The Reluctant Heroes

by Frank M. Robinson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Pioneers have always resented their wanderlust, hated their hardships. But the future brings a new grudge--when pioneers stay put and scholars do the exploring!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The very young man sat on the edge of the sofa and looked nervous. He carefully studied his fingernails and ran his hands through his hair and picked imaginary lint off the upholstery.

“I have a chance to go with the first research expedition to Venus,” he said.

The older man studied the very young man thoughtfully and then leaned over to his humidor and offered him a cigaret. “It’s nice to have the new air units now. There was a time when we had to be very careful about things like smoking.”

The very young man was annoyed.

“I don’t think I want to go,” he blurted. “I don’t think I would care to spend two years there.”

The older man blew a smoke ring and watched it drift toward the air exhaust vent.

“You mean you would miss it here, the people you’ve known and grown up with, the little familiar things that have made up your life here. You’re afraid the glamor would wear off and you would get to hate it on Venus.”

The very young man nodded miserably. “I guess that’s it.”

“Anything else?”

The very young man found his fingernails extremely fascinating again and finally said, in a low voice, “Yes, there is.”

“A girl?”

A nod confirmed this.

It was the older man’s turn to look thoughtful. “You know, I’m sure, that psychologists and research men agree that research stations should be staffed by couples. That is, of course, as soon as it’s practical.”

“But that might be a long time!” the very young man protested.

“It might be--but sometimes it’s sooner than you think. And the goal is worth it.”

“I suppose so, but--”

The older man smiled. “Still the reluctant heroes,” he said, somewhat to himself.

Chapman stared at the radio key.

Three years on the Moon and they didn’t want him to come back.

Three years on the Moon and they thought he’d be glad to stay for more. Just raise his salary or give him a bonus, the every-man-has-his-price idea. They probably thought he liked it there.

Oh, sure, he loved it. Canned coffee, canned beans, canned pills, and canned air until your insides felt as though they were plated with tin. Life in a cramped, smelly little hut where you could take only ten steps in any one direction. Their little scientific home of tomorrow with none of the modern conveniences, a charming place where you couldn’t take a shower, couldn’t brush your teeth, and your kidneys didn’t work right.

And for double his salary they thought he’d be glad to stay for another year and a half. Or maybe three. He should probably be glad he had the opportunity.

The key started to stutter again, demanding an answer.

He tapped out his reply: “No!

There was a silence and then the key stammered once more in a sudden fit of bureaucratic rage. Chapman stuffed a rag under it and ignored it. He turned to the hammocks, strung against the bulkhead on the other side of the room.

The chattering of the key hadn’t awakened anybody; they were still asleep, making the animal noises that people usually make in slumber. Dowden, half in the bottom hammock and half on the floor, was snoring peacefully. Dahl, the poor kid who was due for stopover, was mumbling to himself. Julius Klein, with that look of ineffable happiness on his face, looked as if he had just squirmed under the tent to his personal idea of heaven. Donley and Bening were lying perfectly still, their covers not mussed, sleeping very lightly.

Lord, Chapman thought, I’ll be happy when I can see some other faces.

“What’d they want?” Klein had one eyelid open and a questioning look on his face.

“They wanted me to stay until the next relief ship lands,” Chapman whispered back.

“What did you say?”

He shrugged. “No.”

“You kept it short,” somebody else whispered. It was Donley, up and sitting on the side of his hammock. “If it had been me, I would have told them just what they could do about it.”

The others were awake now, with the exception of Dahl who had his face to the bulkhead and a pillow over his head.

Dowden rubbed his eyes sleepily. “Sore, aren’t you?”

“Kind of. Who wouldn’t be?”

“Well, don’t let it throw you. They’ve never been here on the Moon. They don’t know what it’s like. All they’re trying to do is get a good man to stay on the job a while longer.”

All they’re trying to do,” Chapman said sarcastically. “They’ve got a fat chance.”

“They think you’ve found a home here,” Donley said.

“Why the hell don’t you guys shut up until morning?” Dahl was awake, looking bitter. “Some of us still have to stay here, you know. Some of us aren’t going back today.”

No, Chapman thought, some of us aren’t going back. You aren’t. And Dixon’s staying, too. Only Dixon isn’t ever going back.

Klein jerked his thumb toward Dahl’s bunk, held a finger to his lips, and walked noiselessly over to the small electric stove. It was his day for breakfast duty.

The others started lacing up their bunks, getting ready for their last day of work on the Moon. In a few hours they’d be relieved by members of the Third research group and they’d be on their way back to Earth.

And that includes me, Chapman thought. I’m going home. I’m finally going home.

He walked silently to the one small, quartz window in the room. It was morning--the Moon’s “morning”--and he shivered slightly. The rays of the Sun were just striking the far rim of the crater and long shadows shot across the crater floor. The rest of it was still blanketed in a dark jumble of powdery pumice and jagged peaks that would make the Black Hills of Dakota look like paradise.

A hundred yards from the research bunker he could make out the small mound of stones and the forlorn homemade cross, jury-rigged out of small condensed milk tins slid over crossed iron bars. You could still see the footprints in the powdery soil where the group had gathered about the grave. It had been more than eighteen months ago, but there was no wind to wear those tracks away. They’d be there forever.

That’s what happened to guys like Dixon, Chapman thought. On the Moon, one mistake could use up your whole quota of chances.

Klein came back with the coffee. Chapman took a cup, gagged, and forced himself to swallow the rest of it. It had been in the can for so long you could almost taste the glue on the label.

Donley was warming himself over his cup, looking thoughtful. Dowden and Bening were struggling into their suits, getting ready to go outside. Dahl was still sitting on his hammock, trying to ignore them.

“Think we ought to radio the space station and see if they’ve left there yet?” Klein asked.

“I talked to them on the last call,” Chapman said. “The relief ship left there twelve hours ago. They should get here”--he looked at his watch--”in about six and a half hours.”

“Chap, you know, I’ve been thinking,” Donley said quietly. “You’ve been here just twice as long as the rest of us. What’s the first thing you’re going to do once you get back?”

It hit them, then. Dowden and Bening looked blank for a minute and blindly found packing cases to sit on. The top halves of their suits were still hanging on the bulkhead. Klein lowered his coffee cup and looked grave. Even Dahl glanced up expectantly.

“I don’t know,” Chapman said slowly. “I guess I was trying not to think of that. I suppose none of us have. We’ve been like little kids who have waited so long for Christmas that they just can’t believe it when it’s finally Christmas Eve.”

Klein nodded in agreement. “I haven’t been here three years like you have, but I think I know what you mean.” He warmed up to it as the idea sank in. “Just what the hell are you going to do?”

“Nothing very spectacular,” Chapman said, smiling. “I’m going to rent a room over Times Square, get a recording of a rikky-tik piano, and drink and listen to the music and watch the people on the street below. Then I think I’ll see somebody.”

“Who’s the somebody?” Donley asked.

Chapman grinned. “Oh, just somebody. What are you going to do, Dick?”

“Well, I’m going to do something practical. First of all, I want to turn over all my geological samples to the government. Then I’m going to sell my life story to the movies and then--why, then, I think I’ll get drunk!”

Everybody laughed and Chapman turned to Klein.

“How about you, Julius?”

Klein looked solemn. “Like Dick, I’ll first get rid of my obligations to the expedition. Then I think I’ll go home and see my wife.”

They were quiet. “I thought all members of the groups were supposed to be single,” Donley said.

“They are. And I can see their reasons for it. But who could pass up the money the Commission was paying?”

“If I had to do it all over again? Me,” said Donley promptly.

They laughed. Somebody said: “Go play your record, Chap. Today’s the day for it.”

The phonograph was a small, wind-up model that Chapman had smuggled in when he had landed with the First group. The record was old and the shellac was nearly worn off, but the music was good.

Way Back Home by Al Lewis.

They ran through it twice. They were beginning to feel it now, Chapman thought. They were going to go home in a little while and the idea was just starting to sink in.

“You know, Chap,” Donley said, “it won’t seem like the same old Moon without you on it. Why, we’ll look at it when we’re out spooning or something and it just won’t have the same old appeal.”

“Like they say in the army,” Bening said, “you never had it so good. You found a home here.”

The others chimed in and Chapman grinned. Yesterday or a week ago they couldn’t have done it. He had been there too long and he had hated it too much.

The party quieted down after a while and Dowden and Bening finished getting into their suits. They still had a section of the sky to map before they left. Donley was right after them. There was an outcropping of rock that he wanted a sample of and some strata he wished to investigate.

And the time went faster when you kept busy.

Chapman stopped them at the lock. “Remember to check your suits for leaks,” he warned. “And check the valves of your oxygen tanks.”

Donley looked sour. “I’ve gone out at least five hundred times,” he said, “and you check me each time.”

“And I’d check you five hundred more,” Chapman said. “It takes only one mistake. And watch out for blisters under the pumice crust. You go through one of those and that’s it, brother.”

Donley sighed. “Chap, you watch us like an old mother hen. You see we check our suits, you settle our arguments, you see that we’re not bored and that we stay healthy and happy. I think you’d blow our noses for us if we caught cold. But some day, Chap old man, you’re gonna find out that your little boys can watch out for themselves!”

But he checked his suit for leaks and tested the valve of his tank before he left.

Only Klein and Chapman were left in the bunker. Klein was at the work table, carefully labeling some lichen specimens.

“I never knew you were married,” Chapman said.

Klein didn’t look up. “There wasn’t much sense in talking about it. You just get to thinking and wanting--and there’s nothing you can do about it. You talk about it and it just makes it worse.”

“She let you go without any fuss, huh?”

“No, she didn’t make any fuss. But I don’t think she liked to see me go, either.” He laughed a little. “At least I hope she didn’t.”

They were silent for a while. “What do you miss most, Chap?” Klein asked. “Oh, I know what we said a little while ago, but I mean seriously.”

Chapman thought a minute. “I think I miss the sky,” he said quietly. “The blue sky and the green grass and trees with leaves on them that turn color in the Fall. I think, when I go back, that I’d like to go out in a rain storm and strip and feel the rain on my skin.”

He stopped, feeling embarrassed. Klein’s expression was encouraging. “And then I think I’d like to go downtown and just watch the shoppers on the sidewalks. Or maybe go to a burlesque house and smell the cheap perfume and the popcorn and the people sweating in the dark.”

He studied his hands. “I think what I miss most is people--all kinds of people. Bad people and good people and fat people and thin people, and people I can’t understand. People who wouldn’t know an atom from an artichoke. And people who wouldn’t give a damn. We’re a quarter of a million miles from nowhere, Julius, and to make it literary, I think I miss my fellow man more than anything.”

“Got a girl back home?” Klein asked almost casually.


“You’re not like Dahl. You’ve never mentioned it.”

“Same reason you didn’t mention your wife. You get to thinking about it.”

Klein flipped the lid on the specimen box. “Going to get married when you get back?”

Chapman was at the port again, staring out at the bleak landscape. “We hope to.”

“Settle down in a small cottage and raise lots of little Chapmans, eh?”

Chapman nodded.

“That’s the only future,” Klein said.

He put away the box and came over to the port. Chapman moved over so they both could look out.

“Chap.” Klein hesitated a moment. “What happened to Dixon?”

“He died,” Chapman said. “He was a good kid, all wrapped up in science. Being on the Moon was the opportunity of a lifetime. He thought so much about it that he forgot a lot of little things--like how to stay alive. The day before the Second group came, he went out to finish some work he was interested in. He forgot to check for leaks and whether or not the valve on his tank was all the way closed. We couldn’t get to him in time.”

“He had his walkie-talkie with him?”

“Yes. It worked fine, too. We heard everything that went through his mind at the end.”

Klein’s face was blank. “What’s your real job here, Chap? Why does somebody have to stay for stopover?”

“Hell, lots of reasons, Julius. You can’t get a whole relief crew and let them take over cold. They have to know where you left off. They have to know where things are, how things work, what to watch out for. And then, because you’ve been here a year and a half and know the ropes, you have to watch them to see that they stay alive in spite of themselves. The Moon’s a new environment and you have to learn how to live in it. There’s a lot of things to learn--and some people just never learn.”

“You’re nursemaid, then.”

“I suppose you could call it that.”

Klein said, “You’re not a scientist, are you?”

“No, you should know that. I came as the pilot of the first ship. We made the bunker out of parts of the ship so there wasn’t anything to go back on. I’m a good mechanic and I made myself useful with the machinery. When it occurred to us that somebody was going to have to stay over, I volunteered. I thought the others were so important that it was better they should take their samples and data back to Earth when the first relief ship came.”

“You wouldn’t do it again, though, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Do you think Dahl will do as good a job as you’ve done here?”

Chapman frowned. “Frankly, I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t believe I care. I’ve put in my time; it’s somebody else’s turn now. He volunteered for it. I think I was fair in explaining all about the job when you talked it over among yourselves.”

“You did, but I don’t think Dahl’s the man for it. He’s too young, too much of a kid. He volunteered because he thought it made him look like a hero. He doesn’t have the judgment that an older man would have. That you have.”

Chapman turned slowly around and faced Klein.

“I’m not the indispensable man,” he said slowly, “and even if I was, it wouldn’t make any difference to me. I’m sorry if Dahl is young. So was I. I’ve lost three years up here. And I don’t intend to lose any more.”

Klein held up his hands. “Look, Chap, I didn’t mean you should stay. I know how much you hate it and the time you put in up here. It’s just--” His voice trailed away. “It’s just that I think it’s such a damn important job.”

Klein had gone out in a last search for rock lichens and Chapman enjoyed one of his relatively few moments of privacy. He wandered over to his bunk and opened his barracks bag. He checked the underwear and his toothbrush and shaving kit for maybe the hundredth time and pushed the clothing down farther in the canvas. It was foolish because the bag was already packed and had been for a week. He remembered stalling it off for as long as he could and then the quiet satisfaction about a week before, when he had opened his small gear locker and transferred its meager belongings to the bag.

He hadn’t actually needed to pack, of course. In less than twenty-four hours he’d be back on Earth where he could drown himself in toothpaste and buy more tee shirts than he could wear in a lifetime. He could leave behind his shorts and socks and the outsize shirts he had inherited from--who was it? Driesbach?--of the First group. Dahl could probably use them or maybe one of the boys in the Third.

But it wasn’t like going home unless you packed. It was part of the ritual, like marking off the last three weeks in pencil on the gray steel of the bulkhead beside his hammock. Just a few hours ago, when he woke up, he had made the last check mark and signed his name and the date. His signature was right beneath Dixon’s.

He frowned when he thought of Dixon and slid back the catch on the top of the bag and locked it. They should never have sent a kid like Dixon to the Moon.

He had just locked the bag when he heard the rumble of the airlock and the soft hiss of air. Somebody had come back earlier than expected. He watched the inner door swing open and the spacesuited figure clump in and unscrew its helmet.

Dahl. He had gone out to help Dowden on the Schmidt telescope. Maybe Dowden hadn’t needed any help, with Bening along. Or more likely, considering the circumstances, Dahl wasn’t much good at helping anybody today.

Dahl stripped off his suit. His face was covered with light beads of sweat and his eyes were frightened.

He moistened his lips slightly. “Do--do you think they’ll ever have relief ships up here more often than every eighteen months, Chap? I mean, considering the advance of--”

“No,” Chapman interrupted bluntly. “I don’t. Not at least for ten years. The fuel’s too expensive and the trip’s too hazardous. On freight charges alone you’re worth your weight in platinum when they send you here. Even if it becomes cheaper, Bob, it won’t come about so it will shorten stopover right away.” He stopped, feeling a little sorry for Dahl. “It won’t be too bad. There’ll be new men up here and you’ll pass a lot of time getting to know them.”

“Well, you see,” Dahl started, “that’s why I came back early. I wanted to see you about stopover. It’s that--well, I’ll put it this way.” He seemed to be groping for an easy way to say what he wanted to. “I’m engaged back home. Really nice girl, Chap, you’d like her if you knew her.” He fumbled in his pocket and found a photograph and put it on the desk. “That’s a picture of Alice, taken at a picnic we were on together.” Chapman didn’t look. “She--we--expected to be married when I got back. I never told her about stopover, Chap. She thinks I’ll be home tomorrow. I kept thinking, hoping, that maybe somehow--”

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