INTERESTS HARPSICHORD, Go, group sex. Seek four likeminded prospectors view toward teaming. Gerriman, 78-109.
TUNNEL SALE. Must sell holodisks, clothes, sex aids, books, everything. Level Babe, Tunnel Twelve, ask for DeVittorio, 1100 hours until it’s all gone.
TENTH MAN needed for minyan for Abram R. Sorchuk, presumed dead, also ninth, eighth, and seventh men. Please. 87-103.
The first Five had been launched thirty seconds ahead of us, so then it was just arithmetic: about one light-day. 3 x 108 centimeters per second times 60 seconds times 60 minutes times 24 hours. At turnaround Klara was a good seventeen and a half billion kilometers ahead of us. It seemed very far, and was. But after turnaround we were getting closer every day, following her in the same weird hole through space that the Heechee had drilled for us. Where our ship was going, hers had gone. I could feel that we were catching up; sometimes I fantasized that I could smell her perfume.
When I said something like that to Danny A. he looked at me queerly. “Do you know how far seventeen and a half billion kilometers is? You could fit the whole solar system in between them and us. Just about exactly; the semimajor axis of Pluto’s orbit is thirty-nine A.U. and change.”
I laughed, a little embarrassed. “It was just a notion.”
“So go to sleep,” he said, “and have a nice dream about it.” He knew how I felt about Klara; the whole ship did, even Metchnikov, even Susie, and maybe that was a fantasy, too, but I thought they all wished us well. We were all wishing all of us well, constructing elaborate plans about what we were going to do with our bonuses. For Klara and me, at a million dollars apiece, it came to a right nice piece of change. Maybe not enough for Full Medical — no, not if we wanted anything left over to have fun on. But Major Medical, at least, which meant really good health, barring something terribly damaging, for another thirty or forty years. We could live happily ever after on what was left over: travel; children and nice home in a decent part of-wait a minute, I cautioned myself. Home where? Not back anywhere near the food mines. Maybe not on Earth at all. Would Klara want to go back to Venus? I couldn’t see myself taking to the life of a tunnel rat. But I couldn’t see Klara in Dallas or New York, either. Of course, I thought, my wish racing far ahead of reality, if we really found anything a lousy million apiece might be only the beginning. Then we could have all the homes we wanted, anywhere we liked; and Full Medical, too, with transplants to keep us young and healthy and beautiful and sexually strong and- “You really ought to go to sleep,” said Danny A. from the seat next to mine; “the way you thrash around is a caution.”
But I didn’t feel like going to sleep. I was hungry, and there wasn’t any reason not to eat. For nineteen days we had been practicing food discipline, which is what you do on the way out for the first half of the trip. Once you’ve reached turnaround you know how much you can consume for the rest of the trip, which is why some prospectors come back fat. I climbed down out of the lander, where Susie and both the Dannys were sacked in, and then I found out what it was that was making me hungry. Dane Metchnikov was cooking himself a stew.
“Is there enough for two?”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “I guess so.” He opened the squeeze-fit lid, peered inside, milked another hundred cc of water into it out of the vapor trap, and said, “Give it another ten minutes. I was going to have a drink first.”
I accepted the invitation, and we passed a wine flask back and forth. While he shook the stew and added a dollop of salt, I took the star readings for him. We were still close to maximum velocity and there was nothing on the viewscreen that looked like a familiar constellation, or even much like a star; but it was all beginning to look friendly and good to me. To all of us. I’d never seen Dane so cheerful and relaxed. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “A million’s enough. After this one I’m going back to Syracuse, get my doctorate, get a job. There’s going to be some school somewhere that’ll want a poet in residence or an English teacher who’s been on seven missions. They’ll pay me something, and the money from this will keep me in extras all the rest of my life.”
All I had really heard was the one word, and that I had heard loud and surprising: “Poet?”
He grinned. “Didn’t you know? That’s how I got to Gateway; the Guggenheim Foundation paid my way.” He took the pot out of the cooker, divided the stew into two dishes, and we ate.
This was the fellow who had been shrieking viciously at the two Dannys for a solid hour, two days before, while Susie and I lay angry and isolated in the lander, listening. It was all turnaround. We were home free; the mission wasn’t going to strand us out of fuel, and we didn’t have to worry about finding anything, because our reward was guaranteed. I asked him about his poetry. He wouldn’t recite any, but promised to show me copies of what he’d sent back to the Guggenheims when we reached Gateway again.
And when we’d finished eating, and wiped out the pot and dishes and put them away, Dane looked at his watch. “Too early to wake the others up,” he said, “and not a damn thing to do.”
A NOTE ON PIEZOELECTRICITY
Professor Hegramet. The one thing we found out about blood diamonds is that they’re fantastically piezoelectric. Does anybody know what that means?
Question. They expand and contract when an electric current is imposed?
Professor Hegramet. Yes. And the other way around. Squeeze them and they generate a current. Very rapidly if you like. That’s the basis for the piezophone and piezovision. About a fifty-billion-dollar industry.
Question. Who gets the royalties on all that loot?
Professor Hegramet. You know, I thought one of you would ask that. Nobody does. Blood diamonds were found years and years ago, in the Heechee warrens back on Venus. Long before Gateway. It was Bell Labs that figured out how to use them. Actually they use something a little different, a synthetic they developed. They make great communications systems, and Bell doesn’t have to pay anybody but themselves.
Question. Did the Heechee use them for that?
Professor Hegramet. My personal opinion is that they probably did, but I don’t know how. You’d think if they left them around they’d leave the rest of the communications receivers and transmitters, too, but if they did I don’t know where.
He looked at me, smiling. It was a real smile, not a grin; and I pushed myself over to him, and sat in the warm and welcome circle of his arm.
And nineteen days went like an hour, and then the clock told us it was almost time to arrive. We were all awake, crowded into the capsule, eager as kids at Christmas, waiting to open our toys. It had been the happiest trip I had ever made, and probably one of the happiest ever. “You know,” said Danny R. thoughtfully, “I’m almost sorry to arrive.” And Susie, just beginning to understand our English, said:
“Sim, ja sei,” and then, “I too!” She squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back; but what I was really thinking about was Klara. We had tried the radio a couple of times, but it didn’t work in the Heechee wormholes through space. But when we came out I would be able to talk to her! I didn’t mind that others would be listening, I knew what it was that I wanted to say. I even knew what she would answer. There was no question about it; there was surely as much euphoria in her ship as in ours, for the same reasons, and with all that love and joy the answer was not in doubt.
“We’re stopping!” Danny R. yelled. “Can you feel it?”
“Yes!” crowed Metchnikov, bouncing with the tiny surges of the pseudo-gravity that marked our return to normal space. And there was another sign, too: the golden helix in the center of the cabin was beginning to glow, brighter every second.
“I think we’ve made it,” said Danny R., bursting with pleasure, and I was as pleased as he.
“I’ll start the spherical scan,” I said, confident that I knew what to do. Susie took her cue from me and opened the door up to the lander; she and Danny A. were going to go out for the star sights.
But Danny A. didn’t join her. He was staring at the viewscreen. As I started the ship turning, I could see stars, which was normal enough; they did not seem special in any way, although they were rather blurry for some reason.
I staggered and almost fell. The ship’s rotation did not seem as smooth as it should be.
“The radio,” Danny said, and Metchnikov, frowning, looked up and saw the light.
“Turn it on,” I cried. The voice I heard might be Klara’s.
Please supplement your Navigation Instruction Guide as follows:
Course settings containing the lines and colors as shown in the attached chart appear to have a definite relation to the amount of fuel or other propulsion necessity remaining for use by the vessel.
All prospectors are cautioned that the three bright lines in the orange (Chart 2) appear to indicate extreme shortage. No vessel displaying them in its course has ever returned, even from check flights.
Metchnikov, still frowning, reached for the switch, and then I noticed that the helix was a brighter gold than I had ever seen it: straw-colored, as though it were incandescently hot. No heat from it, but the golden color was shot through with streaks of white.
“That’s funny,” I said, pointing.
I don’t know if anyone heard me; the radio was pouring static, and inside the capsule the sound was very loud. Metchnikov grabbed for the tuning and the gain. Over the static I heard a voice I didn’t recognize at first. It was Danny A.’s. “Do you feel that?” he yelled. “It’s gravity! We’re in trouble. Stop the scan!”
I stopped it reflexively.
But by then the ship’s screen had turned and something came into view that was not a star and not a galaxy. It was a dim mass of pale-blue light, mottled, immense, and terrifying at the first glimpse. I knew it was not a sun. No sun can be so big and so dim. It hurt the eyes to look at it, not because of brightness. It hurt inside the eyes, up far into the optic nerve. The pain was in the brain itself.
Metchnikov switched off the radio, and in the silence that followed I heard Danny A. say prayerfully, “Dearest God, we’ve had it. That thing is a black hole.”