_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 flying from the twin towers of Greater Helium or the way the tiny, slanting sun gleamed at dawn through the rigging of a flyer?
Kimball snapped on a light and looked at his watch. 0310. Zero minus one fifty. He opened the steel locker and began to dress.
_The water swirled warm and velvety around his ankles. There, behind that madrone, Kimmy thought. Was that a Plant Man? The thick white trunk and the grasping, blood-sucking arms----
The radium pistol’s weight made his wrist ache, but he clung to it tightly, knowing that he could never cope with a Plant Man with a sword alone. The certainty of coming battle made him smile a little, the way John Carter would smile if he were here in the Valley Dor ready to attack the white Therns and their Plant Men.
For a moment, Kimmy felt a thrill of apprehension. The deepening stillness of the river was closing in around him. Even the music from the phonograph was very, very faint. Above him, the great vault of the sky was changing from pink to gray to dusty blue. A bright star was breaking through the curtain of fading light. He knew it was Venus, the Evening Star. But let it be Earth, he thought. And instead of white, let it be the color of an emerald.
He paused in midstream, letting the warm water riffle around his feet. Looking up at the green beacon of his home planet, he thought: I’ve left all that behind me. It was never really what I wanted. Mars is where I belong. With my friends, Tars Tarkas the great Green Jeddak, and Carter, the Warlord, and all the beautiful brave people._
_The phonograph sang with Vallee’s voice: “Cradle me where southern skies can watch me with a million eyes----”
Kimmy’s eyes narrowed and he waded stealthily across the sacred river. That would be Matai Shang, the Father of Holy Therns--spreading his arms to the sunset and standing safely on his high balcony in the Golden Cliffs while the Plant Men gathered to attack the poor pilgrims Iss had brought to this cursed valley.
“Sing me to sleep, lullaby of the leaves”--the phonograph sang. Kimmy stepped cautiously ashore and moved into the cover of a clump of willows. The sky was darkening fast. Other stars were shining through. There wasn’t much time left._
Kimball stood now in the bright glare of the briefing shack, a strange figure in blood-colored plastic. The representatives of the press had been handed the mimeographed releases by the PRO and now they sat in silence, studying the red figure of the man who was to ride the rocket.
They were thinking: Why him? Out of all the scores of applicants--because there are always applicants for a sure-death job--and all the qualified pilots, why this one?
The Public Relations Officer was speaking now, reading from the mimeoed release as though these civilians couldn’t be trusted to get the sparse information given them straight without his help, given grudgingly and without expression.
Kimball listened, only half aware of what was being said. He watched the faces of the men sitting on the rows of folding chairs, saw their eyes like wounds, red from the early morning hour and the murmuring reception of the night before in the Officers’ Club. They are wondering how I feel, he was thinking. And asking themselves why I want to go.
On the dais nearby, listening to the PRO, but watching Kimball, sat Steinhart, the team analyst. Kimball returned his steady gaze thinking: They start out burning with desire to cure the human mind and end with the shadow of the images. The words become the fact, the therapy the aim. What could Steinhart know of longing? No, he thought, I’m not being fair. Steinhart was only doing his job.
The big clock on the back wall of the briefing shack said three fifty-five. Zero minus one hour and five minutes.
Kimball looked around the room at the pale faces, the open mouths. What have I to do with you now, he thought?
Outside, the winter night lay cold and still over the Base. Floodlights spilled brilliance over the dunes and the scrubby earth, high fences casting laced shadows across the burning white expanses of ferroconcrete.
As they filed out of the briefing shack, Steinhart climbed into the command car with Kimball. Chance or design? Kimball wondered. The others, he noticed, were leaving both of them alone.
“We haven’t gotten on too well, have we, Colonel?” Steinhart observed in a quiet voice.
Kimball thought: He’s pale skinned and very blond. What is it that he reminds me of? Shouldn’t there be a diadem on his forehead? He smiled vaguely into the rumbling night. That’s what it was. Odd that he should have forgotten. How many rocket pilots, he wondered, were weaned on Burroughs’ books? And how many remembered now that the Thern priests all wore yellow wings and a circlet of gold with some fantastic jewel on their forehead?
“We’ve done as well as could be expected,” he said.
Steinhart reached for a cigaret and then stopped, remembering that Kimball had had to give them up because of the flight. Kimball caught the movement and half-smiled.
“I didn’t try to kill the assignment for you, Kim,” the psych said.
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“You just didn’t think I was the man for the job.”
“Your record is good all the way. You know that,” Steinhart said. “It’s just some of the things----”
Kimball said: “I talked too much.”
“You had to.”
“You wouldn’t think my secret life was so dangerous, would you,” the Colonel said smiling.
“You were married, Kim. What happened?”
“I’d like to know. This is for me.”
Kimball shrugged. “It didn’t work. She was a fine girl--but she finally told me it was no go. ‘You don’t live here’ was the way she put it.”
“She knew you were a career officer; what did she expect----?”
“That isn’t what she meant. You know that.”
“Yes,” the psych said slowly. “I know that.”
They rode in silence, across the dark Base, between the concrete sheds and the wooden barracks. Overhead, the stars like dust across the sky. Kimball, swathed in plastic, a fantastic figure not of earth, watched them wheel across the clear, deep night.
“I wish you luck, Kim,” Steinhart said. “I mean that.”