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4

The tachyar verified the orbits of the little bodies orbiting Lambda; the mass estimates were right, thus the density estimates were right. Object Lambda’s average density was about that of a high vacuum. Nevertheless, it appeared to have a solid surface.

 Pertin greeted the news with apathy. There were more immediately important developments on the ship, and the ultimate purpose for which the ship existed didn’t seem particularly interesting any more.

 For one thing, the tachyon transmission chamber was shut down. For better or for worse, there would be no more imports, no additional beings, no new crewmembers, no nothing.

 Its last function had been to bring in new structural members and drive units. Inside the former receiving chamber of the

Aurora they were being assembled into a new, small ship. It took form as a squat, dense object, all fusion drive and instruments, with no living space for a crew. It would have no crew. It would carry nothing but itself, and the tachyon receiving crystal that had been the Aurora’s.

 Pertin had no part in the construction project. The Boaty-Bits directed it, and the metal pseudogirl and a few other high-G types carried it out. He looked in on it once or twice. Besides the new members brought in on the tachyon receiver, before it was rehoused in its new body, the small ship used bulkheads and beams from Aurora itself. It seemed to Ben James Pertin that vital structural parts were being seriously weakened. As an engineer, that interested him. As a living human being whose life depended on the structural integrity of the Aurora, he didn’t even think it worth mentioning. Whatever was happening was planned. If the life of the Aurora was being shortened thereby, it was because the beings doing the planning had decided the ship was wholly expendable.

 The only nonexpendable part of the Aurora now was the little drone being put together in its belly.

 The drone comprised only three elements: a tiny tachyon receiving unit, built around the crystal from Aurora’s own, in a globular body fitted with weak handling propulsors, suitable only for correcting minor errors in the elements of an orbit. A thick half-shell of metal-bonded ceramics on one side, an ablation shield designed to flake and burn away, disposing of excess heat. And, outside the ablation shield, the enormous fusion-propulsion engines.

 It was a high-deceleration drone. It would be launched from the mother ship at some point near Object Lambda. Its fusion jets would slow it radically. Stressed as it was, with no living creatures aboard, it could endure hundred-G delta-V forces. But Pertin’s engineer’s eye recognized the implications of the design. Even those forces would not be enough. The drone would make use of Object Lambda’s enormously deep atmosphere as well. It would dip into it, shedding velocity by burning it off as friction, blazing like a meteorite from its ablation surfaces. That frightful crunch would slow it to manageable relative speeds; as it came out of its first skip into Lambda’s air it would be near enough to orbital velocity for capture. Then its handling propulsors could take over the simpler job of neatening up the elements of the orbit, and a tachyon receiver would be in place around Object Lambda.

 What about the mother ship?

 All the evidence Pertin needed was there in the construction of the probe. If such forces were needed to put the probe in orbit, there was no hope that Aurora could join it. Its kilotons of mass were simply too great for the forces available to deal with. Even if the forces were available, its living cargo would be pulped by the delta-V.

 Aurora would drop its cargo, flash by Object Lambda and continue through intergalactic space. It would no longer have fusion mass for its reactors. It would stop decelerating; to all intents and purposes, it would be only another chunk of intergalactic debris on a pointless orbit to nowhere.

 Its course would continue to take it towards the Galaxy itself and in time, perhaps, it would approach some of the inhabited worlds within mere light-years.

 But that time would be too late to matter to anyone. It was a matter of thousands of years from even the fringe stars of the Galaxy, and by men there would be little left of even the dust of its crew.  They had been written off.

Meanwhile, the deceleration phases were getting longer, the zero-G pauses for observation shorter and less frequent. Sun One had lost interest in the observations that could be conducted from Aurora. They were only waiting for the probe to go into orbit.

 All through the ship, the living crewmembers were showing the effects. They were weaker and less rational, less capable of fine distinctions. The automatic machinery was running the ship.

 As it poured the last of its fuel reserves into space to break its flight, it manufactured enormous clouds of radioactive gas.

They were not a hazard to the ship’s crew; it was too late for such trivial affairs to matter to the doomed beings. But they had caused some concern to the planners on Sun One. A thousand generations later perhaps they would be a pollution problem, as the newly manufactured clouds of gas preceded the ship in entering well-travelled portions of space. But by then some of the deadlier elements would have burned themselves out, their short half-lives expended. In any case, that was a problem for I lie thousandth generation - by which time, no doubt, tachyon transport would itself have been superseded, and no one would any longer trouble with such primitive concerns as the crude slower-than-light transport of mass.

 The gas clouds as they departed did leave some trace of ionizing radiation, added to the larger increments from the blasts themselves and from the tachyar. The combined radiation was a witches” brew of gammas and alphas and betas, now and then primary particles that coursed through the entire space of the ship from hull to hull and did little harm, except when they struck an atomic nucleus and released a tiny, deadly shower of secondaries.

 It was the secondaries, the gammas, that did the dirty work.

They interfered with the electronic functions of the computers, robots and metal beings. They damaged the instrumentation of the ship. Above all, they coursed through the organic matter they encountered, knocking out an electron here, loosening a molecular bond there, damaging a cell nucleus, making a blood vessel more permeable. The whole organic crew was on hourly doses of antirads, giving support to their internal workings. It was not enough. Still the radiation soaked in and struck at them. Blood, ichor, sap or stew or exotic biologies, the fluids that circulated in their bodies changed and grew less capable of supporting life. Physically they grew weaker. Mentally they became cloudy.

 Taken out of the environment and rushed to an antirad clinic, like the victims of an industrial accident, most of them still could have been saved.

 There was no hope of that. There was no place to take them. No part of the ship was free of penetrating ionizing radiation now, and every hour more and more of the chemistry of their bodies was damaged.

 “Ben James, Ben James,” sobbed the voice of Doc Chimp.

 Pertin roused himself. The thud and screech of the drive was still loud in his ear. Every time the floor drove up to meet the cocoon the single huge bruise that his body had become screamed with pain. Inside his chest his lungs felt as if they had broken loose and were being beaten sore against the inside of his rib cage.

 He peered blearily out of the cocoon. The chimp was staring pathetically up at him. The great green plume of his hat was broken, his fur splotched with dirt and blood. The rubbery features of his face looked almost as they always had, except for an open cut along the flat, sculptured nose.

 “What?” demanded Pertin thickly.

 “I have to hide, Ben James. The Sheliaks are after me.”

 Pertin tried to sit up and could not. “They’re not here to hurt you,” he pointed out.

 The chimp whimpered, bobbing on all four limbs as he braced himself against the rocket thrust. “They will! They’re mad, Ben James. They killed the T’Worlie, for nothing, just killed him. And they almost killed me,”

 “What were you doing?”

 “Nothing! Well, I - I was watching their mating ritual. But that wasn’t it…”

 “You idiot,” groaned Pertin. “Look, can you climb in here with me?”

 “No, Ben James, I don’t have the strength,”

 “It’s either that or let them catch you.”

 The chimpanzee whimpered in fear, then abruptly, on the upsurge of the ship against its shock absorbers, sprang to the side of the cocoon. Pertin grabbed at him and pulled him inside just as the next thrust caught them. Doc Chimp weighed some two hundred pounds at Earth’s surface. The delta-V gave him a momentary weight of nearly half a ton, all concentrated on Pertin’s shoulder and chest. He grunted explosively. The chimp was caught with part of his side still across the metal lip of the cocoon, but he made no sound beyond the steady sotto-voce mumble of fear.

 Pertin tried to make room behind him, in a place where the cocoon had never been designed to take a load. It tried its mechanical best to give support to the double mass. It was not adequate to the job. Pertin discovered when the next thrust came that his arm was still caught under the chimp. He yelped, managed to free it on the upsurge, discovered it was not broken. He slammed down the privacy curtain, hoping the Sheliaks would not look inside if they came.

 “Now,” he panted, “what did you say about Nummie?”

 “He’s dead, Ben James. They killed him. I didn’t mean any harm,” the chimp sobbed. “You know how the Sheliaks reproduce - by budding, like terrestrial plants. The young ones sprout out of the old ones, and grow until they’re mature enough to be detached.”

 “I know.” Pertin had only the vaguest acquaintance with Sheliaks, but everybody knew that much. They didn’t have sexes, but the conjugation provided a union that shuffled up the genes.

 “Well, that didn’t look like fun to me, but I wanted to see.  Nummie told me to go away. He couldn’t; he was in one of the spare cocoons and couldn’t move. But he said they’d be mad.”

The chimp switched position and Pertin shouted in pain as his upper thigh took part of the chimp’s weight on a rocket thrust.

“Sorry, Ben James. It was disgusting, the way they did it! Any two of them can get the urge. They sort of melt down and flow together like jelly. All the body cells migrate, pair off and fuse.

Finally they form again into a sort of cactus-shaped vegetable thing that buds off haploid, mobile creatures. Those are the Sheliaks we see.”

 “You wanted to watch that?” asked Pertin, almost able to laugh in spite of his discomfort, in spite of Nummie, in spite of everything.

 “Yes, Ben James. Just for curiosity. And then “There’s my friend, Fireball. He’s the Sheliak who was here all along. He was nice, Ben James. I miss him.”

 “I didn’t know you knew any Sheliaks.”

 “Not well. But he was with me, helping to guard all of you, and we talked.”

 “You sound as if he’s dead, too.”

 “Might as well be. That union is a sort of individual suicide. It’s something you do for the race, and because your glands push you that way. But it’s the end for the individual. It wipes out all conscious memory and individual personality. I guess that’s why Fireball couldn’t understand our notions of sex.

 “Anyway,” he said, “it was all right while Fireball was here alone. He wasn’t lonely; or anyway, he didn’t want any other Sheliaks around. When they’re in danger, you see, they can’t help conjugating. It’s a survival mechanism. The radiation was danger, and he knew that the only way for him to keep alive was to stay away from his own people. When the new ones came aboard he was actually afraid of them. He knew when they came close they were likely to set off a biological process they couldn’t control. And when it was over—”

 The chimp swallowed. He thrust himself up on an elbow, regardless of the pain, and stared into Pertin’s eyes.

 “He didn’t know me, Ben James! The two new ones that were half him, they came after me. The T’Worlie saw what was happening and tried to stop them - and that’s how I got away, while they were killing him. So I ran. But where is there to run to, in this ship?”

 When they could move again they found the T’Worlie easily enough. He was floating upside down, purplish drops of blood, perfectly round, floating beside him. The little vibrissae around his sphincter mouth, more like cat’s whiskers than anything on a proper earthly bat, were perfectly still. Nummie was rigid. The pattern of five eyes was unmoving. The intricate pattern of blotches of colour on his filmy wings was fading.

 There was no one else around. “What’ll we do with him, Ben James?” chattered the chimp.

 “Throw him out in to space, I guess,” Pertin said harshly. Normally the mass would be useful in the tachyon receiver, but there were to be no more incoming tachyon transmissions.

 It didn’t do to think of that. He stared at the T’Worlie. A slow encrustation of thick gel was matting the fluffy surface of Nummie’s chest, and where it had once protruded sharply, like a bird’s wishbone, it was crushed and concave.

 Pertin felt the muscles on his face drawing taut, perhaps partly because of the intense vinegar reek. He said, “Why would the Sheliaks break up equipment?”

 The chimpanzee stared at the mess in the room. Bright green and orange transistors and microchips were scattered like jigsaw pieces in the air. “I don’t know, Ben James! None of that was that way when I ran out of here. Do you suppose they just lost their temper?”

 “Sheliaks don’t lose their temper that way. They broke up instruments on purpose. What was coming in before you decided to play Peeping Tom?”

 “Oh—” The chimp thought. “More reports on Object Lambda. The density was confirmed. Very low. Like a sparse cloud of interstellar gas.”

 “We already knew it was Cloud-Cuckoo Land. That couldn’t have had any effect on them.”

 “Something did, Ben James,” cried the chimp. “Look, We’ve got to do something. They’ll be looking for me, and—”

 “Unless,” said Pertin thoughtfully, “it wasn’t the Sheliaks who did it. The robot was up to something. And there are still a couple of purchased people not accounted for. And—”

 Too late!” howled the chimp. “Listen, Ben James! Somebody’s coming!”

But it wasn’t the Sheliaks who came in on them, it was Aphrodite, the silver pseudogirl, the heavy-planet creature in human form. Her fingers were outstretched towards them, listening, as her great foil wings drove her forward.

 Behind her was the Scorpian robot.

 They made an eerie pair, the striking orange-eyed girl with her coif of metallic hair and steel-bright body hues, and the mechanical creature shaped like a metal octopus. Its central body was a massive disc, the colour of the pseudogirl’s flesh, and its silvery tentacles made a fringe of snakes around it. A greenish membrane that bulged above the upper surface of the disc fluttered, producing a drum-roll of sound. Pertin’s Pmal translator obediently turned it into recognizable words: “DO NOT RESIST. WE WISH YOU TO COME WITH US.”

 “Where?” he demanded.

 There was no answer, at least not in words. Pertin was caught in something like a metal whip that stung a trail of fire around his waist. It was one of the robot’s tentacles that had caught him; it pinned his arms, and the pseudogirl launched herself at him, her metal fist catching him full in the face. Floating as he was, the blow was robbed of some of its force, but it doubled him, flung him back against the robot’s lash, dazed with pain and sobbing for breath.

 He heard a cry of anguish from Doc Chimp, but could not turn to see what was happening. The vinegary smell of the dead T’Worlie penetrated his nostrils, mixing with the tang of his own blood.

 “Why?” he croaked, and tried to raise his arms to defend himself as the girl dropped towards him again. She did not answer. She was on him like a great silvery bat, metal feet kicking, shining fists flying. The lights went out. He lost touch with space and time.

 Pertin was not wholly unconscious, but he was so near to it, so filled with pain and confusion, that he could hardly remember what happened next. He had a fugitive impression of great shapes whirling around him, then of being carried away while someone behind him sobbed his name, the voice diminishing in the distance.

 A long time later he opened his eyes.

 He was alone, in a part of the ship he knew only sketchily. A large open cocoon hung from a wall, and inside it was what looked like one of the purchased people. Pertin’s face was swollen and his eyes not focusing well at all; he squinted, but could not make out the features on the person in the cocoon. It appeared to be male, however, and it appeared to be in the last stages of dissolution.

 It moved and looked towards him. A caricature of a smile disturbed the weeks-old beard, and the dry tongue licked the lips. A cracked voice muttered something, the tone hoarse and indistinguishable.

 “Who are you? What do you want?” demanded Ben James Pertin.

 The figure rasped a sort of hacking cough, that perhaps was meant for a chuckle. It tried again, and this time its words came clear enough - clear, and familiar, in a way that Pertin had not expected.

 “I want to talk to you, Ben,” it croaked. “We have a lot in common, you know.”

 Pertin frowned, then his swollen eyes widened. He pushed himself towards the swathed figure, caught himself at the lip of the cocoon and stared down. The eyes that looked up at him were pain-filled but very familiar. He was looking into his own, battered, obviously dying face.

 Pertin remembered a time, months ago.

 He had gone to the tachyon transmitter and light-heartedly enough given his blueprint to the scanners and allowed one self of him to be beamed to the Aurora. It had not seemed like an important thing to do. At that tune, it was not clear that the Aurora was a doomed ship. At that time he had no one to consult but himself; Zara Doy was still only a casual acquaintance, the new girl from Earth with the pretty face.

 “Ben Frank,” he whispered.

 “Right as rain,” croaked the ghastly voice. “And I know about you well enough. You’re Ben James Pertin, and you’ve been aboard two weeks now. Not very thoughtful of you, failing to visit a dying relative.”

 “But I thought you were dead already! They said -I mean, I wouldn’t have had to come, if—”

 “Blaming me, Ben James? Well, why shouldn’t you? How often have I laid here, blaming you, and me, and all the Ben Pertins there ever were.” A spasm of coughing racked him, but he talked rightly through it. “I wanted them to think I was dead. Only fair, isn’t it? They were killing me, and now I’ve killed their Project Lambda.”

 “You?”

 “With a lot of help. My Sirian friends were the first and best, but there have been plenty since. It was the Sirians who told me you were aboard; you gave one of them quite a start, when he saw you in the instrument room. Wrecked his mission, you did.”

 Coughing drowned the voice out; the other Ben Pertin convulsively clutched at the cocoon monitor controls. A warning panel lit over the bed. He was very near death; but the cocoon was not yet defeated; it metered coloured fluids into the external blood supply that was trying to replace the destroyed blood cells.

 “I only have a few minutes,” Ben Frank Pertin gasped. “I don’t mind. But I’m not finished, Ben James. You have to finish for me. Destroy that probe! I don’t want it to succeed; I don’t want

Sun One to get its orbiting body around Object Lambda.”

 “But then we - then we’ll all have died in vain!”

 “Of course it is in vain! What’s the use of it all? A chunk of useless matter - thousands of light-years from anywhere – going nowhere! Do you know how many lives it’s cost? I want you to wreck it for me, Ben James, so those fools on Sun One will know better than to try this same stunt another time!”

 “But it’s not a stunt,” objected Ben James Pertin. “It’s important. That object is something special, solid but like a cloud—”

 “Cloud-Cuckoo Land! It’s not worth a single life. Anyway, it’s done already, Ben James, my friends are wrecking the probe right now. I only called you here because—”

 He paused, coughing terribly. The face that was so much like

Ben James’s own was aged with the weary agony of radiation death.

 “Because,” he gasped, I want some part of me to stay alive. If you keep the tachyon receiver you can live, Ben James. Weeks - maybe months! But once it goes there will be no more food, no more air, no more fuel. I want—”

 But what he wanted to say at the last Ben James Pertin would never know. His duplicate suddenly gasped for breath, made a strangling sound and was still.

 After a moment Ben James pulled the privacy screen over the face that was his own face and turned to leave.

 Halfway to the launch chamber he ran into the Sheliaks. They were in pursuit of two beings, one of them the purchased people woman, the other Doc Chimp. The Sheliaks looked strange, and in a moment Pertin realized why. They were smaller than they had been; essentially they were children now, some of their mass lost when they budded. But their behaviour was childish only in its reckless disregard for consequences; it was lethal, as far as their quarry was concerned.

 Pertin did not pause to speculate on issues. Doc Chimp was in danger, and he dived to the rescue.

 He collided head-on with one of the Sheliaks. It was like tackling a six-foot lump of chilled, damp dough. No bones, no cushioning fat, just a great dense mass of muscular fibre. The Sheliak automatically cupped around him and, linked, they went flying into the wall. The corridor spun around him, a nightmare of blue-green light and red-black shadow and corpse-coloured beings.

 “Stop!” roared Pertin. “Wait! Listen to me!” But no one wanted to talk. They were all on him, thrusting, striking, crushing, with whatever offensive weapons their mobile anatomies gave them. He fought back, using a skill he had never known he had. His hands were black and slippery with blood, no doubt much of it his own. Bravely the woman and Doc Chimp had turned back to fight, but it was three of them against more than a dozen Sheliaks, and the issue was not in doubt.

 What saved them was Aphrodite, the silver pseudogirl. Her carven face remote as an angel’s, she drove towards them with great sweeps of her wings. Coronas of electrostatic fire haloed her fingers and wingtips; something gun-shaped and deadly was in her hands. The Sheliaks, all at once and in unison, turned to meet her. The gun-shaped thing hissed and a white jet crackled towards them. It passed near enough to Pertin for him to feel a breath of icy death, but it did not strike him; it grazed the Sheliak who held him, and at once the being stiffened and began to drift. Behind them, where the jet had struck, the wall was hidden with a broad patch of glittering frost. A cloud of white vapour billowed out around it.

 In the haze Pertin caught sight of Doc Chimp and the purchased people woman, momentarily forgotten as the Sheliaks turned against the stronger foe. The woman was badly hurt; Doc Chimp was helping her, his hairy face turned fearfully towards the Sheliaks. Pertin joined them and the three of them moved inconspicuously away.

 When they were two corridors away and the sounds of battle had diminished they paused and inspected their injuries. Pertin himself had only added a few bruises to a total that was already too large to worry about; the chimp was even more battered, but still operational. The woman was worst off of any of them. She was bleeding profusely from, among other places, a gash on the upper arm; her face was grotesquely puffed, both eyes blackened; and one leg was bent at an angle anatomically impossible to a whole bone. But she did not appear to feel pain. When Pertin spoke to her, she answered in English: “They don’t consider it important. It will not prevent moving about and performing necessary functions.”

 Doc Chimp was groaning and sobbing in pain. “Those Sheliaks!” he cried, feebly trying to groom his matted fur. “They’re wholly out of control, Ben James. They tried again to wreck the probe - may have done it by now, if they’ve got enough power of concentration to remember what they were doing when we diverted their attention. And if Aphrodite hasn’t killed them all.”

 Pertin said, with a confidence he didn’t feel: “She’ll stop them. As long as we’ve got her on our side—”

 “On our side!” cried Doc Chimp. “Ben James, you don’t know what you’re saying. She’s worse than they are!”

 “But she tried to rescue you.”

 The purchased woman said calmly, “That is wrong. She merely wanted to kill the Sheliaks.”

 “That’s right, Ben James! She’s against all organic beings now. She’s not ionizable. Radiation is only an annoyance to her.

The only thing that can kill her is deprivation of energy sources, and that means the tachyon receiver; once it’s gone, she will die as soon as the fuel runs out.”

 Pertin said slowly: “Is it the same with the Scorpian robot?”

 The battered face nodded, the stub of the green plume jerking wildly.

 “Then,” said Pertin, “that means we have to assume all non-organic beings will feel the same and try to prevent the launch.

What about the other organics?”

 The purchased woman recited emotionlessly: “T’Worlies, all dead. Boaty-Bits, more than half destroyed; the remainder too few to make a collective entity intelligent enough to matter. Sirians and Core Stars races, not observed in recent hours and must be presumed dead or neutralized. Sheliaks, destructive and purposeless.”

 Pertin absorbed the information without shock, without reaction of any kind, except a strange impulse to laugh. “But – but who does that leave to see that the launch occurs?”

 “Nobody!” cried Doc Chimp, “Nobody at all, Ben James - except us!”


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