Vessel 3-104, Voyage 031D18. Crew N. Ahoya, Ta. Zakharcenko, L. Marks.
Transit time 119 days 4 hours. Position not identified. Apparently outside galactic cluster, in dust cloud. Identification of external galaxies doubtful.
Summary. “We found no trace of any planet, artifact, or landable asteroid within scanning distance. Nearest star approximately 1.7 l.y. Conjecture whatever was there has since been destroyed. Life-support systems began to malfunction on return trip and Larry Marks died.”
That was not really easy. After two months of rejecting close to everything around me because it was boring or threatening, it was tough for me to switch over to a welcoming, vulnerable mode. I switched on the spherical scan and peered out as the ship began to rotate its scanning pattern, slicing orange-peel strips of sky to capture for the cameras and analyzers.
And almost at once I got a huge, bright, nearby signal. Fifty-five days of boredom and exhaustion went right out of my mind. There was something either very big or very close. I forgot about being sleepy. I crouched over the viewscreen, holding onto it with hands and knees, and then I saw it: a squared-off object marching into the screen. Glowing all over. Pure Heechee metal. It was irregularly slab-sided, with rounded pimples studding it on the flat sides.
And the adrenalin began to flow, and visions of sugarplums danced in my head. I watched it out of sight, and then hauled myself over to the scan analyzer, waiting to see what would come out. There was no question that it was good, the only question was how good. Maybe extraordinarily good! Maybe a whole Peggy’s World all my own! — with a royalty in the millions of dollars every year for the rest of my life! Maybe only a vacant shell. Maybe. The squared-off shape suggested it was- maybe that wildest of dreams, a whole big Heechee ship that I could enter into and fly around; where I chose, big enough to carry a thousand people and a lion tons of cargo! All those dreams were possible; and even if they all failed, if it was just an abandoned shell, if all that it held was one thing inside it, one little doodad, one gadget, one whosis that nobody had ever found before that could be taken apart, reproduced and made to work on Earth. .
I stumbled and raked my knuckles against the spiral gaget now glowing soft gold. I sucked the blood off them and realized the ship was moving.
It shouldn’t have been moving! It wasn’t programmed to do that. It was meant to hang in whatever orbit it was programmed to find, and just stay there until I looked around and made my decisions.
I stared around, confused and baffled. The glowing slab was firmly in the middle of the viewscreen now, and it stayed there; ship had stopped its automatic spherical scan. Belatedly I heard the distant high yell of the lander motors. They were what was moving me; my ship was targeted for that slab.
And a green light was glowing over the pilot’s seat.
That was wrong! The green light was installed on Gateway by human beings. It had nothing to do with the Heechee; it was the plain old people’s radio circuit, announcing that someone was calling me. Who? Who could be anywhere near my brand-new discovery?
I thumbed on the TBS circuit and shouted, “Hello?”
There was an answer. I didn’t understand it; it seemed to be in some foreign language, perhaps Chinese. But it was human, all right. “Talk English!” I yelled. “Who the hell are you?”
Pause. Then another voice. “Who are you?”
“My name is Rob Broadhead,” I snarled.
“Broadhead?” Confused mumbling of a couple of voices. Then the English-speaking voice again: “We don’t have any record of a prospector named Broadhead. Are you from Aphrodite?”
“Oh, Christ! Who are you? Listen, this is Gateway Two control and we don’t have time to screw around. Identify yourself!”
I snapped off the radio and lay back, watching the slab grow larger, ignoring the demand of the green light. Gateway Two? How ridiculous! If I had wanted to go to Gateway Two I would have signed up in the regular course and accepted the penalty of paying royalties on anything I might find. I would have flown out secure as any tourist, on a course that had been tested a hundred times. I hadn’t done that. I had picked a setting no one else had ever used and taken my risks. And I had felt every one of them, scared out of my brain for fifty-five bad days.
It wasn’t fair!
I lost my head. I lunged toward the Heechee course director and shoved the wheels around at random.
It was a failure I couldn’t accept. I was braced to find nothing. I was not braced to find I had done something easy, for no reward at all.
But what I produced was a bigger failure still. There was a bright yellow flash from the course board, and then all the colors went black.
The thin scream from the lander motors stopped.
The feeling of motion was gone. The ship was dead. Nothing was moving. Nothing worked in the Heechee complex; nothing, not even the cooling system.
By the time Gateway Two sent a ship out to haul me in I delirious with heatstroke, in an ambient temperature of 75.0 C.
Gateway was hot and dank. Gateway Two was cold enough that I had to borrow jacket, gloves, and heavy underwear. Gateway stank of sweat and sewers. Gateway Two tasted of rusty steel. Gateway was bright and loud and full of people. On Gateway Two there was almost no sound, and only seven human beings, counting myself, to make any. The Heechee had left Gateway Two not quite completed. Some of the tunnels ended in bare rock, there were only a few dozen of them. No one had got around to planting vegetation yet, and all the air there was came from chemical processors. The partial pressure of O2 was under 150 millibars; and the rest of the atmosphere was a nitrogen-helium mix, much more than half earth-normal pressure altogether, that made the voices highpitched and left me gasping for the first few hours.
The man who helped me out of my lander and bundled me against the sudden cold was a dark, immense Martian-Japanese named Norio Ituno. He put me in his own bed, filled me with hot liquids and let me rest for an hour. I dozed, and when I woke he was sitting there, looking at me with amusement and respect. The respect was for someone who had slain a five-hundred million-dollar ship. The amusement was that I was idiot enough to do it.
“I guess I’m in trouble,” I said.
“I would say so, yes,” he agreed. “The ship is totally dead. Never saw anything like it before.”
“I didn’t know a Heechee ship could go dead like that.”
He shrugged. “You did something original, Broadhead. How are you feeling?” I sat up to answer him, and he nodded. “I’m pretty busy right now. I’m going to have to let you take can yourself for a couple of hours — if you can? — fine. Then we’ll have a party for you.”
“Party!” It was the farthest thing from my mind. “For who?”
“We don’t meet someone like you every day, Broadhead,’ said Ituno admiringly, and left me to my thoughts.
I didn’t like my thoughts very much, and after a while I got up, put on the gloves, buttoned up the jacket, and started exploring. It didn’t take long; there wasn’t much there. I heard sounds of a party from the lower levels, but the echoes traveled at queer as along the empty corridors, and I saw no one. Gateway Two didn’t have a tourist trade, and so there wasn’t any nightclub or casino or restaurant that I could find… not even a latrine. After a little while that question began to seem urgent. I reasoned that Ituno would have to have something like that near his room, and tried to retrace my steps to there, but that didn’t work, either. There were cubicles along some of the corridors, but they were unfinished. No one lived there, and no one had troubled to install plumbing.