Far away, around the great bulk of Cuckoo, the orbiter was preparing to transmit its observer along the tachyonic path FARLINK had charted to the source of the interfering transmission in the Galaxy. They still didn’t know how far it was, exactly. Roughly in die direction of Earth, yes; but at extragalactic distances, that could mean anywhere from Rigel to Canopus, and farther than that in the line of flight from Cuckoo.
And that was only one of the things they didn’t know. Would the transmitted duplicate find breathable air and bearable temperatures when he stepped out of the receiving box?—or sphere, or inflatable bag, or whatever sort of enclosure might contain an uninvited guest; it was only a convenience that made all the intercommunicating galactic races use essentially the same sort of equipment. This wild card might take any form.
“I’m glad I’m not going,” Ben Line Pertin announced gloomily. He didn’t sound very glad, even to himself. He found precious little to be glad about these days, and could look forward to not much better.
Venus chimed softly, “I’m glad for you too, Ben Line. It is less hazardous for an edited form like myself.”
Ben Line Pertin in quick confusion said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just thinking—”
“That it was dangerous and unsure, yes. But less so for me. In any event,” she continued melodiously, “FARLINK has chosen me and I have consented.”
He said miserably, “I am sorry, Venus. I’ve been into my own troubles and not thinking about yours. I know how it tears you up to send a self away to suffer or die somewhere; I’ve done it often enough.”
The silvery girl looked at him curiously, “That is so, Ben Line. But—forgive me—in this form it is less painful. If I were in my own true form I would feel there was more to lose.”
“Wait!” the sentient ape named Doc Chimp II said, holding up a hand that contained a banana. “There’s a message—”
It was FARLINK. In the recreation room where they were awaiting Venus’ time for the Tachyon transmitter there were no screens, but the wall speakers sang out with the computer’s electronic voice. “Stand by,” it signaled, the Pmal of each being translating the words automatically into its own language.
“Wonder what that is,” Doc Chimp mused. “Well, cheers!” And he held up his banana in a sort of toast. Pertin responded with his tumbler of Scotch and water, while the silvery girl sniffed at cloudlets of luminescent mist she sprayed out of an atomizer.
“Orders!” FARLINK’S voice rapped out of the speakers. “The transmission of Replicate 4182, known as Venus, is canceled. A newly detected singularity in the incoming signals has altered the estimate of requirements. Stand by for assignment of replacement.”
“Congratulations, Venus,” Doc Chimp cried. “That’s a last-minute reprieve, if I ever heard one. Wonder who they’ll send instead? A Scorpian robot, maybe? A sheliak. Or—”
“Orders,” the wall speaker rasped. “The substitute for transmission is required to proceed at once to the tachyon station for replication. He is Replicate 5153, known as Ben Line Pertin.”
“Oh, no,” Doc Chimp cried.
“Communication of regret,” shrilled the TWorlie, Nammie.
“I’m sony, Ben Line,” the silvery girl whispered.
Pertin stood numb. He had not expected it; he did not know how to respond.
“Replicate 5153,” FARLINK growled from the wall speakers. “There is the time pressure. Proceed at once for replication!”
“Come on, Ben Line,” Doc Chimp said as gently as he knew how, taking one arm. He gestured to Venus, who took the other; and the two of them walked the unresisting Ben Line Pertin along the corridors to the radial shaft that led to the tachyon transmitter. He let them. He felt nothing …
Nothing while he was on his way to the transmitter.
Nothing (except the sudden surprising hard metal lips of Venus against his own, just before he went inside) as he entered the transmitter and stood through its silent omniscient scan.
Nothing when he looked around, and realized he was that he who had remained behind.
Nothing, even, while the chimp and the silvery girl escorted him back to the rec room, the TWorlie fluttering behind. They chattered doubtfully among themselves, then pooled their small quotas of open-choice mass to buy him two more Scotches, doubles. He gulped them down, hardly tasting them. He was still here, as nothing had happened. But he was also there.
And he could never come back.
Later, he was not sure how much later, there was a final message of progress from FARLINK. “The transmission,” the speakers rasped, “has been successful. First acknowledgment of arrival has been received, along with samples for environmental analysis. Unfortunately they are not life-sustaining beyond a fairly short period.”
There was a small silence before Doc Chimp said, “Well, anyway, Ben Line, congratulations. You arrived.”
“I arrived,” Ben Line agreed. “And I’m dead.”
* * *
Down inside the atmosphere of Cuckoo, nearly two hundred million miles away from the orbiter on Cuckoo’s far side, the exploring team was practicing its flying skills.
The expedition, so far, was going well. From their altitude, miles above Ground Station One, miles out from the slope of the enormous mountain, even Cuckoo looked almost small—not the great sweep of its surface, to be sure, but the detail on it: tiny trees, winking bright puddle of lake, silvery thread of river. In the air itself were the curious bright clouds that sailed around, each seeking its own level, seeming to drop spores of some bright seedlings; living glowing things that gave Cuckoo almost the only light it had, bar the glow of plants and animals on the surface itself.
They did not know these glowing clouds to be dangerous, but they gave them a wide berth. Anyway, there was plenty of room in the sky. Not only to travel to a destination, but for pleasure too: Valkyrie and Zara and the T’Worlie took joy in doing loops and barrel rolls, soaring far off from the little procession of Scorpian robot, Sirian eye, and husband, as they chugged sedately along, and returning. Zara found herself laughing from sheer physical joy. She weighed so little in Cuckoo’s air that it was almost irrelevant whether she was flying head up or down. She followed the piping, frolicking T’Worlie up in a loop. Below her the great sloping flank of the mountain seemed to subside into a plain; then the plain tipped and became a slope that rose in the other direction, then passed out of sight completely as she topped out her loop and began to come down.
In her earplug communicator her husband’s voice, faintly amused and faintly annoyed, said “If you three will please stop playing, we’d better stay close together. This is dangerous territory, you know.”
Rebuked, Zara flopped over and flailed her wings to get her bearing. The TWorlie, used to flight, darted back and hung before her, exuding an odor that she would come to recognize as an expression of rueful embarrassment, like a child caught in the cookie jar.
Zara burst out laughing. She caught sight of the silver girl, far overhead, soaring down toward them with great, strong strokes of her wings. Zara cried: “Come on, Val, Nleem! Race you back to the others!” And she let them signal agreement and start their powerful, effortless flight back toward the sober, sedate members of the party. Then she aimed herself headfirst toward the three distant dots, folded her wings except for a tiny web from wrists to hips for control, and activated her pulse- jet. Thrump, thrump, thrump, thrump … The radioisotopes poured heat into measured slugs of water, flashed them into steam, expanded them into the pulse- jet, and she arrowed toward the others at a hundred miles an hour, easily passing the gallant but small T’Worlie, catching up with Valkyrie and leaving her behind a thousand meters from the steady three. Stopping was the problem; she shut off the jet and tried to lose speed by zooming sharply up; but in Cuckoo’s wan grip the loss to gravity was so small she found herself looping the loop again, involuntarily, before, laughing and dizzy, she was properly back in line with the rest of the party. ‘
Her husband, in line ahead of her, turned to look disapprovingly at her over his shoulder. “About time you got here,” he grumbled.
Zara, who was concentrating on an even, rippling flow of her wings, gave him a docile, absentminded smile. What a butterball he was, she thought dispassionately; even in the stretched-out edited version for Cuckoo, his round body and pipestem legs made him look like a stork. “The Scorpian’s getting a strong signal from one of the transponders,” Jon added. “That means we are getting near one of our objectives— probably a downed exploring ship.”
“How nice,” said Zara, winking at the silver girl.
Valkyrie did not wink back; her copy of Earthly human anatomy was not close enough for that. But Zara could hear her chuckle.
” Three places ahead of her in line, the Sirian eye raised itself out of the file on its crackling spread of electric forces, and turned to confront her. It had no expression, but she felt reproof in its stare. The tiny sphincter mouth, surrounded by the forty crablike little legs, worked convulsively. Zara could hear no sound from it; Sirians used sound for communication, but the frequencies were far higher than Man’s; twenty thousand Hertz was a low basso-profundo note for them. But the Pmal caught it, and rapped reprovingly in her ear: “Estimate: Your use of jet propulsion has increased our risk. Assumption: Such sounds in past have attracted predators. Validation: Air-palping reveals several unidentified traces moving toward us at three hundred and seventeen degrees right ascension, minus six degrees declination.”
“Confirmed,” the Scorpian robot stated without passion. It did not speak aloud at all. Its talk circuits used radio waves, but the Pmals picked up and faithfully translated the messages.
Zara pressed her elbows into her sides and felt herself begin to drop. It was not what she had intended, but it was better than floundering around while she tried to adjust her telescopic visor. She caught a glimpse of something at the indicated position, realized she was falling farther behind and below the others than she wanted, flapped herself back into position and at last got a clear look at what the Sirian had reported.
There were three of them, all right. But of what? A body gleaming like metallic copper; stubby wings that shone silver at the tips; great claws that were coming out of concealment from under the creatures’ body, in anticipation of combat.
For a moment she knew terror; then she heard her husband’s voice, triumphant and challenging. “Tally- ho!” he shouted. “I’ve got ‘em!”
And without waiting for comment from the others, he aimed himself and fired his jet.
From directly behind, Zara got the full roar of the pulse jet as it thrumped giant smoke rings of steam, thrusting him like an arrow toward the onrushing orgs. There was a confusion of argument that the Pmals were unable to handle, too many beings shouting at once. What they were saying was clear enough, but Jon Gentry was paying no attenion. He had the taste of blood on his lips, and he was on the hunt.
The orgs were wise in warfare. They split up to come at this lone attacker from three directions at once. Against any of the beings that were their natural prey the strategy was winning. Against galactic weapons, it was hopeless.
Gentry’s hours on the practice range on Earth had not been wasted. The first spark-hiss that marked the firing of his laser was a miss, but the second found a target. Three times then the cobalt-blue streak of his laser reached out to touch an org. Three times the creature hit screamed, the pain bellow of a tortured beast, and each time the scream was cut off as the blue ray burned through scales and flesh in a split second. Each org flamed briefly, and then tumbled, slowly and ungracefully, toward the mountain flank far below.
Gentry stopped his pulse-jet, and returned to them by wing power alone. As he came close, Zara could hear that he was singing. He swooped past her, touching her with what might have been meant for a caress of affection, but sent her spinning. “Got ‘em!” he shouted. “That was worth the whole trip, Zara!”
The silver girl chimed, “It is true that you killed those creatures. I do not think it was wise to attack single-handed, however.”
And the Scorpian robot muttered through its Pmal, “Confirm statement as to organic creatures. Propose consequential probability. Premise: Organic creatures are not principal adversaries. Second premise: Use of laser weapons may be counterproductive at this time.”
“Ah,” Gentry grumbled, “you’re just scared—” Illogically, Zara thought with resentment; all the Galaxy knew that Scorpians could not be frightened, since they were not only very nearly physically indestructible but had little emotional attachment to life.
Val chimed: “I suggest we proceed to our objective. I have a strong transponder trace from a point on the mountainside fifteen kilometers away, nearly in direction of flight. The characteristics are compatible with one of the previous exploration ships.”
“Propose we go there now,” the T’Worlie twittered through the translator.
“Why not?” Jon Gentry said with careless courage. “I think we’ve seen we can deal with any problems that come up.”
Zara dropped back a few meters, looking at her husband curiously. This—what was that old word? machismo?—this kind of behavior was a side of her husband she had not known very well. Of course, on placid Earth there was little occasion for physical conflict, but even so she could hardly reconcile this fire-eyed warrior with the gentle, sedentary, rather dull man she had been married to for three years on Earth. She had never questioned his courage. It had simply never occurred to her to consider it. If she had been aware of it at all, she might have considered it as a sort of mildly disturbing anachronism, like an excess of body hair or a desire for raw meat.
She was jolted out of her reverie by a sudden gabble in the Pmals. Once again several members of the party were speaking at once. The first clear transmission was from Val, who cried: “I think we are in trouble!” And it was confirmed by the Sirian’s little sphincter mouth, which squeaked its inaudible message that the Pmal translated as:
“Air palping now registers three new high-speed traces vectoring toward us. Correction. Four traces. Correction. Five, six, six-plus traces. Points of origin widely separated. Suggest indications are that technological intervention is now occurring.”
T’Worlie and humans, plus Val, tried desperately to see what the Sirian and the Scorpian had detected. Even for Val, however, they were still out of sight, but Val confirmed the locating: “I have the trace,” she agreed.
“Recommend seeking cover,” chattered the Pmal, responding to the Scorpian’s signal.
Jon Gentry snorted, “What, run away? Not me! We’ve got weapons, let’s use them.”
Val pealed, “That is countersurvival, Jon Gentry. I have an alternative proposal. You organics seek cover. The Scorpian and I will intercept the opponents.”
“Concurring,” the Scorpian chattered through the Pmal translator at once.
“No bloody chance!” Jon Gentry blazed. “I guess you don’t know much about Earthmen! Fighting’s nothing strange to us. We came here to carry an equal share of the load, and that includes fighting. We’re not going to hide behind a bunch of aliens!”
“He means,” Zara cried quickly, “that we feel an obligation to help. And honestly, Val—don’t you think we can take care of ourselves?”
The silvery girl swept her great wings up to a point over her head, thus dropping and turning toward Zara. “Doubt it very much,” she pealed. “Please study the approaching objects at thirty-four degrees right ascension, eighteen degrees plus declination.” She paused while Zara struggled with her telescopic visor.
“Oh,” Zara said at last. “They are—formidable looking, aren’t they?”
They were that. Blunt spearpoints, mottled in colors of bronze and gray that glinted with underlying metal, they were arrowing toward the galactic party at easily supersonic speeds. And those were only two. How many had the Scorpian reported? More than six—
These were not animals or primitives, these were complex and powerful technological devices, and, Zara thought with a sinking heart, no doubt armed accordingly.
“I accept offer,” the T’Worlie chirped. “Come!” And Nleem stood on his head in the air, and swam his deceptively filmy wings to drive himself straight downward at the forest cover beneath them. There was a spatter of electrical fields, and he was followed by the Sirian eye.
Zara wailed nervously, “Please, Jon! Let’s do what Val says.” She tried to catch her husband’s eye, but he was already higher than she, peering toward the approaching Watcher ships eagerly. “Please?” she coaxed.
“Not a chance!” he snapped. “You go ahead. I’m going to fight this out!”
“Then I’d better stay, too—”
“No way! Damned if you will, Zara! Now get out of the way—there’s going to be a fight, and I don’t want to have to worry about you getting hurt!”
Angry, and in a way she could not define, afraid—it was not physical fear, it was a deadly feeling that something was changing irrevocably in her life—Zara turned herself oyer in the air, aimed herself at the rapidly diminishing forms of the T’Worlie and the Sirian, and activated the pulse jet. Thrump, thrump, thrump,—the acceleration was terrific. She was catching up on the Sirian and the T’Worlie very rapidly.
Her previous experience had made her cautious. She did not want to overshoot this time; that would mean driving herself into the ground below. She judged the distance as well as she could, allowed the jet to build up speed for a moment, then, when she gauged she had plenty of margin left, cut the pulse and arrowed down on inertia for a few seconds. Then she rotated herself and applied maximum counterthrust with the jet to slow her fall.
Zara h3d thought she had left herself a large margin on the side of caution. In fact, she had started the counterthrust far too late. It slowed her headlong drop— feebly, tardily; just enough so that when she struck the treetops she was traveling at something like thirty miles an hour.
She hit hard, broke off sprigs and branches, went flying through a tangle of vines that ripped at her skin and bruised her brutally. Every snag hurt her, but every snag slowed her a fraction, so that when she hit the soggy, mossy marsh under the trees she knocked herself unconscious, but lived.
When she came to, she was alone.
She could see very little of the sky, but in it were neither husband nor allies, nor even the enemy ships that had been attacking them; and of the T’Worlie and the Sirian eye that she had been trying to join there was no trace at all.