Chapter XXI. PROBLEM THREE

THE HUNTER wanted to stay until the fire had burned out, to make certain of results, but Bob, once he had done all he could, turned his attention at once to his father. A single glance at the inferno surrounding the fugitive’s last known position was enough for him. He ran back to the jeep, glanced at his father’s still motionless form, and sent the vehicle whirling toward the doctor’s office. The Hunter dared make no remark; interference with his host’s eyesight at this speed would have been a serious error.

Mr. Kinnaird had been able to see ever since the alien had left his body; he had been conscious the whole time. The paralysis, however, had endured considerably longer than the dose given to Bob by the Hunter, and he had not been in a position to see very well what went on by the shed. He knew Bob had stopped at what seemed to him dangerous proximity to the fire and had gone back for something, but he did not know what. He struggled all the way down the road to get the question past his vocal cords.

He recovered enough to sit up before they finished the short ride to the doctor’s office, and the questions were beginning to pour forth as the jeep pulled up at the door. Bob, of course, was relieved to see the recovery, but he had developed another and rather serious worry in the meantime, and he merely said, “Never mind about what happened to the shed and me; I want to find out what happened to you. Can you walk in, or shall I help?”

The last sentence was a stroke of genius; it shut the elder Kinnaird up with a snap. He emerged with dignity from the car and stalked ahead of his son to the doctor’s door. The boy followed; normally, he would have been wearing a grin of amused triumph, but an expression of worry still overcast his face.

Inside, the doctor finally got a more or less coherent idea of what had happened from their two stories, and from Bob’s expression and a number of meaningful glances made a guess at the underlying phenomena; he ordered Mr. Kinnaird onto the examination table. The man objected, saying that he wanted to find out something from Bob first.

“I’ll talk to him,” Seever said. “You stay put.” He went outside for a moment with the boy, raising his eyebrows interrogatively.

“Yes.” Bob answered the unspoken question. “But you won’t find anything now except maybe a lack of germs. I’ll tell you all about it later; but the job’s done.”

He waited until the doctor had disappeared once more, and then spoke to the Hunter.

“What are your plans, now that your job is finished here? Go back to your own world?”

“I can’t. I told you that,” was the silent answer. “My ship is totally wrecked, and even if the other were not, I could never find it. I have a rough idea of how a space ship works, but I am a policeman, not a physicist or construction engineer. I could no more make a space ship than you could build one of the airliners we traveled on together.”

“Then-?”

“I am on earth for life, except for the ridiculously small chance of another ship’s arriving from my old home. You can guess the likelihood of that if you will look at an astronomical picture of the Milky Way. Just what I do here and who my host is-and even if I have a host at all -depend on you. We do not thrust ourselves on those who do not want our company. What do you say?”

Bob did not answer at once. He looked back across the village to the pillar of smoke that was now thinning above the hill, and thought. The Hunter assumed that he was considering the pros and cons of the suggestion, and felt a little hurt that there should be any hesitation, even though he had begun to appreciate the human desire for privacy at certain times; but for once he had misunderstood his host.

Bob was intelligent for his age, as was evident enough, but he was still far from adult, and was apt to consider his immediate problems before indulging in long-term planning. When he spoke at last the Hunter did not know whether to be relieved, overjoyed, or amused; he never tried to find the words to describe his feelings.

“I’m glad you’re staying around,” Bob said slowly. “I was a little worried about it, particularly the last few minutes. I like you a lot, and was hoping you could help me out on another problem. You see, when I set up this booby trap we just sprung, there was one point I didn’t consider; and it’s one that has to be met awfully fast.

“In a few minutes Dad is going to come out that door with his mouth full of questions and his eyes full of fire. One of the questions is going to be, ‘How did that fire get started?’ I don’t think my being fifteen will make any difference in what’ll happen if I don’t have an awfully convincing answer. I didn’t stop to think of one before, and I can’t seem to now, so please get your mind to work. If you can’t do that, start toughening up that protective net of yours under my skin; I can tell you where it’ll be needed most!”

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