A NOTE ON NEUTRON STARS
Dr. Asmenion. Now, you get a star that has used up its fuel, and it collapses. When I say “collapses,” I mean it’s shrunk so far that the whole thing, that starts out with maybe the mass and volume of the sun, is squeezed into a ball maybe ten kilometers across. That’s dense. If your nose was made out of neutron star stuff, Susie, it would weigh more than Gateway does.
Question. Maybe even more than you do, Yuri?
Dr. Asmenion. Don’t make jokes in class. Teacher’s sensitive. Anyway, good, close-in readings on a neutron star would be worth a lot, but I don’t advise you to use your lander to get them. You need to be in a fully armored Five, and then I wouldn’t come much closer than a tenth of an A.U. And watch it. It’ll seem as if probably you could get closer, but the gravity shear is bad. It’s practically a point source, you see. Steepest gravity gradient you’ll ever see, unless you happen to get next to a black hole, God forbid.
It is hard to get a figure like $5,850,000 out of your mind (not to mention royalties) when you think that if you had been a little more foreseeing in your choice of girlfriends you could have had it in your pocket. Call it six million dollars. At my age and health I could have bought paid-up Full Medical for less than half of that, which meant all the tests, therapies, tissue replacements, and organ transplants they could cram into me for the rest of my life which would have been at least fifty years longer than I could expect without it. The other three million plus would have bought me a couple of homes, a career as a lecturer (nobody was more in demand than a successful prospector), a steady income for doing commercials on PV, women, food, cars, travel, women, fame, women… and, again, there were always the royalties. They could have come to anything at all, depending on what the R D people managed to do with the tools. Sheri’s find was exactly what Gateway was all about: the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It took an hour for me to get down to the hospital, three tunnel segments and five levels in the dropshaft. I kept changing my mind and going back.
When I finally managed to purge my mind of envy (or at least to bury it where I didn’t think it was going to show) and turned up at the reception desk, Sheri was asleep anyway. “You can go in,” said the ward nurse.
“I don’t want to wake her up.”
“I don’t think you could,” he said. “Don’t force it, of course. But she’s allowed visitors.”
She was in the lowest of three bunks in a twelve-bed room. Three or four of the others were occupied, two of them behind the isolation curtains, milky plastic that you could see through only vaguely. I didn’t know who they were. Sheri herself looked quite peacefully resting, one arm under her head, her pretty eyes closed and her strong, dimpled chin resting on her wrist. Her two companions were in the same room, one asleep, one sitting under a holoview of Saturn’s rings. I had met him once or twice, a Cuban or Venezuelan or something like that from New Jersey. The only name I could remember for him was Manny. We chatted for a while, and he promised to tell Sheri I had been there. I left and went for a cup of coffee at the commissary, thinking about their trip.
They had come out near a tiny, cold planet way out from a K-6 orange-red cinder of a star, and according to Manny, they hadn’t even been sure it was worth the trouble of landing. The readings showed Heechee-metal radiation, but not much; and almost all of it, apparently, was buried under carbon-dioxide snow. Manny was the one who stayed in orbit. Sheri and the other three went down and found a Heechee dig, opened it with great effort and, as m found it empty. Then they tracked another trace and found the lander. They had had to blast to get it open, and in the process two of the prospectors lost integrity of their spacesuits — too close to the blast, I guess. By the time they realized they were in trouble it was too late for them. They froze. Sheri and the other crewman tried to get them back into their own lander; it must have been pure misery and fear the whole time, and at the end they had to give up. The other man had made one more trip to the abandoned lander, found the tool kit in it, managed to get it back to their lander. Then they had taken off, leaving the two casualties fully frozen behind them. But they had overstayed their limit — they were physical wrecks when they docked with the orbiter. Manny wasn’t clear on what happened after that, but apparently they failed to secure the lander’s air supply and had lost a good deal from it; so they were on short oxygen rations all the way home. The other man was worse off than Sheri. There was a good chance of residual brain damage, and his $5,850,000 might not do him any good. But Sheri, they said, would be all right once she recovered from plain exhaustion.
I didn’t envy them the trip. All I envied them was the results. I got up and got myself another cup of coffee in the commissary. As I brought it back to the corridor outside, where there were a few benches under the ivy planters, I became aware something was bugging me. Something about the trip. About the fact that it had been a real winner, one of the all-time greats in Gateway’s history…
I dumped the coffee, cup and all, into a disposal hole out the commissary and headed for the schoolroom. It was only a minutes walk away and there was no one else there. That was good because I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone yet about what had occurred to me. I keyed the P-phone to information access and got the settings for Sheri’s trip; they were, of course, a matter of public record. Then I went down to the practice capsule, again hitting lucky because there was no one around, and set them up on the course selector. Of course, I got good color immediately; and when I pressed the fine-tuner the whole board turned bright pink, except for the rainbow of colors along the side.
There was only one dark line in the blue part of the spectrum.
Well, I thought, so much for Metchnikov’s theory about danger readings. They had lost forty percent of the crew on that mission, and that struck me as being quite adequately dangerous; but according to what he had told me, the really hairy ones showed six or seven of those bands.
And in the yellow?
According to Metchnikov, the more bright bands in the yellow, the more financial reward from a trip.
Only in this one there were no bright bands in the yellow at all. There were two thick black “absorption” lines. That’s all.
I thumbed the selector off and sat back. So the great brains had labored and brought forth a mouse again: what they had interpreted as an indication of safety didn’t really mean you were safe, and what they had interpreted as a promise of good results didn’t seem to have any relevance to the first mission in more than a year that had really come up rich.
Back to square one, and back to being scared.
For the next couple of days I kept pretty much to myself.
There are supposed to be eight hundred kilometers of tunnels inside Gateway. You wouldn’t think there could be that many in a little chunk of rock that’s only about ten kilometers across. But even so, only about two percent of Gateway is airspace; the rest is solid rock. I saw a lot of those eight hundred kilometers.
I didn’t cut myself off completely from human companionship, I just didn’t seek it out. I saw Klara now and then. I wandered around with Shicky when he was off duty, although it was tiring for him. Sometimes I wandered by myself, sometimes with chancemet friends, sometimes tagging along after a tourist group. The guides knew me and were not averse to having me along (I had been out! even if I didn’t wear a bangle), until they got the idea that I was thinking of guiding myself. Then they were less friendly.
They were right. I was thinking of it. I was going to have to do something sooner or later. I would have to go out, or I would have to go home; and if I wanted to defer decision on either of those two equally frightening prospects, I would have to decide at least to try to make enough money to stay put.