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SIXTEEN

In the orbiter Ben Line Pertin watched in a fever of excitement as the survey ship picked up Zara and her two companions. He stared at her image in pain and wonder. So tall and thin she was, in her edited version! So worn and pale, with the stresses of her batde with the Watchers! He wanted desperately to talk to her, to say words of love and welcome; but although he was hard pressed with grief and loneliness he was not mad, and he understood that their relationship would have to mature in its own way. To him she was his loved and missed wife. To her, coming from an earlier Zara Doy, he was a stranger.

And then there was the solved puzzle of why she called herself Zara Doy Gentry. She had married someone else! He had scarcely felt that shock when he learned that that husband was dead, fodder for the maws of the Watchers. Shock again! This time a different kind of shock, a reprieve, even if purchased at the cost of a mans lifewho could not have been a bad man, Ben Line told himself with one reasoning part of his mind, for Zara to meet and marry him. But another part of his mind was bursting with joy. How strange for his wife to be a widow and a wooable stranger, all at once!

And suddenly he was exhausted. He had stayed by the communicator for twenty-two hours, past the time of his regular duty, through the new Zaras cry for help, up to the moment of rescue and for some time beyond. Now he had to sleep. He decided against attempting even to leave a message for this to-be-won Zara, and headed for his cocoon. There would be time. It was a long voyage up from Cuckoo and around to where the orbiter swung, nearly half a billion miles now. It seemed even longer in the urgency of his anticipation.

Yet there was no way to shorten it. Even with nuclear rockets, the acceleration of the survey ship was limited to what its rescued passengers could stand. That was not much. Redlaw and Org Rider had lived all their lives in the gentle pull of Cuckoo, and even Zara and Ben Yale Pertin, in their edited versions, could hardly stand a single gravity of acceleration. For Ben Yale even that much was dangerous; he had been swept from the jungle into full medical cocooning, instantly.

Ben Line fell asleep, thinking of Ben Yale coming up from Cuckoo, battered and foul with the ulcers of the blue slime and of that other Ben Pertin, Replicate 5160, lost somewhere at the transmitter of the tachyon interference, at a point unknown inside the Galaxy and, above all, of the sweet and smiling face of Zara Doy, now Zara Gentry, who might sometime soon be Zara Pertin again

He woke to Doc Chimp screaming in his ear:

Ben! Ben Line! Wake up! Youve been found, youre still alive. Oh, wake up, Ben Line Pertin, theres a signal from you coming in!

Heavy with sleep, Ben Line Pertin stumbled after Doc Chimp to the terminal dome. His mind was fuzzed with visions of himself in all his myriad guises. Sometimes he was not sure which he was: the innocent back on Earth who had never left, the one on Sun One who was still happily married to Zara Doy and happy father of her child, any of the dead ones all of them

But one dead one was not dead!

In the dome, the huge image of a haggard human face was repeated on half a hundred screens, all around the curve. Half of the face was haggard with dirt and grime, the other half caked with dark blood; a ragged wound on the scalp still oozed, untended.

It took Ben Pertin a moment to recognize himself: Replicate 5160.

See! Doc Chimp chirped in his ear. Its you, Ben! Not dead! The message started coming in a few minutes ago. But its awful bad, Ben Line; you cant understand a word of it, without the Pmal translators.

Ben Line was still stupid with sleep. You mean Imhes speaking some other language?

Not that, Ben Line, the chimpanzee said gently. Look at him! He can hardly talk in any language. The Pmal has to put it into words we can understand. Even thenwell, its in symbol-script, not sounds. He must have had some bad times, Ben Line.

And it was so: the soiled and battered mouth was moving, but no audible sound came through the wall speakers. Instead bright computer symbols were dancing under each screen:

INCOMPLETELY EXPLORED. IN SHAPE, THIS OBJECT I FOUND MYSELF ON IS A LARGE, FLAT DISK, ROTATING SLOWLY. MAYBE A THOUSAND FEET ACROSS. ITS SOME SORT OF SPACECRAFT, BUT IT DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE UNDER POWER NOWMAYBE NOT FOR A VERY LONG TIME.

THE LEVELS TOWARD THE RIM ARE SEALED AND COLD. VERY COLD. I BELIEVE THE CREW IS HIBERNATING THERE TO WAIT FOR THE NEXT PLANET. ONE PLACE LOOKS LIKE A CONTROL FORM. SPHERICAL. STARS IMAGED ON ITS INSIDE SURFACE, AND A POD HUNG IN THE

CENTER FOR THE PILOTS BUT THERE ARE NO PILOTS

THERE. HIBERNATING, I GUESS. I COULD NOT IDENTIFY THE STAR IMAGES, BUT I DID SEE WHAT LOOKED LIKE A REPRESENTATION OF CUCKOO. ONLY IT WAS STRANGE. IT WAS ALL MADE OF METAL. NO SOIL, ROCKS, SEAS, MOUNTAINSJUST A GREAT SPHERE OF METAL.

I THINK

The bloodied head turned suddenly and vanished from the screen.

For an instant the screens were dark; then shapeless blotches of color flickered over them, FARLINKinterposed its own message, in all the tongues of the viewers:

TRANSMISSION INTERRUPTED, STAND BY.

There was a sudden rush of squeal, cry, shout, and roar from the beings in the terminal room, as each one chattered to its neighbor about the message. Ben Line, sick at the sight of his destroyed self, muttered, I dont understand. What is it?

Venus floated over toward him and filled him in quickly. Your replicate reported in a few minutes ago, Ben Line. He was in a ship, but some sort of mechanical devicea robot, but not a fully sentient one, Im sureattacked him as he came out of the receiver, and it is only now that he has been able to report.

Ship? Ben Line shook his head, trying to clear it. The source of the distant unidentified tachyon transmission that they had actually intercepted en route to Cuckooa ship? There were no ships equipped with tachyon facilities that could possibly have a link with Cuckoo, not anywhere in the known Universe

Of course, there was always the unknown Universe, he thought, the muscles of his back crawling.

And there were representations of many beings there, Ben Line, the silvery girl went on excitedly. Your people! Boaty-Bits. Sheliaks. Your replicate thinks that the ship is a sort of advance guard for Cuckoo, sampling inhabited planets, sending specimens back. That would account for Wait, here it is again!

The ravaged head shook itself together into view on the screens. It was more horrid than ever; Pertins replicate had been in another fight. Fresh blood was dribbling down the beard-spiked chin, and the lower front teeth were gone. The hollowed eyes were darting frantically from side to side, as the ruined mouth tried to form soundless words.

ITS LOCATED ME AGAIN, the bright words flashed. UGLY THING, THICK OVAL SLAB, BELTED WITH SENSORS, CRAWLING AND JUMPING ON A FRINGE OF TENTACLES. IT DOESNT COMMUNICATE, BUT IT HAS JUSTABOUT KILLED ME. WEVE BEEN PLAYING HIDE AND SEEK. NOW / THINK IT HAS WON THE GAME, AS SOON AS IT FINISHES BREAKING THE DOOR DOWN

ANYWAY, THATS MY REPORT. KISS ZARA FOR ME IF YOU CAN, BEN LINC. THATS ALL FOR

And there was no more. The image exploded and died, and FARLINK underlined it after a moment with:

TRANSMISSION TERMINATED. NO FURTHER PULSE FROM SOURCE.

The belt of screens blazed and went blank.

A stir of strain ran around the terminal chamber, and muted hootings and clangings and shrillings of communication began.

Ben Line Pertin shook his head slowly, trying to take it all in. There was so much, all happening so fast. Another death of a double. A real flesh-and-blood Zara on her way. And on the larger scale, the fantastic mystery of a scout ship from Cuckoo, sampling inhabited planets.

He tried to tell Nammie and Venus how he felt. He caught a burnt-fur scent from the TWorlie that surprised him, until he recognized it.

Fear.

The TWorlie was afraid of what the message meant

For a moment Ben Line allowed himself to share that fear of the terrible unknown, of the race that must have built that ship; but thoughts came flooding back, and his fear melted into anticipation; and that was how it was with Ben Line Pertin on the orbiter.

With Ben Yale Pertin on the survey ship, spiraling around toward the orbiter, things were somewhat different.

They were better than they had been in a long time, he told himself. The survey ships medical facilities were dealing nicely with the blue slime. He spent three days in the cocoon, while his skin was gently soaked away and a new one grown on. Then, swathed like a mummy in circulating-field bandages, he was allowed into thecommon room where the others were gathered, his humanoid nurse, a Purchased Person, following after him. Im all recovered, he announced.

Somewhat warily, his three companions from the battle against the Watchers welcomed him. They had received medication too, and looked fineespecially Zara, Ben Yale thought greedily, devouring her with his eyes. Redlaw and Org Rider gravely shook his hand, a skill they had just learned. Zara came over and patted his head. She drew back and looked at him. Not really, I think, she said. Not all recovered. But far better than the last time I saw you.

They and the ship crew had been talking excitedly over the strange message from the orbiter, which had been relayed to them. While the Purchased Person made him comfortable in an open-end hammock, Ben Yale listened. explains so much, said the Pmal, speaking for a horse-headed Canopan, the ships pilot. Explains why some of you races are duplicated on Cuckoo. That scout ship must have been twenty thousand years sailing through the Galaxy, picking up specimens and sending them back. And of course some got loose and multiplied. They wouldnt know they werent indigenous.

Org Rider rapped indignandy, That is our home! Our people have lived there forever

The Canopan snickered a whinnying laugh. No offense, its Pmal said good-naturedly. But what puzzles me, he went on, is that picture of Cuckoo the replicate found. All made of metal! But it isnt like that, its a world. A funny one, but still

Wait, Org Rider cried through his own translator. Perhaps I know something here! For there is a part of our world that is metal. A desert, that lies far beyond our grassworld, beyond the shadow of Knife-in-the-Sky. My mother heard about it from a chief who owned an org. He tried to cross that metal desert once, looking for another grassworld beyond the reach of the Watchers. He nearly died there.

The other beings looked at Org Rider, who returned their various kinds of gaze steadfastly. Its true, he said. It is all bare metal, harder than any axe or knife. Theres nothing alive on it. No light except the dim glow of the clouds. The chief flew until his org grew so weak he had to give it all the food they carried for both of them. And then on the way back, trying to return to save their lives, he grew weak too, so weak that it had to carry him in its trunk. And, he cried, remembering more as he spoke, that is of course how our world began. Everyone knows this! It was a hard bare shell, the first orgs egg. Before the makers made their great fire to hatch all things from it.

He paused, puzzled. The beings were making a great variety of sounds, but the Pmals were not translating them into language. They could not; the sounds were laughter.

But it is true, he insisted.

Zara smiled and gently put her hand in his. It is puzzling, she said.

Ben Yale Pertin cleared his throat.

Zara, he called.

It pleased him to see that she released the boys hand to turn to him. Yes, Ben Yale?

He hesitated. How to tell her that she and he had once been married?were married, and having children, on Sun One. He could not think of the right words, and as it was so important to him, and he wanted to be able to touch her, to kiss her, to hold her in his arms when he talked of these things, he temporized and turned what he said a different way. Im sorry aboutabout your loss. He could not bring himself to say, about your husbands death.

Thank you, she said. It was a shock. But Ive had a little time to get used to it.

The Purchased Person suddenly spoke, the voice human enough but the thought behind it coming from heaven knew who, heaven knew where. Had you

considered yon could have him again? it demanded, in a voice oddly, harshly male.

Zara looked surprised, and Redlaw rumbled, She said that before once, when you werent here. Have your husband make another copy and send it to you whatever that means, he added, knotting his brows and staring about. Redlaw had never heard the expression culture shock, but he was well on his way to drowning in it. Org Rider seemed to accept everything with grave interest and comfortable admiration; but he was younger, of course. For Redlaw this sudden exposure to such strangeness was difficult.

Zara said thoughtfully, Why, that never occurred to me.

From his cocoon Ben Yale uttered a muffled groan. Damn that savage! he cursed furiously. Giving her that idea

She was speaking again: He might very well volunteer for replicating again, at that. He wasis a kind person, Jon is. But

She looked around and suddenly shook her head, smiling. Im sorry to be bothering you with my personal problems, she said.

No, no, called Ben Yale, suffering. We want to hear. What were you going to say?

Well, just that I wouldnt like to ask him to. I know it doesnt mean anything to be transmitted, in real terms. Youre not any less for having a copy made. But in psychological terms it does, and you are. Especially for Jon. It was hard enough for him to volunteer the first time. I wouldnt want to put him through it again.

Ben Yale exulted in the cocoon. So Zara would stay free! Of course, he mused, that did not mean she would marry him. Not necessarily. There was always that other Ben Pertin, Ben Line, waiting hot-handed on the orbiter for them to arrive. Ben Yale knew with what impatience his double would be waiting, and what his intentions would be; he could not mistake them, because he shared them wholly and exactly. And besides,he thought, he had time. The survey vessel still had two days to go before it reached the orbiter. It had been three days alreadydays wasted, he complained to himself; but there had been no way to help it, he had simply been physically unable to court Zara. But now now things would be different. He closed his eyes, dreaming of how they would come to the orbiter. By then he would be out of his bandages, and rid of this pestilential Purchased Person nurse. He would take her to dinnerno, he thought regretfully, scratch that; there was no place on the orbiter for anything like that. But he would take her aside. In the rec room, at a time when not many others would be around.

She would be grateful to him, he estimated complacently; had he not saved her life? Or at least helped to do so? And she would have the interest women always felt for a hero in him. And he would tell her, very gently and simply, about his love for herself, Zara Doy; and how they had been married, and how much they had loved each other

He scowled. The thought of Ben Line Pertin intruded. Ben Line would have almost the same advantages as himself, bar, of course, the couple of days before they got there. But a couple of days might not be enough to awaken her romantic interest.

He nodded to himself, sealed up the end of the cocoon with a quick motionstartling the Purchased Person who stood wide-eyed beside himand flipped on the stereostage, putting through a call to Ben Line Pertin on the orbiter.

When he saw himself, or the Ben Line version of himself, he was startled. So haggard! So sad! For a moment he almost thought it was a replay of that terribly depressing version of himself from the unidentified ship; but then Ben Line spoke. Oh, its you, he muttered. What do you want?

Ben Yale said carefully, I think you know, Ben Line. Its about Zara.

Ben Line nodded lifelessly. Yes. I suppose I should have expected you to call. Im sorry, butwell. What can I do? Ill just go on being lonely. Ive had plenty of practiceas you know.

Startled, Ben Yale stared at his duplicate. Elation and a nagging, suspicious fear fought with each other in his mind; he struggled to keep his voice level, even as he was wondering what had made Ben Line give up so easily. I admire you for taking it so well, he managed to say.

You do? Ben Line looked surprised. Then, slowly, Well, I kind of admire you, too. I mean, you actually look content, and God knows I cant; I dont feel it. Well, its too bad we both had to be losers, but maybe it would be even harder if we werent. And without another word he broke the connection.

Losers?

Ben Yale shook his swathed head, unbelievingly. Both of them losers?

And then a sudden fear chilled him, and he opened the end of the cocoon once more and peered out at Zara

At Zara and Org Rider, sitting quietly, whispering at each other, the boys hand caught in the girls two, their shoulders touching.

Losers.

A couple of days had been time enough to awaken her romantic interest, after all.

But not for him.

On Earth astronomers were studying their tachyon transmissions of the object called Cuckoo. Almost invisible in the flood of light from the bright stars Benetnasch and Cor Caroli it swam in toward the center of the Galaxy.

Its course would take it very near the volume of space occupied by Sun and Earth. It was very, very far away. It would not get there for many thousands of years

But it was coming.


FIFTEEN | Farthest Star |



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