Five permanent-party noncoms, one from each of the cruisers, patted us down, checked our IDs and turned us over to a Corporation screening clerk. Sheri giggled when the Russian’s pat hit a sensitive spot and whispered, “What do they think we’re smuggling in, Rob?”
I shushed her. The Corporation woman had taken our landing cards from the Chinese Spec/3 in charge of the detail and was calling out our names. There were eight of us altogether. “Welcome aboard,” she said. “Each one of you fish will get a proctor assigned to you. He’ll help you get straightened out with a place to live, answer your questions, let you know where to report for the medical and your classes. Also, he’ll give you a copy of the contract to sign. You’ve each had eleven hundred and fifty dollars deducted from your cash on deposit with the ship that brought you here; that’s your life-support tax for the first ten days. The rest you can draw on any time by writing a P-check. Your proctor will show you how. Linscott!”
The middle-aged black man from Baja California raised his hand. “Your proctor is Shota Tarasvili. Broadhead!”
“Here I am.”
“Dane Metchnikov,” said the Corporation clerk.
I started to look around, but the person who had to be Dane Metchnikov was already coming toward me. He took my arm very firmly, started to lead me away and then said, “Hi.”
I held back. “I’d like to say good-bye to my friend—”
“You’re all in the same area,” he grunted. “Come on.”
So within two hours of arriving on Gateway I had a room, a proctor, and a contract. I signed the articles of agreement right away. I didn’t even read them. Metchnikov looked surprised. “Don’t you want to know what they say?”
“Not right this minute.” I mean, what was the advantage? If I hadn’t liked what they said, I might have changed my mind, and what other options did I have, really? Being a prospector is pretty scary. I hate the idea of being killed. I hate the idea of dying at all, ever; not being alive anymore, having everything stop, knowing that all those other people would go on living and having sex and joy without me being there to share it. But I didn’t hate it as much as I hated the idea of going back to the food mines.
Metchnikov hung himself by his collar to a hook on the wall of my room, to be out of the way while I put away my belongings. He was a squat, pale man, not very talkative. He didn’t seem to be a very likable person, but at least he didn’t laugh at me because I was a clumsy new fish. Gateway is about as close to zero-G as you get. I had never experienced low-gravity before; you don’t get much of it in Wyoming, so I kept misjudging. When I said something, Metchnikov said, “You’ll get used to it. Have you got a toke?”
He sighed, looking a little like somebody’s Buddha hung up on the wall, with his legs pulled up.
He looked at his time dial and said, “I’ll take you out for a drink later. It’s a custom. Only it’s not very interesting until about twenty-two hundred. The Blue Hell’ll be full of people then, and I’ll introduce you around. See what you can find. What are you, straight, gay, what?”
“I’m pretty straight.”
“Whatever. You’re on your own about that, though. I’ll introduce you to whoever I know, but then you’re on your own. You better get used to that right away. Have you got your map?”