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My name is Robin Broadhead, and I am the richest person there is in the whole solar system. The only one who comes close is old Bover, and he would come a lot closer if he hadn't thrown half of his money into slum clearance and urban rehabilitation and a lot of what was left into an inch-by-inch scan of trans-Plutonian space, looking for the ship with what was left of his wife, Trish. (What he is going to do with her if he finds her I can't imagine.) The surviving Herter-Halls are also filthy with money. That's a good thing, especially for Wan and Janine, who have a complicated relationship to sort out, in a complicatedly unwelcoming world. My wife, Essie, is in the best of health. I love her. When I die, that is, when even Full Medical can't patch me up any more, I have a little plan about how to deal with someone else I love, and that satisfies me. Almost everything satisfies me. The only exception is my science advisor, Albert, who keeps trying to explain Mach's Principle to me.
When we took over Heechee Heaven, we got it all. The way to control Heechee ships. The way to build Heechee ships, including the theory that makes it possible to go faster than light. No, it doesn't involve "hyperspace" or the "fourth dimension". It is very simple. Acceleration multiplies mass, so says Einstein-the real one, not Albert. But if the rest mass is zero it does not matter how many times you multiply it. It remains zero. Albert says that mass can be created, and proves it by basic logical principles: it exists, therefore it can be created. Therefore it can be eliminated, since what can be made to be can also be made to stop being. That is the Heechee secret, and with Albert's help to set up the experiment, and Morton's help to coerce the Gateway Corp into making ships available, we tried it out. It didn't cost me a cent; one of the advantages of great wealth is that you don't have to spend it. All you have to do is get other people to spend it for you, and that's what law programs are for.
So we sent two Fives out at once from Gateway. One was on lander power only, and it contained two people and a cylinder of solid aluminum with strain detectors attached. The other held a full crew, ready for an actual mission. The instrument ship had a live camera pickup with an image split three ways: one on the gravity meter, one on the second ship, one on a cesium-atom digital clock.
To my eyes the experiment didn't show a thing. The second ship began to disappear, and the gravity meter recorded its disappearance. Big deal! But Albert was elated. "Its mass began to disappear before it did, Robin! My God. Anyone could have tried that experiment any time in the last dozen years! There's going to be at least a ten-million-dollar science bonus for this!"
"Put it in petty cash," I said, and stretched, and rolled over to kiss Essie, because we happened to be in bed at the time.
"Is very interesting, dear Robin," she said drowsily, and kissed me back. Albert grinned and averted his eyes, partly because Essie has been tinkering with his program and partly because he knew as well as I did that what she said was politely untrue. Astrophysics did not much interest my Essie. What interested her was the chance to play with working Heechee machine intelligences, and that interested her very much. Eighteen hours a day much, until she had tracked down all the major systems in what was left of the Oldest One, and the Dead Men, and the Dead Non-Men whose memories went back to an African savannah the better part of a million years ago. Not that she cared a lot about what was in the memories; but how it was there was her very business, at which she was very good. Reshuffling my Albert program was the least of what Essie got out of Heechee Heaven. What we all got was a very great deal indeed. The grand charts of the Galaxy, showing everywhere the Heechee had been. The grand charts of black holes, showing where they are now. Even where Kiara is. As one tiny fringe benefit, I even got the answer to one question that on a purely subjective level had been interesting me very much: why was I still alive? The ship that carried me to Heechee Heaven had flipped over into deceleration mode after nineteen days. By all the laws of parity and common sense, that meant it would not arrive for another nineteen, by which time I should have been surely dead; but in fact it docked in five. And I wasn't dead at all, or not quite; but why?
Albert gave me the answer. Every flight ever successfully completed in a Heechee ship had been between two bodies that, relatively, were more or less at rest-a few tens or at most a few hundreds of kilometers a second difference in their relative velocities. no more. Not enough to make a difference. But my flight had been pursuing an object itself in very rapid motion. It had been almost all acceleration. The slowdown had taken only a tiny fraction of the speedup. And so I lived.
And all that was very satisfying, and yet... And yet there is always a price.
There always has been. Every big jump forward has carried a hidden cost, all through history. Man invented agriculture. That meant someone had to plant de cotton and someone had to hoe de corn. And dat's how slavery was born. Man invented the automobile, and got a dividend of pollution and highway death. Man got curious about the way the sun shines, and out of his curiosity came the H-bomb. Man found the Heechee artifacts and tracked down some of their secrets. And what did we get? For one thing, we got Payter, almost killing a world, with a power no one had ever had before him. For another we got some brand-new questions, the answers to which I have not yet quite nerved myself up to face. Questions that Albert wants to try to answer, about Mach's Principle; and that Henrietta raised, with her talk about Point X and the "missing mass". And a very big question in my own mind. When the Oldest One broke Heechee Heaven out of its orbit and sent it flying through space toward the core of the Galaxy what, exactly, was he heading toward?

The scariest, I guess, and also the most satisfying, I know, moment of my life was when we had burned the feelers off the Oldest One and, armed with Henrietta's instructions, sat down before the control board of Heechee Heaven. It took two to make it move. Lurvy Herter-Hall and I were the two most experienced pilots present-if you didn't count Wan, who was off with Janine, rounding up the waking Old Ones to tell them there had been a change in government. Lurvy took the right-hand seat and I took the left (wondering a lot just what strange-shaped butt had first sat in it). And there we went. It took more than a month to get back to orbiting the Moon, which was the point I had picked out. It wasn't a wasted month, there was plenty to do on Heechee Heaven; but it went pretty slowly, because I was in a very big hurry to get home.
It took all the nerve I had to squeeze that teat, but, you know, it wasn't all that hard. Once we understood that the main bank of controls carried the codes for all the preset objectives-there are more than fifteen thousand of them, all over the Galaxy and some outside-it was just a matter of knowing which code was which. Then, all of us really delighted with ourselves, we decided to show off. We got a squawk from the radio-astronomers on the far side because our circumlunar orbit was getting in the way of their dishes every time we came around. So we moved. You do that with the secondary boards, the ones no one has ever dared to touch in midflight and that don't seem to do much on the original launch. Main boards, preprogrammed objectives; secondary boards, any point you want, provided you can spell out its galactic coordinates. But the joker is that you can't use the secondary boards until you've nulled the primaries by setting them all down to zero-that translates to a clear deep red color on each-and if any prospector ever happened to do that on his own, he lost his programming to get back to Gateway. How simple everything is once you know. And so we put that big son-of-a-bitching artifact, half a million metric tons of it, in close Earth orbit, and invited company.
The company I wanted most was my wife. What I wanted next was my science program, Albert Einstein-that's not really a reflection on Essie, you know, because she wrote him. It was a tossup whether I went down to her or she came up to me, but not in her mind. She wanted to get her hands On the machine intelligences in Heechee Heaven, I would judge, at least as much as I wanted to get mine on her. In a 100-minute Earth orbit the transmission time isn't bad, anyway. As soon as we were in range the machine Albert had programmed for me was talking to him, pumping everything it had learned into him, and by the time I was ready to talk to him he was ready to talk back.
Of course it wasn't the same. Albert in full three-dimensional color in the tank at home was a lot more fun to chat with than black-and-white Albert on a flat plate in Heechee Heaven. But until some new equipment came up from Earth that was all I had, and anyway it was the same Albert. "Good to see you again, Robin," he said benevolently, poking the stem of his pipe toward me. "I guess you know you have about a million messages waiting for you?"
"They'll wait." Anyway, I had already had about a million, or it seemed that way. What they mostly said was that everybody was annoyed but, in the long run, delighted; and I was once again very rich. "What I want to hear first," I said, "is what you want to tell me."
"Sure thing, Robin." He tapped out his pipe, regarding me. "Well," he said, "technology first. We know the general theory of the Heechee drive, and we're getting a handle on the faster-than-light radio. As to the information-handling circuits in the Dead Men and so on-as I am sure you know," he twinkled, "Cospozha Lavorovna-Broadhead is on her way to join you. I think we may confidently expect considerable progress there, very quickly. In a few days a volunteer crew will go to the Food Factory. We are pretty sure it, too, can be controlled, and if so it will be brought into some nearby orbit for study and, I think I can promise, duplication. I don't suppose you want to hear about minor technology in detail just now?"
"Not really," I said. "Or not right at this minute."
"Then," he said, nodding as he filled the pipe again, "let me get to some theoretical considerations. First there is the question of black holes. We have unequivocally located the one your friend, Gelle-Klara Moynlin, is in. I believe it would be possible to send a ship there with reasonable assurance that it would arrive without serious damage. Return, however, is another question. There appears to be nothing in the Heechee stores that gives us a cookbook recipe for getting anything out of a black hole. Theory, yes. But if one should desire to convert the theory into practice that will require R&D. A lot of it. I would hesitate to promise results in less than, say, a matter of years. More likely decades. I know," he said, leaning forward earnestly, "that this is a matter of personal importance to you, Robin. It also may be a matter of grave importance to all of us, by which I mean not only the human race but machine intelligences as well." I had never seen him look so serious. "You see," he said, "the destination of the artifact, Heechee Heaven, has also been unequivocally identified. May I show you a picture?"
That was rhetoric, of course. I didn't reply, and he didn't wait. He shrank down into a corner of the flatplate screen while the main picture appeared. It was a wash of white, shaped like a very amateurishly drawn Turkish crescent. It was not symmetrical. The crescent was off to one side, and the rest of the picture was black except for an irregular sprinkle of light that completed the horns of the crescent and protracted them into a hazy ellipse.
"It is too bad you cannot see this in color, Robin," said Albert, squinting up from his corner of the screen. "It is blue rather than white. Shall I tell you what you are seeing? It is orbiting matter around some very large object. The matter to your left, which is coming toward us, travels fast enough to emit light. The matter to the right, which is going away, travels more slowly relative to us. What we are seeing is matter turning into radiation as it is drawn into an extremely large black hole, which is located at the center of our Galaxy."
"I thought the speed of light was not relative!" I snapped.
He expanded to fill the screen again. "It is not, Robin, but the orbit velocity of the matter which produces it is. That picture is from the Gateway file, and until just recently it was not located in space. But now it is clear that it is at, indeed that in a sense it forms, the galactic core."
He paused while he lit his pipe, looking at me steadily. Well, that's not quite true. There was the split-second lag, and even Albert's circuits couldn't do anything about it; if I moved his gaze lingered where I had been for just long enough to be disconcerting. I didn't rush him, and when he had finished puffing the pipe alight he said:
"Robin, I am often unsure of what information to volunteer to you. If you ask me a question, that's different. About any subject you suggest, I will tell you as much of what I know as you will listen to. I will also tell you what may be so, if you ask for a hypothesis; and I will volunteer hypotheses when, according to the constraints written into my program, that seems appropriate. Gospozha Lavorovna-Broadhead has written quite complex normative instructions for this sort of decision-making, but, to simplify, they come down to an equation. Let V represent the 'value' of a hypothesis. Let P represent its probability of being true. If I can complete the sum of VP so that it equals at least one, then I should, and do, volunteer the hypothesis. But, oh, Robin, how hard it is to assign the correct numerical values to P and V/In the specific case now at issue I cannot be in any way sure of any value I can give its probability. But its importance is very high. To all intents, it might as well be regarded as infinite."
By then he had me sweating. What I know for sure about Albert's programming is that the longer he takes to tell me something, the less he thinks I am going to like hearing it. "Albert," I said, "get the hell on with it."
"Sure thing, Robin," he said, nodding, but unwilling to be rushed, "but let me first say that this conjecture satisfies not only known astrophysics, although on a rather complex level, but also some other questions, e. g., where Heechee Heaven was going when you turned it around and why the Heechee themselves disappeared. Before I can give you the conjecture I must review four main points, as follows.
"One. The quantities Tiny Jim referred to as 'gosh numbers'. These are numerical quantities, mostly of the sort called 'dimensionless' because they are the same in any units you measure. The mass ratio between the electron and the proton. The Dirac number to express the difference between electromagnetic and gravitational force. The Eddington fine-structure constant. And so forth. We know these numbers to great precision. What we do not know is why they are what they are. Why shouldn't the fine-structure constant be, say, 150 instead of 137-plus? If we understood astrophysics-if we had a complete theory-we should be able to deduce these numbers from the theory. We do have a good theory, but we can't deduce the gosh numbers from it. Why? Is it possible," he asked gravely, "that these numbers are in some way accidental?"
He paused, puffing on his pipe, and then held up two fingers. "Two. Mach's Principle. This also turns Out to be a question, but perhaps a somewhat easier one. My late predecessor," he said, twinkling a little-I think to reassure me that this was, indeed, easier to handle-"my late predecessor gave us the theory of relativity, which is commonly understood to mean that everything is relative to something else excepting only the velocity of light. When you are at home on Tappan Sea, Robin, you weigh about eighty-five kilograms. That is to say, that is a measure of how much you and the planet Earth attract each other; it is your weight, in a sense, relative to the Earth. We also have a quality called 'mass'. The best measure of 'mass' is the force necessary to accelerate an object, say you, from a state of rest. We usually consider 'mass' and 'weight' to be about the same, and on the surface of the Earth they are, but mass is supposed to be an intrinsic quality of matter, while weight is always relative to something else. But," he twinkled again, "let's do a gedanke-experiment, Robin. Let's suppose that you're the only thing in the universe. There's no other matter. What would you weigh? Nothing. What would your mass be? Ah, that's the question. Let's suppose you have a little rocket-belt and you decided to accelerate yourself. You then measure the acceleration and compute the force to move you, and you come out with your mass-do you? No, Robin, you do not. Because there is nothing to measure movement against! 'Moving', as a concept, is meaningless. So mass itself-according to Mach's Principle-depends on some external system, Mach thought it might be what he called 'the entire background of the universe', to be meaningful. And according to Mach's Principle, as my predecessor and others extended it, so do all the other 'intrinsic' characteristics of matter, energy and space... including the 'gosh numbers'. Robin, am I wearying you?"
"You bet your ass you are, Albert," I snarled, "but go ahead!" He smiled and held up three fingers. "Three. What Henrietta called Point X'. As you remember, Henrietta failed her doctoral defense, but I have made a study of her dissertation and I am able to say what she meant by it. For the first three seconds after the Big Bang, which is to say the beginning of the universe as we now know it, the entire universe was relatively compact, exceedingly hot, and entirely symmetrical. Henrietta's dissertation quoted at length from an old Cambridge mathematician named Tong B. Tang and others; the point they made was that after that time, after what Henrietta called 'Point X', the symmetry became 'frozen'. All the constants we now observe became fixed at that point. All the gosh numbers. They did not exist before 'Point X'. They have existed, and are unchangeable, ever since.
"So at Point X in time, three seconds after the beginning of the Big Bang, something happened. It may have been some quite random event-some turbulence in the exploding cloud.
"Or it may have been deliberate."
He stopped and smoked for a while, watching me. When I did not react he sighed and held up four fingers. "Four, Robin, and the last. I do apologize for this long preamble. The final point in Henrietta's conjecture had to do with 'missing mass'. There simply does not appear to be enough mass in the universe to fit the otherwise very successful theories of the Big Bang. Here Henrietta made an immense leap in her doctoral dissertation. She suggested that the Heechee had learned how to create mass and destroy it-and in this, as we now know, she was correct, although it was only a guess on her part, and the seniors before whom she conducted the defense of her dissertation were very quick to challenge it. She then made a further leap. She suggested that the Heechee had, in fact, caused some mass to disappear. Not on a ship, although if she had guessed that she would have been correct. On a very large scale. On a universe-wide scale, in fact. She conjectured that they had studied the 'gosh numbers' as we have, and come to certain conclusions which seem to be true. Here, Robin, it gets a little tricky, so pay close attention-but we are almost home.
"You see, these fundamental constants like the 'gosh numbers' determine whether or not life can exist in the universe. Among very many other things, to be sure. But if some of them were a little higher or a little lower, life could not exist. Do you see the logical consequence of that statement? Yes, I think you do. It is a simple syllogism. Major premise, the 'gosh numbers' are not fixed by natural law but could have been different if certain different events had taken place at 'Point X'. Minor premise, if they were different in certain directions, the universe would be less hospitable to life. Conclusion? Ah, that's the heart of it. Conclusion: If they were different in certain other directions, the universe might be more hospitable to life."
And he stopped talking, and sat regarding me, reaching down into a carpet slipper with one hand to scratch the sole of his foot.
I don't know which of us would have out-waited the other then. I was trying to digest a lot of very indigestible ideas, and old Albert, he was determined to give me time to digest them. Before either of those could happen Paul Hall came trotting into the cubicle I had made my own yelling, "Company! Hey, Robin! We've got visitors!"
Well, my first thought was Essie, of course; we'd talked; I knew she was on her way to the Kennedy launchport at least, even if not actually waiting there for our orbit to settle down and get off. I stared at Paul and then at my watch. "There hasn't been time," I said, because there hadn't.
He was grinning. "Come and see the poor bastards," he chortled.
And that's what they were, all right. Six of them, crammed into a Five. Launched from Gateway less than twenty-four hours after I had taken off from the Moon, carrying enough armament to wipe out a whole division of Oldest Ones, ready to save and profit. They had flown all the way out after Heechee Heaven, reversed course and flown all the way back. Somewhere en route we must have passed them without knowing it. Poor bastards! But they were pretty decent guys, volunteers, taking off on a mission that must have seemed insecure even by Gateway standards. I promised them that they would get a share of the profits there was plenty to go around. It wasn't their fault that we didn't need them, especially considering how much we might have needed them if we had.
So we made them welcome. Janine proudly showed them around. Wan, grinning and waving his sleep-gun around, introduced them to the gentle Old Ones, placid in the face of this new invasion. And by the time all that settled down I realized that what I needed most was food and sleep, and I took both.
When I woke up the first news I got was that Essie was on her way, but not due for a while yet. I fidgeted around for a while, trying to remember everything Albert had said, trying to make a mental picture of the Big Bang and that critical third-second instant when everything got frozen... and not really succeeding. So I called Albert again and said, "More hospitable how?"
"Ah, Robin," he said-nothing ever takes him by surprise "that's a question I can't answer. We don't even know what all the Machian features of the universe are, but maybe... Maybe," he said, showing by the crinide at the corners of his eyes that he was only guessing to humor me, "maybe immortality? Maybe a faster synaptic speed of an organic brain, i. e., higher intelligence? Maybe only more planets that are suitable for life to evolve? Any of the above. Or all of them. The important thing is that we can theorize that such 'more hospitable' features could exist, and that it should be possible to deduce them from a proper theoretical basis. Henrietta went that far. Then she went a little further. Suppose the Heechee (she suggested) learned a little more astrophysics than we, decided what the right features would be-and set out to produce them! How would they go about it? Well, one way would be to shrink the universe back to the primordial state, and start over again with a new Big Bang! How could that happen? If you can create and destroy mass-easy! Juggle it around. Stop the expansion. Start it contracting again. Then somehow stay outside of the point concentration, wait for it to explode again-and then, from outside the monobloc, do whatever had to be done to change the fundamental dimensionless numbers of the universe, so that a new one was born that would be-well, call it heaven."
My eyes were popping. "Is that possible?"
"To you or me? Now? No. Absolutely impossible. Wouldn't have a clue where to begin."
"Not to you or me, dummy! To the Heechee!"
"Ah, Robin," he said mournfully, "who can say? I don't see how, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't. I can't even guess how to manipulate the universe to make it come out right. But that might not be necessary. You have to assume they would have some way of existing, essentially, forever. That's necessary even to do it once. And if forever, why, then you could simply make random changes and see what happened, until you got the universe you wanted."
He took time to look at his cold pipe thoughtfully for a moment, and then put it in his sweatshirt pocket unlit. "That's as far as Henrietta got with her dissertation before they really fell in on her. Because then she said that the 'missing mass' might in fact prove that the Heechee had really begun to interfere with the orderly development of the universe-she said they were removing mass from the outer galaxies to make them fall back more rapidly. Perhaps, she thought, they were also adding mass at the center-if there is one. And she said that that might explain why the Heechee had run away. They started the process, she guessed, and then went off to hide somewhere, in some sort of timeless stasis, maybe like a big black hole, until it ran its course and they were ready to come out and start things over again. That's when it really bit the fan! no wonder. Can you imagine a bunch of physics professors trying to cope with something like that? They said she should try for a degree in Heechee psychology instead of astrophysics. They said she had nothing to offer but conjecture and assumption-no way to test the theory, just a guess. And they thought it was a bad one. So they refused her dissertation, and she didn't get her doctorate, and so she went off to Gateway to be a prospector and wound up where she is. Dead. And," he said thoughtfully, pulling the pipe out again, "I do actually, Robin, think she was wrong, or at least sloppy. We have very little evidence that the Heechee had any possible way of affecting matters in any galaxy but our own, and she was talking about the entire universe."
"But you're not sure?"
"Not a bit sure, Robin."
I yelled, "Don't you at least have a fucking guess?"
"Sure thing, Robin," he said gloomily, "but no more than that. Please calm yourself. See, the scale is wrong. The universe is too big, from anything we know. And the time is too short. The Heechee were here less than a million years ago, and the expansion time of the universe to date is something like twenty thousand times that long-recoil time could hardly be less. It's mathematically bad odds that they would have picked that particular time to show up."
"Show up?"
He coughed. "I left out a step, Robin. There's another guess in there, and I'm afraid it's my own. Suppose this is the universe the Heechee built. Suppose they somehow evolved in a less hospitable one, but didn't like it, and caused it to contract to make a new one, which is the one we're in. That doesn't fit badly, you know. They could have come Out to look around, maybe found it just the way they wanted it. And now maybe the ones who did the exploring have gone back to get the rest of them."
"Albert! For Christ's sake!"
He said gently, "Robin, I wouldn't be saying these things if I could help it. It's only a conjecture. I don't think you have any idea how difficult it is for me to conjecture in this way, and I wouldn't be able to do it except for-well, here's the thing. There is one possible way for something to survive a contraction and a new Big Bang, and that is to be in a place where time effectively stops. What kind of place is that? Why, a black hole. A big one. One big enough so that it is not losing mass by quantum tunneling, and therefore can survive indefinitely. I know where there's a black hole like that, Robin. Mass, about fifteen thousand times the sun. Location, the center of our Galaxy." He glanced at his watch and changed expression. "If my calculations are close, Robin," he said, "your wife should be arriving about now."
"Einstein! The first damn thing she's going to do is rewrite you!"
He twinkled. "She already has, Robin," he pointed out, "and one of the things she has taught me to do is to relieve tension, when appropriate, by some comical or personally rewarding comment."
"You're telling me I ought to be all tensed up?"
"Well, not really, Robin," he said. "All this is quite theoretical-if that much. And in terms of human life, perhaps a long way off. But perhaps not. That black hole in the center of our Galaxy is at least one possibility for the place where the Heechee went, and, in terms of flight time in a Heechee ship, not all that distant. And-I said that we had determined the objective of the Oldest One's course? That was it, Robin. It was heading straight for that black hole when you turned it around."

I was tired of being on Heechee Heaven weeks before Essie was. She was having the time of her life with the machine intelligences. But I wasn't tired of Essie, so I stayed around until she at last admitted she had everything she could use on rag-flop tape, and forty-eight hours later we were back at the Tappan Sea. And ninety minutes after that Wilma Liederman was there with all the tools of her trade, checking Essie out to the last crumb under her toenail. I wasn't worried. I could see that Essie was all right, and when Wilma agreed to stay on for a drink she admitted it. Then she wanted to talk about the medical machine the Dead Men had used to keep Wan in shape, all the time he was growing up, and before she left we had set up a million-dollar research and development company-with Wilma as president-to see what could be done with it, and that's how easy it was. That's how easy it all is, when everything's going your way.
Or almost everything. There was still that sort of uneasy feeling when I thought about the Heechee (if it was the Heechee) at that place at the middle of the Galaxy (if that's where they were). That is very unsettling, you know. If Albert had suggested that the Heechee were going to come out breathing fire and destruction (or just come out at all) within the next year, why, sure, I could have worried the hell out of that. If he'd said ten years or even a hundred I could have worked up pensiveness as a minimum, and probably full-scale fright. But when you come to astronomical times-well, hell! How easy is it to worry about something that might not happen for another billion years?
And yet the notion just would not go away.
It made me fidgety through dinner, after Wilma left, and when I brought in the coffee Essie was curled in front of the fireplace, very trim in her stretch pants, brushing her long hair, and she looked up at me and said, "Will probably not happen, you know, Robin."
"How can you be so sure? There are fifteen thousand Heechee targets programmed into those ships. We've checked out, what? Fewer than a hundred and fifty of them, and one of those was Heechee Heaven. Law of averages says there are a hundred others like that somewhere, and who's to say one of them isn't racing in to tell the Heechee what we're doing right now?"
"Dear Robin," she said, turning to rub her nose against my knee in a friendly way, "drink your coffee. You know nothing about statistical mathematics and, anyway, who's to say they would mean to do us harm?"
"They wouldn't have to mean to! I know what would happen, for God's sake. It's obvious. It's what happened to the Tahitians, the Tasmanians, the Eskimos, the American Indians-it's what has always happened, all through history. A people that comes up against a superior culture is destroyed. Nobody means it. They just can't survive!"
"Always, Robin?"
"Oh, come on!"
"No, mean it," she insisted. "Counterexample: What happened when Romans discovered Gauls?"
"They conquered the shit out of them, that's what!"
"True. No, nearly true. But then, a couple of hundred years later, who conquered who, Robin? The barbarians conquered Rome, Robin."
"I'm not talking about conquest! I'm talking about a racial inferiority complex. What happens to any race that lives in contact with a race smarter than they are?"
"Why, different things under different circumstances, Robin. Greeks were smarter than Romans, Robin. Romans never had a new idea in their lives, except to build with or kill people with. Romans didn't mind. They even took Greeks right into their homes, to teach them all about poetry and history and science. As slaves. Dear Robin," she said, putting down her coffee cup and coming up to sit next to me, "wisdom is a kind of resource. Tell me. When you want information, who do you ask?"
I thought it over for a minute. "Well, Albert, mostly," I admitted. "I see what you're saying, but that's different. It's a computer's job to know more and think faster than I do, in certain ways. That's what they're for."
"Exactly, dear Robin. As far as can tell, you have not been destroyed." She rubbed her cheek against mine and then sat up straight. "You are restless," she decided. "What would you like to do?"
"What are my options?" I asked, reaching for her, but she shook her head.
"Don't mean that, anyway not this minute. Want to watch PV? I have a taped section from tonight's news, when you and Wilma were scheming, which shows your good friends visiting their ancestral home."
"The Old Ones in Africa? Saw it this afternoon." Some local promoter had thought it would be good publicity to show Olduvai Gorge to the Old Ones. He was right. The Old Ones didn't like it a lot-hated the heat, chirped grumpily at each other about the shots they had had to take, didn't care much for the air flight. But they were news. So were Paul and Lurvy, at the moment in Dortmund to arrange for a mausoleum for Lurvy's father as soon as his remains got back from the Food Factory. So was Wan, getting rich on PV appearances as The Boy from Heechee Heaven; so was Janine, having a marvelous time meeting her singing-star pen-pals at last in the flesh. So was I. We were all rich in money and fame. What they would make of it, after all, I could not guess. But what I wanted at last became clear. "Get a sweater, Essie," I said. "Let's go for a walk."

We strolled down to the edge of the icy water, holding hands. "Why, is snowing," Essie announced, peering up at the bubble seven hundred meters over our heads. Usually you can't see it very clearly, but tonight, edge-lighted from the heaters that keep snow or ice from crumbling it, it was a milky dome, broken with reflections from lights on the ground, stretching from horizon to horizon.
"Is it too cold for you?"
"Perhaps just here, near the water," she acknowledged. We climbed back up the slope to the little palm grove by the fountain and sat on a bench to watch the lights on Tappan Sea. It was comfortable there. The air never gets really cold under the bubble, but the water is the Hudson, running naked through seven or eight hundred kilometers before it hits the Palisades Dam, and every once in a while in winter chunks of sheet ice bob under the barriers and wind up rubbing against our boat dock.
"Essie," I said, "I've been thinking."
"Know that, dear Robin," she said.
"About the Oldest One. The machine."
"Oh, really?" She pulled her feet up to get them off the grass, damp from vagrant drifts from the fountain. "Very fine machine," she said. "Quite tame, since you pulled its teeth. Provided is not given external effectors, or mobility, or access to control circuits of any kind-yes, quite tame."
"What I want to know," I said, "is whether you could build one like it for a human being."
"Ah!" she said. "Hum. Yes, I think so. Would take some time and, of course, large sums of money, but yes."
"And you could store a human personality in it-after the person died, I mean? As well as the Dead Men were stored?"
"Quite a good bit better, would say. Some difficulties. Mostly biochemical, not my department." She leaned back, looking upward at the iridescent bubble overhead and said consideringly: "When I write computer program, Robin, I speak to computer, in some language or other. I tell it what it is and what it is to do. Heechee programming is not the same. Rests on direct chemical readout of brain. Old Ones brain is not chemically quite identical with yours and mine, therefore Dead Man storage is very far from perfect. But Old Ones must be much farther from actual Heechee, for whom process was first developed. Heechee man-aged to convert process without any apparent difficulty, therefore it can be done. Yes. When you die, dear Robin, is possible to read your brain into a machine, then put machine in Heechee ship and fly it off to Sagittarius YY black hole, where it can say hello to Gelle-Klara Moynlin and explain episode was not your fault. For this you have my guarantee, only you must not die for, say, five to eight years yet, to allow for necessary research. Will you promise that for me, please."
There are times when something catches me so by surprise that I don't know whether to cry, or get angry, or laugh. In this case I stood up quickly and stared down at my dear wife. And then I decided which to do, and laughed. "Sometimes you startle me, Essie," I said.
"But why, Robin?" She reached out and took my hand. "Suppose it was the other way around, hey? Suppose it was I who, many years ago, had been through a very great personal tragedy. Exactly like yours, Robin. In which someone I loved very much was harmed very severely, in such a way that I could never see that person or explain to her what happened. Do you not think I would want very much to at least speak to her again, in some way, to tell her how I felt?"
I started to answer, but she stood up and put her finger on my lips. "Was rhetorical question, Robin. We both know answer. If your Kiara is still alive, she will want very much to hear from you. This is beyond doubt. So," she said, "here is plan. You will die-not soon, I hope. Brain will go into machine. Maybe will make extra copy for me, you permit? But one copy flies off to black hole to look for Kiara, and finds her, and says to her, 'Kiara, dear, what happened could not be helped, but wish you to know I would have given life itself to save you.' And then, Robin, do you know what Kiara will answer to this strange machine that appears out of nowhere, perhaps only a few hours, her time, after incident itself?"
I didn't! The whole point was that I didn't! But I didn't say so, because Essie didn't give me a chance. She said, "Then Kiara will answer, 'Why, Robin dear, I know you would. Because of all men ever born you are the one whom I most trust and respect and love.' I know she would say this, Robin, because for her it would be true. As it is for me."


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