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Hills of Home

by Alfred Coppel

The river ran still and deep, green and gray in the eddies with the warm smell of late summer rising out of the slow water. Madrone and birch and willow, limp in the evening quiet, and the taste of smouldering leaves... .

It wasn't the Russian River. It was the Sacred Iss. The sun had touched the gem-encrusted cliffs by the shores of the Lost Sea of Korus and had vanished, leaving only the stillness of the dusk and the lonely cry of shore birds.

From downstream came the faint sounds of music. It might have been a phonograph playing in one of the summer cabins with names like Polly Ann Roost and Patches and Seventh Heaven, but to Kimmy it was the hated cry of the Father of Therns calling the dreadful Plant Men to their feast of victims borne into this Valley Dor by the mysterious Iss.

Kimmy shifted the heavy Martian pistol into his left hand and checked his harness. A soft smile touched his lips. He was well armed; there was nothing he had to fear from the Plant Men. His bare feet turned up-stream, away from the sound of the phonograph, toward the shallows in the river that would permit him to cross and continue his search along the base of the Golden Cliffs—

 

The sergeant's voice cut through the pre-dawn darkness. "Oh, three hundred, Colonel... . Briefing in thirty minutes."

Kimball tried to see him in the black gloom. He hadn't been asleep. It would have been hard to waste this last night that way. Instead he had been remembering. "All right, Sergeant," he said. "Coming up."

He swung his feet to the bare boards and sat for a moment, wishing he hadn't had to give up smoking. He could almost imagine the textured taste of the cigaret on his tongue.

Oddly enough, he wasn't tired. He wasn't excited, either. And that was much stranger. He stood up and opened the window to look out into the desert night. Overhead the stars were brilliant and cold. Mars gleamed russet-colored against the sable sky. He smiled, remembering again. So long a road, he thought, from then to now.

Then he stopped smiling and turned away from the window. It hadn't been an easy path and what was coming up now was the hardest part. The goddam psychs were the toughest, always wanting him to bug out on the deal because of their brainwave graphs and word association tests and their Rorschach blots.

"You're a lonely man, Colonel Kimball——"

"Too much imagination could be bad for this job."

How could you sit there with pentothal in your veins and wires running out of your head and tell them about the still waters of Korus, or the pennons fly...

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