Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

“Sure they know that—but the ones at South Pole think we came originally from North Pole and the ones around North Pole are sure we came from South Pole—and it’s no use trying to tell them anything different.”

  The difficulty was not one-sided. Th’wing was continually using words and concepts which Matt could not understand and which could not be straightened out even with Oscar’s help. He began to get hazily the idea that Th’wing was the sophisticated one and that he, Matt, was the ignorant outlander. “Sometimes I think,” he told Tex, “that Th’wing thinks that I am an idiot studying hard to become a moron—but flunking the course.”

  “Well, don’t let it throw you, kid. You’ll be a moron, yet, if you just keep trying.”

  On the morning fifteen Venus days after their arrival the mother of the city sent for them and had them taken to the site of the jeep. They stood on the same bank where they had climbed ashore from the sinking ship, but the scene had changed. A great hole stretched out at their feet; in it the jeep lay, three-quarters exposed. A swarm of Venerians crawled over it and around it like workmen in a dockyard.

  The amphibians had begun by adding something to the thin yellow mud of the sinkhole. Oscar had tried to get the formula for the additive, but even his command of the language was useless—the words were strange. Whatever it was, the effect was to turn the almost-liquid mud into a thick gel which became more and more stiff the longer it was exposed to air. The little folk had carved it away from the top as fast as it consolidated, the jeep was now surrounded by the sheer walls of a caisson-like pit. A ramp led up on the shoreward side and a stream of the apparently tireless little creatures trotted up it, bearing more jelled blocks of mud.

  The cadets had climbed down into the pit to watch, talking in high spirits about the prospects of putting the jeep back into commission and jetting out again, until the Venerian in charge of the work had urged them emphatically to go up out of the pit and stay out of the way. They joined the city mother and waited.

  “Ask her how she expects to get it up out of there, Oz,” Tex suggested. Oscar did so.

  “Tell thy impatient daughter to chase her fish and I will chase mine.”

  “No need for her to be rude about it,” Tex complained.

  “What did she say?” inquired the mother-of-many.

  “‘She’ thanks thee for the lesson,” Oscar prevaricated.

  The Little People worked rapidly. It was evident that the ship would be entirely free before the day was far advanced—and clean as well; the outside shone now and a steady procession of them had been pouring in and out of the door of the ship, bearing cakes of jellied mud. In the last hour the routine had changed; the little workers came out bearing distended bladders. The clean-up squad was at work.

  Oscar watched them approvingly. “I told you they would lick it clean.”

  Matt looked thoughtful. “I’m worried, Oz, about the possibility that they will mess with something on the control board and get into trouble.”

  “Why? The leads are all sealed away. They can’t hurt anything. You locked the board when you left it, didn’t you?”

  “Yes, of course.”

  “Anyhow, they can’t fire the jet when she’s in that attitude even if you hadn’t.”

  “That’s true. Still, I’m worried.”

  “Well, let’s take a look, then. I want to talk to the foreman in any case. I’ve got an idea.”

  “What idea?” asked Tex.

  “Maybe they can get her upright in the pit. It seems to me we could take off from there and never have to drag her out. Might save several days.” They went down the ramp and located the Venerian in charge, then Matt and Tex went inside the ship while Oscar stayed to talk over his idea.

  It was hard to believe that the pilot room had lately; been choked with filthy, yellow mud. A few amphibians were still working in the after end of the room; elsewhere the compartment was clean.

  Matt climbed to the pilot’s seat and started inspecting. He noticed first that the sponge-rubber eyeguards for the infra-red viewer were missing. This was not important, but he wondered what had happened to them—did the little folk have the vice of souvenir snitching? He filed away the suspicion, and attempted a dry run on the controls, without firing the jet.

  Nothing operated—nothing at all.

  He looked the board over more carefully. To a casual inspection it was clean, bright, in perfect order, but he now perceived many little pits and specks. He dug at one with a finger nail, something came away. He worked at it a bit more and produced a tiny hole into the interior of the control board. It gave him a sick feeling at the pit of his stomach. “Say, Tex—come here a minute. I’ve got something.”

  “You think you’ve got something,” Tex answered in muffled tones. “Wait till you’ve seen this.”

  He found Tex with a wrench in his hand and a cover plate off the gyro compartment. “After what happened to the Gary I decided to check this first. Did you ever see such a mess?”

  The mud had gotten in. The gyros, although shut down, were of course still spinning when the ship had gone into the sinkhole and normally would have coasted for days; they should still have been spinning when Tex removed the cover. Instead they had ground to a stop against the mud—burned to a stop.

  “We had better call Oscar,” Matt said dully.

  With Oscar’s help they surveyed the mess. Every instrument, every piece of electronic equipment had been invaded. Non-metallic materials were missing completely; thin metal sheets such as instrument cases were riddled with pinholes. “I can’t understand what did it,” Oscar protested, almost in tears.

  Matt asked the Venerian in charge of the work. She did not understand him at first; he pointed out the pinholes, whereupon she took a lump of the jelled mud and mashed it flat. With a slender finger she carefully separated what seemed to be a piece of white string, a couple inches long. “This is the source of thy troubles.”

  “Know what it is, Oz?”

  “Some sort of worm. I don’t recognize it. But I wouldn’t expect to; the polar regions are nothing like this, thank goodness.”

  “I suppose we might as well call off the working party.

  “Let’s don’t jump the gun. There might be some way to salvage the mess. We’ve got to.”

  “Not a chance. The gyros alone are enough. You can’t raise ship in a wingless job without gyros. It’s impossible.”

  “Maybe we could clean them up and get them to working.”

  “Maybe you could—I can’t. The mud got to the bearings, Oz.”

  Jensen agreed regretfully. The gyros, the finest precision equipment in a ship, were no better than their bearings. Even an instrument maker in a properly equipped shop would have thrown up his hands at gyros abused as these had been.

  “We’ve at least got to salvage some electronic equipment and jury-rig some sort of a sending set. We’ve got to get a message through.”

  “You’ve seen it. What do you think?”

  “Well—we’ll pick out the stuff that seems in the best shape and take it back with us. They’ll help us with the stuff.”

  “What sort of shape will it be in after an hour or so in the water? No, Oz, the thing to do is to lock up the door, once the last of the filth is out and come back and work here.”

  “Okay, well do that.” Oscar called to Tex, who was still snooping around. He arrived swearing.

  “What now, Tex?” Oscar asked wearily.

  “I thought maybe we could at least take some civilized food back with us, but those confounded worms bored into the cans. Every ration in the ship is spoiled.”

  “Is that all?”

  “‘Is that all? Is that all?’ the man says! What do you want? Flood, pestilence, and earthquakes?”

  But it was not all—further inspection showed another thing which would have dismayed them had they not already been as low in spirit as they could get. The jeep’s jet ran on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The fuel tanks, insulated and protected from dir
ect radiation, could retain fuel for long periods, but the warm mud had reached them and heated them; the expanding gases had bled out through relief valves. The jeep was out of fuel.

  Oscar looked this situation over stonily. “I wish the Gary had been chemically powered,” he finally commented.

  “What of it?” Matt answered. “We couldn’t raise ship if we had all the juice this side of Jupiter.”

  The mother-of-many had to be shown before she was convinced that there was anything wrong with the ship. Even then, she seemed only half convinced and somehow vexed with the cadets for being unsatisfied with the gift of their ship back. Oscar spent much of the return journey trying to repair his political fences with her.

  Oscar ate no dinner that night. Even Tex only picked at his food and did not touch his harmonica afterwards. Matt spent the evening silently sitting out a watch in Thurlow’s room.

  The mother-of-many sent for all three of them the next morning. After formal exchange of greetings she commenced, “Little mother, is it true that thy Gary is indeed dead, like the other Gary?”

  “It is true, gracious mother.”

  “Is it true that without a Gary thou canst not find thy way back to thine own people?”

  “It is true, wise mother of many; the jungle would destroy us.”

  She stopped and gestured to one of her court. The “daughter” trotted to her with a bundle half as big as the bearer. The city mother took it and invited, or commanded, the cadets to join her on the dais. She commenced unwrapping. The object inside seemed to have more bandages than a mummy. At long last she had it uncovered and held out to them. “Is this thine?”

  It was a large book. On the cover, in large ornate letters, was:





  Tex looked at it and said, “Great leaping ball of fire! It can’t be.”

  Matt stared and whispered, “It must be. The lost first expedition. They didn’t fail—they got here.”

  Oscar stared and said nothing at all until the city mother repeated her question impatiently. “Is this thine?”

  “Huh? What? Oh, sure! Wise and gracious mother, this thing belonged to my ‘mother’s mother’s mother.’ We are her ‘daughters’”

  “Then it is thine.”

  Oscar took it from, her and gingerly opened the brittle pages. They stared at the original entry for “raise ship”—but most especially at the year entry in the date column—“1971.” “Holy Moses!” breathed Tex. “Look at that—just look at it. More than a hundred years ago.”

  They thumbed through it. There was page after page of one line entries of “free fall, position according to plan” which they skipped over rapidly, except for one: “Christmas day. Carols were sung after the mid-day meal.”

  It was the entries after grounding they were after. They were forced to skim them as the mother-of-many was beginning to show impatience: “—climate no worse than the most extreme terrestrial tropics in the rainy season. The dominant life form seems to be a large amphibian. This planet is definitely possible of colonization.”

  “—the amphibians have considerable intelligence and seem to talk with each other. They are friendly and an attempt is being made to bridge the semantic gap.”

  “—Hargraves has contracted an infection, apparently fungoid, which is unpleasantly reminiscent of leprosy. The surgeon is treating it experimentally.”

  “—after the funeral muster, Hargraves’ room was sterilized at 400°.”

  The handwriting changed shortly thereafter. The city mother was growing so obviously discontented that they glanced only at the last two entries: “—Johnson continues to fail, but the natives are very helpful—”

  “—my left hand is now useless. I have made up my mind to decommission the ship and take my chances in the hands of the natives. I shall take this log with me and add to it, if possible.”

  The handwriting was firm and clear; it was their own eyes that blurred it.

  The mother-of-many immediately ordered up the party used to ferry the humans in and out of the city. She was not disposed to stop to talk and, once the journey began, there was no opportunity to until they reached dry land.

  “Look here, Oz,” Tex started in, as soon as he had shaken off the water, “do you really think she’s taking us to the Astarte?”

  “Could be. Probably is.”

  “Do you think there is a chance that we will find the ship intact?” asked Matt.

  “Not a chance. Not a chance in this world. On one point alone, she couldn’t possibly have any fuel left in her tanks. You saw what happened to the jeep. What do you think a century has done to the Astarte?” He paused and looked thoughtful. “Anyhow, I’m not going to get my hopes up, not again. I couldn’t stand it, three times. That’s too many.”

  “I guess you’re right,” agreed Matt. “It won’t do to get excited. She’s probably a mound of rust under a covering of vines.”

  “Who said anything about not getting excited?” Oscar answered. “I’m so excited I can hardly talk. But don’t think of the Astarte as a possible way to get back; think of her historically.”

  “You think of it that way,” said Tex. “I’m a believer and a hoper. I want to get out of this dump.”

  “Oh, you’ll get out! They’ll come find us some day—and then they’ll finish the mission we flubbed.”

  “Look,” answered Tex, “couldn’t we go off duty and not think about the mission just for the next quarter of a mile? These insects are something fierce—you think about Oscar and I’ll think about Mother Jarman’s favorite son. I wish I was back in the good old Triplex.”

  “You were the guy that was always beefing that the Triplex was a madhouse.”

  “So I was wrong. I can be big about it.”

  They came to one of the rare rises in the level of the ground, all of ten feet above water level. The natives started to whisper and lisp excitedly among themselves. Matt caught the Venerian word for “tabu.” “Did you get that, Oz?” he said in Basic. “Tabu.”

  “Yes. I don’t think she told them where she was taking, them.”

  The column stopped and spread out; the three cadets moved forward, pushing rank growth aside and stepped in a clearing.

  In front of them, her rakish wings festooned in vines and her entire hull sheathed in some translucent substance, was the Patrol Rocket Ship Astarte.

  The city mother was standing near the door of Astarte, underneath the starboard wing. Two of her people were working at the door, using bladders to squirt some liquid around the edges. The translucent layer over the hull melted away wherever the liquid touched it. They grasped a free edge of the skin stuff and began to peel it away. “Look at that,” said Tex. “Do you see what they’ve done? The ship is Venusized.”

  His use of the term was loose; an item that has been “planetized” is one that has been rendered stable against certain typical conditions of the planet concerned, as defined by tests of the Bureau of Standards—for example, an item listed in the colonial edition of the Sears & Montgomery catalog as “Venusized” is thereby warranted to resist the excessive humidity, the exotic fungi, and certain of the planet’s pests. The Astarte was merely encased in a sheath.

  “Looks like it,” agreed Oscar, his voice carefully restrained. “Sort of a spray-gun job.”

  “Five gets you ten it never saw a spray gun. The Venerians did it” Tex slapped at an insect. “You know what this means, Oz?”

  “I’m way ahead of you. Don’t get your hopes up. And don’t try to get mine up, either. A hundred years is a long time.”

  “Oz, you don’t get any fun out of life.”

  The little workers were having difficulties. The top of the door was much higher than they could reach; they were now trying to form two-high pyramids, but, having no shoulders to speak of, they were hardly built for the job. Matt said to Oscar, “Couldn’t we give them a hand with that?”

  “I’ll see.” Oscar went
forward and suggested that the cadets take over the job of squirting on the solvent. The mother person looked at him.

  “Canst thou grow a new hand, if needed?”

  Oscar admitted that he could not.

  “Then do not tamper with that which thou dost not understand.”

  Using their own methods the natives soon had the door cleared. It was latched but not locked; the door refused to open for a moment, then gave suddenly. They scrambled up into the airlock. “Wait a minute,” Matt whispered. “Hadn’t we better go easy? We don’t know that the infection that got them is necessarily dead.”

  “Don’t be silly,” Tex whispered back. “If your immunizations hadn’t worked, you’d have been a sick chicken long ago.”

  “Tex is right, Matt. And there’s no need to whisper. Ghosts can’t hear.”

  “How do you know?” objected Tex. “Are you a doctor of ghostology?”

  “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

  “I do. Once my Uncle Bodie stayed overnight—”

  “Let’s get on inside,” Matt insisted.

  The passageway beyond the inner door was dark, save for the light that filtered in through the lock. The air had a strange odor, not precisely foul but lifeless—old.

  The control room beyond was dimly but adequately lighted; the light from outside filtered softly through the sheathing that still covered the quartz pilot’s port. The room was very cramped. The cadets were used to roomy modern ships; the Astarte’s wings gave her a false impression of great size. Inside she was smaller than the jeep.

  Tex began humming something about “—stout-hearted men—,” then broke off suddenly. “Look at the darned thing!” he said. “Just look at it. To think they actually made an interplanetary jump in it. Look at that control board. Why, she’s as primitive as a rowboat. And yet they took the chance. Puts you in mind of Columbus and the Santa Maria.”

  “Or the Viking ships,” suggested Matt.

  “There were men in those days,” agreed Oscar, not very originally but with great sincerity.

  “You can say that louder,” commented Tex. “There’s no getting around it, fellows; we were born too late for the age of adventure. Why, they weren’t even heading for a listed port; they just blasted off into the dark and trusted to luck that they could get back.”

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