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FOURTEEN

When Zara realized that she was alone on this strange planet, she was not so much afraid as deeply resentful. She had not had the practice of much physical fear. There was little occasion for it on tamed, human-filled Earth. The sorts of fear she had learned to experience were fear of the unknown, as when she had volunteered for this assignmentand that was more excitement, reallyand, from time to time, the fear, or the angry suspicion to be more exact, that some rival was going to damage her standing with the stereo audiences, or that she might fail to perform well in a broadcast.

It was only as time passed, and the only nearby sounds she heard were of stirrings and whisperings in the forest around her, that she began to understand that that quivering in her shoulders, that jumpy need to look around all 360 degrees at once, were the beginnings of terror.

She was not quite alone. She had her communications equipment. She could be in touch with the ground station in any moment. She might even hear, through the Pmal links, some message from her partners, if they happened to come close enough to her. But nothing came from the Pmal, and she drew her hand back a dozen times from the switch that would activate the long-range communicator. Something had drawn those enemy ships toward themhoming on their transmissions? She did not know, but until she felt more sure she was reluctant to risk bringing them back.

And she could hear them, could even catch glimpses from time to time that had to be them, circling low over the treetops, searching. Searching, she felt quite sure, for such of their quarry as had evaded themlike herself.

What had become of the others?

Of only one thing was she sure: in the fight, her side had not triumphed, because there the stranger ships were, roaming boldly around. Val and the Scorpian had lost that battle, and if they survived they too were in hiding.

She thought of her husband and wondered if he had taken part in that fight, or if, at the last moment, he had sheared off and followed after her. There were two conclusions from that thought. If he had followed her, he should be nearby. If he had not, he was probably dead.

At that moment she realized the drone of the enemy ships was no longer distant.

She crept to the edge of a fern-bordered lake, and peered cautiously upward. The drone grew louder, a ceaseless, crushing, killing sound, and something appeared over the trees.

It was long and tapered, with finlike wings at the end and mottled markings that were no doubt a form of camouflage. It poked into the little circle of sky oyer the lake like a thick, blunt spear.

Zara Gentry cautiously pulled back, away from the black water of the lake, into the doubtful shelter of the trees. The Watcher ship floated out over the lake, supporting itself easily with the thrust of its propulsive jets against the light gravity of Cuckoo. A thin golden snake was trailing below it, slipping around the treetops, dropping into the black water. A snooper device, Zara guessed, and tried to be perfectly still.

The mottled vessel slowed still more, the golden snake growing slack in the water, seeming to writhe around as it sought for something to strike at. Inch by inch Zara crept backward, until she was wholly coveredby a patch of great vines with bright blue flowers. She was not alone in her hiding place. Insectlike beings were there too, and welcomed her presence enthusiastically as a source of nourishment.

The mottled ship dropped gently toward the beach and came to rest, not more than fifty yards away. A wide door fell open in its side, and became a gangplank.

Zara could not help gasping at what came out. TWorlie, Sheliaks, Sirians, and all had not prepared her for the hideousness of the creatures in the ship. An armored, black-beaked, hunchbacked creature waddled out across the lowered platform, and flapped down to the beach on stubby yellow wings.

Zara wriggled uncomfortably, trying to dislodge the small bloodsucking insects, at the same time uneasily conscious of a bad smell of some sort. She could not identify it. Then it hit her hard, and she realized it came from the creature on the beach, a foul odor of carrion and decay, even at this distance strong enough almost to turn her stomach.

The creature flapped awkwardly into the air and flew around the perimeter of the lake. As it came near, Zara willed herself to look down without moving a muscle. The reek was overpowering as the creature flapped overhead.

After a moment she dared to look up, and saw that the Watcher had returned to the beach. It shrilled some sort of message at the unseen crew of the brown-mottled ship, and slowly other creatures like it began to come out of that dark doorway. One by one they vaulted across the flat platform and glided into a ragged line before the first Watcher.

All of them engaged in a colloquy of whistles and screeches, until another appeared from the ship and hopped and flew down to them with what looked like a bundle of white staves or lances, which he passed out to the others. The squat Watcher squealed something, and all of them rose hooting into the air.

Zara realized she was in desperate trouble. This was a search party, no doubt of it, and more likely than not she was the quarry. Perhaps they had seen her dive into the forests here, or perhaps she had given herself away in some other manner. No matter; they were intent on a trail, and at the end of it would be Zara Doy Gentry.

She whimpered in fear, trying to decide what to do. But her choices were so few! She could use the laser weapon at her belt, hoping to kill a few of the creatures before the others killed her. She could try to fleebut where? And with what hope of success? Or she could continue to cower in her bower of vines, being eaten by the tiny biting insects, until the creatures found her. None of those was very attractive

And the time when she would be found did not seem very far away. One of the Watchers was circling near her. She heard it shriek, almost overhead, saw the bright-spottedblackness of its slick hard body, saw the flash of its bright yellow wings. She couldnt tell which way its huge, bulging greenish eyes were looking, but for a moment she thought it had seen her.

But then its great, pliant ears cupped toward something ahead. Squealing, it flapped out of sight, brandishing the long white staff. She caught a gasp of relief tainted with the creatures evil reek.

She lay quiet, while the hoots and squeals of the searchers kept up an insane dialogue all around -her, until finally they seemed to concentrate and grow farther away.

She dared to peer out, and saw that, one by one, they were landing near their vessel again. v Had they given up the search? Were they about to get back in their ship and go away?

She crawled out of the tangle of vines to see. They were in a confused, bickering huddle around the ship. The golden snake that had hung into the water was wriggling insensately about, touching them and recoiling, darting into the underbrush and rushing blindly back. They ignored it. They seemed to reach a conclusion,then, and two of them leaped ponderously back onto the platform and disappeared into the ship.

In a moment they reappeared, bearing great platters of what looked like raw meat. They dropped in their ungainly way to the beach and began to parcel out bits of meat among their fellows.

It was lunchtime, Zara realized. Their table mannerspretending they chose to use a table, which they did notwere atrocious. They bickered and fought over the choicer pieces, throwing the bones and offal carelessly into the woods. The squealing noises did not stop while they ate; they clearly had no compunction about talking with their mouths full, if indeed so gross a species had compunctions about anything.

At that point it occurred to Zara that she had been thinking of them as animals.

But they were not animals. They used advanced technology. They communicated among themselves.

And if she could get a little closer to them, her Pmal translator might be able to pick up enough of their squeals and screeches to give her some idea of what those communications were.

With agonizing care she slipped along the margin of the lake, eyes firmly on the feeding Watchers, until she was less than a dozen yards from the sandy beach where they had landed. She activated the Pmal and held it to her ear. It would take time for it to store up enough speech to be able to deduce meanings, but it should only be a few minutes before it could at least identify and translate a few words

Time was growing short. They were close to finished with their meal. A few of them had evidently been detailed to the task of cleaning up, and were picking up left-over pieces from the platform of the ship. One flapped and waddled toward her.

She became conscious of her exposed position, but the Watcher did not seem interested in exploring the undergrowth; it was only looking for a place to dump its tray of slop. It did so, and turned away.

For just a moment Zara felt a quick thrill of relief.

Then she saw what the slop consisted of.

Dear God! she moaned aloud, unable to prevent it.

The hooting and squealing rose like a barnyard chorus as the Watchers caught the sound. Hopping and flapping their great yellow wings, they came at her, and the golden snake that had hung from their ship writhed faster than any of them. Before she could move it had slipped across the beach with the sine-wave wriggle of a sidewinder, touched her gently, then locked on her.

She was held so tightly she could hardly breathe, much less run.

But she hadnt been able to run before that, either not run, and not even stand up. Not since she looked at the trash and offal the creature was throwing away, and saw one rounded bit of waste, melon-sized and bloody, roll languorously toward her and stop

She knew then what these creatures had been feeding on, when she realized that she was looking at the severed head of her husband.

What followed was for Zara a desert of half- understood misery. The choking coils of the golden rope seemed to have intelligence of their own. They wrapped themselves around her, bearable when she was still, tightening cruelly with every move she made to work them off. She was tumbled face-down on the talc- white beach, with the hideous squeals and hoots of the Watchers piping querulously or menacingly all around her, their foul reek choking her nostrils. All that was merely painful. What was unbearable was the memory of the empty, staring eyes of her husband, fixed on eternity. If Zara had been asked to describe her marriage, back on Earth, she would have defended it as a convenient thing that cost little to maintain and, if it gave little in return, was no burden to her. His death had killed no part of herself. But it was pain nevertheless, pain to see this close person destroyed so callously, used so demeaningly, to stuff the maws of these-filthy creatures.

It was only then that Zara began to realize that she might share that same fate herself.

She struggled to turn over, free her mouth from the choking sand. The golden coils punished her, but gasping and panting she managed to flop onto her side. Please! she begged. I mean you no harm! Give me that metal thing thereit will let us talk to each other. And she tried, at terrible cost of agony as the golden coils remorselessly fought her movements, to point to the Pmal translator, whispering away to itself on the sand.

The hideous mask-faces thrust themselves at her, hooting and whistling. She knew what they said was a language of a sort, and it was frustration to know that a few yards away the Pmal was surely translating faithfully every wordbut inaudibly, because she had set the sound so low lest they hear her. Please! she screamed as one came near her with a great curved cleaver. It paused, seeming to enjoy her fear. The gabbling whistles and honks burst like laughter around her.

She closed her eyes, and tried to remember her brief training. What were her options? Talking was useless, with the Pmal gone. Her laser weapon was long since taken away. They had left her only the other instruments strapped to her armsmedicpac, chronometer, communicator

Communicator!

She took a deep breath, and forced herself to relax. She lay still as stone for long seconds, remembering where the transmit switch was on the communicator, feeling with her body-image senses where her hands were, where the switch was. There would not be much freedom of action.

Then she flung herself onto her back, forcing her hands together, clawing with the fingers of her right hand for the forearm of her left.

The golden coils responded at once by tightening soviolently that she thought she felt bones snap; but she had touched the switch! Help! she screamed. This is Zara Doy Gentry calling! Help! Please! Help me!

A hundred-odd degrees of arc around the great bulk of Cuckoo, Ben Line Pertin was talking to himself.

On his watch duty, desolately killing time while trying to solve the insoluble problem of what to do about the wife that was not his, he had observed a curiosity. The comm frequency that had been abandoned because no transmissions had been received and its owner, that other avatar of himself named Ben Tom Pertin, was presumed dead had suddenly come back to life.

When he first beheld himself he was aghast. This devastated face, harried, sick, and in pain, was himself! Ben Tom! he cried. Whats the matter?

The face in the stereostage reflected annoyance. Tm not Ben Tom, it snapped. And I dont know what you mean. Whats the matter with you people? Ive been trying to call forI dont know, days!

Sorry, Ben Line Pertin said. But what do you mean, youre not Ben Tom?

The ravaged face split in an unpleasant smile. Glad Im not, he said. Ben Toms dead. Im Ben Yale. Remember? When youwevolunteered for the sixth time? Well, thats me. I lost my ship, nearly lost my life. Ive been through hell, Ben Line! But at that Im better off than Ben Tom, because his bones are twenty feet away from me. This is his ship Ive found; my own was destroyed, communications and all.

You look as if youve been through hell, Ben Line agreed fervently. What are those bandages?

The walking skeleton looked incuriously at his arms and legs. Oh, some sort of fungus, I think, he said. It itches. It hurts, too, but Ive blocked it with stuff from the medicpac. But I imagine Ill need treatment.

Well, cried Ben Line, finding something to be cheerful about for the first time in some days, I thinkIve got good news for you, Ben Yale. Weve just been transmitting a new model exploring ship to the ground station. This ones armed and armored, ready for anything, and its got full ground-to-space capability! We can get it over to you and have you up here in orbit in jig timeas soon as its ready.

Fine, Ben Yale saidstrangely, thought his duplicate; why wasnt he more excited? But he was looking narrowly at Ben Line. He said at last tangentially, Have you heard anything from Zara?

Ben Line shook his head. Then he corrected himself. Yes, as a matter of fact I did, he said. I dont rememberdid you split off before I got her message about not coming because she was pregnant?

Pregnant? Ben Yale demanded. I dont believe it!

Well, its true. That isits true of our Zara. But theres another copy of her He stopped. He was not sure how much he wanted to say.

On Cuckoo, right? Ben Yale cried. I knew it! I saw her, Ben Line! Shes in trouble. Not more than five thousand yards from here!

Trouble? No, I dont think so Ben Line started.

Dont be a fool, Ben Line! his avatar cried. I tell you, I saw her!

Ben Line Pertin hesitated, filled with confusion and a painful mixture of hope and fear. Another Zara, so close? But in danger?

Stand by, he said. Ill scan that vector. And his fingers danced over his console to FARLINK, ordering a search for transmissions from a point five thousand yards at twenty-seven degrees from Ben Yales signal.

From her perch across the console from him, Venus sat quietly regarding Ben Line Pertin. What is the matter? she asked, spraying a tiny violet cloudlet from her atomizer.

He shook his head as the rich menthol scent reachedhim. Its Zara, he said. Something I dont understand. And one of my replicates down there, looking well, I dont know whats keeping him alive.

I ache with your pains, Venus said sofdy. Though her stare had always seemed blankly opaque, he felt her compassion through it. So difficult for you, to see yourself. I have at least been spared that. I have no contact with my replicates, save one or twoand then, for one of us to die in this edited form would not be bad.

Distracted, Ben Line scowled at the console. There was no response to the search, although he could see that the program was functioning. Lately he had found it more and more difficult to distinguish sleep from waking. His sleep was filled with troubled dreams, and his waking life was a nightmare.

The dreams lingered with him, even when he was awake. He shivered, remembering one dream

SCAN UNSUCCESSFUL, FARLINKS screen reported. NO UNIDENTIFIED TRANSMISSIONS FROM AREA.

Continue, snapped Ben Line, reinforcing the verbal order with his keyboard.

And he stared into space, remembering that one dream. In it he had been a child again. On Earth. Not the Earth he had leftso many replications before! but the Earth he imagined, as it had been before the first contact with the Galactic civilizations. He had been sitting at a childs desk, in an upstairs room with an open window, looking out over a sunny yard, reading a book, when something had come in from outside. It had fluttered through the window, lit on the page in front of him. When he raised his hand to slap it it had leaped away, and he saw it was no common fly but a tiny five-eyed bat shape with bright butterfly wings. When he heard it squeaking, and caught its faint vinegar scent, he knew it was a TWorlieincongruously there in that pregalactic age, but somehow Earths first visitor from deep space.

He seized a flyswatter to kill it. Its shrill scream ofprotest hurt his ears, and its fear was a carrion reek. Wings whirring, it rose to fly away, but he smashed it on the open page.

For a moment he felt secure in that dream

And then he heard a droning roar from outside. The sun darkened. Shadows filled the window. When he looked out he saw that the sky had turned black with alien beings descendingTWorlie and Sheliaks, Boaty-Bits and Scorpians, endless processions of a thousand shapes and sizes all arrowing down upon him

He had wakened then briefly, tossed and turned, and drifted off again

To even worse horror.

Now he dreamed that he was his other self, Replicate 5160, at the strange tachyonic station to which he had been transmitted. But his form was no longer human. He had been edited, transformed into a thick metal block, unable to move. He understood at last attempting to shudder, and failingthe silvery girls abhorrence of the form into which her own body had been recast to survive in an oxygen atmosphere. His case was worse. He was a chess piece in a three-sided match; he stood on a queer triangular game board, a hapless piece in a game that FARLINK played against two terrible opponents.

One opponent was a bright thing of lambent white flame, writhing and twisting and flickering, without any ordered shape. The other was equally shapeless; but black instead of bright. They reached across the board with curling tongues of bright fire and terrible empty blackness, as if to move their pieces; but Ben Line could not see their pieces, only the ones on his own side. One was the pseudogirl Venus, her silver body frozen rigid. Another was Zara Doy, alive and moving but imprisoned under a bell jar, pale and gasping, agonized for air. A third was Doc Chimp, a lifeless figure in brightly painted metal like a cheap childs toy, holding out a tin cup. The pieces moved, or the board itselfmoved them, responding to FARLINKS rapped electronic orders; but FARLINK was losing the game. Most of its triangular spaces were already empty. The last move had isolated Ben Line, far from his companions. A fluttering tentacle of icy blackness stretched out toward him, and he knew that it was going to remove him from the board and then the game would be ultimately, irretrievably lost

Ben Line, chimed the voice of the silvery girl, where are you?

He came back to the reality of the orbiter and the screen. Sorry, Venus, he muttered. I was thinking about His voice died out, but hers picked up the thought from him:

About that other Ben Pertin? About Replicate 5160? About all those others of you, Ben Line?

He nodded. There had been no other signal from the copy of himself sent back along the tachyon trace to whatever that galactic source of interference had been: one more dead Pertin, he thought; the Universe is getting seriously polluted with my corpses

He sat up abruptly and realized FARLINK was still methodically scanning the surface of Cuckoo for a signal that did not seem to be coming. He sighed and reached from the console to terminate the program

And at that moment the screen lit up:

STAND BY! FREQUENCY DETECTED! NO COMMUNICATION AS YET!

And while his fingers were still poised over the console he heard it. There was no doubt.

On the emergency frequency.

Zaras voice.

And the words:

Help! This is Zara Doy Gentry calling! Help! Please! Help me!

In the wrecked survey vessel on the surface, Ben Yale Pertin heard Zaras voice repeated from the orbiter. That voice had traveled nearly half a billion miles,round trip, to get to him, but on the instant flash of tachyon transmission it had taken less time than was measurable. The time the message had taken to travel from the speaker on the satellite to the microphone three yards away that had picked it up was longer than the time for the message to fly on the backs of tachyons through space.

He burst out of the vehicle, limping and rubbing at his bandages, but traveling as fast as ever he had moved in his life. He was not in pain now. He had been steadily doping himself with pills and salves from the medic- pac; he was no longer quite sober or sane. Although the pain of the ulcers under the bandages was blocked, the effects of the blocks were shaking the stability of his mind. All things seemed possible. The entire Universe seemed ready to meet his commands. He scrambled through the undergrowth toward Redlaw and Org Rider, shouting, My wife! Shes in danger! Weve got to help her!



THIRTEEN | Farthest Star | FIFTEEN



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