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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 40


  The funny thing was that the more time Stan spent with Estrella’s damaged face seldom out of his sight, the less damaged it looked. Tan was affected, too. Once or twice, when Estrella was momentarily more or less out of earshot—in the crapper, or asleep—he muttered something dark and lecherous in Stan’s ear. In Turkish, of course. There wasn’t any place in the Three that was really out of hearing range except for the lander, tucked in its bay in the bottom of the vessel and not comfortable enough for anyone to stay in it for very long.

  Estrella spent most of her time reading from a little pocket screen, but after the third day she allowed herself to be persuaded into a card game with the boys. When Tan had lost his third big pot to her he gave her a suspicious look. “I thought you said you didn’t know how to play poker,” he growled.

  “I didn’t. It’s a very simple game,” she said carelessly, and then realized she had hurt his feelings. She tried to be complimentary. “I meant to tell you that I was surprised at your command of English, Tan. You speak it very well.”

  He shrugged. “Why should I not? I went to the English-language school from the age of six until I had to leave to go to work, at fourteen.” But he was mollified. More cheerfully, he went on. “It is where I met Stan. We became friends quickly, because we were interested in the same things. Even as small boys, in recess we would run out to the teeter-totter and climb on, bouncing each other up and down and pretending we were on a Gateway ship like this one.”

  “And no one more surprised than I that we are finally here,” Stan added, grinning. “What was your life like, Estrella?”

  She picked up the cards and shuffled for a moment without answering. Then she said briefly, “I was a butcher. Whose deal is it now?”

  By the seventh day the three of them were having trouble keeping their eyes off the coil. It didn’t change. “Well,” Estrella said brightly, “I guess this Three is setting a new record for itself. Still, we have a good margin in supplies, and anyway it will probably change tomorrow.”

  It didn’t, though, not on the eighth day and not on the ninth. On the eleventh day Tan sighed, pushed the cards away, and said, “Now we must face the facts. We may go on forever in this flying rathole.”

  Estrella patted his arm. “You give up too easily, Tan.”

  He glowered at her. “What do you know? Such things have happened before! Haven’t you heard the story of, I forget his name, the old prospector who only got home because he ate his shipmates?”

  “Don’t quarrel,” Stan begged.

  But Estrella’s temper was up. “Why did I sign on with two Turks—well, a Turk and a half—who are willing to be cannibals? I suppose you have already decided which of us you will eat first, Tan. Me? Because you are both strong, and I am the smallest? Well, let me tell you—”

  Her voice trailed off. Her damaged face looked startled, then seraphic. Stan felt it, too, as down in the little ship slipped gently to up and the coil brightened.

  It was the halfway point at last. So they were not going to die, after all, or at least not in that particular way.

  Since they were to live, the atmosphere became more relaxed. Tan gave Estrella a great smile, and to Stan he muttered, in Turkish, “Perhaps we will eat this one after all, but in a more friendly way.”

  Estrella heard, and even in the rapture of the moment her expression froze. “Tan,” she said, “I do not understand Turkish, but I understand fully the way you look when you speak it. You have pricks sticking out of your eyes, Tan. Save them for someone else. I am a virgin. I have remained so when it was more difficult than it is here, and will go on as a virgin until I marry.”

  “Hell and devils,” Tan groaned. “I thought it was only Moslem girls who kept their knees locked so, not free-spirited Americans.”

  She chose to be friendly. “So you have learned something new about American women. Some of them, at least. Now shall we play cards again, or maybe get some sleep?”

  VII

  For most of a day Tan was glumly quiet, but his good nature came back. After all, they were on their way to a great adventure together. Stan could see him revising his attitude toward Estrella. All right, she was not to be a lover. A sister, then, and Tan had long practice at living with a sister.

  The thing at which Tan had had no practice at all was being confined in a tiny space with nothing to do. “I wish we had at least brought our damn instruments,” he growled to Stan, who shrugged.

  “No room,” he said.

  Estrella looked up from her plate. “We could play a few hands of poker,” she offered. Tan, his lips pressed tightly together, shook his head. “Or,” she added, “we could just talk. There is so much I don’t know about you guys. Oltan? What was your life like in Istanbul?”

  He declined to be cheered up. “I drove a van for a living,” he said sourly. “I lived with my mother and father and my kid sister, Naslan, and I had five, actually five, regular girlfriends, who were very fond of me and extremely obliging. What else is there to tell?”

  She nodded as though that were a pleasing answer and turned to Stan. “How about you?”

  Stan did his best to cooperate. “My father was a code clerk at the American consulate, a very well-paid job, when he met my mother. She was Turkish, but Christian—a Methodist, like him. I was born in the hospital at the embassy in Ankara, which was American soil so I would be born as an American, like you.”

  That made her smile. “Not much like me.”

  “You mean the well-paid part? I guess not, but that was only when I was little. My mother died when I was seven, and after that—” He shrugged without finishing the sentence, not willing to tell her about his father’s steady decline to drink.

  Tan, listening without patience, straightened up and pushed himself away. “I have to pee,” he said.

  Stan looked after him, then back to Estrella. “And you?” he said, over the plashing sounds from the crapper. “You said you were a butcher?”

  She reached up to stroke her left, off-center cheekbone. “Until the accident, yes. In Montana. I’m a mixture, too, Stan. My father was Basque, mostly. My mother was Navajo, with a little Hopi, but a big woman, and strong. There was no work around the Four Corners, so they managed to get up to Montana to work in the corrals. You know the bison ranches in America?”

  “Oh, yes. Well, sort of. I read stories when I was little. Before I thought of Gateway I thought it would be great to be a cowboy, sitting around the campfire at night, herding the bison across the prairies.”

  That time she laughed out loud. “You don’t herd bison, Stan. They won’t let you. You let them run free, because the prairie grasses are all they need to eat anyway. Then, when they’re old enough for slaughter, you lay a trail of something they like to eat even better than the prairie grasses. That takes them right into the corrals, that have a three-meter steel-plate fence all around them, because the bison can jump right over anything smaller. They can run fast, too, a hundred kilometers an hour. And then, one by one, the handlers like my parents let them into the chutes to the slaughterhouse. And then the pistoliers shoot them in the head with a big gun that has a kind of a piston, goes right into the brain and comes out again, ready for the next one. When they’re dead the belt carries them to me, to slit their throats. Then I clamp on the irons from the overhead tracks and they’re picked up so the blood can drain, and taken to the coolers before they’re cut into steaks and roasts. Each bison has nearly fifty liters of blood, which goes into the tank below—what doesn’t go onto me.”

  Tan had come out of the head, fastening his clothes as he listened. “Yes, Estrella,” he said argumentatively, “but you said a bull stepped on you and broke your head. How does a dead bison step on you?”

  “It wasn’t a dead one,” she said shortly.

  “But if the pistolier shot it in the head—”

  “This time he shot it only in the shoulder. It was very alive when it came to me, and very angry.”

  “It sounds like a
nasty accident,” Stan offered.

  “No. It wasn’t an accident. He did it on purpose. He was a man with pricks in his eyes, too, Tan, and when I would not go to bed with him he taught me a lesson.”

  Twentieth day. Twenty-first day. They didn’t play cards much any-more, because they couldn’t concentrate. They didn’t even talk much. They had already said everything they could say about their hopes to each other, and none of them wanted to speak their fears out loud. Their nerves were taut with the itch of a gambler with a ticket on a long shot that is coming up fast in the stretch, but maybe not quite fast enough. Finally, Estrella said firmly, “There is no use fidgeting around. We should sleep as much as we can.”

  Stan knew that was wise. They would need all their strength and alertness to do whatever there was to be done when they were—there. Wherever “there” turned out to be.

  The wise advice was hard to follow, though. Hard as it was for Stan to make himself fall asleep, it was even harder for him to make himself stay that way. He woke frequently, counting the time by minutes as the twenty-first day passed and the twenty-second began.

  Then none of them could sleep at all. Looking at the time every few seconds. Arguing fiercely about at what hour and what minute turnaround had come, and thus at what minute and hour they would arrive.…

  And then they did arrive. They knew it when the coil winked out.

  And, at once, every instrument on the ship went wild.

  The readings were preposterous. They said their Three was immersed in a tenuous plasma, hotter than the Sun, drenched with death-dealing radiation of all kinds, and then Stan understood why their Three was armored.

  This was no planet to make them rich with its abandoned trove of Heechee treasures. There wasn’t even a star close enough to matter. “Get us the hell out of here!” Tan was bellowing, and Estrella shrilled:

  “No, take readings first! Pictures! Make observations!”

  But there was nothing to observe beyond what the instruments had told them already. When Stan closed his hand on the go-teat Estrella didn’t object any more, but only wept.

  The flight back was no longer than the flight out, but it didn’t seem that way. It seemed interminable. They could not wait for it to be over, and then, when it was, the bad news began.

  The ancient Oriental woman who climbed aboard their Three as soon as it docked listened to their story with half an ear. It was the instrument readings that interested her, but she absently answered a few questions. “Yes,” she said, nodding, “you entered a supernova remnant. The Heechee were very interested in stars that were about to explode; many courses led to observe one. But in the time since, of course, some of those stars have actually exploded. Like yours. And all that is left is a nebula of superheated gases; it is a good thing for you that your Three was armored.”

  Estrella was biting her lower lip. “Do you think there will be a science bonus, at least?”

  The old woman considered. “Perhaps. You would have to ask Hector Montefiore. Nothing very big, though. There is already a large body of data about such objects.”

  The three looked at each other in silence. Then Stan managed a grin. “Well, guys,” he said, “it’s like my father used to say. If you fall off a horse, you want to get right back on again.”

  The woman peered at them. “Horses?”

  “He means,” Estrella explained, “we will all ship out on another mission the first chance we get.”

  “Oh,” the old woman said, looking surprised, “you were out when it happened, weren’t you? You didn’t hear. They’ve solved the guidance problem. There are no more missions. The Gateway exploration program has been terminated.”

  VIII

  Terminated! Gateway terminated? No more missions? No more of those scared, valiant Gateway prospectors daring everything to fly out on mystery missions to pick over the tantalizing scraps the long-ago Heechee had left behind when they went away—whenever they went, and wherever it was they went to?

  It was all Robinette Broadhead’s doing again. While Estrella and the boys were Out, things had gone crazy at the Food Factory and some other fabulous Heechee ship nearby. Broadhead had flown there solo to straighten it out. And had succeeded. And in the process had not only elevated his already sky-high fortune to incalculable heights, with this fabulous new cache of Heechee wonders, but in the process had learned the secret of controlling Heechee spacecraft.

  The other thing he had done was to turn Gateway itself into a backwater. There would be no more random flying to God knew where. There would be no more flying to anywhere at all until the big brains who planned Gateway missions decided how to use all this new data. Meanwhile, nothing. Everything was on hold. The scores of would-be explorers had nothing to do but to grit their teeth and practice patience.

  In the mess hall Tan nibbled at his meal, glowering. “So what’s our plan supposed to be now?” he demanded.

  Stan swallowed his mouthful of vegetarian lasagna. “We wait. What else can we do? But this can’t last forever. The ships are still there! Sooner or later they’ll start up again, and then maybe we’ll have a chance at going on a different kind of mission. Better! Knowing where we’re going before we start! Maybe even knowing that we’ll live to come back!”

  Tan gazed around the mess hall, where a couple of dozen other would-be adventurers were as subdued as themselves. “Maybe,” he said.

  “At least we’re not using up capital,” Stan pointed out. The Gateway Corporation had elected to show that it had a heart. No per diems would be charged until further notice, so at least their clocks were not running out.

  “The bastards can afford it,” Tan grumbled.

  Of course the bastards could afford it. The bastards were the Gateway Corporation, and they owned a piece of every discovered piece of Heechee treasure. The Corporation was owned in consortium by the world’s governments—on paper—but it was just about as true to say that they owned the world’s governments. And, after due deliberation, the Corporation decided it could even afford a little something for Tan, Stan, and Estrella.

  They found out about it when, for lack of anything better to do, Tan and Stan were nursing their weak, but more or less drinkable, coffees in the Blue Hell, watching the other prospectors gamble away their no longer needed per diems. Estrella was perched beside them, as always studying something or other from her pocket plate. This time, Stan saw wonderingly, what she was studying was music, and she fingered the air as she read. “Do you play?” he asked, surprised.

  She flushed. “A little. The flute,” she said.

  “Well, why didn’t you say so? Maybe the three of us can play together sometime. What do you think, Tan?”

  Tan wasn’t listening. He nudged Stan. “Here come the big shots,” he said as Hector Montefiore sailed in, along with two or three others of the permanent party. They were obviously looking for action, and Stan was not pleased to see that Montefiore was coming in their direction. He did not care for Hector Montefiore. He liked him even less when the man slapped his shoulder and patted Estrella on the rump. “Congratulations,” he boomed. “Getting ready to celebrate, are you?”

  “Celebrate what?” Tan demanded.

  The fat man gave him a look of surprise. “Your science bonus, of course. Didn’t you know? Well, check it out, for Christ’s sake! Who knows, then you might loosen up and buy me a drink!”

  He didn’t wait for it, though; went off, chuckling, while the three of them bent over Estrella’s plate as she switched to the status reports.

  And, yes, their names were there. “Not bad,” Tan said, when he saw the amount.

  Estrella shook her head. “Divided among the three of us, not all that good, either,” she said practically. “Are you willing to settle for a little money?”

  “A little money would be enough for me to go home and buy my own van, so I could go into business for myself,” Tan said stiffly.

  “If that is what you wish. It isn’t, for me. I didn’t come all
this way to spend the rest of my life struggling to stay alive in a one-room condo with Basic Medical and no future. Anyway, Hector says there will surely be more missions soon.”

  Stan gave her a thoughtful look. “How do you know what Hector says?” he asked, surprising himself by the tone of his own voice. He almost sounded jealous.

  Estrella shrugged. “He likes me,” she said, as though that explained everything.

  “He likes everybody,” Tan sneered. “Boys, girls, he doesn’t care, as long as it has a hole he can get into.”

  Estrella gazed at him for a moment in silence. “He has not got into any of mine,” she said finally. “Let’s talk sensibly. What do you want to do? Take your share and go home? Or wait for something worthwhile?”

  They waited. While they waited they watched the unfolding story of what Robinette Broadhead had discovered on the news.

  And what had he not! Strange, semihuman creatures that at first everyone thought, heart-stoppingly, might actually be Heechee, but were not. (Were, it seemed, relatives of primitive humanity, captured by the Heechee on Earth millennia ago and transported to one of their space outposts for study.) There were a clutch of surviving—well, sort of surviving—lost Gateway prospectors, taken to this place by the luck of the draw and unable to leave. Now they were more or less dead, but also more or less still alive, preserved in some bizarre sort of Heechee machinery. There was the half-wild living human boy named Wan, descendant of other Gateway castaways and now, somehow, through some Heechee wizardry that broadcast his yearnings and hates to the entire solar system, the source of the Wrath of God. And—the final secret Broadhead had learned—now he even knew where the Heechee had fled to! They had holed up in the Galaxy’s Core, and they were still there, all of them!