HOW DO you know you’re not a Unitarian? Gateway Fellowship now forming. 87-539.
BILITIS WANTED for Sappho and Lesbia, joint trips till we make it, then happily ever after in Northern Ireland. Permanent trimarriage only. 87-033 or 87-034.
STORE YOUR effects. Save rent, avoid Corporation seizure while out. Fee includes disposal instructions if nonreturn. 88-125.
“Probably,” she said, “providing you’re a Heechee with pilot training.”
“Not even like one color means you’re going farther from here than some other color?”
“Not that anybody here has figured out. Of course, they keep trying. There’s a whole team that spends its time programming returned mission reports against the settings they went out with. So far they’ve come up empty. Now let’s get on with it, Broadhead. Put your whole hand on that first wheel, the one the others have used. Shove it. It’ll take more muscle than you think.”
It did. In fact, I was almost afraid to push it hard enough to make it work. She leaned over and put her hand on mine, and I realized that that nice musk-oil smell that had been in my nostrils for the last little while was hers. It wasn’t just musk, either; her pheromones were snuggling nicely into my chemoreceptors. It made a very nice change from the rest of the Gateway stink.
But all the same, I didn’t get even a show of color, although I tried for five minutes before she waved me away and gave Sheri another shot in my place.
When I got back to my room somebody had cleaned it up. I wondered gratefully who that had been, but I was too tired to wonder very long. Until you get used to it, low gravity can be exhausting; you find yourself overusing all your muscles because you have to relearn a whole pattern of economies.
I slung my hammock and was just dozing off when I heard a scratching at the lattice of my door and Sheri’s voice: “Rob?”
“Are you asleep?”
Obviously I wasn’t, but I interpreted the question the way she had intended it. “No. I’ve been lying here thinking.”
“So was I… Rob?”
“Would you like me to come into your hammock?”
I made an effort to wake myself up enough to consider the question on its merits.
“I really want to,” she said.
“All right. Sure. I mean, glad to have you.” She slipped into my room, and I slid over in the hammock, which swung slowly as she crawled into it. She was wearing a knitted T-shirt and underpants, and she felt warm and soft against me when we rolled gently together in the hollow of the hammock.
“It doesn’t have to be sex, stud,” she said. “I’m easy either way.”
“Let’s see what develops. Are you scared?”
Her breath was the sweetest-smelling thing about her; I could feel it on my cheek. “A lot more than I thought I would be.”
“Rob—” she squirmed herself comfortable and then twisted her neck to look at me over her shoulder, “you know, you say kind of asshole things sometimes?”
“Well, I mean it. I mean, look what we’re doing. We’re going to get into a ship that we don’t know if it’s going to get where it’s supposed to go, and we don’t even know where it’s supposed to go. We go faster than light, nobody knows how. We don’t know how long we’ll be gone, even if we knew where we were going. So we could be traveling the rest of our lives and die before we got there, even if we didn’t run into something that would kill us in two seconds. Right? Right. So how come you ask me why I’m scared?”
“Just making conversation.” I curled up along her back and cupped a breast, not aggressively but because it felt good.
“And not only that. We don’t know anything about the people who built these things. How do we know this isn’t all a practical joke on their part? Maybe their way of luring fresh meat into Heechee heaven?”
“We don’t,” I agreed. “Roll over this way.”
“And the ship they showed us this morning doesn’t hardly look like I thought it was going to be, at all,” she said, doing as I told her and putting a hand on the back of my neck.
There was a sharp whistle from somewhere, I couldn’t tell where.
“I don’t know.” It came again, sounding both out in the tunnel and, louder, inside my room. “Oh, it’s the phone.” What I was hearing was my own piezophone and the ones on either side of me, all ringing at once. The whistle stopped and there was a voice:
“This is Jim Chou. All you fish who want to see what a ship looks like when it comes back after a bad trip, come to Docking Station Four. They’re bringing it in now.”
I could hear a murmuring from the Forehands’ room next door, and I could feel Sheri’s heart pounding. “We’d better go,” I said.
“I know. But I don’t think I want to — much.”
The ship had made it back to Gateway, but not quite all the way. One of the orbiting cruisers had detected it and closed in on it. Now a tug was bringing it in to the Corporation’s own docks, where usually only the rockets from the planets latched in. There was a hatch big enough to hold even a Five. This was a Three, what there was left of it.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” Sheri whispered. “Rob, what do you suppose happened to them?”
“To the people? They died.” There was not really any doubt of that. The ship was a wreck. The lander stem was gone, just the interstellar vehicle itself, the mushroom cap, was still there, and that was bent out of shape, split open, seared by heat. Split open! Heechee metal, that doesn’t even soften under an electric arc!
But we hadn’t seen the worst of it.
We never did see the worst of it, we only heard about it. One man was still inside the ship. All over the inside of the ship. He had been literally spattered around the control room, and his remains had been baked onto the walls. By what? Heat and acceleration, no doubt. Perhaps he had found himself skipping into the upper reaches of a sun, or in tight orbit around a neutron star. The differential in gravity might have shredded ship and crew like that. But we never knew.
The other two persons in the crew were not there at all. Not that it was easy to tell; but the census of the organs revealed only one jaw, one pelvis, one spine — though in many short pieces. Perhaps the other two had been in the lander?
“Move it, fish!”
Sheri caught my arm and pulled me out of the way. Five uniformed crewmen from the cruisers came through, in American and Brazilian blue, Russian beige, Venusian work white and Chinese all-purpose black-and-brown. The American and the Venusian were female; the faces were all different, but the expressions were all the same mixture of discipline and distaste.
“Let’s go.” Sheri tugged me away. She didn’t want to watch the crewmen poke through the remnants, and neither did I. The whole class, Jimmy Chou, Klara and the other teachers and all, began to straggle back to our rooms. Not quite quick enough. We had been looking through the ports into the lock; when the patrol from the cruisers opened it, we got a whiff of the air inside. I don’t know how to describe it. A little bit like overripe garbage being cooked to swill to pigs. Even in the rank air of Gateway, that was hard to take.
Teacher dropped off at her own level — down pretty low, in the high-rent district around Easy Level. When she looked up after me as I said goodnight I observed for the first time that she was crying.
Sheri and I said goodnight to the Forehands at their door, and I turned to her, but she was ahead of me.
“I think I’ll sleep this one out,” she said. “Sorry, Rob, but, you know, I just don’t feel like it anymore.”