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NINE

When they stepped out of the tachyon-trcmsport chamber, Jon and Zara Gentry were greeted by a female creature, human in shape, but with great angel wings.

“Welcome to Ground Station One,” she chimed in a voice like sweet bells. “My name is Valkyrie, and I am pleased to see the first representatives of Planet Earth arrive on the surface of Cuckoo.”

Zara looked doubtfully at her husband, then reached out a hand, which Valkyrie took politely. Clearly she had been with human beings in some other environment before coming to Cuckoo; the custom of the handshake did not disturb her at all.

Beyond the silver girl floated a glittering cloud of Boaty-Bits that changed shape like a swarm of diamond bees. Over them, partly obscured by their dazzle, a T’Worlie swam gently in the air. From it came a shrill whistle that Zara’s Pmal rendered into, “I identify you, Zara Doy.”

Zara looked doubtfully at her husband, who shrugged. “I am Zara Doy,” she said. “Or was. This is my husband. In our custom I have taken his name and so I am called Zara Gentry now.”

The T’Worlie did not respond. In the languid gravity of Cuckoo it did not need to exert itself to fly, it was enough for it to ripple its wings slowly. From it there came a sharp but not unpleasant odor like the pickle jar in a warm pantry.

Neither of the Gentrys had ever seen individual Boaty-Bits or TWorlie in the flesh before—if “flesh” was the right word for the Bootians, whose chemistry was not very like organic. They had no difficulty in recognizing them from stereostage pictures, but nothing in the stereoviews had prepared them for the sense of whirling power in the Boaty-Bits, or the acrid odor of the T’Worlie. “My identity,” it rapped metallically through the Pmal translator—how quickly, Zara thought, they became accustomed to listening to that rather than the shrill pipings of the T’Worlie itself— “can be described as one Nommie. We did have mutual identification on Sun One, but I perceive you are a different version.”

“And I knew you, too,” sang the silver girl sweetly. “Will you look around your new home?”

It was a confusing new home. From the inside it was hard to make out a plan, but Zara Gentry had seen stereo- stage images of it: spherical shells blown out of some transparent golden-hued material, linked together and outfitted to meet the needs of its inhabitants.

They had arrived in the largest of the bubbles, which was elevated above the others. From it Zara and her husband could look out to see a distant flat plain rimmed by mountains. They were themselves on a mountain, for she could see, just outside the bubble, rocky slopes that fell away endlessly. Turning to look out the other side, she saw a shelf of woodland, and then die rest of the mountain rising incredibly toward the sky. Its top was not in sight. Once, as they approached a Sheliak, the shapeless bun exuded a stalk that formed lips and made a sound their Pmal translators rendered as: “It gives joy to encounter you once more.”

It was disconcerting to be recognized by creatures she had never seen. Flushing faintly, Zara repeated her apologies for being a different version; it was soon apparent to her that nearly all the beings here were direct copies from individuals on the artificial planetoid called Sun One, where all the races of the Galaxy had representatives to mediate and interpret their differing interests and goals.

After so long a voyage—tens of thousands of light- years—Zara felt she should rest and freshen up. But of course tachyon transport was not tiring. The patterns of their bodies, carried by faster-than-light tachyon particles, had not “really” moved anywhere. When they were in transit they were only concepts, so to speak; they were patterns, and had no more sensation or thought than a schematic diagram. Nevertheless she was fatigued. It was culture shock, she thought: the impact of so much change in so short a time. She pleaded fatigue in any case and without demurrer—no two races of the Galaxy really understood each other’s foibles—Valkyrie showed them their own quarters.

In the “morning” Zara woke to her first “day” on Cuckoo and incautiously got out of her cocoon as if she were still on Earth. Even edited, her muscles were disproportionate to Cuckoo’s needs. She flew off the airbed as if it had exploded, catching her balance at the very last second necessary to keep from crashing into the wall.

The noise roused her husband, in the bunk over her own. He opened his eyes and said, “I dreamed we were on Cuckoo.” He looked around and added, “I never had a dream turn out to be true before.”

Zara was listening only politely; she had gone at once to their stereostage, to refresh her memory of the place to which they had exiled themselves for the rest of their lives.

Cuckoo was an enormous ball that hung in empty space, forty thousand light-years outside the fringing arms of the Galaxy.

It had been a puzzle for all the Galaxy’s scientists since the cruising robot scoutships of the bat-winged T’Worlie first detected it. It was a perfect monad of polar opposites: huge and hard-crusted, yet with an average density not much above that of a total vacuum.

Alone in space in the emptiness between galaxies, heading toward the Milky Way at a velocity that was a substantial fraction of c.

There was no such thing as day or night on the surface of Cuckoo. There was no external object bright enough to light it up. What light there was to see by came from bright phosphorescing clouds that hung in its thick air.

It was as big as a solar system, nearly two A.U. in diameter. Did it rotate? Yes, in a manner of speaking— to Zara the question was confusing, coming down to rotation relative to what? Relative to the nearest globular cluster of the Milky Way Galaxy, Cuckoo turned on its axis once every eight hundred-odd Earth days. To natives of Cuckoo the rotation would have been difficult to understand and of no importance at all; there was hardly ever anything to see from the flatlands where they lived, and even from the high mountains it was only occasionally that one might catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. It would take many generations to realize that that tipped spiral puddle of light rose on one horizon and, over the course of an Earthly year and more, slowly climbed to its zenith and disappeared below the western sky. The Milky Way was not the only thing that could be seen in the sky—M-31 in Andromeda was quite visible from the mountains, with a little luck, as were the Magellanic Clouds. But the Milky Way was by far the biggest and brightest object, occupying nearly half the sky when fully risen.

None of these were of any use in telling time. Ground Station One was on galactic arbitrary standard time, a metrication that cycled at some thirty Earth hours. Zara found out quickly that it was close enough to a terrestrial day to be recognizable, different enough to be disconcerting. It made their first “day” very long.

Even so, there was hardly time enough to do all they had to do. The briefings on Earth had been intriguing and even useful; but here in the face of the massive reality of Cuckoo, swelling all around them, both of the Gentrys had everything to learn. It was exhausting. They spent hours just in learning to deal with the flimsy gravity of Cuckoo. Even in their down-muscled edited forms, every step sent them flying at first. (“I know I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds,” Jon grinned, “but this is ridiculous.”) They had to learn to deal with the representatives of the nine other races in Ground Station One. T’Worlie, Sheliaks, Scorpians, and all, each had its own purposes and needs, and all had as much right to be there as Zara and Jon. More, thought Zara fairly; the galactic culture exchange had been going on for thousands of years before humanity had become aware of it.

And above all they had to learn what was on Cuckoo itself.

There existed, in the central workroom, a three-dimensional stereostage program which, on command, conjured up a slowly spinning image of the body itself. Much of it was blank even yet; the tachyar mapping, scanning the surface of Cuckoo from the orbiting space station, had not completed even one full revolution, and some ninety percent of the surface of Cuckoo had been mapped only at extremely long range or not at all. This did not at first appear. The basic sphere was wholly featureless to the naked eye, except for some blurry dis- colorations. The program could on command magnify any desired portion. Where the scan was complete, such portions showed seas, mountain ranges, forests, deserts—a thousand different kinds of locales. This one littie area that they were now exploring Zara saw with dismay, was only an insignificant point on the globe— yet it stretched half the diameter of Europe! There was simply too much to map. Less detail showed on their globe than the maps of the Elizabethan admirals had showed of the interior of Africa.

Valkyrie was a patient teacher and even-tempered friend. Zara found herself relating to the silvery, winged creature as if she were another human. It was a shock to remind herself that this shape was probably nothing like Val’s “real” body, in whatever hellishly inhospitable environment she had lived in on her home world. It had been edited into a more viable form, but Zara knew very well that the shape they saw was not her own.

Fortunately for mankind, most of the races of the Galaxy were close enough to oxygen-breathing, water- based mammals that the consensual common environment, when races met, was usually in an atmosphere human beings could endure. Even races like the Scorpi- ans and the Sheliaks could tolerate it; it was not what they were used to, but it did not matter, since one was robot and the other so protean that it could survive anywhere. For those races to whom oxygen and water were poison, there were two alternatives. They could borrow the bodies of oxygen-tolerating species— humans were very popular for this—by inserting tachyon-coupled transponders into their brains. The bodies were then wholly controlled by the creatures who had taken them over. Zara had seen enough of such men and women, incurable criminals called Purchased People; they were common enough on Earth. The other alternative was to edit the “pattern” transported by the tachyons into some form that could stand air, water, and the temperature limits of the consensual environment. Val’s people had chosen that way to go.

To be sure, editing was not uncommon for all races. Zara and Jon themselves were edited. Their physical strength was an actual handicap on Cuckoo, so their new bodies were altered in the physics and chemistry of the musculature to a sort of compromise between what was appropriate to Earth, and what was desirable on Cuckoo, where each of them weighed only a few pounds. At the same time their proportions had been altered, making them taller and thinner, and thus less strange for the natives of Cuckoo.

They were impatient to start to explore the surface of Cuckoo; it was what they were there for. Val apologized, in that voice like the tinkling of sweet bells: their equipment was not yet ready; their flying-belts had to be made to measure, and their new measurements had not been available. They would come soon, she promised. Meanwhile—

Jon halted her. “What I don’t know,” he said, “is what happened to the other parties that have gone out. I understand they didn’t come back. I don’t know why.”

“They died,” Val chimed sweetly.

Zara said, conscious of an unease in her body, “Well, we know that much. We don’t know what happened, though.” There was something working inside her that she could not quite analyze: a feeling that she should be more terrified—it was death they were talking about— and an opposite, intellectual understanding that said that this life they now had was only an appendage to a “real” life back on Earth, and its death would be only an episode that they “really” might not even ever know. It was fundamentally disturbing, a thought she could not quite deal with and could not wholly suppress.

But Val was answering their questions: “We have dispatched eight individuals to the surface direct from the orbiter, prior to the establishment of this station,” she chimed. “All eight have terminated contact with the orbiter. Five are known to be dead. The other three are probably also dead. Six of them were human beings and two Sheliaks—actually,” she corrected herself, “one was a human being and one a Sheliak, replicated respectively six and two times.”

“Persistent human being,” Jon commented grimly. “What killed him?—them?”

“It is not known in all cases,” Val said brightly. “Please come.” And she spread her great silvery wings and arrowed out of the smaller chamber where they had been talking, into the great central bubble. A Sirian eye was hovering just before a stereostage, patiently studying the scene it portrayed; it did not look around as they came in, but there was a strong sting of ozone in the air. Jon and Zara saw that there was a whole bank of stages beneath the transparent belt that gave them their view out onto the surface of Cuckoo, each with a different scene. Val touched the controls of an unused stage and it filled with a shining silver mist that swirled and hardened into an image of a mountain peak.

“This is the top of the mountain we are on,” Val explained. “Observe the bare rocks. Look closely.” She waved, and the peak shot nearer so that they could see details. Something that glowed with a faint, unpleasant bluish sheen was clinging to the rock. “That slime,” she said, “appears to be a part of a growth process in the mountain. It is violently corrosive—whether through chemical or radioactive reactions we are not sure. The second Sheliak came in contact with it, and literally rotted to death while still in communication.”

Zara shuddered. Jon said, “It sounds unpleasant.”

Val turned her harshly beautiful stare on him. “It is probably quite undesirable for organic creatures,” she agreed. “As you know, Sheliaks do not experience pain in the same way as most sentients. This one was able to describe what was happening until its central nervous system failed entirely. It was not attractive,” she finished thoughtfully. Zara wonderingly thought that, whatever the metallic form Val wore as a convenience, in her native state she might well be as frail and delicate, even, as a human.

“There may have been other deaths due to the slime,” Val went on. “The three of which we have certain knowledge, however—the other Sheliak and two of the men—were due to flying creatures.” She manipulated the controls and displayed an org. “Also,” she said, “there are intelligent machine-using creatures of which little is yet known. They may be involved. And, of course, there are analogs of many galactic races. There is no shortage of dangers on Cuckoo. We simply do not yet know what they all are.”

Zara Gentry turned slowly, studying the bank of stages. The ones that were in use were panning slowly across a vista of woods, plains, and lakes. These were only monitors, through which the sentients present in Ground Station One could see what was being transmitted to the orbiter and on by tachyon transmission to receivers all through the Galaxy itself, where the images were being recorded and studied. As they watched, one of the stages emitted a harsh electronic squeal for attention. It stopped panning and locked onto something large and winged.

“Found something,” Val chimed. “That is one of the flying creatures. The stage is programmed to follow it for a period of time, in case we wish to study it. If not, it will resume scanning shortly. And over there”—she pointed to the stage in front of the Sirian eye—”is what is perhaps the most severe real danger.”

The stage revealed a vehicle. Zara asked in astonishment, “The machine users?”

“Yes,” the silvery girl agreed. “Those creatures have no analog in the Galaxy. They apparently are evolved autochthons, and may be eligible for participation in the galactic councils. But much of the other life is not native.”

She touched the controls again, and displayed a tree that seemed to be emitting a sort of shimmering fog.

Zara looked closer, and gasped in surprise: “Are they bees? No, wait—I think they’re Boaty-Bits!”

“Yes,” Val chimed. “Bootians. And here is a recording of Sheliaks.” She displayed another image, then another and another. “Antarans. Canopan semilizards. Some of these are not to be found in this vicinity, but do exist in other areas of the surface of Cuckoo. Altogether twelve of the sentient races of the Galaxy have been logged on Cuckoo, including—”

And she touched the controls again, and showed the figure of a tall, spare woman in a breechclout, grinding grain.

“Human beings!” Zara Gentry cried. “How did they get here?”

“How did any of them get here?” the silvery girl chimed. “That is a primary mission for us, to find out how that happened. It is definitely established that, however it happened, it was a long time ago: there have been marked evolutionary changes. You can see some physical differences in your own race, no doubt. And some of the species—Canopans and Antarans in particular—have regressed to nonsentient forms, or at least to nonculture forms. The Bootians may retain hive intelligence, we’re not sure because we have not been able to communicate and, as you know, they do not under normal circumstances employ artifacts. The only ones we are sure are nonregressed are your own race, and a small colony of Sheliaks, very far from here.”

“It’s crazy,” Jon Gentry said wonderingly.

The silvery girl laughed like sleighbells. “Of course! Isn’t that why the object has its name? It was one of your own people, I think, who originally called it ‘Cuckoo.’ “

Their tailored flying equipment arrived, designed and built on Sun One and transmitted via tachyon transport to them here. The Gentrys strapped it on awkwardly. None of the other sentients in Ground Station One could be of much help. Val had no need of the flying suits, having wings; as had the Sirian eye, the Scorpian robot, and the T’Worlie. In any case the anatomies were so different that the Sirian, for instance, simply could not understand the concept of a belt.

The first items they put on were wings. Zara stroked them between her fingers doubtfully; they were ridiculously tiny, proportionately smaller than the membranes that supported a flying squirrel. “They are only for directional control,” Val chimed. “And perhaps for a gentle landing, if for any reason your drive should fail.”

Zara was still doubtful. But her husband seemed to accept it, and she looked further. The drive unit itself strapped to their backs. It was simple pulse-jet. It was designed to require only water as “fuel”—not really fuel, but a working medium that would have to be replaced as it was discharged. The actual energy source was a compact star of radioisotopes, which released heat on command. The heat flash-boiled the water. The exploding gas for the jet was only steam. The water was carried in two kidney-shaped flasks of soft plastic strapped around their waists.

“TTiey look very small,” Zara said doubtfully.

“The first exploring parties had larger drive equipment,” Val chimed. “Some had actual vessels, and they rode inside. It did not keep them alive.”

Jon glanced at his wife, and said quickly: “Let’s try them out!”

They worked beautifully. The hammering sound of the jet was unpleasandy close to the base of their skulls, but as they gained speed the sound seemed to dwindle behind them.

They returned to the bubble complex rather regretfully; it was a joyous thing to be able to swoop and circle around in the thick air of Cuckoo!

The rest of their equipment was simple enough. Personal necessities: soap, toothbrushes, toilet paper, changes of clothing. Food—not much of it, just iron rations, heavy on protein and vitamins but by no means tempting to the palate or calculated to satisfy a large appetite. “I’m not too crazy about living on that stuff for a week,” Jon grunted.

“You need not,” Val sang. “You eaters can subsist off the native flora and fauna well enough. You have eaten meals prepared from it already.”

“That steak last night?” Zara exclaimed.

“Yes. And the salad. And the beverage. Of course, for myself I need only energy, and I get that from the power packs. But I understand there is as much of the biota here that is edible as there is on your own planet.”

That left only one item. With some dismay, Zara hefted a gun that had been custom-built for her hand. “The lower trigger is a projectile,” Valkyrie said. “The upper, a laser beam. Lower for food, upper to kill instantly.”

“What about you?” Jon demanded.

Valkyrie tolled somberly, “I have my own weapons built in, Jon Gentry. We may need them to defend ourselves. Remember the first eight explorers!” She hung in the air, slowly fanning her wings, regarding them with her bright, silver eyes. “You will need to sleep again,” she said. “And when you wake we will begin.”

Zara’s breath caught in her throat. “So soon?”

“So soon,” Val echoed.

When her husband was already in his upper bunk, face turned away from the light and the gentle sounds of his breathing becoming deeper with sleep, Zara Gentry lingered in front of the tiny mirror, stroking her face with cream. She was not looking at herself; she was staring into space and had forgotten what she was doing.

What had made her forget was something she had remembered: that tens of thousands of light-years away, another Zara Gentry was, at that very hour, perhaps making her way through the crowded flyways of New York toward the stereostage studios for her regular nightly appearance. What would she be talking about, this other Zara? Her emotions when she volunteered for tachyon transport to Cuckoo? Her immense relief when she stepped out of the chamber and found she was still on Earth?

Zara absently wiped the cream from her face and rested her chin on her hands, framing the sentences in her mind that that other Zara Gentry would be using to open the broadcast: “Well, friends, I walked out of the chamber and back to Earth”— cut to long shot of the tachyon-transport building, pan of the chamber itself with Zara coming out of it—”and it was queer. Queasy. I don’t know how to describe it. I knew that here I was. And yet at the same time I was somewhere else: out on the surface of Cuckoo, so far away that I can’t even see it with the biggest telescope on Earth, / was entering a whole new existence.”

She caught herself reaching for the stereostage recorder, to make a note for the opening of her next broadcast.

There would be no need for that. Not here, not ever here. Whatever else happened, this Zara Gentry was forever doomed to stay on Cuckoo. Oh, perhaps she could physically be carried to the orbiting station in a rocket, if she swung sufficient weight. But that was most unlikely, and that she would ever leave in any other way was impossible.

But after a moment she did reach for the stereostage recorder, and said into it: “For transmission to Zara Day Gentry on Earth. Zara, dear—dear me!—myself, dear … I don’t know how to address me! But I am here and well. Jon is also well, and in a few hours we are going to begin to explore the surface of Cuckoo. In my edited form I am tall and thin, just as I always wanted to be. And—dear distant self—I can tell you one other thing about me: I am afraid. Not panicky. Not crippled by it. But scared.”

Scared or not, she went on to give a bright, entertaining ten minute account of what had happened since arriving on Cuckoo.

It was the least a girl could do for herself, she reflected, settling gendy into her cocoon. And it was oddly comforting, to know that she would in fact be on the stereostage worldwide one more tme—herself, not just that other Zara Gentry. As she drifted toward sleep she thought that a girl in her position could use all the comfort she could get.

A hundred and twenty degrees of arc around the circumference of Cuckoo swung the orbiter called Cuckoo Station. It was a strange-looldng thing, about the size of a three-story house in its main dimensions, but with extensions that shot spindly towers half a mile into space and trailed filmy sheets of laminated metal and plastic for more than three miles around it. It did not look as if it could survive the faintest summer breeze. This was correct. It could not. It never needed to, for Cuckoo Station had never known an atmosphere around it; it had been created in orbit, out of the tachyon-transport cell dropped by the doomship that had brought the Galaxy’s eyes and ears to Cuckoo and then gone on with its dead or dying crew.

The sentients who inhabited Cuckoo Station were quite similar to those on Ground Station One. This was not surprising. Most of those on Ground Station One were duplicated copies from the orbiter itself. One individual who was not duplicated in the station on the surface of Cuckoo was the human being named Ben Line Pertin. Partly this was because he had already been duplicated enough times on the surface of Cuckoo; he had watched himself die three ways so far, and suspected three others. Partly it was because, for the past few galactic days, he had reported himself sick.

He had felt sick. Sick and despairing. When he reported himself back for duty it was not because he really wanted to get back to his work on the orbiter, it was only because it, or anything, was better than lying in his cocoon and watching stale repeated dramas on the stereostage. He relieved his predecessor on the monitoring detail, a T’Worlie named Nlem, and sucking a bubble of coffee to wake himself up began to reel disinterestedly through the transmissions of the last few days to see if anything had happened.

Something had.

Pertin sat up so abruptly that his motion jerked the bulb of coffee out of his hand. Tiling, the Sirian eye who was conducting some incomprehensible research of its own in the monitor chamber, emitted a staccato ripping sound of electrical energy as it flung itself desperately away from the sprinkling drops of liquid. Pertin’s Pmal rang with the harsh, angry accusation: “Danger! Water deleterious! Destructive! Hostile action perceived!”

“Sorry, sorry!” cried Pertin, trying to backtrack the stereo image and at the same time activate the emergency air-purification systems. He managed, but not without further anger from the Sirian—reasonably enough, Pertin knew, but he was not in a mood to be reasonable.

As soon as possible, he spun back to the beginning of the message he had sampled. It had been aimed at Earth, and of course intercepted routinely by the orbiter for information purposes. It was a personal message, and the face of the girl sending it was what had startled him.

It was Zara!

He listened to the whole message, then turned off the stereostage, sick again and dazed.

Zara Gentry.

And here on Cuckoo—only light-minutes away!— but with Jon Gentry. Her husband.

Automatically his hand reached out for the transmission switch: he keyed it to the ground station and croaked: “Orbiter calling, personal communication, please respond.”

The station was on its toes—or on whatever passed for toes in a T’Worlie. The creature who responded almost instandy stared out at Ben Line Pertin and said through its Pmal translator, “Greeting, Ben Line. I have joy that you are well again.”

“Thanks, Nlem,” Pertin said. “I want to—”

“It is now Nloom,” the T’Worlie said. “Nlem is the version still aboard the orbiter with you. Nleem is the other version transported here.”

“Nloom, then, dammit! Please. I have to get a message through right away.”

“For whom is your message?”

“For my w—” Ben Line stopped and swallowed. “For Mrs. Zara Doy Gentry,” he croaked. “May I please speak to her at once?”

The T’Worlie, who had known Ben Line well enough in their time together on the orbiter, stared at him thoughtfully out of its five eyes. Finally the Pmal chirped, “It was my conjecture you would have a message for her.”

“Sure I would. Can I speak to her?”

“Negative. She has left with a survey expedition. Their circuits are fully occupied with telemetry and necessary administrative communications at this time. There will however be a direct channel opening in”— the T’Worlie spun in the air to look at something out of Ben Line’s field of view, then spun back to look at him—”in about two and one-half hours. I can then relay a message if you wish.”

“I’d rather talk to her direct, Nloom,” Pertin pleaded. “Can you patch through then?”

“Affirmative,” the T’Worlie chirped, “although that is of course contingent on Zara Doy Gentry’s desire to use available time for that purpose.” Nloom hung there silently for a moment, and added: “Friend Ben Line, it is a different version here. She does not know you, I think. What shall I tell her of your desire to speak with her?”

Ben Line hesitated.

Of course the TWorlie was right. This Zara had come direct from Earth. If she had heard of his existence at all, it was only casually—someone her Sun One duplicate had met there and married. She did not know him; worse, she herself was married to another man.

What could he say to her?

To that question he had no answer at all.

“I don’t know, Nloom,” he said dismally. “I guess—I think you’d better forget I called. I have to think this over.”

He flipped the switch that dissolved the compassionate stare of the TWorlie into a silvery mist as the stereostage went blank. He sat there, staring into the empty tank of the stage, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but a wretched, suffocating, overwhelming ache of loss.



EIGHT | Farthest Star | cëåäóþùàÿ ãëàâà



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