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5

They reached the launch chamber ahead of the Sheliaks after all. There was no one there.

The capsule, with its tiny bright tachyon crystal at its heart lay silent and unmoving, connected to the main bulk of the ship only by a jettisonable canopy now. There had been destruction all around it, but it was still intact.

There was less than an hour until launch.

Well build barricades, said Pertin. Anything. Those wrecked instrument boards - the spare plates and braces. Whatever we can move, well put it up against the entrance. All we have to do is delay them

But they had barely begun when bright silver glinted in the approach corridor, and the silvery pseudogirl came towards them, followed by the tumbling form of the Scorpian robot. They brought up short at the entrance, the robot with one slim tentacle coiled caressingly around the silver girl.

Pertin put his weight behind the channel iron he had been about to emplace at the door and launched it towards the pair. The pseudogirl made a sound that was half a laugh and half the singing of a single piercing note, and the Scorpian uncoiled a long silver sting as they moved aside, easily dodging the missile.

The sting reached out and touched Pertin. A blinding light stabbed from it, jolting him with a strong electric shock.

The girl glided in, spreading her now-tattered wings. The stirred air bathed him in a strong scent, ether-sweet, with undertones like the pits of peaches. Pertin searched the bright silvery face and found no expression. It was no more human than a dolls. The Scorpians silver tentacles thrust away the pitiful instructions, making a sound like an enormous gong which Pertins Pmal refused to translate.

The purchased woman intervened, hurling herself towards the robot, and was brushed heedlessly aside. She struck against the side of the probe ship, a blow which must have been agony to her human nervous system, but she did not cry out. Awkwardly she tried to project herself again into the fight. Pertin, his muscles beginning to relax their spasm, forced himself to join her.

A bird-like trilling from outside indicated that others were coming, and behind the great winged hulk of the pseudogirl Pertin could see black shadow-shapes moving across the dimly lighted shaft, growing rapidly as they approached.

Oh, no! moaned Doc Chimp. Sheliaks and a Sirian!

The robots single-minded purpose was not deflected; it floated towards Pertin, green dome pulsing. An elongating tentacle struck out at Pertin like an endless silver snake, not to sling this time but to snare. It wrapped him in slick, chill coils. He fought free, was caught again, and then at last the Scorpian turned to confront the other beings. It arched its stinging jet, but held poised, waiting.

The Sirian was first into the launch chamber, a tapered, blue-scaled torpedo shape fifteen feet long, all pliant wing and shining eye. With a ripple of trailing edges it flashed at the Scorpian.

The sting coiled, jetting white light into the wide blue eye.

The Sirian was not defenceless; its own forces gathered the robots charge and repelled it, sending the jet back at the robot, reinforced and multiplied.

The pseudogirl turned with great strokes of her wings, her three-fingered hand coming up with the gun-shaped something that had killed Sheliaks. Desperately Pertin twisted to intercept her. Her wings were sadly battered now, but still gave her superior mobility; he missed her on the first try and crashed against a wall. Half blind with his own blood, flowing ink-black in the greenish light, he doubled his legs under him and launched himself at her again.

The gun-shaped thing swung to meet him. It clicked in the pseudogirls bright silver hand, and the white jet hissed at him. He heard a brittle crackling sound in the air, and felt the cold breath of death.

But the jet had missed, and he was on her. With one hand he swung at her wrist. It was like striking a crowbar with his bare hand, but it jarred the weapon loose; and just then the battle between Scorpian and Sirian reached its climax.

The Sirians triply potent return jet struck a vital place in the great green dome of the robot. It exploded. The mellow booming sound the robot made became a hollow jangle. The tentacles writhed and recoiled. It sprawled in the air, a grotesque huddle of tortured metal, spilling green fire and drops of an acid that sizzled and burned where they struck.

If robots have life, that life was gone; it was dead. The silvery girl abandoned the fight with Pertin. With a great stroke of her wings she propelled herself to the robot, hovered over it, wailing an unearthly sound.

And the great blue eye of the Sirian turned towards Pertin. Behind it the Sheliaks, late on the scene but ready for battle, were elongating their wrinkled necks towards him.

Pertin cried desperately: Wait! They - they were misleading you. They were trying to prevent the launch, to save their own lives!

The eye hesitated.

Were dead already, he croaked. Nothing can help us now, not any organic creature. The radiation will kill us before long, even the Sheliaks. But the robot and the girl

He could hear his voice translating and hissing or singing out of the aliens Pmals.

The robot, he repeated, and the altered copy that looks like a terrestrial female - they werent radiation-vulnerable. They could go on indefinitely. But the rest of us - if we let them succeed in stopping the launch, then we will die for nothing!

The eye paused irresolute.

Then the foremost of the Sheliaks cried: Fool! We too are not radiation-vulnerable! We simply need to conjugate, and be born again. But we must have the tachyon receiver, and if you try to keep us from it you must die!

And the three tapered teardrop shapes, like a school of sharks in formation, plunged towards them, blazing with their own crimson light.

The Sirian eye irresolutely turned towards them, then back towards Pertin; then, with decision, whirled to confront them.

Contemptuously the Sheliaks changed course to meet it. The leading Sheliak widened a ruff of flesh like an instant air-brake and stopped in the air, flowed with a dazzle of colour, narrowed a neck towards the Sirian eye.

The thin neck spat a stream of yellow fluid. It struck the Sirian eye and clung, acid, adhesive, agonizing. The Sirian made an unearthly wailing noise at the sudden pain of the attack against which it had no built-in defences. The great blue eye turned milky white; the horse-huge body knotted itself in agony.

But it still had strength for a final blow. It fired the jet of energy that had destroyed the robot against the Sheliaks.

Electrical energy paralysed their muscular systems; heat seared the life from them. They died instantly, all three of them. But it was the last effort of the Sirian. All its stored energy had gone into that pulse. The reflected cascade of burning energy came bouncing back upon them all, bathed the silvery girl and sent her reeling soundlessly into a wall, to collapse into an ungainly contorted mass that didnt move. Pertin was farther away and partly shielded by what was left of the robot; even so, it lanced his skin with pain.

But he was alive.

Slowly, and very painfully, he caught a hold-fast on the wall, steadied himself while he looked around.

The purchased people woman was dead, either bled empty or caught in that last furious bolt. The Sirian eye floated aimlessly, broken and no longer moving, a milky ooze coming from its body. The robot was destroyed; the pseudogirl was drifting impotently away; the Sheliaks were cinders.

The chamber was filled with the stench of many different kinds of death, but Pertin was still alive.

Suddenly remembering, he cried, Doc Chimp!

The ape was out of sight. Furiously Pertin ransacked the chamber, and found him at last, wedged between the wall of the probe and the ships canopy, not quite dead but very unconscious.

Pertin looked down at him sadly and affectionately. It was nearly time to launch the probe, and the question in Pertins mind was: was it better to wake him up, or to let him sleep as the probe was launched, the canopy jettisoned, and all the air in the chamber puffed instantly and murderously away into space?

The question was taken out of his hand as the ape stirred moaned softly and opened his eyes. He looked up at Ben James Pertin and said thickly, The probe?

Its all right, said Pertin. Well have to launch it by hand.

When, Ben James?

Pertin checked the time. Just a few minutes now, he said. The ape grinned painfully. Thats good to know, Ben James, he said. No more problems. No more aches and pains. I always thought Id be afraid of dying, but you know? To tell you the truth, Im kind of looking forward to it.

The process that animated the body of the silvery pseudogirl was more like electrophoresis than chemistry, but it was vulnerable to attack. It was damaged now; but she was not dead. The great wings were broken and useless, but her limbs still moved, the inappropriate angel face still showed its bleak, proud expression.

She was in great pain; that is to say, all the sensory nets of the edited body were transmitting messages of malfunction, damage and warning. She did not perceive them as a human perceives a toothache, a sensation so blinding that it can lead to suicide; but they did not interfere with the few pleasure-bound processes left to her: reminiscence, forevision, contemplation. In the sense that these messages were pain, she had experienced pain from the moment she floated out of the tachyon receiver on Aurora. All edited members of her race did. There was no way to rearrange their structures into forms viable in atmosphere and low-G that was comfortable for them.

Time was when Aphrodite had experienced pain only infrequently, and in ways that were soon mended. Time was when she had lain with her sisters in the icy methane slush of her native planet, absorbing energy from the radioactive elements that swam about them, growing, learning from the tutorials of her orthofather, competing in the endless elimination battles of her race that finally won her her choice of assignments and ultimately led her to the Aurora and its imminent doom. Her race was not greatly interested in astronomy; they had known almost nothing of it until the first TWorlie probe survived the crushing pressures of their atmosphere and brought them into contact. From the surface of their enormous planet, there were no stars to be seen. Even their aircraft never reached an altitude beyond the dense yellow-grey clouds.

What brought her to Aurora was the trait that her whole upbringing had trained into her: the competitive need to go farther and do more. It was not goal-oriented. It gained nothing from victories except the opportunity for further victories. And the only victory now open to Aphrodite was to survive; and there was but one way to do it - by preventing the launching of the probe.

She calculated she had strength enough left to destroy the two organic creatures in her way, but only just; and only if she acted now.

It was Pertin who saw her first: he froze with his hand on the release lever, and it was Doc Chimp who acted. He flung himself on the pseudogirl. Hurry up, Ben James! he shouted. Shes too strong for me And his voice stopped, punctuated with a screech of pain as the silvery arm thrust him away like a cannon-shot. The chimp went flying into the floating wreckage of the Scorpian robot. The soft, frail dome of the skull, so cleverly mutated nearly into the shape of mans own, impaled itself on a steel shard, and the thoughtful, considering brain was destroyed.

Pertin hardly even saw it. He was past the point for sorrow. It would be easy to let the pseudogirl destroy him. At least one life would be saved, her own. His no longer counted. He could hope for a few days, a week or two at the most, of being able to move and breathe. But what would it be like? Increasing pain. Hopeless fear. Regret. Envy-

He pressed the lever just as her fingers touched him.

The instant sharp slap of the explosion was the last sound he ever heard.

At the second Ben James Pertin pressed the release explosive shears cut the aft end of the ship free. The canopy flew out and away. The air puffed into emptiness. The probe rocket dropped free and began to align itself with the now near great disc of

Object Lambda.

The first thing Pertin felt was the sharp pain of the explosion, then the second, longer, more deadly pain as the air pressure dropped to instant zero and his own blood and body fluids, the air in his own lungs, the gases dissolved in his blood tried to expand to fill the enormous emptiness all around. He caught a glimpse of the silvery girl, arms, legs and broken wings flailing, as she shot past him, careened off the jagged edge of metal where the shears had cut the probe satellite free and ricocheted out into emptiness. If she made a sound, he could not hear it.

There was no longer a way for him to hear sound. There was no longer a continuous medium of air to carry it.

He had just a glimpse of the huge near surface of Object Lambda - the body he had called Cuckoo - as it hung like a great dull circle in the empty sky, cutting off one spiral limb of his own, eternally lost, Galaxy.

He did not see the orienting jets of the satellite spurt carefully controlled measures of flame to position it for its final thrust.

He did not see the great violet flare of the fusion rockets that began to slow it. He could not see any of that, because by then he was dead.

Neither he nor anyone else in the probe ship saw the great series of flares as the satellite fought to slow itself. Aurora flew on, back towards the Galaxy, without power, containing only the least flickerings of life for a few of its beings. The probe left it as it drew more and more rapidly away. The distance between them was millions of miles before the satellite made its first meteoric contact with the outer layers of that anomalously thick atmosphere around Cuckoo.

It was a spectacle worth watching, if there had been eyes left in Aurora to see. The satellite plunged through a carefully planned chord of the atmosphere. Its ablative surface burned and tore away in a flare like all the Fourth of July fireworks in mans history going off at once. But there was none to see, not Sirian eye nor Sheliak sensors, not TWorlie nor Earthman nor alien of any kind; where life remained at all, it lacked strength for curiosity, and it would not remain very long.

Fifty thousand years later Aurora might pass near some sun of an outstretched spiral arm. But by then it would no longer matter to anyone, except as a historical curiosity from a time about which no one any longer cared.


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