It was a new life for Eric. Every day he would go over to Walden's and the two of them would pull back the curtains in the study and Walden would lift down some of the books. It was as if Walden was giving him the past, all of it, as fast as he could grasp it.
"I'm really like the old race, Walden?"
"Yes, Eric. You'll see just how much like them...."
Identity. Here in the past, in the books he was learning to read, in the pictures, the pages and pages of scenes and portraits. Strange scenes, far removed from the gardens and the quiet houses and the wordless smile of friend to friend.
Great buildings and small. The Parthenon in the moonlight, not too many pages beyond the cave, with its smoky fire and first crude wall drawings. Cities bright with a million neon lights, and still later, caves again--the underground stations of the Moon colonies. All unreal, and yet-- They were his people, these men in the pictures. Strange men, violent men: the barbarian trampling his enemy to death beneath his horse's hooves, the knight in armor marching to the Crusade, the spaceman. And the quieter men: the farmer, the artisan, the poet--they too were his people, and far easier to understand than the others.
The skill of reading mastered, and the long, sweeping vistas of the past. Their histories. Their wars. "Why did they fight, Walden?" And Walden's sigh. "I don't know, Eric, but they did."
So much to learn. So much to understand. Their art and music and literature and religion. Patterns of life that ebbed and flowed and ebbed again, but never in quite the same way. "Why did they change so much, Walden?" And the answer, "You probably know that better than I, Eric...."
Perhaps he did. For he went on to the books that Walden ignored. Their mathematics, their science. The apple's fall, and the orbits of planets. The sudden spiral of analysis, theory, technology. The machines--steamships, airplanes, spaceships....
And the searching loneliness that carried the old race from the caves of Earth to the stars. The searching, common to the violent man and the quiet man, to the doer and the dreaming poet.
Why do we hunger, who own the Moon and trample the shifting dust of Mars?
Why aren't we content with the worlds we've won? Why don't we rest, with the system ours?
We have cast off the planets like outgrown toys, and now we want the stars....
"Have you ever been to the stars, Walden?"
Walden stared at him. Then he laughed. "Of course not, Eric. Nobody goes there now. None of our race has ever gone. Why should we?"
There was no explaining. Walden had never been lonely.
And then one day, while he was reading some fiction from the middle period of the race, Eric found the fantasy. Speculation about the future, about their future.... About the new race!
He read on, his heart pounding, until the same old pattern came clear. They had foreseen conflict, struggle between old race and new, suspicion and hatred and tragedy. The happy ending was superficial. Everyone was motivated as they had been motivated.
He shut the book and sat there, wanting to reach back across the years to the old race writers who had been so right and yet so terribly, blindly wrong. The writers who had seen in the new only a continuation of the old, of themselves, of their own fears and their own hungers.
"Why did they die, Walden?" He didn't expect an answer.
"Why does any race die, Eric?"
His own people, forever removed from him, linked to him only through the books, the pictures, and his own backward-reaching emotions.
"Walden, hasn't there ever been anyone else like me, since they died?"
Silence. Then, slowly, Walden nodded.
"I wondered how long it would be before you asked that. Yes, there have been others. Sometimes three or four in a generation."
"No," Walden said. "There aren't any others now. We'd know it if there were." He turned away from Eric, to the plastic wall that looked out across the garden and the children playing and the long, level, flower-carpeted plain.
"Sometimes, when there's more than one of them, they go out there away from us, out to the hills where it's wild. But they're found, of course. Found, and brought back." He sighed. "The last of them died when I was a boy."
Others like him. Within Walden's lifetime, others, cut off from their own race, lonely and rootless in the midst of the new. Others like him, but not now, in his lifetime. For him there were only the books.
The old race was gone, gone with all its conflicts, all its violence, its stupidity--and its flaming rockets in the void and its Parthenon in the moonlight.
Eric came into the study and stopped. The room was filled with strangers. There were half a dozen men besides Walden, most of them fairly old, white-haired and studious looking. They all turned to look at him, watched him gravely without speaking.
"Well, there he is." Walden looked from face to face. "Are you still worried? Do you still think that one small boy constitutes a threat to the race? What about you, Abbot?"
"I don't know. I still think he should have been institutionalized in the beginning."
"Why? So you could study the brain processes of the lower animals?" Walden's thoughts were as sarcastic as he could send them.
"No, of course not. But don't you see what you've done, by teaching him to read? You've started him thinking of the old race. Don't deny it."
The thin man, Drew, broke in angrily. "He's not full grown yet. Just fourteen, isn't he? How can you be sure what he'll be like later? He'll be a problem. They've always been problems."
They were afraid. That was what was the matter with them. Walden sighed. "Tell them what you've been studying, Eric," he said aloud.
For a minute Eric was too tongue-tied to answer. He stood motionless, waiting for them to laugh at him.
"Go on. Tell them."
"I've been reading about the old race," Eric said. "All about the stars. About the people who went off in the starships and explored our whole galaxy."
"What's a galaxy?" the thin man said. Walden could perceive that he really didn't know.
Eric's fear lessened. These men weren't laughing at him. They weren't being just polite, either. They were interested. He smiled at them, shyly, and told them about the books and the wonderful, strange tales of the past that the books told. The men listened, nodding from time to time. But he knew that they didn't understand. The world of the books was his alone....
"Well?" Walden looked at the others. They looked back. Their emotions were a welter of doubt, of indecision.
"You've heard the boy," Walden said quietly, thrusting his own uneasiness down, out of his thoughts.
"Yes." Abbot hesitated. "He seems bright enough--quite different from what I'd expected. At least he's not like the ones who grew up wild in the hills. This boy isn't a savage."
Walden shrugged. "Maybe they weren't savages either," he suggested. "After all, it's been fifty years since the last of them died. And a lot of legends can spring up in fifty years."
"Perhaps we have been worrying unnecessarily." Abbot got up to go, but his eyes still held Walden's. "But," he added, "it's up to you to watch him. If he reverts, becomes dangerous in any way, he'll have to be locked up. That's final."
The others nodded.
"I'll watch him," Walden told them. "Just stop worrying."
He stood at the door and waited until they were out of sight. Then and only then did he allow himself to sigh and taste the fear he'd kept hidden. The old men, the men with authority, were the dangerous ones.
Walden snorted. Even with perception, men could be fools.
The summer that Eric was sixteen Walden took him to the museum. The aircar made the trip in just a few hours--but it was farther than Eric had ever traveled in his life, and farther than most people ever bothered traveling.
The museum lay on an open plain where there weren't many houses. At first glance it was far from impressive. Just a few big buildings, housing the artifacts, and a few old ruins of ancient constructions, leveled now and half buried in the sands.
"It's nothing." Eric looked down at it, disappointed. "Nothing at all."
"What did you expect?" Walden set the aircar down between the two largest buildings. "You knew it wouldn't be like the pictures in the books. You knew that none of the old race's cities are left."
"I know," Eric said. "But I expected more than this."
He got out of the car and followed Walden around to the door of the first building. Another man, almost as old as Walden, came toward them smiling. The two men shook hands and stood happily perceiving each other.
"This is Eric," Walden said aloud. "Eric, this is Prior, the caretaker here. He was one of my schoolmates."
"It's been years since we've perceived short range," Prior said. "Years. But I suppose the boy wants to look around inside?"
Eric nodded, although he didn't care too much. He was too disappointed to care. There was nothing here that he hadn't seen a hundred times before.
They went inside, past some scale models of the old cities. The same models, though a bit bigger, that Eric had seen in the three-dimensional view-books. Then they went into another room, lined with thousands of books, some very old, many the tiny microfilmed ones from the middle periods of the old race.
"How do you like it, Eric?" the caretaker said.
"It's fine," he said flatly, not really meaning it. He was angry at himself for feeling disappointment. Walden had told him what to expect. And yet he'd kept thinking that he'd walk into one of the old cities and be able to imagine that it was ten thousand years ago and others were around him. Others like him....
Ruins. Ruins covered by dirt, and no one of the present race would even bother about uncovering them.
Prior and Walden looked at each other and smiled. "Did you tell him?" the caretaker telepathed.
"No. I thought we'd surprise him. I knew all the rest would disappoint him."
"Eric," the caretaker said aloud. "Come this way. There's another room I want to show you."
He followed them downstairs, down a long winding ramp that spiraled underground so far that he lost track of the distance they had descended. He didn't much care anyway. Ahead of him, the other two were communicating, leaving him alone.
"Through here," Prior said, stepping off the ramp.
They entered a room that was like the bottom of a well, with smooth stone sides and far, far above them a glass roof, with clouds apparently drifting across its surface. But it wasn't a well. It was a vault, forever preserving the thing that had been the old race's masterpiece.
It rested in the center of the room, its nose pointing up at the sky. It was like the pictures, and unlike them. It was big, far bigger than Eric had ever visualized it. It was tall and smooth and as new looking as if its builders had just stepped outside for a minute and would be back in another minute to blast off for the stars.
"A starship," Walden said. "One of the last types."
"There aren't many left," Prior said. "We're lucky to have this one in our museum."
Eric wasn't listening. He was looking at the ship. The old race's ship. His ship.
"The old race built strange things," Prior said. "This is one of the strangest." He shook his head. "Imagine the time they put in on it.... And for what?"
Eric didn't try to answer him. He couldn't explain why the old ones had built it. But he knew. He would have built it himself, if he'd lived then. We have cast off the planets like outgrown toys, and now we want the stars....
His people. His ship. His dream.
The old caretaker showed him around the museum and then left him alone to explore by himself. He had all the time he wanted.
He studied. He worked hard all day long, scarcely ever leaving the museum grounds. He studied the subjects that now were the most fascinating to him of all the old race's knowledge--the subjects that related to the starships. Astronomy, physics, navigation, and the complex charts of distant stars, distant planets, worlds he'd never heard of before. Worlds that to the new race were only pin-pricks of light in the night sky.
All day long he studied. But in the evening he would go down the winding ramp to the ship. The well was lighted with a softer, more diffuse illumination than that of the houses. In the soft glow the walls and the glass-domed roof seemed to disappear and the ship looked free, pointing up at the stars.
He didn't try to tell the caretaker what he thought. He just went back to his books and his studies. There was so much he had to learn. And now there was a reason for his learning. Someday, when he was fully grown and strong and had mastered all he needed from the books, he was going to fly the ship. He was going to look for his people, the ones who had left Earth before the new race came....
He told no one. But Walden watched him, and sighed.
"They'll never let you do it, Eric. It's a mad dream."
"What are you talking about?"
"The ship. You want to go to the stars, don't you?"
Eric stared at him, more surprised than he'd been in years. He had said nothing. There was no way for Walden to know. Unless he'd perceived it--and Eric couldn't be perceived, any more than he could perceive other people....
Walden shook his head. "It wasn't telepathy that told me. It was your eyes. The way you look at the ship. And besides, I've known you for years now. And I've wondered how long it would be before you thought of this answer."
"Well, why not?" Eric looked across at the ship, and his throat caught, choking him, the way it always did. "I'm lonely here. My people are gone. Why shouldn't I go?"
"You'd be lonelier inside that ship, by yourself, away from Earth, away from everything, and with no assurance you'd ever find anyone at all, old race or new or alien...."
Eric didn't answer. He looked back at the ship, thinking of the books, trying to think of it as a prison, a weightless prison carrying him forever into the unknown, with no one to talk to, no one to see.
Walden was right. He would be too much alone in the ship. He'd have to postpone his dream.
He'd wait until he was old, and take the ship and die in it....
Eric smiled at the thought. He was seventeen, old enough to know that his idea was adolescent and melodramatic. He knew, suddenly, that he'd never fly the ship.
The years passed. Eric spent most of his time at the museum. He had his own aircar now, and sometimes he flew it home and visited with his parents. They liked to have him come. They liked it much better than having to travel all the way to the museum to visit him.
Yet, though he wasn't dependent on other people any more, and could fly the aircar as he chose, he didn't do much exploring. He didn't have any desire to meet strangers. And there were always the books.
"You're sure you're all right?" his mother said. "You don't need anything?"