|Author:||Robert A. Heinlein
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Space Exploration|
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The stars were closed to Max Jones. To get into space you either needed connections, a membership in the arcane Guild, or a whole lot more money than Max, the son of a widowed, poor mother, was every going to have. What Max doeshave going for him are his uncle’s prized astrogation manuals-book on star navigation that Max literally commits to memory word for word, equation for equation. When Max’s mother decides to remarry a bullying oaf, Max takes to the road, only to discover that his uncle Chet’s manuals, and Max’s near complete memorization of them, is a ticket to the stars. But serving on a spaceship is no easy task. Duty is everything, and a mistake can mean you and all aboard are lost forever. Max loves every minute of his new life, and he steadily grows in the trust of his superior officers, and seems to be on course for a command track position. But then disaster strikes, and it’s going to take every trick Max ever learned from his tough life and his uncle’s manuals to save himself and the ship from a doom beyond extinction itself.
From the First Golden Age of Heinlein, this is the so-called juvenile (written, Heinlein always claims, just as much for adults) that started them all and made Heinlein a legend for multiple generations of readers.
Max liked this time of day, this time of year. With the crops in, he could finish his evening chores early and be lazy. When he had slopped the hogs and fed the chickens, instead of getting supper he followed a path to a rise west of the barn and lay down in the grass, unmindful of chiggers. He had a book with him that he had drawn from the county library last Saturday, Bonforte's Sky Beasts: A Guide to Exotic Zoology, but he tucked it under his head as a pillow. A blue jay made remarks about his honesty, then shut up when he failed to move. A red squirrel sat on a stump and stared at him, then went on burying nuts.
Max kept his eyes to the northwest. He favored this spot because from it he could see the steel stilts and guide rings of the Chicago, Springfield, & Earthport Ring Road emerge from a slash in the ridge to his right. There was a guide ring at the mouth of the cut, a great steel hoop twenty feet high. A pair of stilt-like tripods supported another ring a hundred feet out from the cut. A third and last ring, its stilts more than a hundred feet high to keep it level with the others, lay west of him where the ground dropped still more sharply into the valley below. Half way up it he could see the power-link antenna pointing across the gap.
On his left the guides of the C.S.&E. picked up again on the far side of the gap. The entering ring was larger to allow for maximum windage deviation; on its stilts was the receptor antenna for the power link. That ridge was steeper; there was only one more ring before the road disappeared into a tunnel. He had read that, on the Moon, entrance rings were no larger than pass-along rings, since there was never any wind to cause variation in ballistic. When he was a child, this entrance ring had been slightly smaller and, during an unprecedented windstorm, a train had struck the ring and produced an unbelievable wreck, with more than four hundred people killed. He had not seen it and his father had not allowed him to poke around afterwards because of the carnage, but the scar of it could still be seen on the lefthand ridge, a darker green than the rest.
He watched the trains go by whenever possible, not wishing the passengers any bad luck--but still, if there should happen to be a catastrophe, he didn't want to miss it.
Max kept his eyes fixed on the cut; the Tomahawk was due any instant. Suddenly there was a silver gleam, a shining cylinder with needle nose burst out of the cut, flashed through the last ring and for a breathless moment was in free trajectory between the ridges. Almost before he could swing his eyes, the projectile entered the ring across the gap and disappeared into the hillside--just as the sound hit him.
It was a thunderclap that bounced around the hills. Max gasped for air. "Boy!" he said softly. "Boy, oh boy!" The incredible sight and the impact on his ears always affected him the same way. He had heard that for the passengers the train was silent, with the sound trailing them, but he did not know; he had never ridden a train and it seemed unlikely, with Maw and the farm to take care of, that he ever would.
He shifted to a sitting position and opened his book, holding it so that he would be aware of the southwestern sky. Seven minutes after the passing of the Tomahawk he should be able to see, on a clear evening, the launching orbit of the daily Moonship. Although much farther away and much less dramatic than the nearby jump of the ring train, it was this that he had come to see. Ring trains were all right, but spaceships were his love--even a dinky like the moon shuttle.
But he had just found his place, a description of the intelligent but phlegmatic crustaceans of Epsilon Ceti IV, when he was interrupted by a call behind him. "Oh, Maxie! Maximilian! Max... mil... yan!"
He held still and said nothing.
"Max! I can see you, Max--you come at once, hear me?"
He muttered to himself and got to his feet. He moved slowly down the path, watching the sky over his shoulder until the barn cut off his view. Maw was back and that was that--she'd make his life miserable if he didn't come in and help. When she had left that morning he had had the impression that she would be gone overnight--not that she had said so; she never did--but he had learned to read the signs. Now he would have to listen to her complaints and her petty gossip when he wanted to read, or just as bad, be disturbed by the slobbering stereovision serials she favored. He had often been tempted to sabotage the pesky SV set--by rights with an ax! He hardly ever got to see the programs he liked.
When he got in sight of the house he stopped suddenly. He had supposed that Maw had ridden the bus from the Corners and walked up the draw as usual. But there was a sporty little unicycle standing near the stoop--and there was someone with her.
He had thought at first it was a "foreigner"--but when he got closer he recognized the man. Max would rather have seen a foreigner, any foreigner. Biff Montgomery was a hillman but he didn't work a farm; Max couldn't remember having seen him do any honest work. He had heard it said that Montgomery sometimes hired out as a guard when one of the moonshine stills back in the hills was operating and it might be so--Montgomery was a big, beefy man and the part might fit him.
Max had known Montgomery as long as he could remember, seen him loafing around Clyde's Corners. But he had ordinarily given him "wagon room" and had had nothing to do with him--until lately: Maw had started being seen with him, even gone to barn dances and huskings with him. Max had tried to tell her that Dad wouldn't have liked it. But you couldn't argue with Maw--what she didn't like she just didn't hear. But this was the first time she had ever brought him to the house. Max felt a slow burn of anger starting in him.
"Hurry up, Maxie!" Maw called out. "Don't stand there like a dummy." Max reluctantly moved along and joined them. Maw said, "Maxie, shake hands with your new father," then looked roguish, as if she had said something witty. Max stared and his mouth sagged open.
Montgomery grinned and stuck out a hand. "Yep, Max, you're Max Montgomery now--I'm your new pop. But you can call me Monty."
Max stared at the hand, took it briefly. "My name is Jones," he said flatly.
"Maxie!" protested Maw.
Montgomery laughed jovially. "Don't rush him, Nellie my love. Let Max get used to it. Live and let live; that's my motto." He turned to his wife. "Half a mo', while I get the baggage." From one saddlebag of the unicycle he extracted a wad of mussed clothing; from the other, two flat pint bottles. Seeing Max watching him, he winked and said, "A toast for the bride."
His bride was standing by the door; he started to brush on past her. She protested, "But Monty darling, aren't you going to--"
Montgomery stopped. "Oh. I haven't much experience in these things. Sure." He turned to Max--"Here, take the baggage"--and shoved bottles and clothes at him. Then he swung her up in his arms, grunting a bit, and carried her over the threshold, put her down and kissed her while she squealed and blushed. Max silently followed them, put the items on the table and turned to the stove. It was cold, he had not used it since breakfast. There was an electric range but it had burned out before his father had died and there had never been money to repair it. He took out his pocket knife, made shavings, added kindling and touched the heap with an Everlite. When it flared up, he went out to fetch a pail of water.
When he came back Montgomery said, "Wondered where you'd gone. Doesn't this dump even have running water?"
"No." Max set the pail down, then added a couple of chunks of cord wood to the fire.
His Maw said, "Maxie, you should have had dinner ready."
Montgomery interceded pleasantly with, "Now, my dear, he didn't know we were coming. And it leaves time for a toast." Max kept his back to them, giving his full attention to slicing side meat. The change was so overwhelming that he had not had time to take it in.
Montgomery called to him. "Here, son! Drink your toast to the bride."
"I've got to get supper."
"Nonsense! Here's your glass. Hurry up."
Montgomery had poured a finger of amber liquid into the glass; his own glass was half full and that of his bride at least a third. Max accepted it and went to the pail, thinned it with a dipper of water.
"You'll ruin it."
"I'm not used to it."
"Oh, well. Here's to the blushing bride--and our happy family! Bottoms up!"
Max took a cautious sip and put it down. It tasted to him like the bitter tonic the district nurse had given him one spring. He turned back to his work, only to be interrupted again. "Hey, you didn't finish it."
"Look, I got to cook. You don't want me to burn supper, do you?"
Montgomery shrugged. "Oh, well--the more for the rest of us. We'll use yours for a chaser. Sonny boy, when I was your age I could empty a tumbler neat and then stand on my hands."
Max had intended to sup on side meat and warmed-over biscuits, but there was only half a pan left of the biscuits. He scrambled eggs in the grease of the side meat, brewed coffee, and let it go at that. When they sat down, Montgomery looked at it and announced, "My dear, starting tomorrow I'll expect you to live up to what you told me about your cooking. Your boy isn't much of a cook." Nevertheless, he ate heartily. Max decided not to tell him that he was a better cook than Maw--he'd find out soon enough.
Presently, Montgomery sat back and wiped his mouth, then poured himself more coffee and lighted a cigar. Maw said, "Maxie, dear, what's the dessert?"
"Dessert? Well--there's that ice cream in the freezer, left over from Solar Union Day."
She looked vexed. "Oh, dear! I'm afraid it's not there."
"Well, I'm afraid I sort of ate it one afternoon when you were out in the south field. It was an awfully hot day."
Max did not say anything, he was unsurprised. But she was not content to leave it. "You didn't fix any dessert, Max? But this is a special occasion."
Montgomery took his cigar out of his mouth. "Stow it, my dear," he said kindly. "I'm not much for sweets, I'm a meat-and-potatoes man--sticks to the ribs. Let's talk of pleasanter things." He turned to Max. "Max, what can you do besides farm?"
Max was startled. "Huh? I've never done anything else. Why?"
Montgomery touched the ash of the cigar to his plate. "Because you are all through farming."
For the second time in two hours Max had more change than he could grasp. "Why? What do you mean?"
"Because we've sold the farm."
Max felt as if he had had a rug jerked out from under him. But he could tell from Maw's face that it was true. She looked the way she always did when she had put one over on him--triumphant and slightly appre hensive.
"Dad wouldn't like that," he said to her harshly. "This land has been in our family for four hundred years."
"Now, Maxie! I've told you I don't know how many times that I wasn't cut out for a farm. I was city raised."
"Clyde's Corners! Some city!"
"It wasn't a farm. And I was just a young girl when your father brought me here--you were already a big boy. I've still got my life before me. I can't have it buried on a farm."
Max raised his voice. "But you promised Dad you'd..."
"Stow it," Montgomery said firmly. "And keep a civil tongue in your head when you speak to your mother--and to me."
Max shut up.
"The land is sold and that's that. How much do you figure this parcel is worth?"
"Why, I've never thought about it."
"Whatever you thought, I got more." He gave Max a wink. "Yes, sir! It was a lucky day for your mother and you when she set her cap for me. I'm a man with his ear to the ground. I knew why an agent was around buying up these worn-out, worthless pieces of property. I..."
"I use government fertilizers."
"Worthless I said and worthless I meant. For farming, that is." He put his finger along his nose, looked sly, and explained. It seemed that some big government power project was afoot for which this area had been selected--Montgomery was mysterious about it, from which Max concluded that he didn't know very much. A syndicate was quietly buying up land in anticipation of government purchase. "So we held 'em up for five times what they expected to pay. Pretty good, huh?"
Maw put in, "You see, Maxie? If your father had known that we would ever get..."
"But I was just going to tell him how much..."
" 'Quiet!' I said."
She shut up. Montgomery pushed his chair back, stuck his cigar in his mouth, and got up. Max put water on to heat for the dishes, scraped the plates and took the leavings out to the chickens. He stayed out quite a spell, looking at the stars and trying to think. The idea of having Biff Montgomery in the family shook him to his bones. He wondered just what rights a stepfather had, or, rather a step-stepfather, a man who had married his stepmother. He didn't know.
Presently, he decided that he had to go back inside, much as he hated to. He found Montgomery standing at the bookshelf he had built over the stereo receiver; the man was pawing at the books and had piled several on the receiver. He looked around. "You back? Stick around, I want you to tell me about the livestock."
Maw appeared in the doorway. "Darling," she said to Montgomery, "can't that wait till morning?"
"Don't be in a hurry, my dear," he answered. "That auctioneer fellow will be here early. I've got to have the inventory ready." He continued to pull books down. "Say, these are pretty things." He held in his hands half a dozen volumes, printed on the finest of thin paper and bound in limp plastic. "I wonder what they're worth? Nellie, hand me my specs."
Max advanced hastily, reached for them. "Those are mine!"
"Huh?" Montgomery glanced at him, then held the books high in the air. "You're too young to own anything. No, everything goes. A clean sweep and a fresh start."
"They're mine! My uncle gave them to me." He appealed to his mother. "Tell him, Maw."
Montgomery said quietly, "Yes, Nellie, set this youngster straight--before I have to correct him."
Nellie looked worried. "Well, I don't rightly know. They did belong to Chet."
"And Chet was your brother? Then you're Chet's heir, not this young cub."
"He wasn't her brother, he was her brother-in-law!"
"So? No matter. Your father was your uncle's heir, then, and your mother is your father's heir. Not you, you're a minor. That's the law, son. Sorry." He put the books on the shelf but remained standing in front of them.
Max felt his right upper lip begin to twitch uncontrollably; he knew that he would not be able to talk coherently. His eyes filled with tears of rage so that he could hardly see. "You... you thief!"
Nellie let out a squawk. "Max!"
Montgomery's face became coldly malignant. "Now you've gone too far. I'm afraid you've earned a taste of the strap." His fingers started unbuckling his heavy belt.
Max took a step backward. Montgomery got the belt loose and took a step forward. Nellie squealed, "Monty! Please!"
"Keep out of this, Nellie." To Max he said, "We might as well get it settled once and for all who is boss around here. Apologize!"
Max did not answer. Montgomery repeated, "Apologize, and we'll say no more about it." He twitched the belt like a cat lashing its tail. Max took another step back; Montgomery stepped forward and grabbed at him.
Max ducked and ran out the open door into darkness. He did not stop until he was sure that Montgom ery was not following. Then he caught his breath, still raging. He was almost sorry that Montgomery had not chased him; he didn't think that anyone could match him on his home grounds in the dark. He knew where the wood pile was; Montgomery didn't. He knew where the hog wallow was. Yes, he knew where the well was--even that.
It was a long time before he quieted down enough to think rationally. When he did, he was glad it had ended so easily, Montgomery outweighed him a lot and was reputed to be a mean one in a fight.
If it had ended, he corrected. He wondered if Montgomery would decide to forget it by morning. The light was still on in the living room; he took shelter in the barn and waited, sitting down on the dirt floor and leaning against the planks. After a while, he felt terribly tired. He considered sleeping in the barn, but there was no fit place to lie down, even though the old mule was dead. Instead, he got up and looked at the house.
The light was out in the living room, but he could see a light in the bedroom; they were still awake, sure ly. Someone had closed the outer door after his flight; it did not lock so there was no difficulty getting in, but he was afraid that Montgomery might hear him. His own room was a shed added at the kitchen end of the main room, opposite the bedroom, but it had no outside door.
No matter--he had solved that problem when he had first grown old enough to wish to get in and out at night without consulting his elders. He crept around the house, found the saw horse, placed it under his window, got on and wiggled loose the nail that held the window. A moment later he stepped silently down into his own room. The door to the main part of the house was closed but he decided not to risk switching on the light; Montgomery might take it into his head to come out into the living room and see a crack of fight under his door. He slipped quietly out of his clothes and crawled into his cot.
Sleep wouldn't come. Once he began to feel that warm drowsiness, then some tiny noise had brought him wide, stiff awake. Probably just a mouse--but for an instant he had thought that Montgomery was standing over his bed. With his heart pounding, he sat up on the edge of his cot, still in his skin.
Presently, he faced up to the problem of what he was to do--not just for the next hour, not just tomorrow morning, but the following morning and all the mornings after that. Montgomery alone presented no problem; he would not voluntarily stay in the same county with the man. But how about Maw?
His father had told him, when he had known that he was dying, "Take care of your mother, son." Well, he had done so. He had made a crop every year--food in the house and a little money, even if things had been close. When the mule died, he had made do, borrowing McAllister's team and working it out in labor.
But had Dad meant that he had to take care of his stepmother even if she remarried? It had never occurred to him to consider it. Dad had told him to look out for her and he had done so, even though it had put a stop to school and did not seem to have any end to it.
She was no longer Mrs. Jones, but Mrs. Montgomery. Had Dad meant for him to support Mrs. Montgomery?
Of course not! When a woman married, her husband supported her. Everybody knew that. And Dad wouldn't expect him to put up with Montgomery. He stood up, his mind suddenly made up.
The only question was what to take with him.
There was little to take. Groping in the dark he found the rucksack he used for hunting hikes and stuffed into it his other shirt and his socks. He added Uncle Chet's circular astrogation slide rule and the piece of volcanic glass his uncle had brought back for him from the Moon. His citizen's identification card, his toothbrush, and his father's razor--not that he needed that very often--about completed the plunder.
There was a loose board back of his cot. He felt for it, pulled it out and groped between the studs--found nothing. He had been hiding a little money from time to time against a rainy day, as Maw couldn't or wouldn't save. But apparently, she had found it on one of her snooping tours. Well, he still had to leave; it just made it a little more difficult.
He took a deep breath. There was something he must get... Uncle Chet's books... and they were still (presumably) on the shelf against the wall common with the bedroom. But he had to get them, even at the risk of meeting Montgomery.
Cautiously, most slowly, he opened the door into the living room, stood there with sweat pouring down him. There was still a crack of light under the bedroom door and he hesitated, almost unable to force himself to go on. He heard Montgomery muttering something and Maw giggle.
As his eyes adjusted he could see by the faint light leaking out under the bedroom door something piled at the outer door. It was a deadfall alarm of pots and pans, sure to make a dreadful clatter if the door were opened. Apparently, Montgomery had counted on him coming back and expected to be ready to take care of him. He was very glad that he had sneaked in the window.
No use putting it off--he crept across the floor, mindful of the squeaky board near the table. He could not see but he could feel and the volumes were known to his fingers. Carefully he slid them out, being sure not to knock over the others.
He was all the way back to his own door when he remembered the library book. He stopped in sudden panic.
He couldn't go back. They might hear him this time--or Montgomery might get up for a drink of water or something.
But in his limited horizon, the theft of a public library book--or failure to return it, which was the same thing--was, if not a mortal sin, at least high on the list of shameful crimes. He stood there, sweating and thinking about it.
Then he went back, the whole long trek, around the squeaky board and tragically onto one he had not remembered. He froze after he hit it, but apparently it had not alarmed the couple in the room beyond. At last he was leaning over the SV receiver and groping at the shelf.
Montgomery, in pawing the books, had changed their arrangement. One after another he had to take them down and try to identify it by touch, opening each and feeling for the perforations on the title page.
It was the fourth one he handled. He got back to his room hurrying slowly, unbearably anxious but afraid to move fast. There at last, he began to shake and had to wait until it wore off. He didn't chance closing his door but got into his clothes in the dark. Moments later he crept through his window, found the saw horse with his toe, and stepped quietly to the ground.
His shoes were stuffed on top of the books in his rucksack; he decided to leave them there until he was well clear of the house, rather than chance the noise he might make with his feet shod. He swung wide around the house and looked back. The bedroom light was still on; he started to angle down toward the road when he noticed Montgomery's unicycle. He stopped.
If he continued, he would come to the road the bus passed along. Whether he turned right or left there, Montgomery would have a fifty-fifty chance of catching him on the unicycle. Having no money, he was dependent on Shank's ponies to put distance under him; he could not take the bus.
Shucks! Montgomery wouldn't try to fetch him back. He would say good riddance and forget him!
But the thought fretted him. Suppose Maw urged him? Suppose Montgomery wouldn't forget an insult and would go to any trouble to "get even"?
He headed back, still swinging wide of the house, and cut across the slopes toward the right of way of the C.S.&E.
Copyright © 1953 by Robert A. Heinlein
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