Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

A Tenderfoot in Space

Robert A. Heinlein

  A Tenderfoot in Space

  Robert A. Heinlein

  Robert A. Heinlein

  A Tenderfoot in Space

  When this book was in process, Dr. Kondo asked me whether there were any stories of Robert's which had not been reprinted. On looking over the list of stories, I found that "A Tenderfoot in Space" had never been printed in anything except when it originally appeared in Boys' Life. All copies in our possession had been sent to the UCSC Archives, so I asked them to Xerox those and send them to me. And found this introduction by Robert, which he had added to the carbon in the library before he sent it down there. I was completely surprised, and asked Dr. Kondo whether he would like to use it? Here it is.

  -- Virginia Heinlein

  This was written a year before Sputnik and is laid on the Venus earthbound astronomers inferred before space probes. Two hours of rewriting -- a word here, a word there -- could change it to a planet around some other star. But to. what purpose? Would The Tempset be improved if Bohemia had a sea coast? If I ever publish that collection of Boy Scout stories, this story will appear unchanged.

  Nixie is (of course) my own dog. But in 1919, when I was 12 and a Scout, he had to leave me -- a streetcar hit him.

  If this universe has any reasonable teleology whatever (a point on which I am unsure), then there is some provision for the Nixies in it.


  "Heel, Nixie," the boy said softly, "and keep quiet."

  The little mongrel took position left and rear of his boy, waited. He could feel that Charlie was upset and he wanted to know why -- but an order from Charlie could not be questioned.

  The boy tried to see whether or not the policeman was. noticing them. He felt light-headed -- neither he nor his dog had eaten that day. They had stopped in front of this supermarket, not to buy for the boy had no money left, but because of a "BOY WANTED" sign in the window.

  It was then that he had noticed the reflection of the policeman in the glass.

  The boy hesitated, trying to collect his cloudy thoughts. Should he go inside and ask for the job? Or should he saunter past the policeman? Pretend to be just out for a walk?

  The boy decided to go on, get out of sight. He signalled the dog to stay close and turned away from the window. Nixie came along, tail high. He did not care where they went as long as he was with Charlie. Charlie had belonged to him as far back as he could remember; he could imagine no other condition. In fact Nixie would not have lived past his tenth day had not Charlie fallen in love with him; Nixie had been the least attractive of an unfortunate litter; his mother was Champion Lady Diana of Ojai -- his father was unknown.

  But Nixie was not aware that a neighbor boy had begged his life from his first owners. His philosophy was simple: enough to eat, enough sleep, and the rest of his time spent playing with Charlie. This present outing had been Charlie's idea, but any outing was welcome. The shortage of food was a nuisance but Nixie automatically forgave Charlie such errors -- after all, boys will be boys and a wise dog accepted the fact. The only thing that troubled him was that Charlie did not have the happy heart which was a proper part of all hikes.

  As they moved past the man in the blue uniform, Nixie felt the man's interest in them, sniffed his odor, but could find no real unfriendliness in it. But Charlie was nervous, alert, so Nixie kept his own attention high.

  The man in uniform said, "Just a moment, son -- "

  Charlie stopped, Nixie stopped. "You speaking to me, officer?"

  "Yes. What's your dog's name?"

  Nixie felt Charlie's sudden terror, got ready to attack. He had never yet had to bite anyone for his boy -- but he was instantly ready. The hair between his shoulder blades stood up.

  Charlie answered, "Uh...his name is 'Spot."

  "So?" The stranger said sharply, "Nixie!"

  Nixie had been keeping his eyes elsewhere, in order not to distract his ears, his nose, and the inner sense with which he touched people's feelings. But he was so startled at hearing this stranger call him by name that he turned his head and looked at him.

  "His name is 'Spot,' is it?" the policeman said quietly. "And mine is Santa Claus. But you're Charlie Vaughn and you're going home." He spoke into his helmet phone: "Nelson, reporting a pickup on that Vaughn missing-persons flier. Send a car. I'm in front of the new supermarket."

  Nixie had trouble sorting out Charlie's feelings; they were both sad and glad. The stranger's feelings were slightly happy but mostly nothing; Nixie decided to wait and see. He enjoyed the ride in the police car, as he always enjoyed rides, but Charlie did not, which spoiled it a little.

  They were taken to the local Justice of the Peace. "You're Charles Vaughn?"

  Nixie's boy felt unhappy and said nothing.

  "Speak up, son," insisted the old man. "If you aren't, then you must have stolen that dog." He read from a paper " -- accompanied by a small brown mongrel, male, well trained, responds to the name 'Nixie.' Well?"

  Nixie's boy answered faintly, "I'm Charlie Vaughn."

  "That's better. You'll stay here until your parents pick you up." The judge frowned. "I can't understand your running away. Your folks are emigrating to Venus, aren't they?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "You're the first boy I ever met who didn't want to make the Big Jump." He pointed to a pin on the boy's lapel. "And I thought Scouts were trustworthy. Not to mention obedient. What got into you, son? Are you scared of the Big Jump? 'A Scout is Brave.' That doesn't mean you don't have to be scared -- everybody is at times. 'Brave' simply means you don't run even if you are scared."

  "I'm not scared," Charlie said stubbornly. "I want to go to Venus."

  "Then why run away when your family is about to leave?"

  Nixie felt such a burst of warm happy-sadness from Charlie that he licked his hand. "Because Nixie can't go!"

  "Oh." The judge looked at boy and dog. "I'm sorry, son. That problem is beyond my jurisdiction." He drummed his desk top. "Charlie...will you promise, Scout's honor, not to run away again until your parents show up?"

  "Uh...yes, sir."

  "Okay. Joe, take them to my place. Tell my wife she had better see how recently they've had anything to eat."

  The trip home was long. Nixie enjoyed it, even though Charlie's father was happy-angry and his mother was happy-sad and Charlie himself was happy-sad-worried. When Nixie was home he checked quickly through each room, making sure that all was in order and that there were no new smells. Then he returned to Charlie.

  The feelings had changed. Mr. Vaughn was angry, Mrs. Vaughn was sad, Charlie himself gave out such bitter stubbornness that Nixie went to him, jumped onto his lap, and tried to lick his face. Charlie settled Nixie beside him, started digging fingers into the loose skin back of Nixie's neck. Nixie quieted at once, satisfied that he and his boy could face together whatever it was -- but it distressed him that the other two were not happy. Charlie belonged to him; they belonged to Charlie; things were better when they were happy, too.

  Mr. Vaughn said, "Go to bed, young man, and sleep on it. I'll speak with you again tomorrow."

  "Yes, sir. Good night, sir."

  "Kiss your mother goodnight. One thing more -- Do I need to lock doors to be sure you will be here in the morning?"

  "No, sir."

  Nixie got on the foot of the bed as usual, tromped out a space, laid his tail over his nose, and started to go to sleep. But his boy was not sleeping; his sadness was taking the distressing form of heaves and sobs. So Nixie got up, went to the other end of the bed and licked away tears -- then let himself be pulled into Charlie's arms and tears applied directly to his neck. It was not comfortable and too hot, besides being taboo. But it was worth enduring as Charlie started to quiet down, presently went to sl

  Nixie waited, gave him a lick on the face to check his sleeping, then moved to his end of the bed. Mrs. Vaughn said to Mr. Vaughn, "Charles, isn't there anything we can do for the boy?"

  "Confound it, Nora. We're getting to Venus with too little money as it is. If anything goes wrong, we'll be dependent on charity."

  "But we do have a little spare cash."

  "Too little. Do you think I haven't considered it? Why, the fare for that worthless dog would be almost as much as it is for Charlie himself! Out of the question! So why nag me? Do you think I enjoy this decision?"

  "No, dear." Mrs. Vaughn pondered. "How much does Nixie weigh? I...well, I think I could reduce ten more pounds if I really tried."

  "What? Do you want to arrive on Venus a living skeleton? You've reduced all the doctor advises, and so have I."

  "Well...I thought that if somehow, among us, we could squeeze out Nixie's weight -- it's not as if he were a St. Bernard! -- we could swap it against what we weighed for our tickets."

  Mr. Vaughn shook his head unhappily. "They don't do it that way."

  "You told me yourself that weight was everything. You even got rid of your chess set."

  "We could afford thirty pounds of chess sets, or china, or cheese, where we can't afford thirty pounds of dog."

  "I don't see why not."

  "Let me explain. Surely, it's weight; it's always weight in a space ship. But it isn't just my hundred and sixty pounds, or your hundred and twenty, not Charlie's hundred and ten. We're not dead weight; we have to eat and drink and breathe air and have room to move -- that last takes more weight because it takes more ship weight to hold a live person than it does for an equal weight in the cargo hold. For a human being there is a complicated formula -- hull weight equal to twice the passenger's weight, plus the number of days in space times four pounds. It takes a hundred and forty-six days to get to Venus -- so it means that the calculated weight for each of us amounts to six hundred and sixteen pounds before they even figure in our actual weights. But for a dog the rate is even higher -- five pounds per day instead of four."

  "That seems unfair. Surely a little dog can't eat as much as a man? Why, Nixie's food costs hardly anything."

  Her husband snorted. "Nixie eats his own rations and half of what goes on Charlie's plate. However, it's not only the fact that a dog does eat more for his weight, but also they don't reprocess waste with a dog, not even for hydroponics."

  "Why not? Oh, I know what you mean. But it seems silly."

  "The passengers wouldn't like it. Never mind; the rule is: five pounds per day for dogs. Do you know what that makes Nixie's fare? Over three thousand dollars!"

  "My goodness!"

  "My ticket comes to thirty-eight hundred dollars and some, you get by for thirty-four hundred, and Charlie's fare is thirty-three hundred -- yet that confounded mongrel dog, which we couldn't sell for his veterinary bills, would cost three thousand dollars. If we had that to spare -- which we haven't -- the humane thing would be to adopt some orphan, spend the money on him, and thereby give him a chance on an uncrowded planet...not waste it on a dog. Confound it! -- a year from now Charlie will have forgotten this dog."

  "I wonder."

  "He will. When I was a kid, Ihad to give up dogs -- more than once they died, or something. I got over it. Charlie has to make up his mind whether to give Nixie away...or have him put to sleep." He chewed his lip. "We'll get him a pup on Venus."

  "It won't be Nixie."

  "He can name it Nixie. He'll love it as much."

  "But -- Charles, how is it there are dogs on Venus if it's so dreadfully expensive to get them there?"

  "Eh? I think the first exploring parties used them to scout. In any case they're always shipping animals to Venus; our own ship is taking a load of milch cows."

  "That must be terribly expensive."

  "Yes and no. They ship them in sleep-freeze of course, and a lot of them never revive. But they cut their losses by butchering the dead ones and selling the meat at fancy prices to the colonists. Then the ones that live have calves and eventually it pays off." He stood up. "Nora, let's go to bed. It's sad -- but our boy is going to have to make a man's decision. Give the mutt away, or have him put to sleep."

  "Yes, dear." She sighed. "I'm coming."

  Nixie was in his usual place at breakfast -- lying beside Charlie's chair, accepting tidbits without calling attention to himself. He had learned long ago the rules of the dining room: no barking, no whining, no begging for food, no paws on laps, else the pets of his pet would make difficulties. Nixie was satisfied. He had learned as a puppy to take the world as it was, cheerful over its good points, patient with its minor shortcomings. Shoes were not to be chewed, people were not to be jumped on, most strangers must be allowed to approach the hOuse (subject, of course, to strict scrutiny and constant alertness) -- a few simple rules and everyone was happy. Live and let live.

  He was aware that his boy was not happy even this beautiful morning. But he had explored this feeling carefully, touching his boy's mind with gentle care by means of his canine sense for feelings, and had decided, from his superior maturity, that the mood would wear off. Boys were sometimes sad and a wise dog was resigned to it.

  Mr. Vaughn finished his coffee, put his napkin aside. "Well, young man?"

  Charlie did not answer. Nixie felt the sadness in Charlie change suddenly to a feeling more aggressive and much stronger but no better. He pricked up his ears and waited.

  "Chuck," his father said, "last night I gave you a choice. Have you made up your mind?"

  "Yes, Dad." Charlie's voice was very low.

  "Eh? Then tell me."

  Charlie looked at the tablecloth. "You and Mother go to Venus. Nixie and I are staying here."

  Nixie could feel anger welling up in the man...felt him control it. "You're figuring on running away again?"

  "No, sir," Charlie answered stubbornly. "You can sign me over to the state school."

  "Charlie!" It was Charlie's mother who spoke. Nixie tried to sort out the rush of emotions impinging on him.

  "Yes," his father said at last, "I could use your passage money to pay the state for your first three years or so, and agree to pay your support until you are eighteen. But I shan't."

  "Huh? Why not, Dad?"

  "Because, old-fashioned as it sounds, I am head of this family. I am responsible for it -- and not just food, shelter, and clothing, but its total welfare. Until you are old enough to take care of yourself I mean to keep an eye on you. One of the prerogatives which go with my responsibility is deciding where the family shall live. I have a better job offered me on Venus than I could ever hope for here, so I'm going to Venus -- and my family goes with me." He drummed on the table, hesitated. "I think your chances are better on a pioneer planet, too -- but, when you are of age, if you think otherwise, I'll pay your fare back to Earth. But you go with us. Understand?"

  Charlie nodded, his face glum.

  "Very well. I'm amazed that you apparently care more for that dog than you do for your mother -- and myself. But -- "

  "It isn't that, Dad. Nixie needs -- "

  "Quiet. I don't suppose you realize it, but I tried to figure this out -- I'm not taking your dog away from you out of meanness. If I could afford it, I'd buy the hound a ticket. But something your mother said last night brought up a third possibility."

  Charlie looked up suddenly, and so did Nixie; wondering why the surge of hope in his boy.

  "I can't buy Nixie a ticket...but it's possible to ship him as freight."

  "Huh? Why, sure, Dad! Oh, I know he'd have to be caged up -- but I'd go down and feed him every day and pet him and tell him it was all right and -- "

  "Slow down! I don't mean that. All I can afford is to have him shipped the way animals are always shipped in space sleep-freeze."

  Charlie's mouth hung open. He managed to say, "But that's -- "

  "That's dangerous. As near as I remember, it's about fifty-fifty whether h
e wakes up at the other end. But if you want to risk it -- well, perhaps it's better than giving him away to strangers, and I'm sure you would prefer it to taking him down to the vet's and having him put to sleep."

  Charlie did not answer. Nixie felt such a storm of conflicting emotions in Charlie that the dog violated dining room rules; he raised up and licked the boy's hand.

  Charlie grabbed the dog's ear. "All right, Dad," he said gruffly. "We'll risk it -- if that's the only way Nixie and I can still be partners."

  Nixie did not enjoy the last few days before lcaving; they held too many changes. Any proper dog likes excitement, but home is for peace and quiet. Things should be orderly there -- food and water always in the same place, newspapers to fetch at certain hours, milkmen to supervise at regular times, furniture all in its proper place. But during that week all was change -- nothing on time, nothing in order. Strange men came into the house (always a matter for suspicion), and he, Nixie, was not even allowed to protest, much less give them the what-for they had coming.

  He was assured by Charlie and Mrs. Vaughn that it was "all right" and he had to accept it, even though it obviously was not all right. His knowledge of English was accurate for a few dozen words but there was no way to explain to him that almost everything owned by the Vaughn family was being sold, or thrown away...nor would it have reassured him. Some things in life were permanent; he had never doubted that the Vaughn home was first among these certainties

  By the night before they left, the rooms were bare except for beds. Nixie trotted around the house, sniffing places where familiar objects had been, asking his nose to tell him that his eyes deceived him, whining at the results. Even more upsetting than physical change was emotional change, a heady and not entirely happy excitement which he could feel in all three of his people.

  There was a better time that evening, as Nixie was allowed to go to Scout meeting. Nixie always went on hikes and had formerly attended all meetings. But he now attended only outdoor meetings since an incident the previous winter -- Nixie felt that too much fuss had been made about it...just some spilled cocoa and a few broken cups and anyhow it had been that cat's fault.