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So, anyway, when the coil flickers and you feel the turnaround, you know you’ve done one-quarter of your actual travel time. Not necessarily a quarter of your total out-time, of course. How long you stay at your destination is another matter entirely. You make up your own mind about that. But you’ve gone half of the automatically controlled trip out.
So you multiply the number of days elapsed so far by four, and if that number is less than the number of days your life-support capability is good for, then you know that at least you don’t have to starve to death. The difference between the two numbers is how long you can hang around at destination.
Your basic ration, food, water, air replenishment, is for two hundred fifty days. You can stretch it to three hundred without much trouble (you just come back skinny, and maybe with a few deficiency diseases). So if you get up to sixty or sixty-five days on the outbound leg without turnaround, then you know you may be having a problem, and you begin eating lighter. If you get up to eighty or ninety, then your problem solves itself, because you don’t have any options anymore, you’re going to die before you get back. You could try changing the course settings. But that’s just another way of dying, as far as can be told from what the survivors say.
Presumably the Heechee could change course when they wanted to, but how they did it is one of those great unanswered questions about the Heechee, like why did they tidy everything up before they left? Or what did they look like? Or where did they go?
There used to be a jokey kind of book they sold at the fairs when I was a kid. It was called Everything We Know About the Heechee. It had a hundred and twenty-eight pages, and they were all blank.
If Sam and Dred and Mohamad were gay, and I had no reason to doubt it, they didn’t show much of it in the first few days. They followed their own interests. Reading. Listening to music tapes with earphones. Playing chess and, when they could talk Klara and me into it, Chinese poker. We didn’t play for money, we played for shift time. (After a couple of days Klara said it was more like winning to lose, because if you lost you had more to occupy your time.) They were quite benignly tolerant of Klara and me, the oppressed heterosexual minority in the dominantly homosexual culture that occupied our ship, and gave us the lander an exact fifty percent of the time even though we comprised only forty percent of the population.
We got along. It was good that we did. We were living in each other’s shadow and stink every minute.
The inside of a Heechee ship, even a Five, is not much bigger than an apartment kitchen. The lander gives you a little extra space — add on the equivalent of a fair-sized closet — but on the outleg at least that’s usually filled with supplies and equipment. And from that total available cubage, say forty-two or forty-three cubic meters, subtract what else goes into it besides me and thee and the other prospectors.
When you’re in tau space, you have a steady low thrust of acceleration. It isn’t really acceleration, it is only a reluctance of the atoms of your body to exceed c, and it can as well be described as friction as gravity. But it feels like a little gravity. You feel as though you weighed about two kilos.
This means you need something to rest in when you are resting, and so each person in your crew has a personal folding sling that opens out and wraps around you to sleep in, or folds to become a sort of a chair. Add to that each person’s own personal space: cupboards for tapes and disks and clothing (you don’t wear much of that); for toilet articles; for pictures of the near and dear (if any); for whatever you have elected to bring, up to your total allowance of weight and bulk (75 kilograms, % of a cubic meter); and you have a certain amount of crowding already.
Add onto that the original Heechee equipment of the ship. Three-quarters of that you will never use. Most of it you wouldn’t know how to use if you had to; what you do with it, most of all, is leave it alone. But you can’t remove it. Heechee machinery is integrally designed. If you amputate a piece of it, it dies.
Perhaps if we knew how to heal the wound we could take out some of the junk and the ship would operate anyway. But we don’t, and so it stays: the great diamond-shaped golden box that explodes if you try to open it; the flimsy spiral of golden tubing that, from time to time, glows, and even more often, becomes unneighborly hot (no one knows why, exactly) and so on. It all stays there, and you bump against it all the time.
Add on to that the human equipment. The spacesuits: one apiece, fitted to your form and figure. The photographic equipment. The toilet and bath installations. The food-preparing section. The waste disposers. The test kits, the weapons, the drills, the sample boxes, the entire rig that you take down to the surface of the planet with you, if you happen to be lucky enough to reach a planet you can land on.
What you have left is not very much. It is a little like living for weeks on end under the hood of a very large truck, with the engine going, and with four other people competing for space.
After the first two days I developed an unreasoning prejudice against Ham Tayeh. He was too big. He took more than his fair share.
To be truthful, Ham wasn’t even as tall as I was, though he weighed more. But I didn’t mind the amount of space I took up. I only minded when other people got in the way of it. Sam Kahane was a better size, no more than a hundred and sixty centimeters, with stiff black beard and coarse crinkled hair all up his abdomen over his cache-sexe to his chest, and all up and down his back as well. I didn’t think of Sam as violating my living space until I found a long, black beard hair in my food. Ham at least was almost hairless, with a soft golden skin that made him look like a Jordanian harem eunuch. (Did the Jordanian kings have eunuchs in their harems? Did they have harems? Ham didn’t seem to know much about that; his parents had lived in New Jersey for three generations.)
I even found myself contrasting Klara with Sheri, who was at least two sizes smaller. (Not usually. Usually Klara was just right.) And Dred Frauenglass, who came with Sam’s set, was a gentle, thin young man who didn’t talk much and seemed to take up less room than anyone else.
I was the virgin in the group, and everybody took turns showing me how to do what little we had to do. You have to make the routine photographic and spectrometer readings. Keep a tape of readouts from the Heechee control panel, where there are constant minute variations in hue and intensity from the colored lights. (They still keep studying them, hoping to understand what they mean.) Snap and analyze the spectra of the tau-space stars in the viewscreen. And all that put together takes, oh, maybe, two manhours a day. The household tasks of preparing meals and cleaning up take about another two.
So you have used up some four man-hours out of each day for the five of you, in which you have collectively something like eighty man-hours to use up.
I’m lying. That’s not really what you do with your time. What you do with your time is wait for turnaround.
Three days, four days, a week; and I became conscious that there was a building tension that I didn’t share. Two weeks, and I knew what it was, because I was feeling it, too. We were all waiting for it to happen. When we went to sleep our last look was at the golden spiral to see if miraculously it had flickered alight. When we woke up our first thought was whether the ceiling had become the floor. By the third week we were all definitely edgy. Ham showed it the most, plump, golden-skinned Ham with the jolly genie’s face:
“Let’s play some poker, Rob.”
“Come on, Rob. We need a fourth.” (In Chinese poker you deal out the whole deck, thirteen cards to each player. You can’t play it any other way.)
“I don’t want to.”
And suddenly furious: “Piss on you! You’re not worth a snake’s fart as crew, now you won’t even play cards!”
And then he would sit cutting the cards moodily for half an hour at a time, as though it were a skill he needed to perfect for his life’s sake. And, come right down to it, it almost was. Because figure it out for yourself. Suppose you’re in a Five and you pass seventy-five days without turnaround. Right away you know that you’re in trouble: the rations won’t support five people for more than three hundred days.
But they might support four.
Or three. Or two. Or one.
At that point it has become clear that at least one person is not going to come back from the trip alive, and what most crews do is start cutting the cards. Loser politely cuts his throat. If loser is not polite, the other four give him etiquette lessons.
A lot of ships that went out as Fives have come back as Threes. A few come back as Ones.
So we made the time pass, not easily and certainly not fast.
Sex was a sovereign anodyne for a while, and Klara and I spent hours on end wrapped in each other’s arms, drowsing off for a while and waking to wake the other to sex again. I suppose the boys did much the same; it was not long before the lander began to smell like the locker room in a boys’ gym. Then we began seeking solitude, all five of us. Well, there wasn’t enough solitude on the ship to split five ways, but we did what we could; by common consent we began letting one of us have the lander to himself (or herself) for an hour or two at a time. While I was there Klara was tolerated in the capsule. While Klara was there I usually played cards with the boys. While one of them was there the other two kept us company. I have no idea what the others did with their solo time; what I did with mine was mostly stare into space. I mean that literally: I looked out the lander ports at absolute blackness. There was nothing to see, but it was better than seeing what I had grown infinitely tired of seeing inside the ship.
Then, after a while, we began developing our own routines. I played my tapes, Dred watched his pornodisks, Ham unrolled a flexible piano keyboard and played electronic music into earplugs (even so, some of it leaked out if you listened hard, and I got terribly, terribly sick of Bach, Palestrina and Mozart). Sam Kahane gently organized us into classes, and we spent a lot of time humoring him, discussing the nature of neutron stars, black holes and Seyfert galaxies, when we were not reviewing test procedures before landing on a new world. The good thing about that was that we managed not to hate each other for half an hour at a time. The rest of the time — well, yes, usually we hated each other. I could not stand Ham Tayeh’s constant shuffling of the cards. Dred developed an unreasoning hostility toward my occasional cigarette. Sam’s armpits were a horror, even in the festering reek of the inside of the capsule, against which the worst of Gateway’s air would have seemed a rose garden. And Klara — well, Klara had this bad habit. She liked asparagus. She had brought four kilos of dehydrated foods with her, just for variety and for something to do; and although she shared them with me, and sometimes with the others, she insisted on eating asparagus now and then all by herself. Asparagus makes your urine smell funny. It is not a romantic thing to know when your darling has been eating asparagus by the change in air quality in the common toilet.