarled Cochenour, "what's going on?"
I sat down on an igloo pack and lit a cigarette, because one of the adjustments my internal system had made was to calculate that we didn't have to worry much about coddling our oxygen supply anymore. I said, "There's a question that's bothering me, Cochenour. How did you get on to Professor Hegramet?"
He grinned and relaxed. "Is that all that's on your mind? I checked the place out before I came. Why not?"
"No reason, except that you let me think you didn't know a thing."
He shrugged. "If you had any brains you'd know I didn't get rich by being stupid. You think I'd come umpty-million miles without knowing what I was coming to?"
"No, you wouldn't, but you did your best to make me think you would. No matter. So you dug up somebody who could point you to whatever was worth stealing on Venus, and somebody steered you to Hegramet. Then what? Did he tell you I was dumb enough to be your boy?"
Cochenour wasn't quite as relaxed, but he wasn't aggressive either. He said, "Hegramet told me you were the right guide to find a virgin tunnel. That's all--except briefing on the Heechee and so on. If you hadn't come to us I would have come to you; you just saved me the trouble."
I said, a little surprised, "You know, I think you're telling me the truth. Except you left out one thing: It wasn't the fun of making more money that you were after, it was just money, right? Money that you needed." I turned to Dorotha, standing frozen with the augers in her hand. "How about it, Dorrie? Did you know the old man was broke?"
Putting it that way was not too smart. I saw what she was about to do just before she did it, and jumped off the igloo. I was a little too late. She dropped the augers before I could get them from her, but fortunately they landed flat and the blades weren't chipped. I picked them up and put them away.
She had answered the question well enough.
I said, "I see you didn't know. Tough on you, doll. His check to the captain of the Gagarin is still bouncing, and I would imagine the one he gave me isn't going to be much better. I hope you got it in furs and jewels, and my advice to you is to hide them before the creditors want them back."
She didn't even look at me. She was only looking at Cochenour, whose expression was all the confirmation she needed.
I don't know what I expected from her, rage or reproaches or tears. What she did was whisper, "Oh, Boyce, I'm so sorry," and she went over and put her arm around him.
I turned my back on them, because I didn't like looking at him. The strapping ninety years old buck in Full Medical had turned into a defeated old man. For the first time, he looked all of his age and maybe a little more: the mouth half open, trembling; the straight back stooped; the bright blue eyes watering. She stroked him and crooned to him.
I looked at the synoptic web again, for lack of anything better to do. It was about as clear as it was going to get, and it was empty. We had nearly a 50 percent overlap from our previous soundings, so I could tell that the interesting-looking scratches at one edgewere nothing to get excited about. We'd checked them out already. They were only ghosts.
There was no rescue there.
Curiously, I felt kind of relaxed. There is something tranquillizing about the realization that you have nothing much left to lose. It puts things in a different perspective. I don't mean to say that I had given up completely. There were still things I could do. They might not have anything to do with prolonging my life, but the taste in my mouth and the pain in my gut weren't letting me enjoy life very much anyway. I could, for instance, write Audee Walthers off; since only a miracle could keep me from dying in a matter of days, I could accept the fact that I wasn't going to be alive a week from now and use what time I had for something else. What else? Well, Dorrie was a nice kid. I could fly the airbody back to the Spindle, turn Cochenour over to the gendarmes, and spend my last day or so introducing her around. Vastra or BeeGee would help her get organized. She might not even have to go into prostitution or the rackets. The high season wasn't that far off, and she would do well with a little booth of prayer fans and Heechee lucky pieces for the Terry tourists. Maybe that wasn't much, even from her point of view, but it was something.
Or I could fling myself on the mercy of the Quackery. They might let me have the new liver on credit. The only reason I had for thinking they wouldn't was that they never had.
Or I could open the two-fuel valves and let them mix for ten minutes or so before hitting the igniter. The explosion wouldn't leave much of the airbody or us, and nothing at all of our problems.
"Oh, hell." I said. "Buck up, Cochenour. We're not dead yet."
He looked at me for a minute. He patted Dorrie's shoulder and pushed her away, gently enough. He said, "I will be, soon enough. I'm sorry about all this, Dorotha. And I'm sorry about your check, Walthers; I expect you needed the money."
"You have no idea."
He said with difficulty, "Do you want me to explain?"
"I don't see that it makes any difference, but, yes, out of curiosity I do."
I let him tell me, and he did it steadily and succinctly. I could have guessed. A man his age is either very, very rich or dead. He was only quite rich. He'd kept his industries going on what was left after he siphoned off the costs of transplant and treatment, cal-ciphylaxis and prosthesis, protein regeneration here, cholesterol flushing there, a million for this, a hundred grand a week for that ... oh, it went, I could see that. "You just don't know," he said, "what it takes to keep a hundred-year-old man alive until you try it."
I corrected him automatically. "Ninety, you mean."
"No, not ninety, and not even a hundred. I think it's at least a hundred and ten, and it could be more than that. Who counts? You pay the doctors and they patch you up for a month or two. You wouldn't know."
Oh, wouldn't I just, I said, but not out loud. I let him go on, telling about how the federal inspectors were closing in and he skipped Earth to make his fortune all over again on Venus.
But I wasn't listening anymore; I was writing on the back of a navigation form. When I was finished, I passed it over to Cochenour. "Sign it," I said.
"What is it?"
"Does it matter? You don't have any choice, do you? But it's a release from the all-rights section of our charter agreement; you acknowledge you have no claim, that your check's rubber, and that you voluntarily waive your ownership of anything we find in my favor."
He frowned. "What's this bit at the end?"
"That's where I give you ten percent of anything we do find, if we do find anything."
"That's charity," he said, but he was signing. "I don't mind charity, especially since, as you point out, I don't have any choice. But I can read that web as well as you can, Walthers, and there's nothing on it to find."
"No," I said, folding the paper and putting it in my pocket. "But we're not going to dig here. That trace is bare as your bank account. What we're going to do is dig Trace C."
I lit another cigarette and thought for a minute. I was wondering how much to tell them of what I had spent five years finding out and figuring out, schooling myself not even to hint at it to anyone else. I was sure in my mind that nothing I said would make a difference, but the words didn't want to say themselves anyway.
I made myself say:
"You remember Subhash Vastra, the fellow who ran the trap where I met you. He came to Venus with the military. He was a weapons specialist. There's no civilian career for a weapons specialist so he went into the cafe business when they terminated him, but he was pretty big at it in the service."
Dorrie said, "Do you mean there are Heechee weapons on the reservation?"
"No. Nobody has ever found a Heechee weapon. But they found targets."
It was actually physically difficult for me to speak the next part, but I got it out. "Anyway, Sub Vastra says they were targets. The higher brass wasn't sure, and I think the matter has been pigeonholed on the reservation by now. But what they found was triangular pieces of Heechee wall material--that blue, light-emitting stuff they lined the tunnels with. There were dozens of them, and they all had a pattern of radiating lines; Sub said they looked like targets to him. And they had been drilled through, by something that left the holes chalky as talc. Do you know anything that would do that to Heechee wall material?"
Dorrie was about to say she didn't, but Cochenour interrupted her. "That's impossible," he said flatly.
"Right, that's what the brass said. They decided it had to be done in the process of fabrication, for some Heechee purpose we'll never know. But Vastra says not. He says they looked exactly like the paper targets from the firing range under the reservation. The holes weren't all in the same place; the lines looked like scoring markers. That's evidence he's right. Not proof. But evidence."
"And you think you can find the gun that made those holes where we marked Trace C?"
I hesitated. "I wouldn't put it that strongly. Call it a hope. But there is one more thing.
"These targets were turned up by a prospector nearly forty years ago. He turned them in, reported his find, went out looking for more and got killed. That happened a lot in those days. No one paid much attention until some military types got a look at them; and that's how come the reservation is where it is. They spotted the site where he'd reportedfinding them, staked out everything for a thousand kilometers around and labeled it all off limits. And they dug and dug, turned up about a dozen Heechee tunnels, but most of them bare and the rest cracked and spoiled."
"Then there's nothing there," growled Cochenour, looking perplexed.
"There's nothing they found," I corrected him. "But in those days prospectors lied a lot. He reported the wrong location for the find. At the time, he was shacked up with a young lady who later married a man named Allemang, and her son is a friend of mine. He had a map. The right location, as near as I can figure--the navigation marks weren't what they are now--is right about where we are now, give or take some. I saw digging marks a couple of times and I think they were his." I slipped the little private magneto-fiche out of my pocket and put it into the virtual map display; it showed a single mark, an orange X. "That's where I think we might find the weapon, somewhere near that X. And as you can see, the only undug indication there is good old Trace C."
Silence for a minute. I listened to the distant outside howl of the winds, waiting for them to say something.
Dorrie was looking troubled. "I don't know if I like trying to find a new weapon," she said. "It's--it's like bringing back the bad old days again."
I shrugged. Cochenour, beginning to look more like himself again, said, "The point isn't whether we really want to find a weapon, is it? The point is that we want to find an untapped Heechee dig for whatever is in it--but the soldiers think there might be a weapon somewhere around, so they aren't going to let us dig, right? They'll shoot us first and ask questions later. Wasn't that what you said?"
"That's what I said."
"So how do you propose to get around that little problem?" he asked.
If I were a truthful man I would have said I wasn't sure I could. Looked at honestly, the odds were we would get caught and very likely shot; but we had so little to lose, Cochenour and I, that I didn't think that important enough to mention. I said:
"We try to fool them. We send the airbody off, and you and I stay behind to do the digging. If they think we're gone, they won't be keeping us under surveillance, and all we have to worry about is being picked up on a routine perimeter search."
"Audee!" cried the girl. "If you and Boyce stay here--But that means I have to take the airbody, and I can't fly this thing."
"No, you can't. But you can let it fly itself." I rushed on: "Oh, you'll waste fuel and you'll get bounced around a lot. But you'll get there on autopilot. It'll even land you at the Spindle." Not necessarily easily or well; I closed my mind to the thought of what an automatic landing might do to my one and only airbody. She would survive it, though, ninety-nine chances out of a hundred.
"Then what?" Cochenour demanded.
There were big holes in the plan at this point, but I closed my mind to them, too. "Dorrie looks up my friend BeeGee Allemang. I'll give you a note to give him with all the coordinates and so on, and he'll come and pick us up. With extra tanks, we'll have air and power for maybe forty-eight hours after you leave. That's plenty of time for you to get there, find BeeGee and give him the message, and for him to get back. If he's late, of course, we're in trouble. If we don't find anything, we've wasted our time. But if we do--"
I shrugged. "I didn't say it was a guarantee," I added, "I only said it gave us a chance."
Dorrie was quite a nice person, considering her age and her circumstances, but one of the things she lacked was self-confidence. She had not been trained to it; she had been getting it as a prosthesis, from Cochenour most recently, I suppose before that from whoever preceded Cochenour in her life--at her age, maybe her father.
That was the biggest problem, persuading Dorrie she could do her part. "It won't work," she kept saying. "I'm sorry. It isn't that I don't want to help. I do, but I can't. It just won't work."
Well, it would have.
Or at least I think it would have.
In the event, we never got to try it. Between us, Cochenour and I did get Dorrie to agree to give it a try. We packed up what little gear we'd put outside, flew back to the ravine, landed and began to set up for the dig. But I was feeling poorly, thick, headachy, clumsy, and I suppose Cochenour had his own problems. Between the two of us we managed to catch the casing of the drill in the exit port while we were off-loading it, and while I was jockeying it one way from above, Cochenour pulled the other way from beneath and the whole thing came down on top of him. It didn't kill him. But it gouged his suit and broke his leg, and that took care of my idea of digging Trace C with him.
The suit leg had been ruptured through eight or ten plies, but there was enough left to keep the air out, if not the pressure.
The first thing I did was check the drill to make sure it wasn't damaged. It wasn't. The second thing was to fight Cochenour back into the lock. That took about everything I had, with the combined weight of our suits and bodies, getting the drill out of the way, and my general physical condition. But I managed it.
Dorrie was great. No hysterics, no foolish questions. We got him out of his suit and looked him over. He was unconscious. The leg was compounded, with bone showing through; he was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and he had vomited inside his helmet. All in all he was about the worst-looking hundred-and-some-year-old man you'll ever see--live one, anyway. But he hadn't taken enough heat to cook his brain, his heart was still going--well, whoever's heart it had been in the first place, I mean; it was a good investment, because it pumped right along. The bleeding stopped by itself, except from the nasty business on the leg.
Dorrie called the military reservation for me, got Eve Littleknees, was put right through to the Base Surgeon. He told me what to do. At first he wanted me to pack up and bring Cochenour right over, but I vetoed that--said I wasn't in shape to fly and it would be too rough a ride. Then he gave me step-by-steps and I followed it easily enough: reduced the fracture, packed the gash, closed the wound with surgical Velcro and meat glue, sprayed a bandage all around and poured on a cast. It took about an hour, and Cochenour would have come to while we were doing it except I gave him a sleepy needle.
So then it was just a matter of taking pulse and respiration and blood-pressure readings to satisfy the surgeon, and promising to get him back to the Spindle shortly. When the surgeon was through, still annoyed at me for not bringing Cochenour over, SergeantLittleknees came back on. I could tell what was on her mind. "Uh, honey? How did it happen?"
"A great big Heechee came up out of the ground and bit him," I said. "I know what you're thinking and you've got an evil mind. It was just an accident."
"Sure," she said. "Okay. I just wanted you to know I don't blame you a bit." And she signed off.
Dorrie was cleaning Cochenour up as best she could--pretty profligate with the water reserves, I thought. I left her to it while I made myself some coffee, lit a cigarette, and sat and thought.
By the time Dorrie had done what she could for Cochenour, then cleaned up the worst of the mess and begun to do such important tasks as repairing her eye makeup, I had thought up a dandy.
I gave Cochenour a wake-up needle, and Dorrie patted him and talked to him while he got his bearings. She was not a girl who carried a grudge. I did, a little. I got him up to try out his muscles faster than he really wanted to. His expression told me that they all ached. They worked all right, though.
He was able to grin. "Old bones," he said. "I knew I should have gone for the recal-ciphylaxis. That's what happens when you try to save a buck."
He sat down heavily, the leg stuck out in front of him. He wrinkled his nose. "Sorry to have messed up your nice clean airbody," he added.
"You want to clean yourself up?"
He looked surprised. "Well, I think I'd better, pretty soon--"
"Do it now. I want to talk to you both."
He didn't argue, just held out his hand, and Dorrie took it. He stumped, half-hopped toward the cleanup. Actually Dorrie had done the worst of it, but he splashed a little water on his face and swished some around in his mouth. He was pretty well recovered when he turned around to look at me.
"All right, what is it? Are we giving up?"
I said. "No. We'll do it a different way."
Dorrie cried, "He can't, Audee! Look at him. And the condition his suit's in, he couldn't last outside an hour, much less help you dig."
"I know that, so we'll have to change the plan. I'll dig by myself. The two of you will slope off in the airbody."
"Oh, brave man," said Cochenour flatly. "Who are you kidding? It's a two-man job."
I hesitated. "Not necessarily. Lone prospectors have done it before, although the problems were a little different. I admit it'll be a tough forty-eight for me, but we'll have to try it. One reason. We don't have any alternative."
"Wrong," said Cochenour. He patted Dorrie's rump. "Solid muscle, that girl. She isn't big, but she's healthy. Takes after her grandmother. Don't argue, Walthers. Just think a little bit. It's as safe for Dorrie as it is for you; and with the two of you, there's a chance we might luck in. By yourself, no chance at all."
For some reason, his attitude put me in a bad temper. "You talk as though she didn't have anything to say about it."
"Well," said Dorrie, sweetly enough, "come to that, so do you. I appreciate your wanting to make things easy for me, Audee, but, honestly, I think I could help. I've learned a lot. And if you want the truth, you look a lot worse than I do."
I said with all the sneer I could get into my voice, "Forget it. You can both help me for an hour or so, while I get set up. Then we'll do it my way. No arguments. Let's get going."
That made two mistakes. The first was that we didn't get set up in an hour; it took more than two, and I was sweating sick oily sweat before we finished. I really felt bad. I was past hurting or worrying about it; I just thought it a little surprising every time my heart beat. Dorrie did more muscle work than I did, strong and willing as promised, and Cochenour checked over the instruments, and asked a couple of questions when he had to to make sure he could handle his part of the job, flying the airbody. I took two cups of coffee heavily laced with my private supply of gin and smoked my last cigarette for a while, meanwhile checking out with the miltary reservation. Eve Littleknees was flirtatious but a little puzzled.
Then Dorrie and I tumbled out of the lock and closed it behind us, leaving Cochenour strapped in the pilot's seat.
Dorrie stood there for a moment, looking forlorn; but then she grabbed my hand and the two of us lumbered to the shelter of the igloo we'd already ignited. I had impressed on her the importance of being out of the wash of the twin-fuel jets. She was good about it; flung herself flat and didn't move.
I was less cautious. As soon as I could judge from the flare that the jets were angled away from us, I stuck my head up and watched Cochenour take off in a sleet of heavy-metal ash. It wasn't a bad take-off. In circumstances like that I define "bad" as total demolition of the airbody and the death or maiming of one or more persons. He avoided that, but the airbody skittered and slid wildly as the gusts caught it. It would be a rough ride for him, going just the few hundred kilometers north that would take him out of detection range.
I touched Dorrie with my toe and she struggled up. I slipped the talk cord into the jack on her helmet--radio was out, because of possible perimeter patrols that we wouldn't be able to see.
"Change your mind yet?" I asked.
It was a fairly obnoxious question, but she took it nicely. She giggled. I could tell that because we were faceplate to faceplate and I could see her face shadowed inside the helmet. But I couldn't hear what she was saying until she remembered to nudge the voice switch, and then what I heard was:
"--romantic, just the two of us."
Well, we didn't have time for that kind of chitchat. I said irritably, "Let's quit wasting time. Remember what I told you. We have air, water and power for forty-eight hours. Don't count on any margin. One or two of them might hold out a little longer, but you need all three to stay alive. Try not to work too hard; the less you metabolize, the less your waste system has to handle. If we find a tunnel and get in, maybe we can eat some of those emergency rations over there--provided it's unbreached and hasn't heated up too much in a quarter of a million years. Otherwise don't even think about food. As for sleeping, forget--"
"Now who's wasting time? You told me all this before." But she was still cheery.
So we climbed into the igloo and started work.
The first thing we had to do was clear out some of the tailings that had already begun to accumulate where we left the drill going. The usual way, of course, is to reverse andredirect the augers. We couldn't do that. It would have meant taking them away from cutting the shaft. We had to do it the hard way, namely manually.
It was hard, all right. Hotsuits are uncomfortable to begin with. When you have to work in them, they're miserable. When the work is both very hard physically and complicated by the cramped space inside an igloo that already contains two people and a working drill, it's next to impossible.
We did it anyhow, having no choice.
Cochenour hadn't lied; Dorrie was as good as a man. The question was whether that was going to be good enough. The other question, which was bothering me more and more every minute, was whether I was as good as a man. The headache was really pounding at me, and I found myself blacking out when I moved suddenly. The Quackery had promised me three weeks before acute hepatic failure, but that hadn't been meant to include this kind of work. I had to figure I was on plus time already. That is a disconcerting way to figure.
Especially when ten hours went by and I realized that we were down lower than the soundings had shown the tunnel to be, and no luminous blue tailings were in sight.
We were drilling a dry hole.
Now, if we had had the airbody close by, this would have been an annoyance. Maybe a big annoyance, but not a disaster. What I would have done was get back in the airbody, clean up, get a good night's sleep, eat a meal, and recheck the trace. We were digging in the wrong place. All right, next step is to dig in the right place. Study the terrain, pick a spot, ignite another igloo, start up the drills and try, try again.
That's what we would have done. But we didn't have any of those advantages. We didn't have the airbody. We had no chance for sleep or food. We were out of igloos. We didn't have the trace to look at. And I was feeling lousier every minute.
I crawled out of the igloo, sat down in the next thing there was to the lee of the wind, and stared at the scudding yellow green sky.
There ought to be something to do, if I could only think of it. I ordered myself to think.
Well, let's see. Could I maybe uproot the igloo and move it to another spot?
No. I could break it loose all right with the augers, but the minute it was free the winds would catch it and it would be good-bye, Charlie. I'd never see that igloo again. Plus there would be no way to make it gastight anyway.
Well, then, how about drilling without an igloo?
Possible, I judged. Pointless, though. Suppose we did hit lucky and hole in? Without an igloo to lock out those twenty thousand millibars of hot gas, we'd destroy the contents anyway.
I felt a nudge on my shoulder, and discovered that Dorrie was sitting next to me. She didn't ask any questions, didn't try to say anything at all. I guess it was all clear enough without talking about it.
By my suit chronometer fifteen hours were gone. That left thirty-some before Cochenour would come back and get us. I didn't see any point in spending it all sitting there, but on the other hand I didn't see any point in doing anything else.
Of course, I thought, I could always go to sleep for a while ... and then I woke up and realized that that was what I had been doing.
Dorrie was asleep beside me.
You may wonder how a person can sleep in the teeth of a south polar thermal gale. It isn't all that hard. All it takes is that you be wholly worn out, and wholly despairing. Sleeping isn't just to knit the ravelled sleeve, it is a good way to shut the world off when the world is too lousy to face. As ours was.
But Venus is the last refuge of the Puritan ethic. Crazy. I knew I was as good as dead, but I felt I had to be doing something. I eased away from Dorrie, made sure her suit was belted to the hold-tight ring at the base of the igloo, and stood up. It took a great deal of concentration for me to be able to stand up, which was almost as good at keeping care out as sleep.
It occurred to me that there still might be eight or ten live Heechees in the tunnel, and maybe they'd heard us knocking and opened up the bottom of the shaft for us. So I crawled into the igloo to see.
I peered down the shaft to make sure. No. They hadn't. It was still just a blind hole that disappeared into dirty dark invisibility at the end of the light from my head lamp. I swore at the Heechees who hadn't helped us out, and kicked some tailings down the shaft on their nonexistent heads.
The Puritan ethic was itching me, and I wondered what I ought to do. Die? Well, yes, but I was doing that fast enough. Something constructive?
I remembered that you always ought to leave a place the way you found it, so I hauled up the drills on the eight-to-one winch and stowed them neatly. I kicked some more tailings down the useless hole to make a place to sit, and I sat down and thought.
I mused about what we had done wrong, as you might think about a chess puzzle.
I could still see the trace in my mind. It was bright and clear, so there was definitely something there. It was just tough that we'd lucked out and missed it.
How had we missed it?
After some time, I thought I knew the answer to that.
People like Dorrie and Cochenour have an idea that a seismic trace is like one of those underground maps of downtown Dallas, with all the sewers and utility conduits and water pipes marked, so you just dig where it says and you find what you want.
It isn't exactly like that. The trace comes out as a sort of hazy approximation. It is built up, hour by hour, by measuring the echoes from the pinger. It looks like a band of spiderweb shadows, much wider than an actual tunnel and very fuzzy at the edges. When you look at it you know that somewhere in the shadows there's something that makes them. Maybe it's a rock interface or a pocket of gravel. Hopefully it's a Heechee dig. Whatever it is, it's there somewhere, but you don't know just where, exactly. If a tunnel is twenty meters wide, which is a fair average for a Heechee connecting link, the shadow trace is sure to look like fifty, and may be a hundred.
So where do you dig?
That's where the art of prospecting comes in. You have to make an informed guess.
Maybe you dig in the exact geometrical center--as far as it is given you to see where the center is. That's the easiest way. Maybe you dig where the shadows are densest, which is the way the half-smart prospectors do, and that works almost half the time. Or maybe you do what I did, and try to think like a Heechee. You look at the trace as a whole and try to see what points they might have been trying to connect. Then you plotan imaginary course between them, where you would have put the tunnel if you had been the Heechee engineer in charge, and you dig somewhere along there.
That's what I had done, but evidently I had done wrong.
In a fuzzy-brained sort of way, I began to think I saw what I'd done.
I visualized the trace. The right place to dig was where I had set the airbody down, but of course I couldn't set up the igloo there because the airbody was in the way. So I'd set up about ten yards upslope.
I was convinced that ten yards was what made us miss.
I was pleased with myself for figuring it out, although I couldn't see that it made a lot of practical difference. If I'd had another igloo I would have been glad to try again, assuming I could hold out that long. But that didn't mean much, because I didn't have another igloo.
So I sat on the edge of the dark shaft, nodding sagaciously over the way I had solved the problem, dangling my legs and now and then sweeping tailings in. I think that was part of a kind of death wish, because I know I thought, now and then, that the nicest thing to do would be to jump in and pull the tailings down over me.
But the Puritan ethic didn't want me to do that. Anyway, it would have solved only my own personal problem. It wouldn't have done anything for old Dorrie Keefer, snoring away outside in the thermal hurricane.
I then began to wonder why I was worrying about Dorrie. It was a pleasant enough subject to be thinking about, but sort of sad.
I went back to thinking about the tunnel.
The bottom of the shaft couldn't be more than a few yards away from where we had bottomed out empty. I thought of jumping down and scraping away with my bare gloves. It seemed like a good idea. I'm not sure how much was whimsy and how much the fantasy of a sick man, but I kept thinking how nice it would be if there were Heechees still in there, and when I scratched into the blue wall material I could just knock politely and they'd open up and let me in. I even had a picture of what they looked like: sort of friendly and godlike. It would have been very pleasant to meet a Heechee, a live one that could speak English. "Heechee, what did you really use those things we call prayer fans for?" I could ask him. Or, "Heechee, have you got anything that will keep me from dying in your medicine chest?" Or, "Heechee, I'm sorry we messed up your front yard and I'll try to clean it up for you."
I pushed more of the tailings back into the shaft. I had nothing better to do, and who could tell, maybe they'd appreciate it. After a while I had it half full and I'd run out of tailings, except for the ones that were pushed outside the igloo, and I didn't have the strength to go after them. I looked for something else to do. I reset the augers, replaced the dull blades with the last sharp ones we had, pointed them in the general direction of a twenty-degree offset angle downslope, and turned them on.
It wasn't until I noticed that Dorrie was standing next to me, helping me steady the augers for the first yards of cut, that I realized I had made a plan.
Why not try an offset cut? Did we have any better chance?
We did not. We cut.
When the drills stopped bucking and settled down to chew into the rock and we could leave them, I cleared a space at the side of the igloo and shoved tailings out for awhile; then we just sat there and watched the drills spit rock chips into the old shaft. It was filling up nicely. We didn't speak. Presently I fell asleep again.
I didn't wake up until Dorrie pounded on my head. We were buried in tailings, but they weren't just rock. They glowed blue, so bright they almost hurt my eyes.
The augers must have been scratching at the Heechee wall liner for hours. They had actually worn pits into it.
We looked down, and we could see the round bright blue eye of the tunnel wall staring up at us. She was a beauty, all ours.
Even then we didn't speak.
Somehow I managed to kick and wriggle my way through the drift to the crawl-through. I got the lock closed and sealed, after kicking a couple of cubic meters of rock outside. Then I began fumbling through the pile of refuse for the flame drills. Ultimately I found them. Somehow. Ultimately I managed to get them shipped and primed. I fired them, and watched the bright spot of light that bounced out of the shaft and made a pattern on the igloo roof.
Then there was a sudden short scream of gas, and a clatter as the loose fragments at the bottom of the shaft dropped free.
We had cut into the Heechee tunnel. It was unbreached and waiting for us. Our beauty was a virgin. We took her maidenhead with all love and reverence and entered into her.
I must have blacked out again, and when I realized where I was I was on the floor of the tunnel. My helmet was open. So were the side-zips of my hotsuit. I was breathing stale, foul air that had to be a quarter of a million years old and smelled every minute of it. But it was air. It was denser than Earth normal and a lot more humid; but the partial pressure of oxygen was about the same. It was enough to live on, in any case. I was proving that by breathing it and not dying.
Next to me was Dorrie Keefer.
The blue Heechee wall light didn't flatter her complexion. At first I wasn't sure she was breathing. But in spite of the way she looked her pulse was going, her lungs were functioning, and when she felt me poking at her she opened her eyes.
"We made it," she said.
We sat there grinning foolishly at each other, like Hallowe'en masks in the blue Heechee glow.
To do anything more than that, just then, was quite impossible. I had my hands full just comprehending the fact that I was alive. I didn't want to endanger that odds-against precarious fact by moving around. But I wasn't comfortable, and after a moment I realized that I was very hot. I closed up my helmet to shut out some of the heat, but the smell inside was so bad that I opened it up, figuring the heat was better.
Then it occurred to me to wonder why the heat was only unpleasant, instead of instantly fatal. Energy transport through a Heechee wall-material surface is very slow, but not a quarter of a million years slow. My sad old brain ruminated that thought around for awhile and came up with a conclusion: At least until quite recently, some centuries or thousands of years, maybe, this tunnel had been kept cool. Automatic machinery, ofcourse, I thought sagely. Wow, that by itself was worth finding. Broken down or not, it would be worth a lot of fortunes ... .
And that made me remember why we were there in the first place, and I looked up the corridor and down, to see what treasures were waiting there for us.
When I was a school kid in Amarillo Central my favorite teacher was a crippled lady named Miss Stevenson, and she used to tell us stories out of Bulfinch and Homer. She spoiled a whole weekend for me with the story of one Greek fellow who wanted to be a god. He was king of a little place in Lydia, but he wanted more, and the gods let him come to Olympus, and he had it made until he fouled up. I forget how; it had something to do with a dog, and some nasty business about tricking the gods into eating his own son. Whatever it was, they gave him solitary confinement for eternity, standing neck deep in a cool lake in hell and unable to drink. The fellow's name was Tantalus, and in that Heechee tunnel I had a lot in common with him. The treasure trove was there all right, but we couldn't reach it. We hadn't hit the main tunnel but a sort of angled, Thielly-tube detour in it, and it was blocked at both ends. We could peer past half-closed gates into the main shaft. We could see Heechee machines and irregular mounds of things that might once have been containers, now rotted, with their contents on the floor. But we hadn't the strength to get at them.
It was the suits that made us so clumsy. With them off we might have been able to slip through, but then would we have the strength to put them back on again in time to meet Cochenour? I doubted it. I stood there with my helmet pressed to the gate, feeling like Alice peering into her garden without the bottle of drink-me, and then I thought about Cochenour again and checked the time.
It was forty-six hours and some odd minutes since he had left us. He was due back any time.
And if he came back while we were here, and opened the crawl-through to look for us and was careless about the seal at both ends, twenty thousand millibars of poison gas would hammer in on us. It would kill us, of course, but besides that it would damage the virgin tunnel. The corrosive scouring of that implosion of gas might wreck everything.
"We have to go back," I told Dorrie, showing her the time. She smiled.
"Temporarily," she said, and turned and led the way.
After the cheerful blue glow of the Heechee tunnel the igloo was cramped and miserable, and what was worse was that we couldn't even stay inside it. Cochenour probably would remember to lock in and out of both ends of the crawl-through. But he might not. I couldn't take that chance. I tried to think of a way of plugging the shaft, maybe by pushing all the tailings back in again, but although my brain wasn't working very well, I could see that was stupid.
So we had to wait outside in the breezy Venusian weather, and not too much later, either. The little watch dial next to my life-support meters, all running well into the red now, showed that Cochenour should in fact have arrived by now.
I pushed Dorrie into the crawl-through, squeezed in with her, locked us both through, and we waited.
We waited a long time, Dorrie bent over the crawl-through and me leaning beside her, holding on to her and the tie-down clips. We could have talked, but I thought shewas either unconscious or asleep from the way she didn't move, and anyway it seemed like an awful lot of work to plug in the phone jack.
We waited longer than that, and still Cochenour didn't come.
I tried to think things through.
There could have been a number of reasons for his being late. He could have crashed. He could have been challenged by the military. He could have got lost.
But there was another possibility that made more sense than all of them. The time dial told me he was nearly five hours late now, and the life-support meters told me we were right up against the upper maximum for power, near it for air, well past it for water. If it hadn't been for breathing the Heechee gases for a while, we would have been dead by then, and Cochenour didn't know about that.
He had said he was a bad loser. He had worked out an end-game maneuver so he wouldn't have to lose. I could see him as clearly as though I were in the airbody with him, watching his own clocks, cooking himself a light lunch and playing music while he waited for us to die.
That was no frightening thought; I was close enough to it for the difference to be pretty much a technicality, and tired enough of being trapped in that foul hotsuit to be willing to accept almost any deliverance. But the girl was involved, and the one tiny little rational thought that stayed in my half-poisoned brain was that it was unfair for Cochenour to kill us both. Me, yes. Her, no. I beat on her suit until she moved a little, and after some time managed to make her move back into the crawl-through.
There were two things Cochenour didn't know. He didn't know we'd found breathable air, and he didn't know we could tap the drill batteries for additional power.
In all the freaked-out fury of my head, I was still capable of that much consecutive thought. We could surprise him, if he didn't wait much longer. We could stay alive for a few hours yet, and then when he came to find us dead and see what prize we had won for him, he would find me waiting.
And so he did.
It must have been a terrible shock to him when he entered the igloo with the monkey wrench in his hand and leaned over me, and found that I was still alive and able to move, where he had expected only a well-done roast of meat. The drill caught him right in the chest. I couldn't see his face, but I guess at his expression.
Then it was only a matter of doing four or five impossible things. Things like getting Dorrie up out of the tunnel and into the airbody. Like getting myself in after her, and sealing up, and setting a course. All these impossible things, and one other, that was harder than all of them, but very important to me.
I totalled the airbody when we landed, but we were strapped in and suited up, and when the ground crews came to investigate, Dorrie and I were still alive.
They had to patch me and rehydrate me for three days before they could even think about putting my new liver in. In the old days they would have kept me sedated the whole time, but, of course, they kept waking me up every couple of hours for some feedback training on monitoring my hepatic flows. I hated it, because it was all sickness andpain and nagging from Dr. Morius and the nurses and I could have wished for the old days back again, except, of course, that in the old days I would have died.
But by the fourth day I hardly hurt at all, except when I moved, and they were letting me take my fluids by mouth instead of the other way.
I realized I was going to be alive for a while, and looked-upon my surroundings, and found them good.
There's no such thing as a season in the Spindle, but the Quackery is all sentimental about tradition and ties with the Mother Planet. They were playing scenes of fleecy white clouds on the wall panels, and the air from the ventilator ducts smelled of green leaves and lilac.
"Happy spring," I said to Dr. Morius.
"Shut up," he said, shifting a couple of the needles that pincushioned my abdomen and watching the tell-tales. "Um." He pursed his lips, pulled out a couple of needles, and said:
"Well, let's see, Walthers. We've taken out the splenovenal shunt. Your new liver is functioning well, although you're not flushing wastes through as fast as you ought to. We've got your ion levels back up to something like a human being, and most of your tissues have a little moisture in them again. Altogether," he scratched his head, "yes, in general, I would say you're alive, so presumably the operation was a success."
"Don't be a funny doctor," I said. "When do I get out of here?"
"Like right now?" he asked thoughtfully. "We could use the bed. Got a lot of paying patients coming in."
Now, one of the advantages of having blood in my brain instead of the poison soup it had been living on was that I could think reasonably clearly. So I knew right away that he was kidding me; I wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been a paying patient, one way or another, and though I couldn't imagine how, I was willing to wait a while to find out.
Anyway, I was more interested in getting out. They packed me up in wetsheets and rolled me through the Spindle to Sub Vastra's place. Dorrie was there before me, and the third of Vastra's house fussed over us both, lamb broth and that flat hard bread they like, before tucking us in for a good long rest. There was only the one bed, but Dorrie didn't seem to mind, and anyway at that point the question was academic. Later on, not so academic. After a couple of days of that I was up and as good as I ever was.
By then I had found out who paid my bill at the Quackery. For about a minute I had hoped it was me, quickly filthy rich from the spoils of our tunnel, but I knew that was impossible. We could have made money only on the sly, and we were both too near dead when we got back to the Spindle to conceal anything.
So the military had moved in and taken everything, but they had shown they had a heart. Atrophied and flinty, but a heart. They'd gone into the dig while I was still getting glucose enemas in my sleep, and had been pleased enough with what they'd found. I even tried to get Sergeant Littleknees a finder's fee. Not much, to be sure. But enough to save my life. It turned out to be enough to pay off the loosely secured checks I'd written to finance the expedition, and surgical fee and hospital costs, and just about enough left over to put a down payment on a Heechee hut of our own.
For a while it bothered me that they wouldn't tell me what they'd found. I even tried to get Sergeant Littleknees drunk when she was in the Spindle on furlough. But Dorrie was right there, and how drunk can you get one girl when another girl is right there watching you? Probably Eve Littleknees didn't know anyhow. Probably no one did excepta few weapons specialists. But it had to be something, because of the cash award, and most of all because they didn't prosecute for trespass on the military reservation. And so we get along, the two of us. Or three of us.
Dorrie turned out to be good at selling fire pearls to the Terry tourists, especially when her pregnancy began to show. She kept us in eating money until the high season started, and by then I found I was a sort of celebrity, which I parlayed into a bank loan and a new airbody, and so we're doing well enough. I've promised that I'll marry her if our kid turns out to be a boy, but as a matter of fact I'm going to do it anyway. She was a great help, especially with my own private project back there at the dig. She couldn't have known what I wanted to bring back Cochenour's body for, but she didn't argue, and sick and wretched as she was, she helped me get it into the airbody lock.
Actually, I wanted it very much.
It's not actually a new liver, of course. Probably it's not even secondhand. Heaven knows where Cochenour bought it, but I'm sure it wasn't original equipment with him. But it works. And bastard though he was, I kind of liked him in a way, and I don't mind at all the fact that I've got a part of him with me always.
Copyright © 2005 by Frederik Pohl