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At six o'clock on Robin Broadhead's tenth birthday, he had a party. The woman next door gave him socks, a board game and, as a sort of joke present, a book entitled Everything We Know About the Heechee. Their tunnels had only recently been discovered on Venus, and there was much conjecture about the location of the place where the Heechee went, their physical appearance and their purposes. The joke part of the book was that, although it contained a hundred and sixty pages, all of them were blank.
At that same time on that same day-or at any rate, at its equivalent in local time, which was a great deal different-a person was taking a turn under the stars before retiring for sleep. He was also anticipating an anniversary of a sort, but not a party. He was a long way from Robin Broadhead's birthday cake and candles, more than forty thousand light-years; and a long way from the appearance of a human being. He had a name, but out of respect and because of the work he had done, he was usually called something which translates as "Captain". Over his squared-off, finely furred head the stars were extremely bright and close. When he squinted up at them they hurt his eyes, in spite of the carefully designed glass-like shell that covered the place he lived and much of his entire planet. Sullen red type-Ms. brighter than the Moon as seen from Earth. Three golden Cs. A single hot, straw-colored F, painful to look at. There were no Os or Bs in his sky. There were also no faint stars at all. Captain could identify every star he saw, because there were only ten thousand or so of them, nearly all cool and old ones, and even the dimmest clearly visible to the naked eye. And beyond those familiar thousands-well, he could not see beyond them, not from where he strolled, but he knew from his many spaceflights that past them all was the turbulent, almost invisible, bluetinged shell that surrounded everything he and his people owned of the universe. It was a sky that would have terrified a human being. On this night, rehearsing in his mind what would happen after he woke, it almost frightened the captain.
Wide of shoulder and hip, narrow front to back, the captain waddled as he walked back to the belt that would bring him to his sleeping cocoon. It was a short trip. By his perceptions, only a few minutes. (Forty thousand light-years away Robin Broadhead ate, slept, entered junior high, smoked his first dope, broke a bone in his wrist and had it knit, and put on nearly ten kilos before the captain got off the belt.) The captain said good-night to his drowsy roommates (two of whom were, from time to time, his sexual mates as well), removed the necklaces of rank from his shoulders, unstrapped the life-support and communications unit from between his wide spaced legs, raised the lid of his cocoon, and slipped inside. He turned over eight or ten times, covering himself with the soft, spongy, dense sleeping litter. The captain's people had come from burrowers rather than scamperers across a plain. They slept best as their prehistoric ancestors had slept. When the captain had made himself comfortable, he reached one skinny hand up through the litter to pull the top of the cocoon closed. As he had done all of his life. As all of his people had done to sleep well. As they had pulled the stars themselves over to cover them when they decided on the necessity for a very long and worrisome sleep for all of them.
The joke of Robin's birthday book was a little spoiled, because it was not quite true. Some things were known about the Heechee. In some ways it was evident that they were very unlike human beings, but in very significant ways-the same! In curiosity. Only curiosity could have led them to visit so many strange places, so very far apart. In technology. Heechee science was not the same as human, but it rested on the same thermodynamics, the same laws of motion, the same stretch of the mind into tininess and immensity, the nuclear particle and the universe itself. In basic chemistry of the body. They breathed quite similar air. They ate quite compatible food.
What was central to what everyone knew about the Heechee or hoped, or guessed-was that they were not really, when you came right down to it, all that different from human beings. A few thousand years ahead, maybe, in civilization and science. Maybe not even that much. And in that what everyone guessed (or hoped) was not wrong. Less than eight hundred years passed between the time the first crude Heechee ship ventured to try mass-cancellation as a means of transport and the time when their expeditions had washed over most of the Galaxy. (In Olduvai Gorge, one of Squint's ancestors puzzled over what to do with the antelope bone his mother had given him.)
Eight hundred years-but what years!
The Heechee exploded. There were a billion of them. Then ten. Then a hundred. They built wheeled and rollered vehicles to conquer the unfamiliar surface of their planet, and in no more than a couple of generations were off into space on rockets; a few generations more, and they were searching the planets of nearby stars. They learned as they went. They deployed instruments of immense size and great subtlety-a neutron star for a gravity detector; an interferometer a light-year across to catch and measure the radio waves from galaxies whose red-shifts approached the limit. The stars they visited and the galaxies they gazed at were almost identical with those seen from Earth-astronomical time does not trouble with a few hundred thousand years-but they saw more keenly and understood more thoroughly.
And what they saw and understood was, at the end, of surpassing importance to them. For Albert's conjecture was true-nearly true-true in every detail up to the point at which it became terribly false.
As a result of their understanding, the Heechee did what seemed to them best.
They recalled all their far-flung expeditions, tidying behind them to carry away everything that might be useful and could be moved.
They studied some million stars and from those chose a few thousand-some to cast away, because they were dangerous, some to bring together. It was not hard for them to do. The ability to cancel mass or create meant that the forces of gravity were their servants. They selected a population of stable stars and long-lived, winnowed out the dangerous ones, and brought them together, or near enough together to do what they wanted off them. Black holes come in all sizes. A certain concentration of matter in a certain volume of space and gravity wraps it closed. A black hole can be as big as a galaxy, with its component stars hardly closer than in our own. The Heechee's plans were not so grand. They sought a volume of space a few dozen light-years across, filled it with stars, entered it in their ships..
And watched it close around them.

From that time on the Heechee were sealed off from the rest of the universe, burrowed into their nest of stars. Time changed for them. Within a black hole the flow of time slows-slows greatly. In the universe outside more than three-quarters of a million years went by. Within, what seemed to Captain no more than a couple of decades. While they were stamping out comfortable nests for themselves in their captured planets (long since hewn into livability; they had had nearly a century in which to work), the mild, gentle Pliocene epoch gave place to the storms and siroccos of the Pleistocene. The Gtinz ice crept down from the north, and retreated; then the Mindel, the Riss, the Worm. The Australopithecines Captain had kidnapped-to help along, perhaps, or at least to study in the hope of finding hope in them-disappeared, a failed experiment. Pithecanthropus appeared, and was gone; Heidelberg man; the Neanderthalers. They crept north and south as the ice directed, inventing tools, learning to bury their dead and ring them with a circle of ibex horns, learning-beginning to learn-to speak. Land bridges sprouted between the continents, and were washed away. Over some of them scared, starving primitive tribes crept, a wave from Asia that ultimately flowed down from Alaska to Cape Horn, another wave that stayed where it was, growing pads of fat around the sinuses to shield its lungs against the stinging Arctic cold. The children that Captain fathered in the warrens of Venus, and kept with him while he and his teams surveyed the Earth and selected the most promising of its primates for acquisition, were not yet fully grown when homo sapiens learned the uses of fire and the wheel.
And time passed.
Each beat of Captain's twin hearts took half a day in the universe outside. When the Sumerians came down from their mountains to invent the city on the Persian plateau, Captain was invited to participate in the forthcoming anniversary talk. As he prepared his guest list, Sargon built an empire. While he instructed his machines with the program for the meeting small, shivering men hewed blue stone into menhirs to form Stonehenge. Columbus discovered America while Captain was fretful over last-minute cancellations and changes; he finished his evening meal while the first human rockets tottered into orbit and decided to stretch his legs before retiring as a human explorer, wild with surprise, broke into the first Heechee tunnel on Venus. He slept through the time of Robin Broadhead's growth, puberty, voyage to Gateway and voyages from it, the discovery of the Food Factory, the decision to explore it. He half woke just as the Herter-Hall party was starting its four-year climb to orbit, and went back to sleep-to him it was the equivalent of less than an hour-through all their wearying trip. Captain, after all that, was still relatively young. He had the equivalent of a good ten years of active, energetic life ahead of him-or what the outside universe would see as a quarter of a million years.

The purpose of the anniversary meeting was to review the Heechee decision to retreat to a black hole, and to contemplate what else might need be done.
It was a short meeting. All Heechee meetings were short, when they were not social and prolonged purely for the pleasure they gave; machine-mediated discussions eliminated so much waste that the fate of a world could be settled in minutes.
Settled many things were. There was disquieting news. The F-type star they had, somewhat hesitantly, included in their nest was showing some signs which might indicate ultimate instability. Not soon. But it might be well to consider expelling it from their neighborhood. Some of the news was unhappy but expected. The most recent messenger ship from outside revealed no trace of another spacefaring civilization coming to life. Some of it was expected and discounted in advance. The most rigorous theoretical tests had shown that the theory of oscillating universes was correct; and that, indeed, the Mach's-Principle hypothesis (they did not call it by that name) which suggested that at an early point in the Big Bang the dimensionless numbers could be changed was valid. Finally, the decision to so situate themselves that time outside passed forty thousand times faster than in their closed-up sphere was reopened for discussion. Was 40,000 to 1 enough of a gain? It could be made more-as much more as anyone could wish-simply by contracting the size of the hole, and perhaps, at the same time, excluding that troublesome F. Studies were ordered. Congratulations were exchanged. The meeting was over.
Captain, his work for the time through, went once again to the surface for a stroll.
It was daylight now. The transparent screens had darkened themselves accordingly. Even so, fifteen or twenty bright stars shone in the blue-green sky, defying their sun. The captain yawned widely, thought of breakfast, decided instead to relax. He sat drowsily in the tawny sunshine, thinking of the meeting and all that surrounded it. Heechee-human similarities were great enough for the captain to be a little disappointed, on the personal level, that those creatures he himself had chosen and established in the artifact had not come to anything much. Of course, they might yet. The messenger rockets came in only every year or two, as they might have estimated it-more like every fifty thousand years by the standards of human beings on Earth-and a star-going civilization might slip between the cracks. Even if his own project failed, there were still fifteen or sixteen others, all around the Galaxy, where they had seen at least hopeful traces of some-day intelligent life. But most were not even as advanced as the Australopithecines.
The captain sat back in his forked bench, his life-support capsule comfortably resting in the angle beneath him, and squinted up at the sky. If they came, he wondered, how would they know when they came? Would the sky split open? (Softly, he chided himself.) Would the thin Schwarzschild shell of their black hole simply evaporate, and a universe of stars shine in? Not much more likely.
But, if and when it happened, they would know. He was sure of that.
The evidence was sure.
It was not the sort of evidence that only the Heechee could read. If any of their experiments did attain civilization and science, they would see it too. The anisotropic nature of the 3K cosmic background radiation, showing an inexplicable "drift". (Human beings had learned to read that, if not to understand it.) The physical theory that suggested such fundamental numbers as made life possible in the first place could be changed. (Human beings had learned to understand that, but not to be sure it was true.) The subtle clues from distant galaxies that showed their rate of expansion was slowing down, had already for some of them begun to reverse. This was past the point of human capability for observation-yet; but only, perhaps, by a matter of years or decades.
When it became clear to the Heechee not only that the universe might be destroyed in order to rebuild it-but that Someone, somewhere was actually doing it-they were appalled. Try as they would, they could get no fix on Who was doing it, or where They might be. All that was sure was that, with Them, the Heechee wanted no confrontation.
So Captain, and all the other Heechee, wished their experiments great wisdom and prosperity. Out of charity and kindness. Out of curiosity. And out of something else. The experiments were more than experiments. They were a sort of buffer state.
If any of the experimental races the Heechee had started truly had flourished, they might by now be truly technological. They might by now be finding traces of the Heechee themselves, and how awed they might be, the captain thought, by those evidences the Heechee had left behind. He tried to smile as he formed the equation in his mind: "Experiments" (are to) "Heechee" (as) "Heechee" (are to)... "Them."
Whoever "They" were.
At least, Captain thought grayly to himself, when They do come back to reoccupy this universe that They are reshaping to suit Their whims, They'll have to get through those others before They get to us.

Фредерик Пол. За синим горизонтом событий (ENGL)
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