More than a hundred million miles away, far beyond the great broad curve of the horizon, the spinning wheel of the orbiter marched through its endless sweep.
On it Ben Pertin turned away from the monitor screen. The image it showed was as cracked and shattered as the small cube of the monitor itself. All it showed was a ghastly view of Ben’s own dead, staring eye, peering emptily forever up into the gaudily clouded sky of Cuckoo.
Ben looked guiltily at the silvery girl he called Venus. He did not think even an alien like her would fail to see the emotions on his face, and he was not proud of those emotions. It was an unsettling thing to see oneself die. The Ben Pertin who had just had his skull smashed and his body blasted on the distant surface of Cuckoo was as much himself as this other body he was inhabiting here, in the orbiting wheel of the survey satellite.
“I’m sorry, Venus,” he said.
“Sorry?” she fluted.
He said, “I guess that was a bust. Well, we’ve learned something from it. First and most important, next time we send somebody down we’d better arm him for bear. No more waiting till he asks for weapons, and trying to get them to him in a hurry.”
“Concurred,” said Venus. “Also editing appears necessary due to the gravity differential.”
“Right. That one-percent gravity is tricky. I—he was sprawling all over the place.” Ben Line Pertin managed a smile. “I’ve never been transmitted in an edited form before,” he said. “I don’t know how well I like the idea.”
“It does not hurt, Ben Line.”
“Of course not.”
The silvery girl curled one wing and moved closer to him, studying him carefully. “It is established,” she said in her chiming voice, “that my people and Scorpian robots, for example, experience less ego displacement in transmission than do you or, for example, the TWorlie. Suggestion. One of us can go on the next transmission to the surface of Cuckoo.”
“That’s an idea. We’ll keep it in mind,” Ben Line said. In his heart he knew he didn’t want to do it that way. When the next transmission went, he would make it. There were two reasons, one practical, the other not. The practical reason was that, confusing and inexplicable though it was, Earthmen looked like the people who roamed this portion of the surface of Cuckoo. With editing, to stretch them out and reduce their musculature, they would look even more so; and the first job of communication with them, building up the store of language that the Pmal translators needed to work, was difficult enough even so. Asking one of these primitives to talk to a robot, or to a TWorlie, or to a creature like the silvery girl was out of the question.
The other reason was the important one. Ben Line Pertin had thought it over carefully and, all in all, he had no particular reason to want to go on living.
Ben Pertin was not the first human being in the history of the race to reach that conclusion. It happened often enough, for reasons far more trivial than his own. The thing that graveled Ben Pertin, almost more than the real pains and troubles that infested his head, was that his options were curiously circumscribed. With tachyon transmission, you could die and die and die … and still be alive. However many times Ben Pertin let the tachvon scanners memorize his body structure and translate an exact duplicate to the surface of Cuckoo, and however many times that duplicate met a gory death, he would still be alive in orbit. And he would still be hurting.
Other men in his position could fling their lives away in a reckless gamble against death, and find oblivion. He could not. The only gamble he could take was in a fixed game that he could not lose. It made a mockery of courage …
“I said,” the silvery girl repeated tonelessly, “the T’Worlie Nammie is speaking to you.’
“Oh, sorry.” Ben Line shook himself into attention and attempted a smile to the butterfly-winged being that hung in the air beside him. “Hi, Nammie. What’s new?”
“Theory,” the T’Worlie whistled, “FARLINK proposes explication of tachyon interference.”
“Really?” Ben Line was diverted from his internal pain. “What’s that?”
“FARLINK identifies sourse of interference as exogenous to Cuckoo. Originates elsewhere. Trace-scanning, locates source as tight-beam signal generated in our own Galaxy. Vector closely equivalent to that of human sun, called Sol.”
Pertin frowned blankly at the little bat-winged creature.
“I don’t know about that,” he muttered blankly. “It doesn’t seem reasonable. After all, there is only one tachyon station on Earth capable of this distance and that’s locked in to Sun One. Certainly it couldn’t interfere with reception here—”
“FARLINK adds,” shrilled the T’Worlie, fluttering up and down on its bright butterfly wings, “interfering signal can be identified as mating call of female of human species, beamed from your home world, called Earth, to self, here.”
“Ridiculous!” Ben Line exploded. “Nammie, that’s insane! Why—”
He paused as a strong ammonia scent made him sneeze. “Wait a minute,” he said. “What does that smell mean?”
“Query: Smell, Ben Line?”
“The gaseous emission, which registers in my chemical-stimuli-detecting nerve sensors. I know you T’Worlie express emotions chemically.”
“It is laughter,” the T’Worlie shrilled triumphantly.
“Ah,” said Ben Line, satisfied at last. “Then that was a joke.”
“Confirmation,” the T’Worlie cried. “Successful one, queiy?”
“Pretty good. Sorry. You caught me off guard, or I would have laughed, too.”
A whiff of etherlike sweetness expressed the T’Worlie analog of hurt. “Regret joke unsuccessful,” Nammie piped sadly. “Not all of communication falsified for purposes of humor. True that FARLINK locates source as near Earth in vector, distance not confirmed. Extreme attenuation of signal renders distance estimate unde- pendable.”
“Strange,” the silvery girl chimed. “Perhaps we should instruct FARLINK to assemble conjectural explanations oLthis phenomenon.”
“You two go ahead,” Ben Line said. “I have to get some sleep.”
“We will carry on while you are unconscious,” the T’Worlie whistled. Neither he nor Venus slept themselves, and they were critical of human slumber. “Personal conjecture: Whatever explanations, they will complicate our mission.”
And indeed they would, thought Ben Line Pertin as he headed toward his living quarters, out at the higher- gravity shell of the satellite. TTiere should be no random tachyonic transmissions coming in, especially from the Galaxy itself, where all known tachyon sources had been long since identified, located, and compensated for. It was one more irritation in a life that had become increasingly overweighted on the downbeat side.
“What I need,” Ben Line murmured to himself, “is a meal, a bath, and bed. In that order.”
There would not be much pleasure there either, to be sure. The meal would be out of a dry-pack and into a microwave oven, and it would taste like it. With only three human beings on the wheel, and a dozen other races with different diets* also aboard, there was not much space to waste on epicurean cookery. The bath would be not much better. The wheel was in freefall, so the only way to bathe was through a sort of hosedown from jets inside a thing like a huge bottle, and it was all business, even after you learned how to get clean without inhaling several gallons of water. And the bed, of course, would be solitary.
Ben Pertin hurled himself out of the communications room, in a savage mood. He was the first human being to reach this point in space, tens of thousands of light-years outside the galactic spiral.
He was a conqueror, by any standards the history books could measure.
What he felt like was a victim.
Pertin’s “bed” was a cocoon. It felt like a prison. Fed and bathed, he floated in it but could not sleep.
There was a sore place in his mind to which his consciousness always returned, like something caught in a tooth that the tongue cannot resist probing.
That something was himself. Another self: the Ben Pertin from which he had been copied. That Ben Pertin was forty thousand light-years away, in the artificial satellite that hung in the Orion gas cloud and was called Sun One. To Ben Line Pertin, he seemed both farther, in the sense of being something unattainable, and closer than his own skin.
That other Ben Pertin—Ben Charles—would be enjoying the domestic pleasures of marriage, as well as an interesting and productive career with all the amenities Sun One offered its citizens. Lucky man, thought Ben Line, hating him.
Yet that man too was himself. Only a couple of months earlier they had been not only identical but coincident. That was before Ben Line had come here. He remembered perfectly well what had happened. He had got up that morning out of the arms of his new bride, kissed her good-bye, but only as any suburban commuter kisses his wife good-bye at the station, and entered into the tachyon-transmission chamber on Sun One.
There the tachyon beams had scanned his body, built up a pattern of atoms and molecules and transmitted that pattern on the super-speed waves of the tachyons, the particles whose lower limiting velocity is the speed of light. And that pattern had been received here, on the orbiting wheel that spun around the strange astronomical object called Cuckoo, forty thousand light- years away. And here it had been reconstructed, atom for atom and Jink for link.
So on Sun One, one Ben Pertin had walked out of the chamber, in no way different than he had gone in. He had done whatever he had had to do in the balance of that working day, and at the end of it returned again to Zara, his/their wife.
But on the wheel, another Ben Pertin had floated out of the receiving chamber and had felt the instant shock of knowing that he had lost the gamble. He was the one on the wheel, which he looked at with some curiosity but not much pleasure.
If you had put the two Ben Pertins side by side, no clue could have told you which was “original” and which “copy.” Both were originals. Neither was a copy—except in some abstract, irrelevant sense that meant nothing when it was considered that each had a complete store of everything Ben Pertin had ever had, from DNA linkage to the last, most evanescent, half- gone memory of infancy.
There was only one real difference: one was there, the other was here. One was living a normal life on Sun One. The other was doing a necessary job, without joy, on the orbiter, which he would never leave.
That was the paradox of tachyon transmission: since it was only a pattern that was transmitted, the object being transmitted remained unchanged. No matter how often you left, you always stayed behind.
Ben Line Pertin tossed angrily against the restraining web of his cocoon. That was the damned unfair part of it! his mind cried. Why couldn’t Zara join him?
It would cost her nothing! Like him, one of her would walk out of the tachyon chamber on Sun One, the other would be here. They would be together. He would be no longer alone …
He groaned resentfully, angrily, petulantly.
The worst part of his resentment was that, in the end, it was directed against himself. It was his own fault that Zara was not here now. It was he who had persuaded her not to come with him at first, not until the orbiter had been made more comfortable. She had wanted to come. But she had listened to him, finally agreed, promised to come later.
Lying deceitful promise! Now she not only had not come, she would not even answer his tachyon messages. Not for weeks! First he had suggested she might come—then asked outright—finally pleaded. No answer.
When Ben Line Pertin finally fell asleep, his dreams were harsh and punitive.
He woke in time for an all-hands review of the material gathered on Cuckoo.
In all, there were forty-one beings living on the orbiter at that moment, counting collective entities as a single creature. They fit nicely into a cylindrical chamber not much more than fifteen feet across, partly because most of them were rather smaller than human beings, mostly because in free-fall, placement was volumetric rather than planar. The sole T’Worlie acted as sort of general chairman for the meeting. Out of the bat’s head perched on his butterflylike body he squeaked a short sentence, and all around the room the Pmal translators of the various beings rendered it into their own languages:
“I will display the information gathered so far on Cuckoo.”
In the center of the chamber a stereostage display quickened into life. It showed a deep red sphere, floating in nothingness. There was no hint of size, because there was nothing nearby to compare it with; but the voice accompaniment to the display began to give the values for its physical characteristics, and all the Pmal translators faithfully relayed the information to their owners. Radius, slightly under one A.U. Mass, about equal to Sol. Density, very low—less than what in some Earthly laboratories was considered a hard vacuum. And yet the thing had a solid surface.
This was a familiar wonder to Ben Line and the other beings, but they listened anyway. So much about Cuckoo was still unbelievable, even now. Not only did it have a surface, but on that surface creatures lived. The sphere grew and broke off a section, which expanded, turning slowly to present itself to each of the creatures in the room. It grew larger, and they were looking down on a landscape between two enormous mountains, and there was the strangest thing of all. Not only did creatures live there; they were creatures biologically close to some races of the Galaxy itself.
That was impossible.
Cuckoo had never been part of the Galaxy. Its present course was aimed arrow-straight at the Orion arm of the Galaxy. It had clearly been on that course for a very long time, and it had originated somewhere else, from some starcloud other than our own.
Ben Line Pertin, listening and watching, realized something was touching him. He turned, and it was the woman of the Purchased People who was there as proxy for some water-breathing race from a star on the far side of the Galaxy, always invisible to Earth and never named by it. She said tonelessly, “While you were sleeping, Ben Line Pertin, this came addressed to you with the last lot of supplies.”
He nodded thanks—not to her, heaven knows; the imprisoned personality inside the skull neither expected thanks nor would know what to do with it; but to the distant mollusklike creature that owned her and operated through her body.
He was about to turn back to the hologram, when he realized what the woman had given him. It was a message cassette. There was no reason for anyone to send him a sealed cassette unless it was private; there was only one person who would want to send him a private message.
That person was Zara.
Suddenly Ben Line wanted nothing so much as he wanted that meeting to end so that he could put that cassette in his private stereostage. But it wouldn’t end, and he could not leave, now that the topic had toned to one of his own specialties, the meteorology of Cuckoo. Long since the orbiter had dropped automatic weather stations all along its trail, and they had begun to show tentative patterns for the climatology and air- mass movements of the enormous sphere. It was only a beginning. In that immense ocean of air, the seeded stations sketched out only a line, but still Ben Line had to summarize what was known.
As he finished, the FARLINK screens lit up with an overriding message:
“ATTENTION, PROGRESS REPORTED ON TACHYONIC
INTERFERENCE. FOLLOWING SAMPLE ANALYZED.”
The computer blanked out, then displayed shaped waves glowing on the screens, followed by endless strings of binary numbers, while bird chirps sounded in the speakers. “Conjecture,” whispered the TWorlie that hung beside him, a vinegary scent of excitement showing that its equivalent of adrenalin was flowing. “Analysis shows message!”
But Nammie’s conjecture was wrong. The curved screens flashed again with the all-stations call indicating urgency, then lit up with the message in half a hundred scripts:
“LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS OF THIS SAMPLE NEGATIVE. TECHNICAL STUDIES, HOWEVER, IDENTIFY SIGNAL AS COMMUNICATION OF TUNING DATA FOR TACHYONIC REPLICATION TRANSMISSION. PRESUMPTION: SOME MATTER IS TO BE REPLICATED FROM CUCKOO TO SOURCE.”
“Ben Line,” the silvery girl chimed in sudden comprehension, “do you understand what that means? It means we can replicate our own matter at the source of this transmission. We can send a copy of one of us! We can see where this signal comes from, by sending someone there who can report back, in a language we can understand!”
“If he lives long enough,” Pertin grunted. He understood the importance of what was being said, but in his personal scale of values there was nothing quite so important as the cassette he had been clutching all this long while in his hand. And at last he was able to excuse himself, hurl himself through the passages of the orbiter to his private cocoon, squirm in, seal, and then slip the cassette into the sterostage.
A silvery glitter of cloud sprang up before him and condensed into the face and form of Zara, his wife, looking meltingly beautiful and overpoweringly sad. She gazed at him silently for a moment, as if unsure of what to say. And then—
“Dear Ben,” she said, “I don’t know how to tell you this. I’m sorry to answer you this way. The truth is, I just can’t face you.”
She paused, biting her lip.
“You see,” she said, “I’m not going to come to join you. I know how disappointed you will feel— disappointed in me, because I promised. But I can’t.
“I’m pregnant, dear,” she said. She hesitated, and added, “You know that Ben and I—I mean, you and I wanted to have a child. We got permission before— before you left. Well, now we’re going to, in about five months.
“So you see I can’t come now. It would be one thing for you and me to live on the orbiter and to know that we’ll die there. Being together would make all that worthwhile. But not our baby, Ben! I just can’t do that.
“Of course, after the baby is born … if you still want me—
“Well, well talk about it then. I promise you, Ben, dear, I want to be with you. All of me wants to be with all of you! There must be a way!
“But for now I can’t see what it is. I—” She hesitated, then said in a rush, “I’m going to stop now, Ben, because I’m going to have to cry. I do love you! Oh, God …”
And the image faded and was gone, leaving Ben Line Pertin more alone than he had ever been.