A long distance away in terms of the boy’s world—but only a step in astronomical distances—a man named Ben Line Pertin watched a holographic virtual image of the flying boy and turned away, shaking his head. “They’re skinny and funny-looking,” he said, “but by God they’re human. Figure that for me, Venus.”
The girl beside him was not a girl. She did not look like a human girl except in the way that a statue does; she was silvery metal, thixotropic, anisotropic, tamed by the science of her people to flow and move like flesh. Oh her home world Venus had not looked human at all; for that matter she had not been female, because her race had not bothered with sexual distinctions in its development. She said, “Not only human beings live on Cuckoo, Ben Line. We have already found Sheliaks and Boaty-Bits, or beings genetically parallel to them. And we have only begun to look.”
“None of your folks, though,” Ben Line observed cheerfully. “Guess you weren’t popular.”
“As to that, Ben Line, how could you tell?”
He grinned. Venus was an edited form, specially tailored to operate well in the near Earth-normal environment of Cuckoo Station.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose we might as well retransmit these tapes. I think we need help, Venus. More equipment, more survey scouts. And more beings. I think it’s about time we sent people down to Cuckoo. What do you say?”
The silvery girl was silent for a moment. Ben Line knew that, through her Pmal translator, she was communicating with FARLINK, the computer that processed all the manifold information-handling procedures on the orbiter called Cuckoo Station.
FARLINK was the station’s nerve center. It processed the tachyonic transmissions that replicated new personnel for die station. It coordinated the reports from the drones they sent down to the surface of the strange object itself. It stored their cumulative data and solved their research problems; and it sent their findings— such as they were—back to Sim One.
Its main terminal was a ring-shaped console inside the hollow hemisphere where Pertin, the silvery girl, and other beings were working. The beings on duty sat inside the console, or rested or clung or stood there as their anatomies dictated, with input devices within reach of their manipulative organs. The output flashed and shimmered on the screens that lined the dome, translated into the visual symbols of half a hundred cultures.
Ben Line became impatient. “What’s the matter, V&- nus?”
She did not move but her expression, as far as she could be said to have one, seemed to cloud. “There is difficulty,” she said.
“Difficulty?” That seemed unlikely! FARLINK was as close to perfect as any machine ever made. Many tachyonic channels linked it to the banks of the even larger computers and research teams back on Sun One, and it had its own built-in power sources. And yet—
And yet abruptly, before his very eyes, the myriad screens suddenly flickered and went black!
There was an instant rumble of consternation. Cries and hoots and clangs of shock rang out all around the ring. From the console position nearest his own a scorched-fur scent of TWorlie dismay came from the bat-headed, butterfly-winged being named Nammie.
“What the devil!” he cried. The screens were black
for only a second; then they glowed with the green computer symbols that spelled out the same message in half a hundred languages:
“REGRET INTERRUPTION, INTERFERENCE DISTORTING
INCOMING SIGNALS. ORIGIN OF INTERFERENCE NOT KNOWN.”
Venus whispered, “But we’ve never had any interference before …”
Pertin had no answer. Suddenly he felt very lonely. The tachyonic channels were their only bridge of thought and communication across that gulf of space that was too vast for anything material to cross. With the bridge broken, the thirty thousand light-years between all of them and all of their diverse homes became terribly real.
The T’Worlie beside him was fluttering on frantic wings above its console position, stabbing at the keys and whistling at its mike. After a moment it rose from the keyboard and turned its five-eyed face to him.
“Mode emergency!” it shrilled. “Query implications of signal distortion.”
“I wish I knew,” Pertin said, shaking his head.
“Propose conjecture! Assume sentient masters of Cuckoo. Query: Have they discovered us? Are they initiating contact? Query probable intentions.”
“I don’t know, Nammie. What about DFing? Do we know where the source comes from?”
The T’Worlie spun and punched a combination; and all the myriad screens lighted up:
“SOURCE UNKNOWN. DF PROGRAM INITIATED.”
And then abruptly the green symbols shimmered off the screen. Patterns of color flashed and vanished in the deep tanks that were their three-D vision screens. A new message appeared:
“INTERFERENCE FADING. STAND BY. SIGNAL RECEPTION RESUMING.”
The Sun One sign burned itself onto the screens: a red disk inside a thin green ellipse—the artificial satellite called Sun One, inside the Galaxy itself. Before it appeared the tall, glowing cone of a Sheliak official, back at Sun One. He was speaking, apparently oblivious to the interruption, while his translator turned his soft hooting into Earth English on Ben Line’s screen. Green symbols overrode the image for a moment:
“INTERFERENCE HAS CEASED. SOURCE NOT TRACKED.”
Venus and Ben line looked at each other.
“What was that all about?” he demanded.
Slowly she shook her silvery head. “At any rate, it’s over.” All around the dome, beings were resuming their interrupted chores. “One moment, Ben Line,” she added gravely; and then, “Yes, we have concurrence. We authorize you to transmit a call for additional survey forces.”
Ben Line Pertin nodded and cued in the tachyon transmitter. Carefully he began to phrase the report that the supervelocity tachyons would flash toward the distant Galaxy, to the artificial planet called Sun One— where all the races of the Galaxy maintained the headquarters that had launched this survey party—and from there on to the home planets of scores of kinds of beings. His own words might sooner or later reach his own world, Earth.
Ben Line wondered if somehow, back on Earth, that original Ben Pertin who had volunteered for tachyon transmission long before might hear the voice of his double, and if so what he might think. v But that was not profitable wondering. Behind it lay too much pain, too much loss, too many regrets for what could never be undone. Behind it lay the memory of the girl he had married on Sun One. Zara had not lost her husband; but Ben, her husband, in this copy at least, had lost his wife forever. And it hurt.