A NOTE ON SIGNATURES
Dr. Asmenion. So when you’re looking for signs of life on a planet, you don’t expect a big neon sign that says “Aliens Live Here.” You look for signatures. A “signature” is something that shows something else is there. Like your signature on a check. If I see that, I know it shows that you want it paid, so I cash it. Not yours, of course, Bob.
Question. God hates a smart-assed teacher.
Dr. Asmenion. No offense, Bob. Methane is a typical signature. It shows the presence of warm-blooded mammals, or something like them.
Question. I thought methane could come from rotting vegetation and all that?
Dr. Asmenion. Oh, sure. But mostly it comes from the guts of large ruminants. Most of the methane in the Earth’s air is cow farts.
Emma looked surprised. “That part? Look, I haven’t come to the dangerous part yet. This is a nonaccepted destination for all Ones, most Threes, and some Fives.”
“Why?” someone asked.
“That’s what you’re going there to find out,” she said patiently. “It happens to be the setting the computer picked out as best for testing the correlations between course settings. You’ve got armored Fives, and both accept this particular destination. That means you have what the Heechee designers figured was a good chance to handle it, right?”
“That was a long time ago,” I objected.
“Oh, sure. I never said otherwise. It is dangerous — at least to some extent. That’s what the million is for.”
She stopped there, gravely considering us, until someone obliged by asking, “What million?”
“The million-dollar bonus each one of you gets when you come back,” she said. “They’ve appropriated ten million dollars out of Corporation funds for this. Equal shares. Of course, there’s a good chance that it will be more than a million each. If you find anything worthwhile, the regular pay scales apply. And the computer thinks this is a good prospect.”
“Why is it worth ten million?” I asked.
“I don’t make these decisions,” she said patiently. And then she looked at me as a person, not part of the group, and added, “And by the way, Broadhead. We’re writing off your damage to the ship. So whatever you get is yours to keep. A million dollars? That’s a nice little nest egg. You can go back home, buy yourself a little business, live the rest of your life on that.”
We looked at each other, and Emma just sat there, smiling gently and waiting. I don’t know what the others were thinking about. What I was remembering was Gateway Two and the first trip, wearing our eyes out at the instruments, looking for something that wasn’t there. I suppose each of the others had washouts of their own to remember.
“Launch,” she said at last, “is day after tomorrow. The ones who want to sign, come see me in my office.”
They accepted me. They turned Shicky down.
But it wasn’t as easy as that, nothing ever is; the one who made sure Shicky was not going to go along was me. They filled up the first ship quickly: Sess Forehand, two girls from Sierra Leone, a French couple — all English-speaking, all briefed, all with previous missions. For the second ship Metchnikov signed as crew right away; a gay couple, Danny A. and Danny R., were his picks. Then, grudgingly, he agreed to me. And that left one opening.
“We can take your friend Bakin,” Emma said. “Or would you prefer your other friend?”
“What other friend?” I demanded.
“We have an application,” she said, “from Gunner Third Susanna Hereira, off the Brazilian cruiser. She has their permission to take leave for this purpose.”
“Susie! I didn’t know she’d volunteered!”
Emma studied her punch card reflectively. “She’s very qualified,” she commented. “Also, she has all her parts. I am referring,” she said sweetly, “to her legs, of course, although as I understand it you have some interest in her other parts as well. Or would you care to go gay for this mission?”
I felt an unreasoning rush of anger. I am not one of your sexually uptight people; the thought of physical contact with a male was not frightening in itself. But — with Dane Metchnikov? Or one of his lovers?
“Gunner Hereira can be here tomorrow,” Emma comme “The Brazilian cruiser is going to dock right after the orbiter.”
“Why the hell are you asking me?” I snarled. “Metchnikov is crew chief.”
“He prefers to leave it to you, Broadhead. Which one?”
“I don’t give a damn!” I yelled, and left. But there is no such thing as avoiding a decision. Not making a decision was in effect decision enough to keep Shicky off the crew. If I had fought for him, they would have taken him; without that, Susie was the obvious choice.
I spent the next day staying out of Shicky’s way. I picked new a fish at the Blue Hell, fresh out of the classroom, and spent the night in her room. I didn’t even go back to my own room for clothes; I dumped everything and bought a new outfit. I pretty well knew the places where Shicky might look for me — the Hell, Central Park, the museum — and so I stayed away from those places; I went for a long, rambling wander through the deserted tunnels, seeing no one at all, until late that night.
Dear Voice of Gateway:
Last month I spent 58.50 of my hard-earned money to take my wife and son to a “lecture” by one of your returned heroes,” who gave Liverpool the dubious honour of a visit (for which he was well paid, naturally, by people like me). I didn’t mind that he was not a very interesting speaker. It was what he flaming well said that drove me right up the flaming wall. He said we poor sods of earthlings had just no idea of how dicey things were for you noble adventurers.
Well, mate, this morning I drew out the last pound in the savings account so the wife could get a lung patch (good old melanomic asbestosis CV/E, you know). The kid’s tuition comes due in a week, and I haven’t a clew where it’s coming from. And after spending eight-to-twelve this morning waiting by the docks for a chance to shift some cargo (there wasn’t any) the foreman let me know I was redundant, which means tomorrow I don’t even have to bother to show up to wait. Any of you heroes care to pick up a bargain in surplus parts? Mine are for sale — kidneys, liver, the lot. All in good condition, too, or as good as nineteen years on the docks can be expected to leave them, except for the tear glands of the eyes, which are fair wore out with weeping over the troubles of your lot.
“Wavetops” Plat B bis 17, 41st Floor
Merseyside L77PR 14JE6
Then I took a chance and went to our farewell party. Shicky would probably be there, but there would be other people around.
He was. And so was Louise Forehand. In fact, she seemed to be the center of attention; I hadn’t even known she was back.
She saw me and waved to me. “I struck it rich, Rob! Drink up, I’m buying!”
I let someone put a glass in one hand and a joint in the other and before I took my hit I managed to ask her what she’d found.
“Weapons, Rob! Marvelous Heechee weapons, hundred them. Sess says it’s going to be at least a five-million-dollar assessment. Plus royalties… if anyone finds a way to duplicate the weapons anyway.”
I let the smoke blow out and washed out the taste with a swallow of white lightning. “What kind of weapons?”
“They’re like the tunnel diggers, only portable. They’ll cut a hole through anything. We lost Sara BellaFanta in the landing; one of them put a hole in her suit. But Tim and I are whacking up her share, so it’s two and a half mil apiece.”
“Congratulations,” I said. “I would have thought the last thing the human race needed was some new ways to kill each other -congratulations.” I was reaching for an air of moral superiority and I needed it; because as I turned away, there was Shicky, hanging in air, watching me.
“Want a hit?” I asked, offering him the joint.
He shook his head.
I said, “Shicky, it wasn’t up to me. I told them-I didn’t tell them not to take you.”
“Did you tell them they should?”
“It wasn’t up to me,” I said. “Hey, listen!” I went on, suddenly seeing an out. “Now that Louise has hit, Sess probably won’t want to go. Why don’t you take his place?”
He backed away, watching me; only his expression changed. “You don’t know?” he asked. “It is true that Sess canceled out, but he has already been replaced.”
“By the person right behind you,” said Shicky, and I turned around, and there she was, looking at me, a glass in her hand and an expression I could not read on her face.
“Hello. Rob.” said Klara.
I had prepared myself for the party by a number of quick ones in the commissary; I was ninety-percent drunk and ten-percent stoned, but it all whooshed out of me as I looked at her. I put down the drink, handed the joint to someone at random, took her arm, and pulled her out into the tunnel.
“Klara,” I said. “Did you get my letters?”
She looked puzzled. “Letters?” She shook her head. “I guess you sent them to Venus? I never got there. I got as far as the rendezvous with the plane-of-the-ecliptic flight, and then I changed my mind. I came right back on the orbiter.”
“Oh, Rob,” she mimicked, grinning; that wasn’t much fun, because when she smiled I could see where the tooth was missing that I had knocked out. “So what else have we got to say to each other?”
I put my arms around her. “I can say that I love you, and I’m sorry, and I want to make it up to you, and I want to get married and live together and have kids and—”
“Jesus, Rob,” she said, pushing me away, gently enough, “when you say something you say a lot, don’t you? So hold it for a while. It’ll keep.”
“But it’s been months!”
She laughed. “No fooling, Rob. This is a bad day for Sagittarians to make decisions, especially about love. We’ll talk about it another time.”
“That crap! Listen, I don’t believe in any of that!”
“I do, Rob.”
I had an inspiration. “Hey! I bet I can trade with somebody in the first ship! Or, wait a minute, maybe Susie would trade with you—”
She shook her head, still smiling. “I really don’t think Susie would like that,” she said. “Anyway, they bitched enough about letting me switch with Sess. They’ll never stand still for another last minute change.”
“I don’t care, Klara!”
“Rob,” she said, “don’t rush me. I did a lot of thinking about you and me. I think we’ve got something that’s worth working for. But I can’t say it’s all straight in my head yet, and I don’t want to push it.”
“Leave it at that Rob. I’ll be in the first Five, you’ll be in the second.