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THE BEACHCOMBER

by DAMON KNIGHT

From the collection The Star Beast and Other Stories by Damon Knight

* * *

Maxwell and the girl started their weekend on Thursday, in Venice. Friday they went to Paris, Saturday to Nice, and on Sunday they were bored. Alice pouted at him across the breakfast table. 'Vernon, let's go someplace else,' she said.

'Sure,' said Maxwell, not too graciously. 'Don't you want your bug eggs?'

Alice pushed them away. If I ever did, I don't now. Why do you have to be so unpleasant in the morning?'

The eggs were insect eggs, all right, but they were on the menu as oeufs Procyon Thibault, and three of the half-inch brown spheres cost about one thousand times their value in calories. Maxwell was well paid as a script-writer for the North American Unit Ministry of Information—he bossed a gang of six gagmen on the Cosmic Cocktail show—but he was beginning to hate to think about what these five days were costing him.

'Where do you want to go?' asked Maxwell. Their coffee came out of the conveyer, steaming and fragrant, and he sipped his moodily. 'Want to run over to Algiers? Or up to Stockholm?'

'No,' said Alice. She leaned forward across the table and put up one long white hand to keep her honey- colored hair out of her eyes. 'You don't know what I mean. I mean, let's go to some other planet.'

Maxwell choked slightly and spilled coffee on the tabletop. 'Europe is all right,' Alice was saying with disdain, 'but it's all getting to be just like Chicago. Let's go someplace different for once.'

'And be back by tomorrow noon?' Maxwell demanded. 'It's ten hours even to Proxima; we'd have just time to turn around and get back on the liner.'

Alice dropped her long lashes, contriving to look inviting and sullen at the same tune. Not bad at that, Maxwell thought, for ten o'clock in the morning. 'You couldn't get Monday off, I suppose,' she said, giving him her A-number-One smile. 'We could have so much fun—together … '

* * *

They took the liner to Gamma Tauri IV, the clearing point for the system, then transferred to the interplanet shuttle for Three. Three was an almost undeveloped planet; there were perhaps a hundred cities near the equator, and some mines and plantations in the temperate zones—the rest was nothing but scenery. Maxwell had heard about it from people at the Ministry; he'd been warned to go within a year or so if he went at all—after that it would be as full of tourists as Proxima II.

The scenery was worth the trip. Sitting comfortably on their rented airscooters, stripped to shorts and singlets, with the polarized sunscreens moderating the blazing heat of Gamma Tauri, Maxwell and the girl could look in any horizontal direction and see a thousand square miles of exuberant blue-green foliage.

Two hundred feet below, the tops of gigantic tree-ferns waved spasmodically in the breeze. They were following a chain of low mountains that bisected this continent; the tree-tops sloped away abruptly on either side, showing an occasional glimpse of reddish-brown undergrowth, and merged into a sea of blue-green that became bluer and mistier toward the horizon. A flying thing moved lazily across the clear, cumulus-dotted sky, perhaps half a mile away. Maxwell trained his binoculars on it: it was an absurd lozenge with six pairs of wings—an insect, perhaps; he couldn't tell. He heard a raucous cry dawn below, not far away, and glanced down hoping to see one of the carnivores; but the rippling sea of foliage was unbroken.

He watched Alice breathing deeply. Maxwell grinned. Her face was shiny with perspiration and pleasure. 'Where to now?' he asked.

The girl peered to the right, where a glint of silver shone on the horizon. 'Is that the sea, over there?' she asked. 'If it is, let's go look for a nice beach and have our lunch.'

There were no nice beaches; they were all covered with inch-thick pebbles instead of sand; but Alice kept wanting to try the next place.

After each abortive approach, they went up to two thousand feet to survey the shore-line. Alice pointed and said, 'There's a nice looking one. Oh! There's somebody on it.'

Maxwell looked, and saw a tiny figure moving along the shore. 'Might be somebody I know,' he said, and focused his binoculars. He saw a broad, naked back, dark against the silvery sea. The man was stooping, looking at something on the beach.

The figure straightened, and Maxwell saw a blazing crest of blond hair, then a strongly modeled nose and chin as the man turned. 'Oh-oh,' he said, lowering the binoculars

Alice was staring intently through her binoculars. 'Isn't he handsome,' she breathed. 'Do you know him?'

'Yeah,' said Maxwell. 'That's the Beachcomber. I interviewed him a couple of times. We'd better leave him be.'

Alice kept staring. 'Honestly,' she said. 'I never saw such a— Look, Vernie, he's waving at us.'

Maxwell looked again. The Beachcomber's face was turned up directly toward them. As Maxwell watched, the man's lips moved unmistakably in the syllables of his name.

Maxwell shortened the range, and saw that the Beachcomber was indeed waving. He also saw something he had missed before: the man was stark naked.

'He's recognized me,' he said, with mingled emotions. 'Now we will have to go down.'

Alice took her eyes away from the binoculars for the first time since they had sighted the man. 'That's silly,' she said. 'How could he—Vernon, you don't mean he can see us clearly from that far away?'

Maxwell waved back at the tiny figure and mouthed silently, 'Coming right down. Put some pants on, dammit.' He said to Alice, 'That's not all he can do. Weren't you listening when I said he's the Beachcomber?'

They started down on a long slant as the little figure below moved toward the jungle's edge. 'The who?' said Alice, looking through the binoculars again.

'Watch where you're going,' said Maxwell, more sharply than he had intended.

'I'm sorry. Who is he, dear?'

'The Beachcomber. The Man From the Future. Haven't you seen a newscast for the last five years?'

'I only tune in for the sports and fashions,' Alice said abstractedly. Then her mouth formed an O. 'My goodness! Is he the one who—'

'The same,' said Maxwell. 'The one who gave us the inertialess drive, the anti-friction field, the math to solve the three-body problem, and about a thousand other things. The guy from three million years in the future. And the loneliest man in all creation, probably. This is the planet he showed up on, five years ago, now that I come to think of it. I guess he spends most of his time here.'

'But why?' asked Alice. She looked toward the tiny beach, which was now vacant. Her expression, Maxwell thought, said that there were better uses to which he could put himself.

Maxwell snorted. 'Did you ever read—' He corrected himself; Alice obviously never read. 'Did you ever see one of the old films about the South Seas? Ever hear of civilized men 'going native' or becoming beachcombers?'

Alice said, 'Yes,' a trifle uncertainly.

'All right, imagine a man stranded in a universe full of savages—pleasant harmless savages, maybe, but people who are three million years away from his culture. What's he going to do?'

'Go native,' said Alice, 'or comb beaches.'

'That's right,' Maxwell told her. 'His only two alternatives. And either one is about as bad as the other, from his point of view. Conform to native customs, settle down, marry, lose everything that makes him a civilized man— or just simply go to hell by himself.'

'That's what he's doing?'

'Right.'

'Well, but what is the combing those beaches for?'

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