Back | Next




When one of those bold, faintly crazy early prospectors set out in a Heechee spacecraft, he didn't expect the ship to go exactly where he wanted it to go. He (or, almost as often, she) could never count on that for many reasons, not least because none of those early prospectors had any idea what destinations were worth aiming for. But that ignorance carried no penalty, anyway. Since no Gateway prospector knew how to navigate a Heechee ship, the first ships followed whatever destination settings had been left on the board by the last long-ago Heechee pilot.

Considering the risks, it was a good thing for those early Gateway prospectors that the Heechee had been so much like human beings in important ways. For instance, the Heechee had possessed the primate-human itch of curiosity—in fact, they had a lot of it. That meant that a lot of the preprogrammed destinations were to places that human beings also found interesting to look at. They were just as interesting to human beings as they had been to the old Heechee, and the particular branch of the human race that delighted most in what the first waves of Gateway explorers found was the astronomers. Those astronomical people had become very ingenious at teasing information from whatever photons landed in their instruments—whether those photons were visible light, X-rays, infrared, whatever. But photons couldn't tell them everything they wanted to know. The human astronomers sighed over their knowledge that there was such a lot of stuff out there that didn't radiate at all—black holes, planets, heaven knew what! They could only guess at such things. 

Now, with the Heechee spacecraft, someone could go out and see them firsthand!

That was a pretty wonderful break for astronomers . . . although often enough it turned out to be a lot less wonderful for the men and women who went out to look.

The trouble with astronomy, from the point of view of the prospector who had just risked his life on a shot-in-the-dark voyage on a Heechee ship, was that you couldn't sell a neutron star. What the prospectors were after was money. That meant that, if they .were lucky, they might find some kind of high-tech Heechee gadgets that could be brought back and studied and copied and made into fortunes. There wasn't any commercial market for a supernova shell or an interstellar gas cloud; those things just didn't pay the bills.

To deal with that problem, the Gateway Corporation started a program of paying science bonuses to the explorers who came back with great pictures and instrument readings but nothing commercial to sell.

That was virtuous of the Gateway Corporation, to pay off for pure, noncommercial knowledge. It was also a good way of coaxing more hungry humans into those scary and often deadly little ships.

By the time the Gateway Corporation had been in operation for two full years more than one hundred trips had set out, and sixty-two of them had returned, more or less safely. (Not counting the odd prospector who arrived dead, dying, or scared out of his wits.)

The ships had visited at least forty different stars—all kinds of stars: baby blue-white giants, immense and short-lived, like Regulus and Spica and Altair; yellow normal-sequence stars like Procyon A and their dwarf counterparts, like Procyon B; staid G-type stars like the Sun, and their giant yellow relatives, like Capella. The red giants, of the types of Aldebran and Arcturus, and their supergiant counterparts, like Betelgeuse and Antares . . . and their tiny red-dwarf relatives, like Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359.

The astronomers were thrilled. Every trip's harvest triumphantly supported much of what they thought they had known about the birth and death of stars—and demanded quick revisions of much else that they thought they had known, but hadn't. The masters of the Corporation were less delighted. It was all very well to expand the horizons of astronomical science, but the pictures of the twentieth white dwarf looked pretty much like the pictures of the first. The hungry billions of Earth could not be fed on astronomical photographs. They already had a number of astronomical observatories in orbit. They weren't pleased to see their once-in-a-lifetime treasure trove turned into just one more of them.

But even the Corporation had to be pleased at some of the things the prospectors brought back.



Back | Next