No road had yet been built between Stem City and the Far Landing dock, but copters had begun to fly the route on a regular schedule. Adam could see one such aircraft just landing now on a meadow behind the dock. The aircraft sat there with its rotor quietly idling, while a few people dressed entirely in plain black clothing disembarked from the passenger compartment. They stretched, and looked round them, and then got to work unloading from the copter’s cargo bay an assortment of small containers and primitive tools. There were spades, hoes, and axes. Adam knew some of the black-clad folk, though these particular individuals were too far away at the moment to identify. They were religious colonists, who had planted themselves back in the wilderness, a few kilometers beyond even Adam’s cabin.
There was only one traditional-looking tourist getting off the copter this time, a blond woman who was wearing jeans and a bulky jacket against the chill of the mild low-latitude winter day. The woman separated herself a little from the black-clad folk, and appeared to be looking round her as if uncertain what to do next.
Now she raised to. her face what Adam supposed were binoculars, and swept them around until they were aimed at him. They stayed fixed on him for half a minute.
All right, girl, he thought.We’ll see about you. Just as soon as I get these furs checked in . Lately he had encountered several examples of an interesting phenomenon, the attractive female tourist from Earth or from some other heavily civilized planet, who was ready to be briefly fascinated by the half-savage fur hunter and his peculiar world.
The copter landing area passed out of Adam’s sight, behind a rank of riverside brush. The canoe was nearing the dock now, and Adam swung his outboard up out of the water and shut it off. There was only one real building at Far Landing, a lonely trading shack of log construction. Outside the shack’s door, a couple of Tenoka men were standing, in their usual costume of almost nothing at all, arguing about something with the bored-looking Space Force guard. The Great Council of Tenoka subtribes had granted their friends from far-off Earth theoretically limited rights to occupy the Stem area, and had in exchange accepted a mountain of trade goods and the permanent right of free medical care for any Tenoka who could reach one of the new hospitals in the Stem. So far the Tenoka appeared to be generally still satisfied with the bargain they had made.
Adam tied his canoe up beside a new and very similar Tenoka craft-it had a squared stern and a motor too-and tossed his bundle of furs up onto the dock. From the corner of his eye he could see that the blond woman was approaching, from around the corner of the trading shack, but he finished his tying-up before he raised his head to look at her.
When he raised his head he stood still. Very still indeed, for a long long moment. “Merit Creston,” he said then, softly. It had been years, too many years, but as far as he could see at the moment, Merit had scarcely changed.
Merit was standing above him, laughing down at him, laughing very much like a little girl who has just successfully carried off a joke. Adam hopped up onto the dock beside her. The smile on his own face felt strange, as if, somewhere along the line and without his realizing it, smiling had become abnormal.
“Adam, it’s been so long.” She took his hands in hers. Merit as an adult was just about his own height, her hair as uniquely blond as it had been in girlhood but cut somewhat shorter now. Her body in maturity remained as graceful as ever.
“Too long. Much too long. I wonder that you know me.” He took stock of himself: long-haired, bearded, none too clean. He was dressed in hunter’s clothes, some of native leather, with a long hunting knife of Earth steel sheathed in Tenoka leather at his belt. “You know I quit the Space Force.”
“Yes, I’d heard that.” Merit looked out across the wide placid river, where a sky free of human technology arched down to a horizon that was notched only by the trees of the winter-brown forest. “I wondered why-now I think I can see the reason. Or part of it, anyway. It’s so beautiful here.”
As he remembered, Merit was not one who used that word lightly or often. He asked, seriously: “How are you?”
Merit looked back at him, studying him carefully. Or maybe the impression of care being taken was only a result of her turning her head to free her eyes of a strand of wind-blown hair. “Fine.”
“And how are Ray, and all the others?”
Merit smiled faintly. “All well, as far as I know. Ray is fine too, he’s here on Golden. We both arrived this morning.”
“Welcome to my planet!” In sudden jubilation Adam cried out, and lifted Merit into the air-hey, this was Merit! She squealed, a vulnerable and almost childlike sound, carefulness forgotten. And he kissed her.
Then Merit was resting easily in the circle of Adam’s arms, eyes examining eyes at close range. She said: “Someone else was on the ship, traveling with us-my husband.”
“Well.” It hit him hard. For just a moment, it really hit him hard. He hoped he didn’t let it show. He said: “I’ll congratulate the lucky man when I meet him. Felicitations for you. Does he beat you frequently?”
Merit gave the little girl’s laugh that he remembered. “Hardly at all.”
“Would I know him?”
“Oh, I don’t suppose so.” Merit disentangled herself gently from his embrace, and stood gracefully trying to keep her hair from blowing in her eyes. “I don’t know why you should. His name is Vito Ling. He’s a physicist, specializing in field theory, and he works for Earth Universities Research Foundation.”
“Then he’s not one of Doc’s kids? I don’t remember the name. And tell me, how is Doc?”
“No, Vito’s not a Jovian.” The remnant of Merit’s laughter faded from her face and voice. “Doc’s dead, Adam. Suddenly, about a year ago.”
After a moment he asked her: “How?”
“A heart defect. Evidently it developed rather rapidly, between his regular checkups. He was alone in the lab when he collapsed. By the time someone found him-it was too late.”
“And no one-none of you-sensed-” Adam made a gesture of futility.
“None of us. They’re so undependable, our parapsych talents. Usually most undependable just when they would seem to be most valuable. Maybe it was.”
“I was going to say that maybe the reason we sensed nothing was because Doc felt no fear at dying. No wish to tell us anything. His life with us was a hard one, in some ways, I’m afraid.”
Adam squeezed her shoulders. “That was the life Doc chose, the one he wanted.” He took Merit’s arm and they walked along the dock. “So now tell me about your life, my lady.”
Merit’s cheerfulness returned. “I’m here partly just to be with Vito. I must admit he’s taken up most of my life for the past two years. Now naturally you want to know what he’s like. He’s tall, and dark, and brilliant, and quick-tempered.”
“And not a Jovian.”
“No. I said not.”
Adam asked it bluntly. “Since he’s not a Jovian, does it ever bother him to be left out, when you and the others start with your parapsych tricks?”
“We don’t try to make our friends feel that way. Did you ever feel that way?”
“Yeah. I did. I know you don’t try. You’re right. But even so.”
There was pride in Merit’s eyes. “And Vito won’t let it bother him. His ego is neither small nor fragile. He won’t see anything more in Jovians than gifted humans.”
“Areyou anything more? I can remember Doc soul-searching over that.”
The question did not seem to surprise her; but she replied to it only with one of her own. “Do you want us to be?”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t know. I suppose you and Ray and the ninety-eight others are all still just one big happy family, too.”
Merit shrugged. “We have our differences. We always have. But in a sense, yes, I think we’re definitely like a family, if you can imagine a family of a hundred people. Maybe all the more like a family because we do have differences, and surmount them. I suppose Ray is really the father now.”
Their walk had reversed itself where the riverside path began to grow difficult, and now their course brought them back to where the bundle of furs still lay on the dock. Adam scooped the bundle up, and said: “Let me take care of these.” Merit came into the trading shack with him, and observed with interest the transaction between Adam and another Earthman behind a counter. The clerk opened the fur bundle and examined each item closely, then wrangled briefly over quality and prices before noting down the amount to be credited to Adam’s Stem City bank account.