"No. I'm fine."
He smiled, looking out through the sunporch wall into the garden. It seemed years and years since he'd pressed his nose to the glass, watching the butterflies. It had been a long time.
"I've got to get going," he said. "I want to be back at the museum by dark."
"Well, if you're sure you won't stay...."
They said goodbye and he went out and got into the aircar and started back. He flew slowly, close to the ground, because he really had plenty of time and he felt lazy. He skimmed along over a valley and heard laughter and dipped lower. A group of children was playing. Young ones--they even talked aloud sometimes as they played. Children.... There were so many children, always in groups, laughing....
He flew on, quickly, until he was in a part of the country where he didn't see any houses. Just a stream and a grove of trees and bright flowers. He dropped lower, stopped, got out and walked down to the stream.
It was by another stream that he'd met the children who had laughed at him, years ago. He smiled, sadly.
He felt alone, but in a different sense from his usual isolation. He felt free, away from people, away even from the books and their unspoken insistence that their writers were dead and almost forgotten. He stood by the edge of the stream, watching water spiders scoot across the rippled surface.
This was the same. This stream had probably been here when the old race was here, maybe even before the old race had even come into existence.
Water spiders. Compared to man, their race was immortal....
The sun was low when he turned away from the stream and walked back to where he had parked the aircar. He scarcely looked about him as he walked. He was sure he was alone, and he felt no caution, no need to watch and listen.
But as he turned toward the car he saw the people. Two. Young, about his own age. A boy and a girl, smiling at each other, holding hands.
They weren't a dozen feet in front of him. But they didn't notice him. They were conscious of no one but each other. As Eric watched, standing frozen, unwilling to draw attention to himself by even moving or backing up, the two leaned closer together. Their arms went around each other, tightly, and they kissed.
They said nothing. They kissed, and then stood apart and went on looking at each other. Even without being able to perceive, Eric could feel their emotion.
Then they turned, slowly, toward him. In a moment they would be aware of him. He didn't want them to think he was spying on them, so he went toward them, making no effort to be quiet, and as he moved they stepped still farther apart and looked at him, startled.
They looked at each other as he passed, even more startled, and the girl's hand went up to her mouth in surprise.
They know, Eric thought bitterly. They know I'm different.
He didn't want to go back to the museum. He flew blindly, not looking down at the neat domed houses and the gardens and the people, but ahead, to the eastern sky and the upthrust scarp of the hills. The hills, where people like him had fled, for a little while.
The occasional aircars disappeared. The gardens dropped away, and the ordered color, and there was grass and bare dirt and, ahead, the scraggly trees and out-thrust rocks of the foothills. No people. Only the birds circling, crying to each other, curious about the car. Only the scurrying animals of the underbrush below.
A little of the tension drained from him as he climbed. Perhaps in these very hills men like him had walked, not many generations ago. Perhaps they would walk there again, amid the disorder of tree and canyon and tumbled rock. Amid the wildness, the beauty that was neither that of the gardens nor that of the old race's cities, but older, more enduring than either.
Below him were other streams, but these were swift-flowing, violent, sparkling like prismed sunlight as they cascaded over the rocks. Their wildness called to him, soothed him as the starship soothed him, as the gardens and the neat domed houses never could.
He knew why his kind had fled to the hills, for whatever little time they had. He knew too that he would come again.
Searching. Looking for his own kind.
That was what he was doing. That was what he had always intended to do, ever since he had heard of the others like himself, the men who had come here before him. He realized his motive suddenly, and realized too the futility of it. But futile or not, he would come again.
For he was of the old race. He shared their hungering.
Walden was reading in his study when the council members arrived. They came without advance warning and filed in ceremoniously, responding rather coolly to his greeting.
"We're here about the boy," Abbot began abruptly. "He's at the museum now, isn't he?"
Walden nodded. "He's been spending most of his time there lately."
"Do you think it's wise, letting him wander around alone?"
Trouble. Always trouble. Just because there was one young boy, Eric, asking only to be let alone. And the old council members wouldn't rest until they had managed to find an excuse to put him in an institution somewhere, where his actions could be watched, where there wouldn't be any more uncertainty.
"Eric's all right."
"Is he? Prior tells me he leaves the museum every day. He doesn't come here. He doesn't visit his family."
The thin man, Drew, broke in. "He goes to the hills. Just like the others did. Did you know that, Walden?"
Walden's mouth tightened. It wouldn't do to let them read his hostility to their prying. It would be even worse to let them know that they worried him.
"Besides," Drew added, "he's old enough to be thinking about women now. There's always a chance he'll--"
"Are you crazy?" Walden shouted the words aloud. "Eric's not an animal."
"Isn't he?" Abbot answered quietly. "Weren't all the old race just animals?"
Walden turned away from them, closing his mind to their thoughts. He mustn't show anger. If he did, they'd probably decide he was too emotional, not to be trusted. They'd take Eric away, to some institution. Cage him....
"What do you want to do with the boy?" Walden forced his thoughts to come quietly. "Do you want to put him in a zoo with the other animals?"
The sarcasm hurt them. They wanted to be fair. Abbot especially prided himself on his fairness.
"Of course not."
They hesitated. They weren't going to do anything. Not this time. They stood around and made a little polite conversation, about other things, and then Abbot turned toward the door.
"We just wanted to be sure you knew what was going on." Abbot paused. "You'll keep an eye on the boy, won't you?"
"Am I his keeper?" Walden asked softly.
They didn't answer him. Their thoughts were confused and a bit irritated as they went out to the aircar that had brought them. But he knew they'd be back. And they would keep track of Eric. Prior, the caretaker, would help them. Prior was old too, and worried....
Walden walked back into his study, slowly. His legs were trembling. He hadn't realized how upset he had been. He smiled at the intensity of his emotions, realizing something he'd always kept hidden, even from himself.
He was as fond of Eric as if the boy had been his own son.
Eric pushed the books away, impatiently. He didn't feel like studying. The equations were meaningless. He was tired of books, and history, and all the facts about the old race.
He wanted to be outdoors, exploring, walking along the hillsides, looking for his own kind.
But he had already explored the hills. He had flown for miles, and walked for miles, and searched dozens of caves in dozens of gorges. He had found no one. He was sure that if there had been anyone he would have discovered some sign.
He opened the book again, but he couldn't concentrate on it.
Beyond those hills, across another valley, there were even higher mountains. He had often looked across at them, wondering what they held. They were probably as desolate as the ones he'd searched. Still, he would rather be out in them, looking, than sitting here, fretting, almost hating the old race because it had somehow bequeathed him a heritage of loneliness.
He got up abruptly and went outside to the aircar.
It was a long way to the second range of mountains. He flew there directly, skimming over the nearer hills, the ones he had spent weeks exploring. He dropped low over the intervening valley, passing over the houses and towns, looking down at the gardens. The new race filled all the valleys.
He came into the foothills and swung the car upward, climbing over the steep mountainsides. Within a mile from the valley's edge he was in wild country. He'd thought the other hills were wild, but here the terrain was jagged and rock-strewn, with boulders flung about as if by some giant hand. There were a hundred narrow canyons, opening into each other, steep-sloped, overgrown with brambles and almost impenetrable, a maze with the hills rising around them and cutting off all view of the surrounding country.
Eric dropped down into one of the larger canyons. Immediately he realized how easy it would be to get lost in those hills. There were no landmarks that were not like a hundred jutting others. Without the aircar he would be lost in a few minutes. He wondered suddenly if anyone, old race or new, had ever been here before him.
He set the aircar down on the valley floor and got out and walked away from it, upstream, following the little creek that tumbled past him over the rocks. By the time he had gone a hundred paces the car was out of sight.
It was quiet. Far away birds called to each other, and insects buzzed around him, but other than these sounds there was nothing but his own footsteps and the creek rapids. He relaxed, walking more slowly, looking about him idly, no longer searching for anything.
He rounded another bend, climbed up over a rock that blocked his path and dropped down on the other side of it. Then he froze, staring.
Not ten feet ahead of him lay the ashes of a campfire, still smoldering, still sending a thin wisp of smoke up into the air.
He saw no one. Nothing moved. No tracks showed in the rocky ground. Except for the fire, the gorge looked as uninhabited as any of the others.
Slowly Eric walked toward the campfire and knelt down and held his hand over the embers. Heat rose about him. The fire hadn't been out for very long.
He turned quickly, glancing about him, but there was no sudden motion anywhere, no indication that anyone was hiding nearby. Perhaps there was nobody near. Perhaps whoever had built the fire had left it some time before, and was miles away by now....
He didn't think so. He had a feeling that eyes were watching him. It was a strange feeling, almost as if he could perceive. Wishful thinking, he told himself. Unreal, untrue....
But someone had been here. Someone had built the fire. And it was probably, almost certainly, someone without perception. Someone like himself.
His knees were shaking. His hands trembled, and sweat broke out on the palms. Yet his thoughts seemed calm, icily calm. It was just a nervous reaction, he knew that. A reaction to the sudden knowledge that people were here, out in these hills where he had searched for them but never, deep down, expected to find them. They were probably watching him right now, hidden up among the trees somewhere, afraid to move because then he would see them and start out to capture them.
If there were people here, they must think that he was one of the normal ones. That he could perceive. So they would keep quiet, because a person with perception couldn't possibly perceive a person who lacked it. They would remain motionless, hoping to stay hidden, waiting for him to leave so that they could flee deeper into the hills.
They couldn't know that he was one of them.
He felt helpless, suddenly. So near, so near--and yet he couldn't reach them. The people who lived here in the wild mountain gorges could elude him forever.
No motion. No sound. Only the embers, smoking....
"Listen," he called aloud. "Can you hear me?"
The canyon walls caught his voice, sent it echoing back, fainter and fainter. "... can you hear me can you hear me can you...."
No one answered.
"I'm your friend," he called. "I can't perceive. I'm one of you."
Over and over it echoed. "... one of you one of you one of you...."
"Answer me. I've run away from them too. Answer me!"
"Answer me answer me answer me...."
The echoes died away and it was quiet, too quiet. No sound. Even if they heard him, they wouldn't answer.
He couldn't track them. If they had homes that were easy to find they would have left them by now. He was helpless.
The heat from the fire rose about him, and he tasted smoke and coughed. Nothing moved. Finally he stood up, turned away from the fire and walked on past it, up the stream.
No one. No tracks. No sign. Only the feeling that other eyes watched him as he walked along, other ears listened for the sound of his passing.
He turned back, retraced his steps to the fire. The embers had blackened. The wisp of smoke that curled upward was very thin now. Otherwise everything was the same as it had been.
He couldn't give up and fly back to the museum. If he did he might never find them again. But even if he didn't, he might never find them.
"Listen!" He screamed the word, so loudly that they could have heard it miles away. "I'm one of you. I can't perceive. Believe me! You've got to believe me!"
"Believe me believe me believe me...."
Nothing. The tension went out of him suddenly and he began to tremble again, and his throat choked up, wanting to cry. He stumbled away from the embers, back in the direction of the aircar.
"Believe me...." This time the words were little more than a whisper, and there was no echo.
"I believe you," a voice said quietly.
He swung about, trying to place it, and saw the woman. She stood at the edge of the trees, above the campfire, half hidden in the undergrowth. She looked down at him warily, a rock clenched in her hand. She wasn't an attractive sight.
She looked old, with a leathery skin and gnarled arms and legs. Her grey-white hair was matted, pulled back into a snarled bun behind her head. She wore a shapeless dress of some roughwoven material that hung limply from her shoulders, torn, dirty, ancient. He'd never seen an animal as dirty as she.
"So you can't perceive," the woman cackled. "I believe it, boy. You don't have that look about you."
"I didn't know," Eric said softly. "I never knew until today that there were any others."
She laughed, a high-pitched laugh that broke off into a choking cough. "There aren't many of us, boy. Not many. Me and Nell--but she's an old, old woman. And Lisa, of course...."
She cackled again, nodding. "I always told Lisa to wait," she said firmly. "I told her that there'd be another young one along."
"Who are you?" Eric said.
"Me? Call me Mag. Come on, boy. Come on. What are you waiting for?"
She turned and started off up the hill, walking so fast that she was almost out of sight among the trees before Eric recovered enough to follow her. He stumbled after her, clawing his way up the steep slope, slipping and grabbing the branches with his hands and hauling himself up the rocks.