Ben Yale Pertin had not been fooled by the red- haired giant’s pitiful attempts to dissemble. He had caught enough of the giant’s meaning through the translator to know that, from Redlaw’s point of view at least, the blue slime was very bad medicine indeed. Pertin was not unconcerned about that; he was very much concerned indeed, but he also was sure that these barbarians did not know much about medicine. His first concern was to find the medicpac in the wrecked exploration ship. He did not trouble to clean the slime off; not after the first trial at swabbing it from his skin had taught him something new about pain. But he swabbed it with anesthetizing and antiseptic creams from the pac, covered it with self-sealing bandages, and sterilized the whole area with a cleansing spray. The bone-deep itching began to fade away at once, and the pain went with it. Pertin then fished out the bottles of vitamin supplements and swallowed a week’s ration at once, before he went looking for proper food. A self-heating can of beef stew, another self-heating can that produced instant black coffee, a can of peaches in thick syrup— he stopped eating at last not because he was no longer hungry, but because he began to think he would burst.
Then he turned his attention to less immediate problems, such as the two barbarians he was with. They seemed much taken with the laser gun, the telescopic visor, and the audio log; well, let the giant play. It did not matter. The log was only a spare. The weapon was more serious, in a way, but as he had been at their mercy for—what? a week? a month? How could one tell in this place where there was never anything like day or night—and they had not killed him as yet. Giving them a weapon did not much change anything. Of course, if he had kept the weapon it would have put the odds in his favor, he mused. But he still had the bazooka—and his own superiority over these savages …
He watched incuriously while Org Rider stroked his hatchling and the giant puzzled over the hardware, idly stroking the bandages on arms and legs. They were beginning to tingle again, he realized. That was odd, but there was no real pain. The only necessary thing was to get himself in contact with civilization again, whereupon full medical treatment would of course be available.
Unfortunately, this exploring ship was of a different model from the one he himself had been shot down in, and although there was a radio he could not make it work. Batteries run down? That seemed unlikely; most electrical systems were powered by radioisotopes and they didn’t run down. Broken in the crash? It didn’t seem to be. He came to the conclusion that it was working, after all, but that the frequency on which it was operating was simply not monitored any longer. He explored further around the craft, and came across the prime audio log.
Maybe that would give him a clue, he reasoned, and thumbed it back to the beginning of the record, then turned it to PLAY.
“Ben Tom Pertin,” it whispered in his earplug, “reporting on landing on surface of Cuckoo.”
Hearing his own voice in his ears gave him a thrill of unexpected unease; that voice came from vocal chords that had once lodged in that blue-smeared skeleton before him. But the voice was going on:
“First entry into atmosphere accomplished without difficulty; initial target, anomalous formations on top of mountain. I landed without exiting vehicle because of low air pressure at this altitude. The top of the mountain was bare rock, which seemed to be covered by a blue lichen or greasy substance of some sort, which glowed quite brightly. I observed the anomalous formations and have photographed them for transmission. I do not understand them. There appears to be a sort of crater on top of this mountain, although it is clearly not volcanic; there is nothing resembling a lava flow, out- gassing, or anything else indicating activity of that sort. On the lips of the crater are some truncated cones which have the appearance of artifacts …” There was a click, and then the voice resumed: “At this point the viewports of the vehicle began to cloud over and vision began to be impaired. I do not know the cause of this. Perhaps the temperature differential caused the ports to fog up. As I cannot leave the vehicle I am breaking off this section of the survey to attempt a landing at a lower altitude.”
There was another click, and then the voice resumed—but a different, fearful, worried voice now: “Report two: Vision did not improve. I was forced to fly and land by radar, and landed with some difficulty. I do not know if the vehicle is damaged. The blue material appears to be covering the viewports. I will recon- noiter outside and return for further report.” Click …
And then nothing, nothing but the faint distant hiss of the recorder coil unwinding under the scanner heads.
Ben Yale let it run through, hoping against hope for more word, but there was none. He had felt there would not be. He could write the rest of the story himself. He stood at the port of the vehicle, looking out at the great yellow-tipped trees, the marshland and moss, the distant river; and’he could imagine that other he standing in that place and looking at that same view, and venturing out to explore this strange new world … and never noticing the blue slime that clung to him as he swabbed experimentally at the viewports, or steadied himself against the landing skids. And then, later, trying to get back to the vehicle and medicpacs, and not quite making it—as the skeleton outside attested …
Ben Yale scowled, rubbing absentiy at his bandages, refusing to entertain the unwanted thought that kept popping into his head: suppose this other Ben Pertin had used the medicpacs … and suppose modern galactic medicine had not been enough to stop the inroads of the blue slime?
Belatedly he became aware of the excitement outside. What were they rattling on about?
He activated the Pmal translator on his arm, and managed to catch a few words of what the giant was shouting. Something about aliens in the sky?
At once Ben Yale was all attention. Now he remembered hearing the zzzzt of laser weapons, and the screams of those creatures like the one the boy appeared to keep for a pet. Something was surely going on, but what? .
He leaped to the top of the vehicle, staring toward the sky. Yes, there was something there, tantalizingly at the very limit of visibility, something that looked like tiny dots proceeding in file across the broad dome of Cuckoo’s heaven. They were terribly near some of the bright clouds in Pertin’s line of vision, which made the identification of them even harder; but surely that one creature that glinted so brilliantly had to be one of the winged girls?
And that other—was it human?
He stood benumbed until he heard the screams of wild orgs passing overhead, and remembered to scramble out of sight just in time; he did not want them dining off him! He saw the boy’s org join them without any particular interest, and then realized something was going on overhead.
The straight line of beings had broken up. Several were dropping away, the others changing course. He heard the scream of high-speed transport, and caught the distant glint of some sort of air vehicles moving in toward the dissolving party of creatures.
Ben Yale pawed at his forehead, and realized the visors were gone; the red-haired giant had picked them up, now seemed to be playing with them. Pertin bounded over and grabbed for them.
To his surprise, the giant fled from him as if he were carrying the plague. “Give me my glasses!” Pertin roared, pursuing. The giant ripped off a series of words, which the Pmal struggled over and produced:
“Don’t touch! Stay away! I’ll kill!”
“They’re mine!” Pertin said stubbornly, and, hesitantly, Redlaw glanced at the boy, shrugged, and slowly drew them off his head. He did not hand them directly to Ben Yale but dropped them on the ground and stepped quickly back.
Ben Yale didn’t care; he snatched them up and put them on, staring blindly at the sky.
It was so hard to find anything at this extreme distance! Twice he caught a corner of one of the bright clouds, and the magnified light dazzled him. Then he found something, lost it, zeroed in on it again: It was a vessel, like the ones the giant had called “Watcher ships.” It looked ugly and dangerous, and it was heading purposefully, at high speed, toward where the party had been sailing along. He sought the party again, with success until he heard the thrump-thrump-thrump of a steam rocket. Peering under the glasses, he saw the string of steam puffs the jet left behind, and managed to get the person who was using it in quick focus just a moment before it dropped out of sight.
Before she dropped out of sight.
Ben Yale stood transfixed, heedless of the shouts of the boy and the giant, staring emptily in to the now empty sky where he had just seen, diving at breakneck speed for the jungle, the girl he had left behind him on Sun One and had thought never to see again in this life, Zara Doy.