"We were always there. We colonized the rest of the galaxy. Long ago."
The registrar clicked furiously, expressed itself still more femininely this time. "Oh, that planet! You certainly are the first, Smith. The very first here at the school. Room 4027, dominant companion." Neuter voice again. "That's all, Smith of Earth. Next."
The vaguely purple-skinned man stood before the registrar, winked at the flashing lights. "You know, now I can see what they mean when we're told of a missing link in the chain between man and animal. Old Earthsmith...."
"Name?" said the machine.
The man pointed at Smith, shook with silent laughter. The back of Smith's head, which could not properly be called bald because he had never had any hair on it, was very red.
"Planet?" demanded the fully neuter machine.
There was the red star, a monstrous blotch of crimson swollen and brooding on the horizon and filling a quarter of the sky. There was the fleck of white high up near the top of the red giant, its white-dwarf companion in transit. These were the high jagged crags, falling off suddenly to the sundered, frothy sea with its blood-red sun-track fading to pink and finally to gray far away on either side.
Smith watched the waves break far below him, and he almost stumbled when someone tapped his shoulder.
"That was mean of the man named Jorak." She might have been a woman of Earth, except that she was too thin, cast in a too-delicate mould. Yet beautiful.
Smith shrugged, felt the heat rise to his face and knew that he must have looked like a mirror for the red sun.
"Is that really a blush, Smith? Are you blushing?"
He nodded. "I can't help it. I--"
"Don't be foolish. I don't want you to stop. I think it looks nice."
Smith rubbed his pate, watched the hot wind blow the girl's yellow hair about her face. "They tell me my great great grandfather had a little fringe of hair around his head. I've seen pictures."
"If you're trying to make fun of me, please go away. It wasn't nice, it was ugly. Either you have hair or you don't. The men of Earth used to have it, long ago. The women still do."
She changed the subject. "I'll bet you think this place is ugly, Smith."
Smith shook his head. "No, it's stark. If you like things that way, it isn't really ugly. But Earth is a planet of green rolling hills and soft rains and--you're making fun of me."
"You say that again and I'll take it as an insult." She smiled. "We have our green rolling hills on Bortinot, only it's cold. I like it here because it's warm. And, of course, I have a lot to learn at school."
"Would you think I'm stupid if I ask you what?"
"No. And you were really serious in there when you said you didn't know what they teach."
"How could I know? I'm the first student here from Earth. Every five years--say, twenty times during the course of one lifetime--we get the application. This time the government finally decided someone should go. Me."
"Well, they teach just about everything that could be of value in a transtellar culture."
"Things like astrogation and ethics--"
"I caught the school express at a Denebian planet. Someone told me there that the school is decadent."
She smiled up at him. "Deneb is a slothful place, then. It is true that the school never stands still, changing its courses to meet the demands of a changing society. If Deneb cannot keep pace with the changes, that could explain the feeling. Right now they'll be concentrating in dreams and dream-empathy, in some of the newer Garlonian dances, Sarchian cooking for the receptives and Wortan fighting for the dominants. Quite a virile program, Smith, provided one is up to it."
"What happened to your astrogation and ethics?"
"That? Oh, that's just a catch-all phrase. Your courses will depend on such things as your D or R classifications--"
"It makes me laugh a little," Smith admitted. "But they've classified me as a receptive. I guess they know what they're doing. Still--"
"You think you're strong, eh?"
"Well, I didn't see anyone in the registrar's room who would worry me very much in a fight."
"Society is sophisticated, Smith. There's more to strength than mere brawn. What sort of psi-powers have they cultivated on the planet Earth?"
In a general sense, but in a general sense only, Smith knew what she meant. "Well, there's hypnotism, and some people play at telepathy and clairvoyance. Nothing much, really."
"That isn't much, my friend."
"Why? What else is there?" Smith smiled for the first time. "I didn't know--" He shook his head, suddenly, to clear it. He felt tilted. He looked and he saw that everything was straight, but still he felt tilted. He tried to right himself, and down he went. On his stomach he lay, his legs twisted under him a little. Foolishly, he tried to get up. He couldn't.
"There's that." The girl laughed. "Suggestion without the need for hypnotism."
Smith stood up, said, "I see what you mean."
It began to rain. A brisk wind came up abruptly, and off in the distance Smith heard the roar of thunder. It came closer. Still closer. Like in a straight line. Smith watched the lightnings prance.
"We'd better get back to the school!" he cried. He didn't think she could hear his voice above the thunder. He started to shout again, but lightning crackled before his eyes. Between him and the girl. Something rumbled, and Smith started to fall. They had been blasted off the crag, and now they hurtled down through the sheets of hot rain....
"Feel yourself," the girl told him. The huge crimson sun still sat on the horizon. The air was hot and warm and Smith was dry.
"Suggestion," she smiled again. "Most of us have it to some degree, but we of Bortinot have it still more. Still think you should be a dominant?"
"Well--" The girl's face swam before his eyes. Lovely. Smith took a step forward, reached out and placed his big hands on her shoulders.
"Well what?" She was smiling.
"What's your name?"
His lips were big and hers were little, if full. He quivered as he kissed her. "I love you, Geria."
"I know it," she said.
"The reason I went outside to watch the sea," Smith said, "was because I didn't know how to get to room 4027. I didn't want to ask anyone, not after--"
"That makes sense. I'll take you, Smith. I'm just down the hall from you, anyway."
"Thank you, Geria." Smith wondered how he knew her name was Geria. Nice name. "What happened after I thought there was a storm, Geria?" Smith suppressed a smile.
"Oh, nothing much. I just planted another suggestion in your mind. For now you've forgotten, but you will remember. Shall we go?"
They walked back down the path from the top of the crag, and soon Smith saw other students in groups of two and three. Ahead was the long low school, a dull rectangle of metal perhaps two miles long and half as wide. With Geria, Smith entered through one of the hundreds of doorways and followed her wordlessly up a mechanical staircase.
They flashed past many landings, and after a time Smith followed the girl across one of them and into a long hall.
"Simple," she said. "You have the twenty-seventh room here on the fortieth floor. Mine is room eighteen. Will we be seeing more of each other, Smith?"
"As much as you'd like," he said, but it made him feel foolish. He had merely spoken to the girl for a few minutes, and yet he could not quite fathom his emotions. To some extent she had made him feel the same as had the man Jorak, and yet she liked him. She wanted to see more of him. She said so.
"Smith, you're blushing again. I tell you what: if you can do that every day, then I will see you every day. It's so nice and--unaffected."
Was that the word she really had in mind? Smith remembered once when he was little, a farmer had come to the city and everyone had called him an ancient word which they said came from a still more ancient name. Rube they had called him. Rube. He didn't like it. He had had a fight, Smith recalled, and a big plateglass window was broken. He went to jail for a few weeks on the moon, and after that he didn't come to the city any more. Smith was little at the time, but he had never forgotten the look on the farmer's face when the security officers took him off to the moon rocket.
Had he known it, Jorak would have used the word rube, but what about Geria?
The green number on the white door was painted sharply--4027. "Here's my room," Smith said. He tried an indifferent wave, but it hardly worked, and he began to blush again.
Geria skipped lightly down the hall, and he couldn't see her face to tell if she were smiling. He shrugged, opened the door.
"Earthsmith! Oh, no ... I come half way across the galaxy to get here, so what are the odds against any particular room mate? Huge, that's what. But I got me--hello, Earthsmith."
It was the purple man, Jorak. He had just recently greased his shock of bright green hair, and he had turned away from the mirror when Smith opened the door. Now he turned back to the tinted glass and held his head at various angles.
"Well, can you change rooms if you want to?" Smith asked pleasantly.
"You're not going to chase me out of my own room, Earthsmith. You can change if you'd like. Not me."
"All right if you want me to I'll change."
"If I want you to! Don't pass the blame to me, Earthsmith. I didn't say a thing about changing, not me. Don't you think I'm good enough for you?"
"I don't care one way or the other," Smith said. "I suggested you change because I thought you'd be happier that way. Look, I'll mind my own business and pretend you are not even here. How's that?"
"Pretend I'm not here? Like cepheid you will. If you want to be ornery, Smith, or Earthsmith, or whatever your name is, I'll give you plenty to be ornery about. I'm a dominant, you know, so just watch out."
"I'll change if that will make you happy." Smith didn't want any trouble. He still felt more than a little strange and out of place here, and a fight with Jorak wouldn't help matters. Briefly, he wondered what sort of psi-powers Jorak possessed.
The purple man stood up. "What kind of a slap in the face is that? We haven't even started courses or anything. You think I'd need you to help me with my work or something?"
"No, I'm quite sure you wouldn't. But I'll change my room, anyway. I'll probably get in your way--"
"Well, I wouldn't get into your hair, satellite-head! If you think you're going to leave here and say I started a fight or something.... My father made quite a record for himself here at the school, and I'll have to beat it, of course."
"Of course," Smith agreed, but he did not really know why.
"Are you implying anyone, just anyone, could top my father's record, Earthsmith? Not a man from Gyra ever did it, and intellectually Gyra is top planet in its own sector. Not a woman from Bortinot came close, but then, you probably don't even know where Bortinot is."
Smith said no, he didn't, but he had just met a woman from Bortinot. Perhaps if he changed the subject....
Jorak ran his fingers up along each side of his shock of hair. They came away greasy green. "Exquisite, those women of Bortinot. But then, you probably wouldn't appreciate them, eh, Earthsmith?"
Smith said that he could appreciate them very well indeed, especially since, except for a few minor structural differences, they looked like women of Earth. It was a mistake, and the muscles in Jorak's cheeks began to twitch.
"I say they look exquisite, you say they look like women of Earth. Which is it, Earthsmith? Not both, surely--a contradiction in terms. I believe you're trying to provoke me."
Smith sighed. He wanted no trouble--they had spent a year with him on Earth, indoctrinating that. He was to be a paragon at the school, as Earth's first student there, he had to be a paragon--even if he turned out to be more awkward in this situation than the farmer on Earth everyone had called Rube.
"I think I will go to sleep," Smith said.
"Why, don't you men of Earth ever eat, Smith?"
Smith said yes, they ate, but he wasn't very hungry now. As a matter of fact, he was ravenously hungry, but he did not relish the idea of going to some public eating place either with Jorak or alone. His heart began to beat a little faster when he thought that he might meet Geria if he did, but then he felt the heat rise up his neck and into his cheeks. He'd hardly know what to say to her, and besides, he knew there was something he should remember but couldn't quite. No, he'd skip dinner this first day at the school.
Now he watched Jorak open the door and step into the hallway, and for a moment he heard gay voices and the shuffling of many feet, and Jorak's voice louder than the rest: "Kard of Shilon! How long has it been? I can remember that day near Raginsdild...."
Smith turned to the window, and for a long time he sat watching the fat red sun.
He got up early and he showered, and then he heard a clicking sound. Two cards had been deposited in a tray from a slot in the wall. At the top of one were the words "Jorak of Gyra," and Smith's name and planet were printed on the other. He picked it up and began to read, and then Jorak sat up and took the other card.
"Programs," said Jorak. "Everyone takes transtellar history, of course, and a section or two in the humanities. My electives are Wortan fighting and dream-empathy."
Smith smiled. "Me too--same program. I suppose we'll be in class together, Jorak."
"Rather stupid," the purple man observed. "They've given you a dominant's program. But then, I remember you questioned your receptive classification, and the registrar's known to do this on occasion, just to put you in your place. You'll be in Garlonian dancing in a few days, Earthsmith."
"Well, I sure hope not. I didn't come here to learn how to dance--"
"Hah! So what? If you're an R you'll learn how to dance and like it. Cook, too. There's no such thing as a misfit at the school, not permanently. They'll find you out soon enough, Earthsmith. Hmmm, wait till Kard of Shilon finds out what they've put in Wortan. Kard's top man in his sector, and it's just possible they'll pair you off with him.
"Well, you going to eat this morning? I'd hate to see you in Wortan without a good meal in you. But I suppose it really wouldn't help, anyway. Coming, Earthsmith?"
There weren't any people out in the hall this early, and Smith breathed more easily when they moved in a direction opposite that of Geria's room. Soon they had descended a score of levels, and the moving ramp became more crowded. Smith tried to ignore the eager hum of conversation, but it was all around him. He realized he should be feeling that way too. But you couldn't drum up a student's eager appetite within yourself, not when you didn't feel that way, not when your entire planet waited to see how you made out here and you felt unsure of yourself, even in such simple things as eating.