Vessel A3-7, Voyage 022D55. Crew S.Rigney, E. Tsien, M. Sindler.
Transit time 18 days 0 hours. Position vicinity Xi Pegasi A.
Summary. “We emerged in close orbit of a small planet approximately 9 A.U. from primary. The planet is ice-covered, but we detected Heechee radiation from a spot near the equator. Rigney and Mary Sindler landed nearby and with some difficulty — the location was mountainous — reached an ice-free warm area within which was a metallic dome. Inside the dome were a number of Heechee artifacts, including two empty landers, home equipment of unknown use, and a heating coil. We succeeded in transporting most of the smaller items to the vessel. It proved impossible to stop the heating coil entirely, but we reduced it to a low level of operation and stored it in the lander for the return. Even so, Mary and Tsien were seriously dehydrated and in coma when we landed.”
Corporation evaluation: Heating coil analyzed and rebuilt. Award of $3,000,000 made to crew against royalties. Other artifacts not as yet analyzed. Award of $25,000 per kilo mass, total $675,000, made against future exploitation if any.
Well, I knew what that meant to her, and that explained why she was sitting around in the Blue Hell instead of being asleep at that hour. I knew she was worried about her daughter, but she wasn’t letting it paralyze her.
She had a very good attitude about prospecting, too. She was afraid of going out, which was sensible. But she didn’t let that keep her from going, which I admired a lot. She was still waiting for some other member of her family to return before she signed on again, as they had agreed, so that whoever did come back would always find family waiting.
She told me a little more about their background. They had lived, as far as you could call it living, in the tourist traps of the Spindle on Venus, surviving on what they could eke out, mostly from the cruise ships. There was a lot of money there, but there was also a lot of competition. The Forehands had at one time, I discovered, worked up a nightclub act: singing, dancing, comedy routines. I gathered that they were not bad, at least by Venus standards. But the few tourists that were around most of the year had so many other birds of prey battling for a scrap of their flesh that there just wasn’t enough to nurture them all. Sess and the son (the one who had died) had tried guiding, with an old airbody they had managed to buy wrecked and rebuild. No big money there. The girls had worked at all kinds of jobs. I was pretty sure that Louise, at least, had been a hooker for a while, but that hadn’t paid enough to matter, either, for the same sorts of reasons as everything else. They were nearly at the end of their rope when they managed to get to Gateway.
It wasn’t the first time for them. They’d fought hard to get off Earth in the first place, when Earth got so bad for them that Venus had seemed a less hopeless alternative. They had more courage, and more willingness to pull up stakes and go, than any other people I’d ever met.
“How did you pay for all this travel?” I asked.
“Well,” said Louise, finishing her drink and looking at her watch, “going to Venus we traveled the cheapest way there is. High-mass load. Two hundred and twenty other immigrants, sleeping in shoulder clamps, lining up for two-minute appointments in the toilets, eating compressed dry rations and drinking recycled water. It was a hell of a way to spend forty thousand dollars apiece. Fortunately, the kids weren’t born yet, except Hat, and he was small enough to go for quarter-fare.”
“Hat’s your son? What—”
“He died,” she said.
I waited, but when she spoke again what she said was: “They should have a radio report from that incoming ship by now.”
“It would have been on the P-phone.”
She nodded, and for a moment looked worried. The Corporation always makes routine reports on incoming contacts. If they don’t have a contact-well, dead prospectors don’t check in on radio. So I took her mind off her troubles by telling her about Kiara’s decision to see a shrink. She listened and then put hand over mine and said: “Don’t get sore, Rob. Did you ever think of seeing a shrink yourself?”
“I don’t have the money, Louise.”
“Not even for a group? There’s a primal-scream bunch on L Darling. You can hear them sometimes. And there’ve been ads everything — TA, Est, patterning. Of course, a lot of them may have shipped out.”
But her attention wasn’t on me. From where we were sitting we could see the entrance to the casino, where one of the croup was talking interestedly to a crewman from the Chinese cruiser. Louise was staring that way.
“Something’s going on,” I said. I would have added, “Let’s look,” but Louise was out of the chair and heading for the casino before me.
Play had stopped. Everybody was clustered around the blackjack table, where, I noticed, Dane Metchnikov was now sitting next to Klara in the seat I had vacated, with a couple of twentyfive-dollar chips in front of him. And in the middle of them was Shicky Bakin, perched on a dealer’s stool, talking. “No,” he was saying as I came up, “I do not know the names. But it’s a Five.”
“And they’re all still alive?” somebody asked.
“As far as I know. Hello, Rob. Louise.” He nodded politely to us both. “I see you’ve heard?”
“Not really,” Louise said, reaching out unconsciously to take my hand. “Just that a ship is in. But you don’t know the names?”
Dane Metchnikov craned his head around to glare at us. “Names,” he growled. “Who cares? It’s none of us, that’s what’s important. And it’s a big one.” He stood up. Even at that moment I noticed the measure of his anger: he forgot to pick up his chips from the blackjack table. “I’m going down there,” he announced. “I want to see what a once-in-a-lifetime score looks like.”
The cruiser crews had closed off the area, but one of the guards was Francy Hereira. There were a hundred people around the dropshaft, and only Hereira and two girls from the American cruiser to keep them back. Metchnikov plunged through to the lip of the shaft, peering down, before one of the girls chased him away. We saw him talking to another five-bracelet prospector. Meanwhile we could hear snatches of gossip:
“… almost dead. They ran out of water.”
“Nah! Just exhausted. They’ll be all right…”
“… ten-million-dollar bonus if it’s a nickel, and then the royalties!”
Klara took Louise’s elbow and pulled her toward the front. I followed in the space they opened. “Does anybody know whose ship it was?” she demanded.
Hereira smiled wearily at her, nodded at me, and said: “Not yet, Klara. They’re searching them now. I think they’re going to be all right, though.”
Somebody behind me called out, ’What did they find?”
“Artifacts. New ones, that’s all I know.”
“But it was a Five?” Klara asked.
Hereira nodded, then peered down the shaft. “All right,” he said, “now, please back up, friends. They’re bringing some of them up now.”
We all moved microscopically back, but it didn’t matter; they weren’t getting off at our level, anyway. The first one up the cable was a Corporation bigwig whose name I didn’t remember, then a Chinese guard, then someone in a Terminal Hospital robe with a medic on the same grip of the cable, holding him to make sure he didn’t fall. I knew the face but not the name; I had seen him at one of the farewell parties, maybe at several of them, a small, elderly black man who had been out two or three times without scoring. His eyes were open and clear enough, but he looked infinitely fatigued. He looked without astonishment at the crowd around the shaft, and then was out of sight.
I looked away and saw that Louise was weeping quietly, her eyes closed. Klara had an arm around her. In the movement of the crowd I managed to get next to Kiara and look a question at her. “It’s a Five,” she said softly. “Her daughter was in a Three.’
I knew Louise had heard that, so I patted her and said: “I’m sorry, Louise,” and then a space opened at the lip of the shaft and I peered down.
I caught a quick glimpse of what ten or twenty million do looked like. It was a stack of hexagonal boxes made out of Heechee metal, not more than half a meter across and less than a meter tall. Then Francy Hereira was coaxing, “Come on, Rob, get back will you?” And I stepped away from the shaft while another Inspector in a hospital robe came up. She didn’t see me as she went past; in fact her eyes were closed. But I saw her. It was Sheri.