Authors: Poul Anderson
He felt a sudden upsurge of bitterness.
Let Them take us as we are. Be damned if I’ll put on company manners for some bloody Sunday tourist
The side of the aircraft shimmered and a man stepped through it.
Brock’s first reaction was almost disappointment. The man looked so utterly commonplace. He was of medium height, a stockiness turning plump, an undistinguished face, an ordinary tweed sports outfit. As Brock approached, the man smiled.
“How do you do?”
“How do.” Brock stopped, shuffling his feet and looking
at the ground. Joe sensed his master’s unease and snarled, ever so faintly.
The stranger held out his hand. “My name is Lewis, Nat Lewis from New York. Hope you’ll pardon this intrusion. John Rossman sent me up. He’s not feeling very well or he’d have come himself.”
Brock shook hands, a little reassured by Rossman’s name. The old man had always been a decent sort, and Lewis’ manner was ingratiating. Brock forced himself to meet the other man’s eyes, and gave his own name.
“Yes, I recognize you from Rossman’s description,” said Lewis. “He’s quite interested in how you people are making out up here. Don’t worry, he has no intention of repossessing this property; it’s just a friendly curiosity. I work at his Institute, and frankly, I was curious myself, so I’ve come to check up for him.”
Brock decided that he liked Lewis. The man spoke rather slowly, it must be a slight effort for him to return to old ways of speech, but there was nothing patronizing about him.
“From what I hear, you’ve done a marvelous job,” said Lewis.
“I didn’t know that you—well—that we—” Brock halted, stammering.
“Oh, yes, a bit of an eye was kept on you as soon as we’d taken care of our own troubles. Which were plenty, believe me. Still are, for that matter. Here, may I offer you a cigar?”
“Hmmm—well—” Brock accepted but didn’t smoke it. He had not formed the habit. But he could give the cigar to someone else. “Thanks.”
“It’s not a baby,” Lewis grinned. “At least, I hope not!” He lit one for himself, using a trick lighter that worked even in the high, noisy wind.
“You’ve doubtless noticed that the towns around here have all been evacuated,” he said after taking a contented puff.
“Yes, for some months now,” answered Brock. With defiance: “We’ve been taking what we needed and could find there.”
“Oh, quite all right. That was the idea; in fact, you can
move into any of them if you want. The colony committee just thought it was best to rid you of such, ah, overwhelming neighbors. The people didn’t care; at the present stage of their development, one place is about as good as another to them.” Wistfulness flitted across Lewis’ face. “That’s a loss of ours: the intimacy of giving our hearts to one small corner of the earth.”
The confession of weakness relaxed Brock. He suspected that it was deliberate, but even so—
“And those who’ve strayed here to join you have often been unobtrusively guided,” Lewis went on. “There will be others, if you want them. And I think you could use more help, and they could certainly use a home and security.”
“It’s—nice of you,” said Brock slowly.
“Ah, it isn’t much. Don’t think you’ve been guarded against all danger, or that all your work was done for you. That was never true, and never will be. We’ve just—well, once in a while we’ve thrown a little opportunity your way. But it was up to you to use it.”
“We can’t help you more than that. Too much for us to do, and too few of us to do it. And our ways are too different. Your kind and my kind have come to the parting of the roads, Brock, but we can at least say good-by and shake hands.”
It was a warming speech, something thawed inside Brock and he smiled. He had not relished the prospect of being stamped out by a ruthless race of gods, and still less had he cared to spend his days as anyone’s ward. Lewis made no bones about the fact of their difference, but he was not snobbish about it either: there was no connotation of superiority in what he said.
They had been strolling about the grounds as they talked. Lewis heard the clashing hammers inside the shed now, and glanced questioningly at Brock.
“I’ve got a chimpanzee and a moron in there, making a charcoal apparatus so we can fuel our engines,” Brock explained. It didn’t hurt to say “moron”—not any more. “It’s our day off here, but they insisted on working anyway.”
“How many have you got, all told?”
“Oh, well ten men and six women, ages from around fifteen to—well, I’d guess sixty for the oldest. Mentally from imbecile to moron. Then a couple of kids have been born too. Of course, it’s hard to say where the people leave off and the animals begin. The apes, or Joe here, are certainly more intelligent and useful than the imbeciles.” Joe wagged his tail and looked pleased. “I draw no distinctions; everyone does what he’s best fitted for, and we share alike.”
“You’re in command, then?”
“I suppose so. They always look to me for guidance. I’m not the brightest one of the lot, but our two intellectuals are—well—ineffectual.”
Lewis nodded. “It’s often that way. Sheer intelligence counts for less than personality, strength of character, or the simple ability to make decisions and stick by them.” He looked sharply at his bigger companion. “You’re a born leader, you know.”
“I am? I’ve just muddled along as well as possible.”
“Well,” chuckled Lewis, “I’d say that was the essence of leadership.”
He looked around the buildings and out to the wide horizon. “It’s a happy little community you’ve built up,” he said.
“No,” answered Brock frankly. “It’s not.”
Lewis glanced at him, raising his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“We’re too close to reality here for snugness,” said Brock. “That may come later, when we’re better adjusted, but right now it’s still hard work keeping alive. We have to learn to live with some rather harsh facts of life—such as some of us being deformed, or the need for butchering those poor animals—” He paused, noticed that his fists were clenched, and tried to ease himself with a smile.
“Are you—married?” inquired Lewis. “Pardon my nosiness, but I have a reason for asking.”
“No. I can’t see taking what’s available here. No matter, there’s enough to do to keep me out of mischief.”
Lewis was quiet for a while. They had wandered over
by the corn crib, where a board across two barrels made a seat out of the wind. They sat down, wordlessly, and let the day bluster around them. Joe flopped at their feet, watching them with alert brown eyes.
Presently Lewis stubbed out his cigar and spoke again. He sat looking ahead of him, not facing Brock, and his voice sounded a little dreamy, as if he were talking to himself.
“You and your animals here are making the best of a new situation,” he said. “So far it’s not been a very good one. Would you want to return to the old days?”
“Not I, no,” said Brock.
“I thought not. You’re taking this reality which has been given to you, with all its infinite possibilities, and you’re making it good. That’s what my branch of the race is also trying to do, Brock, and maybe you’ll succeed better than we. I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know—won’t live that long.
“But I want to tell you something. I’ve been out in space—between the stars—and there have been other expeditions there too. We found that the galaxy is full of life, and all of it seems to be like the old life of Earth: many forms, many civilizations, but nowhere a creature like man. The average I.Q. of the whole universe may not be much over a hundred. It’s too early to tell, but we have reasons to think that that is so.
“And what are we, the so-called normal humanity, to do with our strange powers? Where can we find something that will try and challenge us, something big enough to make us humble and offer us a task in which we can take pride? I think the stars are our answer. Oh, I don’t mean we intend to establish a galactic empire. Conquest is a childishness we’ve laid aside, even now. Nor do I mean that we’ll become ministering angels to all these uncounted worlds, guiding them and guarding them till their races get too flabby to stand on their own feet. No, nothing like that. We’ll be creating our own new civilization, one which will spread between the stars, and it will have its own internal goals, creation, struggle, hope—the environment of man is still primarily man.
“But I think there will be a purpose in that civilization.
For the first time, man will really be going somewhere; and I think that his new purpose will, over thousands and millions of years, embrace all life in the attainable universe. I think a final harmony will be achieved such as no one can now imagine.
“We will not be gods, or even guides. But we will—some of us—be givers of opportunity. We will see that evil does not flourish too strongly, and that hope and chance happen when they are most needed, to all those millions of sentient creatures who live and love and fight and laugh and weep and die, just as man once did. No, we will not be embodied Fate; but perhaps we can be Luck. And even, it may be, Love.”
The man smiled then, a very human smile at himself and all his own pretences. “Never mind. I talk too much. Winelike autumn air, as the old cliché has it.” He turned to Brock. “What’s more to the point, we—our sort—are not going to remain here on Earth.”
Brock nodded silently. The vision before him was too enormous for surprise.
“Your sort won’t be bothered,” said Lewis. “And then in a few years, when things are ready, we’ll disappear into the sky. Earth will be left to your kind, and to the animals. And thereafter you will be altogether free. It will be up to you, as to the other kinds of life, to work out your own destiny. And if now and then a bit of luck comes to you—well, that has always been happening.”
“Thank you.” It was a whisper in Brock’s throat
“Don’t thank me, or anyone else. This is merely the logic of events working itself out. But I wish you well, every one of you.”
Lewis stood up and began walking back toward his aircraft. “I have to go now.” He paused. “I wasn’t quite honest with you when I came. It wasn’t Rossman’s curiosity that sent me; he could have satisfied that by asking the colony committee, or by dropping in himself. I wanted to check up here personally because—well, you’ll be having a new member for your community soon.”
Brock looked at him, wondering. Lewis stopped before his craft.
“She’s an old friend,” he said. “Her story is rather tragic,
she’ll tell you herself when she feels like it. But she’s a good sort, a wonderful girl really, and we who know her want her to be happy.”
The metal shimmered before him. He took Brock’s hand. “Good-by,” he said simply, and stepped inside. A moment later his vessel was high in heaven.
Brock stared after it till it had vanished.
When he turned back toward the house, the sun was sinking low and the chill bit at him. They’d have to light the fireplace tonight. Maybe they could break out some of the remaining ale if a new recruit was coming, and Jimmy could play the guitar while they all sang. The songs were rowdy, you couldn’t expect more of a pioneer people, but there was warmth in them, steadfastness and comradeship.
He saw her then, walking up the driveway, and his heart stumbled within him. She was not tall, but her form was sweet and strong under the heavy clothing, and bronze-colored hair blew around a face that was young and gentle and good to look on. She carried a bundle on her back, and the suns of many days tramping down open roads had tinged her and dusted freckles across the large-eyed face. He stood for a moment without stirring, and then he ran; but when he came up and was before her, he could find no words.
“Hello,” she said shyly.
He nodded awkwardly. It did not occur to him that he was a strong-looking man, not handsome, but with something about him that invoked trust.
“I heard talk this was a refuge,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied. “Have you come far?”
“From New York City.” There was a small shiver in her, and he wondered what had happened there. Or maybe it was just the cold. The wind piped bitterly now. “My name is Sheila,” she said.
“I’m Archie—Archie Brock.” Her hand was firm within his. She did not act frightened, and he knew that while she might not be quite as smart as he, she had more than enough intelligence and will to meet this wintering planet. “You’re welcome here. It’s always a big event when someone
new comes. But you’ll find it strange, and we all have to work hard.”
“I’m not afraid of either of those,” she answered. “I don’t think I can ever be afraid again.”
He took her bundle and started back. The western sky was turning red and gold and a thin chill green. “I’m glad to know you, Miss—what did you say your last name was?”
“Sheila,” she replied. “Just Sheila.”
They walked up the driveway side by side, the dog and the wind at their heels, toward the house. In there was shelter.