VII

Coro quickly wiped the perspiration that had beaded on his forehead and was starting to trickle down into his eyes. “We have anti-radar gear because of the bats on Capistrano. It’s a necessity when you go out hunting multi-tonned radar-eyed things like those.” He thumbed the gear into full operation, jumped the sphere a hundred feet straight up.

Beneath them, the missile streaked back toward the mother ship. With luck, they would get to see it strike the mountainous vessel in a matricide thrust. There was one trouble with a weapon that was completely self-controlled. Sure, it cut down the duties of the war room when you were firing a thousand rounds a minute, but it also left open the possibility of the round returning to strike the gunman. With a yellow cloud of thick smoke, the missile struck the hull of the other ship, tearing a hole ten feet across in the thick metal hide. Even this, however, was a minor abrasion on that great body.

“I think this confirms the extra-galactic theory,” Sam said.

With anti-radar giving them a form of invisibility — temporarily, at least — Coro brought the floater in closer, buzzing only fifty feet over the top of the slab-like vessel. “Still, the death of God should have made them nonviolent tool”

“What now?” Lotus asked.

Sam was surprised that a woman had kept such superb composure through an actual malicious and deadly missile attack. Even he was stifling a scream, but she seemed perfectly willing to accept a flying mountain full of men — if, indeed, they were men — from another galaxy.

“Next? We go in,” Coro said very matter-of-factly. “We go inside the ship.”

All three turned to stare at him, mouths open, as if he were some strange curiosity.

“You’re insane!” Lotus said, almost as if she meant it literally.

“What good will going inside do?” Crazy said, scratching in his tumble of hair.

“He’s right,” Sam said after a moment of silence.

“Right?” Lotus held a hand up to her ear as if to block out this ridiculousness.

“Yes. Andy is perfectly correct. We don’t have the fire power in this floater to shoot them down. Besides, now that we are fighting intelligent creatures and not just Beasts, I am quite sure none of us could pull a trigger anyway. We are ingrained with pacifism. We are and have long been above war. Let’s face it: the only way we can hope to save ourselves and the rest of the galaxy is by first-hand analysis of the problem.”

“Well put,” Coro said.

“How many have to go in?” Lotus asked.

“Not you,” Coro said. “You’re too fragile for this job.” He saw her bristling at the remark and hastened to add a qualifying statement: “Besides, we need someone behind to ready the robodoc unit and prepare for us in case we get hurt in there. And Crazy will stay behind too. This is going to have to be an after-dark, hush-hush sort of thing. With those hooves, Crazy would make too much noise.”

“That’s fine with me,” Crazy said, turning to look back at the giant ship.

“Sam?”

“I’ll go,” Sam answered, wondering where he was finding the reservoir of courage, deciding it was a spill-over from Coro.

Coro brought the floater around, hugging the alien hull, and set a speed matching that of the ponderous vessel. “We wait until they set her down somewhere and until dark. She’s bound to set down for repairs from the missile strike. We take whatever equipment we can use or adapt to use, cut a hole in her side, go in, and find out what we can. All very simple.”

“And dangerous,” Lotus said, looking at both of them with eyes that cut deep and saw much. “Too dangerous.”

At the base of the towering monolith, they looked back toward the grove of trees where the floater lay. They had to strain their eyes to see the vague curve of the outer hull, and even then, it seemed to be a trick of shadows and not really a hard, worldly object.

“What next?” Sam asked, turning back to the impressive black hull before them, the seamless alien wonder.

Coro rapped the metal lightly with the handle of his knife. There was an almost imperceptible change in tone as they moved down the long flank, a tendency to hollowness. They repeated the process again to see if the same change hit them this time. It did. “We cut a hole — here,” Coro said, reaching behind into his backpack, struggling a hand-laser out, thumbed it to full intensity.

They wore space suits, and now, by mutual accord, they flipped the helmets shut and began relying solely on the air supply in the single tanks strapped on their left shoulder blades. There was no way of knowing if these creatures breathed an atmosphere similar to Hope Normal, and they were not about to be gassed by an outrush of foul air when they had cut through the plating.

The laser came on, a blue beam so dark that it was almost black. Coro began slicing into the plate before him. The metal gave to the irresistible cold heat of the beam, and a circular patch fell away. It was half an inch thick, but it was not the entire hull. Beyond lay another layer. They went through twelve in all — like chewing through a Danish pastry — before they were looking through the hull onto a dimly lighted corridor wide as a street in Hope. They were looking out at deck level.

“You first,” Coro said, providing a knee for Sam to stand on. “Then pull me up.”

By the time they were both inside and breathing heavily, the atmosphere analyzer strapped to Coro’s wrist indicated APPROX. HOPE NORMAL.

They took several steps into the corridor, about to take off the clumsy helmets, when their ears were assaulted with the teeming, multi-level rhythms of Racesong…

Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam…

Clutching at, clutching at, clutching at…

Identity…

Clutching identity in a swirling maelstrom.

Sam, Sam… Sam…

He felt buffeted by the harmonious winds, lifted and thrilled by the rhythms of the breezes of the overall song. In his ears, Racesong pulsed, and he could not fight the tiny, tinny vibrations that stirred his hammer, anvil, and stirrup, quivered them, befuddled them, used and yet denied them. It was not a song for him, not a song designed for men. Coruscating tones broke brilliantly against his mind, unaware that he was alien to them.

Sam, Sam… Sam…

The Racesong brought pictures that crashed like towering whitecaps against his mind, swirling backwater in his id, frothing his ego with stagnant foam. Between the impossible crests of the waves, the corridor of the extra-galactic ship was brought back to him in dimness, though he could not retain this picture of reality when the alien thought-song swept into his brain, waves like corundum wheels grinding away at his self-awareness. He could see Coro staggering against the wall, slumping down onto the floor, trying to hold the noises out with hands that merely conducted them.

Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam…

But after the moment of evanescence, came the waves:

Raceship’s purpose is an immensity beyond the comprehension of any one slug; it is not a tidal current but, indeed, the tide itself. Continents drift before it, and whirlpools of its making suck up islands. Raceship… RACEship… RACESHIP… raceSHIP… Always moving, always growing as more and more sections are thrust outward from the present hull, always putting more and more distance between the outside and Ship’s Core. Protect Ship’s Core, always… Raceship in the Raceverse…

Sam tried to raise his arms to shield his ears, useless but an instinctive necessity. Still, his arms raised and lowered jerkily like the arms of a puppet as the waves of chauvinistic propaganda swept him, leaving him in control of himself for only short moments at a time.

Spoorships coasting outward on invisible but ever-present currents of space, following strange flows and investigating all the eddies of Raceverse. Spoorships with shrines in the Core rather than a real central being…

Sam, Sam… Sam, Sam…

Coro was on his stomach, writhing in pain, face contorted. Pain? Pain?

Mother-forms, vomiting eggs from the rotting ruin of their sacrificial bodies, eggs round and smooth and gray, great clusters. All to support Raceship and to build outward to further insulate the Central Being in Ship’s Core and to fan the Spoorships that would carry the plan and desires of the Central Being into the unknown…

Pain? Pain? What pain? There was an overwhelming hypnotic something that swept him with the melody — but no pain. Pain for Coro? Pain?

Sam, Sam…

Clutching at, clutching at identity…

Id… Iden… I… Identi… Identity…

Webs, hanging. Webs. Giving of self to the young in the webs. The young: wide-jawed. Wide jaws: bite into pulpy flesh, gnash and gush blood through horny gums. Blood Bloodbloodblood for Raceship. The blood of patriots…

Coro wasn’t in pain, Sam realized. Coro was trying, in the short moments between waves of the alien song, to crawl toward the opening they had burned in the hull. Sam collapsed onto the deck, rolled onto his stomach. His eyes were swimming, hazed red as his temples throbbed with pain that was not so much pain as severe weariness. He tried crawling a few inches before the song crashed back again.

We thank the Central Being for goodness. We thank the Central Being for the continuation of the egg… egg… egg… egg…

Sam knew he wouldn’t make it. Coro had been closer to the hull, and he might. But Sam was lost. Each time, the crawling became more difficult. Each time, the lull between throbs of the song seemed shorter. He realized that he had to combat the song, not just crawl from it. He had to engage himself in some mental task and fight to concentrate on that task when the song was in full blast. If not, the alien thought-concepts would cripple his logic, crush his humanness from him. Quickly, before the next wave hit him, he struck upon a plan. He would trace the submelodies of the song, search the rhythm patterns for some clues. He would play detective to save his mind. He would concentrate on discovering what the Central Being was. He would have to cling to the detective role when the wave came. Over and over, he repeated to himself: What is the Central Being?

SHIP’SCORESHIP’SCORE

ship’scoreship’score

Central Being? ?SHIP’S

CORESHIFSCOREship’s

coreship’scorecentra

lbeing? ?SHIP’s…

Sam came into the trough between waves, back into reality. His nerves vibrated now, almost to the tune but raggedly nearly beyond control. His mouth was a dirty, dry rag, his tongue a lump of wiped-up dirt. He dragged against the deck, inches only. He was so very tired. Mentally and physically. The undercurrents of the Racesong were opening before him as he traced them under the crest of their influence, to seek the identity of the Central Being. Even the first bars of the submelodies hinted at the Central Being’s true nature. But he refused to believe it. Refused absolutely.

Central Being, Central Being

Ship’s Core

She-hips Co-ore

being… being… being…

Coro was almost to the hole. Sam pushed himself as hard as he could. His mind was spinning with what he had found, twisting and turning to seek a way to discount the submelodies and what they revealed. Coro was out of the hole, tumbling into the tall grass outside, away from the influence of Racesong.

being…

core of being…

core of… core of…

BEING!

Sam felt strong hands on his wrists. Then he was being pulled from the ship, dragged brutally across the fine sharp edges of the crude portal and onto the ground. Racesong faded and did not return. But it was — in one way — too late for him. He knew the answer. Maintaining his sanity, he had found out what the Central Being of Raceship was.

And, loudly, in the night, he screamed.

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