Vessel 3-31, Voyage 08D27. Crew C. Pitrin, N. Ginza, J. Krabbe.
Transit time out 19 days 4 hours. Position uncertain, vicinity (21.y.) Zeta Tauri.
Summary: “Emerged in transpolar orbit planet .88 Earth radius at .4 A.U. Planet possessed 3 detected small satellites. Six other planets inferred by computer logic. Primary K7.
“Landing made. This planet has evidently gone through a warming period. There are no ice caps, and the present shorelines do not appear very old. No detected signs of habitation. No intelligent life.
“Finescreen scanning located what appeared to be a Heechee rendezvous station in our orbit. We approached it. It was intact. In forcing an entrance it exploded and N. Ginza was killed. Our vessel was damaged and we returned, J. Krabbe dying en route. No artifacts were secured. Biotic samples from planet destroyed in damage to vessel.”
I was pretty sure that was a bluff, because there weren’t that many sewers; there wasn’t enough gravity flow to support them. “The right mission could come along any day.”
“Oh, sure, Rob. You know, people like you worry me. Do you have any idea how important our work here is?”
“Well, I think so—”
“There’s a whole universe out there for us to find and bring home! Gateway’s the only way we can reach it. A person like you, who grew up on the plankton farms—”
“Actually it was the Wyoming food mines.”
“Whatever! You know how desperately the human race needs what we can give them. New technology. New power sources. Food! New worlds to live in.” She shook her head and punched through the sorter on her desk, looking both angry and worried. I supposed that she was check-rated on how many of us idlers and parasites she managed to get to go out, the way we were supposed to, which accounted for her hostility — assuming you could account for her desire to stay on Gateway in the first place. She abandoned the sorter and got up to open a file against the wall. “Suppose I do find you a job,” she said over her shoulder. “The only skill you have that’s any use here is prospecting, and you’re not using that.”
“I’ll take any- almost anything,” I said.
She looked at me quizzically and then returned to her desk. She was astonishingly graceful, considering she had to mass a hundred kilos. Maybe a fat woman’s fantasy of not sagging accounted for her desire to hold this job and stay on Gateway. “You’ll be doing the lowest kind of unskilled labor,” she warned. “We don’t pay much for that. One-eighty a day.”
“I’ll take it!”
“Your per capita has to come out of it. Take that away and maybe twenty dollars a day for toke money, and what do you have left?”
“I could always do odd jobs if I needed more.”
She sighed. “You’re just postponing the day, Rob. I don’t know. Mr. Hsien, the director, keeps a very close watch on job applications. I’ll find it very hard to justify hiring you. And what are you going to do if you get sick and can’t work? Who’ll pay your tax?”
“I’ll go back, I guess.”
“And waste all your training?” She shook her head. “You disgust me, Rob.”
But she punched me out a work ticket that instructed me to report to the crew chief on Level Grand, Sector North, for assignment in plant maintenance.
I didn’t like that interview with Emma Fother, but I had been warned I wouldn’t. When I talked it over with Klara that evening, she told me actually I’d got off light.
“You’re lucky you drew Emma. Old Hsien sometimes keeps people hanging until their tax money’s all gone.”
“Then what?” I got up and sat on the edge of her cot, feeling for my footgloves. “Out the airlock?”
“Don’t make fun, it could conceivably come to that. Hsien’s an old Mao type, very hard on social wastrels.”
“You’re a fine one to talk!”
She grinned, rolled over, and rubbed her nose against my back. “The difference between you and me, Rob,” she said, “is that I have a couple of bucks stashed away from my first mission. It didn’t pay big, but it paid somewhat. Also I’ve been out, and they need people like me for teaching people like you.”
I leaned back against her hip, half turned and put my hand on her, more reminiscently than aggressively. There were certain subjects we didn’t talk much about, but- “Klara?”
“What’s it like, on a mission?”
She rubbed her chin against my forearm for a moment, looking at the holoview of Venus against the wall. “… Scary,” she said.
I waited, but she didn’t say any more about it, and that much I already knew. I was scared right there on Gateway. I didn’t have to launch myself on the Heechee Mystery Bus Trip to know what being scared was like, I could feel it already.
“You don’t really have a choice, dear Rob,” she said, almost tenderly, for her.
I felt a sudden rush of anger. “No, I don’t! You’ve exactly described my whole life, Klara. I’ve never had a choice — except once, when I won the lottery and decided to come here. And I’m not sure I made the right decision then.”
She yawned, and rubbed against my arm for a moment. “If we’re through with sex,” she decided, “I want something to eat before I go to sleep. Come on up to the Blue Hell with me and I’ll treat.”
Plant Maintenance was, actually, the maintenance of plants: specifically, the ivy plants that help keep Gateway livable. I reported for duty and, surprise — in fact, nice surprise — my crew boss turned out to be my legless neighbor, Shikitei Bakin.
He greeted me with what seemed like real pleasure. “How nice of you to join us, Robinette,” he said. “I expected you would ship out at once.”
“I will, Shicky, pretty soon. When I see the right launch listed on the board, I’ll know it.”
“Of course.” He left it at that, and introduced me to the other plant maintainers. I didn’t get them straight, except that the girl had had some sort of connection with Professor Hegramet, the hotshot Heecheeologist back home, and the two men had each had a couple of missions already. I didn’t really need to get them straight. We all understood the essential fact about each other without discussion. None of us was quite ready to put our names on the launch roster.
I wasn’t even quite ready to let myself think out why.
Plant Maintenance would have been a good place for thought, though. Shicky put me to work right away, fastening brackets to the Heechee-metal walls with tacky-gunk. That was some kind of specially designed adhesive. It would hold to both the Heechee metal and the ribbed foil of plant boxes, and it did not contain any solvent that would evaporate and contaminate the air. It was supposed to be very expensive. If you got it on you, you just learned to live with it, at least until the skin it was on died and flaked off. If you tried to get it off any other way, you drew blood.
When the day’s quota of brackets were up, we all trooped down to the sewage plant, where we picked up boxes filled with sludge and covered with cellulose film. We settled them onto the brackets, twisted the self-locking nuts to hold them in place, and fitted them with watering tanks. The boxes probably would have weighed a hundred kilos each on Earth, but on Gateway that simply wasn’t a consideration; even the foil they were made of was enough to support them rigidly against the brackets. Then, when we were all done, Shicky himself filled the trays with seedlings, while we went on to the next batch of brackets. It was funny to watch him. He carried trays of the infant ivy plants on straps around his neck, like a cigarette girl’s stock. He held himself at tray level with one hand, and poked seedlings through the film into the sludge with the other.
It was a low-pressure job, it served a useful function (I guess) and it passed the time. Shicky didn’t make us work any too hard. He had set a quota in his mind for a day’s work. As long as we got sixty brackets installed and filled he didn’t care if we goofed off, provided we were inconspicuous about it. Klara would come by to pass the time of day now and then, sometimes with the little girl, and we had plenty of other visitors. And when times were slack and there wasn’t anybody interesting to talk to, one at a time we could wander off for an hour or so. I explored a lot of Gateway I hadn’t seen before, and each day decision was postponed.
We all talked about going out. Almost every day we could hear the thud and vibration as some lander cut itself loose from its dock, pushing the whole ship out to where the Heechee main drive could go into operation. Almost as often we felt the different kind of smaller, quicker shock when some ship returned. In the evenings we went to someone’s parties. My whole class was gone by now, almost. Sheri had shipped out on a Five — I didn’t see her to ask her why she changed her plans and wasn’t sure I really wanted to know; the ship she went on had an otherwise all-male crew. They were German-speaking, but I guess Sheri figured she could get by pretty well without talking much. The last one was Willa Forehand. Klara and I went to Willa’s farewell party and then down to the docks to watch her launch the next morning. I was supposed to be working, but I didn’t think Shicky would mind. Unfortunately, Mr. Hsien was there, too, and I could see that he recognized me.
“Oh, shit,” I said to Klara.
She giggled and took my hand, and we ducked out of the launch area. We strolled away until we came to an up-shaft and lifted to the next level. We sat down on the edge of Lake Superior. “Rob, old stud,” she said, “I doubt he’ll fire you for screwing off one time. Chew you out, probably.”
I shrugged and tossed a chip of filter-pebble into the upcurving lake, which stretched a good two hundred meters up and around the shell of Gateway in front of us. I was feeling tacky, and wondering whether I was reaching the point when the bad vibes about risking nasty death in space were being overtaken by the bad vibes about cowering on Gateway. It’s a funny thing about fear. I didn’t feel it. I knew that the only reason I was staying on was that I was afraid, but it didn’t feel as though I were afraid, only reasonably prudent.