The place was called Sun One. It had begun as an asteroid, circling a young blue-white giant in the great dense cloud called the Orion Nebula. Over centuries it had been built upon, sheathed and tunnelled; and what it had become was the closest thing there was to a central headquarters of the loose association of intelligent races in the Galaxy that had made contact with one another.
In one of the inner shells two members of a very junior race were meeting. They came from Earth. They loved each other. They were young. They planned to marry. All these things made them curiosities to the races which possessed personal curiosity, and they were widely watched, heard or sensed as they came towards each other. They didn’t mind. Ben Charles Pertin saw the girl and launched himself in a shallow three-percent gravity dive over the heads of a thing like a dragon, a creature composed mostly of a single great blue eye and a couple of scurrying collective creatures from one of the core stars. ‘Sorry,’ he cried down at them, caught the laughing girl’s hand and stopped hard beside her.
“Ouch,” she said, releasing a holdfast with her other hand. “I’d appreciate a little less enthusiasm next time.”
He kissed her and took her arm. “It’s part of the image,” he said cheerfully. “You know what the chief of delegation says. Make them know we’re here. Earth may be the newest planet in the association but it isn’t going to be the least important. We have a duty to Earth to make ourselves known throughout the Galaxy, and a duty to the Galaxy to contribute our strength and our know-how.”
“I think,” said the girl, “that if you’re going to talk like that you’d better buy me a drink.”
At this shell of Sun One the curvature of the spherical surface they walked on was noticeably sharp. They found it was easier to leap than to stroll. To travel arm in arm, which is how Ben Charles Pertin chose to walk with his girl, required practice and a lot of discomfort - not only to them but to the other sentients in the concourse. Pertin and Zara shifted grips, so that each had an arm around the other’s waist; then Pertin caught the holdfast webbing with his free hand and partly tugged, partly kicked them into the air. They shot past the dragonlike creature, narrowly missed a steelwork vertical strut, touched down again next to something that looked like a soft-bodied beetle with three dozen legs and were in sight of the little refreshment plat-form they liked.
Pertin said “Hi!” to a thing like a green bat as it flapped by.
It hissed something shrill that his personal translator repeated into his ear as, “I recognize your identity, Ben Charles Pertin.” The girl nodded, too, although all members of that particular race, which was called the T’Worlie, looked alike to her, and in any event the T’Worlies did not have the custom of nodding since they had no more neck than bats.
As they waited for traffic to clear, the girlsaid, “How did your meeting go?”
“About as usual. Things are all fouled up on the probe.” He was watching a tumbling box-like robot that was coming towards them on a tangent, correcting its course with methodical jets of steam from the faces of its cubical body; but the tone of his voice made the girl look at him sharply.
“What is it, Ben?”
He gave her a caught-in-the-cookie-jar smile. “I’ll tell you about it when we sit down.”
“You’ll tell me now.”
“Well—” He hesitated, then cried, “All right, we can make it now!” But the girl wrapped her fingers around the webbing of the holdfast.
He relaxed and looked at her. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to.
“Ben! Not again!”
He said defensively, “I have to, Zara. The other one’s dying.
There’s nobody from Earth on the probe now to represent us.
So I agreed to carry the ball.”
He looked appraisingly at the traffic of aliens, then back at her; then he looked at her with a sudden shock of surprise. The girl looked as if she had come very close to crying.
“Oh, Zara,” he said, half-touched and half-annoyed. “What are you making a big thing about? It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
“I know,” she said, and blinked hard. “It’s only - well, it’s sort of silly. But I hate the idea of your dying out there while we’re on our honeymoon.”
Pertin found that he was blinking himself; he was touched. He patted the girl’s hand and said seriously, “Honey, one of the traits I like best in you is that you’re not afraid to be sentimental at the right time. Don’t knock it. I love you for it. Now Let’s go get that drink.”
The little cafe was nearly empty. That was one of the things they liked about it. It had actual waiters, purchased people. They didn’t have much personality to display, but they were actually human, genetically speaking. Pertin and his fiancee enjoyed ordering in their rudimentary Italian - not their own language, to be sure, but at least a human language, and one for which they did not need the Pmal translators.
Pertin pulled his feet up, crossed them in the air and settled gently on to his chair. They looked about while waiting for their drinks to be brought. Pertin had been on Sun One for more than two years now, the girl for several months. Even so, familiarity had not dulled their interest in the place where they were stationed or in the work they did there. The girl was a news- writer, broadcasting to Earth every week on the stereo stage.
Pertin was an engineer. His job on Sun One didn’t involve much engineering. It did involve an interesting mixture of skills. He functioned partly as a sort of legalized spy and partly as a goodwill ambassador from Earth to the rest of the universe.
The mere fact that a job like this existed was still secretly thrilling to Ben Charles Pertin. He was not yet thirty. Even so, he was old enough to remember the time when the human race thought it was alone in the Galaxy.
Space travel itself was not new. The old “nations” had put up their chemical rockets and sent them chugging to Venus, Mars and the Moon in his grandfather’s time. They had looked for life, and come up empty every time. Nuclear probes a generation later investigated the outer planets, the satellites and even the asteroids, with the same result. No life. By the time Ben was twelve years old, the juice had run out of space travel.
There were still a lot of on-going projects, such as the close-orbiting satellites that photomapped the Earth and relayed TV programmes from Rangoon to Rochester and back. An occasional plodding probe was sent out to sample a comet’s gases or measure the solar flux. And of course there was always the Farside base on the Moon, where radio astronomy had retreated when the world’s communications systems had ruined reception for every ground-based dish. But no excitement was generated by any of that. There was not even any interest. If some pollster had sampled the Earth’s billions with a question like, “Do you think intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe?”, he would have been likely to receive as a general response, “Don’t know; don’t care.”
Then came Contact.
It happened just as Ben Pertin was turning thirteen. Something had been found on Pluto. An artifact, half-buried under Pluto’s mirror of ice. The Earth suddenly looked outward again. The stereo stages were full of it: the first fumbling attempts to patch it together, the first daring experiment at putting power through it. Everybody talked about it. Ben and his parents watched the glowing figures on their stage, enthralled. Their evening meals grew cold because they forgot to eat. In school, the kids made the discovery the main subject of every class.
And when the ancient communicator came to life and the first alien face peered out of its screen and looked into the face of a human from Earth, the world went mad.
“I don’t want to hear any more of that cockamamie Earthman’s Burden talk,” said Zara Doy, “I heard too much of it when I was a kid. I don’t want you going out to die. Stay here with me.”
Pertin said fondly, “You’re sweet, Zara. But this is important. The situation on the probe is exploding; the beings are fighting. They”re dying uselessly. I can’t back out just for some sentimental ideas of—”
“Sentimental be damned! Look. When we get married I want you right in bed with me, all of you. I don’t want to be thinking about part of you dying way off in nowhere!”
“I’ll be with you, honey. All of me.”
“You know what I mean,” she said angrily.
He hesitated. The last thing he wanted was to quarrel with his fiancee two days before they were to get married - and less than two days before he kept his promise to go to the probe ship. He rubbed his troth ring and said, “Zara, I have to go to the probe.”
First, I said I would; and the boss has passed the word to all the other top brass on Sun One. Second, it’s important. It’s not “Earthman’s Burden”, It’s simple logic. We’re new and pretty far behind, compared to the Scorpians or the methane crowd or the T’Worlie. But look what We’ve done already. We have Earth people on every major planet, working in every big project taking part in everything that’s happening. The others are getting used to us. They consult us now. If I back out, who else is there to go? Earth won’t be represented—”
“I don’t care.”
“It’s not as if I haven’t done it before—”
“The other time you went we weren’t going to be married,’the girl responded fiercely.
“All right, that’s true. Now I owe you something. But I owe our planet something too. We’re just beginning to contribute our share of leadership in the Galaxy, Zara. I mean, look at that waiter! Half the purchased people around are human beings, now. When the nonviables edit a copy for Sun One, say, what shape do they copy? Human! The human shape is as familiar in the Galaxy now as the Sheliaks - and all in twenty years!”
Zara sucked at the last of her drink and put it down in its cage. She stared at the waiter, who was smoking a cigarette and thinking whatever thoughts a blanked-out personality was allowed to think; then she shook her head.
“I’ll lay it out nice and orderly like an engineer for you, Ben” she said. “First, if they copy human shape, is it because they respect us or because they have some crazy methane sense of humour? Second, if they buy our convicts for purchased people, likely enough it’s because we have more criminals to sell. Third, I don’t like the whole idea of Earth trying to dominate the Galaxy. Fourth—”
“Dominate! I said “leadership”. It’s not the same thing at all.”
“It’s a prerequisite. Not sufficient, but necessary. Fourth, I still hate it all on personal grounds, and I’m not talking about idealism, I’m talking about sex. I’ll get over it. I know that. But it’s going to take some of the joy out of going to bed with you, Ben, thinking that at the same time somewhere else you’re getting eaten by a Sheliak or dying of radiation burn. I’m sorry it’s so, but it’s so.”
Ben said doubtfully, after a moment, “Would it be better if we postponed the wedding a little bit?”
“I don’t know. Let me think.”
He waited, finished his drink, looked cautiously at the girl. There was no anger or misery on her pretty face; she was simply staring thoughtfully out at the other beings in the concourse.
Pertin beckoned to the waiter and paid the bill. “They thank you,” said the waiter, staring appraisingly at Pertin and the girl.
“Will there be anything else?”
“No, we’re going.” But still the girl sat there. Then she sighed, and smiled at him.
“Well. You want to go pretty badly. Feeling the way you do, I suppose you ought to go. I won’t stop you, Ben, and it’s silly to put off getting married. But there is one thing I want you to do.”
He waited warily.
“Give me your ring. No, just to hold. When you’re finished going to the probe I’ll give it back to you. But I don’t want you wearing my ring when you die.”
Last-minute briefing was in the tachyon transport chamber, out at the far shell of Sun One, and heavily shielded. Dr Gerald York Bielowitz checked Pertin out himself. He was a methodical man - one of the reasons he was head of the mission to Sun One: and he read from a sound-scripted list.
“We’ve got about ten minutes, Ben Charles. Let’s see. Object Lambda. You know as much about it as I do. It’s anomalous, it’s exciting, the only way to find out about it is this probe, and it’s in Earth’s interest to make the probe succeed.”
He dropped his eyes to the page and went on: “There’s no possibility of survival on the probe, of course, and this has undoubtedly had some effect on the psyches of all the beings there. To the extent they have what we can map as psyches, I mean.
But in my opinion, the physical problems have caused the trouble. Some of the beings are dying - your predecessor among them, of course. Others are functioning poorly, probably because of ionization interference with their nervous systems - or whatever corresponds to nervous systems.
“At any rate,” he said, checking off another point, “the beings on the probe no longer constitute an orderly system. There’s violence. Some of the deaths are from fights or murders. This is seriously interfering with the operation of the probe, and threatening its very success. You know how important that is. If we blow this, it’s more than a hundred years before we get another chance.
“And finally,” he said, folding the list and putting it in his sporran, “your account here will be credited with double-rate pay for your services on the probe. Your equipment will follow, along with Doc Chimp here.” He nodded civilly to the hairy little handyman who crouched next to Pertin. “And good luck to you both!”
“Thank you, Gerald York,” said Pertin gravely. He stepped up to the transport portal, waited for the signal and entered, giving a half wave to Bielowitz as the door closed behind him.
This was the fourth time he had found himself in a tachyon transporter box, or at least the fourth time that he remembered,; or that it had actually happened to him. They all looked about the same. On the inside they were featureless except for what looked like studded nail heads almost completely covering each of the six interior surfaces. He stood there for a moment, and felt nothing.
But something was going on. The sensors were counting, locating and identifying every atom in his body, measuring their bonds to adjacent atoms, charting them in a precise three-dimensional matrix. The information obtained they encoded into a string of binary numbers; whereupon the great tachyon generators glowed into life, transmitting the numbers at a billibit per second in the direction of a point outside the farthest spiral arm of the Galaxy. It took only moments.
Then Ben Charles Pertin stepped out of the box and shook hands with his head of mission. “You’re the best man I’ve got,” said Bielowitz solemnly. “Thanks.”
Pertin then went back to his office and worked through the rest of the afternoon. He left a little early to meet his fianc'ee and take her to dinner. Over the coffee she returned his troth ring to him.