A NOTE ON BLOWUPS
Dr. Asmenion. Naturally, if you can get good readings on a nova, or especially on a supernova, that’s worth a lot. While it’s happening, I mean. Later, not much good. And always look for our own sun, and if you can identify it take all the tape you can get, at all frequencies, around the immediate area — up to, oh, about five degrees each way, anyway. With maximum magnification.
Question. Why’s that, Danny?
Dr. Asmenion. Well, maybe you’ll be on the far side of the sun from something like Tycho’s Star, or the Crab Nebula, which is what’s left of the 1054 supernova in Taurus. And maybe you’ll get a picture of what the star looked like before it blew. That ought to be worth, gee, I don’t know, fifty or a hundred thousand right there.
“They called on the P-phone ten minutes ago. Jesus. The rottenest son-of-a-bitching trip I’ve ever been on, and I wind up with the price of one green chip at the casino out of it.” Then she looked at my shirt and softened a little. “Well, it’s not your fault, Rob, but Geminis never can make up their minds. I should’ve known that. Let me see if I can find you some clean clothes.”
And I did let her do that, but I didn’t stay, anyway. I picked up my stuff, headed for a dropshaft, cached my goods at the registry office where I signed up to get my room back, and borrowed the use of their phone. When she mentioned Metchnikov’s name she had reminded me of something I wanted to do.
Metchnikov grumbled, but finally agreed to meet me in the schoolroom. I was there before him, of course. He loped in, stopped at the doorway, looked around, and said: “Where’s what’s-her-name?”
“Klara Moynlin. She’s in her room.” Neat, truthful, deceitful. A model answer.
“Um.” He ran an index finger down each jaw-whisker, meeting under the chin. “Come on, then.” Leading me, he said over his shoulder, “Actually, she would probably get more out of this than you would.”
“I suppose she would, Dane.”
“Um.” He hesitated at the bump in the floor that was the entrance to one of the instruction ships, then shrugged, opened the hatch, and clambered down inside.
He was being unusually open and generous, I thought as I followed him inside. He was already crouched in front of the courseselector panel, setting up numbers. He was holding a portable hand readout data-linked to the Corporation’s master computer system; I knew that he was punching in one of the established settings, and so I was not surprised when he got color almost at once. He thumbed the fine-tuner and waited, looking over his shoulder at me, until the whole board was drowned in shocking pink.
“All right,” he said. “Good, clear setting. Now look at the bottom part of the spectrum.”
That was the smaller line of rainbow colors along the right side. Colors merged into one another without break, except for occasional lines of bright color or black. They looked exactly like what the astronomers called Fraunhofer lines, when the only way they had to know what a star or planet was made of was to study it through a spectroscope. They weren’t. Fraunhofer lines show what elements are present in a radiation source (or in something that has gotten itself between the radiation source and you). These showed God-knows-what.
God and, maybe, Dane Metchnikov. He was almost smiling, and astonishingly talkative. “That band of three dark lines in the blue,” he said. “See? They seem to relate to the hazardousness of the mission. At least the computer printouts show that, when there are six or more bands there, the ships don’t come back.”
He had my full attention. “Christ!” I said, thinking of a lot of good people who had died because they hadn’t known that. “Why don’t they tell us these things in school?”
He said patiently (for him), “Broadhead, don’t be a jerk. All this is brand new. And a lot of it is guesswork. Now, the correlation between number of lines and danger isn’t quite so good under six. I mean, if you think that they might add one line for every additional degree of danger, you’re wrong. You would expect that the five-band settings would have heavy loss ratios, and when there are no bands at all there wouldn’t be any losses. Only it isn’t true. The best safety record seems to be with one or two bands. Three is good, too-but there have been some losses. Zero bands, we’ve had about as many as with three.”
For the first time I began to think that the Corporation’s science-research people might be worth their pay. “So why don’t we just go out on destination settings that are safer?”
“We’re not really sure they are safer,” Metchnikov said, again patiently for him. His tone was far more peremptory than his words. “Also, when you have an armored ship you should be able to deal with more risks than the plain ones. Quit with the dumb questions, Broadhead.”
“Sorry.” I was getting uncomfortable, crouched behind him and peering over his shoulder, so that when he turned to look at me his jaw-whiskers almost grazed my nose. I didn’t want to change position.
“So look up here in the yellow.” He pointed to five brighter lines in the yellow band. “These relate to the profitibility of the mission. God knows what we’re measuring — or what the Heechee were measuring — but in terms of financial rewards to the crews, there’s a pretty good correlation between the number of lines in that frequency and the amount of money the crews get.”
He went on as though I hadn’t said anything. “Now, naturally the Heechee didn’t set up a meter to calibrate how much in royalties you or I might make. It has to be measuring something else, who knows what? Maybe it’s a measure of population density in that area, or of technological development. Maybe it’s a Guide Michelin, and all they’re saying is that there was a four-star restaurant in that area. But there it is. Five-bar-yellow expeditions bring in a financial return, on the average, that’s fifty times as high as two-bar and ten times as high as most of the others.”
He turned around again so that his face was maybe a dozen centimeters from mine, his eyes staring right into my eyes. “You want to see some other settings?” he asked, in a tone of voice that demanded I say no, so I did. “Okay.” And then he stopped.
I stood up and backed away to get a little more space. “One question, Dane. You probably have a reason for telling me all this before it gets to be public information. What is it?”
“Right,” he said. “I want what’s-her-name for crew if I go in a Three or a Five.”
“Whatever. She handles herself well, doesn’t take up much room, knows — well, she knows how to get along with people better than I do. I sometimes have difficulty in interpersonal relationships,” he explained. “Of course, that’s only if I take a Three or a Five. I don’t particularly want to. If I can find a One, that’s what I’m going to take out. But if there isn’t a One with a good setting available, I want somebody along I can rely on, who won’t get in my hair, who knows the ropes, can handle a ship — all that. You can come, too, if you want.”
When I got back to my own room Shicky turned up almost before I started to unpack. He was glad to see me. “I am sorry your trip was unfruitful,” he said out of his endless stock of gentleness and warmth. “It is too bad about your friend Kahane.” He had brought me a flask of tea, and then perched on the chest across from my hammock, just like the first time.
I mind was spinning with with visions of sugarplums coming out of my talk with Dane Metchnikov. I couldn’t help talking about it; I told Shicky everything Dane had said.
He listened like a child to a fairy tale, his black eyes shining. “How interesting,” he said. “I had heard rumors that there was to be a new briefing for everyone. Just think, if we can go out without fear of death or—” He hesitated, fluttering his wing-gauze.
“It isn’t that sure, Shicky,” I said.
“No, of course not. But it is an improvement, I think you will agree?” He hesitated, watching me take a pull from the flask of almost flavorless Japanese tea. “Rob,” he said, “if you go on such a trip and need an extra man… Well, it is true that I would not be of much use in a lander. But in orbit I am as good as anybody.”
“I know you are, Shicky.” I tried to put it tactfully. “Does the Corporation know that?”
“They would accept me as crew on a mission no one else wanted.”
“I see.” I didn’t say that I didn’t really want to go on a mission no one else wanted. Shicky knew that. He was one of the real oldtimers on Gateway. According to the rumor he had had a big wad stashed away, enough for Full Medical and everything. But he had given it away or lost it, and stayed on, and stayed a cripple. I know that he understood what I was thinking, but I was a long way from understanding Shikitei Bakin.
He moved out of my way while I stowed my things, and we gossiped about mutual friends. Sheri’s ship had not returned. Nothing to worry about yet, of course. It could easily be out another several weeks without disaster. A Congolese couple from just beyond the star-point in the corridor had brought back a huge shipment of prayer fans from a previously unknown Heechee warren, on a planet around an F-2 star in the end of the Orion spiral arm. They had split a million dollars three ways, and had taken their share back to Mungbere. The Forehands…
Louise Forehand stopped in while we were talking about them. “Heard your voices,” she said, craning over to kiss me. “Too bad about your trip.”
“Breaks of the game.”
“Well, welcome home, anyway. I didn’t do any better than you, I’m afraid. Dumb little star, no planets that we could find, can’t think why in the world the Heechee had a course setting for it.” She smiled, and stroked the muscles at the back of my neck fondly. “Can I give you a welcome-home party tonight? Or are you and Klara-?”
“I’d love it if you did,” I said, and she didn’t pursue the question of Klara. No doubt the rumor had already got around; the Gateway tom-toms beat day and night. She left after a few minutes. “Nice lady,” I said to Shicky, looking after her. “Nice family. Was she looking a little worried?”
“I fear so, Robinette, yes. Her daughter Lois is on plus time. They have had much sorrow in that family.”
I looked at him. He said, “No, not Willa or the father; they are out, but not overdue. There was a son.”
“I know. Henry, I think. They called him Hat.”
“He died just before they came here. And now Lois.” He inclined his head, then flapped politely over and picked up the empty tea flask on a downstroke of his wing. “I must go to work now, Rob.”
“How’s the ivy planting?”
He said ruefully, “I no longer have that position, I’m afraid. Emma did not consider me executive material.”
“Oh? What are you doing?”
“I keep Gateway esthetically attractive,” he said. “I think you would call it ’garbage collector.”
I didn’t know what to say. Gateway was kind of a trashy place; because of the low gravity, any scrap of paper or bit of featherweight plastic that was thrown away was likely to float anywhere inside the asteroid. You couldn’t sweep the floor. The first stroke set everything flying. I had seen the garbage men chasing scraps of newsprint and fluffs of cigarette ash with little hand-pumped vacuum cleaners, and I had even thought about becoming one if I had to. But I didn’t like Shicky doing it.
He was following what I was thinking about him without difficulty. “It’s all right, Rob. Really, I enjoy the work. But- please; if you do need a crewman, think of me.”
I took my bonus and paid up my per capita for three weeks in advance. I bought a few items I needed — new clothes, and some music tapes to get the sound of Mozart and Palestrina out of my ears. That left me about two hundred dollars in money.
Two hundred dollars was a lot like nothing at all. It meant twenty drinks at the Blue Hell, or one chip at the blackjack table, or maybe half a dozen decent meals outside the prospectors’ commissary.
So I had three choices. I could get another job and stall indefinitely. Or I could ship out within the three weeks. Or I could give up and go home. None of the choices was attractive. But, provided I didn’t spend any money on anything much, I didn’t have to decide for, oh, a long time — as long as twenty days. I resolved to give up smoking and boughten meals; that way I could budget myself to a maximum spending of nine dollars a day, so that my per capita and my cash would run out at the same time.
I called Klara. She looked and sounded guarded but friendly on the P-phone, so I spoke guardedly and amiably to her. I didn’t mention the party, and she didn’t mention wanting to see me that night, so we left it at that: nowhere. That was all right with me. I didn’t need Klara. At the party that night I met a new girl around called Doreen MacKenzie. She wasn’t a girl, really; she was at least a dozen years older than I was, and she had been out five times. What was exciting about her was that she had really hit it once. She’d taken one and a half mil back to Atlanta, spent the whole wad trying to buy herself a career as a PV singer — material writer, manager, publicity team, advertising, demo tapes, the works — and when it hadn’t worked she had come back to Gateway to try again. The other thing was she was very, very pretty.
But after two days of getting to know Doreen I was back on the P-phone to Klara. She said, “Come on down,” and she sounded anxious; and I was there in ten minutes, and we were in bed in fifteen. The trouble with getting to know Doreen was that I had got to know her. She was nice, and a hell of a racing pilot, but she wasn’t Klara Moynlin.
When we were lying in the hammock together, sweaty and relaxed and spent, Klara yawned, ruffled my hair, pulled back her head and stared at me. “Oh, shit,” she said drowsily, “I think this is what they call being in love.”
I was gallant. “It’s what makes the world go around. No, not ’it.’ You are.”
She shook her head regretfully. “Sometimes I can’t stand you,” she said. “Sagittarians never make it with Geminis. I’m a fire sign and you- well, Geminis can’t help being confused.”
“I wish you wouldn’t keep going on about that crap,” I said.
She didn’t take offense. “Let’s get something to eat.”
I slid over the edge of the hammock and stood up, needing to talk without touching for a moment. “Dear Klara,” I said, “look, I can’t let you keep me because you’ll be bitchy about it, sooner or later — or if you aren’t, I’ll be expecting you to, and so I’ll be bitchy to you. And I just don’t have the money. You want to eat outside the commissary, you do it by yourself. And I won’t take your cigarettes, your liquor, or your chips at the casino. So if you want to get something to eat go ahead, and I’ll meet you later. Maybe we could go for a walk.”
She sighed. “Geminis never know how to handle money,” she told me, “but they can be awfully nice in bed.”
We put our clothes on and went out and got something to eat, all right, but in the Corporation commissary, where you stand in line, carry a tray, and eat standing up. The food isn’t bad, if you don’t think too much about what substrates they grow it on. The price is right. It doesn’t cost anything. They promise that if you eat all your meals in the commissary you will have one hundred plus percent of all the established dietary needs. You will, too, only you have to eat all of everything to be sure of that. Single-cell protein and vegetable protein come out incomplete when considered independently, so it’s not enough to eat the soybean jelly or the bacterial pudding alone. You have to eat them both.
The other thing about Corporation meals is that they produce a hell of a lot of methane, which produces a hell of a lot of what all ex-Gateway types remember as the Gateway fug.
We drifted down toward the lower levels afterward, not talking much. I suppose we were both wondering where we were going. I don’t mean just at that moment. “Feel like exploring?” Klara asked.
I took her hand as we strolled along, considering. That sort of thing was fun. Some of the old ivy-choked tunnels that no one used were interesting, and beyond them were the bare, dusty places that no one had troubled even to plant ivy in. Usually there was plenty of light from the ancient walls themselves, still glowing with that bluish Heechee-metal sheen. Sometimes — not lately, but no more than six or seven years ago — people had actually found Heechee artifacts in them, and you never knew when you might stumble on something worth a bonus.