Only the shells of deserted mud-brick houses greeted Steve Cantwell when he 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’s unicopter, which had brought him from Oasis City, almost five hundred miles away. He had remembered heat from his childhood here on Sirius’ second planet with the Earth colony, but not heat like this. It was like a magnet drawing all the moisture out of his body.
He walked among the buildings, surprise and perhaps sadness etched on his gaunt, weather-beaten face. Childhood memories flooded back: the single well from which all the families drew their water, the mud-brick house, hardly different from the others and just four walls and a roof now, in which he’d lived with his aunt after his parents had been killed in a Kumaji raid, the community center where he’d spent his happiest time as a boy.
He went to the well and hoisted up a pailful of water. The winch creaked as he remembered. He ladled out the water, suddenly very thirsty, and brought 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, almost gagging. After a while he spat out the sand too and opened his canteen and rinsed his mouth. His lips and mouth were paralyzed by contact with the poison. He walked quickly across the well-square to his aunt’s house. Inside, it was dim but hardly cooler. Steve was sweating, the saline sweat making him blink. He scowled, not understanding. The table was set in his aunt’s house. A coffeepot was on the stove and last night’s partially-consumed dinner still on the table.
The well had been poisoned, the town had been deserted on the spur of the moment, and Steve had returned to his boyhood home from Earth--too late for anything.
He went outside into the square. A lizard was sunning itself and staring at him with lidless eyes. When he moved across the square, the lizard scurried 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 and sweat-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 almost spasmodically to get the water down. After a while Steve withdrew the canteen 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. Now they’re gone.”
“But you stayed here--”
“To die,” the old man said, without self-pity. “I’m too old to flee, too old 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 century Earth population hovering at the eleven billion mark, colonies were sought everywhere. Even on a parched desert wasteland like this. The Kumaji tribesmen had never accepted the colony as a fact of their life on the desert, and in a way Steve could not blame them. It meant one oasis less for their own nomadic sustenance. When Steve was a boy, Kumaji raids were frequent. At school on Earth and Luna he’d read about the raids, how they’d increased in violence, how the Earth government, so far away and utterly unable to protect its distant colony, had suggested withdrawal from the Kumaji desert settlement, especially since a 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 Kumaji said in his almost perfect English, “from the poisoning of the well. The well 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 the surface there and flowed the rest of the way to the sea above ground, was almost five hundred miles from the colony. Five hundred miles of trackless sands and hundred-and-thirty-degree heat...
“They have to,” the old man said. “And they have to hurry. Men, women and children. The Kumaji are after them.”
Steve felt irrational hatred then. He thought it would help if he could find some of the nomadic tribesmen and kill them. It might help the way he felt, he knew, but it certainly wouldn’t help the fleeing colonists, trekking across a parched wilderness--to the safety of Oasis City--or death.
“Come on,” Steve said, making up his mind. “The unicopter can hold two in 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, just matter-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’ll need 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 home I’ll ever have. Good luck, young fellow.”
Slowly, Steve walked to his unicopter. It was nothing more than a small metal disk on which to stand, and a shaft with four turbo-blades. It could do sixty miles an hour at an elevation of two thousand feet.
Steve turned the little turbo-jet engine over, then on impulse ran back to the old man and gave him his canteen, turning away before it could be refused and striding quickly back to the unicopter and getting himself airborne 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 their trail ... 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, on hate-haze. He circled wider and wider, seeking his people.
Hours later he spotted the caravan in the immensity of sand and wasteland. He brought the unicopter down quickly, with a rush of air and a whine of turbojets. He alighted in the sand in front of the slow-moving column. It was like something out of Earth’s Middle East--and Middle Ages. They had even imported camels for their life here on the Sirian desert, deciding the Earth camel was a better beast of burden than anything the Sirius II wastelands had to offer. They walked beside the great-humped beasts of burden, the animals piled high with the swaying baggage of their belongings. They moved through the sands with agonizing slowness. Already, after only one day’s travel, Steve could see that some of the people were spent and exhausted and had to ride on camelback. They had gone perhaps fifteen miles, with almost five hundred to go across searing desert, the Kumaji seeking them...
“Hullo!” Steve shouted, and a man armed with an atorifle came striding clumsily 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, I remember you. Colony wasn’t good enough for young Steve Cantwell. Oh, no. Had to go off to Earth to get himself educated. What are you doing here now on that fancy aircraft of yours, coming to crow at our wake?”
The bitterness surprised Steve. He recognized the man now as Tobias Whiting, who had been the Colony’s most successful man when Steve was a boy. Except for his bitterness and for the bleak self-pity and defeat in his eyes, the years had been good to Tobias Whiting. He was probably in his mid-forties now, twenty years Steve’s senior, but he was well-muscled, his flesh was solid, his step bold and strong. He was a big muscular man with a craggy, handsome face. In ten years he had hardly changed at all, while Steve Cantwell, the boy, had become Steve Cantwell the man. He had been the Colony’s official trader with the Kumajis, and had grown rich--by colony standards--at his business. Now, Steve realized, all that was behind him, and he could only flee with the others--either back to the terribly crowded Earth or on in search of a new colony on some other outworld, if they could get the transportation. Perhaps that explained his bitterness.
“So you’ve come back, eh? You sure picked a time, Cantwell.”
The refugees were still about a quarter of a mile off, coming up slowly. They hardly seemed to be moving at all. “Is my aunt all right?” Steve said. She was the only family he remembered.
Tobias Whiting shook his head slowly. “I hate to be the one to tell you this. Brace yourself for a shock. Your aunt was one of those who died from the poisoned water last night.”
For a long moment, Steve said nothing. The only emotion he felt was pity--pity for the hard life his aunt had lived, and the hard death. Sadness would come later, if there was to be a time for sadness.
The caravan reached them then. The first person Steve saw was a girl. She wore the shroud-like desert garment and her face--it would be a pretty face under other circumstances, Steve realized--was etched with lines of fatigue. Steve did not recognize her. “Who is he, Dad?” the girl said.
“Young Cantwell. Remember?”
So this was Mary Whiting, Steve thought. Why, she’d been a moppet ten years ago! How old? Ten years old maybe. The years crowded him suddenly. She was a woman now...
“Steve Cantwell?” Mary said. “Of course I remember. Hello, Steve. I--I’m sorry you had to come back at a time like this. I’m sorry about your aunt. If there’s anything I can do...”
Steve shook his head, then shook the hand she offered him. She was a slim, strong girl with a firm handshake. Her concern for him at a time like this was little short of amazing, especially since it was completely genuine.
He appreciated it.
Tobias Whiting said: “Shame of it is, Cantwell, some of us could get along with the Kumaji. I had a pretty good business here, you know that.” He looked with bitterness at the dusty file of refugees. “But I never got a credit out of it. Wherever we wind up, my girl and I will be poor again. We could have been rich.”
Steve asked, “What happened to all your profits?”
“Tied up with a Kumaji moneylender, but thanks to what happened I’ll never see it again.”
Mary winced, as if her father’s words and his self-pity were painful to her. Then others came up and a few minutes were spent in back-pounding and hand-shaking as some of the men who had been boys with Steve came up to recognize and be recognized. Their greeting was warm, as Tobias Whiting’s had been cool. Despite the knowledge of what lay behind all of them, and what still lay ahead, it was a little like homecoming.
But Steve liked Mary Whiting’s warm, friendly smile best of all. It was comforting and reassuring.
Three days later, Tobias Whiting disappeared.
The caravan had been making no more than ten or fifteen miles a day. Their water supply was almost gone but on the fourth day they hoped to reach an oasis in the desert. Two of the older folks had died of fatigue. A third was critically ill and there was little that could be done for him. The food supply was running short, but they could always slaughter their camels for food and make their way to Oasis City, still four hundred and some miles away, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
And then, during the fourth night, Tobias Whiting disappeared, taking Steve’s unicopter. A sentry had heard the low muffled whine of the turbojets during the night and had seen the small craft take off, but had assumed Steve had taken it up for some reason. Each day Steve had done so, reconnoitering for signs of the Kumaji.
“But why?” someone asked. “Why?”
At first there was no answer. Then a woman whose husband had died the day before said: “It’s no secret Whiting has plenty of money--with the Kumaji.”
None of them looked at Mary. She stood there defiantly, not saying anything, and Steve squeezed her hand.
“Now, wait a minute,” one of Whiting’s friends said.
“Wait, nothing.” This was Jeremy Gort, who twice had been mayor of the colony. “I know how Whiting’s mind works. He slaved all his life for that money, that’s the way he’ll see it. Cantwell, didn’t you say the Kumaji were looking for us, to kill us?”
“That’s what I was told,” Steve said.
“All right,” Gort went on relentlessly. “Then this is what I figure must have happened. Whiting got to brooding over his lost fortune and finally decided he had to have it. So, he went off at night in Cantwell’s ‘copter, determined to get it. Only catch is, folks, if I know the Kumaji, they won’t just give it to him--not by a long sight.”
“No?” someone asked.
“No sir. They’ll trade. For our location. And if Whiting went off like that without even saying good-bye to his girl here, my guess is he’ll make the trade.” His voice reflected some bitterness.
Mary went to Gort and slapped his face. The elderly man did not even blink. “Well,” he asked her gently, “did your pa tell you he was going?”
“N-no,” Mary said. There were tears in her eyes, but she did not cry.
Gort turned to Steve. “Cantwell, can he get far in that ‘copter?”
Steve shook his head. “Ten or fifteen miles is all. Almost out of fuel, Mr. Gort. You saw how I took her up for only a quick mile swing each day. He won’t get far.”
“He’ll crash in the desert?”
“Crash or crash-land,” Steve said.
Mary sobbed, and bit her lip, and was silent.
“We’ve got to stop him,” Gort said. “And fast. If he gets to the Kumaji, they’ll send down a raiding party and we’ll be finished. We could never fight them off without the protection of our village. Near as I can figure, there’s a Kumaji base fifty miles due north of here. Whiting knows it too, so that’s where he’ll be going, I figure. Can’t spare more than a couple of men to look for him, though, in case the Kumaji find us--or are led to us--and attack.”
Steve said, “I should have taken something out of the ‘copter every night, so it couldn’t start. I’ll go.”