Everything was lost now--even the hills.
Unless ... one chance. The only chance, and it was nearly hopeless.
"Get in the back, Lisa," he said. "Climb over the seat and hide in that storage compartment. And stay there."
The two nearest cars had swung about now and paralleled his course, flanking him, drifting in nearer and nearer.
"Why?" Lisa clung to him. "What are you going to do?"
"They don't know you're with me. They probably don't even know I went back to the canyon. They think I'll land at the museum, not suspecting anything's wrong. So I'll do just what they expect me to. Go back, and pretend I don't know a thing."
"It's our only chance, Lisa. If only they don't lock me up tonight...."
She clung to him for still another minute and then she climbed over the seat and he heard the luggage compartment panel slide open and, a moment later, shut.
The nearest aircar drifted still closer to him, escorting him west-ward, toward the museum. Behind him, other cars closed in.
Walden and Prior were waiting for him at the entrance of the main building, just as they had waited so often before. He greeted them casually, trying to act exactly as he usually did, but their greetings to him were far from casual. They stared at him oddly, Prior even drawing back a little as he approached. Walden looked at him for a long moment, very seriously, as if trying to tell him something, but what it was Eric didn't know. Both men were worried, their anxiety showing in their manner, and Eric wondered if he himself showed the fear that gripped him.
They must know what had happened. By now probably every normal person within a hundred miles of the museum must know.
At the entrance he glanced back idly and saw that one of the aircars that had followed him had landed and that the others were angling off again, leaving. It was too dark to see how many men got out of the car, but Walden and Prior were facing in that direction, communicating, and Eric knew that they knew. Everything.
It was like a trap around him, with each of their minds a strand of the net, and he was unable to see which strands were about to entangle him, unable to see if there were any holes through which he might escape. All he could do was pretend that he didn't even know the net existed, and wait.
Half a dozen men came up to Prior and Walden. One of them was Abbot. His face was very stern, and when he glanced over at where Eric stood in the building entrance his face grew even sterner.
Eric watched them for a moment; then he went inside, the way he usually did when there were lots of people around. He wished he knew what they were saying. He wished he knew what was going to happen.
He went on into the library and pulled out a book at random and sat down and started turning the pages. He couldn't read. He kept waiting for them to come in, for one of them to lay a hand on his shoulder and tell him to come along, that they knew he had found other people like himself and that he was a danger to their race and that they were going to lock him up somewhere.
What would happen to Lisa? They'd find her, of course. She could never escape alone, on foot, to the hills.
What had happened to Mag and Nell?
No one came. He knew that their perceptions lay all around him, but he could sense no emotions, no thoughts but his own.
He sat and waited, his eyes focused on the book but not seeing it. It seemed hours before anyone came. Then Prior and Abbot and Walden were in the archway, looking across at him. Prior's face was still worried, Abbot's stern, Walden's reassuring....
Eric forced himself to smile at them and then turn another page and pretend to go on reading. After a moment he heard their footsteps retreating, and when he looked up again they were gone.
He sat a while longer and then he got up and walked down the ramp and stood for a few minutes looking at the ship, because that too would be expected of him. He felt nothing. The ship was a world away now, mocking him, for his future no longer lay in the past, with the old race, but out in the hills. If he had a future at all....
He went up the ramp again, toward his own room. No one else was in sight. They had all gone to bed, perhaps. They wouldn't expect him to try to run away now.
He began to walk, as aimlessly as he could, in the direction of the aircar. He saw no one. Perhaps it wasn't even guarded. He circled around it, still seeing no one; then, feeling more secure suddenly, he went directly toward it and reached up to open the panel and climb in.
"Is that you, Eric?"
Walden's voice. Quiet as always. And it came from inside the car.
Eric stood frozen, looking up at the ship, trying to see Walden's face and unable to find it in the darkness. He didn't answer--couldn't answer. He listened, and heard nothing except Walden, there above him, moving on the seat.
Where was Lisa?
"I thought you'd come back here," Walden said. He climbed down out of the aircar and stood facing Eric, his body a dim shadow.
"Why are you here?" Eric whispered.
"I wanted to see you. Without the others knowing it. I was sure you'd come here tonight."
Walden. Always Walden. First his teacher and then his friend, and now the one man who stood between him and freedom. For a second Eric felt his muscles tense and he stiffened, ready to leap upon the older man and knock him down and take the ship and run. Then he relaxed. It was a senseless impulse, primitive and useless.
"The others don't know you have any idea what's happened, Eric. But I could tell. It was written all over you."
"What did they find, Walden?"
The old man sighed, and when he spoke his voice was very tired. "They found two women. They tried to capture them, but the women ran out on a ledge. The older one slipped and fell and the other tried to catch her and she fell too. They were dead when the men reached them."
Eric listened, and slowly his tension relaxed, replaced by a dull ache of mourning. But he knew that he was glad to hear that they were dead and not captured, not dragged away from the hills to be bathed and well fed and imprisoned forever under the eyes of the new race.
"The old one was blind," Walden said. "It may have been her blindness that caused her to fall."
"No, Eric, it probably wasn't."
They were silent for a moment, and there was no sound at all except for their own breathing. Eric wondered if Lisa still hid in the aircar, if she was listening to them, afraid and hopeless and crying over the death of her people.
"Why did you come out here, Walden?"
"To see you. I came today, when I realized how suspicious the council had grown. I was going to warn you, to tell you to keep away from the hills, that they wanted an excuse to lock you up. I was too late."
"I was careless, Walden." He felt guilt twist inside of him.
"No. You didn't know the danger. I should have warned you sooner. But I never dreamed you would find anyone in the hills, Eric. I never dreamed there were any more without perception, this generation."
Eric moved nearer the car and leaned against it, the cold plastic next to his body cooling him a little, steadying him against the feverish trembling that shook his legs and sent sweat down over him and made him too weak, suddenly, to want to struggle further.
"Let me go, Walden. Let me take the car and go."
Walden didn't move. He stood quietly, a tall thin shape in the darkness.
"There are other people the searchers didn't find, aren't there? And you're going to them."
Eric didn't answer. He looked past Walden, at the car, wishing he could somehow call to Lisa, wishing they could perceive so that he could reassure her and promise her that somehow he'd still take her to freedom. But it would be an empty promise....
"I've warned you too late. You've found your people, but it won't do you any good. They'll hunt you through the hills, and I won't be able to help you any more."
Eric looked back at him, hearing the sadness in his voice. It was real sadness, real emotion. He thought of the years he had spent with Walden, learning, absorbing the old race knowledge, and he remembered that all through those years Walden had never once made him feel uncomfortable because of the difference between them.
He looked at the old man for a long time, wishing that it was day so he could read the other's expression, wondering how he had managed to take this man for granted for so long.
"Why?" he whispered. "Why are you helping me? Why aren't you like the others?"
"I never had a son, Eric. Perhaps that's the reason."
Eric thought of Myron and shook his head. "No, it isn't that. My father doesn't feel the way you do. He can't forget that I'm not normal. With him, I'm always aware of the difference."
"And you're not with me?"
"No," Eric said. "I'm not. Why?" And he wondered why he had never asked that question before.
"The final question," Walden said softly. "I wondered how long it would be before you asked it. I wondered if you'd ever ask it.
"Haven't you ever thought about why I never married, Eric? Haven't you ever asked yourself why I alone learned to read, and collected books, and studied the old race?"
"No," Eric admitted. "I just accepted you."
"Even though I can perceive and you can't." Walden paused and Eric waited, not knowing what was coming and yet sure that nothing could surprise him now.
"My father was normal," Walden said slowly. "But I never saw him. My mother was like you. So was my brother. We lived in the hills and I was the only one who could perceive. I learned what it was to be different."
Eric stared. He couldn't stop staring. And yet he should have realized, long ago, that Walden was different too, in his own way.
Walden smiled back, his face, shadowed in moonlight, as quiet and as understanding as ever. For a moment neither spoke, and there was only the faraway sound of crickets chirping and the rustling of the wind in the gardens.
And then, from within the aircar, there was a different rustling, that of a person moving.
Eric pushed the compartment panel back. The soft light came on automatically, framing her where she curled against the far wall.
"You heard us?"
She nodded. Tears had dried on her cheeks. Her eyes were huge in her thin face.
"We'd better go, Lisa."
He reached in to help her out.
They didn't see the aircar dropping in for a landing until it was almost upon them, until its lights arced down over the museum walls.
"Hide, Eric. In here--" Lisa pulled him forward.
Behind them, Walden's voice, suddenly tired in the darkness. "It's too late. They know I'm here. And they're wondering why."
The three of them stood frozen, watching each other, while the dark shape of the car settled to the ground some thirty yards away.
"It's Abbot," Walden said. He paused, intent for a moment, and added, "He doesn't know about you. Get out of sight somewhere, both of you, away from here--"
"Come on, Lisa--" Eric swung away from the car, toward the shelter of the building and whatever hiding place there might be. "Hurry!"
They ran, and the museum rose in front of them, and the door was open. They were through it and into the dim corridor, and there was no one around; Walden's figure was lost in the night outside. Beyond the libraries the great ramp spiraled downward.
"This way, Lisa!"
They came out into the bottom of the well and there in front of them the starship rested. Still reaching upward. Still waiting, as it had waited for so many uncounted years.
Their ship--if only it could be their ship....
Side by side they stood staring at it, and Eric wished that they could get into it and go, right now, while they were still free and there was no one to stop them. But they couldn't. There was no food in the ship, no plant tanks, none of the many provisions the books listed.
Besides, if they took off now they would destroy the museum and all the people in it, and probably kill themselves as well.
"Eric! We know you're down there!" It wasn't Walden's voice.
Lisa moved closer. Eric put his arm around her and held her while footsteps hurried toward them down the ramp. The council. Abbot and Drew and the others. Prior, shaking his head. Walden.
"Let us go," Eric cried. "Why won't you let us go?"
Walden turned to the others. His eyes pleaded with them. His lips moved and his hands were expressive, gesturing. But the others stood without moving, without expression.
Then Abbot pushed Walden aside and started forward, his face hard and determined and unchangeable.
"You won't let us go," Eric said.
"No. You're fools, both of you."
There was one answer, only one answer, and with it, a hot violence in his blood as the old race pattern came into focus, as the fear and the futility fell away.
It was only a few steps to the ship. Eric caught Lisa's arm and pulled her after him and ran toward it, reaching up to the door. In one motion he flung it open and lifted her through it, then he swung about to face the others.
"Let us go!" he shouted. "Promise to let us go, or we'll take off anyway and if we die at least you'll die too!"
Abbot stopped. He looked back at Walden, his face scornful. "You see?" he said aloud. "They're mad. And you let this happen."
He turned away, dismissing Walden, and came toward the ship. The others followed him.
Eric waited. He stood with his back to the door, waiting, as Abbot strode toward him, ahead of the other councilmen, alone and unprotected.