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YOUTH

_by_ ISAAC ASIMOV


Red and Slim found the two strange little animals the morning after
they heard the thunder sounds. They knew that they could never show
their new pets to their parents.


[Illustration]


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.

"Slim!"

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?"

"Hear what?"

"Thunder."

"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."

"Like it?"

"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?"

"I - I - "

"See!" Red affected scornful laughter.

Slim was stung. "I'd join up."

"Go on."

"Try me."

Red whirled at him, strange and intense. "You meant that? You want to go
in with me?"

[Illustration]

"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?"

"No."

"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."

"What's that?"

"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.


II

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?"

"Yes."

"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."

[Illustration]

"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."

"Really?"

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?"

"Yes, lad."

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."

"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?"


III

The swaying had come to a halt and it was dark. The Explorer was not
comfortable in the alien air. It felt as thick as soup and he had to
breathe shallowly. Even so -

He reached out in a sudden need for company. The Merchant was warm to
the touch. His breathing was rough, he moved in an occasional spasm, and
was obviously asleep. The Explorer hesitated and decided not to wake
him. It would serve no real purpose.

There would be no rescue, of course. That was the penalty paid for the
high profits which unrestrained competition could lead to. The Merchant
who opened a new planet could have a ten year monopoly of its trade,
which he might hug to himself or, more likely, rent out to all comers at
a stiff price. It followed that planets were searched for in secrecy
and, preferably, away from the usual trade routes. In a case such as
theirs, then, there was little or no chance that another ship would come
within range of their subetherics except for the most improbable of
coincidences. Even if they were in their ship, that is, rather than in
this - this - _cage_.

The Explorer grasped the thick bars. Even if they blasted those away, as
they could, they would be stuck too high in open air for leaping.

It was too bad. They had landed twice before in the scout-ship. They had
established contact with the natives who were grotesquely huge, but mild
and unaggressive. It was obvious that they had once owned a flourishing
technology, but hadn't faced up to the consequences of such a
technology. It would have been a wonderful market.

And it was a tremendous world. The Merchant, especially, had been taken
aback. He had known the figures that expressed the planet's diameter,
but from a distance of two light-seconds, he had stood at the visi-plate
and muttered, "Unbelievable!"

"Oh, there are larger worlds," the Explorer said. It wouldn't do for an
Explorer to be too easily impressed.

"Inhabited?"

"Well, no."

"Why, you could drop your planet into that large ocean and drown it."

The Explorer smiled. It was a gentle dig at his Arcturian homeland,
which was smaller than most planets. He said, "Not quite."

The Merchant followed along the line of his thoughts. "And the
inhabitants are large in proportion to their world?" He sounded as
though the news struck him less favorably now.

"Nearly ten times our height."

"Are you sure they are friendly?"

"That is hard to say. Friendship between alien intelligences is an
imponderable. They are not dangerous, I think. We've come across other
groups that could not maintain equilibrium after the atomic war stage
and you know the results. Introversion. Retreat. Gradual decadence and
increasing gentleness."

"Even if they are such monsters?"

"The principle remains."

It was about then that the Explorer felt the heavy throbbing of the
engines.

He frowned and said, "We are descending a bit too quickly."

There had been some speculation on the dangers of landing some hours
before. The planetary target was a huge one for an oxygen-water world.
Though it lacked the size of the uninhabitable hydrogen-ammonia planets
and its low density made its surface gravity fairly normal, its
gravitational forces fell off but slowly with distance. In short, its
gravitational potential was high and the ship's Calculator was a
run-of-the-mill model not designed to plot landing trajectories at that
potential range. That meant the Pilot would have to use manual controls.

It would have been wiser to install a more high-powered model, but that
would have meant a trip to some outpost of civilization; lost time;
perhaps a lost secret. The Merchant demanded an immediate landing.

The Merchant felt it necessary to defend his position now. He said
angrily to the Explorer, "Don't you think the Pilot knows his job? He
landed you safely twice before."

Yes, thought the Explorer, in a scout-ship, not in this unmaneuverable
freighter. Aloud, he said nothing.

He kept his eye on the visi-plate. They were descending too quickly.
There was no room for doubt. Much too quickly.

The Merchant said, peevishly, "Why do you keep silence?"

"Well, then, if you wish me to speak, I would suggest that you strap on
your Floater and help me prepare the Ejector."

The Pilot fought a noble fight. He was no beginner. The atmosphere,
abnormally high and thick in the gravitational potential of this world
whipped and burned about the ship, but to the very last it looked as
though he might bring it under control despite that.

He even maintained course, following the extrapolated line to the point
on the northern continent toward which they were headed. Under other
circumstances, with a shade more luck, the story would eventually have
been told and retold as a heroic and masterly reversal of a lost
situation. But within sight of victory, tired body and tired nerves
clamped a control bar with a shade too much pressure. The ship, which
had almost levelled off, dipped down again.

There was no room to retrieve the final error. There was only a mile
left to fall. The Pilot remained at his post to the actual landing, his
only thought that of breaking the force of the crash, of maintaining the
spaceworthiness of the vessel. He did not survive. With the ship bucking
madly in a soupy atmosphere, few Ejectors could be mobilized and only
one of them in time.

When afterwards, the Explorer lifted out of unconsciousness and rose
to his feet, he had the definite feeling that but for himself and
the Merchant, there were no survivors. And perhaps that was an
over-calculation. His Floater had burnt out while still sufficiently
distant from surface to have the fall stun him. The Merchant might have
had less luck, even, than that.

He was surrounded by a world of thick, ropy stalks of grass, and in the
distance were trees that reminded him vaguely of similar structures on
his native Arcturian world except that their lowest branches were high
above what he would consider normal tree-tops.

He called, his voice sounding basso in the thick air and the Merchant
answered. The Explorer made his way toward him, thrusting violently at
the coarse stalks that barred his path.

"Are you hurt?" he asked.

The Merchant grimaced. "I've sprained something. It hurts to walk."

The Explorer probed gently. "I don't think anything is broken. You'll
have to walk despite the pain."

"Can't we rest first?"

"It's important to try to find the ship. If it is spaceworthy or if it
can be repaired, we may live. Otherwise, we won't."

"Just a few minutes. Let me catch my breath."

The Explorer was glad enough for those few minutes. The Merchant's eyes
were already closed. He allowed his to do the same.

He heard the trampling and his eyes snapped open. Never sleep on a
strange planet, he told himself futilely.

The Merchant was awake too and his steady screaming was a rumble of
terror.

The Explorer called, "It's only a native of this planet. It won't harm
you."

But even as he spoke, the giant had swooped down and in a moment they
were in its grasp being lifted closer to its monstrous ugliness.

The Merchant struggled violently and, of course, quite futilely. "Can't
you talk to it?" he yelled.

The Explorer could only shake his head. "I can't reach it with the
Projector. It won't be listening."

"Then blast it. Blast it down."

"We can't do that." The phrase "you fool" had almost been added. The
Explorer struggled to keep his self-control. They were swallowing space
as the monster moved purposefully away.

"Why not?" cried the Merchant. "You can reach your blaster. I see it in
plain sight. Don't be afraid of falling."

"It's simpler than that. If this monster is killed, you'll never trade
with this planet. You'll never even leave it. You probably won't live
the day out."

"Why? Why?"

"Because this is one of the young of the species. You should know what
happens when a trader kills a native young, even accidentally. What's
more, if this is the target-point, then we are on the estate of a
powerful native. This might be one of his brood."

That was how they entered their present prison. They had carefully burnt
away a portion of the thick, stiff covering and it was obvious that the
height from which they were suspended was a killing one.

Now, once again, the prison-cage shuddered and lifted in an upward arc.
The Merchant rolled to the lower rim and startled awake. The cover
lifted and light flooded in. As was the case the time before, there were
two specimens of the young. They were not very different in appearance
from adults of the species, reflected the Explorer, though, of course,
they were considerably smaller.

A handful of reedy green stalks was stuffed between the bars. Its odor


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