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As he neared the cabin, he grew aware that someone was waiting for him.
He paused for a moment, scowling, and sent his perceptions ahead to analyze that flash of knowledge. Something in his brain thrilled to the presence of metal, and there were subtler overtones of the organic--oil and rubber and plastic ... he dismissed it as an ordinary small helicopter and concentrated on the faint, maddeningly elusive fragments of thought, nervous energy, lifeflows between cells and molecules. There was only one person, and the sketchy outline of his data fitted only a single possibility.
For another instant he stood quietly, and his primary emotion was sadness. He felt annoyance, perhaps a subtle dismay that his hiding place had finally been located, but mostly it was pity that held him. Poor Peggy. Poor kid.
Well--he'd have to have it out. He straightened his slim shoulders and resumed his walk.
The Alaskan forest was quiet around him. A faint evening breeze rustled the dark pines and drifted past his cheeks, a cool lonesome presence in the stillness. Somewhere birds were twittering as they settled toward rest, and the mosquitoes raised a high, thin buzz as they whirled outside the charmed circle of the odorless repellent he had devised. Otherwise, there was only the low scrunch of his footsteps on the ancient floor of needles. After two years of silence, the vibrations of human presence were like a great shout along his, nerves.
When he came out into the little meadow, the sun was going down behind the northern hills. Long aureate rays slanted across the grass, touching the huddled shack with a wizard glow and sending enormousshadows before them. The helicopter was a metallic dazzle against the darkling forest, and he was quite close before his blinded eyes could discern the woman.
She stood in front of the door, waiting, and the sunset turned her hair to ruddy gold. She wore the red sweater and the navy-blue skirt she had worn when they had last been together, and her slim hands were crossed before her. So she had waited for him many times when he came out of the laboratory, quiet as an obedient child. She had never turned her pert vivacity on him, not after noticing how it streamed off his uncomprehending mind like rain off one of the big pines.
He smiled lopsidedly. "Hullo, Peggy," he said, feeling the blind inadequacy of words. But what could he say to her?
"Joel..." she whispered.
He saw her start and felt the shock along her nerves. His smile grew more crooked, and he nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I've been bald as an egg all my life. Out here, alone, I had no reason to use a wig."
Her wide hazel eyes searched him. He wore backwoodsman's clothes, plaid shirt and stained jeans and heavy shoes, and he carried a fishing rod and tackle box and a string of perch. But he had not changed, at all. The small slender body, the fine-boned ageless features, the luminous dark eyes under the high forehead, they were all the same. Time had laid no finger on him.
Even the very baldness seemed a completion, letting the strong classic arch of his skull stand forth, stripping away another of the layers of ordinariness with which he had covered himself.
He saw that she had grown thin, and it was suddenly too great an effort to smile. "How did you find me, Peggy?" he asked quietly.
From her first word, his mind leaped ahead to the answer, but he let her say it out. "After you'd been gone six months with no word, we--all your friends, insofar as you ever had any--grew worried. We thought maybe something had happened to you in the interior of China. So we started investigating, with the help of the Chinese government, and soon learned you'd never gone there at all. It had just been a red herring, that story about investigating Chinese archeological sites, a blind to gain time while you--disappeared. I just kept on hunting, even after everyone else had given up, and finally Alaska occurred to me. In Nome I picked up rumors of an odd and unfriendly squatter out in the bush. So I came here."
"Couldn't you just have let me stay vanished?" he asked wearily.
"No." Her voice was trembling with her lips. "Not till I knew for sure, Joel. Not till I knew you were safe and--and--"
He kissed her, tasting salt on her mouth, catching the faint fragrance of her hair. The broken waves of her thoughts and emotions washed over him, swirling through his brain in a tide of loneliness and desolation.
Suddenly he knew exactly what was going to happen, what he would have to tell her and the responses she would make--almost to the word, he foresaw it, and the futility of it was like a leaden weight on his mind. But he had to go through with it, every wrenching syllable must come out. Humans were that way, groping through a darkness of solitude, calling to each other across abysses and never, never understanding.
"It was sweet of you," he said awkwardly. "You shouldn't have, Peggy, but it was..." His voice trailed off and his prevision failed. There were no words which were not banal and meaningless.
"I couldn't help it," she whispered. "You know I love you."
"Look, Peggy," he said. "This can't go on. We'll have to have it out now. If I tell you who I am, and why I ran away--" He tried to force cheerfulness. "But never have an emotional scene on an empty stomach. Come on in and I'll fry up these fish."
"I will," she said with something of her old spirit. "I'm a better cook than you."
It would hurt her, but: "I'm afraid you couldn't use my equipment, Peggy."
He signaled to the door, and it opened for him. As she preceded him inside, he saw that her face and hands were red with mosquito bites. She must have been waiting a long time for him to come home.
"Too bad you came today," he said desperately. "I'm usually working in here. I just happened to take today off."
She didn't answer. Her eyes were traveling around the cabin, trying to find the immense order that she knew must underlie its chaos of material.
He had put logs and shingles on the outside to disguise it as an ordinary shack. Within, it might have been his Cambridge laboratory, and she recognized some of the equipment. He had filled a plane with it before leaving. Other things she did not remember, the work of his hands through two lonely years, jungles of wiring and tubing and meters and less understandable apparatus. Only a little of it had the crude, unfinished look of experimental setups. He had been working on some enormous project of his own, and it must be near its end now.
But after that--?
The gray cat which had been his only real companion, even back in Cambridge, rubbed against her legs with a mew that might be recognition. A friendlier welcome than he gave me, she thought bitterly, and then, seeing his grave eyes on her, flushed. It was unjust. She had hunted him out of his self-chosen solitude, and he had been more than decent about it.
Decent--but not human. No unattached human male could have been chased across the world by an attractive woman without feeling more than the quiet regret and pity he showed.
Or did he feel something else? She would never know. No one would ever know all which went on within that beautiful skull. The rest of humanity had too little in common with Joel Weatherfield.
"The rest of humanity?" he asked softly.
She started. That old mind reading trick of his had been enough to alienate most people. You never knew when he would spring it on you, how much of it was guesswork based on a transcendent logic and how much was--was...
He nodded. "I'm partly telepathic," he said, "and I can fill in the gaps for myself--like Poe's Dupin, only better and easier. There are other things involved too--but never mind that for now. Later."
He threw the fish into a cabinet and adjusted several dials on its face. "Supper coming up," he said.
"So now you've invented the robot chef," she said.
"Saves me work."
"You could make another million dollars or so if you marketed it."
"Why? I have more money right now than any reasonable being needs."
"You'd save people a lot of time, you know."
She looked into a smaller room where he must live. It was sparsely furnished, a cot and a desk and some shelves holding his enormous microprinted library. In one corner stood the multitone instrument with which he composed the music that no one had ever liked or understood. But he had always found the music of man shallow and pointless. And the art of man and the literature of man and all the works and lives of man.
"How's Langtree coming with his new encephalograph?" he asked, though he could guess the answer. "You were going to assist him on it, I recall."
"I don't know." She wondered if her voice reflected her own weariness. "I've been spending all my time looking, Joel."
He grimaced with pain and turned to the automatic cook. A door opened in it and it slid out a tray with two dishes. He put them on a table and gestured to chairs. "Fall to, Peggy."
In spite of herself, the machine fascinated her. "You must have an induction unit to cook that fast," she murmured, "and I suppose your potatoes and greens are stored right inside it. But the mechanical parts--" She shook her head in baffled wonderment, knowing that a blueprint would have revealed some utterly simple arrangement involving only ingenuity.
Dewed cans of beer came out of another Cabinet. He grinned and lifted his. "Man's greatest achievement. Skoal."
She hadn't realized she was so hungry. He ate more slowly, watching her, thinking of the incongruity of Dr. Margaret Logan of M.I.T. wolfing fish and beer in a backwoods Alaskan cabin.
Maybe he should have gone to Mars or some outer-planet satellite. But no, that would have involved leaving a much clearer trail for anyone to follow--you couldn't take off in a spaceship as casually as you could dash over to China. If he had to be found out, he would rather that she did it. For later on she'd keep his secret with the stubborn loyalty he had come to know.
She had always been good to have around, ever since he met her when he was helping M.I.T. on their latest cybernetics work. Twenty-four year old Ph.D.'s with brilliant records were rare enough--when they were also good-looking young women, they became unique. Langtree had been quite hopelessly in love with her, of course. But she had taken on a double program of work, helping Weatherfield at his private laboratories in addition to her usual duties--and she planned to end the latter when her contract expired. She'd been more than useful to him, and he had not been blind to her looks, but it was the same admiration that he had for landscapes and thoroughbred cats and open space. And she had been one of the few humans with whom he could talk at all.
Had been. He exhausted her possibilities in a year, as he drained most people in a month. He had known how she would react to any situation, what she would say to any remark of his, he knew her feelings with a sensitive perception beyond her own knowledge. And the loneliness had returned.
But he hadn't anticipated her finding him, he thought wryly. After planning his flight he had not cared--or dared--to follow out all its logical consequences. Well, he was certainly paying for it now, and so was she.
Posted June 12, 2011
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Posted September 3, 2010
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