Home is Where You Left It, p.1George O. Smith
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HOME IS WHERE YOU LEFT IT
By ADAM CHASE
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Amazing Stories February1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The chance of mass slaughter was their eternalnightmare.]
[Sidenote: _How black is the blackest treachery? Is the most calloustraitor entitled to mercy? Steve pondered these questions. His decision?That at times the villain should possibly be spoken of as a hero._]
Only the shells of deserted mud-brick houses greeted Steve Cantwell whenhe reached the village.
He poked around in them for a while. The desert heat was searing,parching, and the Sirian sun gleamed balefully off the blades of Steve'sunicopter, which had brought him from Oasis City, almost five hundredmiles away. He had remembered heat from his childhood here on Sirius'second planet with the Earth colony, but not heat like this. It was likea magnet drawing all the moisture out of his body.
He walked among the buildings, surprise and perhaps sadness etched onhis gaunt, weather-beaten face. Childhood memories flooded back: thesingle well from which all the families drew their water, the mud-brickhouse, hardly different from the others and just four walls and a roofnow, in which he'd lived with his aunt after his parents had been killedin a _Kumaji_ raid, the community center where he'd spent his happiesttime as a boy.
He went to the well and hoisted up a pailful of water. The winch creakedas he remembered. He ladled out the water, suddenly very thirsty, andbrought the ladle to his lips.
He hurled the ladle away. The water was bitter. Not brackish.
He spat with fury, then kneeled and stuffed his mouth with sand, almostgagging. After a while he spat out the sand too and opened his canteenand rinsed his mouth. His lips and mouth were paralyzed by contact withthe poison. He walked quickly across the well-square to his aunt'shouse. Inside, it was dim but hardly cooler. Steve was sweating, thesaline sweat making him blink. He scowled, not understanding. The tablewas set in his aunt's house. A coffeepot was on the stove and lastnight's partially-consumed dinner still on the table.
The well had been poisoned, the town had been deserted on the spur ofthe moment, and Steve had returned to his boyhood home from Earth--toolate for anything.
He went outside into the square. A lizard was sunning itself and staringat him with lidless eyes. When he moved across the square, the lizardscurried away.
"Earthman!" a quavering voice called.
Steve ran toward the sound. In the scant shadow of the community center,a Kumaji was resting. He was a withered old man, all skin and bones andsweat-stiffened tunic, with enormous red-rimmed eyes. His purple skin,which had been blasted by the merciless sun, was almost black.
Steve held the canteen to his lips and watched his throat working almostspasmodically to get the water down. After a while Steve withdrew thecanteen and said:
"What happened here?"
"They're gone. All gone."
"Yes, but what happened?"
"This is my town," the old man said. "I lived with the Earthmen. Nowthey're gone."
"But you stayed here--"
"To die," the old man said, without self-pity. "I'm too old to flee, tooold to fight, too old for anything but death. More water."
* * * * *
Steve gave him another drink. "You still haven't told me what happened."Actually, though, Steve could guess. With the twenty-second centuryEarth population hovering at the eleven billion mark, colonies weresought everywhere. Even on a parched desert wasteland like this. TheKumaji tribesmen had never accepted the colony as a fact of their lifeon the desert, and in a way Steve could not blame them. It meant oneoasis less for their own nomadic sustenance. When Steve was a boy,Kumaji raids were frequent. At school on Earth and Luna he'd read aboutthe raids, how they'd increased in violence, how the Earth government,so far away and utterly unable to protect its distant colony, hadsuggested withdrawal from the Kumaji desert settlement, especially sincea colony could exist there under only the most primitive conditions,almost like the purple-skinned Kumaji natives themselves.
"When did it happen?" Steve demanded.
"Last night." It was now midafternoon. "Three folks died," the Kumajisaid in his almost perfect English, "from the poisoning of the well. Thewell was the last straw. The colonists had no choice. They had to go,and go fast, taking what little water they had left in the houses."
"Will they try to walk all the way through to Oasis City?" Oasis City,built at the confluence of two underground rivers which came to thesurface there and flowed the rest of the way to the sea above ground,was almost five hundred miles from the colony. Five hundred miles oftrackless sands and hundred-and-thirty-degree heat....
"They have to," the old man said. "And they have to hurry. Men, womenand children. The Kumaji are after them."
* * * * *
Steve felt irrational hatred then. He thought it would help if he couldfind some of the nomadic tribesmen and kill them. It might help the wayhe felt, he knew, but it certainly wouldn't help the fleeing colonists,trekking across a parched wilderness--to the safety of Oasis City--ordeath.
"Come on," Steve said, making up his mind. "The unicopter can hold twoin a pinch."
"You're going after them?"
"I've got to. They're my people. I've been away too long."
"Say, you're young Cantwell, aren't you? Now I remember."
"Yes, I'm Steve Cantwell."
"I'm not going anyplace, young fellow."
"But you can't stay here, without any good water to drink, without--"
"I'm staying," the old man said, still without self-pity, justmatter-of-factly. "The Earth folks have no room for me and I can't blame'em. The Kumaji'll kill me for a renegade, I figure. I lived a good,long life. I've no regrets. Go after your people, young fellow. They'llneed every extra strong right arm they can get. You got any weapons?"
"No," Steve said.
"Too bad. Well, good-bye and good luck."
"But you can't--"
"Oh, I'm staying. I want to stay. This is my home. It's the only homeI'll ever have. Good luck, young fellow."
Slowly, Steve walked to his unicopter. It was nothing more than a smallmetal disk on which to stand, and a shaft with four turbo-blades. Itcould do sixty miles an hour at an elevation of two thousand feet.
* * * * *
Steve turned the little turbo-jet engine over, then on impulse ran backto the old man and gave him his canteen, turning away before it could berefused and striding quickly back to the unicopter and getting himselfairborne without looking at the deserted village or the old man again.
The old man's voice called after him: "Tell the people ... hurry ...Kumaji looking for them to kill ... desert wind ought to wipe out theirtrail ... but hurry...."
The voice faded into the faint rushing sound of the hot desert wind.Steve gazed down on bare sun-blasted rock, on rippled dunes, onhate-haze. He circled wider and wider, seeking his people.
Hours later he spotted the caravan in the immensity of sand andwasteland. He brought the unicopter down quickly, with a rush of air anda whine of turbojets. He alighted in the sand in front of theslow-moving column. It was like something out of Earth's MiddleEast--and Middle Ages. They had even imported camels for their life hereon the Sirian desert, deciding the Earth camel was a better beast ofburden than anything the Sirius II waste
"Hullo!" Steve shouted, and a man armed with an atorifle came stridingclumsily through the sand toward him. "Cantwell's the name," Steve said."I'm one of you."
Bleak hostility in his face, the man approached. "Cantwell. Yeah, Iremember you. Colony wasn't good enough for young Steve
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