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Garth and the visitor, p.2
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       Garth and the Visitor, p.2

           Joseph Wesley
 
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the way it always did, until suddenly, somehow, thenear-impossible happened. My hydrogen fusion power sphere started tooscillate critically and wouldn't damp. I had only seconds of time inwhich to work.

  "In the few seconds before the sphere would have blown, turning all ofus into a fine grade of face powder, I had to find a star with aplanet that would support human life, bring the ship down out ofhyper-space with velocity matched closely enough so that I could landon the planet, and jettison the sphere that was going wild.

  "Even while I did it, I knew that it wasn't good enough. But there wasno more time. The accelerations were terrific and all my people died.I managed to save myself, and I barely managed that. I did all thatcould be done, but it just wasn't enough. I circled your sun for manyyears before I could make enough repairs to work the auxiliary drive.Then I landed here on this mountaintop. I've been here ever since.

  "It has been a lonely time," he added wistfully.

  * * * * *

  Garth's mind tried to absorb all the vastness of that understatement,and failed. He could not begin to comprehend the meaning of seventhousand years of separation from his own kind.

  The Visitor's high-pitched voice continued for several minutes,explaining how Garth's ancestors of several thousand yearsbefore--naked and primitive, barbarous, with almost no culture oftheir own--had made contact with The Visitor from space, and had beengently lifted over the millennia toward higher and higher levels ofcivilization.

  Garth had trouble keeping his attention on the words. His mind keptreverting to the thought of one badly injured survivor, alone on aspaceship with a thousand corpses, light-years from home and friends,still struggling to stay alive. Struggling so successfully that he hadlived on for thousands of years after the disaster that had killed allthe others.

  At last, after waiting for Garth's comment, The Visitor cleared histhroat querulously. "I asked you if you'd like for me to show youaround the ship," he repeated somewhat testily.

  "Oh, yes, my Lord," said Garth quickly, jumping to his feet. "It's anhonor I've never heard of your giving to anyone before."

  "That's true enough," answered The Visitor. "But then no one everasked me about myself before. Now just follow me, stick close, anddon't touch anything."

  The wheelchair rolled slowly toward a blank wall, and an invisibledoor snicked open just before it arrived.

  "Come along," quavered The Visitor. "Step lively."

  Garth leaped forward and just managed to pull his tail through thedoorway as the door slid shut again.

  Garth dropped his jaw in amazement. He stood in a long corridor thatseemed to stretch to infinity in both directions. The light wasbright, the walls featureless. The floor was smooth and unmarred.While Garth glanced unhappily behind himself to notice that there wasno sign of the doorway through which he had entered, The Visitor'swheelchair buzzed swiftly into the distance toward the left.

  Garth was startled into action by a high-pitched voice beside him thatsaid, "Well, get a move on! Do you think I want to wait for you allday?"

  * * * * *

  While Garth hustled toward the wheelchair, he noticed that The Visitorhad stopped and was apparently chuckling to himself. He was hunchedover, his shoulders were shaking, and his toothless mouth was split inwhat might have been intended for a grin.

  "Fooled you that time, youngster," he laughed as Garth drew up besidehim. "Got speakers all over this ship. Now just duck through this doorhere and tell me what you think of what you see."

  A small door slid open and Garth followed the wheelchair through. Atfirst he thought he had stepped through a teleportation system. Heappeared to be out of doors, but not on Wrom. A cool breeze blew onhis face from the ocean, which stretched mistily to a far horizon. Hewas standing on a sandy beach and waves rolled up to within a fewyards of his feet. The beach appeared to be about five hundred yardslong, carved out of a rocky seacoast; great rocks jutting into theocean terminated it to left and right.

  "Well, boy?" asked The Visitor.

  "It's amazing. Your voice even has that flat tone voices get in theopen. I suppose it's some sort of three-dimensional projection of ascene back on Earth? It sure looks real. I wonder how big this roomreally is and how far away the screen is." Garth stuck out his handand walked down toward the water. A large wave caught him, tripped himand rolled him out to sea.

  Sculling with his tail, he soon swam back to shallow water and climbedback to the dry sand, puffing and coughing.

  "You might have drowned me!" Garth shouted disrespectfully. "Are youtrying to kill me?"

  The Visitor waved weakly until he recovered his breath. "That wasfunnier than anything I've seen in years," he wheezed, "watching yougroping for a screen. That screen is a quarter of a mile away, andit's all real water in between. It's our reservoir and our basic fuelsupply and a public beach for entertainment, all rolled into one."

  "But I might have drowned! No one on Wrom except a few small fishknows how to swim," protested Garth.

  "No danger. Your ancestors came out of the water relatively recently,even if the seas are gone now. You've got a well-developed swimmingreflex along with a flat tail and webbed feet and hands. Besides, Itold you not to touch anything. You stick close to me and you won'tget into trouble."

  "Yes, sir. I'll remember."

  "There used to be hundreds of people on that beach, and now look atit."

  "I don't see anything alive."

  "There are still plenty of fish. Most of them did all right, eventhrough the crash. Come along now. There's more to see."

  * * * * *

  A hidden door popped open and Garth stepped back into the corridor. Hetrotted beside The Visitor for several minutes, and then another doorpopped open. It led to a ramp. Garth climbed it to find himself againin wonderland. He was standing in the middle of a village. There werehouses, trees, schools, sidewalks and lawns. Somehow the generalperspective was wrong. It made Garth's eyes water a little, looking atit.

  "Actually, this living level ran all the way around the ship," saidThe Visitor. "When I stopped spin--artificial gravity, you know--toset down here, the various sections swung to keep 'down' pointedright. This is the bottommost thirty-degree arc. It makes two streets,with houses on both sides of them--a strip three hundred feet wide andthree-quarters of a mile long."

  "But how could you afford so much space for passengers? I thoughtthey'd be all cramped up in a spaceship."

  The Visitor chuckled. "Use your eyes, boy! You've seen this ship. It'sabout a mile long and a third of a mile high. In space, she spinsabout her long axis. One ring, fifty feet high, takes care ofpassengers' quarters. Another ring, split up into several levels,takes care of all food and air-replenishment needs. These trips take ayear or more. Crowding would drive the people crazy. Remember, this isbasically a cargo ship. Less than a quarter of the available space isused for passengers. But come on down the street here. I want to showyou my museum."

  As they walked along the quiet street, with the leaves of trees movingin the breeze and leaving sun-dappled shadows on the sidewalk, Garthrealized what a tremendous task it must have been for one crippled manto repair landing damages. The houses must have been flattened and thetrees shattered during the landing. But with thousands of years inwhich to work, even an injured man obviously could do much. At least,thought the boy compassionately, it must have given the old mansomething to do.

  "How sorry he must have been," murmured Garth with sudden insight,"when the job was finally done."

  * * * * *

  Wandering through the museum, they came at last to a room filled withsmall hand tools.

  "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like them," said Garth.

  "Those are weapons," answered The Visitor. "They are missile-throwingshort-range weapons, and they are in tip-top working order. You justhave to point the end with the hole in it at anything you want tokill, and pull that
little lever there on the bottom. And quite a messof things they can make, too, let me tell you."

  "They seem very inefficient to me," said Garth wonderingly, and thenstopped in confusion. "I beg your pardon, my Lord," he said, "I didn'tmean to criticize anything; it just seems to me that they would damagea lot of the food they killed."

  "That's true enough, my boy, true enough," said The Visitor. "Yourcriticism has a lot of point to it. But, you see, they were neverdesigned mainly to kill for food, but to make it easy for one human toshoot another."

  "Why would anyone want to do that?"

  "Your civilization is a very
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