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Homesick   By:

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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... Continue reading book >>

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