I struggled out of my sling to get out of the way of Klara’s knee and bumped into Sam Kahane’s elbow. “Sorry,” he said, not even looking around to see who he was sorry about. His hand was still on the go-teat, although we were ten minutes on our way. He was studying the flickering colors on the Heechee instrument board, and the only time he looked away was when he glanced at the viewsereen overhead.
I sat up, feeling very queasy. It had taken me weeks to get used to Gateway’s virtual absence of gravity. The fluctuating G forces in the capsule were something else. They were very light, but they didn’t stay the same for more than a minute at a time, and my inner ear was complaining.
I squeezed out of the way into the kitchen area, with one eye on the door to the toilet. Ham Tayeh was still in there. If he didn’t get out pretty soon my situation was going to become critical. Klara laughed, reached out from her sling, and put an arm around me. “Poor Robbie,” she said. “And we’re just beginning.”
I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very fright-citing about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago. And about knowing that you’re committed to go somewhere over which you no longer have any control, which may turn out to be extremely unpleasant.
I crawled back into my sling, stubbed out the cigarette, closed my eyes, and concentrated on making the time pass.
There was going to be a lot of it to pass. The average trip lasts maybe forty-five days each way. It doesn’t matter as much as you might think, how far you are going. Ten light-years or ten thousand: it matters some, but not linearly. They tell me that the ships are continually accelerating and accelerating the rate of acceleration the whole time. That delta isn’t linear, either, or even exponential, in any way that anybody can figure out. You hit the speed of light very quickly, in less than an hour. Then it seems to take quite a while before you exceed it by very much. Then they really pick up speed.
You can tell all this (they say) by watching the stars displayed on the overhead Heechee navigation screen (they say). Inside the first hour the stars all begin to change color and swim around. When you pass c you know it because they’ve all clustered in the center of the screen, which is in front of the ship as it ifies.
Actually the stars haven’t moved. You’re catching up with the light emitted by sources behind you, or to one side. The photons that are hitting the front viewer were emitted a day, or a week, or a hundred years ago. After a day or two they stop even looking like stars. There’s just a sort of mottled gray surface. It looks a little like a holofilm held up to the light, but you can make a virtual image out of a holofllm with a flashlight and nobody has ever made anything but pebbly gray out of what’s on the Heechee screens.
By the time I finally got into the toilet, the emergency didn’t seem as emergent; and when I came out Klara was alone in the capsule, checking star images with the theodolitic camera. She turned to regard me, then nodded. “You’re looking a little less green,” she said approvingly.
“I’ll live; Where are the boys?”
“Where would they be? They’re down in the lander. Dred thinks maybe we should split things up so you and I get the lander to ourselves part of the time while they’re up here, then we come up here and they take it.”
“Hmm.” That sounded pretty nice; actually, I’d been wondering how we were going to work out anything like privacy. “Okay. What do you want me to do now?”
She reached over and gave me an absentminded kiss. “Just stay out of the way. Know what? We look like we’re going almost toward straight Galactic North.”
I received that information with the weighty consideration of ignorance. Then I said, “Is that good?”
She grinned. “How can you tell?” I lay back and watched her. If she was as frightened as I was, and I had little doubt she was, she certainly was not letting it show.
I began wondering what was toward Galactic North — and, more important, how long it would take us to get there.
The shortest trip to another star system on record was eighteen days. That was Barnard’s Star, and it was a bust, nothing there. The longest, or anyway the longest anybody knows of so far — who knows how many ships containing dead prospectors are still on their way back from, maybe, M-31 in Andromeda? — was a hundred and seventy-five days each way. They did come back dead. Hard to tell where they were. The pictures they took didn’t show much, and the prospectors themselves, of course, were no longer in condition to say.
When you start out it’s pretty scary even for a veteran. You know you’re accelerating. You don’t know how long the acceleration will last. When you hit turnaround you can tell. First thing, you know formally because that golden coil in every Heechee ship flickers a little bit. (No one knows why.) But you know that you’re turning around even without looking, because the little pseudo-grav that had been dragging you toward the back of the ship now starts dragging you toward the front. Bottom becomes top.
Why didn’t the Heechee just turn their ships around in midflight, so as to use the same propulsive thrust for both acceleration and deceleration? I wouldn’t know. You’d have to be a Heechee to know that.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that all their viewing equipment seems to be in front. Maybe it’s because the front part of the ship is always heavily armored, even in the lightweight ships — against, I guess, the impact of stray molecules of gas or dust. But some of the bigger ships, a few Threes and almost all the Fives, are armored all over. They don’t turn around either.