This planet was remote and set apart, and nothing about it had made William Kirk think he might find human life. Yet just beyond, through a thorny bush shaped like an exploding rose, Kirk had seen eyes and nose and a flash of yellow hair that were definitely human.
Kirk poised motionless. He was three miles from the rocket and Leo, who was waiting inside of it. He thought for a moment of how Leo had told him, as they made their landing, that this is the kind of planet where you could go no further. This is the kind of planet that could be the end of twelve years, and you’d better be careful, William, old sport.
Kirk noticed a faint breeze; his palms were wet, and they cooled when the breeze touched them. He placed his palms against his jacket. Damn you, Leo, he thought. Damn your rotten fortune-telling. Kirk was superstitious when he was in space, and the memory of Leo Mason’s cool, quiet voice saying “Watch it now, sport. Be careful, be careful...” seemed now like some certain kiss of fate.
The bush trembled and Kirk’s right hand flicked to his holster. His pistol was cold against his fingers and he let it fit loosely in his hand, the barrel half-raised.
The bush shivered again, and then all at once the figure was rising from behind it, a tall wide figure with a very tan face, lined and toughened by the sun. The shoulders, bare like the chest, were massive, yet somehow stretched-looking, as though endless exposure to wind and rain and sun had turned the skin to brown leather.
Kirk had his pistol pointing at the figure’s stomach now, and the figure blinked, while the breeze touched and ruffled the long bleached hair.
The figure raised a large hand, palm up, and curled the fingers. “Hello?” he said softly. Kirk was surprised by the word and the polite sound of it.
Kirk remained motionless, pistol pointing. “Who are you?” he said through his teeth.
“Harry,” said the figure, as though Kirk surely should know who he was. “I’m Harry, of course.”
“Yes?” said Kirk carefully. “Harry?”
The figure nodded. “Harry Loren, don’t you know?”
“Oh, yes,” Kirk said, his eyes watchful. “Harry Loren.” There was something about the man’s eyes, Kirk decided. They were deep set and very bright within their sockets. They didn’t match the softness of the speech. Harry Loren smiled and showed his yellow teeth. “Who are you?” he asked politely.
“I’m William,” Kirk said. It was as though he might be speaking to a frightened child, he thought, who held a sharp knife in his hands. “William Kirk, of course.”
Harry Loren nodded apologetically. “Oh, yes. I can’t remember everyone. It’s been so long. How are you, William?”
Kirk’s eyes flickered. “I’m fine.”
“That’s nice,” Harry Loren nodded. His wild hair brushed over his shoulders and reflected its yellowness against the sun. The knife then, the one that Kirk had thought about a moment ago, appeared in the figure’s hand. “Bastard,” Harry Loren hissed, and he was leaping at Kirk, the knife making a sweep toward Kirk’s stomach.
Something kept Kirk from squeezing the trigger, and instead he swung his pistol so that it struck the brown, weathered knuckles. The knife flew into a thicket and Loren, screaming, was upon Kirk, reaching for Kirk’s neck. Kirk wrenched backward and at the same time swung the barrel of the pistol toward the yellow flying hair. There was a cracking sound, and Harry Loren, brown and wild-looking, crumpled silently before Kirk’s feet.
Kirk examined the man, then he reached down and picked up the knife from the thicket. It was crudely hammered out from some kind of alloy, but sharp nevertheless, and it could have been deadly in a hand like Harry Loren’s.
Kirk looked again at the yellow-haired man on the ground. He was wearing some kind of ragged cloth about his waist and nothing else. Across his back, Kirk could see, was a curving scar, an inch wide and ten or twelve inches long. It was white and very noticeable against the brown of the man’s skin.
Kirk bent down, looking at the scar carefully. It could have been made during a crash of a rocket, but there were, he noticed, fine whiter ridges running along the length of the scar as though they had been made by fine comb-like teeth. A talon, perhaps. Some kind of strange claw. Kirk straightened quickly.
It went through his head that Harry Loren might not be the only animal life on this planet. He tightened his hand on his pistol, stepping backward, his eyes darting.
But he could only pivot slowly, trying to see, to discover, and he was much too slow when he finally saw it. It was only a flash of yellow and brown, making a hissing kind of sound. He felt the ripping along his right arm. The pistol was going out of his hand. And a swirling blackness got in front of his eyes.
When he awoke he saw Harry Loren first, who was sitting up now, silent, motionless, with Kirk’s pistol resting in his hands.
To the side of Loren and just a little behind rested a peculiar-looking thing. It was alive because its head, shaped like a cone that had been attached to its neck, kept swaying gently back and forth. The dark blue eyes, spaced back from the smallest end of the cone, were rather small with no lids. The creature’s neck was long and thin, a multitude of shades of yellow and brown like the head, and the rest of the body widened out like a funnel and this area was covered with yellow feathers. It had what appeared to be arms and legs, long thin extensions of dark brown with large bony joints. At the end of each of these, Kirk could see a flat claw with rows of tiny comb-like teeth.
Loren reached out and ran a hand softly along the creature’s long neck.
Kirk tried to think, testing his muscles without moving, and he remembered then the ripping along his right arm. He looked at the arm and at the way his jacket had been torn away along with the shirt beneath it. He could see the comb-like marking of his skin. The cut was not deep but it bled a little and stung. He tried to move his arm and found that he could.
Kirk looked back to Loren. Loren stroked his hand along the thin neck of the creature. Kirk decided to try:
“That’s a nice-looking animal, Harry.”
Loren’s expression did not change.
Kirk paused. From the looks of the man, Loren had been here a long time, a very long time. It had been a crash, probably. And all the years afterward of loneliness, all the time for the quiet but sure warping of the brain.
He raised a hand quickly, watching Loren’s eyes. Loren did not change expressions or move the pistol, but Kirk felt a comb-like claw touching his hand, freezing it to motionless with its razor tips. Kirk looked at the creature. The dark blue eyes were steady. Kirk lowered his hand slowly and the claw was drawn away. The creature’s head resumed it’s gentle swaying, and Loren’s hand resumed its stroking.
Kirk licked his lips.
“Where have you been?” Loren said, his voice sudden and hoarse now.
“Where have I been?” Kirk said, tight and motionless.
“Why didn’t you come before?”
Kirk considered it. The dancing lights in the man’s eyes, the high-strung sound of his voice were things to make you wary and careful. Kirk closed his fingers the slightest bit. “I didn’t know you were here.”
Loren’s lips thinned. “Liar.”
Kirk thought he might try a smile, to reassure Loren that he was telling the truth. He decided against it. “How long have you been here, Harry?”
“How would I know?”
Kirk thought of the endless nights and days when time ran together and there was no more separation of one time from another. Today would be tomorrow and tomorrow would be today. No changes. Endless. “Did you crash, Harry?”
“Did you crash, Harry?” Loren mimicked, and for a moment Kirk felt a chill dancing through him as he watched the sarcastic leer of Loren’s mouth.
Kirk kept his tone polite, patronizing. “Was there anyone else?”
Loren laughed, a laugh that bounced over the rocks and through the scrubs and bushes.
“Was there, Harry?”
“Oh, yes,” Loren said, grinning and showing his yellow teeth. “Six. One, two, three, four, five, six. Would you like to see their graves? I’ve kept the graves pretty. I know where they are because I dug them.”
Loren remained in a half crouch, the fingers of one hand holding the pistol loosely, the other keeping up its monotonous stroking of the animal. His eyes seemed to become vacant for a moment, as though lost in the memory of the digging of six graves. Then they narrowed. “Where have you been?”
Kirk tried to match his answer to the wants of the man. “I came as soon as I could.”
“Yes,” Kirk said. “I did.”
Loren’s right hand stopped its stroking and his fingers tightened about the thin long neck of the animal. “Eddie?” he said.
Kirk saw the animal’s left claw whipping out. He ducked suddenly, but the claw ripped along his left arm. He tried to roll sideways, and then he lay, half sprawled, looking at the blood welling up from this new set of ripped ridges in his arm. He shifted his eyes to look at the animal, and he was quite certain that he could detect a small mouth fitting around the under side of the funnel-shaped head. It was only a line, but Kirk thought that there was a grinning look to it.
“You didn’t come as soon as you could,” Loren said, his voice an angry trembling sound.
“I did, Harry,” Kirk said, still remaining in his half sprawl. “I really did.”
Loren replaced his hand on the neck of the animal, squeezing.
“No, no,” Kirk said, and he tried to keep the panic out of his voice. “Harry, I’m telling you the truth!”
Loren’s mouth showed a faint surface of his yellow teeth. He shook his head, slowly, back and forth, his fingers tightening about the animal’s neck.
“Harry, listen,” Kirk said, watching Loren’s squeezing fingers, “it’s over now. You don’t have to wait any longer. I’ll take you back now. I’ll take you home!”
Loren froze, staring. “Home?” he said.
“That’s right,” Kirk said. “That’s right, Harry.”
“Home,” Loren breathed, and his eyes were suddenly like a child’s, wide and unbelieving.
“The waiting’s all over,” Kirk said. “You don’t have to wait any longer.”
“I don’t have to wait any longer,” Loren repeated softly, and his hand dropped from the neck of the animal.
Kirk watched Loren and the swaying animal. “The rocket’s ready,” he said.
Loren’s eyes were lost in some distant memory. Gradually Kirk could see the eyes turn shiny with tears. “Is Annette waiting?” he asked.