|Author:||Robert A. Heinlein
Del Rey, 1978
Ace Books, 1975
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Military SF|
|If you liked Between Planets you might like these books.|
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Don Harvey was attending school on Earth when his parents suddenly and urgently called him home to Mars. He had been skeptical about the talk of interplanetary war breaking out if Mars and Venus followed through on their threats to declare independence from Earth, but he was wrong. War broke out, and he was stuck on Venus, with no way of getting home.
Then there was the ring that an old family friend had given him just before he had left Earth. Shortly afterward, the friend had been questioned by Earth's secret police and had died-from "heart failure," they claimed. When Earth troops landed on Venus and started looking for Don and that mysterious ring, he realized that he was trapped in the center of a war between worlds that could change the fate of the Solar System forever!
"Easy, boy, easy!"
Don Harvey reined in the fat little cow pony. Ordinarily Lazy lived up to his name; today he seemed to want to go places. Don hardly blamed him. It was such a day as comes only to New Mexico, with sky scrubbed clean by a passing shower, the ground already dry but with a piece of rainbow still hanging in the distance. The sky was too blue, the buttes too rosy, and the far reaches too sharp to be quite convincing. Incredible peace hung over the land and with it a breathless expectancy of something wonderful about to happen.
"We've got all day," he cautioned Lazy, "so don't get yourself in a lather. That's a stiff climb ahead." Don was riding alone because he had decked out Lazy in a magnificent Mexican saddle his parents had ordered sent to him for his birthday. It was a beautiful thing, as gaudy with silver as an Indian buck, but it was as out of place at the ranch school he attended as formal clothes at a branding--a point which his parents had not realized. Don was proud of it, but the other boys rode plain stock saddles; they kidded him unmercifully and had turned "Donald James Harvey" into "Don Jaime" when he first appeared with it.
Lazy suddenly shied. Don glanced around, spotted the cause, whipped out his gun, and fired. He then dismounted, throwing the reins forward so that Lazy would stand, and examined his work. In the shadow of a rock a fair-sized snake, seven rattles on its tail, was still twitching. Its head lay by it, burned off. Don decided not to save the rattles; had he pinpointed the head he would have taken it in to show his marksmanship. As it was, he had been forced to slice sidewise with the beam before he got it. If he brought in a snake killed in such a clumsy fashion someone would be sure to ask him why he hadn't used a garden hose.
He let it lie and remounted while talking to Lazy. "Just a no-good old sidewinder," he said reassuringly. "More scared of you than you were of it."
He clucked and they started off. A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. "You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?"
Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered. "Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking."
"Mr. Reeves, Don," came back the voice of the headmaster of Ranchito Alegre. "Where are you?"
"Headed up Peddler's Grave Mesa, sir."
"Get home as quickly as you can."
"Uh, what's up, sir?"
"Radiogram from your parents. I'll send the copter out for you if the cook is back--with someone to bring your horse in."
Don hesitated. He didn't want just anybody to ride Lazy, like as not getting him overheated and failing to cool him off. On the other hand a radio from his folks could not help but be important. His parents were on Mars and his mother wrote regularly, every ship--but radiograms, other than Christmas and birthday greetings, were almost unheard of.
"I'll hurry, sir."
"Right!" Mr. Reeves switched off. Don turned Lazy and headed back down the trail. Lazy seemed disappointed and looked back accusingly.
As it turned out, they were only a half mile from the school when the ranch copter spotted them. Don waved it off and took Lazy on in himself. Despite his curiosity he delayed to wipe down the pony and water it before he went in. Mr. Reeves was waiting in his office and motioned for him to come in. He handed Don the message.
It read: DEAR SON, PASSAGE RESERVED FOR YOU VALKYRIE CIRCUM-TERRA TWELVE APRIL LOVE--MOTHER AND DAD.
Don blinked at it, having trouble taking in the simple facts. "But that's right away!"
"Yes. You weren't expecting it?"
Don thought it over. He had halfway expected to go home--if one could call it going home when he had never set foot on Mars--at the end of the school year. If they had arranged his passage for the Vanderdecken three months from now... "Uh, not exactly. I can't figure out why they would send for me before the end of the term."
Mr. Reeves fitted his finger tips carefully together. "I'd say that it was obvious."
Don looked startled. "You mean? Mr. Reeves, you don't really think there is going to be trouble, do you?"
The headmaster answered gravely, "Don, I'm not a prophet. But it is my guess that your parents are sufficiently worried that they want you out of a potential war zone as quickly as possible."
He was still having trouble readjusting. Wars were something you studied, not something that actually happened. Of course his class in contemporary history had kept track of the current crisis in colonial affairs, but, even so, it had seemed something far away, even for one as widely traveled as himself--a matter for diplomats and politicians, not something real.
"Look, Mr. Reeves, they may be jumpy but I'm not. I'd like to send a radio telling them that I'll be along on the next ship, as soon as school is out."
Mr. Reeves shook his head. "No. I can't let you go against your parents' explicit instructions. In the second place, ah--" The headmaster seemed to have difficulty in choosing his words, "--that is to say, Donald, in the event of war, you might find your position here, shall we call it, uncomfortable?"
A bleak wind seemed to have found its way into the office. Don felt lonely and older than he should feel. "Why?" he asked gruffly.
Mr. Reeves studied his fingernails. "Are you quite sure where your loyalties lie?" he said slowly.
Don forced himself to think about it. His father had been born on Earth; his mother was a second-generation Venus colonial. But neither planet was truly their home; they had met and married on Luna and had pursued their researches in planetology in many sectors of the solar system. Don himself had been born out in space and his birth certificate, issued by the Federation, had left the question of his nationality open. He could claim dual citizenship by parental derivation. He did not think of himself as a Venus colonial; it had been so long since his family had last visited Venus that the place had grown unreal in his mind. On the other hand he had been eleven years old before he had ever rested his eyes on the lovely hills of Earth.
"I'm a citizen of the System," he said harshly.
"Mmmm--" said the headmaster. "That's a fine phrase and perhaps someday it will mean something. In the meantime, speaking as a friend, I agree with your parents. Mars is likely to be neutral territory; you'll be safe there. Again, speaking as your friend--things may get a little rough here for anyone whose loyalty is not perfectly clear."
"Nobody has any business questioning my loyalty! Under the law, I count as native born!"
The man did not answer. Don burst out, "The whole thing is silly! If the Federation wasn't trying to bleed Venus white there wouldn't be any war talk."
Reeves stood up. "That will be all, Don. I'm not going to argue politics with you."
"It's true! Read Chamberlain's Theory of Colonial Expansion!"
Reeves seemed startled. "Where did you lay hands on that book? Not in the school library."
Don did not answer. His father had sent it to him but had cautioned him not to let it be seen; it was one of the suppressed books--on Earth, at least. Reeves went on, "Don, have you been dealing with a booklegger?"
Don remained silent.
Presently Reeves took a deep breath and said, "Never mind. Go up to your room and pack. The copter will take you to Albuquerque at one o'clock."
"Yes, sir." He had started to leave when the headmaster called him back.
"Just a moment. In the heat of our, uh, discussion I almost forgot that there was a second message for you."
"Oh?" Don accepted the slip; it said: DEAR SON, BE SURE TO SAY GOODBYE TO UNCLE DUDLEY BEFORE YOU LEAVE--MOTHER.
This second message surprised him in some ways even more than the first; he had trouble realizing that his mother must mean Dr. Dudley Jefferson--a friend of his parents but no relation, and a person of no importance in his own life. But Reeves seemed not to see anything odd in the message, so he stuck it in his Levis and left the room.
Long as he had been earthbound he approached packing with a true spaceman's spirit. He knew that his passage would entitle him to only fifty pounds of free lift; he started discarding right and left. Shortly he had two piles, a very small one on his own bed--indispensable clothing, a few capsules of microfilm, his slide rule, a stylus, and a vreetha, a flutelike Martian instrument which he had not played in a long time as his schoolmates had objected. On his roommate's bed was a much larger pile of discards.
He picked up the vreetha, tried a couple of runs, and put it on the larger pile. Taking a Martian product to Mars was coal to Newcastle. His roommate, Jack Moreau, came in as he did so. "What in time goes on? Housecleaning?"
Jack dug a finger into his ear. "I must be getting deaf. I could have sworn you said you were leaving."
"I am." Don stopped and explained, showing Jack the message from his parents.
Jack looked distressed. "I don't like this. Of course I knew this was our last year, but I didn't figure on you jumping the gun. I probably won't sleep without your snores to soothe me. What's the rush?"
"I don't know. I really don't. The Head says that my folks have war jitters and want to drag their little darling to safety. But that's silly, don't you think? I mean, people are too civilized to go to war today."
Jack did not answer. Don waited, then said sharply, "You agree, don't you? There won't be any war."
Jack answered slowly, "Could be. Or maybe not."
"Oh, come off it!"
His roommate answered, "Want me to help you pack?"
"There isn't anything to pack."
"How about all that stuff?"
"That's yours, if you want it. Pick it over, then call in the others and let them take what they like."
"Huh? Gee, Don, I don't want your stuff. I'll pack it and ship it after you."
"Ever ship anything 'tween planets? It's not worth it."
"Then sell it. Tell you what, we'll hold an auction right after supper."
Don shook his head. "No time. I'm leaving at one o'clock."
"What? You're really blitzing me, kid. I don't like this."
"Can't be helped." He turned back to his sorting.
Several of his friends drifted in to say goodbye. Don himself had not spread the news and he did not suppose that the headmaster would have talked, yet somehow the grapevine had spread the word. He invited them to help themselves to the plunder, subject to Jack's prior claim.
Presently he noticed that none of them asked why he was leaving. It bothered him more than if they had talked about it. He wanted to tell someone, anyone, that it was ridiculous to doubt his loyalty--and anyhow there wasn't going to be a war!
Rupe Salter, a boy from another wing, stuck his head in, looked over the preparations. "Running out, eh? I heard you were and thought I'd check up."
"I'm leaving, if that's what you mean."
"That's what I said. See here, 'Don Jaime,' how about that circus saddle of yours? I'll take it off your hands if the price is right."
"It's not for sale."
"Huh? No horses where you're going. Make me a price."
"It belongs to Jack here."
"And it's still not for sale," Moreau answered promptly.
"Like that, eh? Suit yourself." Salter went on blandly, "Another thing--you willed that nag of yours yet?"
The boys' mounts, with few exceptions, were owned by the school, but it was a cherished and long-standing privilege of a boy graduating to "will" his temporary ownership to a boy of his choice. Don looked up sharply; until that moment he had not thought about Lazy. He realized with sudden grief that he could not take the little fat clown with him--nor had he made any arrangements for his welfare. "The matter is settled," he answered, added to himself: as far as you are concerned.
"Who gets him? I could make it worth your while. He's not much of a horse, but I want to get rid of the goat I've had to put up with."
"Be sensible. I can see the Head and get him anyhow. Willing a horse is a graduating privilege and you're ducking out ahead of time."
Salter grinned. "Touchy, aren't you? Just like all fog-eaters, too touchy to know what's good for you. Well, you're going to be taught a lesson some day soon."
Don, already on edge, was too angry to trust himself to speak. "Fog-eater," used to describe a man from cloud-wrapped Venus, was merely ragging, no worse than "Limey" or "Yank"--unless the tone of voice and context made it, as now, a deliberate insult. The others looked at him, half expecting action.
Jack got up hastily from the bed and went toward Salter. "Get going, Salty. We're too busy to monkey around with you." Salter looked at Don, then back at Jack, shrugged and said, "I'm too busy to hang around here... but not too busy, if you have anything in mind."
The noon bell pealed from the mess hall; it broke the tension. Several boys started for the door; Salter moved out with them. Don hung back. Jack said, "Come on--beans!"
"How about you taking over Lazy?"
"Gee, Don! I'd like to accommodate you--but what would I do with Lady Maude?"
"Uh, I guess so. What'll I do?"
"Let me see--" Jack's face brightened. "You know that kid Squinty Morris? The new kid from Manitoba? He hasn't got a permanent yet; he's been taking his rotation with the goats. He'd treat Lazy right; I know, I let him try Maudie once. He's got gentle hands."
Don looked relieved. "Will you fix it for me? And see Mr. Reeves?"
"Huh? You can see him at lunch; come on."
"I'm not going to lunch. I'm not hungry. And I don't much want to talk to the Head about it"
"Well, I don't know. When he called me in this morning he didn't seem exactly... friendly."
"What did he say?"
"It wasn't his words; it was his manner. Maybe I am touchy--but I sort of thought he was glad to see me go."
Don expected Jack to object, convince him that he was wrong. Instead he was silent for a moment, then said quietly, "Don't take it too hard, Don. The Head is probably edgy too. You know he's got his orders?"
"Huh? What orders?"
"You knew he was a reserve officer, didn't you? He put in for orders and got 'em, effective at end of term. Mrs. Reeves is taking over the school--for the duration."
Don, already overstrained, felt his head whirling. For the duration? How could anyone say that when there wasn't any such thing? "'Sfact," Jack went on. "I got it straight from cookie." He paused, then went on, "See here, old son--we're pals, aren't we?"
"Huh? Sure, sure!"
"Then give it to me straight: are you actually going to Mars? Or are you heading for Venus to sign up?"
"Whatever gave you that notion?"
"Skip it, then. Believe me; it wouldn't make any difference between us. My old man says that when it's time to be counted, the important thing is to be man enough to stand up." He looked at Don's face, then went on, "What you do about it is up to you. You know I've got a birthday coming up next month?"
"Huh? Yes, so you have."
"Come then, I'm going to sign up for pilot training. That's why I wanted to know what you planned to do."
"But it doesn't make any difference--not between us. Anyhow, you're going to Mars."
"Yes. Yes, that's right."
"Good!" Jack glanced at his watch. "I've got to run--or they'll throw my chow to the pigs. Sure you're not coming?"
"See you." He dashed out.
Don stood for a moment, rearranging his ideas. Old Jack must be taking this seriously--giving up Yale for pilot training. But he was wrong--he had to be wrong.
Presently he went out to the corral.
Lazy answered his call, then started searching his pockets for sugar. "Sorry, old fellow," he said sadly, "not even a carrot. I forgot." He stood with his face to the horse's cheek and scratched the beast's ears. He talked to it in low tones, explaining as carefully as if Lazy could understand all the difficult words.
"So that's how it is," he concluded. "I've got to go away and they won't let me take you with me." He thought back to the day their association had begun. Lazy had been hardly more than a colt, but Don had been frightened of him. He seemed huge, dangerous, probably carnivorous. He had never seen a horse before coming to Earth; Lazy was the first he had ever seen close up.
Suddenly he choked, could talk no further. He flung his arms around the horse's neck and leaked tears.
Lazy nickered softly, knowing that something was wrong, and tried to nuzzle him. Don raised his head. "Goodbye, boy. Take care of yourself." He turned abruptly and ran toward the dormitories.
Copyright © 1951 by Robert A. Heinlein
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