Sea Legs

by Frank Quattrocchi

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Rootless and footloose, a man in space can't help but dream of coming home. But something nobody should do is bet on the validity of a homesick dream!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Flight Officer Robert Craig surrendered the tube containing his service record tapes and stood waiting while the bored process clerk examined the seal.

“Your clearance,” said the clerk.

Craig handed him a battered punch card and watched the man insert it in the reproducer. He felt anxiety as the much-handled card refused for a time to match the instrument’s metal contact points. The line of men behind Craig fidgeted.

“You got to get this punched by Territorial,” said the clerk. “Take it back to your unit’s clearance office.”

“Look again, Sergeant,” Craig said, repressing his irritation.

“It ain’t notched.”

“The hell it isn’t.”

The man examined the card with squinting care and nodded finally. “It’s so damn notched,” he complained. “You ought to take care of that card; can’t get on without one.”

Craig hesitated before moving.

“Next,” said the clerk, “What you waiting for?”

“Don’t I take my 201 file?”

“We send it on ahead. Go to Grav 1 desk.”

A murmur greeted the order. Craig experienced the thrill of knowing the envy of the others. Grav 1--that meant Terra. He crossed the long, dreary room, knowing the eyes of the other men were upon him.

“Your service tapes,” the next noncom said. “Where you going?”

“Grav 1--Terra,” fumbled Craig. “Los Angeles.”

“Los Angeles, eh? Where in Los Angeles?”

“I--I--” Craig muttered, fumbling in his pockets.

“No specific destination,” supplied the man as he punched a key on a small instrument, “Air-lock ahead and to your right. Strip and follow the robot’s orders. Any metal?”

“Metal?” asked Craig.

“You know, metal.”

“Well, my identification key.”

“Here,” commanded the clerk, extending a plastic envelope.

Craig moved in the direction indicated. He fought the irrational fear that he had missed an important step in the complicated clerical process. He cursed the grudging attitude of the headquarters satellite personnel and felt the impotence of a spaceman who had long forgotten the bureaucracy of a rear area base. The knowledge that much of it was motivated by envy soothed him as he clumsily let himself into the lock.

“Place your clothing in the receptacle provided and assume a stationary position on the raised podium in the center of the lock.”

Craig obeyed the robot voice and began reluctantly to remove his flight jacket. Its incredibly fine-grained leather would carry none of the strange, foreign associations for the base station clerk who would appropriate it. He would never know the beautiful, gentle beast that supplied this skin.

“You are retarding the progress of others. Please respond more quickly to your orders.”

Craig quickly removed the last of his clothing. It was impossible to hate a robot, but one could certainly hate those who set it into operation.

“You will find a red button at your feet. Lower your head and depress that button.”

Stepping on the button with his bare foot produced an instant of brilliant blue illumination. A small scratch on his arm stung briefly and he was somewhat blinded by the flash even through his eyelids, but that was all there was to the sterilizing process.

“Your clothing and effects will be in the dressing room immediately beyond the locked door.”

He found his clothing cleanly and neatly hung on plastic hangers just inside the door to the dressing room. The few personal items he carried in his pockets were still there. The Schtann flight jacket was actually there, looking like new, its space-blue unfaded and as wonderfully pliant as before.

“Insert your right arm into the instrument on the central table,” commanded the same voice he had heard before. “Turn your arm until the scratch is in contact with the metal plate. There will be a slight pain, but it is necessary to treat the small injury you have been disregarding.”

Craig obeyed and clenched his teeth against a sharp stinging. His respect for the robot-controlled equipment of bases had risen. When he withdrew his arm, the scratch was neatly coated with a layer of flesh-colored plastic material.

He dressed quickly and was on the verge of asking the robot for instructions, when a man appeared in the open doorway.

“I am Captain Wyandotte,” said the man in a pleasant voice.

“Well, what’s next?” asked Craig somewhat more belligerently than he had intended.

The man smiled. “Your reaction is quite natural. You are somewhat aggressive after Clerical, eh?”

“I’m a little anxious to get home, I suppose,” said Craig defensively.

“By ‘home’ you mean Terra. But you’ve never been there, have you?”

“No, but my father--”

“Your parents left Terra during the Second Colonization of Cassiopeia II, didn’t they?”

“Yes,” Craig said. He was uncomfortable; Wyandotte seemed to know all about him.

“We might say you’ve been away quite a while, eh?”

“I was entered as a spaceman when I was 16,” Craig said. “I’ve never been down for any period as yet.”

“You mean you haven’t been in a gravity system?”

“Oh, I’ve landed a few times, even walked around for a while...”

“With the help of paraoxylnebutal,” supplied the captain.

“Well, sure.”

“Mr. Craig, I suppose you’ve guessed that the next step in our little torture system here is psych.”

“So I gathered.”

The captain laughed reassuringly. “No, don’t put up your guard again. The worst is over. Short of Gravitational conditioning, there is nothing to stop you from going to Terra.”

“Sorry, I guess I’m a little touchy. This is my first time...”

“Quite natural. But it being your first time--in quite a number of ways, I might add--it will be necessary for you to undergo some conditioning.”

“Conditioning?” asked Craig.

“Yes. You have spent eleven years in space. Your body is conditioned to a normal state of free fall, or at best to a state of acceleration.”

“Yeah, I know. Once on Gerymeade...”

“You were ill, couldn’t keep your balance, felt dizzy. That is why all spacemen carry PON, paraoxylnebutal, with them. It helps suppress certain physiological reactions to an entirely new set of conditions. Channels of the ear, for example. They play an important part in our awareness of balance. They operate on a simple gravity principle. Without gravity they act up for a time, then gradually lose function. Returning to gravity is rather frightening at first.”

“I know all about this, Captain.”

“You’ve undoubtedly read popularizations in tapezines. But you have experienced it briefly.”

“I expect to have some trouble at first.” Craig was disturbed by the wordy psychologist. What was the man actually saying?

“Do you know what sailors of ancient times meant by ‘sea legs?’” asked Wyandotte. “Men on a rolling ocean acclimated themselves to a rolling horizontal. They had trouble when they went ashore and the horizontal didn’t roll any more.

“It meant more than that. There were excellent psychological reasons for the old stereotype, the ‘drunken sailor.’ A port city was a frightening thing to an old sailor--but let’s begin our little job at the beginning. I’ll turn you over to psychometry for the usual tests and pick you up tomorrow morning at, say, 0900.”


During the days that followed, the psychologist seemed to Craig to become progressively more didactic. He would deliver long speeches about the “freedom of open space.” He spoke repetitiously of the “growing complexity of Terran society.” And yet the man could not be pinned down to any specific condition the spaceman would find intolerable.

Craig began to hate the delay that kept him from Terra. Through the ports of the headquarters base satellite, he scanned the constellations for the scores of worlds he had visited during his eleven years in space. They were incredibly varied, even those that supported life. He had weathered difficult landings on worlds with rip-tide gravities, had felt the pull of the incredible star-tides imparted by twin and even triple star systems. He had been on Einstein IV, the planet of eight moons, and had felt the pulse of all eight of the satellites at once that no PON could completely nullify.

But even if he could accept the psychologist’s authority for the cumulative effect of a gravity system, he could not understand the unspoken warning he felt underlying all that the man said.

“Of course it has changed,” Craig was protesting. “Anyway, I never really knew very much about Terra. So what? I know it won’t be as it was in tapezines either.”

“Yet you are so completely sure you will want to live out your life there, that you are willing to give up space service for it.”

“We’ve gone through this time and time again,” Craig said wearily. “I gave you my reasons for quitting space. We analyzed them. You agreed that you could not decide that for me and that my decision is logical. You tell me spacemen don’t settle down on Terra. Yet you won’t--or can’t--tell me why. I’ve got a damned good job there--”

“You may find that ‘damned good jobs’ become boring.”

“So I’ll transfer. I don’t know what you’re trying to get at, Captain, but you’re not talking me out of going back. If the service needs men so badly, let them get somebody else. I’ve put in my time.”

“Do you really think that’s my reason?”

“Sure. What else can it be?”

“Mr. Craig,” the psychologist said slowly, “you have my authorization for you to return to Terra as a private citizen of that planet. You will be given a very liberal supply of PON--which you will definitely need. Good luck. You’ll need that too.”


On the eighth day, two attendants, who showed the effects of massive doses of PON to protect themselves from the centrifugal force, had to carry a man out of the tank. Many others asked to be removed, begged to be allowed to withdraw their resignations.

“The twelfth day is the worst,” a grizzled spaceman told Craig. “That’s when the best of ‘em want out.”

Craig clenched the iron rung of his bed and struggled to bring the old man’s face into focus.

“How ... how do they know when you ought ... to come out?” he asked between waves of nausea.

“Blood pressure. They get you just before you go into shock.”

“How can they tell?” Craig fought down his growing panic. “I can’t.”

“That strap around your belly. You mean you ain’t noticed it?”

“Haven’t noticed much of anything.”

“Well, it’s keyed to give them some kind of signal.”

The old man lapsed into silence. Craig wished him to continue. He desperately wanted something to distract his mind from the ghastly conditioning process.

Slowly at first, the lines formed by seams in the metal ceiling began to bend. Here it came again!

“Old man!” shouted Craig.

“Yeah, son. They’ve dropped it down a notch.”

“Dropped ... it ... down?”

“Maybe that ain’t scientific, but it’s the way I always think of it.”

“Can’t they ... drop it down continuously?”

“They tried that a few times--once when I was aboard. You wouldn’t like it, kid. You wouldn’t like it at all.”

“How ... many times ... do they drop it?”

“Four times during the day, three at night. Twenty days.”

A nightmare of visual sensations ebbed into Craig’s mind. He was vaguely aware of the moans of other men in the vaultlike room. Wave upon wave of nausea swept him as he watched the seam lines bend and warp fantastically. He snapped his eyelids shut, only to begin feeling the nightmarish bodily sensations once more. He felt the cot slowly rise longitudinally, felt himself upside down, then the snap of turning right side up once more--and he knew that neither he nor the cot had moved so much as an inch.

Craig heard the voices around him, muffled, as though talking through wadding.

“ ... got it bad.”

“We better take him out.”

“ ... pretty bad.”

“He’ll go into shock.”

“ ... never make it the twelfth.”

“We better yank him.”

“I’m ... all right,” Craig mumbled at the voices. He struggled with the bonds of his cot. With terrible effort he forced his eyes open. Two white-clad figures, ridiculously out of proportion, hovered wraithlike over him. Four elongated eyes peered at him.

Attendants coming for to take me home...

“Touch me and I’ll kick your teeth in!” he yelled. “I’m going to Terra. Wish you were going to Terra?”

Then it was better. Oddly, he passed the twelfth day easily. By the fourteenth day, Craig knew he could stand Grav 1. The whine of the centrifuge’s motors had diminished to a low hum. Either that or they had begun to produce ultra-sonic waves. Craig was not sure.

Most of the men had passed through the torments of gravitational conditioning. The huge headquarters base centrifuge aboard the man-made satellite had gradually caused their bodies to respond once more to a single source of pull. They were now ready to become inhabitants of planets again, instead of free-falling ships.

On the eighteenth day, automatic machinery freed them from their imprisoning cots. Clumsily and awkwardly at first, the men began to walk, to hold their heads and arms in proper attitudes. They laughed and joked about it and kidded those who were slow at adjusting. Then they again began taking paraoxylnebutal in preparation for the free-fall flight to Terra.

Only one of the score of men in the centrifuge tank remained voluntarily in his cot.

“Space article violator,” the old man informed Craig. “Psycho, I think. Went amuck with some extraterritorials. Killed a dozen.”

“What will they do, exile him?”

“Not to Chociante, if that’s what you mean. They just jerked his space card and gave him a one-way ticket to Terra.”

“For twelve murders?” asked Craig incredulously.

“That’s enough, son.” The old man eyed Craig for an instant before looking away. “Pick something to talk about. What do you figure on doing when you get to Terra, for instance?”

“I’m going into Import. My father was in it for twenty years.”

“Sure,” said the old spaceman, watching a group of young crewmen engaged in an animated conversation.

“It’s a good job. There’s a future to it.”

“Yeah.”

Why did he have to explain anything at all to the old space tramp?

“Once I get set up, I’ll probably try to open my own business.”

“And spend your weekends on Luna.”

Craig half rose from his cot, jarred into anger.

But the old spaceman turned, smiling wryly. “Don’t get hot, kid. I guess I spent too long in Zone V.” He paused to examine his wrinkled hands. They were indelibly marked with lever callouses. “You get to thinking anyone who stays closer’n eighty light years from Terra is a land-lubber.”

Craig relaxed, realizing he had acted childishly. “Used to think the same. Then I took the exam and got this job.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Los Angeles.”

The old man looked up at Craig. “You don’t know much about Terra, do you, son?”

“Not much.”

“Yeah. Well, I hope you ain’t disappointed.”

“My father was born there, but I never saw it. Never hit the Solar System, matter of fact. Never saw much of anything close up. I stood it a long time, old man, this hitting atmospheres all over the Universe.”

But the spaceman seemed to have lost interest. He was unpacking some personal belongings from a kit.

“What are you doing in Grav 1?” Craig asked.

The old man’s face clouded for an instant. “In the old days, they used to say us old-timers acted like clocks. They used to say we just ran down. Now they got some fancy psychology name for it.”

Craig regretted his question. He would have muttered some word of apology, but the old man continued.

“Maybe you’ve read some of the old sea stories, or more’n likely had ‘em read to you. Sailors could go to sea until they just sort of dried up. The sea tanned their skins and stiffened their bones, but it never stiffened their hearts. When they got old, it just pulled them in.

“But space is different. Space is raw and new. It tugs at your guts. It sends the blood rushing through your veins. It’s like loving. You don’t become a part of space the way you do the old sea, though. It leaves you strictly alone. Except that it sucks you dry, takes all the soup out of you, leaves you brittle and old--old as a dehydrated piece of split leather.

“Then one day it shoots a spurt of blood around in one of your old veins. Something gives. Space is through with you then. And if you can stand this whirligig conditioning, you’re through with space.”


You can’t figure it. Some of ‘em urp all over and turn six shades of green.

You got to watch the ones that don’t.

Yeah, you got to watch the ones that don’t. Especially the old ones.

He’s old. You think it was his heart?

Who knows?

They’ll dump him, won’t they?

After a tracer is sent through. But it won’t do any good.

He probably outlived everybody that ever knew him.

Wouldn’t be surprised. Here, grab his leg.


Robert Craig folded the flight jacket tightly and stuffed it into the cylindrical carton. A sleeve unwound just as he did so, making it difficult to fit into the place he had made for it. Exasperated, he refolded it and jammed it in place. Smaller rolls of underclothing were then fitted in. When he was satisfied with the layer, he tossed in a small handful of crystals and began to fill the next layer. After the carton was completely filled, he ignited the sealing strip and watched as the plastic melted into a single, seamless whole. It was ready for irradiation. Probably in another ten years his son-to-be would put it on and play spaceman. But Craig swore he’d make sure that the kid knew what a stinking life it was.

At 1300 hours, the ferry bumped heavily alongside the starboard lock. It was the signal for relief in the passengers’ quarters; many were beginning to feel a reaction to the short free-fall flight from the headquarters satellite.

The audio called out: “Flight Officer Robert Craig. Flight Officer Robert Craig. Report to Orderly 12. Report to Orderly 12 through the aft door.”

With pangs of anxiety he could not completely suppress, Craig obeyed.

Orderly 12 handed him a message container.

“Who’s it from? Somebody on Terra?”

“From a private spaceman named Morgan Brockman.”

Brockman?

“He was with you in the grav tank.”

“The old man!”

The message container produced a battered punch card. Craig straightened it and was about to reach into his pocket for a hand transcriber. But then he noticed the card bore only a few irregular punches and was covered with rough hand printing.

Son, when the flunkies get around to giving you this, they’ll have

shot me out the tube. How do I know? Same way you know when your

turbos are going to throw a blade. It’s good this way.

There’s something you can do for me if you want to. Way back, some

fifty years ago, there was a woman. She was my wife. It’s a long

story I won’t bother you with. Anyway, I left her. Wanted to take

her along with me, but she wouldn’t go.

Earth was a lot different then than it is now. They don’t have to

tell me; I know. I saw it coming and so did Ethel. We talked about

it and I knew I had to go. She wouldn’t or couldn’t go. Wanted me

to stay, but I couldn’t.

I tried to send her some units once in a while. Don’t know if she

ever got them. Sometimes I forgot to send them at all. You know,

you’re way out across the Galaxy, while she’s home.

Go see her if you can, son. Will you? Make sure she gets the unit

transfer I made out. It isn’t much out of seventy years of living,

but she may need it. And maybe you can tell her a little bit about

what it means to be out there. Tell her it’s open and free and when

you got hold of those levers and you’re trying for an orbit on

something big and new and green ... Hell, you remember. You know

how to tell her.

Her name is Ethel Brockman. I know she’ll still use my name. Her

address is or was East 71, North 101, Number 4. You can trace her

easy if she moved. Women don’t generally shove off and not leave a

forwarding address. Not Ethel, at least.

Craig put the battered card in his pocket and walked back through the door to the passenger room. How did you explain to an old woman why her husband deserted her fifty years before? Some kind of story about one’s duty to the Universe? No, the old man had not been in Intergalactic. He had been a tramp spaceman. Well, why had he left?

Fifty years in space. Fifty years! Zone V had been beyond anybody’s imagination that long ago. He must have been in on the first Cetusian flights and shot the early landings in Cetus II. God only knew how many times he had battled Zone 111b pirates...

Damn the old man! How did one explain?


Craig descended the ramp from the huge jet and concentrated on his impressions. One day he would recall this moment, his first on the planet Terra. He tried to recall his first thrill at seeing Los Angeles, 1500 square miles of it, from the ship as it entered the atmosphere.

He was about to step off the last step when a man appeared hurriedly. A rather plump man, he displayed a toothy smile on his puffy red face.

“A moment, sir. Just a little greeting from the Terra. You understand, of course. Purely routine.”

Craig remained on the final step of the ramp, puzzled. The man turned to a companion at his right.

“We can see that this gentleman has come from a long, long way off, can’t we?”

The other man did not look up. He was peering into what seemed to Craig to be a kind of camera.

“We can allow the gentlemen to continue now, can’t we? It wasn’t that we believed for a minute, you understand ... purely routine.”

Both men were gone in an instant, leaving Craig completely bewildered.

“You goin’ to move on, buddy, or you want to go back?”

Craig turned to face a line of his fellow passengers up the ramp behind him.

“Who was that?” Craig asked.

“Customs. Bet you never got such a smooth screening before, eh?”

“You mean he screened me? What for?”

“Hard to say,” the other passenger said. “You’ll get used to this. They get it over with quick.”

Craig made his way toward the spaceport administration building. His first physical contact with Terra had passed unnoticed.

“Sir! Sir!” cried a voice behind him.

He wheeled to see a man walking briskly toward him.

“You dropped this, sir. Quite by accident, of course.”

Craig examined the small object the man had given him before rushing off toward an exit.

It was an empty PON tube he had just discarded. He couldn’t understand why the man had bothered until he realized that the plastaloid floor of the lobby displayed not the faintest scrap of paper nor trace of dirt.


The Import personnel man was toying with a small chip of gleaming metal. He did not look directly at Craig for more than an instant at a time, and commented on Craig’s description of his trip through the city only very briefly between questions.

“It’s a good deal bigger than I imagined,” Craig was saying. “Haven’t seen much of it, of course. Thought I’d check in here with you first.”

“Yes, naturally.”

“Thought you could give me some idea of conditions...”

“Conditions?”

“For instance, what part of the city I should live in. That is, what part is closest to where I’ll work.”

“I see,” said the man noncommittally. It seemed to Craig that he was about to add something. He did not, however, but instead rose from his chair and walked to the large window overlooking an enormous section of the city far below. He stared out the window for a time, leaving Craig seated uncomfortably in the silent room. There was a distracted quality about him, Craig thought.

“You are the first man we have had from the Intergalactic Service,” the personnel man said finally.

“That so?”

“Yes.” He turned to face Craig briefly before continuing. “You must find it very strange here.”

“Well, I’ve never seen a city so big.”

“Yes, so big. And also...” He seemed to consider many words before completing the sentence. “And also different.”

“I haven’t been here very long,” said Craig. “Matter of fact, I haven’t been anywhere very long. This is my first real experience with life on a planet. As an adult, anyway.”

The personnel man seated himself once more and pressed a button on a small instrument. A secretary entered the office from a door to Craig’s left.

“Miss Wendel, this is Mr. Craig. Mr. Craig, my secretary. Mr. Craig will enter Minerals and Metals, Zone V.”

They exchanged formal greetings. She was a moderately pretty girl of medium height and, to Craig, a pleasantly rounded figure. He would have attempted to catch her eye had she not immediately occupied herself with unfolding the legs of a small instrument she was carrying.

“This is Mr. Craig’s first landing on Terra, Miss Wendel,” the personnel man continued. “Actually, we shall have to consider him in much the same way we would an extraterrestrial.”

The girl glanced at Craig, casting him a cool, impersonal smile.

“He was formerly a flight officer in the Intergalactic Space Service.” The statement was delivered in an almost exaggeratedly casual tone.

The girl glanced at him once more, this time with a definite quizzical look in her brown eyes.

“Three complete tours of duty, I believe.”

“Four,” corrected Craig. “Four tours of three years each, minus a year’s terminal leave.”

“I take it you have no identification card?” the man asked.

“The one I held in the service. It’s pretty comprehensive.”

The other turned to the secretary. “You’ll see that he is assisted in filing his application, won’t you? A provisional Code II. That will enable you to enter all Import offices freely, Mr. Craig.”

“Will he need a food and--clothing ration also?” asked the girl, without looking at Craig.

“Yes.” The man laughed. “You’ll excuse us, Mr. Craig. We realize that you couldn’t be expected to be familiar with Terra’s fashions. In your present outfit you would certainly be typed as a ... well, you’d be made uncomfortable.”

Craig reddened in spite of himself. He had bought the suit on Ghandii.

“A hick,” he supplied.

“I wouldn’t go that far, but some people might.”


Craig noted the pleasant way the girl filled her trim, rather severe business suit. He amused himself by calculating stress patterns in its plain woven material as she assembled the forms for him.

“Here, Mr. Craig. I believe these are complete.”

“They look pretty complicated.”

“Not at all. The questions are quite explicit.”

Craig looked them over quickly.

“I guess so. Say, Miss Wendel, I was wondering--I don’t know the city at all. Maybe you could go with me to have dinner. It must be almost dinnertime now. You could sort of check me out on some...”

“I’m afraid that would be quite impossible. You couldn’t gain admittance to any office you need to visit tonight. Therefore, it is impossible for me to be of any assistance to you.”

“Oh, come now, Miss Wendel. There are women aboard spaceships. I’m not a starved wolf.”

“Certainly you are not, Mr. Craig. But it is not possible for me...”

“You said that already, but you can have dinner with me. Just company.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”


The Galactic hotel strove to preserve an archaic tone of hospitality. It advertised “a night’s lodgings” and it possessed a bellboy. The bellboy actually carried Craig’s plasticarton and large file of punch cards and forms to his room. Tired from the long, confusing day, Craig was not impressed. He vaguely wondered if the little drama of the hotel carried so far as a small fee to be paid the bellboy, and he hoped he would have the right size of Terran units in his wallet.

Outside the door to the room, the bellboy stopped and turned to Craig.

“For five I’ll tell you where it is,” he said in a subdued tone.

“Tell me where what is?”

“You know, the mike.”

“Mike?”

“All right, mister, three units, then. I wasn’t trying to hold you up.”

“You mean a microphone?” asked Craig, mechanically fishing for his wallet.

“Sure, they don’t put in screens here. Wanted to, but the boss convinced ‘em there aren’t any Freedomites ever stay here.”

“Where is the microphone?” Craig asked as he found a ten unit note. He was too puzzled to wonder what he was expected to do with the information.

“It’s in the bed illuminator. You can short it out with a razor blade. Or I’ll do it for another two.”

“Never mind,” Craig said wearily. He waited while the bellboy inserted a key into the door and opened it for him.

 
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