“What happened?” demanded the captain, kneeling down, shaking the man’s arm.
“Sir, sir,” whispered the dying man. “Forty-eight hours ago, back in Space Sector Seventy-nine DFS, off Planet One in this system, our ship, and Ashley’s ship, ran into a cosmic storm, sir.” Liquid ran gray from the man’s nostrils. Blood trickled from his mouth. “Wiped out. All crew. Burton dead. Ashley died an hour ago. Only three survivals.”
“Listen to me!” shouted Hart bending over the bleeding man. “You didn’t come to this planet before this very hour?”
“Answer me!” cried Hart.
The dying man said, “No. Storm. Burton dead two days ago. This first landing on any world in six months.”
“Are you sure?” shouted Hart, shaking violently, gripping the man in his hands. “Are you sure?”
“Sure, sure,” mouthed the dying man.
“Burton died two days ago? You’re positive?”
“Yes, yes,” whispered the man. His head fell forward. The man was dead.
The captain knelt beside the silent body. The captain’s face twitched, the muscles jerking involuntarily. The other members of the crew stood back of him looking down. Martin waited. The captain asked to be helped to his feet, finally, and this was done. They stood looking at the city. “That means——”
“That means?” said Martin.
“We’re the only ones who’ve been here,” whispered Captain Hart. “And that man——”
“What about that man, Captain?” asked Martin.
The captain’s face twitched senselessly. He looked very old indeed, and gray. His eyes were glazed. He moved forward in the dry grass.
“Come along, Martin. Come along. Hold me up; for my sake, hold me. I’m afraid I’ll fall. And hurry. We can’t waste time——”
They moved, stumbling, toward the city, in the long dry grass, in the blowing wind.
Several hours later they were sitting in the mayor’s auditorium. A thousand people had come and talked and gone. The captain had remained seated, his face haggard, listening, listening. There was so much light in the faces of those who came and testified and talked he could not bear to see them. And all the while his hands traveled, on his knees, together; on his belt, jerking and quivering.
When it was over, Captain Hart turned to the mayor and with strange eyes said:
“But you must know where he went?”
“He didn’t say where he was going,” replied the mayor.
“To one of the other nearby worlds?” demanded the captain.
“I don’t know.”
“You must know.”
“Do you see him?” asked the mayor, indicating the crowd.
The captain looked. “No.”
‘Then he is probably gone,” said the mayor.
“Probably, probably!” cried the captain weakly. “I’ve made a horrible mistake, and I want to see him now. Why, it just came to me, this is a most unusual thing in history. To be in on something like this. Why, the chances are one in billions we’d arrived at one certain planet among millions of planets the day afterhe came! You must know where he’s gone!”
“Each finds him in his own way,” replied the mayor gently.
“You’re hiding him.” The captain’s face grew slowly ugly.
Some of the old hardness returned in stages. He began to stand up.
“No,” said the mayor.
“You know where be is then?” The captain’s fingers twitched at the leather holster on his right side.
“I couldn’t tell you where he is, exactly,” said the mayor.
“I advise you to start talking,” and the captain took out a small steel gun.
“There’s no way,” said the mayor, “to tell you anything.”
An expression of pity came into the mayor’s face as he looked at Hart.
“You’re very tired,” he said. “You’ve traveled a long way and you belong to a tired people who’ve been without faith a long time, and you want to believe so much now that you’re interfering with yourself. You’ll only make it harder if you kill. You’ll never find him that way.
“Where’d he go? He told you; you know. Come on, tell me!” The captain waved the gun.
The mayor shook his head.
“Tell me! Tell me!”
The gun cracked once, twice. The mayor fell, his arm wounded.
Martin leaped forward. “Captain!”
The gun flashed at Martin. “Don’t interfere.”