So there was Gateway, getting bigger and bigger in the ports of the ship up from Earth:
An asteroid. Or perhaps the nucleus of a comet. About ten kilometers through, the longest way. Pear-shaped. On the outside it looks like a lumpy charred blob with glints of blue. On the inside it’s the gateway to the universe.
Sheri Loffat leaned against my shoulder, with the rest of our bunch of would-be prospectors clustered behind us, staring. “Jesus, Rob. Look at the cruisers!”
“They find anything wrong,” said somebody behind us, “and they blow us out of space.”
“They won’t find anything wrong,” said Sheri, but she ended her remark with a question mark. Those cruisers looked mean, circling jealously around the asteroid, watching to see that whoever comes in isn’t going to steal the secrets that are worth more than anyone could ever pay.
We hung to the porthole braces to rubberneck at them. Foolishness, that was. We could have been killed. There wasn’t really much likelihood that our ship’s matching orbit with Gateway or the Brazilian cruiser would take much delta-V, but there only had to be one quick course correction to spatter us. And there was always the other possibility, that our ship would rotate a quarterturn or so and we’d suddenly find ourselves staring into the naked, nearby sun. That meant blindness for always, that close. But we wanted to see.
The Brazilian cruiser didn’t bother to lock on. We saw flashes back and forth, and knew that they were checking our manifests by laser. That was normal. I said the cruisers were watching for thieves, but actually they were more to watch each other than to worry about anybody else. Including us. The Russians were suspicious of the Chinese, the Chinese were suspicious of the Russians, the Brazilians were suspicious of the Venusians. They were all suspicious of the Americans.
So the other four cruisers were surely watching the Brazilians more closely than they were watching us. But we all knew that if our coded navicerts had not matched the patterns their five separate consulates at the departure port on Earth had filed, the next step would not have been an argument. It would have been a torpedo.
It’s funny. I could imagine that torpedo. I could imagine the cold-eyed warrior who would aim and launch it, and how our ship would blossom into a flare of orange light and we would all become dissociated atoms in orbit… Only the torpedoman on that ship, I’m pretty sure, was at that time an armorer’s mate named Francy Hereira. We got to be pretty good buddies later on. He wasn’t what you’d really call a cold-eyed killer. I cried in his arms all the day after I got back from that last trip, in my hospital room, when he was supposed to be searching me for contraband. And Francy cried with me.
The cruiser moved away and we all surged gently out, then pulled ourselves back to the window with the grips, as our ship began to close in on Gateway.
“Looks like a case of smallpox,” said somebody in the group.
It did; and some of the pockmarks were open. Those were the berths for ships that were out on mission. Some of them would stay open forever, because the ships wouldn’t be coming back. But most of the pocks were covered with bulges that looked like mushroom caps.
Those caps were the ships themselves, what Gateway was all about.
The ships weren’t easy to see. Neither was Gateway itself. It had a low albedo to begin with, and it wasn’t very big: as I say, about ten kilometers on the long axis, half that through its equator of rotation. But it could have been detected. After that first tunnel rat led them to it, astronomers began asking each other why it hadn’t been spotted a century earlier. Now that they know where to look, they find it. It sometimes gets as bright as seventeenth magnitude, as seen from Earth. That’s easy. You would have thought it would have been picked up in a routine mapping program.
The thing is, there weren’t that many routine mapping programs in that direction, and it seems Gateway wasn’t where they were looking when they looked.
Stellar astronomy usually pointed away from the sun. Solar astronomy usually stayed in the plane of the ecliptic — and Gateway has a right-angle orbit. So it fell through the cracks.
The piezophone clucked and said, “Docking in five minutes. Return to your bunks. Fasten webbing.”
We were almost there.
Sheri Loffat reached out and held my hand through the webbing. I squeezed back. We had never been to bed together, never met until she turned up in the bunk next to mine on the ship, but the vibrations were practically sexual. As though we were about to make it in the biggest, best way there ever could be; but it wasn’t sex, it was Gateway.
When men began to poke around the surface of Venus they found the Heechee diggings.
They didn’t find any Heechees. Whoever the Heechees were, whenever they had been on Venus, they were gone. Not even a body was left in a burial pit to exhume and cut apart. All there was, was the tunnels, the caverns, the few piddling little artifacts, the technological wonders that human beings puzzled over and tried to reconstruct.
Then somebody found a Heechee map of the solar system. Jupiter was there with its moons, and Mars, and the outer planets, and the Earth-Moon pair. And Venus, which was marked in black on the shining blue surface of the Heechee-metal map. And Mercury, and one other thing, the only other thing marked in black besides Venus: an orbital body that came inside the perihelion of Mercury and outside the orbit of Venus, tipped ninety degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic so that it never came very close to either. A body which had never been identified by terrestrial astronomers. Conjecture: an asteroid, or a comet — the difference was only semantic — which the Heechees had cared about specially for some reason.
(Transcript of Q. A., Professor Hegramet’s lecture.)
Q. What did the Heechee look like?
Professor Hegramet: Nobody knows. We’ve never found anything resembling a photograph, or a drawing, except for two or three maps. Or a book.
Q. Didn’t they have some system of storing knowledge, like writing?
Professor Hegramet: Well, of course they must have. But what it is, I don’t know. I have a suspicion… well, it’s only a guess.
Professor Hegramet: Well, think about our own storage methods and how they would have been received in pretechnological times. If we’d given, say, Euclid a book, he could have figured out what it was, even if he couldn’t understand what it was saying. But what if we’d given him a tape cassette? He wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I have a suspicion, no, a conviction, that we have some Heechee “books” we just don’t recognize. A bar of Heechee metal. Maybe that Q-spiral in the ships, the function of which we don’t know at all. This isn’t a new idea. They’ve all been tested for magnetic codes, for microgrooves, for chemical patterns- nothing has shown up. But we may not have the instrument we need to detect the messages.
Q. There’s something about the Heechee that I just don’t understand. Why did they leave all these tunnels and places? Where did they go?
Professor Hegramet: Young lady, it beats the piss out of me.
Probably sooner or later a telescopic probe would have followed up that clue, but it wasn’t necessary. Then The Famous Sylvester Macklen — who wasn’t up to that point the famous anything, just another tunnel rat on Venus — found a Heechee ship and got himself to Gateway, and died there. But he managed to let people know where he was by cleverly blowing up his ship. So a NASA probe was diverted from the chromosphere of the sun, and Gateway was reached and opened up by man.
Inside were the stars.
Inside, to be less poetic and more literal, were nearly a thousand smallish spacecraft, shaped something like fat mushrooms. They came in several shapes and sizes. The littlest ones were button-topped, like the mushrooms they grow in the Wyoming tunnels after they’ve dug all the shale out, and you buy in the supermarket. The bigger ones were pointy, like morels. Inside the caps of the mushrooms were living quarters and a power source that no one understood. The stems were chemical rocket ships, kind of like the old Moon Landers of the first space programs.
No one had ever figured out how the caps were driven, or how to direct them.
That was one of the things that made us all nervous: the fact that we were going to take our chances with something nobody understood. You literally had no control, once you started out in a Heechee ship. Their courses were built into their guidance system, in a way that nobody had figured out; you could pick one course, but once picked that was it — and you didn’t know where it was going to take you when you picked it, any more than you know what’s in your box of Cracker-Joy until you open it.
But they worked. They still worked, after what they say is maybe half a million years.
The first guy who had the guts to get into one and try to start it up succeeded. It lifted out of its crater on the surface of the asteroid. It turned fuzzy and bright, and was gone.
And three months later, it was back, with a starved, staring astronaut inside, aglow with triumph. He had been to another star! He had orbited a great gray planet with swirling yellow clouds, had managed to reverse the controls — and had been brought back to the very same pockmark, by the built-in guidance controls.
So they sent out another ship, this time one of the big, pointy morel-shaped ones, with a crew of four and plenty of rations and instrumentation. They were gone only about fifty days. In that time they had not just reached another solar system, they had actually used the lander to go down to the surface of a planet. There wasn’t anything living there… but there had been.
They found the remnants. Not a lot. A few beat-up pieces of trash, on a corner of a mountaintop that had missed the general destruction that had hit the planet. Out of the radioactive dust they had picked up a brick, a ceramic bolt, a half-melted thing that looked as though it had once been a chromium flute.
Then the star rush began… and we were part of it.