"Even if you do come back, you won't want me."
There wasn't any answer at all.
It was dusk when Eric got back to the museum. He landed the aircar and climbed out and walked across to the building, still feeling unreal, still not believing that the events of this day had actually happened.
He nodded to Prior and the old caretaker nodded back and then stood staring at him, troubled and curious. Eric didn't notice the other's expression, nor the fact that Prior followed him to the top of the spiral ramp and remained there for a while, watching.
Eric stood at the bottom of the well where he had so often stood before, staring across at the ship, then looking up, up, up its sleek length to where its nose pointed yearningly toward the night sky. But tonight he found no comfort in the sight, no sense of kinship with its builders. Tonight the ship was a dead and empty thing.
"You won't want me--" Her voice, her eyes, came between him and the stars.
He had thought of finding his people and sharing with them their common heritage from the past, the knowledge of the old race and its thoughts and its science and its philosophy. He had thought of sharing with them the old desire for the stars, the old hunger, the old loneliness that the new race could never understand. He had been wrong.
His people.... He pushed the thought away.
He looked up at the stars that were merely pin-pricks of light at the top of the well and wondered if anyone, old race or new or something different from either, lived among them now. And he felt small, and even the ship was small, and his own problems and his own search were unimportant. He sat down and leaned back against the smooth wall and closed his eyes, blotting out the ship and the stars, and finally, even Lisa's face before him.
The old caretaker found him sleeping there, and sighed, and went away again, still frowning. Eric slept on, unheeding. When he awoke it was late morning and the stars were gone and clouds drifted across the mouth of the well.
There was no answer here. The starship would never fly.
And Eric went back to the mountains.
It was two weeks later that the councilmen stood facing Walden across the great museum table. They had come together, Abbot and Drew and the others, and they faced him together, frowning. Their thoughts were hidden. Walden could catch only glimpses of what lay beneath their worry.
"Every day." Abbot's eyes were hard, unyielding. "Why, Walden? Why does he go there every day?"
"Does it matter?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. We can't tell--yet."
The ring of faces, of buried perceptions, of fear, anxiety, and a worry that could no longer be shrugged off. And Eric away, as he was every day now, somewhere in the distant hills.
"The boy's all right." Walden checked his own rush of worry.
The worry in the open now, the fear uncontained, and no more vacillation. Their thoughts hidden from Walden, their plans hidden, and nothing he could do, no way to warn Eric, yet.
Abbot smiled, humorlessly. "The boy had better be all right...."
Eric landed in the canyon and made sure that the aircar was hidden under a ledge, with branches drawn about it so that no one could spot it from above. Then he turned and started for the slope, and as he reached it Lisa ran down to meet him.
"You're late," she called.
"Am I? Have you really been waiting for me?"
"Of course." She came over to meet him, laughing, openly glad that he had come.
He smiled back at her and walked along beside her, having to take long strides to match her skipping ones, and he too was glad that he'd come. Lately he felt like this every day. It was a feeling he couldn't analyze. Nothing had changed. The girl was still too thin and too brown and too dirty, although now she had begun to wash her dress and her body in the mountain stream and to comb the snarls from her hair. But it didn't make her attractive to him. It only made her less unattractive.
"Will you always have to go away every night?" she asked guilelessly.
"I suppose so."
He looked down at her and smiled, wondering why he came. There was still an air of unreality about the whole situation. He felt numb. He had felt that way ever since the first day, and the feeling had grown, until now he moved and spoke and smiled and ate and it was as if he were someone else and the person he had been was gone completely. He liked coming here. But there was no triumph in being with these people, no sense of having found his own kind, no purpose, nothing but a vague contentment and an unwillingness to search any farther.
"You're very quiet," Lisa said.
"I know. I was thinking."
She reached out and touched his arm, her fingers strong and muscular. He smiled at her but made no move toward her, and after a moment she sighed and took her hand away.
"Why are you so different, Eric?"
"Perhaps because I was raised by the others, the normal ones. Perhaps just because I've read so many books about the old race...."
They came up to the boulders that blocked the entrance of the little gorge where the hut was. Lisa started toward them, then stopped abruptly.
"Let's go on up the hill. I want to talk to you, without them."
He followed her without speaking, concentrating all his effort on scrambling over the rougher spots in the trail. She didn't say anything more until they had come out on a high ledge that overlooked the whole canyon and she had sat down and motioned for him to sit down too.
"Whew," he panted. "You're a mountain goat, Lisa."
She didn't smile. "I've liked your coming to see us," she said. "I like to listen to you talk. I like the tales you tell of the old ones. But Mag and Nell are upset."
He knew what was coming. His eyes met hers, and then he looked away and reddened and felt sorry for her and what he would have to tell her. This was a subject they had managed to avoid ever since that first day, although the older women brought it up whenever he saw them.
"Mag says I must have a man," Lisa said. Her voice was tight. He couldn't tell if she was crying because he couldn't bear to look at her. He could only stare out over the canyon and listen and wait.
"She says if it isn't you I'll have to find someone else, later on, but she says it ought to be you. Because they're dangerous, and besides, if it's you our children will be sure to be like us."
"What?" He swung around, startled. "Do you mean that if one parent were normal the child might be too?"
"Yes," she said. "It might. They say that's happened. Sometimes. No one knows why we're born. No one knows why some are one way and some another."
"Lisa...." He stopped.
"I know. You don't want me. I've known that all the time."
"It isn't just that."
He tried to find the words to express what he felt, but anything he might say would be cold and cruel and not quite true. He felt the contentment drain out of him, and he felt annoyed, because he didn't want to have to think about her problem, or about anything.
"Why do they want you to have a child?" he said roughly. "Why do they want our kind to go on, living here like animals, or taken to the valleys and separated from each other and put into institutions until we die? Why don't they admit that we've lost, that the normals own the Earth? Why don't they stop breeding and let us die?"
"Your parents were normal, Eric. If all of us died, others would be born, someday."
He nodded and then he closed his eyes and fought against the despair that rose suddenly within him and blotted out the last of the contentment and the unreality. He fought against it and lost. And suddenly Lisa was very real, more real even than the books had ever been. And the dirty old women were suddenly people--individuals, not savages. He tried to pity them, to retreat into his pity and his loneliness, but he couldn't even do that.
The people he had looked for were imaginary. He would never find them, because Mag and Nell and Lisa were his people. They were like him, and the only difference between him and them was one of luck. They were dirty and ignorant. They had been born in the mountains and hunted like beasts. He was more fortunate; he had been born in the valley.
He was a snob. He had looked down on them, when all the time he was one of them. If he had been born among them, he would have been as they were. And, if Lisa had lived in another age, she too would have sought the stars.
Eric sat very still and fought until a little of the turmoil quieted inside of him. Then he opened his eyes again and stared across the canyon, at the rock slides and the trees growing out from the slopes at twisting, precarious angles, and he saw everything in a new light. He saw the old race as it had been far earlier than the age of space-travel, and he knew that it had conquered many environments on Earth before it had gained a chance to try for those of space. He felt humble, suddenly, and proud at the same time.
Lisa sat beside him, not speaking, drawing away from him and letting him be by himself, as if she knew the conflicts within him and knew enough not to interrupt. He was grateful both for her presence there beside him and for her silence.
Much later, when afternoon shadows had crept well out from the rocks, she turned to him. "Will you take me to the valley someday, Eric?"
"Maybe. But no one must know about you. You know what would happen if any of them found out you even existed."
"Yes," she said. "We'd have to be careful, all right. But you could take me for a ride in the aircar sometime and show me things."
Before, he would have shrugged off her words and forgotten them. Now he couldn't. Decision crystalized quickly in his mind.
"Come on, Lisa," he said, getting to his feet and reaching down to help her up also. "I'll take you to the valley right now."
She looked up at him, unable to speak, her eyes shining, and then she was running ahead of him, down the slope toward the aircar.
The car climbed swiftly away from the valley floor, up between the canyon walls and above them, over the crest of the hills. He circled it for a moment, banking it over on its side so that she could look down at the gorge and the rocks and the cascading stream.
"How do you like it, Lisa?"
"I don't know." She smiled, rather weakly, her body braced against the seat. "It feels so strange."
He smiled back and straightened the car, turning away from the mountains until the great, gardened valley stretched out before them, all the way to the foot of the western hills.
"I'll show you the museum," he said. "I only wish I could take you inside."
She moved away from him, nearer to the window, and looked down at the scattered houses that lay below them, at the people moving in the gardens, at the children.
"I never dreamed it was like this," she said. "I never could picture it before."
There was a longing in her face he'd never noticed before. He stared at her, and she was different suddenly, and her thin muscular body was different too.
Pioneer--that was the word he wanted.
The girls of the new race could never be pioneers.
"Look, Eric. Over there. Aircars."
The words broke in on his thoughts and he looked away from her, following her gaze incuriously, not much interested. And then his fingers stiffened on the controls and the peacefulness fell away from him as if it had never been.
"Lots of them," she said.
Aircars. Eight or ten of them, more than he had ever seen at one time, spread out in a line and flying eastward, straight toward him.
They mustn't see Lisa. They mustn't get close enough to realize who he was.
He swung away from them, perpendicular to their course, angling so that he would be out of perception range, and then he circled, close to the ground, as they swept by, undeviating, purposeful, toward the mountains.
Toward the mountains.
Fear. Sudden, numbing fear and the realization of his own carelessness.
"What's the matter, Eric?"
He had swung about and now followed them, far behind them and off to one side, much too far away for them to try to perceive him. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps they don't know. But all the time he remembered his own trips to the canyon, taken so openly.
"Oh, Eric, they're not--"
He swung up over the last ridge and looked down, and her words choked off in her throat. Below them lay the canyon, and in it, the long line of aircars, landed now, cutting off the gorge, the light reflecting off them, bronze in the sunset. And the tiny figures of men were even now spreading out from the cars.
"What'll we do, Eric?"
Panic. In her voice and in her eyes and in her fingers that bit into his arm, hurting him, steadying him against his own fear and the twisting realization of his betraying lack of caution.
"Run. What else can we do?"
Down back over the ridge, out of sight of the aircars and into the foothills, and all the while knowing that there was nowhere to run to now.
"No, Eric! We've got to go back. We've got to find Mag and Nell--" Her voice rose in anguish, then broke, and she was crying.
"We can't help them by going back," he said harshly. "Maybe they got away. Maybe they didn't. But the others would catch us for sure if they got near us."
Run. It was all they could do, now. Run to other hills and leave the aircar and hide, and live as Lisa had lived, as others of their kind had lived.
"We've got to think of ourselves, Lisa. It's all we can do, now."
Down through the foothills, toward the open valley, and the future, the long blind race to other mountains, and no choice left, no alternative, and the books lost and the starship left behind, forever....
Lisa cried, and her fingers bit into his arm. Ahead of him, too close to flee or deceive, was another line of aircars, flying in from the valley, their formation breaking as they veered toward him.
"Land, Eric. Land and run!"
"We can't, Lisa. There's not enough time."