The spaceman had been cleaned up and bandaged by the native medicos. Kinton saw that his left thigh was probably broken. Other dressings suggested cracked ribs and lacerations on the head and shoulders. The man was dark-haired but pale of skin, with a jutting chin and a nose that had been flattened in some earlier mishap. The flaring set of his ears somehow emphasized an overall leanness. Even in sleep, his mouth was thin and hard.
"Thrown across the controls after his belt broke loose?" Kinton guessed.
"I bow to your wisdom, George," said the plump Tepoktan doctor who appeared to be in charge.
Kinton could not remember him, but everyone on the planet addressed the Terran by the sound they fondly thought to be his first name.
"This is Doctor Chuxolkhee," murmured Klaft.
Kinton made the accepted gesture of greeting with one hand and said, "You seem to have treated him very expertly."
Chuxolkhee ruffled the scales around his neck with pleasure.
"I have studied Terran physiology," he admitted complacently. "From your records and drawings, of course, George, for I have not yet had the good fortune to visit you."
"We must arrange a visit soon," said Kinton. "Klaft will--"
He broke off at the sound from the patient.
"A Terran!" mumbled the injured man.
He shook his head dazedly, tried to sit up, and subsided with a groan.
Why, he looked scared when he saw me, thought Kinton.
"You're all right now," he said soothingly. "It's all over and you're in good hands. I gather there were no other survivors of the crash?"
The man stared curiously. Kinton realized that his own language sputtered clumsily from his lips after ten years. He tried again.
"My name is George Kinton. I don't blame you if I'm hard to understand. You see, I've been here ten years without ever having another Terran to speak to."
The spaceman considered that for a few breaths, then seemed to relax.
"Al Birken," he introduced himself laconically. "Ten years?"
"A little over," confirmed Kinton. "It's extremely unusual that anything gets through to the surface, let alone a spaceship. What happened to you?"
Birken's stare was suspicious.
"Then you ain't heard about the new colonies? Naw--you musta come here when all the planets were open."
"We had a small settlement on the second planet," Kinton told him. "You mean there are new Terran colonies?"
"Yeah. Jet-hoppers spreadin' all over the other five. None of the land-hungry poops figured a way to set down here, though, or they'd be creepin' around this planet too."
"How did you happen to do it? Run out of fuel?"
The other eyed him for a few seconds before dropping his gaze. Kinton was struck with sudden doubt. The outposts of civilization were followed by less desirable developments as a general rule--prisons, for instance. He resolved to be wary of the visitor.
"Ya might say I was explorin'," Birken replied at last. "That's why I come alone. Didn't want nobody else hurt if I didn't make it. Say, how bad am I banged up?"
Kinton realized guiltily that the man should be resting. He had lost track of the moments he had wasted in talk while the others with him stood attentively about.
He questioned the doctor briefly and relayed the information that Birken's leg was broken but that the other injuries were not serious.
"They'll fix you up," he assured the spaceman. "They're quite good at it, even if the sight of one does make you think a little of an iguana. Rest up, now; and I'll come back again when you're feeling better."
For the next three weeks, Kinton flew back and forth from his own town nearly every day. He felt that he should not neglect the few meetings which were the only way he could repay the Tepoktans for all they did for him. On the other hand, the chance to see and talk with one of his own kind drew him like a magnet to the hospital.
The doctors operated upon Birken's leg, inserting a metal rod inside the bone by a method they had known before Kinton described it. The new arrival expected to be able to walk, with care, almost any day; although the pin would have to be removed after the bone had healed. Meanwhile, Birken seemed eager to learn all Kinton could tell him about the planet, Tepokt.
About himself, he was remarkably reticent. Kinton worried about this.
"I think we should not expect too much of this Terran," he warned Klaft uneasily. "You, too, have citizens who do not always obey, your laws, who sometimes ... that is--"
"Who are born to die under the axe, as we say," interrupted Klaft, as if to ease the concern plain on Kinton's face. "In other words, criminals. You suspect this Albirken is such a one, George?"
"It is not impossible," admitted Kinton unhappily. "He will tell me little about himself. It may be that he was caught in Tepokt's gravity while fleeing from justice."
To himself, he wished he had not told Birken about the spaceship. He didn't think the man exactly believed his explanation of why there was no use taking off in it.
Yet he continued to spend as much time as he could visiting the other man. Then, as his helicopter landed at the city airport one gray dawn, the news reached him.
"The other Terran has gone," Klaft reported, turning from the breathless messenger as Kinton followed him from the machine.
"Gone? Where did they take him?"
Klaft looked uneasy, embarrassed. Kinton repeated his question, wondering about the group of armed police on hand.
"In the night," Klaft hissed and clucked, "when none would think to watch him, they tell me ... and quite rightly, I think--"
"Get on with it, Klaft! Please!"
"In the night, then, Albirken left the chamber in which he lay. He can walk some now, you know, because of Dr. Chuxolkhee's metal pin. He--he stole a ground car and is gone."
"He did?" Kinton had an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Is it known where he went? I mean ... he has been curious to see some of Tepokt. Perhaps--"
He stopped, his own words braying in his ears. Klaft was clicking two claws together, a sign of emphatic disagreement.
"Albirken," he said, "was soon followed by three police constables in another vehicle. They found him heading in the direction of our town."
"Why did he say he was traveling that way?" asked Kinton, thinking to himself of the spaceship! Was the man crazy?
"He did not say," answered Klaft expressionlessly. "Taking them by surprise, he killed two of the constables and injured the third before fleeing with one of their spears."
Kinton felt his eyes bulging with dismay.
"Yes, for they carried only the short spears of their authority, not expecting to need fire weapons."
Kinton looked from him to the messenger, noticing for the first time that the latter was an under-officer of police. He shook his head distractedly. It appeared that his suspicions concerning Birken had been only too accurate.
Why was it one like him who got through? he asked himself in silent anguish. After ten years. The Tepoktans had been thinking well of Terrans, but now-- He did not worry about his own position. That was well enough established, whether or not he could again hold up his head before the purple-scaled people who had been so generous to him.
Even if they had been aroused to a rage by the killing, Kinton told himself, he would not have been concerned about himself. He had reached a fairly ripe age for a spaceman. In fact, he had already enjoyed a decade of borrowed time.
But they were more civilized than that wanton murderer, he realized.
He straightened up, forcing back his early-morning weariness.
"We must get into the air immediately," he told Klaft. "Perhaps we may see him before he reaches--"
He broke off at the word "spaceship" but he noticed a reserved expression on Klaft's pointed face. His aide had probably reached a conclusion similar to his own.
They climbed back into the cabin and Klaft gave brisk orders to the lean young pilot. A moment later, Kinton saw the ground outside drop away.
Only upon turning around did he realize that two armed Tepoktans had materialized in time to follow Klaft inside.
One was a constable but the other he recognized for an officer of some rank. Both wore slung across their chests weapons resembling long-barreled pistols with large, oddly indented butts to fit Tepoktan claws. The constable, in addition, carried a contraption with a quadruple tube for launching tiny rockets no thicker than Kinton's thumb. These, he knew, were loaded with an explosive worthy of respect on any planet he had heard of.
To protect him, he wondered. Or to get Birken?
The pilot headed the craft back toward Kinton's town in the brightening sky of early day. Long before the buildings of Kinton's institute came into view, they received a radio message about Birken.
"He has been seen on the road passing the dam," Klaft reported soberly after having been called to the pilot's compartment. "He stopped to demand fuel from some maintenance workers, but they had been warned and fled."
"Couldn't they have seized him?" demanded Kinton, his tone sharp with the worry he endeavored to control. "He has that spear, I suppose; but he is only one and injured."
"Well, couldn't they?"
The aide looked away, out one of the windows at some sun-dyed clouds ranging from pink to orange. He grimaced and clicked his showy teeth uncomfortably.
"Perhaps they thought you might be offended, George," he answered at last.
Kinton settled back in the seat especially padded to fit the contours of his Terran body, and stared silently at the partition behind the pilot.
In other words, he thought, he was responsible for Birken, who was a Terran, one of his own kind. Maybe they really didn't want to risk hurting his feelings, but that was only part of it. They were leaving it up to him to handle what they considered his private affair.
He wondered what to do. He had no actual faith in the idea that Birken was delirious, or acting under any influence but that of a criminally self-centered nature.
"I shouldn't have told him about the ship!" Kinton muttered, gnawing the knuckle of his left thumb. "He's on the run, all right. Probably scared the colonial authorities will trail him right down through the Dome of Eyes. Wonder what he did?"
He caught himself and looked around to see if he had been overheard. Klaft and the police officers peered from their respective windows, in calculated withdrawal. Kinton, disturbed, tried to remember whether he had spoken in Terran or Tepoktan.
Would Birken listen if he tried reasoning, he asked himself. Maybe if he showed the man how they had proved the unpredictability of openings through the shifting Dome of Eyes-- An exclamation from the constable drew his attention. He rose, and room was made for him at the opposite window.
In the distance, beyond the town landing field they were now approaching, Kinton saw a halted ground car. Across the plain which was colored a yellowish tan by a short, grass-like growth, a lone figure plodded toward the upthrust bulk of the spaceship that had never flown.
"Never mind landing at the town!" snapped Kinton. "Go directly out to the ship!"
Klaft relayed the command to the pilot. The helicopter swept in a descending curve across the plain toward the gleaming hull.
As they passed the man below, Birken looked up. He continued to limp along at a brisk pace with the aid of what looked like a short spear.
"Go down!" Kinton ordered.
The pilot landed about a hundred yards from the spaceship. By the time his passengers had alighted, however, Birken had drawn level with them, about fifty feet away.
"Birken!" shouted Kinton. "Where do you think you're going?"
Seeing that no one ran after him, Birken slowed his pace, but kept walking toward the ship. He watched them over his shoulder.
"Sorry, Kinton," he shouted with no noticeable tone of regret. "I figure I better travel on for my health."
"It's not so damn healthy up there!" called Kinton. "I told you how there's no clear path--"
"Yeah, yeah, you told me. That don't mean I gotta believe it."
"Wait! Don't you think they tried sending unmanned rockets up? Every one was struck and exploded."
Birken showed no more change of expression than if the other had commented on the weather.
Kinton had stepped forward six or eight paces, irritated despite his anxiety at the way Birken persisted in drifting before him.
Kinton couldn't just grab him--bad leg or not, he could probably break the older man in two.
He glanced back at the Tepoktans beside the helicopter, Klaft, the pilot, the officer, the constable with the rocket weapon.
They stood quietly, looking back at him.
The call for help that had risen to his lips died there.
"Not their party," he muttered. He turned again to Birken, who still retreated toward the ship. "But he'll only get himself killed and destroy the ship! Or if some miracle gets him through, that's worse! He's nothing to turn loose on a civilized colony again."
A twinge of shame tugged down the corners of his mouth as he realized that keeping Birken here would also expose a highly cultured people to an unscrupulous criminal who had already committed murder the very first time he had been crossed.