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´╗┐Title: Homesick
Author: Venable, Lyn
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Homesick" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration]


_Homesick_

By LYN VENABLE

Illustrated by EMSH


 _What thrill is there in going out among the
 stars if coming back means bitter loneliness?_


Frankston pushed listlessly at a red checker with his right forefinger.
He knew the move would cost him a man, but he lacked enough interest in
the game to plot out a safe move. His opponent, James, jumped the red
disk with a black king and removed it from the board. Gregory, across
the room, flicked rapidly through the pages of a magazine, too rapidly
to be reading anything, or even looking at the pictures. Ross lay
quietly on his bunk, staring out of the viewport.

The four were strangely alike in appearance, nearly the same age, the
age where gray hairs finally outnumber black, or baldness takes over.
The age when the expanding waistline has begun to sag tiredly, when
robust middle age begins the slow accelerating decline toward senility.

A strange group to find aboard a spaceship, but then _The Columbus_ was
a very strange ship. Bolted to its outer hull, just under the viewports,
were wooden boxes full of red geraniums, and ivy wound tenuous green
fronds over the gleaming hull that had withstood the bombardment of
pinpoint meteors and turned away the deadly power of naked cosmic rays.

Frankston glanced at his wristchrono. It was one minute to six.

"In about a minute," he thought, "Ross will say something about going
out to water his geraniums." The wristchrono ticked fifty-nine times.

"I think I'll go out and water my geraniums," said Ross.

       *       *       *       *       *

No one glanced up. Then Gregory threw his magazine on the floor. Ross
got up and walked, limping slightly, to a wall locker. He pulled out the
heavy, ungainly spacesuit and the big metal bulb of a headpiece. He
carried them to his bunk and laid them carefully down.

"Will somebody please help me on with my suit?" he asked.

For one more long moment, no one moved. Then James got up and began to
help Ross fit his legs into the suit. Ross had arthritis, not badly, but
enough so that he needed a little help climbing into a spacesuit.

James pulled the heavy folds of the suit up around Ross's body and held
it while Ross extended his arms into the sleeve sections. His hands, in
the heavy gauntlets, were too unwieldy to do the front fastenings, and
he stood silently while James did it for him.

Ross lifted the helmet, staring at it as a cripple might regard a
wheelchair which he loathed but was wholly dependent upon. Then he
fitted the helmet over his head and James fastened it down and lifted
the oxygen tank to his back.

"Ready?" asked James.

The bulbous headpiece inclined in a nod. James walked to a panel and
threw a switch marked INNER LOCK. A round aperture slid silently open.
Ross stepped through it and the door shut behind him as James threw the
switch back to its original position. Opposite the switch marked OUTER
LOCK a signal glowed redly and James threw another switch. A moment
later the signal flickered out.

Frankston, with a violent gesture, swept the checker board clean. Red
and black men clattered to the floor, rolling and spinning. Nobody
picked them up.

"What does he do it for?" demanded Frankston in a tight voice. "What
does he get out of those stinking geraniums he can't touch or smell?"

"Shut up," said Gregory.

James looked up sharply. Curtness was unusual for Gregory, a bad sign.
Frankston was the one he'd been watching, the one who'd shown signs of
cracking, but after so long, even a psycho-expert's opinion might be
haywire. Who was a yardstick? Who was normal?

"Geraniums don't smell much anyway," added Gregory in a more
conciliatory tone.

"Yeah," agreed Frankston, "I'd forgotten that. But why does he torture
himself like this, and us, too?"

"Because that's what he wanted to do," answered James.

"Sure," agreed Gregory, "the whole trip--the last twenty years of it,
anyhow--all he could talk about was how, when he got back to Earth, he
was going to buy a little place in the country and raise flowers."

"Well, we're back," muttered Frankston, with a terrible bitterness.
"He's raising flowers, but not in any little place in the country."

       *       *       *       *       *

Gregory continued almost dreamily, "Remember the last night out? We were
all gathered around the viewscreen. And there was Earth, getting bigger
and greener and closer all the time. Remember what it felt like to be
going back, after thirty years?"

"Thirty years cooped up in this ship," grumbled Frankston. "All our
twenties and thirties and forties ..."

"But we were coming home." There was a rapt expression on Gregory's
lined and weathered face. "We were looking forward to the twenty or
maybe thirty good years we had left, talking about what we'd do, where
we'd live, wondering what had changed on Earth. At least we had that
last night out. All the data was stashed away in the microfiles, all the
data about planets with air we couldn't breathe and food we couldn't
eat. We were going home, home to big, friendly, green Earth."

Frankston's face suddenly crumpled as though he were about to weep and
he cradled his head against his arms. "God, do we have to go over it all
again? Not again tonight!"

"Leave him alone," ordered James with an inflection of command in his
voice. "Go to the other section of the ship if you don't want to listen.
He has to keep going over it, just like Ross has to keep watering his
geraniums."

Frankston remained motionless and Gregory looked gratefully at James.
James was the steady one. It was easier for him because he understood.

Gregory's face became more and more animated as he lost himself, living
again his recollections: "The day we blasted in. The crowds. Thousands
of people, all there to see us come in. We were proud. Of course, we
thought we were the first to land, just like we'd been the first to go
out. Those cheers, coming from thousands of people at once. For us.
Ross-- Lt. Ross--was the first one out of the lock. We'd decided on
that; he'd been in command for almost ten years, ever since Commander
Stevens died. You remember Stevens, don't you? He took over when we lost
Captain Willers. Well, anyway, Ross out first, and then you, James, and
you, Frankston, and then Trippitt, and me last, because you were all
specialists and I was just a crewman. _The_ crewman, I should say, the
only one left.

"Ross hesitated and almost stumbled when he stepped out, and tears began
pouring from his eyes, but I thought--well, you know, coming home after
thirty years and all that. But when I stepped out of the lock, my eyes
stung like fire and a thousand needles seemed to jab at my skin.

"And then the President himself stepped forward with the flowers. That's
where the real trouble began, with the flowers. I remember Ross
stretching out his arms to take the bouquet, like a mother reaching for
a baby. Then suddenly he dropped them, sneezing and coughing and sobbing
for breath, and the President reached out to help him, asking him over
and over what was wrong.

"It was the same with all of us, and we turned and staggered back to the
ship, closing the lock behind us. It was bad then. God, I'll never
forget it! The five of us, moaning in agony, gasping for breath, our
eyes all swollen shut, and the itching ... that itching." Gregory
shuddered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Even the emotionally disciplined James set his teeth and felt his scalp
crawl at the memory of that horror. He glanced toward the viewport, as
though to cleanse his mind of the memory. He could see Ross out there,
among the geraniums, moving slowly and painfully in his heavy spacesuit.
Occupational therapy. Ross watered flowers and Gregory talked and
Frankston was bitter and ... himself? Observation, maybe.

Gregory's voice began again, "And then they were pounding on the lock,
begging us to let the doctor in, but we were all rolling and thrashing
with the itching, burning, sneezing, and finally James got himself under
control enough to open the locks and let them in.

"Then came the tests, allergy tests. Remember those? They'd cut a little
row of scratches in your arm ..." Each man instinctively glanced at his
forearm, saw neat rows of tiny pink scars, row on row. "Then they'd put
a little powder in each cut and each kind of powder was an extract of
some common substance we might be allergic to. The charts they made were
full of 'P's, P for positive, long columns of big, red 'P's. All pollen,
dust, wool, nylon, cotton, fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, grain, milk,
whisky, cigarettes, dogs, cats--everything! And wasn't it funny about us
being allergic to women's face powder? Ha! We were allergic to women
from their nylon hose to their face powder.

"Thirty years of breathing purified, sterilized, filtered air, thirty
years of drinking distilled water and swallowing synthetic food tablets
had changed us. The only things we weren't allergic to were the metal
and plastic and synthetics of our ship, _this_ ship. We're allergic to
Earth. That's funny, isn't it?"

Gregory began to rock back and forth, laughing the thin high laugh of
hysteria. James silently walked to a water hydrant and filled a plastic
cup. He brought Gregory a small white pill.

"You wouldn't take this with the rest of us at supper. You'd better take
it now. You need it."

Gregory nodded bleakly, sobering at once, and swallowed the pellet. He
made a face after the water.

"Distilled," he spat. "Distilled ... no flavor ... no life ... like
us ... distilled."

"If only we could have blasted off again." Frankston's voice came
muffled through his hands. "It wouldn't have made any difference where.
Anywhere or nowhere. No, our fine ship is obsolete and we're old, much
too old. They have the spacedrive now. Men don't make thirty-year
junkets into space and come back allergic to Earth. They go out, and in
a month or two they're back, with their hair still black and their eyes
still bright and their uniforms still fit. A month or two is all. Those
crowds that cheered us, they were proud of us and sorry for us, because
we'd been out thirty years and they never expected us back at all. But
it was inconvenient for Spaceport." Bitter sarcasm tinged his voice.
"They actually had to postpone the regular monthly Trans-Galactic run
to let us in with this big, clumsy hulk."

"Why didn't we ever see any of the new ships either going out or coming
back?" asked Gregory.

       *       *       *       *       *

Frankston shook his head. "You don't see a ship when it's in spacedrive.
It's out of normal space-time dimensions. We had a smattering of the
theory at cadet school ... anyway, if one did flash into normal
space-time--say, for instance, coming in for a landing--the probability
of us being at the same place at the same time was almost nil. 'Two
ships passing in the night' as the old saying goes."

Gregory nodded, "I guess Trippitt was the lucky one."

"You didn't see Trippitt die," replied James.

"What was it?" asked Frankston. "What killed Trippitt? So quickly, too.
He was only outside a few minutes like the rest of us, and eight hours
later he was dead."

"We couldn't be sure," answered James. "Some virus. There are countless
varieties. People live in a contaminated atmosphere all their lives,
build up a resistance to them. Sometimes a particularly virulent strain
will produce an epidemic, but most people, if they're affected, will
have a mild case of whatever it is and recover. But after thirty years
in space, thirty years of breathing perfectly pure, uncontaminated air,
Trippitt had no antibodies in his bloodstream. The virus hit and he
died."

"But why didn't the rest of us get it?" asked Gregory.

"We were lucky. Viruses are like that."

"Those people talked about building a home for us," muttered Frankston.
"Why didn't they?"

"It wouldn't have been any different," answered James gently. "It would
have been the same, almost an exact duplicate of the ship, everything
but the rockets. Same metal and plastic and filtered air and synthetic
food. It couldn't have had wool rugs or down pillows or smiling wives or
fresh air or eggs for breakfast. It would have been just like this. So,
since the ship was obsolete, they gave it to us, and a plot of ground to
anchor it to, and we're home. They did the best they could for us, the
very best they could."

"But I feel stifled, shut in!"

"The ship is large, Frankston. We all crowd into this section because,
without each other, we'd go mad." James kicked the edge of the magazine
on the floor. "Thank God we're not allergic to decontaminated paper.
There's still reading."

"We're getting old," said Gregory. "Some day one of us will be here
alone."

"God help him then," answered James, with more emotion than was usual
for him.

       *       *       *       *       *

During the latter part of the conversation, the little red signal had
been flashing persistently. Finally James saw it. Ross was in the outer
lock. James threw the decontaminator switch and the signal winked out.
Every trace of dust and pollen would have to be removed from Ross's suit
before he could come inside the ship.

"Just like on an alien planet," commented Gregory.

"Isn't that what this is to us--an alien planet?" asked Frankston, and
neither of the other men dared answer his bitter question.

A few minutes later, Ross was back in the cabin, and James helped him
out of his spacesuit.

"How are the geraniums, Ross?" asked Gregory.

"Fine," said Ross enthusiastically. "They're doing just fine."

He walked over to his bunk and lay down on his side so he could see out
of the viewport. There would be an hour left before darkness fell, an
hour to watch the geraniums. They were tall and red, and swayed slightly
in the evening breeze.

                                                         --LYN VENABLE



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Galaxy Science Fiction_ December 1952.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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