After forty-six days of superlight travel the capsule dropped back into a velocity that felt like no velocity at all: we were in orbit, around something, and all the engines were still.
We stank to high heaven and we were incredibly tired of one another’s company, but we clustered around the viewscreens locked arm to arm, like dearest lovers, in the zero gravity, staring at the sun before us. It was a larger and oranger star than Sol; either larger, or we were closer to it than one A.U. But it wasn’t the star we were orbiting. Our primary was a gas-giant planet with one large moon, half again as big as Luna.
Neither Klara nor the boys were whooping and cheering, so I waited as long as I could and then said, “What’s the matter?”
Klara said absently, “I doubt we can land on that.” She did not seem disappointed. She didn’t seem to care at all.
Sam Kahane blew a long, soft sigh through his beard and said: “Well. First thing, we’d better get some clean spectra. Rob and I will do it. The rest of you start sweeping for Heechee signatures.”
“Fat chance,” said one of the others, but so softly that I wasn’t sure who. It could even have been Klara. I wanted to ask more, but I had a feeling that if I asked why they weren’t happy, one of them would tell me, and then I wouldn’t like the answer. So I squeezed after Sam into the lander, and we got in each other’s way while we pulled on our topgear, checked our life-support systems and comms, and sealed up. Sam waved me into the lock; I heard the flash-pumps sucking the air out, and then the little bit left puffed me out into space as the lock door opened.
For a moment I was in naked terror, all alone in the middle of no place any human being had ever been, terrified that I’d forgotten to snap my tether. But I hadn’t had to; the magnetic clamp had slipped itself into a lock position, and I came to the end of the cable, twitched sharply, and began more slowly to recoil back toward the ship.
Before I got there Sam was out, too, spinning toward me. We managed to grab each other, and began setting up to take photographs.
Sam gestured at a point between the immense saucer-shaped gas-giant disk and the hurtfully bright orange sun, and I visored my eyes with my gauntlets until I saw what he was indicating: M-31 in Andromeda. Of course, from where we were it wasn’t in the constellation of Andromeda. There wasn’t anything in sight that looked like Andromeda, or for that matter like any other constellation I have ever seen. But M-31 is so big and so bright that you can even pick it out from the surface of the Earth when the smog isn’t too bad, whirlpool-lens-shaped fog of stars. It is the brightest of the external galaxies, and you can recognize it fairly well from almost anywhere a Heechee ship is likely to go. With a little magnification you can be sure of the spiral shape, and you can double-check by comparing the smaller galaxies in roughly the same line of sight.
While I was zeroing in with M-31, Sam was doing the same with the Magellanic clouds, or what he thought were the Magellanic clouds. (He claimed he had identified S Doradus.) We both began taking theodolitic shots. The purpose of all that, of course, is so that the academics who belong to the Corporation can triangulate and locate where we’ve been. You might wonder why they care, but they do; so much that you don’t qualify for any scientific bonus unless you do the full series of photos. You’d think they would know where we were going from the pictures we take out the windows while in superlight travel. It doesn’t work out that way. They can get the main direction of thrust, but after the first few light-years it gets harder and harder to track identifiable stars, and it’s not clear that the line of flight is a straight line; some say it follows some wrinkly configuration in the curvature of space.
Anyway, the bigheads use everything they can get — including a measure of how far the Magellanic clouds have rotated, and in which direction. Know why that is? Because you can tell from that how many light-years away we are from them, and thus how deep we are into the Galaxy. The clouds revolve in about eighty million years. Careful mapping can show changes of one part in two or three millions — say, differences in ranging of 150 light-years or so.
What with Sam’s group-study courses I had got pretty interested in that sort of thing. Actually taking the photos and trying to guess how Gateway would interpret them I almost forgot to be scared. And almost, but not quite, forgot to worry that this trip, taken at so great an investment in courage, was turning out to be a bust.
But it was a bust.
Ham grabbed the sphere-sweep tapes from Sam Kahane as soon as we were back in the ship and fed them into the scanner. The first subject was the big planet itself. In every octave of the electromagnetic spectrum, there was nothing coming out of it that suggested artifactual radiation.
So he began looking for other planets. Finding them was slow, even for the automatic scanner, and probably there could have been a dozen we couldn’t locate in the time we spent there (but that hardly mattered, because if we couldn’t locate them they would have been too distant to reach anyway). The way Ham did it was by taking key signatures from a spectrogram of the primary star’s radiation, then programming the scanner to look for reflections of it. It picked out five objects. Two of them turned out to be stars with similar spectra. The other three were planets, all right, but they showed no artifactual radiation, either. Not to mention that they were both small and distant.
Which left the gas-giant’s one big moon.
“Check it out,” Sam commanded.
Mohamad grumbled, “It doesn’t look very good.”
“I don’t want your opinion, I only want you to do what you’re told. Check it out.”
“Out loud, please,” Klara added. Ham looked at her in surprise, perhaps at the word “please,” but he did what she asked.