Cochenour and Dorrie Keefer were maybe the fiftieth or sixtieth party I’d taken on a Heechee dig, and I wasn’t surprised that they were willing to work like coolies. I don’t care how lazy and bored they start out, by the time they actually come close to finding something that belonged to an almost completely unknown alien race, left there when the closest thing to a human being on Earth was a slope-browed furry little beast killing other beasts with antelope bones, they begin to burn with exploration fever.
So they worked hard, and drove me hard, and I was as eager as they. Maybe more so,
as the days went past and I found myself rubbing my right side, just under the short ribs, more and more of the time.
The military boys overflew us half a dozen times in the first few days. They didn’t say much, just formal requests for identification, which they already well knew, then away. Regulations say if you find anything you’re supposed to report it right away. Over Cochenour’s objections, I reported finding that first breached tunnel, which surprised them a little, I think.
And that’s all we had to report.
Site B was a pegmatite dike. The other two fairly bright ones, that I called D and E, showed nothing at all when we dug, meaning that the sound reflections had probably been caused by nothing more than invisible interfaces in layers of rock or ash or gravel. I vetoed trying to dig C, the best looking of the bunch. Cochenour gave me a hell of an argument about it, but I held out. The military were still looking in on us every now and then, and I didn’t want to get any closer to their perimeter than we already were. I half-promised that, if we didn’t have any luck elsewhere in the mascons, we’d sneak back to C for a quick dig before returning to the Spindle, and we left it at that.
We lifted the airbody, moved to a new position, and set out a new pattern of probes.
By the end of the second week we had dug nine times and come up empty every time. We were getting low on igloos and probes. We’d run out of tolerance for each other completely.
Cochenour had turned sullen and savage. I hadn’t planned on liking the man much when I first met him, but I hadn’t expected him to be as bad as that. Considering that it had to be only a game with him—with all his money, the extra fortune he might pick up by discovering some new Heechee artifacts couldn’t have meant anything but extra points on a score pad—he was playing for blood.
I wasn’t particularly graceful myself, for that matter. The plain fact was that the pills from the Quackery weren’t helping as much as they should. My mouth tasted like rats had nested in it, I was getting headaches, and I was beginning to knock things over. See, the thing about the liver is that it sort of regulates your internal diet. It filters out poisons, it converts some of the carbohydrates into other carbohydrates that you can use, it patches together amino acids into proteins. If it isn’t working, you die. The doctor had been all over it with me, and I could visualize what was going on inside me, the mahogany-red cells dying and being replaced by clusters of fat and yellowish matter. It was an ugly kind of picture. The ugliest part was that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Only go on taking pills, and they wouldn’t work past a matter of a few days more. Liver, bye-bye; hepatic failure, hello.
So we were a bad bunch. Cochenour was a bastard because it was his nature to be a bastard, and I was a bastard because I was sick and desperate. The only decent human being aboard was the girl.
She did her best, she really did. She was sometimes sweet and often even pretty, and she was always ready to meet the power people, Cochenour and me, more than halfway. It was clearly tough on her. She was only a kid. No matter how grown up she acted, she just hadn’t been alive long enough to grow a defense against concentrated meanness. Add in the fact that we were all beginning to hate the sight and sound and smell of each other (and in an airbody you get to know a lot about how people smell). There wasn’t much joy on Venus for Dorrie Keefer.
Or for any of us, especially after I broke the news that we were down to our last igloo.
Cochenour cleared his throat. He sounded like a fighter-plane jockey blowing the covers off his guns in preparation for combat, and Dorrie attempted to head him off with a diversion. “Audee,” she said brightly, “you know what I think we could do? We could go back to that site that looked good near the military reservation.”
It was the wrong diversion. I shook my head. “No.”
“What the hell do you mean, ‘No’?”rumbled Cochenour, revving up for battle.
“What I said. No. That’s a desperation trick, and I’m not that desperate.”
“Walthers,” he snarled, “you’ll be desperate when I tell you to be desperate. I can still stop payment on that check.”
“No, you can’t. The union won’t let you. The regulations are very clear about that. You pay up unless I disobey a lawful directive; you can’t make me do anything against the law, and going inside the military reservation is extremely against the law.”
He shifted over to cold war. “No,” he said softly, “you’re wrong about that. It’s only against the law if a court says it is, after we do it. You’re only right if your lawyers are smarter than my lawyers. Honestly, Walthers, I pay my lawyers to be the smartest there are.”
The difficult part was that he was even more right than he knew he was, because my liver was on his side. I couldn’t spare time for arbitration because without his money and my transplant I wouldn’t live that long.
Dorrie, listening with her birdlike look of friendly interest, got between us again. “Well, then, how about this? We just put down here. Why don’t we wait and see what the probes show? Maybe we’ll hit something even better than that Trace C—”
“There isn’t going to be anything good here,” he said without looking at her.
“Why, Boyce, how do you know that? We haven’t even finished the soundings.”
He said, “Look, Dorotha, listen close one time and then shut up. Walthers is playing games. You see where we are now?”
He brushed past me and tapped out the program for a full map display, which somewhat surprised me because I didn’t know he knew how. The charts sprang up with virtual images of our position, the shafts we’d already cut, the great irregular edge of the military reservation overlaid on the plot of mascons and navigation aids.
“You see? We’re not even in the high-density mass areas now. Is that true, Walthers? We’ve tried all the good locations and come up dry?”
I said, “You’re partly right, Mr. Cochenour, but I’m not playing games. This site is a good possibility. You can see it on the map. We’re not over any mascon, that’s true, but we’re right between two of them that are located pretty close together. Sometimes you find a dig that connects two complexes, and it has happened that the connecting passage was closer to the surface than any other part of the system. I can’t guarantee we’ll hit anything here, but it’s not impossible.”
“Just damn unlikely?”
“Well, no more unlikely than anywhere else. I told you a week ago, you got your money’s worth the first day just finding any Heechee tunnel at all, even a spoiled one. There are maze rats in the Spindle who went five years without seeing that much.” I thought for a minute. “I’ll make a deal with you,” I said.
“We’re down here, and there’s at least a chance we can hit something. Let’s try. We’ll
deploy the probes and see what they turn up. If we get a good trace we’ll dig it. If we don’t—then I’ll think about going back to Trace C.”
about it!” he roared.
“Don’t push me, Cochenour. You don’t know what you’re getting into. The military reservation is not to be fooled with. Those boys shoot first and ask questions later, and there aren’t any policemen or courts on Venus to even ask them questions.”
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment.
“No,” I said, “you don’t, Mr. Cochenour, and that’s what you’re paying me for. I do know.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “you probably do, but whether you’re telling me the truth about what you know is another question. Hegramet never said anything about digging between mascons.”
And then he looked at me with a completely opaque expression, waiting to see whether I would catch him up on what he had just said.
I didn’t respond. I gave him an opaque look back. I didn’t say a word; I only waited to see what would come next. I was pretty sure that it would not be any sort of explanation of how he happened to know Hegramet’s name, or what dealings he had had with the greatest Earthside authority on Heechee diggings, and it wasn’t.
“Put out your probes and we’ll try it your way one more time,” he said at last.
I plopped the probes out, got good penetration on all of them, started firing the noisemakers. I sat watching the first buildup of lines on the scan as though I expected them to carry useful information. They couldn’t, of course, but it was a good excuse to think privately for a moment.
Cochenour needed to be thought about. He hadn’t come to Venus just for the ride, that was clear. He had known he was going to be sinking shafts after Heechee digs before he ever left Earth. He had briefed himself on the whole bit, even to handling the instruments on the airbody. My sales talk about Heechee treasures had been wasted on a customer whose mind had been made up to buy at least half a year earlier and tens of millions of miles away.
All that I understood, but the more I understood the more I saw that I didn’t understand. What I really wanted was to give Cochenour a quarter and send him to the movies for a while so I could talk privately to the girl. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to send him. I managed to force a yawn, complain about the boredom of waiting for the probe traces to build up, and suggest a nap. Not that I would have been real confident he wasn’t lying there with his ears flapping, listening to us. It didn’t matter. Nobody acted sleepy but me. All I got out of it was an offer from Dorrie to watch the screen and wake me if anything interesting turned up.
So I said the hell with it and went to sleep myself.
It was not a good sleep, because lying there waiting for it gave me time to notice how truly lousy I felt, and in how many ways. There was a sort of permanent taste of bile in the back of my mouth not so much as though I wanted to throw up as it was as though I just had. My head ached, and I was beginning to see ghost images wandering fuzzily around my field of vision. When I took my pills I didn’t count the ones that were left. I didn’t want to know.
I’d set my private alarm for three hours, thinking maybe that would give Cochenour time to get sleepy and turn in, leaving the girl up and about and perhaps conversational.
But when I woke up there was Cochenour, cooking himself a herb omelette with the last of our sterile eggs. “You were right, Walthers,” he grinned, “I was sleepy. Had a nice little nap. Ready for anything now. Want some eggs?”
Actually I did want them; but of course I didn’t dare eat them, so I glumly swallowed what the Quackery had allowed me to have and watched him stuff himself. It was unfair that a man of ninety could be so healthy that he didn’t have to think about digestion, while I was—well, there wasn’t any profit in that kind of thinking, so I offered to play some music, and Dorrie picked
and I started it up.
And then I had an idea and headed for the tool lockers. They needed checking. The auger heads were about due for replacement, and I knew we were low on spares; and the other thing about the tool lockers was that they were as far from the galley as you could get and stay inside the airbody, and I hoped Dorrie would follow me. And she did.
“Need any help, Audee?”
“Glad to have it,” I said. “Here, hold these for me. Don’t get the grease on your clothes.” I didn’t expect her to ask me why they had to be held. She didn’t. She only laughed.
“Grease? I don’t think I’d even notice it, dirty as I am. I guess we’re all about ready to get back to civilization.”
Cochenour was frowning over the probe trace and paying us no attention. I said, “Meaning which kind of civilization, the Spindle or Earth?”
What I had in mind was to start her talking about Earth, but she went the other way. “Oh, the Spindle, Audee. I thought it was fascinating, and we really didn’t get to see much of it. And the people. Like that Indian fellow who ran the cafe. The cashier was his wife, wasn’t she?”
“One of them. She’s the number-one wife; the waitress was number three, and he has another one at home with the kids. There are five of them, all three wives involved.” But I wanted to go in the other direction, so I said, “It’s pretty much the same as on Earth. Vastra would be running a tourist trap in Benares if he wasn’t running one here, and he wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t shipped out with the military and terminated here. I’d be guiding in Texas, I suppose. If there’s any open country left to guide in, maybe up along the Canadian River. How about you?”
All the time I was picking up the same four or five tools, studying the serial numbers and putting them back. She didn’t notice.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, what did you do before you came here?”
“Oh, I worked in Boyce’s office for a while.”