At about the same time that Ben Charles Pertin was putting his ring back on his finger, as much as time at two points separated by relativistic distances and velocities can be called the ‘same”, Ben James Pertin pushed his way out of another, almost identical box on the probe ship.
He stopped just outside the portal, moving slightly to allow it to close behind him. His expression was grim. “Lucked out,” he said aloud, looking around the unfamiliar chamber.
There was no one to hear, or to see the bitter and despondent look on his face. The chamber was deserted. The probe was in free fall, and Pertin floated slowly away from the transport; but nothing else was floating in the room. There was no litter, no sign that any other being of any sort was within thousands of light-years and, as he listened, not even any sound.
He swore softly to himself and twisted his body around to face the crated personal effects that were nudging their way out of the box. There wasn’t a great deal to come: some tapes; some changes of clothing, personal items. All his belongings were in a couple of crates, and at the end of the string of transmissions came his companion on the mission, Doc Chimp.
Doc Chimp thrust out a long arm and caught the handle of the door as he went by. He hung there for a moment, staring at his environment with an expression that was a parody of Pertin’s own. “Oh, wow, Ben Charles,” he said sadly. “What a place.”
“It’ll be “Ben James”, I think,” said Pertin.
“Sure,” said Doc Chimp dismally. “Me, I’m not going to bother. If you want to call me something different, call me stupid.”
Doc Chimp was Earthborn, but he was not human. He was five feet three inches tall, weighed more than two hundred pounds and, in high-G environments, habitually walked on feet and knuckles. His parents had been chimpanzees. But Doc Chimp was something different.
For one thing, he had a sense of humour. He reflected it in the clothes he wore. Over his hairy barrel chest he wore a little red vest, open, with the coarse black fur sprouting through. He didn’t need it for comfort or for modesty; he wore it to please his own sense of the comic, and for pockets to hold his automatic translator, the key to his private suitcase and a supply of macadamia nuts, of which he was very fond. For modesty he wore shiny brown lederhosen. On his head he sported a kepi with a sand veil around sides and back, and over its visor a bright green plume.
Even the plume was sagging dejectedly as he said, “I think I’m going to hate this place, Ben James.”
“We didn’t come here to have fun. Where the hell is everybody?”
“Don’t know, Ben James. Can’t say.”
“Stow our stuff then. This thing won’t stay in free fall long; we’d better find somebody before it starts firing again.”
“Certainly, Ben James. But there’s somebody coming now.” Pertin said, startled: “I don’t hear anything.”
“Neither do I. But I smell it. It’s a T’Worlie, coming fast.”
The probe ship was T’Worlie property, but fortunately for the other races of the Galaxy the T’Worlies didn’t have a very strong territorial imperative.
They had been civilized for a long, long time. They were an inquisitive race, in their unhurried way, and no doubt that was why they had been sending their probes out for hundreds of generations. Little T’Worlie rockets had radiated in all directions from their mother star, some of them aimed at other stars, some at nothing closer than the Great Nebula in Andromeda, ten million years” travel time away.
Only a race like that, deploying probes as lavishly and patiently as it had, could have discovered the curious astronomical object called Lambda. No other race would have been in a position to do it. Sirians, with their limited time-binding capacities that reached no more than a week into the future, wouldn’t have bothered. Nothing that promised a remote payoff interested the Sirians at all - which made them unattractive partners, but inoffensive foes. Humans of course had no chance; their technology wasn’t up to the job, and the farthest terrestrial probe was still climbing towards the turnover point on its now senseless journey towards 40 Eridani A.
But the T’Worlies thought long, slow thoughts, and they were gently but persistently curious about everything. If their race lived long enough it would learn everything there was to know.
None of them seemed to mind that no T’Worlie now alive would be present to learn it.
Lambda had been discovered first by an unmanned T’Worlie scout ship and reported in a routine synoptic survey. It attracted no attention at all. When first observed its great distance and low luminosity put it at the very threshold of detectability, and the traits which made it unique had not been noted.
Subsequent observations attracted more attention. Its weak spectral lines seemed to shift towards the violet, rather than the red - which is to say, it was moving towards the Galaxy instead of away from it. Curious. But the lines were so very weak, the point so very distant, and the orderly T’Worlies had many other things on their agenda to investigate.
Then, by accident, another scout turned up the same object in a survey.
It might not have been recognized if the computers of the T’Worlies had not been so patient and painstaking. The second scout had been launched five thousand years earlier, its vector several degrees away. From its point of view, Object Lambda was in a wholly different part of the sky, and its rate of approach, indicated by the spectral shift, quite different.
But the computers had sensed a possible match and had clucked over the figures until they confirmed it. There existed a specific, if hypothetical, orbit and velocity which, seen from those two scouts at those recorded times, would have given exactly those readings.
From the estimated elements the computers made a prediction. They requested a special observation from still a third unmanned scout. Lo! It turned out as they had predicted.
Object Lambda was not more than twenty thousand light-years from the edge of the Galaxy, and was approaching it at about one sixth of light-speed.
At this point the T’Worlies announced their discovery to the Galactic civilization at large, and began a study of their existing drones in that general part of space.
The T’Worlie drones were as small as interstellar probes can be made: a scoop, a hydrogen ram, some instruments and a tachyon installation. The T’Worlies had been launching them, thousands at a time, for tens of thousands of years. As they had never invented war, they were able to accumulate large quantities of surplus capital, and so the probes were not at first a particularly expensive project for them. Like most early-industrial races, they had energy to burn. They burned it. Their planet was largely water covered; though they looked like bats, they were somewhat more analogous to flying fish. The water was rich in D^2O, and they spent its fusion energies profligately.
The T’Worlie drone model was standardized early. A programme was set up under which each drone, upon reaching a point suitably distant from all others, flashed a tachyonic signal to the T’Worlie planet, whereupon the tachyon transmitters scanned, encoded and transmitted whole new drones to the mother drone’s unit. As each new drone flashed into being, it signalled in to the T’Worlie planet, was given a course and programme of its own and went onward. The effect was that of an enormous globe of drones, at the end thousands of millions of them, expanding outward like the shell of a dead super-nova.
The programme was fully automatic and economical of everything but the energy eaten up by the tachyon transmitters, and for ten thousand years there seemed to be an endless supply of that.
In the end even the T’Worlies began to realize that their energy resources, though huge, were not infinite. The drone programme was cut to a trickle. But it was never stopped, and the great swelling bubble of drone ships expanded out, into globular clusters, out towards the neighbouring galaxies, along the spiral arms, in towards the core of the Milky Way itself. It was a T’Worlie drone that had buried itself on Pluto and been found by the exploration from Earth. In fact, T’Worlie drones had brought into the Galactic society at least a hundred races at one time or another, almost half of the total so far located.
Another race might have thought of using that fact to establish dominance for itself, but the T’Worlies didn’t think that way. They had never invented empires, either. So when the T’Worlies began to be deeply interested in Object Lambda it was easy enough to find some hundreds of drones on courses and at points that were not too remote from it.
The next job for the T’Worlie computers was calculating which of these drones was on the course that would involve least time and energy in diverting it to the neighbourhood of Lambda, with its huge Galaxy-ward velocity. Fortunately a handful of drones in that section had been redirected inward long before, to fill gaps in the global screen. Among them was one that was, by the best of luck, on a course that could match Lambda in less than five years.
Alter that there was no problem. The drone’s matter receiver was put to work giving birth to automatic tools, hull sections, drive units, instruments, finally people. The tools went to work, assembling the hull sections, installing the drives, making room for the people. What had been a tiny kick-ram, no bigger than Earth’s early Apollo capsule, was transformed and expanded into a thousand-metre vessel with room for a crew of several hundred.
There was, to be sure, one problem.
The rebuilt T’Worlie ship, now named Aurora, was big; but it needed to be big. It did not possess a great deal of surplus mass.
The ship was driven by the sequential explosion of hydrogen fusion charges, directional in a cone-shaped blast against a great battering plate at its base. Not much of the ionizing radiation from the fusion explosions seeped through the base plate, but enough did so that the members of the crew were constantly bathed in it.
T’Worlie and Sheliaks, purchased people and Boaty-bits, robots and humans - all responded to this in their individual and idiosyncratic racial ways. But few complex chemical or electronic processes can operate without damage in the presence of ionizing radiation. It didn’t matter who they were. In the long run it came to much the same for all of them. They died.
Pertin and the chimp scrambled to the corridor entrance and peered out. The vinegary T’Worlie smell was strong now, and they could hear the sounds of something happening outside: a puncture-tyre hiss, a faint high-pitched singing.
A circus procession was sailing towards them down the centre of the corridor. First was a T’Worlie, a bat’s head on butterfly body, no bigger than a pigeon but strong enough to be dragging with it a kitten-sized furry creature with enormous saucer eyes as it flew with powerful strokes of its green-spotted filmy wings. Behind the T’Worlie and the being it carried was a glittering cloud of steel-blue particles, like a swarm of gnats in the sun; and behind them, coming fast but decelerating strongly because of its mass, the square-edged form of a Scorpian robot, all fore jets pumping reaction mass.
The T’Worlie made its shrill whistling sounds, and the Pmal translator on Pertin’s shoulder rattled into life. “I identify you as a Pertin,” it said with mechanical precision. “I propose you transfer at once to high-G accommodations suitable to your structure, mode urgent.”
“Why, Nimmie!” cried Ben James, suddenly, inexplicably, foolishly glad. “It’s good to see you.”
The T’Worlie braked with its filmy wings, and the five pattered eyes studied Pertin. “Verify your statement of identity” the Pmal translator rattled in his ear. “Query implications. Request clarification.”
“Why, it’s me, Ben Ch— Ben James Pertin. From Sun One. Why, just yesterday I saw you in the social concourse, remember?” But he stopped; this copy of the T’Worlie he had known would not remember.
The T’Worlie hesitated. It was some Nimmie or other, Pertin was sure; the key to recognizing T’Worlies was not the five eyes, or the small sphincter mouth with its cat’s-whisker vibrissae, but the patterns on the wings. Green spots predominating on a pale yellow background; five of the bigger spots arranged in a sort of wobbly letter W, like the constellation Cassiopeia from Earth; yes, it was Nimmie, all rights Pertin knew. But perhaps a Nimmie he had never met, in some different line of descent.
The vinegary smell deepened; it was a sign of polite cogitation in a T’Worlie, like a human being’s Hmmm. But Nimmie did not respond exactly. He was distracted by the swarm of tiny beings, who swept into the tachyon transport room, swirled around Pertin and the chimp and re-formed under the T’Worlie’s wings.
The kitten-like creature spoke, with a voice like a purr. The translator rendered it as: “No time kidding around, get hell out!”
And the T’Worlie concurred:
“Mode urgent. Accept transportation via robot. Your physical safety at risk!”
Doc Chimp chattered: I told you I wasn’t going to like this place, Ben James. It isn’t safe. Of course, I’m only a monkey, so it doesn’t matter much about me. It’s you I worry about.”
“You’re an ape,” Pertin corrected automatically, his brain concentrating on what the T’Worlie had said.
“Sure, but an ape that knows what isn’t safe. Come on, Ben James! Let’s do like Bat-Ears says and split!”
Suddenly, the decision was taken from Pertin. The Scorpian robot hissed slowly by, still decelerating, came to a stop, reversed itself and began to pick up momentum for the return. And as it passed Pertin and Doc Chimp it simply caught them up, each under a silvery tentacle, and bore them away. In reverse order the procession steamed away: first the robot with the two terrestrial primates, then the swarm of bit-creatures, then the T’Worlie and its passenger.
The probe was powered by huge nuclear thrusters; the power was only off for short periods, long enough to permit instrument readings or other work that could not be carried on during deceleration times, and the rest of the time the entire environment suffered under a surging uneven pulsing drive that averaged nearly seven gravities.
The welcoming-and-transport committee barely got them to a place of refuge before the thrusters started again. The Boaty-Bits had darted away at the first warning white-noise blast; they could not operate at all under thrust and had to find safety lest they be stepped on. The T’Worlie and his passenger were next to go, leaving only the robot to see to tucking Pertin and Doc Chimp in. The robot had no particular objection to high gravity - Pertin had noticed that on the trip from the tachyon chamber; when the robot had to change direction it simply braced itself with a few of the steel-coil tentacles, stopped against whatever was in the way and pushed off in another direction. The sensation for Pertin was like being tossed around at the end of a cracking whip, but he survived it.
The thrusting started before the robot had finished sealing their cocoons, and it was even worse than the ride. The cocoons, meant to protect them against the thrust, were tailor-made to their dimensions, equipped with the best of springing devices and every comfort. But there was no such thing as antigravity, and that was what was needed.
The robot tarried for a moment. It could no longer jet about, but its tentacles held it easily off the floor, octopus-like. As the thrusts came the appendages gave gently, then returned to position.
The robot seemed to be trying to communicate. Pertin, looking out of the cocoon faceplate, shrugged and spread his hands. One Scorpian looked like another, but if this one had come from Sun One it might recognize the human gesture. The trouble was, there was no way to tell whether it was responding to it.
Then the Pmal crackled into life: “—not move. Prerequisite explanations to you. I am repeating this on all comm frequencies, will. Imperative you not move. Prerequisite—”
The Pmal faded again, as the robot evidently shifted to another possible frequency. “All right,” said Pertin, “We’ll wait”
But whether the robot understood him or not he could not say; it rested there on its tentacles, swaying under the thrust for a few moments more, and then slithered undulatingly away. The probe was decelerating furiously now: a roller coaster ride, multiplied by a hundred. There was a lot more noise than Pertin had expected, both the distant rumble of the nuclear explosions and the screeching of the torsion-bar shock absorbers that did their best to level out the thrust. But the cocoon was designed for it.
“Doc!” he called. “Can you hear me?”
The chimp’s cocoon was only yards away, but the thuuud-screech! drowned out all other sounds. Pertin stared around.
The room was half machine. Bright metal valves, grey plastic tubes coiling like dead entrails, coloured screens where enigmatic symbols flickered and vanished. The walls were a sick, off-colour green. No human would have designed a room like this, but of course it had not been designed for humans in the first place. It was a standard T’Worlie cocoon container; modified to take terrestrials; and the T’Worlies merely allowed them to use it.
The thuuud-screech went on and on. Experimenting with the cocoon, Pertin discovered that it would meter an anaesthetic dose into his veins, or even a selective analgesic to deaden the auditory nerve for a time to block out the remorseless nuclear thunder. But he didn’t want to sleep, and he wasn’t tired; he wanted to get about his business. When your time is running out, he thought, you don’t like to lose any of it.
Then he discovered that the cocoon had a built-in stereo stage.
The apparatus was not wholly familiar, but with any luck he should be able to reach Doc Chimp, at least. His first attempt was not a success. He gently turned a knurled pointer under the hollow silver hemisphere of the stage and was delighted to see it fill with the shining silver mist that indicated it was operating.
But when the mist abruptly condensed it was to show the image of a nude blonde girl. “Mr Pertin, sir,” she carolled sweetly, “welcome aboard! Tonight for your entertainment, sir, you may watch me star in The Belle of Bellatrix. A thriller-drama of the love of a human beauty for a mutated alien and its fatal consequences. Feel the fear of the terrified girl! Share the wrath of her human lover! Feel the coils of the monster around her! Taste its dying blood! All these available by using the sen-cat coils in the small cabinet by your right hand. We have many other stereo-stage fiches, Mr Pertin, and—”
He finally got that fiche turned off, and the nude blonde vanished, still smiling. She dissipated as the camera zoomed in at her until at the end all that was left was a Cheshire-cat smile and the memory of her pale, slim figure.
Then the stereo stage blinked, swirled with colour, solidified and Doc Chimp’s homely face was staring out at him.
“Got you first time,” cried Pertin, pleased. “I didn’t think I would be so lucky.”
“You weren’t,” said the chimp. “I called you. I want to volunteer for something.” The chimpanzee face looked subdued.
Pertin said, “What?”
“I think I ought to take a look around,” said Doc Chimp sadly,
“God knows I don’t want to. But most of the beings will be tied down to pressure cocoons and I’m not. Quite.”
“Good idea,” said Pertin, a little surprised. He hadn’t known the chimp well on Sun One - it wasn’t that he was prejudiced against mutated animals, but of course they didn’t have much in common. But he had an impression of Doc Chimp’s personality that was at variance with the act of volunteering for a solitary excursion into what might be trouble. Humorous, pleasure seeking, a little lazy - that’s how he would have described the chimp. “And thanks,” he added. “Meanwhile I’ll just send back a report to Sun One, if I can figure out how to use this stereo stage.”
“Ah,” said Doc Chimp, the mocking light in his eyes again, “allow me to instruct you, mighty human. You know, I figured you’d be too involved with high-level considerations to take much interest in hardware. So I checked out all the instrumentation with the T’Worlies on Sun One before we left.”
Pertin needed only a few minutes to learn to operate the component in his cocoon; it was not, after all, anything but a stereo stage, and they were common all over the Galaxy. Then he lifted himself on one elbow against the surging thrusts of the drive, the cocoon’s self-adjusting circuits buzzing busily to try to compensate for his unusual position; and he watched the chimp cautiously lever himself over the side of his own cocoon - timing his movements to the surging of the drive – drop clumsily to the floor, mutter to himself angrily for a moment and then slowly, painfully lumber off on all fours. He did not look back.
Pertin felt curiously better, as if he had discovered a friend where he had expected only an inadequate tool. He worked the controls of the stereo stage, got himself a circuit through to the recording fiches of the tachyon communicator and spoke:
“This is Ben James Pertin,” he said, “reporting in to Sun One. Doc Chimp and I have arrived safely. There was no apparent problem from the transmission; at least, we look all right, we’re breathing, our hearts are working. Whether our brains are scrambled or not, I could not say. No more than when we volunteered for this, anyway, I’d guess. We have seen very little of the probe, have contacted only a few of the personnel; but in general the situation appears much as we understood it. At present I am in an acceleration couch, waiting for the next period of free fall for further investigation. Doc Chimp, who is per forming very well and deserves credit, has voluntarily left on a scouting mission.
“I’ll report again when I have something to say,” he finished, “and - personal to Ben Charles Pertin: have a good time on my honeymoon.”
He snapped off the stage before he could decide to erase the last part of the message.
In spite of the best efforts of the cocoon, his kidneys were beginning to feel bruised. The noise was even more of a problem. Efficient soundproofing kept it out of the cocoon as noise - at least, as airborne vibrations - but there was too much of it, the amplitude too great, to be shut out entirely; and it seeped through as a continual thunder and squeal.
Pertin shut it out of his mind, thought of sleep, decided to brush up on his knowledge of the “hardware”.
His first attempt at the fiche library of the stereo stage was only half successful. He just managed to avert the appearance of the bare-skinned blonde and found he had secured a record transmitted by another member of the crew - race unspecified - apparently for a sort of public stereo-stage broadcast on its home planet. He shut out of his mind the public broadcaster he should have been getting ready to marry about this time - some thousands of light-years away, was getting ready to marry - and discovered that the name of the vessel was the Aurora, or Dawn - the sound was of course different in the T’Worlie tongue, and they had named it; but it had the same shared meanings of new day and bright glowing promise. He discovered that it had only limited facilities for recreation - well, he had known that. There were tape-fiche libraries for almost every known race and some special high-pressure atmosphere chambers for a few of the exotics. That was it.
This was not exactly what he wanted, so he tried again. But instead of getting a fiche on the ship itself, he got one on its mission, evidently a briefing record dubbed for humans. The narration was by a man Pertin recognized, about sixty, plump, freckled; he had been a minor functionary on Sun One. He spoke in a high-pitched voice, smiling emptily at the stereo pickup.
“We will show you all that is known about Object Lambda. First we will locate it, as it would be seen from Earth if visible at that distance.”
Behind him another stereo-stage tank glowed, shimmered and filled with a universe of stars. Two of the brighter ones pulsed to call attention to themselves as the man spoke.
“Those stars are Benetnasch, in Ursa Major, and Cor Caroli, in Canes Venatici. Those faint stars over there—” as he spoke a faint line of light ran around an area of the tank, enclosing it in a square - “are in Coma Berenices, near the north galactic pole. Now we’ll take a closer look.”
Benetnasch and Cor Caroli swam aside. The faint stars of Coma Berenices grew brighter, spreading apart, as the whole field of stars seemed to move. To Ben James Pertin it felt as if he were plunging head-on into a sea of stars. The bright points fled out of the sides of the stage, and the few remaining ones became brighter, until only a few were left, and beyond them ghostly faint blurs that were no longer part of the Milky Way but galaxies in their own right.
Then the illusion of motion stopped.
Another square of light formed around a patch of blackness in the centre of the stage, indistinguishable from the emptiness around it.
The man said, “Now we’ve reached the limits of Sol-orbiting instruments. Object Lambda is at the centre of that square, but it is invisible. It is slightly better in the far infra-red.”
The pattern of stars shimmered; some became brighter, some dimmer, and in the centre of the square there was what might have been a faint and shapeless glow.
“This is not instantaneous,” explained the lecturer. “It’s long exposure and image-intensified. It. would never have been detected in routine sweeps from Sol-based instruments. Even the
T’Worlie scouts first detected it only because of the chance occultation of some stars in the Milky Way itself, seen from beyond. What we will show you next is not an actual observation but an artifact as it would look from Earth, as deduced from all available observations.”
The object brightened half a dozen magnitudes as he spoke.
“As you see, it has a sort of tipped-disc shape, like certain classifications of external galaxies. However, that’s not what it is. First of all, it is far too small, perhaps only two or three AU. Second, its spectrum is wrong.
“At its apparent distance, as determined by its angular diameter - as if it were indeed a galaxy - it should be receding at a major fraction of the speed of light. Of course, we know from triangulation from the T’Worlie ships that that distance is wrong by a good many orders of magnitude. But according to its spectrum displacement, it is actually approaching the Milky Way at nearly relativistic speeds.”
The image blurred and disappeared, and the plump human was standing there by himself. He said with satisfaction, “The T’Worlie scout has confirmed the speed as accurate, in the range of fifty thousand kps. Its position, relative to Earth, is some thirty thousand light-years from Sol, in the direction of a point near the northern fringe of Coma Berenices. It is not an object from our galaxy. There are no spiral arms in that direction, nor many isolated stars or clusters much nearer than Sol itself.
“The T’Worlies back-plotted its position from all observations of their drones, as recorded over the past several thousand years. Most of the data is ambiguous, but they did establish a probable line of flight. Their hope was to find a galaxy from which the object might have been ejected, and then to try to discover the reason for its high velocity. The T’Worlies were only partly successful - I should say, only possibly successful. No such galaxy was detected. They did, however, find scattered star swarms which they believe to be the fragments of a galaxy that collapsed and then exploded more than half a billion years ago. It is the present working hypothesis that Object Lambda was ejected from that galaxy - by what means we cannot say.”
The man’s expression became enthusiastic. “Because of the anomalous nature of Object Lambda,” he said, “the all-race conference on Sun One determined to transmit a full-size scout ship through the drone equipment, and to staff it with a crew of volunteers of all races.” Volunteersl thought Pertin, grimacing. “And after considerable effort in negotiating, it was agreed to include Earth humans as part of the crew. The political implications of this step are of enormous consequence and reflect the true coming of age of Earth humanity in the Galaxy-wide confraternity of civilized peoples. Thank you,” he said, bowed, smiled and disappeared as the fiche came to an end.
Not a minute too soon, thought Pertin. A little more of that and he would have been ill. The cocoon had a fine built-in waste handling system, but there was no sense in overloading it.
He began to see what Zara had been talking about when she accused him of an “Earthman’s Burden” complex. It sounded pompous, stupid and faintly threatening, he realized, at least as expressed by the man in the briefing fiche. Pertin tried to get his mind off that track - because he didn’t want to question the cause for which he was eventually going to die, and because above all he didn’t want to think about Zara Doy. He was in the middle of trying to get The Belle of Bellatrix back on the stage when he became aware that something was scratching angrily at his cocoon.
For a moment he thought he was dreaming. He glanced back at the fading nude on the screen, then outside at the nude girl who stood there.
But Pertin was a pretty superior type, and he oriented himself quickly. It was no girl. It was not even human. It was a female young Earth person in shape, but the stuff of which the shape was constructed was not flesh and blood. It was silvery and bright, with a metallic hue. The eyes were orange and glowing. The hair was not separate tendrils; it was a single solid piece, sculptured slightly for cosmetic effect. The creature was, he realized, an “edited” version of some methane-breather or one of
even more exotic chemistry, some being who was structurally nonviable in oxygen-bearing air and had had itself transmitted in an altered form to take up its duties on Aurora. And it was holding a scrap of what looked like paper.
It was not right-side up. Pertin gestured, and finally the girl understood and rotated what she held until he could read its message. Then he signalled her to stop. It said: Sorry, Ben James, but you’ve got to get out of there. Things are worse than we thought. Aphrodite here will carry you to me. They guarantee she won’t drop you and squash you; and, actually, Ben James, it seems to be a matter of life and death.
The girl did not speak, but the orange eyes blazed imperatively, and the hands beckoned.
Pertin sighed, and opened the lid of his cocoon. “Okay, Aphrodite,” he said. “Carry me off.”
Astonishingly, being carried by the pseudogirl was actually worse than being toted by the robot; but this trip was slower, and Pertin had a chance to see something of the Aurora. It was roughly cone-shaped. At the nose and through the midsection were living quarters for the several score individuals who manned the ship. Since the crew varied widely, they needed a good deal of room. Space had been provided for methane-dwellers, space-flyers and cold creatures as well as for the more common forms based on carbon, oxygen and water. However, most of the non-viables either stayed home or sent proxies or edited copies, so these spaces were mostly empty. “Below” the living quarters and the space for the exotics were the hardware - instrument sections. Below them still - in the sense of being sternward, towards the thrusters - was a layer of dense liquid for a radiation shield. It wasn’t very effective; but of course, Pertin thought, the shield didn’t have to be effective enough to keep them alive forever since there was neither hope for nor point in that. Below the shield was the tachyon transmission deck, where Pertin and the chimp had arrived. And beyond that deck, the shock-absorbing gear and thrusters. Since the Aurora was decelerating, it happened that the ‘stern” of the ship came first in line of flight; but that made little difference to anyone aboard. It was “down”. And down was the direction they were going. The pseudogirl had wrapped Pertin in a thick blanket of something like heavy-duty plastic foam. It was not as good as his cocoon by a long shot, but it kept him from dying of the ceaseless grinding changes in gravity as the thrusters shoved and the “girl” levered herself down a ladder-like series of projecting rods. She did not speak, nor acknowledge Pertin’s efforts to speak to her. Either there was something wrong with his Pmal translator, or she simply was not a conversationalist. But she was considerate enough, and when they reached the instrument deck Pertin was bruised and sick, but alive.
“Ben James!” cried a familiar voice. “I told you Aphrodite would get you here all right!”
Doc Chimp, thin lips grinning widely, scrambled over to help the silvery girl put him down, propping him against a sloping bulkhead so he could look around. They were worth looking at, a nightmare crew if he ever saw one. Besides the pseudogirl and the mutated chimp, there was a Sheliak in its high-G mode, looking like a flattened baker’s bun on the deck, another web of plastic foam that hid an apparently human-sized figure, and a row of small cocoons. Two were empty; the third contained a T’Worlie. From a speaker outside the cocoon a T’Worlie voice whistled a greeting and Pertin’s Pmal translated: “I recognize your identity, Ben James Pertin. It is advantageous to all of us that you are here.”
Thanks, Nummie,” said Pertin, but he was staring at the other plastic wrappings. A human being seemed to be concealed in them; but apart from himself he knew of only one human being on the Aurora, one he didn’t really want to think about.
He said aside, “Doc, who’s over there?”
Doc Chimp said, “Who? Her? Oh, I don’t know her name. She’s purchased people for some low-G type or other. But she’s on our side.” The web stirred and a face peered out. It was human enough as far as features went, but the emptiness in the eyes told Pertin that Doc Chimp was right. “Anyway,” chattered the chimp, “I better fill you in. Hell’s really broken loose, Ben James. A bunch of beings tried to wreck the telescope. Not sure but what they’ve done it, too; the Scorpian’s trying to see how much can be salvaged. If it and Aphrodite here hadn’t come along, we’d be out of business until they could send new instruments through - and by then it would likely be too late.”
The thuuud-screech was a lot closer here; apart from everything else, it was making Pertin’s head pound. “What beings?” he managed to croak.
“Didn’t see them. I just saw somebody disappearing into a passage, and then the Sheliak here came hell-fire fast after him and saw me. For a minute he thought I was them.” Doc Chimp cocked his head ruefully. “You could’ve found yourself short a monkey right there, Ben James, if I hadn’t talked fast. Then the Sheliak commandeered me to help, and we came down here to hold the fort. Oh, how sore my soles and knuckles are, Ben James, against the pounding of those rockets! But I did my duty. Then we got the observatory deck sealed off - they’d used a chemical explosive on the telescope and sprung a port – and then I happened to think of my human master, off there watching The Belle of Bellatrix without a care, and I persuaded Aphrodite to fetch you.”
Pertin frowned. “I don’t quite see why,” he objected. “I Can’t help.”
“You can stay alive,” declared the chimp. “I didn’t tell you all of it. When they came for the telescope they had to get past the T’Worlies here. Well, you know T’Worlies Can’t do much against any being that can operate in high-G. But they tried to do what they could. And two of them got killed.”
That was a shocker if ever there was one; the one cardinal rule among the races of the Galaxy was that no race could ever kill or seriously maim a member of another. Even on Sun One, what disciplinary problems arose were handled within the delegation of the race that produced the problem; there was some provision for a body of other races sitting in judgement if the offending race failed to deal with the problem, but that law had never had to be invoked. Pertin would hardly have believed the chimp if Nummie hadn’t confirmed it.
“They’re crazy, then,” said Pertin. “All right. We’ll have to get a report back to Sun One. Nummie, is your stereo stage operating?”
“Confirm that it is operative,” sang the Pmal in his ear. “State that such a transmission has already been sent.”
“Good. I’ll have to send one too, and I think the rest of us should; but that can wait.” Pertin tried to shift position as the floor surged particularly viciously, suppressed a groan and thought, “Since we’re here, they probably won’t try anything
right away.” Then he said, “What we need is a comb-out. Get every being on board to account for his whereabouts and try to identify the ones who did it. For that we need a little free-fall. Can we arrange that?”
The silvery girl spoke at last. Apparently she had heard everything, had simply seen no need to comment. “We can have a little free-fall. We can have a little comb-out. But we probably won’t need to arrange it right away as the next observation period is only—” A meaningless squawk, but Doc Chimp filled in:
“She means about fifteen minutes away.”
It took a moment for Pertin to realize that the girl’s words had been in English. He looked at her curiously, but there was no time to think about that. Tine,” he said. “How many were involved in the bombing?”
“Not less than three nor more than eight,” piped the Pmal translator, responding to the T’Worlie’s whistle, “Out of how many in the crew?”
The T’Worlie hesitated. “There are in excess of three hundred thousand beings at present existing within the ship’s hull. Of these, a large number are collective creatures.”
“Not counting the Boaty-Bits, I mean how many individuals?”
“There are not less than two hundred forty nor more than two hundred fifty.”
Pertin said, “So the troublemakers are a tiny fraction. That’s good. Well broadcast a ship wide alarm. Most of the crew will cooperate—”
He stopped, staring at the silver pseudogirl. “What’s the matter?”
She had stretched out her fingertips towards the entrance port, almost in the traditional pose of a human sleepwalker.
“The matter,” she said in her incongruous colloquial English, the tones as deep as Pertin’s own, “is that the tiny fraction of troublemakers is coming back.”
A moment later no one needed the silvery girl’s fingers to hear for them; the sound of a rush grew rapidly louder: a crackling electrical sound, like the patter of a collapsing charge field. Into the room burst what looked at first like a single huge blue eye.
“Sirian!” howled Doc Chimp in terror, and tried to leap out of the way. But not even his simian muscles had the strength to leap, and the surging G-force of the rockets made him stumble and fall heavily on his side against the silvery girl. At one stroke, two-thirds of the beings able to move at all in the high-G field were immobilized; the T’Worlie, the purchased person and Ben Pertin himself were wholly useless while the rockets were on. The Sirian, moving by electrostatic forces, was immune to mere ten and twelve-G thrusts; and he bore with him something that glittered, carried under the great forward eye in a pair of crablike pincers, tiny and almost invisible.
Pertin, laid heedlessly just inside the portal, was first in the creature’s path. He did not even have time to realize he was in danger before the Sirian was upon him. Then, queerly, the great eye stared at him and the Sirian paused, hesitated, and turned away. It propelled its glittering metal object at the bulkhead and at once reversed its field and sped away.
If that was another bomb, Pertin thought, they’d all had it now; beyond that bulkhead was empty space from the last attack. The rest of the ship might be saved if the automatic seals worked fast enough, but they would be boiled into outer space - himself, the purchased person, Doc Chimp and the T’Worlie, at least.
Pertin had forgotten the Sheliak. The soggy baker’s bun that slumped on the deck and had taken no part in the conversation was still in fact an able and intelligent being. It acted faster than Pertin would have believed possible. The bun shape elongated itself into a sort of stemmed sea-anemone, flowed like lightning up and down around the bomb, surrounding it, drowning it in alien flesh.
The only sign the rest of them could see was a quick convulsive shudder of the Sheliak’s tissue. Even the noise was muffled and almost inaudible, in the constant thunder of the rockets.
But the Sheliak glowed brilliant gold for a moment with a flash of the last light of its life, and died.
They had defended themselves, but at the cost of one of their allies.
As if on cue, the thunder of the rockets stopped, and they found themselves blessedly free of the crushing G forces. Doc Chimp, struggling to untangle himself from the silvery girl, went flying across the chamber, ricocheted against a wall and brought up short next to where Pertin was struggling to disassociate himself from the plastic foam.
“Are you all right, Ben James?” Doc Chimp yelled.
Pertin pushed himself free and caught the outstretched chimpanzee arm for stability. He ached in every bone and muscle, and he was drenched in sweat - from the heat of the plastic wrap or from fear, he could not say which.
“I think so,” he said. “Why do you suppose he did that?”
“What? Who? You mean the Sheliak? Why, I guess it’s their nature, Ben James—”
“No, not the Sheliak,” Pertin said but he didn’t say out loud what it was that was perplexing him. He only thought it to himself. Why had the Sirian looked at him with death in his eye, then stopped and turned away?