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“Does the hangover show?”
“Actually not. But I assume it’s there. I heard you coming in last night. In fact,” she added thoughtfully, “the whole tunnel heard you.”
I winced. I could still smell myself, but most of it was apparently inside me. None of the others seemed to be edging away, not even Sheri.
The instructor stood up and studied us thoughtfully for a while. “Oh, well,” he said, and looked back at his papers. Then he shook his head. “I won’t take attendance,” he said. “I teach the course in how to run a Heechee ship.” I noticed he had a batch of bracelets; I couldn’t count them, but there were at least half a dozen. I wondered briefly about these people I kept seeing who had been out a lot of times and still weren’t rich. “This is only one of the three courses you get. After this you get survival in unfamiliar environments, and then how to recognize what’s valuable. But this one is in ship-handling, and the way we’re going to start learning it is by doing it. All of you come with me.”
So we all got up and gaggled after him, out of the room, down a tunnel, onto the down-cable of a dropshaft and past the guards — maybe the same ones who had chased me away the night before. This time they just nodded to the instructor and watched us go past. We wound up in a long, wide, low-ceilinged passage with about a dozen squared-off and stained metal cylinders sticking up out of the floor. They looked like charred tree stumps, and it was a moment before I realized what they were.
“They’re ships,” I whispered to Sheri, louder than I intended. A couple of people looked at me curiously. One of them, I noticed, was a girl I had danced with the night before, the one with the dense black eyebrows. She nodded to me and smiled; I saw the bangles on her arm, and wondered what she was doing there — and how she had done at the gambling tables.
The instructor gathered us around him, and said, “As someone just said, these are Heechee ships. The lander part. This is the piece you go down to a planet in, if you’re lucky enough to find a planet. They don’t look very big, but five people can fit into each of those garbage cans you see. Not comfortably, exactly. But they can. Generally speaking, of course, you’ll always leave one person in the main ship, so there’ll be at most four in the lander.”
He led us past the nearest of them, and we all satisfied the impulse to touch, scratch, or pat it. Then he began to lecture:
“There were nine hundred and twenty-four of these ships docked at Gateway when it was first explored. About two hundred, so far, have proved nonoperational. Mostly we don’t know why; they just don’t work. Three hundred and four have actually been sent out on at least one trip. Thirty-three of those are here now, and available for prospecting trips. The others haven’t been tried yet.” He hiked himself up on the stumpy cylinder and sat there while he went on:
“One thing you have to decide is whether you want to take one of the thirty-three tested ones or one of the ones that has never been flown. By human beings, I mean. There you just pay your money and take your choice. It’s a gamble either way. A high proportion of the trips that didn’t come back were in first flights, so there’s obviously some risk there. Well, that figures, doesn’t it? After all, nobody has done any maintenance on them for God knows how long, since the Heechee put them there.
“On the other hand, there’s a risk in the ones that have been out and back safely, too. There’s no such thing as perpetual motion. We think some of the no-returns have been because the ships ran out of fuel. Trouble is, we don’t know what the fuel is, or how much there is, or how to tell when a ship is about to run out.”
He patted the stump. “This, and all the others you see here, were designed for five Heechees in the crews. As far as we can tell. But we send them out with three human beings. It seems the Heechee were more tolerant of each other’s company in confined spaces than people are. There are bigger and smaller ships, but the no-return rate on them has been very bad the last couple of orbits. It’s probably just a string of bad luck, but… Anyway, I personally would stick with a Three. You people, you do what you want.
“So you come to your second choice, which is who you go with. Keep your eyes open. Look for companions- What?”
Sheri had been semaphoring her hand until she got his attention. “You said ’very bad,” she said. “How bad is that?”
The instructor said patiently, “In the last fiscal orbit about three out of ten Fives came back. Those are the biggest ships. In several cases the crews were dead when we got them open, even so.”
“Yeah,” said Sheri, “that’s very bad.”
“No, that’s not bad at all, compared to the one-man ships. Two orbits ago we went a whole orbit and only two Ones came back at all. That’s bad.”
“Why is that?” asked the father of the tunnel-rat family. Their name was Forehand. The instructor looked at him for a moment.
“If you ever find out,” he said, “be sure and tell somebody. Now. As far as selecting a crew is concerned, you’re better off if you can get somebody who’s already been out. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Prospectors who strike it rich generally quit; the ones that are still hungry may not want to break up their teams. So a lot of you fish are going to have to go out with other virgins. Umm.” He looked around thoughtfully. “Well, let’s get our feet wet. Sort yourselves out into groups of three — don’t worry about who’s in your group, this isn’t where you pick your partners — and climb into one of those open landers. Don’t touch anything. They’re supposed to be in deactive mode, but I have to tell you they don’t always stay deactive. Just go in, climb down to the control cabin and wait for an instructor to join you.”
That was the first I’d heard that there were other instructors. I looked around, trying to work out which were teachers and which were fish, while he said, “Are there any questions?”
Sheri again. “Yeah. What’s your name?”
“Did I forget that again? I’m Jimmy Chou. Pleased to meet you all. Now let’s go.”
Now I know a lot more than my instructor did, including what happened to him half an orbit later — poor old Jimmy Chou, he went out before I did, and came back while I was on my second trip, very dead. Flare burns, they say his eyes were boiled out of his bead. But at that time he knew it all, and it was all very strange and wonderful to me.
So we crawled into the funny elliptical hatch that let you slip between the thrusters and down into the landing capsule, and then down a peg-ladder one step further into the main vehicle itself.
We looked around, three Ali Babas staring at the treasure cave. We heard a scratching above us, and a head poked in. It had shaggy eyebrows and pretty eyes, and it belonged to the girl I had been dancing with the night before. “Having fun?” she inquired. We were clinging together as far from anything that looked movable as we could get, and I doubt we really looked at ease. “Never mind,” she said, “just look around. Get familiar with it. You’ll see a lot of it. That vertical line of wheels with the little spokes sticking out of them? That’s the target selector. That’s the most important thing not to touch for now — maybe ever. That golden spiral thing over next to you there, the blond girl? Anybody want to guess what that’s for?”
You-there-blond-girl, who was one of the Forehand daughters, shrank away from it and shook her head. I shook mine, but Sheri hazarded, “Could it be a hatrack?”
Teacher squinted at it thoughtfully. “Hmm. No, I don’t think so, but I keep hoping one of you fish will know the answer. None of us here do. It gets hot sometimes in flight; nobody knows why. The toilet’s in there. You’re going to have a lot of fun with that. But it does work, after you learn how. You can sling your hammocks and sleep there — or anywhere you want to, actually. That corner, and that recess are pretty dead space. If you’re in a crew that wants some privacy, you can screen them off. A little bit, anyway.”
Sheri said, “Don’t any of you people like to tell your names?” Teacher grinned. “I’m Gelle-Klara Moynlin. You want to know the rest about me? I’ve been out twice and didn’t score, and I’m killing time until the right trip comes along. So I work as assistant instructor.”
“How do you know which is the right trip?” asked the Forehand girl.
“Bright fellow, you. Good question. That’s another of those questions that I like to hear you ask, because it shows you’re thinking, but if there’s an answer I don’t know what it is. Let’s see. You already know this ship is a Three. It’s done six round trips already, but it’s a reasonable bet that it’s got enough reserve fuel for a couple more. I’d rather take it than a One. That’s for long-shot gamblers.”
“Mr. Chou said that,” said the Forehand girl, “but my father says he’s been all through the records since Orbit One, and the Ones aren’t that bad.”