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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE RETURN *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Sankar Viswanathan, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net

Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction,
January, 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

THE RETURN

 

 

BY H. BEAM PIPER AND JOHN J. McGUIRE

 

 

The isolated little group they found were doing fine—
but their religion was most strange—and yet quite logical!

 

 

Illustrated by Kelly Freas

 

 

Altamont cast a quick, routine, glance at the instrument panels and then looked down through the transparent nose of the helicopter at the yellow-brown river five hundred feet below. Next he scraped the last morsel from his plate and ate it.

"What did you make this out of, Jim?" he asked. "I hope you kept notes, while you were concocting it. It's good."

"The two smoked pork chops left over from yesterday evening," Loudons said, "and that bowl of rice that's been taking up space in the refrigerator the last couple of days together with a little egg powder, and some milk. I ground the chops up and mixed them with the rice and the other stuff. Then added some bacon, to make grease to fry it in."

Altamont chuckled. That was Loudons, all right; he could take a few left-overs, mess them together, pop them in the skillet, and have a meal that would turn the chef back at the Fort green with envy. He filled his cup and offered the pot.

"Caffchoc?" he asked.

Loudons held his cup out to be filled, blew on it, sipped, and then hunted on the ledge under the desk for the butt of the cigar he had half-smoked the evening before.

"Did you ever drink coffee, Monty?" the socio-psychologist asked, getting the cigar drawing to his taste.

"Coffee? No. I've read about it, of course. We'll have to organize an expedition to Brazil, some time, to get seeds, and try raising some."

Loudons blew a smoke ring toward the rear of the cabin.

"A much overrated beverage," he replied. "We found some, once, when I was on that expedition into Idaho, in what must have been the stockroom of a hotel. Vacuum-packed in moisture-proof containers, and free from radioactivity. It wasn't nearly as good as caffchoc. But then, I suppose, a pre-bustup coffee drinker couldn't stomach this stuff we're drinking." He looked forward, up the river they were following. "Get anything on the radio?" he asked. "I noticed you took us up to about ten thousand, while I was shaving."

Altamont got out his pipe and tobacco pouch, filling the former slowly and carefully.

"Not a whisper. I tried Colony Three, in the Ozarks, and I tried to call in that tribe of workers in Louisiana; I couldn't get either."

"Maybe if we tried to get a little more power on the set—"

That was Loudons, too, Altamont thought. There wasn't a better man at the Fort, when it came to dealing with people, but confront him with a problem about things, and he was lost. That was one of the reasons why he and the stocky, phlegmatic social scientist made such a good team, he thought. As far as he, himself, was concerned, people were just a mysterious, exasperatingly unpredictable, order of things which were subject to no known natural laws. That was about the way Loudons thought of things; he couldn't psychoanalyze them.

He gestured with his pipe toward the nuclear-electric conversion unit, between the control-cabin and the living quarters in the rear of the box-car-sized helicopter.

"We have enough power back there to keep this windmill in the air twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, for the next fifteen years," he said. "We just don't have enough radio. If I'd step up the power on this set any more, it'd burn out before I could say, 'Altamont calling Fort Ridgeway.'"

"How far are we from Pittsburgh, now?" Loudons wanted to know.

Altamont looked across the cabin at the big map of the United States, with its red and green and blue and yellow patchwork of vanished political divisions, and the transparent overlay on which they had plotted their course. The red line started at Fort Ridgeway, in what had once been Arizona It angled east by a little north, to Colony Three, in northern Arkansas; then sharply northeast to St. Louis and its lifeless ruins; then Chicago and Gary, where little bands of Stone Age reversions stalked and fought and ate each other; Detroit, where things that had completely forgotten that they were human emerged from their burrows only at night; Cleveland, where a couple of cobalt bombs must have landed in the lake and drenched everything with radioactivity that still lingered after two centuries; Akron, where vegetation was only beginning to break through the glassy slag; Cincinnati, where they had last stopped—

"How's the leg, this morning, Jim?" he asked.

"Little stiff. Doesn't hurt much, though."

"Why, we're about fifty miles, as we follow the river, and that's relatively straight." He looked down through the transparent nose of the 'copter at a town, now choked with trees that grew among tumbled walls. "I think that's Aliquippa."

Loudons looked and shrugged, then looked again and pointed.

"There's a bear. Just ducked into that church or movie theater or whatever. I wonder what he thinks we are."

Altamont puffed slowly at his pipe, "I wonder if we're going to find anything at all in Pittsburgh."

"You mean people, as distinct from those biped beasts we've found so far? I doubt it," Loudons replied, finishing his caffchoc and wiping his mustache on the back of his hand. "I think the whole eastern half of the country is nothing but forest like this, and the highest type of life is just about three cuts below Homo Neanderthalensis, almost impossible to contact, and even more impossible to educate."

"I wasn't thinking about that; I've just about given up hope of finding anybody or even a reasonably high level of barbarism," Altamont said. "I was thinking about that cache of microfilmed books that was buried at the Carnegie Library."

"If it was buried," Loudons qualified. "All we have is that article in that two-century-old copy of Time about how the people at the library had constructed the crypt and were beginning the microfilming. We don't know if they ever had a chance to get it finished, before the rockets started landing."

They passed over a dam of flotsam that had banked up at a wrecked bridge and accumulated enough mass to resist the periodic floods that had kept the river usually clear. Three human figures fled across a sand-flat at one end of it and disappeared into the woods; two of them carried spears tipped with something that sparkled in the sunlight, probably shards of glass.

"You know, Monty, I get nightmares, sometimes, about what things must be like in Europe," Loudons said.

Five or six wild cows went crashing through the brush below. Altamont nodded when he saw them.

"Maybe tomorrow, we'll let down and shoot a cow," he said. "I was looking in the freezer-locker; the fresh meat's getting a little low. Or a wild pig, if we find a good stand of oak trees. I could enjoy what you'd do with some acorn-fed pork. Finished?" he asked Loudons. "Take over, then; I'll go back and wash the dishes."

They rose, and Loudons, favoring his left leg, moved over to the seat at the controls. Altamont gathered up the two cups, the stainless-steel dishes, and the knives and forks and spoons, going up the steps over the shielded converter and ducking his head to avoid the seat in the forward top machine-gun turret. He washed and dried the dishes, noting with satisfaction that the gauge of the water tank was still reasonably high, and glanced out one of the windows. Loudons was taking the big helicopter upstairs, for a better view.

Now and then, among the trees, there would be a glint of glassy slag, usually in a fairly small circle. That was to be expected; beside the three or four H-bombs that had fallen on the Pittsburgh area, mentioned in the transcripts of the last news to reach the Fort from outside, the whole district had been pelted, more or less at random, with fission bombs. West of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, it would probably be worse than this.

"Can you see Pittsburgh yet, Jim?" he called out.

"Yes; it's a mess! Worse than Gary; worse than Akron, even. Monty! Come here! I think I have something!"

Picking up the pipe he had laid down, Altamont hurried forward, dodging his six-foot length under the gun turret and swinging down from the walkway over the converter.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Smoke. A lot of smoke, twenty or thirty fires, at the very least." Loudons had shifted from Forward to Hover, and was peering through a pair of binoculars. "See that island, the long one? Across the river from it, on the north side, toward this end. Yes, by Einstein! And I can see cleared ground, and what I think are houses, inside a stockade—"

Murray Hughes walked around the corner of the cabin, into the morning sunlight, lacing his trousers, with his hunting shirt thrown over his bare shoulders, and found, without much surprise, that his father had also slept late. Verner Hughes was just beginning to shave. Inside the kitchen, his mother and the girls were clattering pots and skillets; his younger brother, Hector, was noisily chopping wood. Going through the door, he filled another of the light-metal basins with hot water, found his razor, and went outside again, setting the basin on the bench.

Most of the ware in the Hughes cabin was of light-metal; Murray and his father had mined it in the dead city up the river, from a place where it had floated to the top of a puddle of slag, back when the city had been blasted, at the end of the Old Times. It had been hard work, but the stuff had been easy to carry down to where they had hidden their boat, and, for once, they'd had no trouble with the Scowrers. Too bad they couldn't say as much for yesterday's hunting trip!

As he rubbed lather into the stubble on his face, he cursed with irritation. That had been a bad-luck hunt, all around. They'd gone out before dawn, hunting into the hills to the north, they'd spent all day at it, and shot one small wild pig. Lucky it was small, at that. They'd have had to abandon a full-grown one, after the Scowrers began hunting them. Six of them, as big a band as he'd ever seen together at one time, and they'd gotten between them and the stockade and forced them to circle miles out of their way. His father had shot one, and he'd had to leave his hatchet sticking in the skull of another, when his rifle had misfired.

That meant a trip to the gunsmith's, for a new hatchet and to have the mainspring of the rifle replaced. Nobody could afford to have a rifle that couldn't be trusted, least of all a hunter and prospector. And he'd had words with Alex Barrett, the gunsmith, just the other day. Not that Barrett wouldn't be more than glad to do business with him, once he saw that hard tool-steel he'd dug out of that place down the river. Hardest steel he'd ever found, and hadn't been atom-spoiled, either.

He cleaned, wiped and stropped his razor and put it back in the case; he threw out the wash-water on the compost-pile, and went into the cabin, putting on his shirt and his belt, and passed on through to the front porch, where his father was already eating at the table. The people of the Toon liked to eat in the open; it was something they'd always done, just as they'd always liked to eat together in the evenings.

He sweetened his mug of chicory with a lump of maple sugar and began to sip it before he sat down, standing with one foot on the bench and looking down across the parade ground, past the Aitch-Cue House, toward the river and the wall.

"If you're coming around to Alex's way of thinking—and mine—it won't hurt you to admit it, son," his father said.

He turned, looking at his father with the beginning of anger, and then grinned. The elders were constantly keeping the young men alert with these tests. He checked back over his actions since he had come out onto the porch.

To the table, sugar in his chicory, one foot on the bench, which had reminded him again of the absence of the hatchet from his belt and brought an automatic frown. Then the glance toward the gunsmith's shop, and across the parade ground, at the houses into which so much labor had gone; the wall that had been built from rubble and topped with pointed stakes; the white slabs of marble from the ruined building that marked the graves of the First Tenant and the men of the Old Toon. He had thought, in that moment, that maybe his father and Alex Barrett and Reader Rawson and Tenant Mycroft Jones and the others were right—there were too many things here that could not be moved along with them, if they decided to move.

It would be false modesty, refusal to see things as they were, not to admit that he was the leader of the younger men, and the boys of the Irregulars. And last winter, the usual theological arguments about the proper chronological order of the Sacred Books and the true nature of the Risen One had been replaced

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