The Tepoktan student, whose blue robe in George Kinton’s opinion clashed with the dull purple of his scales, twiddled a three-clawed hand for attention. Kinton nodded to him from his place on the dais before the group.
“Then you can give us no precise count of the stars in the galaxy, George?”
Kinton smiled wrily, and ran a wrinkled hand through his graying hair. In the clicking Tepoktan speech, his name came out more like “Chortch.”
Questions like this had been put to him often during the ten years since his rocket had hurtled through the meteorite belt and down to the surface of Tepokt, leaving him the only survivor. Barred off as they were from venturing into space, the highly civilized Tepoktans constantly displayed the curiosity of dreamers in matters related to the universe. Because of the veil of meteorites and satellite fragments whirling about their planet, their astronomers had acquired torturous skills but only scraps of real knowledge.
“As I believe I mentioned in some of my recorded lectures,” Kinton answered in their language, “the number is actually as vast as it seems to those of you peering through the Dome of Eyes. The scientists of my race have not yet encountered any beings capable of estimating the total.”
He leaned back and scanned the faces of his interviewers, faces that would have been oddly humanoid were it not for the elongated snouts and pointed, sharp-toothed jaws. The average Tepoktan was slightly under Kinton’s height of five-feet-ten, with a long, supple trunk. Under the robes their scholars affected, the shortness of their two bowed legs was not obvious; but the sight of the short, thick arms carried high before their chests still left Kinton with a feeling of misproportion.
He should be used to it after ten years, he thought, but even the reds or purples of the scales or the big teeth seemed more natural.
“I sympathize with your curiosity,” he added. “It is a marvel that your scientists have managed to measure the distances of so many stars.”
He could tell that they were pleased by his admiration, and wondered yet again why any little show of approval by him was so eagerly received. Even though he was the first stellar visitor in their recorded history, Kinton remained conscious of the fact that in many fields he was unable to offer the Tepoktans any new ideas. In one or two ways, he believed, no Terran could teach their experts anything.
“Then will you tell us, George, more about the problems of your first space explorers?” came another question.
Before Kinton had formed his answer, the golden curtains at the rear of the austerely simple chamber parted. Klaft, the Tepoktan serving the current year as Kinton’s chief aide, hurried toward the dais. The twenty-odd members of the group fell silent on their polished stone benches, turning their pointed visages to follow Klaft’s progress.
The aide reached Kinton and bent to hiss and cluck into the latter’s ear in what he presumably considered an undertone. The Terran laboriously spelled out the message inscribed on the limp, satiny paper held before his eyes. Then he rose and took one step toward the waiting group.
“I regret I shall have to conclude this discussion,” he announced. “I am informed that another ship from space has reached the surface of Tepokt. My presence is requested in case the crew are of my own planet.”
Klaft excitedly skipped down to lead the way up the aisle, but Kinton hesitated. Those in the audience were scholars or officials to whom attendance at one of Kinton’s limited number of personal lectures was awarded as an honor.
They would hardly learn anything from him directly that was not available in recordings made over the course of years. The Tepoktan scientists, historians, and philosophers had respectfully but eagerly gathered every crumb of information Kinton knowingly had to offer--and some he thought he had forgotten. Still ... he sensed the disappointment at his announcement.
“I shall arrange for you to await my return here in town,” Kinton said, and there were murmurs of pleasure.
Later, aboard the jet helicopter that was basically like those Kinton remembered using on Terra twenty light years away, he shook his head at Klaft’s respectful protest.
“But George! It was enough that they were present when you received the news. They can talk about that the rest of their lives! You must not waste your strength on these people who come out of curiosity.”
Kinton smiled at his aide’s earnest concern. Then he turned to look out the window as he recalled the shadow that underlay such remonstrances. He estimated that he was about forty-eight now, as nearly as he could tell from the somewhat longer revolutions of Tepokt. The time would come when he would age and die. Whose wishes would then prevail?
Maybe he was wrong, he thought. Maybe he shouldn’t stand in the way of their biologists and surgeons. But he’d rather be buried, even if that left them with only what he could tell them about the human body.
To help himself forget the rather preoccupied manner in which some of the Tepoktan scientists occasionally eyed him, he peered down at the big dam of the hydro-electric project being completed to Kinton’s design. Power from this would soon light the town built to house the staff of scientists, students, and workers assigned to the institute organized about the person of Kinton.
Now, there was an example of their willingness to repay him for whatever help he had been, he reflected. They hadn’t needed that for themselves.
In some ways, compared to those of Terra, the industries of Tepokt were underdeveloped. In the first place, the population was smaller and had different standards of luxury. In the second, a certain lack of drive resulted from the inability to break out into interplanetary space. Kinton had been inexplicably lucky to have reached the surface even in a battered hulk. The shell of meteorites was at least a hundred miles thick and constantly shifting.
“We do not know if they have always been meteorites,” the Tepoktans had told Kinton, “or whether part of them come from a destroyed satellite; but our observers have proved mathematically that no direct path through them may be predicted more than a very short while in advance.”
Kinton turned away from the window as he caught the glint of Tepokt’s sun upon the hull of the spaceship they had also built for him. Perhaps ... would it be fair to encourage the newcomer to attempt the barrier?
For ten years, Kinton had failed to work up any strong desire to try it. The Tepoktans called the ever-shifting lights the Dome of Eyes, after a myth in which each tiny satellite bright enough to be visible was supposed to watch over a single individual on the surface. Like their brothers on Terra, the native astronomers could trace their science back to a form of astrology; and Kinton often told them jokingly that he felt no urge to risk a physical encounter with his own personal Eye.
The helicopter started to descend, and Kinton remembered that the city named in his message was only about twenty miles from his home. The brief twilight of Tepokt was passing by the time he set foot on the landing field, and he paused to look up.
The brighter stars visible from this part of the planet twinkled back at him, and he knew that each was being scrutinized by some amateur or professional astronomer. Before an hour had elapsed, most of them would be obscured by the tiny moonlets, some of which could already be seen. These could easily be mistaken for stars or the other five planets of the system, but in a short while the tinier ones in groups would cause a celestial haze resembling a miniature Milky Way.
Klaft, who had descended first, leaving the pilot to bring up the rear, noticed Kinton’s pause.
“Glory glitters till it is known for a curse,” he remarked, quoting a Tepoktan proverb often applied by the disgruntled scientists to the Dome of Eyes.
Kinton observed, however, that his aide also stared upward for a long moment. The Tepoktans loved speculating about the unsolvable. They had even founded clubs to argue whether two satellites had been destroyed or only one.
Half a dozen officials hastened up to escort the party to the vehicle awaiting Kinton. Klaft succeeded in quieting the lesser members of the delegation so that Kinton was able to learn a few facts about the new arrival. The crash had been several hundred miles away, but someone had thought of the hospital in this city which was known to have a doctor rating as an expert in human physiology. The survivor--only one occupant of the wreck, alive or dead, had been discovered--had accordingly been flown here.
With a clanging of bells, the little convoy of ground cars drew up in front of the hospital. A way was made through the chittering crowd around the entrance. Within a few minutes, Kinton found himself looking down at a pallet upon which lay another Terran.
A man! he thought, then curled a lip wrily at the sudden, unexpected pang of disappointment. Well, he hadn’t realized until then what he was really hoping for!
The spaceman had been cleaned up and bandaged by the native medicos. Kinton saw that his left thigh was probably broken. Other dressings suggested cracked ribs and lacerations on the head and shoulders. The man was dark-haired but pale of skin, with a jutting chin and a nose that had been flattened in some earlier mishap. The flaring set of his ears somehow emphasized an overall leanness. Even in sleep, his mouth was thin and hard.
“Thrown across the controls after his belt broke loose?” Kinton guessed.
“I bow to your wisdom, George,” said the plump Tepoktan doctor who appeared to be in charge.
Kinton could not remember him, but everyone on the planet addressed the Terran by the sound they fondly thought to be his first name.
“This is Doctor Chuxolkhee,” murmured Klaft.
Kinton made the accepted gesture of greeting with one hand and said, “You seem to have treated him very expertly.”
Chuxolkhee ruffled the scales around his neck with pleasure.
“I have studied Terran physiology,” he admitted complacently. “From your records and drawings, of course, George, for I have not yet had the good fortune to visit you.”
“We must arrange a visit soon,” said Kinton. “Klaft will--”
He broke off at the sound from the patient.
“A Terran!” mumbled the injured man.
He shook his head dazedly, tried to sit up, and subsided with a groan.
Why, he looked scared when he saw me, thought Kinton.
“You’re all right now,” he said soothingly. “It’s all over and you’re in good hands. I gather there were no other survivors of the crash?”
The man stared curiously. Kinton realized that his own language sputtered clumsily from his lips after ten years. He tried again.
“My name is George Kinton. I don’t blame you if I’m hard to understand. You see, I’ve been here ten years without ever having another Terran to speak to.”
The spaceman considered that for a few breaths, then seemed to relax.
“Al Birken,” he introduced himself laconically. “Ten years?”
“A little over,” confirmed Kinton. “It’s extremely unusual that anything gets through to the surface, let alone a spaceship. What happened to you?”
Birken’s stare was suspicious.
“Then you ain’t heard about the new colonies? Naw--you musta come here when all the planets were open.”
“We had a small settlement on the second planet,” Kinton told him. “You mean there are new Terran colonies?”
“Yeah. Jet-hoppers spreadin’ all over the other five. None of the land-hungry poops figured a way to set down here, though, or they’d be creepin’ around this planet too.”
“How did you happen to do it? Run out of fuel?”
The other eyed him for a few seconds before dropping his gaze. Kinton was struck with sudden doubt. The outposts of civilization were followed by less desirable developments as a general rule--prisons, for instance. He resolved to be wary of the visitor.
“Ya might say I was explorin’,” Birken replied at last. “That’s why I come alone. Didn’t want nobody else hurt if I didn’t make it. Say, how bad am I banged up?”
Kinton realized guiltily that the man should be resting. He had lost track of the moments he had wasted in talk while the others with him stood attentively about.
He questioned the doctor briefly and relayed the information that Birken’s leg was broken but that the other injuries were not serious.
“They’ll fix you up,” he assured the spaceman. “They’re quite good at it, even if the sight of one does make you think a little of an iguana. Rest up, now; and I’ll come back again when you’re feeling better.”
For the next three weeks, Kinton flew back and forth from his own town nearly every day. He felt that he should not neglect the few meetings which were the only way he could repay the Tepoktans for all they did for him. On the other hand, the chance to see and talk with one of his own kind drew him like a magnet to the hospital.
The doctors operated upon Birken’s leg, inserting a metal rod inside the bone by a method they had known before Kinton described it. The new arrival expected to be able to walk, with care, almost any day; although the pin would have to be removed after the bone had healed. Meanwhile, Birken seemed eager to learn all Kinton could tell him about the planet, Tepokt.
About himself, he was remarkably reticent. Kinton worried about this.
“I think we should not expect too much of this Terran,” he warned Klaft uneasily. “You, too, have citizens who do not always obey, your laws, who sometimes ... that is--”
“Who are born to die under the axe, as we say,” interrupted Klaft, as if to ease the concern plain on Kinton’s face. “In other words, criminals. You suspect this Albirken is such a one, George?”
“It is not impossible,” admitted Kinton unhappily. “He will tell me little about himself. It may be that he was caught in Tepokt’s gravity while fleeing from justice.”
To himself, he wished he had not told Birken about the spaceship. He didn’t think the man exactly believed his explanation of why there was no use taking off in it.
Yet he continued to spend as much time as he could visiting the other man. Then, as his helicopter landed at the city airport one gray dawn, the news reached him.
“The other Terran has gone,” Klaft reported, turning from the breathless messenger as Kinton followed him from the machine.
“Gone? Where did they take him?”
Klaft looked uneasy, embarrassed. Kinton repeated his question, wondering about the group of armed police on hand.
“In the night,” Klaft hissed and clucked, “when none would think to watch him, they tell me ... and quite rightly, I think--”
“Get on with it, Klaft! Please!”
“In the night, then, Albirken left the chamber in which he lay. He can walk some now, you know, because of Dr. Chuxolkhee’s metal pin. He--he stole a ground car and is gone.”
“He did?” Kinton had an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Is it known where he went? I mean ... he has been curious to see some of Tepokt. Perhaps--”
He stopped, his own words braying in his ears. Klaft was clicking two claws together, a sign of emphatic disagreement.
“Albirken,” he said, “was soon followed by three police constables in another vehicle. They found him heading in the direction of our town.”
“Why did he say he was traveling that way?” asked Kinton, thinking to himself of the spaceship! Was the man crazy?
“He did not say,” answered Klaft expressionlessly. “Taking them by surprise, he killed two of the constables and injured the third before fleeing with one of their spears.”
Kinton felt his eyes bulging with dismay.
“Yes, for they carried only the short spears of their authority, not expecting to need fire weapons.”
Kinton looked from him to the messenger, noticing for the first time that the latter was an under-officer of police. He shook his head distractedly. It appeared that his suspicions concerning Birken had been only too accurate.
Why was it one like him who got through? he asked himself in silent anguish. After ten years. The Tepoktans had been thinking well of Terrans, but now--
He did not worry about his own position. That was well enough established, whether or not he could again hold up his head before the purple-scaled people who had been so generous to him.
Even if they had been aroused to a rage by the killing, Kinton told himself, he would not have been concerned about himself. He had reached a fairly ripe age for a spaceman. In fact, he had already enjoyed a decade of borrowed time.