There was a spatter of pebbles against the window and the youngster stirred in his sleep. Another, and he was awake.
He sat up stiffly in bed. Seconds passed while he interpreted his strange surroundings. He wasn't in his own home, of course. This was out in the country. It was colder than it should be and there was green at the window.
The call was a hoarse, urgent whisper, and the youngster bounded to the open window.
Slim wasn't his real name, but the new friend he had met the day before had needed only one look at his slight figure to say, "You're Slim." He added, "I'm Red."
Red wasn't his real name, either, but its appropriateness was obvious. They were friends instantly with the quick unquestioning friendship of young ones not yet quite in adolescence, before even the first stains of adulthood began to make their appearance.
Slim cried, "Hi, Red!" and waved cheerfully, still blinking the sleep out of himself.
Red kept to his croaking whisper, "Quiet! You want to wake somebody?"
Slim noticed all at once that the sun scarcely topped the low hills in the east, that the shadows were long and soft, and that the grass was wet.
Slim said, more softly, "What's the matter?"
Red only waved for him to come out.
Slim dressed quickly, gladly confining his morning wash to the momentary sprinkle of a little lukewarm water. He let the air dry the exposed portions of his body as he ran out, while bare skin grew wet against the dewy grass.
Red said, "You've got to be quiet. If Mom wakes up or Dad or your Dad or even any of the hands then it'll be 'Come on in or you'll catch your death of cold.'"
He mimicked voice and tone faithfully, so that Slim laughed and thought that there had never been so funny a fellow as Red.
Slim said, eagerly, "Do you come out here every day like this, Red? Real early? It's like the whole world is just yours, isn't it, Red? No one else around and all like that." He felt proud at being allowed entrance into this private world.
Red stared at him sidelong. He said carelessly, "I've been up for hours. Didn't you hear it last night?"
"Was there a thunderstorm?" Slim never slept through a thunderstorm.
"I guess not. But there was thunder. I heard it, and then I went to the window and it wasn't raining. It was all stars and the sky was just getting sort of almost gray. You know what I mean?"
Slim had never seen it so, but he nodded.
"So I just thought I'd go out," said Red.
They walked along the grassy side of the concrete road that split the panorama right down the middle all the way down to where it vanished among the hills. It was so old that Red's father couldn't tell Red when it had been built. It didn't have a crack or a rough spot in it.
Red said, "Can you keep a secret?"
"Sure, Red. What kind of a secret?"
"Just a secret. Maybe I'll tell you and maybe I won't. I don't know yet." Red broke a long, supple stem from a fern they passed, methodically stripped it of its leaflets and swung what was left whip-fashion. For a moment, he was on a wild charger, which reared and champed under his iron control. Then he got tired, tossed the whip aside and stowed the charger away in a corner of his imagination for future use.
He said, "There'll be a circus around."
Slim said, "That's no secret. I knew that. My Dad told me even before we came here--"
"That's not the secret. Fine secret! Ever see a circus?"
"Oh, sure. You bet."
"Say, there isn't anything I like better."
Red was watching out of the corner of his eyes again. "Ever think you would like to be with a circus? I mean, for good?"
Slim considered, "I guess not. I think I'll be an astronomer like my Dad. I think he wants me to be."
"Huh! Astronomer!" said Red.
Slim felt the doors of the new, private world closing on him and astronomy became a thing of dead stars and black, empty space.
He said, placatingly, "A circus would be more fun."
"You're just saying that."
"No, I'm not. I mean it."
Red grew argumentative. "Suppose you had a chance to join the circus right now. What would you do?"
"See!" Red affected scornful laughter.
Slim was stung. "I'd join up."
Red whirled at him, strange and intense. "You meant that? You want to go in with me?"
"What do you mean?" Slim stepped back a bit, surprised by the unexpected challenge.
"I got something that can get us into the circus. Maybe someday we can even have a circus of our own. We could be the biggest circus-fellows in the world. That's if you want to go in with me. Otherwise--Well, I guess I can do it on my own. I just thought: Let's give good old Slim a chance."
The world was strange and glamorous, and Slim said, "Sure thing, Red. I'm in! What is it, huh, Red? Tell me what it is."
"Figure it out. What's the most important thing in circuses?"
Slim thought desperately. He wanted to give the right answer. Finally, he said, "Acrobats?"
"Holy Smokes! I wouldn't go five steps to look at acrobats."
"I don't know then."
"Animals, that's what! What's the best side-show? Where are the biggest crowds? Even in the main rings the best acts are animal acts." There was no doubt in Red's voice.
"Do you think so?"
"Everyone thinks so. You ask anyone. Anyway, I found animals this morning. Two of them."
"And you've got them?"
"Sure. That's the secret. Are you telling?"
"Of course not."
"Okay. I've got them in the barn. Do you want to see them?"
They were almost at the barn; its huge open door black. Too black. They had been heading there all the time. Slim stopped in his tracks.
He tried to make his words casual. "Are they big?"
"Would I fool with them if they were big? They can't hurt you. They're only about so long. I've got them in a cage."
They were in the barn now and Slim saw the large cage suspended from a hook in the roof. It was covered with stiff canvas.
Red said, "We used to have some bird there or something. Anyway, they can't get away from there. Come on, let's go up to the loft."
They clambered up the wooden stairs and Red hooked the cage toward them.
Slim pointed and said, "There's sort of a hole in the canvas."
Red frowned. "How'd that get there?" He lifted the canvas, looked in, and said, with relief, "They're still there."
"The canvas appeared to be burned," worried Slim.
"You want to look, or don't you?"
Slim nodded slowly. He wasn't sure he wanted to, after all. They might be--
But the canvas had been jerked off and there they were. Two of them, the way Red said. They were small, and sort of disgusting-looking. The animals moved quickly as the canvas lifted and were on the side toward the youngsters. Red poked a cautious finger at them.
"Watch out," said Slim, in agony.
"They don't hurt you," said Red. "Ever see anything like them?"
"Can't you see how a circus would jump at a chance to have these?"
"Maybe they're too small for a circus."
Red looked annoyed. He let go the cage which swung back and forth pendulum-fashion. "You're just trying to back out, aren't you?"
"No, I'm not. It's just--"
"They're not too small, don't worry. Right now, I've only got one worry."
"Well, I've got to keep them till the circus comes, don't I? I've got to figure out what to feed them meanwhile."
The cage swung and the little trapped creatures clung to its bars, gesturing at the youngsters with queer, quick motions--almost as though they were intelligent.
The Astronomer entered the dining room with decorum. He felt very much the guest.
He said, "Where are the youngsters? My son isn't in his room."
The Industrialist smiled. "They've been out for hours. However, breakfast was forced into them among the women some time ago, so there is nothing to worry about. Youth, Doctor, youth!"
"Youth!" The word seemed to depress the Astronomer.
They ate breakfast in silence. The Industrialist said once, "You really think they'll come. The day looks so--normal."
The Astronomer said, "They'll come."
That was all.
Afterward the Industrialist said, "You'll pardon me. I can't conceive your playing so elaborate a hoax. You really spoke to them?"
"As I speak to you. At least, in a sense. They can project thoughts."
"I gathered that must be so from your letter. How, I wonder."
"I could not say. I asked them and, of course, they were vague. Or perhaps it was just that I could not understand. It involves a projector for the focussing of thought and, even more than that, conscious attention on the part of both projector and receptor. It was quite a while before I realized they were trying to think at me. Such thought-projectors may be part of the science they will give us."
"Perhaps," said the Industrialist. "Yet think of the changes it would bring to society. A thought-projector!"
"Why not? Change would be good for us."
"I don't think so."
"It is only in old age that change is unwelcome," said the Astronomer, "and races can be old as well as individuals."
The Industrialist pointed out the window. "You see that road. It was built Beforethewars. I don't know exactly when. It is as good now as the day it was built. We couldn't possibly duplicate it now. The race was young when that was built, eh?"
"Then? Yes! At least they weren't afraid of new things."
"No. I wish they had been. Where is the society of Beforethewars? Destroyed, Doctor! What good were youth and new things? We are better off now. The world is peaceful and jogs along. The race goes nowhere but after all, there is nowhere to go. They proved that. The men who built the road. I will speak with your visitors as I agreed, if they come. But I think I will only ask them to go."
"The race is not going nowhere," said the Astronomer, earnestly. "It is going toward final destruction. My university has a smaller student body each year. Fewer books are written. Less work is done. An old man sleeps in the sun and his days are peaceful and unchanging, but each day finds him nearer death all the same."
"Well, well," said the Industrialist.
"No, don't dismiss it. Listen. Before I wrote you, I investigated your position in the planetary economy."
"And you found me solvent?" interrupted the Industrialist, smiling.
"Why, yes. Oh, I see, you are joking. And yet--perhaps the joke is not far off. You are less solvent than your father and he was less solvent than his father. Perhaps your son will no longer be solvent. It becomes too troublesome for the planet to support even the industries that still exist, though they are toothpicks to the oak trees of Beforethewars. We will be back to village economy and then to what? The caves?"
"And the infusion of fresh technological knowledge will be the changing of all that?"
"Not just the new knowledge. Rather the whole effect of change, of a broadening of horizons. Look, sir, I chose you to approach in this matter not only because you were rich and influential with government officials, but because you had an unusual reputation, for these days, of daring to break with tradition. Our people will resist change and you would know how to handle them, how to see to it that--that--"
"That the youth of the race is revived?"
"With its atomic bombs?"
"The atomic bombs," returned the Astronomer, "need not be the end of civilization. These visitors of mine had their atomic bomb, or whatever their equivalent was on their own worlds, and survived it, because they didn't give up. Don't you see? It wasn't the bomb that defeated us, but our own shell shock. This may be the last chance to reverse the process."
"Tell me," said the Industrialist, "what do these friends from space want in return?"
The Astronomer hesitated. He said, "I will be truthful with you. They come from a denser planet. Ours is richer in the lighter atoms."
"They want magnesium? Aluminum?"
"No, sir. Carbon and hydrogen. They want coal and oil."
The Astronomer said, quickly, "You are going to ask why creatures who have mastered space travel, and therefore atomic power, would want coal and oil. I can't answer that."
The Industrialist smiled. "But I can. This is the best evidence yet of the truth of your story. Superficially, atomic power would seem to preclude the use of coal and oil. However, quite apart from the energy gained by their combustion they remain, and always will remain, the basic raw material for all organic chemistry. Plastics, dyes, pharmaceuticals, solvents. Industry could not exist without them, even in an atomic age. Still, if coal and oil are the low price for which they would sell us the troubles and tortures of racial youth, my answer is that the commodity would be dear if offered gratis."
The Astronomer sighed and said, "There are the boys!"
They were visible through the open window, standing together in the grassy field and lost in animated conversation. The Industrialist's son pointed imperiously and the Astronomer's son nodded and made off at a run toward the house.
The Industrialist said, "There is the Youth you speak of. Our race has as much of it as it ever had."
"Yes, but we age them quickly and pour them into the mold."
Slim scuttled into the room, the door banging behind him.
The Astronomer said, in mild disapproval, "What's this?"
Slim looked up in surprise and came to a halt. "I beg your pardon. I didn't know anyone was here. I am sorry to have interrupted." His enunciation was almost painfully precise.
The Industrialist said, "It's all right, youngster."
But the Astronomer said, "Even if you had been entering an empty room, son, there would be no cause for slamming a door."
"Nonsense," insisted the Industrialist. "The youngster has done no harm. You simply scold him for being young. You, with your views!"
He said to Slim, "Come here, lad."
Slim advanced slowly.
"How do you like the country, eh?"
"Very much, sir, thank you."
"My son has been showing you about the place, has he?"
"Yes, sir. Red--I mean--"
"No, no. Call him Red. I call him that myself. Now tell me, what are you two up to, eh?"
Slim looked away. "Why--just exploring, sir."
The Industrialist turned to the Astronomer. "There you are, youthful curiosity and adventure-lust. The race has not yet lost it."
Slim said, "Sir?"
The youngster took a long time in getting on with it. He said, "Red sent me in for something good to eat, but I don't exactly know what he meant. I didn't like to say so."
"Why, just ask cook. She'll have something good for young'uns to eat."
"Oh, no, sir. I mean for animals."
"Yes, sir. What do animals eat?"
The Astronomer said, "I am afraid my son is city-bred."
"Well," said the Industrialist, "there's no harm in that. What kind of an animal, lad?"
"A small one, sir."
"Then try grass or leaves, and if they don't want that, nuts or berries would probably do the trick."
"Thank you, sir." Slim ran out again, closing the door gently behind him.
The Astronomer said, "Do you suppose they've trapped an animal alive?" He was obviously perturbed.
"That's common enough. There's no shooting on my estate and it's tame country, full of rodents and small creatures. Red is always coming home with pets of one sort or another. They rarely maintain his interest for long."
He looked at the wall clock. "Your friends should have been here by now, shouldn't they?"