There were about a dozen prospectors in the briefing room, most of whom I knew: Sess Forehand, Shicky, Metchnikov, a few others I’d drunk with or gone to bed with, one time or another. Emma wasn’t there yet, and I managed to intercept her as she was coming in.
“I want to go out on this mission,” I said.
She looked startled. “You do? I thought—” But she stopped there, without saying what it was she thought.
I followed up: “I have as much right to go as Metchnikov does!”
“You sure as hell don’t have as good a record as he does, Broadhead.” She looked me over carefully, and then she said, “Well, I’ll tell you, if you want to know how it is, Broadhead. It’s a special mission, and partly you’re responsible for it. That boner of yours turns out to be interesting. I don’t mean wrecking the ship; that was stupid, and if there any justice in the universe you’d pay for it. But dumb luck is almost as good as brains.”
“You got the report from Gateway Two,” I guessed.
She shook her head. “Not yet. But it doesn’t matter. We finely programmed your mission into the computer, and it gave some interesting correlations. The course pattern that took you to Gateway Two- Oh, hell,” she said, “come on inside. You can sit through the briefing, at least. It’ll explain everything, and then we’ll see.”
She took my elbow and pushed me ahead of her into the room which was the same one we had used for a classroom — how long before? It seemed like a million years. I sat down between Sess and Shicky, and waited to hear what it was she had to say.
“Most of you,” she started off, “are here by invitation — with one or two exceptions. One of the exceptions is our distinguished friend Mr. Broadhead. He managed to wreck a ship near Gateway Two, as most of you know. By rights we ought to throw the book at him, but before he did that he accidentally turned up some interesting facts. His course colors were not the regular ones for Gateway Two, and when the computer compared them it came up with a whole new concept of course setting. Apparently only about five settings are critical for destination — the five that were the same for the usual Gateway Two setting, and for Broadhead’s new one. What the other settings mean we don’t know. But we’re going to find out.”
She leaned back and folded her hands. “This is a multiple-purpose mission,” she said. “We’re going to do something new. For openers, we’re going to send two ships to the same destination.”
Sess Forehand raised his hand. “What’s the point of that?”
“Well, partly to make sure it is the same destination. We’re going to vary the noncritical settings slightly… the ones we think are noncritical. And we’re going to start the two ships thirty seconds apart. Now, if we know what we’re doing, that means you’ll come out about as far apart as Gateway travels in thirty seconds.”
Forehand wrinkled his brow. “Relative to what?”
“Good question,” she nodded. “Relative, we think, to the Sun. The stellar motion relative to the Galaxy — we think — can be neglected. At least, assuming that your destination turns out to be inside the Galaxy, and not so far away that the galactic motion has a markedly different vector. I mean, if you came out on the opposite side, it would be seventy kilometers a second, relative to the galactic center. We don’t think that’s involved. We only expect a relatively minor difference in velocity and direction, and — well, anyway, you should come out within somewhere between two and two hundred kilometers of each other.
“Of course,” she said, smiling cheerfully, “that’s only theoretical. Maybe the relative motions won’t mean anything at all. In that case, the problem is to keep you from colliding with each other. But we’re sure — pretty sure — that there will be at least some displacement. All you really need is about fifteen meters — the long diameter of a Five.”
“How sure is pretty sure?” one of the girls asked.
“Well,” Emma admitted, “reasonably sure. How do we know until we try?”
“It sounds dangerous,” Sess commented. He did not seem deterred by it. He was only stating an opinion. In this he was unlike me; I was very busy ignoring my inner sensations, trying to concentrate on the technicalities of the briefing.