The Native Soil

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Explore a Venus that never was. This is Venus as science fiction imagined it, as it might have been. Explore the hot, humid, muddy planet and meet the aliens that populate it.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Before the first ship from Earth made a landing on Venus, there was much speculation about what might be found beneath the cloud layers obscuring that planet’s surface from the eyes of all observers.

One school of thought maintained that the surface of Venus was a jungle, rank with hot-house moisture, crawling with writhing fauna and man-eating flowers. Another group contended hotly that Venus was an arid desert of wind-carved sandstone, dry and cruel, whipping dust into clouds that sunlight could never penetrate. Others prognosticated an ocean planet with little or no solid ground at all, populated by enormous serpents waiting to greet the first Earthlings with jaws agape.

But nobody knew, of course. Venus was the planet of mystery.

When the first Earth ship finally landed there, all they found was a great quantity of mud.

There was enough mud on Venus to go all the way around twice, with some left over. It was warm, wet, soggy mud--clinging and tenacious. In some places it was gray, and in other places it was black. Elsewhere it was found to be varying shades of brown, yellow, green, blue and purple. But just the same, it was still mud. The sparse Venusian vegetation grew up out of it; the small Venusian natives lived down in it; the steam rose from it and the rain fell on it, and that, it seemed, was that. The planet of mystery was no longer mysterious. It was just messy. People didn’t talk about it any more.

But technologists of the Piper Pharmaceuticals, Inc., R&D squad found a certain charm in the Venusian mud.

They began sending cautious and very secret reports back to the Home Office when they discovered just what, exactly was growing in that Venusian mud besides Venusian natives. The Home Office promptly bought up full exploratory and mining rights to the planet for a price that was a brazen steal, and then in high excitement began pouring millions of dollars into ships and machines bound for the muddy planet. The Board of Directors met hoots of derision with secret smiles as they rubbed their hands together softly. Special crews of psychologists were dispatched to Venus to contact the natives; they returned, exuberant, with test-results that proved the natives were friendly, intelligent, co-operative and resourceful, and the Board of Directors rubbed their hands more eagerly together, and poured more money into the Piper Venusian Installation.

It took money to make money, they thought. Let the fools laugh. They wouldn’t be laughing long. After all, Piper Pharmaceuticals, Inc., could recognize a gold mine when they saw one.

They thought.


Robert Kielland, special investigator and trouble shooter for Piper Pharmaceuticals, Inc., made an abrupt and intimate acquaintance with the fabulous Venusian mud when the landing craft brought him down on that soggy planet. He had transferred from the great bubble-shaped orbital transport ship to the sleek landing craft an hour before, bored and impatient with the whole proposition. He had no desire whatever to go to Venus. He didn’t like mud, and he didn’t like frontier projects. There had been nothing in his contract with Piper demanding that he travel to other planets in pursuit of his duties, and he had balked at the assignment. He had even balked at the staggering bonus check they offered him to help him get used to the idea.

It was not until they had convinced him that only his own superior judgment, his razor-sharp mind and his extraordinarily shrewd powers of observation and insight could possibly pull Piper Pharmaceuticals, Inc., out of the mudhole they’d gotten themselves into, that he had reluctantly agreed to go. He wouldn’t like a moment of it, but he’d go.

Things weren’t going right on Venus, it seemed.

The trouble was that millions were going in and nothing was coming out. The early promise of high production figures had faltered, sagged, dwindled and vanished. Venus was getting to be an expensive project to have around, and nobody seemed to know just why.

Now the pilot dipped the landing craft in and out of the cloud blanket, braking the ship, falling closer and closer to the surface as Kielland watched gloomily from the after port. The lurching billows of clouds made him queasy; he opened his Piper samples case and popped a pill into his mouth. Then he gave his nose a squirt or two with his Piper Rhino-Vac nebulizer, just for good measure. Finally, far below them, the featureless gray surface skimmed by. A sparse scraggly forest of twisted gray foliage sprang up at them.

The pilot sighted the landing platform, checked with Control Tower, and eased up for the final descent. He was a skillful pilot, with many landings on Venus to his credit. He brought the ship up on its tail and sat it down on the landing platform for a perfect three-pointer as the jets rumbled to silence.

Then, abruptly, they sank--landing craft, platform and all.

The pilot buzzed Control Tower frantically as Kielland fought down panic. Sorry, said Control Tower. Something must have gone wrong. They’d have them out in a jiffy. Good lord, no, don’t blast out again, there were a thousand natives in the vicinity. Just be patient, everything would be all right.

They waited. Presently there were thumps and bangs as grapplers clanged on the surface of the craft. Mud gurgled around them as they were hauled up and out with the sound of a giant sipping soup. A mud-encrusted hatchway flew open, and Kielland stepped down on a flimsy-looking platform below. Four small rodent-like creatures were attached to it by ropes; they heaved with a will and began paddling through the soupy mud dragging the platform and Kielland toward a row of low wooden buildings near some stunted trees.

As the creatures paused to puff and pant, the back half of the platform kept sinking into the mud. When they finally reached comparatively solid ground, Kielland was mud up to the hips, and mad enough to blast off without benefit of landing craft.

He surveyed the Piper Venusian Installation, hardly believing what he saw. He had heard the glowing descriptions of the Board of Directors. He had seen the architect’s projections of fine modern buildings resting on water-proof buoys, neat boating channels to the mine sites, fine orange-painted dredge equipment (including the new Piper Axis-Traction Dredges that had been developed especially for the operation). It had sounded, in short, just the way a Piper Installation ought to sound.

But there was nothing here that resembled that. Kielland could see a group of little wooden shacks that looked as though they were ready at a moment’s notice to sink with a gurgle into the mud. Off to the right across a mud flat one of the dredges apparently had done just that: a swarm of men and natives were hard at work dragging it up again. Control Tower was to the left, balanced precariously at a slight tilt in a sea of mud.

The Piper Venusian Installation didn’t look too much like a going concern. It looked far more like a ghost town in the latter stages of decay.

Inside the Administration shack Kielland found a weary-looking man behind a desk, scribbling furiously at a pile of reports. Everything in the shack was splattered with mud. The crude desk and furniture was smeared; the papers had black speckles all over them. Even the man’s face was splattered, his clothing encrusted with gobs of still-damp mud. In a corner a young man was industriously scrubbing down the wall with a large brush.

The man wiped mud off Kielland and jumped up with a gleam of hope in his tired eyes. “Ah! Wonderful!” he cried. “Great to see you, old man. You’ll find all the papers and reports in order here, everything ready for you--” He brushed the papers away from him with a gesture of finality. “Louie, get the landing craft pilot and don’t let him out of your sight. Tell him I’ll be ready in twenty minutes--”

“Hold it,” said Kielland. “Aren’t you Simpson?”

The man wiped mud off his cheeks and spat. He was tall and graying.

“That’s right.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Aren’t you relieving me?”

“I am not!”

“Oh, my.” The man crumbled behind the desk, as though his legs had just given way. “I don’t understand it. They told me--”

“I don’t care what they told you,” said Kielland shortly. “I’m a trouble shooter, not an administrator. When production figures begin to drop, I find out why. The production figures from this place have never gotten high enough to drop.”

“This is supposed to be news to me?” said Simpson.

“So you’ve got troubles.”

“Friend, you’re right about that.”

“Well, we’ll straighten them out,” Kielland said smoothly. “But first I want to see the foreman who put that wretched landing platform together.”

Simpson’s eyes became wary. “Uh--you don’t really want to see him?”

“Yes, I think I do. When there’s such obvious evidence of incompetence, the time to correct it is now.”

“Well--maybe we can go outside and see him.”

“We’ll see him right here.” Kielland sank down on the bench near the wall. A tiny headache was developing; he found a capsule in his samples case and popped it in his mouth.

Simpson looked sad and nodded to the orderly who had stopped scrubbing down the wall. “Louie, you heard the man.”

“But boss--”

Simpson scowled. Louie went to the door and whistled. Presently there was a splashing sound and a short, gray creature padded in. His hind feet were four-toed webbed paddles; his legs were long and powerful like a kangaroo’s. He was covered with thick gray fur which dripped with thick black mud. He squeaked at Simpson, wriggling his nose. Simpson squeaked back sharply.

Suddenly the creature began shaking his head in a slow, rhythmic undulation. With a cry Simpson dropped behind the desk. The orderly fell flat on the floor, covering his face with his arm. Kielland’s eyes widened; then he was sitting in a deluge of mud as the little Venusian shook himself until his fur stood straight out in all directions.

Simpson stood up again with a roar. “I’ve told them a thousand times if I’ve told them once--” He shook his head helplessly as Kielland wiped mud out of his eyes. “This is the one you wanted to see.”

Kielland sputtered. “Can it talk to you?”

“It doesn’t talk, it squeaks.”

“Then ask it to explain why the platform it built didn’t hold the landing craft.”

Simpson began whistling and squeaking at length to the little creature. Its shaggy tail crept between its legs and it hung its head like a scolded puppy.

“He says he didn’t know a landing craft was supposed to land on the platform,” Simpson reported finally. “He’s sorry, he says.”

“But hasn’t he seen a landing craft before?”

Squeak, squeak. “Oh, yes.”

“Wasn’t he told what the platform was being made for?”

Squeak, squeak. “Of course.”

“Then why didn’t the platform stand up?”

Simpson sighed. “Maybe he forgot what it was supposed to be used for in the course of building it. Maybe he never really did understand in the first place. I can’t get questions like that across to him with this whistling, and I doubt that you’ll ever find out which it was.”

“Then fire him,” said Kielland. “We’ll find some other--”

“Oh, no! I mean, let’s not be hasty,” said Simpson. “I’d hate to have to fire this one--for a while yet, at any rate.”

“Why?”

“Because we’ve finally gotten across to him--at least I think we have--just how to take down a dredge tube.” Simpson’s voice was almost tearful. “It’s taken us months to teach him. If we fire him, we’ll have to start all over again with another one.”

Kielland stared at the Venusian, and then at Simpson. “So,” he said finally, “I see.”

“No, you don’t,” Simpson said with conviction. “You don’t even begin to see yet. You have to fight it for a few months before you really see.” He waved the Venusian out the door and turned to Kielland with burden of ten months’ frustration in his voice. “They’re stupid,” he said slowly. “They are so incredibly stupid I could go screaming into the swamp every time I see one of them coming. Their stupidity is positively abysmal.”

“Then why use them?” Kielland spluttered.

“Because if we ever hope to mine anything in this miserable mudhole, we’ve got to use them to do it. There just isn’t any other way.”

With Simpson leading, they donned waist-high waders with wide, flat silicone-coated pans strapped to the feet and started out to inspect the installation.

A crowd of a dozen or more Venusian natives swarmed happily around them like a pack of hounds. They were in and out of the steaming mud, circling and splashing, squeaking: and shaking. They seemed to be having a real field day.

“Of course,” Simpson was saying, “since Number Four dredge sank last week there isn’t a whale of a lot of Installation left for you to inspect. But you can see what there is, if you want.”

“You mean Number Four dredge is the only one you’ve got to use?” Kielland asked peevishly. “According to my records you have five Axis-Traction dredges, plus a dozen or more of the old kind.”

“Ah!” said Simpson. “Well, Number One had its vacuum chamber corroded out a week after we started using dredging. Ran into a vein of stuff with 15 per cent acid content, and it got chewed up something fierce. Number Two sank without a trace--over there in the swamp someplace.” He pointed across the black mud flats to a patch of sickly vegetation. “The Mud-pups know where it is, they think, and I suppose they could go drag it up for us if we dared take the time, but it would lose us a month, and you know the production schedule we’ve been trying to meet.”

“So what about Numbers Three and Five?”

“Oh, we still have them. They won’t work without a major overhaul, though.”

“Overhaul! They’re brand new.”

“They were. The Mud-pups didn’t understand how to sluice them down properly after operations. When this guck gets out into the air it hardens like cement. You ever see a cement mixer that hasn’t been cleaned out after use for a few dozen times? That’s Numbers Three and Five.”

“What about the old style models?”

“Half of them are out of commission, and the other half are holding the islands still.”

“Islands?”

“Those chunks of semisolid ground we have Administration built on. The chunk that keeps Control Tower in one place.”

“Well, what are they going to do--walk away?”

“That’s just about right. The first week we were in operation we kept wondering why we had to travel farther every day to get to the dredges. Then we realized that solid ground on Venus isn’t solid ground at all. It’s just big chunks of denser stuff that floats on top of the mud like dumplings in a stew. But that was nothing compared to the other things--”

They had reached the vicinity of the salvage operation on Number Five dredge. To Kielland it looked like a huge cylinder-type vacuum cleaner with a number of flexible hoses sprouting from the top. The whole machine was three-quarters submerged in clinging mud. Off to the right a derrick floated hub-deep in slime; grapplers from it were clinging to the dredge and the derrick was heaving and splashing like a trapped hippopotamus. All about the submerged machine were Mud-pups, working like strange little beavers as the man supervising the operation wiped mud from his face and carried on a running line of shouts, curses, whistles and squeaks.

Suddenly one of the Mud-pups saw the newcomers. He let out a squeal, dropped his line in the mud and bounced up to the surface, dancing like a dervish on his broad webbed feet as he stared in unabashed curiosity. A dozen more followed his lead, squirming up and staring, shaking gobs of mud from their fur.

“No, no!” the man supervising the operation screamed. “Pull, you idiots. Come back here! Watch out--”

The derrick wobbled and let out a whine as steel cable sizzled out. Confused, the Mud-pups tore themselves away from the newcomers and turned back to their lines, but it was too late. Number Five dredge trembled, with a wet sucking sound, and settled back into the mud, blub--blub--blub.

The supervisor crawled down from his platform and sloshed across to where Simpson and Kielland were standing. He looked like a man who had suffered the torment of the damned for twenty minutes too long. “No more!” he screamed in Simpson’s face. “That’s all. I’m through. I’ll pick up my pay any time you get it ready, and I’ll finish off my contract at home, but I’m through here. One solid week I work to teach these idiots what I want them to do, and you have to come along at the one moment all week when I really need their concentration.” He glared, his face purple. “Concentration! I should hope for so much! You got to have a brain to have concentration--”

“Barton, this is Kielland. He’s here from the Home Office, to solve all our problems.”

“You mean he brought us an evacuation ship?”

“No, he’s going to tell us how to make this Installation pay. Right, Kielland?” Simpson’s grin was something to see.

Kielland scowled. “What are you going to do with the dredge--just leave it there?” he asked angrily.

“No--I’m going to dig it out, again,” said Barton, “after we take another week off to drum into those quarter-brained mud-hens just what it is we want them to do--again--and then persuade them to do it--again--and then hope against hope that nothing happens along to distract them--again. Any suggestions?”

Simpson shook his head. “Take a rest, Barton. Things will look brighter in the morning.”

“Nothing ever looks brighter in the morning,” said Barton, and he sloshed angrily off toward the Administration island.

“You see?” said Simpson. “Or do you want to look around some more?”


Back in Administration shack, Kielland sprayed his throat with Piper Fortified Bio-Static and took two tetracycline capsules from his samples case as he stared gloomily down at the little gob of blue-gray mud on the desk before him.

The Venusian bonanza, the sole object of the multi-million-dollar Piper Venusian Installation, didn’t look like much. It ran in veins deep beneath the surface. The R&D men had struck it quite by accident in the first place, sampled it along with a dozen other kinds of Venusian mud--and found they had their hands on the richest ‘mycin-bearing bacterial growth since the days of the New Jersey mud flats.

The value of the stuff was incalculable. Twenty-first century Earth had not realized the degree to which it depended upon its effective antibiotic products for maintenance of its health until the mutating immune bacterial strains began to outpace the development of new antibacterials. Early penicillin killed 96 per cent of all organisms in its spectrum--at first--but time and natural selection undid its work in three generations. Even the broad-spectrum drugs were losing their effectiveness to a dangerous degree within decades of their introduction. And the new drugs grown from Earth-born bacteria, or synthesized in the laboratories, were too few and too weak to meet the burgeoning demands of humanity--

Until Venus. The bacteria indigenous to that planet were alien to Earth--every attempt to transplant them had failed--but they grew with abandon in the warm mud currents of Venus. Not all mud was of value: only the singular blue-gray stuff that lay before Kielland on the desk could produce the ‘mycin-like tetracycline derivative that was more powerful than the best of Earth-grown wide spectrum antibiotics, with few if any of the unfortunate side-effects of the Earth products.

The problem seemed simple: find the mud in sufficient quantities for mining, dredge it up, and transport it back to Earth to extract the drug. It was the first two steps of the operation that depended so heavily on the mud-acclimated natives of Venus for success. They were as much at home in the mud as they were in the dank, humid air above. They could distinguish one type of mud from another deep beneath the surface, and could carry a dredge-tube down to a lode of the blue-gray muck with the unfailing accuracy of a homing pigeon.

If they could only be made to understand just what they were expected to do. And that was where production ground down to a slow walk.

The next few days were a nightmare of frustration for Kielland as he observed with mounting horror the standard operating procedure of the Installation.

Men and Mud-pups went to work once again to drag Number Five dredge out of the mud. It took five days of explaining, repeating, coaxing and threatening to do it, but finally up it came--with mud caked and hardened in its insides until it could never be used again.

So they ferried Number Six down piecemeal from the special orbital transport ship that had brought it. Only three landing craft sank during the process, and within two weeks Simpson and Barton set bravely off with their dull-witted cohorts to tackle the swamp with a spanking new piece of equipment. At last the delays were over--

Of course, it took another week to get the actual dredging started. The Mud-pups who had been taught the excavation procedure previously had either disappeared into the swamp or forgotten everything they’d ever been taught. Simpson had expected it, but it was enough to keep Kielland sleepless for three nights and drive his blood pressure to suicidal levels. At length, the blue-gray mud began billowing out of the dredge onto the platforms built to receive it, and the transport ship was notified to stand by for loading. But by the time the ferry had landed, the platform with the load had somehow drifted free of the island and required a week-long expedition into the hinterland to track it down. On the trip back they met a rainstorm that dissolved the blue-gray stuff into soup which ran out between the slats of the platform, and back into the mud again.

They did get the platform back, at any rate.

Meanwhile, the dredge began sucking up green stuff that smelled of sewage instead of the blue-gray clay they sought--so the natives dove mud-ward to explore the direction of the vein. One of them got caught in the suction tube, causing a three-day delay while engineers dismantled the dredge to get him out. In re-assembling, two of the dredge tubes got interlocked somehow, and the dredge burned out three generators trying to suck itself through itself, so to speak. That took another week to fix.

Kielland buried himself in the Administration shack, digging through the records, when the reign of confusion outside became too much to bear. He sent for Tarnier, the Installation physician, biologist, and erstwhile Venusian psychologist. Dr. Tarnier looked like the breathing soul of failure; Kielland had to steel himself to the wave of pity that swept through him at the sight of the man. “You’re the one who tested these imbeciles originally?” he demanded.

Dr. Tarnier nodded. His face was seamed, his eyes lustreless. “I tested ‘em. God help me, I tested ‘em.”

“How?”

“Standard procedures. Reaction times. Mazes. Conditioning. Language. Abstractions. Numbers. Associations. The works.”

“Standard for Earthmen, I presume you mean.”

“So what else? Piper didn’t want to know if they were Einsteins or not. All they wanted was a passable level of intelligence. Give them natives with brains and they might have to pay them something. They thought they were getting a bargain.”

“Some bargain.”

“Yeah.”

“Only your tests say they’re intelligent. As intelligent, say, as a low-normal human being without benefit of any schooling or education. Right?”

“That’s right,” the doctor said wearily, as though he had been through this mill again and again. “Schooling and education don’t enter into it at all, of course. All we measured was potential. But the results said they had it.”

“Then how do you explain the mess we’ve got out there?”

“The tests were wrong. Or else they weren’t applicable even on a basic level. Or something. I don’t know. I don’t even care much any more.”

“Well I care, plenty. Do you realize how much those creatures are costing us? If we ever do get the finished product on the market, it’ll cost too much for anybody to buy.”

Dr. Tarnier spread his hands. “Don’t blame me. Blame them.”

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