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He punched a button and said: “Signatures for coded electromagnetic radiation.” A slow sine curve leaped onto the scanner’s readout plate, wiggled briefly for a moment, and then straightened to an absolutely motionless line.
“Negative,” said Ham. “Anomalous time-variant temperatures.”
That was a new one on me. “What’s an anomalous time-variant temperature?” I asked.
“Like if something gets warmer when the sun sets,” said Klara impatiently. “Well?”
But that line was flat, too. “None of them, either,” said Ham. “High-albedo surface metal?”
Slow sine wave, then nothing. “Hum,” said Ham. “Ha. Well, the rest of the signatures don’t apply; there won’t be any methane, because there isn’t any atmosphere, and so on. So what do we do, boss?”
Sam opened his lips to speak, but Klara was ahead of him. “I beg your pardon,” she said tightly, “but who do you mean when you say ’boss’?”
“Oh, shut up,” Ham said impatiently. “Sam?”
Kahane gave Klara a slight, forgiving smile. “If you want to say something, go ahead and say it,” he invited. “Me, I think we ought to orbit the moon.”
“Plain waste of fuel!” Klara snapped. “I think that’s crazy.”
“Have you got a better idea?”
“What do you mean, ’better’? What’s the point?”
“Well,” said Sam reasonably, “we haven’t looked all over the moon. It’s rotating pretty slow. We could take the lander and look all around; there might be a whole Heechee city on the far side.”
“Fat chance,” Klara sniffed, almost inaudibly, thus clearing up the question of who had said it before. The boys weren’t listening. All three of them were already on their way down into the lander, leaving Klara and me in sole possession of the capsule.
Klara disappeared into the toilet. I lit a cigarette, almost the last I had, and blew smoke plumes through the expanding smoke plumes before them, hanging motionless in the unmoving air. The capsule was tumbling slightly, and I could see the distant brownish disk of the planet’s moon slide upward across the viewscreen, and a minute later the tiny, bright hydrogen flame of the lander heading toward it. I wondered what I would do if they ran out of fuel, or crashed, or suffered some sort of malfunction. What I would have to do in that case was leave them there forever. What I wondered was whether I would have the nerve to do what I had to do.
It did seem like a terrible, trivial waste of human lives.
What were we doing here? Traveling hundreds or thousands of light-years, to break our hearts?
I found that I was holding my chest, as though the metaphor were real. I spat on the end of the cigarette to put it out and folded it into a disposal bag. Little crumbs of ash were floating around where I had flicked them without thinking, but I didn’t feel like chasing them. I watched the big mottled crescent of the planet swing into view in the corner of the screen, admiring it as an art object: yellowish green on the daylight side of the terminator, an amorphous black that obscured the stars on the rest of it. You could see where the outer, thinner stretches of the atmosphere began by the few bright stars that peeped twinklingly through it, but most of it was so dense that nothing came through. Of course, there was no question of landing on it. Even if it had a solid surface, it would be buried under so much dense gas that we could never survive there. The Corporation was talking about designing a special lander that could penetrate the air of a Jupiter-like planet, and maybe someday they would; but not in time to help us now.
Klara was still in the toilet.
I stretched my sling across the cabin, pulled myself into it, put down my head, and went to sleep.
Four days later they were back. Empty.
Dred and Ham Tayeh were glum, dirty, and irritable; Sam Kahane looked quite cheerful. I wasn’t fooled by it; if he had found anything worth having they would have let us know by radio. But I was curious. “What’s the score, Sam?”
“Batting zero,” he said. “It’s just rock, couldn’t get a flicker of anything worth going down for. But I have an idea.”
Klara came up beside me, looking curiously at Sam. I was looking at the other two; they looked as though they knew what Sam’s idea was, and didn’t like it.
“You know,” he said, “that star’s a binary.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“I put the scanners to work. You’ve seen that big blue baby out—” He looked around, then grinned. “Well, I don’t know which direction it is now, but it was near the planet when we first took the pictures. Anyway, it looked close, so I put the scanners on it, and they gave a proper motion I couldn’t believe. It has to be binary with the primary here, and not more than half a light-year away.”
“It could be a wanderer, Sam,” said Ham Tayeh. “I told you that. Just a star that passes in the night.”
Kahane shrugged. “Even so. It’s close.”
Klara put in, “Any planets?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Wait a minute — there it is, I think.”
We all looked toward the viewscreen. There was no question which star Kahane was talking about. It was brighter than Sirius as seen from Earth, minus-two magnitude at least.
Klara said gently, “That’s interesting, and I hope I don’t know what you’re thinking, Sam. Half a light-year is at best maybe two years’ travel time at top lander speed, even if we had the fuel for it. Which we don’t, boys.”
“I know that,” Sam insisted, “but I’ve been thinking. If we could just give a little nudge on the main capsule drive—”
I astounded myself by shouting, “Stop that!” I was shaking all over. I couldn’t stop. Sometimes it felt like terror, and sometimes it felt like rage. I think if I had had a gun in my hand at that moment I could have shot Sam without a thought.
Klara touched me to calm me down. “Sam,” she said, quite gently for her, “I know how you feel.” Kahane had come up empty on five straight trips. “I bet it’s possible to do that.”
He looked astonished, suspicious and defensive, all at once. “You do?”
“I mean, I can imagine that if we were Heechee in this ship, instead of the human clods we really are — why, then, we’d know what we were doing. We’d come out here and look around and say, ’Oh, hey, look, our friends here-’ or, you know, whatever it was that was here when they set a course for this place — ’our friends must’ve moved. They’re not home anymore.’ And then we’d say, ’Oh, well, what the hell, let’s see if they’re next door.’ And we’d push this thing here and this one there, and then we’d zap right over to that big blue one—” She paused and looked at him, still holding my arm. “Only we’re not Heechee, Sam.”
“Christ, Klara! I know that. But there has to be a way—”
She nodded. “There sure does, but we don’t know what it is. What we know, Sam, is that no ship ever has changed its course settings and come back to tell about it. Remember that? Not one.”
He didn’t answer her directly; he only stared at the big blue star in the viewscreen and said: “Let’s vote on it.”
The vote, of course, was four to one against changing the settings on the course board, and Ham Tayeh never got from in between Sam and the board until we had passed light-speed on the way home.
The trip back to Gateway was no longer than the trip out, but it seemed like forever.