“No, sir, that's going backwards,” said the Chairman.
“Well, you're darn tootin' it's—“ The General gulped, frowning. What did this youngster mean anyway? Never mind the grey hair and the eye pouches. He had sons almost as old as this whipper-snapper! Okay, let him finish his song.
“We human beings were never in caves or not for very long. We never stood still and we don't now, not our feet, our hands or our brains. But we can make life here not just tolerable but as pleasant as the Earthen's. And without sacrificing our energies or our creativity! “With wind and water and sun we have enough sources of energy to push, run, twist, turn, sail or fly anything devised by us or our children. But first, I’m afraid we must return to our caves – or a modern facsimile.”
”The general shook his head yet again. “What you ask, sir, is plainly impossible!”
“It is about to begin, sir,” Richard replied, grinning.
“Now just a minute here—“
“And I do not ask, General. With respect, I insist.”
The chairman turned his back on the general. He strolled off, hoping he would be followed. Now what's he up to, wondered the soldier watching the tall slicker bend over, pick up a stick of straw and put it in his mouth. Might as well stretch my legs, he decided, and poked after Richard.
“Or else what?” he said.
“Simple. It's what you've been going insane over these past weeks. That is, if you're still the reasoning, compassionate human being you once were. We are willing to die and you know it. The choice is yours.”
“Oh no. Not me. I'm just obeying—“
“You, sir. General Clark May. No one else.”
The general sniffled, alongside him now. How did he, if he wasn't bluffing, find out about the crowd escaping Washington?
Neither said anything for a bit as the General fanned himself with his hat.
“What's this about space research? What makes that an exception to our ‘misuse of the world's resources?'
The Chairman smiled inwardly. So the other had been listening even through his dogged resistance.
“There is you and there is me. I've been elected, you ordered to decide.
I want to help you come to your decision. But I am going to have to have your entire concentration. No impudence intended, sir. I hold your courage in the highest esteem. You're a great leader of men. We need you.”
A tongue pushed at the soldier's wrinkled jaw, still wary but touched.
Perhaps it was because it came with effort from this man whom he found despite their completely antipodal views impossible to dislike. A little hot from the walk he stopped and scratched his side. He looked out at the sea of people in various positions of repose who had each walked a hundred miles.
“When this is all over, without having to kill anybody, I hope, I am going back to . . . “ He allowed himself a long sigh of age. He had no idea if, like most cities, Charleston was another deserted, ravaged shell. He felt the other's eyes on him but held off raising his own for the inevitable meeting. Damn the fella's sincerity. It was unnerving, almost insolent. He was being addressed not as the government's emissary. Not even as a military leader, simply a man. When he finally did look up his eyes were not altogether dry.
Richard said, “Historians, anthropologists, archeologists, theologians – they all tried to make sense of us, define us, evolve us from this planet's origins.
Connect us to the Earthen. We are different. Our skin is sensitive to extremes, it burns in the sun, freezes in the cold. Our lungs cannot survive the heights. Our brains are fried near the Equator. Our weaknesses, our diseases are unknown to the Earthen, or they were. We are nowhere as strong physically nor do we survive as long as they. We are different! It is patently, ponderously simple.”
“Alright now, wait one whole minute here!” Behind his wrinkled brow were a hundred weighty questions, but his mind felt light as a butterfly.
“Sometimes I feel,” the younger man went on, “as if I am trying to convince a child who has never seen a cow that milk does not come from a plastic jug. General, we have assimilated with the Earthen and they with us for so long a time that it is often difficult to distinguish some of them from some of us. But see them in their uncivilized state, without clothing, cars, radios, TVs, indoor plumbing, frig-freezers, guns—things we can't feel whole without. We think of them almost as, well, children.”
“Huh. Why, in New Guinea they . . . “The General shook away the reminiscence, the knot once more in his throat. He bit his lip as his heavy chest shook and he dry-wept in short grunts. Instantly he recovered, sniffled, extracted a large red kerchief and snorted into it. He nodded to the quiet masses sprawled as far as the eye could see. “Do they know? Do they think as you do?”
“Every one. Without it they would've never had the stamina, the will to attempt this . . . ”
“This Crusade, you mean?”
“More or less. We know what we are, but not who or from where we came. But knowing what we are not enables us to adjust to conditions here. To respect our hardier, friendlier, less sophisticated hosts.”
Richard rose and paced before the general whose balding head was bent over. But he was listening, Richard knew.