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I understand

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"As a doctor, I really have nothing more to tell you, Bregg; however... "

He hesitated.

"Yes?"

"You are coping in our . . . present way of life?"

"Muddling along."

"Your hair is gray, Bregg."

"That means something?"

"Yes. Gray hair signifies age. No one turns gray now before eighty, and even then, rarely."

It was the truth, I realized: I had seen no old people.

"Why?" I asked.

'There are preparations, medicines that halt graying. One can also restore the original color of the hair, although that is a little more trouble:'

"Fine," I said, "but why are you telling me this?" I saw that he was undecided.

"Women, Bregg," he said abruptly. I winced.

"Is that supposed to mean that I look like . . . an old man?" "Like an old man no, more like an athlete . . . but, then, you don't walk about naked. It is mainly when you sit that you look . . . that an average person would take you for an old man who has had a rejuvenation operation, hormone treatments, et cetera."

"I don't mind," I said. I do not know why his calm gaze made me feel so awful. He took off his glasses and put them on his desk. He had blue, slightly watery eyes.

"There is a great deal you do not understand, Bregg. If you intended to live like a monk for the remainder of your days, your 'I don't mind' might be in order, but . . . the society to which you have returned is not enthusiastic about what you gave more than your life for."

"Don't say that, doctor."

"I am saying what I think. To give one's life, what is that? People have been doing it for centuries. But to give up all one's friends, parents, kin, acquaintances, women you did sacrifice them, Bregg!"

"Doctor . . ." The word hardly left my throat. I rested an elbow on the old desk.

"Apart from a handful of specialists, no one cares about it, Bregg. You know that?"

"Yes. They told me on Luna, at Adapt, only they put it . . . more delicately."

We were silent for a while.

"The society to which you have returned is stabilized. Life is tranquil. Do you understand? The romance of the early days of astronautics is gone. It is like the achievements of Columbus. His expedition was something extraordinary, but who took any interest in the captains of galleons two hundred years after him? There was a two-line note about your return in the real."

"But, doctor, that is not important," I said. His sympathy was beginning to irritate me more than the indifference of others, though I could not tell him that.

"It is, Bregg, although you do not want to face it. If you were someone else, I would be silent, but you deserve the truth. You are alone. A man cannot live alone. Your interests, the ones you have returned with, are an island in a sea of ignorance. I doubt if many people would want to hear what you could tell them. I happen to be one of the interested ones, but I am eighty-nine ears old... "

"I have nothing to tell," I said, angry. "Nothing sensational. We did not discover any galactic civilization, and anyway, I was only a pilot. I flew the ship. Someone had to do it."

"Yes?" he said quietly, raising his white eyebrows. On the surface I was calm, but inside furious.

"Yes! A thousand times, yes! And that indifference, now - if you must know - affects me only on account of the ones who were left behind..."

"Who was left behind?" he asked quietly. I cooled down.

"There were many. Arder, Venturi, Ennesson. Doctor, what point...?"

"I don't ask out of mere curiosity. This was - and believe me, I do not like grand words, either - a part of my own youth. It was because of you people that I took up these studies. We are equal in our uselessness. You may not, of course, accept this. I won't belabor the point. But I would like to know. What happened to Arder?"

"No one knows exactly," I answered. Suddenly it didn't matter. And why shouldn't I speak about it? I looked at the cracked black polish of the desk. I had never imagined that it would be like this.

"We were flying two probes over Arcturus. I lost contact with him. I couldn't find him. It was his radio that had gone dead, not mine. When my oxygen ran out, I returned."

"You waited?"

"Yes. That is, I circled Arcturus. Six days. A hundred and fifty-six hours, to be exact."

"By yourself?"

"Yes. I had bad luck, because Arcturus developed new spots and I completely lost contact with the Prometheus. With my ship. Static. He could not return alone, without a radio. Arder, I mean. Because in the probes the directional teleran is connected to the radio. He could not return without me, and he didn't return. Gimma ordered me back. He was quite right: to kill time, I later calculated the chances of my finding Arder by visual means, on the radar - I don't remember exactly now, but it was something like one in a trillion. I hope he did the same as Arne Ennesson."

"What did Ame Ennesson do?"

"He lost beam focalization. His thrust began to go on him. He could have stayed in orbit, I don't know, another twenty-four hours; he would have spiraled, then finally fallen into Arcturus, so he chose to enter the protuberance at once. Burned up before my eyes."

Translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, Mandarin