That part of it at least turned out better than Smith had hoped. There were eggs, and while he was sure he would not recognize the fowl if he saw it, he could at least order his over-light and get something familiar. And there were long strips of fatty meat which almost could have been bacon, except Smith was sure the pig wouldn't be a pig at all.
And Smith was lost in the hordes of white men, green men, purple, orange and brown, and no one paid him too much attention. Jorak busied himself remembering old times with a gruff burly orange man named Kard, whose planet was Shilon, and Smith ate in silence. Once he thought he saw Geria far off at another table, but it could have been his imagination, and when he looked again she was gone.
Home, Smith always had been a quick eater, but now he found himself pawing at his food. Soon the great dining room began to clear. Jorak and Kard leaned back in their chairs, watching Smith.
Jorak yawned. "How long does it take you to breakfast?"
"Different rate of digestion on Earth," Kard suggested.
"Don't be foolish. Earthsmith's in no hurry to attend his first class, so he's loafing. Right, Earthsmith?"
Smith mumbled something about unfamiliar food under his breath, and Jorak said, "Well, no matter. We'll give you another moment or two, Earthsmith. Then we'll have to be going. We all three have transtellar history, you know."
Smith knew it all too well. Gyra and Bortinot and Shilon were so many names to him and he silently cursed Earth's provincial histories. For those here at the school, the three names and a hundred others might be magical stepping stones to the culture, the lore, the history of a galaxy--but all Smith knew now was that Jorak came from Gyra, and so some of Gyra's people at least must be purple, that Geria came from Bortinot where the women were D and the men were R and where the women looked like those of Earth, that Kard, finally, came from a place that bore the name Shilon, where some of the men at least were orange. But Shilon could have been anyplace from the hub to the fringe, Gyra might swim dizzily out near Ophiuchus or it might be the new culture name for one of Earth's near neighbors. And Bortinot--he wished he knew more about Bortinot.
The instructor of transtellar history was a little fat man with a round gold face and green eyes that blinked too much. He wore the tight black uniform of the instructor and his green armband proclaimed his subject to be history. He smiled too much, too vacantly, as if he had been practicing it a long time and now forgot what it really meant.
"Greetings!" he cried jovially, after everyone had been seated on the long low benches around the room. "I bring you history. No one is to talk unless I tell him to. Everyone is to listen unless I tell him not to. Clear?" He smiled.
No one said anything.
"Excellent. History encompasses thousands of years and countless cubic parsecs. Only the big things count. We will forget the little things. Little things belong to little people and we of the school are the elite of a transtellar culture. Questions?"
There were none.
"Good, because I have some. What would you say was the first event of importance? Luog of Panden, talk."
Said green-skinned Luog, a very young Pandenian: "You mean ever?"
"I would have specified had I meant otherwise. Yes, ever. Talk, Luog of Panden."
"Halt a moment, please. Who thinks the question is a relative one which cannot properly be answered? I clair it is Brandog of Hulpin."
An albino woman three seats down from Smith flushed. "I am sorry," she said.
"Who told you to talk now? This is not Hulpin, Brandog. The course is intensive. You must concentrate. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. No extraneous thoughts." The instructor smiled. "Luog of Panden, talk."
Smith felt the little beads of sweat forming on his forehead. The instructor could read minds--and how many of these others could? They just sat there as if it were the most natural thing in the world....
Only Brandog of Hulpin seemed ruffled, and it would be many moments before her albino skin looked again like soft alabaster. But no one seemed to notice. Luog was saying, "--exodus from the prehistoric Sirian worlds to the first culture in the Denebian system, the Var one. More than ten thousand Vars ago."
"Satisfactory for a Receptive, Luog of Panden," the instructor smiled. "The Dominants would go back a bit further and talk of the Sirian wars, but that much is a matter of opinion, since the wars are largely mythical, anyway. And so we have set the stage for history. We have--"
Smith wanted to get up indignantly and tell the instructor, tell them all, what the most glorious epochs of history really were. You would find it in the museums of earth, on the plaques and in the statues and on the old old records of Earth. There was a lot Smith wanted to tell them because there was so much only he could tell them, so much they had forgotten.
But he merely sat and stared politely at the black-uniformed instructor. You don't show yourself as a provincial--what was the word?--rube, not when your culture, while temporarily the oldest, is in a lot of ways the most neophite of them all.
You just sat and stared, looking interested.
The instructor's voice cut into his thoughts, "Earth of Smith--"
"Smith of Earth," he said, automatically.
"I did not tell you to talk, Smith of Earth. And if your card says Earth of Smith, how am I to know? A mistake, yes--but an understandable one. I'm a historian, and I have heard of neither planet. Where is this Earth? Talk, Smith!"
He stood up, although it wasn't really necessary, and he could feel his knees trembling slightly. "Earth is a few parsecs from Sirius, and Sirius I think you know."
"I know Sirius. Now talk!"
"What is it you want me to say? I don't feel much like talking--"
"Yet you speak so loud that the room fairly rocks with it. I wanted you to tell us why you did not agree with the answer just now rendered. It is, I feel, a good one. Talk."
"Then I agree, it is a good one." Smith did not want to get involved. He wanted to be a good, quietly efficient student. Nothing more. But he forgot that the instructor could read minds.
"You lie, Smith of Earth. I won't go into it any further, because it is your privilege if you want to lie. But you are not to listen for the remainder of this lecture. Do not listen."
Smith nodded, cursed himself mentally because he had made such a mess of things here at his very first lecture, and headed for the door.
"Smith of Earth! Just where under the red sun do you think you are going?"
"You told me not to listen, so--"
"I didn't say talk. Talk now."
"--so I'm leaving the room."
"No one leaves until the lecture has been concluded. Sit if you will, or stand, but stay here. And do not listen."
Smith nodded, turned back to the row of benches dumbly. He found a place next to Brandog of Hulpin, sat near the albino woman. Down the bench, he saw Jorak grinning broadly. Smith did not know how he was going to sit there without listening, but he decided he'd better not ask that question now.
"This is your course in Wortan fighting," boomed the giant of an instructor. "Dominants only, or such Receptives as question their classification." The instructor's massive face was beefy, the color of new-spilled blood, and the muscles rippled and bulged and seethed under his black uniform.
"Me for this!" confided Kard of Shilon, slapping Smith's back. "Perhaps Jorak has told you that I am not without ability on the Wortan mats."
Smith hardly heard him. Two dozen paces across the room, on the other side of the circle that surrounded the instructor, stood Geria, hands on hips, lips soft-smiling when she saw Smith, silver tunic to her knees, yellow hair hanging free to shoulders.
"Join me, Smith of Earth?" she called, and knees watery again, Smith made his way around the circle.
While Jorak gaped, Geria took Smith's hand when they met half way around the circle, and she smiled up at him. "I wouldn't have believed it, but you're blushing again. Earth trait, Smith?"
"No, not really," he stammered.
The slim girl was about to say something, but the instructor cleared his throat ominously, and the room became silent again. "Now, then," declared the giant, "there's no trick to fighting with psi-powers. Anyone can do that, and the women of Bortinot, as you know, are particularly adept. But the people of Wortan have no such powers, and they must depend on tooth and nail, on sinew and bone and animal cunning. Such is the way the Wortanians do battle--and, purely for sport, such is the way of Wortan fighting. Any questions?"
"Yes," Geria told him, "I have one. Are we not permitted to use any psi-powers?"
"None. They disqualify you."
"Well, then I suppose I must withdraw from the course. I can't be expected to stand up to a man physically. I'm not built that way--and very few women are, Dominant or Receptive."
Smith had not expected this, but now he felt a warm glow in his breast. He almost wanted to put his arm about the woman's shoulders, protectively. How could such a delicate beautiful thing be expected to fight?
The instructor said, "I won't argue with you. I can't remember a woman ever lasting in Wortan fighting, but if they're Dominants they're automatically entered. The rest of you can do like--"
The words came out before Smith could stop them. "In that case, can anyone tell me the difference between a Dominant and a Receptive?"
There was a lot of laughter in the room, and Smith thought it would have been the same had he, as a child, asked the difference between boy and girl. "Ah, old Earthsmith!" he heard Jorak's voice. "Everytime he opens his mouth new wisdom spews forth."
Pale eyes looked out of the instructor's blood-red face. "Obviously, you're joking. I'm here to answer questions, among other things, but you couldn't be serious."
And Smith heard his own dull voice reply: "No, certainly not. I was only joking."
Said Geria, "Silly, a Dominant has more psi-powers, that's all. But you really didn't know, did you?"
"There are no psi-powers on Earth to speak of," Smith reminded her.
"Hmm, very true. In that case, maybe you're all Receptives--male and female. But don't feel too badly, Smith; Wortan's the same way, and Wortan has a first-rate culture. Look: they even have an instructor here at the school."
The instructor of Wortan fighting was a Wortanian, of course. And here, in Wortan fighting, Smith might feel at home. But he hardly expected to excel at the school by breaking someone's back, or pinning him helplessly to the Wortan mat. Suddenly he found himself thinking of Earth, thinking of the trust that had been put in him as Earth's first student at the school. But his thoughts did not remain there long--his eyes took in the soft yellow of Geria's hair, and Earth faded far away.
"--volunteers," the instructor was saying. "Does anyone want to step on the mat with me for a fall or two?"
"I recommend Earthsmith," came Jorak's voice. "Positively--Earthsmith's your man."
Smith felt his face becoming very red again, but Geria nudged him with an elbow. "Go ahead, Smith--why not? You told me once you didn't fear anyone in the room of the registrar, not in physical combat. Go ahead."
"I know, but--"
"Go ahead, Smith. Show me."
He could do that. Yes, he could show her. But what if he were wrong--they might know a trick or two that would make him look foolish. And he wouldn't want that, not in front of Geria. "I am tired," he said. "I didn't sleep well last night."
The instructor rescued him. "I didn't ask you to recommend. I asked for volunteers. But you who spoke, what's your name?"
"I am Jorak of Gyra," said Jorak, purple face paling.
"You'll do. On the mat, man of Gyra."
Jorak stepped forward, slowly, in no hurry to meet the giant. Smith heard Kard's mocking laugh. "Ho, Jorak--he'll tear you in half. Now if he had asked for a man of Shilon ... a real man...."
And still laughing, the Shilonian heaved mightily with both his hands and sent Jorak stumbling out onto the mat. The man of Gyra fell and skidded on his stomach, turned over once and finally came up into a sitting position at the instructor's feet. Kard was grinning, but Jorak saw nothing funny in what had happened. He stood up slowly, wheezing, and his gaze raked the circle. It flicked past Kard rapidly, kept going, poised a moment on Geria, then reached Smith. Jorak shook his fist. "All right, Earthsmith, I'll get you for this."
Geria smiled. "I would say that you have an enemy there."
The instructor bellowed a warning and came for Jorak.
For some reason Smith found he couldn't keep his eyes off the fray, and he found his own breath coming in ragged gasps. Geria watched with a dispassionate interest. "Poor man of Gyra," she said. "It might be a different story if he could use some of his psi-powers. The men of Gyra have a little of that, you know."
"Well, why can't he?"
"He'd be disqualified, shamed--and maybe worse. I never knew that psi-powers were not permitted on the Wortan mat, but I did know that the rules must be adhered to rigidly."
The instructor's massive body stood between them and Jorak, and one of the great arms circled the man of Gyra's neck. Jorak's purple face glared straight at Smith, and his body thrashed and wriggled furiously, like a snake, head held fast by a forked stick. Abruptly, the instructor stepped back and let go. Jorak fell and lay writhing on the mat, legs and arms pounding.
"Brute strength is what we want in Wortan," said the instructor, smoothing his black uniform.
Said Kard of Shilon: "You outweigh Jorak, but I see your point. I wonder how you would do with a man of Shilon."
The instructor smiled. "Well, we will pair off now. You can select me, if you wish. Those who want to drop out of the course, step back from the circle. We need room--"
All the women moved away, slowly, reluctantly. They were Dominants, every one, and Smith sensed they longed to use their psi-powers. Some of them trembled nervously from the exhibition they had seen, some wiped sweat from white and pink and green brow. One tall albino woman seemed hesitant, stepped back toward the circle, but she backed away again when a gold man big as Kard of Shilon strode forward eagerly.
Against the wall stood the dozen women, rapt eyes intent on the men as they paired off. And this, Smith thought bitterly, is culture. This is what Earth had missed by closing its star lanes. Well, Earth....
"Don't sulk, Smith of Earth," Geria told him, and Smith realized, shamefully, that he had slunk off with the women. "I say there is something glorious about fighting tooth and nail. Not depraved, certainly, unless you insist on judging it by a hidebound ethic. Go back to the mats, Smith--for me."
He looked long at the woman, saw no guile in her eyes. Who was he to judge? Could he dare pass judgment on a society that had left Earth behind a score of thousand years ago? The men of Earth hadn't sent him here, half way across the galaxy to do that.
He turned and walked stiffly to the mats. By now the men had paired off two and two, stood facing each other in pairs. Kard of Shilon and the thick-thewed instructor, great gold man and chunky red, reed-slender green man and giant orange, albinos two like alabaster statues.
From the circle came Jorak, hands to bruised neck. He stopped, looked Smith up and down grimly, smiled. "You have no partner, Earthsmith?"
"I'm looking for one."
"Well, look no more. I am tired and hurt, but I'd like to join you on the mat." He shrugged. "Of course, if you're afraid--"
Smith still did not feel like fighting. It might as well be Jorak as any other--he certainly had more reason to fight Jorak. Vaguely, it seemed a needless expenditure of energy. But he had done it again: he had put the shoe on the wrong foot--he, Smith, stood up for judgment, not the school. "Good enough, Jorak," he said.
In a moment, the instructor signaled them all to begin, and Smith had one brief look at the dozen pairs of men, grappling, heard the instructor shout, "one fall, and one fall only!" And then Jorak was upon him.
Jorak seemed for all the world like a snake, writhing and twisting with a deceptive sinewy strength. But calmly Smith stepped out of his reach, cuffing his ears roundly when he came too close.
"You're afraid, afraid, afraid!" Jorak taunted. "Fight!"
Smith shrugged. If he did not want to fight, he did not want to. But the women hooted, and they were hooting him, all but Geria who remained glumly silent.