“I can imagine,” Lorrest said. “It’s going to be funny to see these people spreading out to other worlds.”

“Funny?” Gretana thought about the way in which the Terrans had been moving out into space for only a few decades, and the demands they had already begun to make, starting with the Earth-type world Vekrynn had found far inside the Attatorian sector. “They’re already a bit restless with the sector system.”

“That’s all right—all systems must adapt to change.”

“Yes, but nobody knows how it’s going to end.”

“That’s good, too.”

“This isn’t a good place to talk,” Gretana said, shivering slightly. “The cafeteria here has quite acceptable Eyrej dewberry juice, if you’ve got time.”

“You remembered my favourite!” Lorrest gave an exaggerated leer. “Does that mean…?”

“It means I’ve got a good memory,” she cut in, indicating the way to the cafeteria at the rear of the building, and wondering why it was that Lorrest was able to disturb her composure with the most casual remark. When they were seated in a booth, with beakers of hot amber-coloured juice before them, she resolved to take a less passive part in the conversation, to give Lorrest less chance to be disconcerting.

“I see,” she said, glancing at him over the rim of her beaker, “that you haven’t had reversal surgery.”

Lorrest toyed with his glass. “I was offered it, but I said no, mainly because I knew I’d be coming back to Earth, and I really want to work with these people. Anyway, things are really changing on Mollan—you can quite often see a Terran on a city street and hardly anybody stares at him. How about you?”

“I had the offer, too, but by then I’d proved to myself that the Lucent Ideal is a parochial concept.” Gretana stared down at the vapour patterns swirling on the surface of her drink. “Besides, I didn’t want a certain character calling me Big-head.”

“I doubt if he’d have been as polite as that.” Lorrest’s face became solemn, childishly wistful. “I’ve got to find out about Denny. How long did…?”

“He lived almost another three years.”

“Did you stay with him?”

“Yes. In fact, we got married. When he came out with the suggestion I was so astonished that I said yes before I realised what was happening.” Gretana tried to smile. “You should have heard the proposal—he ended up by saying he wouldn’t be able to consummate the marriage, only he didn’t put it as delicately as that, but it shouldn’t matter to somebody from a race of undersexed bean-poles.”

“Perfect,” Lorrest said, his eyes growing thoughtful. “You know, the worst thing about having to stand trial was that they wouldn’t let me come back to see Denny. I was pretty mad at him when we parted company. I had no idea…”

“He understood.”

“I’m really glad. I suppose he kept on trying to skord?”

“For a while, then he pretended it wasn’t worth the effort when I was around all the time to do it for him. It’s hard to believe, but we visited more than eighty worlds. Even at the very end—when he couldn’t move his arms and needed servo assistance to breathe—we made a trip every few days, always to a planet he’d never been on before.”

“His personal mathematics.”

“Yes.”

“I can believe it.” Lorrest pushed his drink away, almost untouched. “I’ve got to go, Gretana. I’ve got myself a brand-new job, designing educational imprints in the Hamito-Semitic languages group, and I haven’t even reported in yet. I wanted to see you first.”

“I’m pleased that you did,” Gretana said, watching Lorrest get to his feet. “Will we be seeing each other?”

“Do you want to?”

Gretana sighed impatiently. “Would I have asked?”

“Relax,” Lorrest said, his shoulders giving a preliminary heave. “I just wanted to hear you say it.”

Watching him hurry away through the peachy twilight of the cafeteria, Gretana realised he was struggling to suppress one of his laughs and she found herself unable to stop smiling. She finished her drink at a leisurely pace and went out through the building and down the bowed steps of the Embassy’s main entrance.

The darkness of the park was split into many wedge-shaped sections by the glowing paths which converged on the floodlit nodal point at its centre. Because of the high density of the traffic between Star City and the other worlds in the new Federation, it had been necessary to clear away the maples and other vegetation that had once screened the node. Gretana gazed at the spot for a moment, newly-awakened memories causing her to wish that at least one tree could have been preserved, then she recalled that Denny Hargate had never had any use for symbolism.

Concentrate on the real thing while you have the chance, he would have said.

She nodded once, no longer smiling, and walked away in the direction of the future.


Observe!

The planet falls away beneath us, then its sun, then the other stars in that part of an undistinguished galaxy. Now we see the star clouds shrinking, condensing into a spiral of light, and other island universes crowd into our field of view.

Let us consider important questions.

Have we—whose lifespans compare to those of Mollanians as those of Terrans do to their mayflies—learned anything from the example of Denny Hargate?

Have we profited from the association?

If not, let us hope that we will fare better on the million worlds we must visit before childhood ends.

Let us hope!