Like some great silver-pink fish, the ship sang on through the eternal night. There was no impression of swimming; the fish shape had neither fins nor a tail. It was as though it were hovering in wait for a member of some smaller species to swoop suddenly down from nowhere, so that it, in turn, could pounce and kill.
But still it moved and sang.
Only a being who was thoroughly familiar with the type could have told that this particular fish was dying.
In shape, the ship was rather like a narrow flounder—long, tapered, and oval in cross-section—but it showed none of the exterior markings one might expect of either a living thing or a spaceship. With one exception, the smooth silver-pink exterior was featureless.
That one exception was a long, purplish-black, roughened discoloration that ran along one side for almost half of the ship's seventeen meters of length. It was the only external sign that the ship was dying.
Inside the ship, the Nipe neither knew nor cared about the discoloration. Had he thought about it, he would have deduced the presence of the burn, but it was by far the least of his worries.
The ship sang, and the song was a song of death.
The internal damage that had been done to the ship was far more serious than the burn on the surface of the hull. It was that internal damage which occupied the thoughts of the Nipe, for it could, quite possibly, kill him.
He had, of course, no intention of dying. Not out here. Not so far, so very far, from his own people. Not out here, where his death would be so very improper.
He looked at the ball of the yellow-white sun ahead and wondered that such a relatively stable, inactive star could have produced such a tremendously energetic plasmoid, one that could still do such damage so far out. It had been a freak, of course. Such suns as this did not normally produce such energetic swirls of magnetohydrodynamic force.
But the thing had been there, nonetheless, and the ship had hit it at high velocity. Fortunately the ship had only touched the edge of the swirling cloud—otherwise the ship would have vanished in a puff of incandescence. But it had done enough. The power plants that drove the ship at ultralight velocities through the depths of interstellar space had been so badly damaged that they could only be used in short bursts, and each burst brought them closer to the fusion point. Even when they were not being used they sang away their energies in ululations of wavering vibration that would have been nerve-racking to a human being.
The Nipe had heard the singing of the engines, recognized it for what it was, realized that he could do nothing about it, and dismissed it from his mind.
Most of the instruments were powerless; the Nipe was not even sure he could land the vessel. Any attempt to use the communicator to call home would have blown his ship to atoms.
The Nipe did not want to die, but, if die he must, he did not want to die foolishly.
It had taken a long time to drift in from the outer reaches of this sun's planetary system, but using the power plants any more than was absolutely necessary would have been foolhardy.
The Nipe missed the companionship his brother had given him for so long; his help would be invaluable now. But there had been no choice. There had not been enough supplies for two to survive the long inward fall toward the distant sun. The Nipe, having discovered the fact first, had, out of his mercy and compassion, killed his brother while the other was not looking. Then, having disposed of his brother with all due ceremony, he had settled down to the long, lonely wait.
Beings of another race might have cursed the accident that had disabled the ship, or regretted the necessity that one of them should die, but the Nipe did neither, for, to him, the first notion would have been foolish and the second incomprehensible.
But now, as the ship fell ever closer toward the yellow-white sun, he began to worry about his own fate. For a while, it had seemed almost certain that he would survive long enough to build a communicator, for the instruments had already told him and his brother that the system ahead was inhabited by creatures of reasoning power, if not true intelligence, and it would almost certainly be possible to get the equipment he needed from them. Now, though, it looked as if the ship would not survive a landing. He had had to steer it away from a great gas giant, which had seriously endangered the power plants.
He did not want to die in space—wasted, forever undevoured. At least, he must die on a planet, where there might be creatures with the compassion and wisdom to give his body the proper death rites. The thought of succumbing to inferior creatures was repugnant, but it was better than...