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Jan 30

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Have Spaceship — Will Travel 1: Peewee in Centerville

If  you’ve read any of this blog at all, you know that Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit — Will Travel is probably my all-time favorite science fiction book. Those who understand its virtues are uniquely blessed. In the comments following an earlier post about “Peewee” Reisfeld, another HSWT fan and I speculated on what happened later.  He was looking forward to when Peewee and Kip get married (they have to or the universe is mathematically inconsistent), and I was looking forward to what happened immediately after Heinlein’s book.  I took my extended ending and made it the start of another whole story.  There were so many loose ends remaining at the end of HSWT, one can only think that Heinlein had a sequel in mind. If so, he never wrote it.  And that forced me to.  This adventure takes them farther from Earth than they have ever been before.  The saga of Kip and Peewee continues.  I’m releasing it as a serial in this blog, and here is chapter 1. So again, starting with the last sentence Heinlein wrote….

I threw it in his face.

Ace Quiggle sat there for a moment, more in astonishment than anger, then began muttering something that sounded like, “Blub, blub, blub….”  After what I’d been through on the far side of the atmosphere, a thing like Ace Quiggle didn’t have the power to intimidate me.  The fact that pacifist Clifford Russell would cause him to wear a malt like that might have actually intimidated him.  The “blub, blub, blub” was infinitely more euphonic than his trademark “yuk-yuk-yukity-yuk” laugh.

To understand the social dynamics at Charton’s soda bar, you have to understand Ace Quiggle.  He is what happens when evolution goes awry.  Dad says that’s a common problem among our species and is frequently observed in Washington.  Mr. Charton backs him up on that.  Ace used to come in a lot with a gaggle of mindless girls.  Girls seemed to like him for some reason I could never fathom — until they got to known him, that is.  Even my ex-experimental girlfriend Elaine McMurty once dated him for about seven hours.  His girl supply seemed to be drying up as more of them had survived the experience, so he spent more time at the soda bar.  More hours there than he had ever worked at a job; I don’t know how he afforded malts.  The girls’ gain; my loss.  Even Peewee didn’t like him, and she had never met him.

Peewee.  Funny how you can get so attached to a kid, even a sassy, genius, 11-year-old brat built like a stack of soda straws, when the two of you almost spent your last hours together freezing to death on Pluto.

All that went through my mind in a split second while Ace was finishing his “blub, blub, blub,” oratory, but he finally found his tongue.  “Mr. Charton!” Ace was technically an adult, but he still called my boss “Mr. Charton.” “Did you see that?”

“I certainly did.”  For a second, I thought I might be in trouble, but it would be worth it.  To my surprise, Mr. Charton added, “Clumsiest bit of drinking I’ve ever seen, Ace.  A five-year-old can handle a malt better than that.”  He tossed Ace a towel.  “Here.  Clean up your mess.  That’ll be 35 cents.”

“But, but, but….”

I tried to be a professional soda jerk and suppress the snicker that was forming on my lips, but my efforts and Ace’s protests were swallowed by a sudden wave of commotion outside.  People were pointing, shouting and running, but not pointing in the direction they were running. They were pointing toward the sky, and it wasn’t the Fourth of July.  Inside, Mrs. Jenkins dropped her purse.

“What the….” Mr. Charton got out of his mouth.

Then I saw it, and my stomach turned inside out.  I never thought I’d see one of those things again.  It was a wormface ship, coming down smack dab in the middle of the intersection, bringing traffic to a halt.  All those horrible times I’d faced those monsters rushed through my brain like a movie running too fast, and the idea of staring into those hideous eyes again just about numbed me.  I supposed there had to be a few of the things still running around the galaxy, but the ship didn’t act like a wormface was at the controls.  It wavered clumsily, its pilot apparently trying to avoid bringing down either the telephone lines or the big sign in front of Centerville Cinema, neither of which a genuine wormface would have given a pea for.

But when the landing ramp finally extended and that spindly figure ran down it in her ubiquitous wardrobe of shorts, T-shirt, and tennis shoes, with her dolly Madame Pompadour dangling from her hand, a grin spread across my face like a Skyway Soap rainbow.  Sure, we had telephones, but not having the runt around had made the last few weeks sadly barren.

She exploded through the door.  “Kip!  Kip!”

“Peewee!  What’s wrong?” I  could tell from her face that something was; I think I know all 340 of her expressions.

Her hair might have grown a fraction of an inch since I’d seen her last, but she still looked remarkably boyish and remarkably like a fourth-grader.  Legally Patricia Wynant Reisfeld, she wasn’t anything like she looked.  As soon as she reached me, she threw her arms around me in the best bear hug she could muster, and when she had it out of her system, grabbed my arm and tugged.

“Come on!  I stopped at your house on the way and they told me where to find you.  I picked up Oscar, since I know how much you love that old rag.”

“Old rag!”  I was aghast.  “That old rag saved both our skins on the moon and on Pluto, I’ll have you remember.  I don’t talk about Madame Pompadour that way.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Kip!  I know.  Oscar’s great!  But come on.”

“And what are you doing in a wormface ship, anyway?”

“The Mother Thing gave it to me, because, you know, I already know how to fly them.  Come on!  She needs us!”

Ace was staring stupidly, which was probably the only way he knew to stare.

“You’re piloting alien spaceships again?” I asked her, not sure where to go with my questions.  Peewee could do that to a person.  “The Mother Thing is here?”

“No, not anymore.  Somewhere on the other side of the galaxy by now.  But we have to meet her on Ganymede, and it’ll take us … oh … days to get there.  I haven’t calculated the trajectory yet.  We’ve got loads of real food packed, not like last time.  And a Parcheesi game so we’ll have something to do.  Do you like Parcheesi?”

“What on earth is all this about, Peewee?”

“It’s not on Earth, silly.  There’s some trouble on Jupiter’s moons and out around Arcturus.  I’m not sure what it’s about yet, but it involves us somehow.  The Mother Thing says it’s really important!”

“But….”

“Don’t worry.  Daddy has M.I.T. covered for you in case this takes longer than we think.”

“So your parents are willing you let you run off into the depths of space with me again?  After thinking you were dead the last time?”

Mrs. Jenkins, having recovered her purse and having been listening in, finally asked Peewee, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

An outraged girl glared at her and dangled Madame Pompadour threateningly in her face.  But she turned right back to me to answer the question as if she hadn’t been disturbed.

“Oh, mom’s fit to be tied, but dad says that if the galaxy needs us, the galaxy needs us, and could we please get some clarification on antigravity?  And he said he couldn’t think of anyone he’d rather have me running around space with.  Your dad said the same thing.  They talk all the time, you know, like they’re plotting something.  So are you coming?”

Nothing thrilled me more than the idea of going off with her on an adventure again, though Peewee was an adventure enough all by herself.

“I, uh….”  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I glanced at Mr. Charton.

He nodded toward the door.  “Go ahead, kid.  Your job will be here when you’re finished saving the world.  Or the universe, whichever it is.”

“Gee, thanks, Mr. Charton!  I won’t forget it!”

I’d had a hunch all along that he had a hunch what sort of things had really happened while I had been gone.  It was tough to pull anything over on Mr. Charton.

I left my apron on the counter, and as I let Peewee lead me away by the hand, I heard him say, “Close your mouth, Ace!  And clean up your mess!”

Outside was still a scene out of Day of the Triffids.  After that stupid news program that made me out to be a fool chasing after space pirates, people around town had stared at me and deluded themselves into thinking their jokes were clever.  There had only been three jokes among them, and I heard the same ones over and over.  Now, they were staring, but in a completely different way.  None of them spewed forth a joke this time.

Peewee might have experience flying these ships, be she still had to wander around Centerville a while before she found Doc. Charton's.

Peewee might have experience flying these ships, but she still had to wander around Centerville a while before she found Doc. Charton’s.

As we sprinted toward the ramp, Peewee started jabbering.

“I’m thinking about our trip,” she said.  “The distance to Jupiter now is 572 million miles.  Let’s see….  Half that’s 286 million, times 5280 is about one and a half trillion feet, divided by 16…. Let’s call it 95 billion — just an estimate — square root … 300-some thousand seconds … a little over 5000 minutes … 85 or so hours … about three and half days to turn-around at one g — I don’t want to do eight g’s again.  A week overall to Jupiter.  Check?”

“Check.”  I hadn’t really checked it.  I can enjoy the intellectual exercise, but I was a bit disoriented at the moment, and you were pretty much wasting your time checking Peewee’s calculations, anyway.

She closed the lock, and the first thing I noticed about the ship was that it smelled OK.  A wormface doesn’t really stink so much, at least as much as a nose-full of dimethyl sulfide, but it’s a smell that takes a long time to get out of your mind.  As soon as I was through, she led us up the ramp to the main level and turned us left down the corridor.  She stopped.

“Look here.”

I examined the buttons on the wall by a suspiciously familiar door.

“The The Mother Thing had some engineering things replace all those stupid holes with real buttons for beings who don’t have worm fingers.”

“Isn’t this the room Wormface had us locked up in?”

“It would be if it was — sorry, if it were; shame on me for making a fundamental grammatical error, as that is obviously in the subjunctive mood — the same ship.  But there are no prisoners in it now.”

She pushed one of the buttons and the door slid open to show the room full of polymer crates.

“Food.  All we’ll ever need.  And they put in a human kitchen.  I don’t think there are many humans left who still eat people soup.”

It was a mountain.

“That could last for years!” I protested, thinking about M.I.T. waiting for me.  “How long is this trip supposed to take?”

“Mother Thing thinks a few weeks, but … I mean … it could be longer.  But listen.  There’s another storeroom full of things like toilet paper — there’s a human bathroom on board now, too — and extra clothes.  Just in case it does take longer.”

“Just how long is she allowing for?”

Peewee grinned kind of shyly, and when that happens, you have to watch out.  “Why, Kip!  Are you saying you couldn’t put up with me for a year or two?  Dad said it’s a miracle you can put up with me at all, let alone actually like me.”

“A year or two!  Well, you, yeah.  I do like you.  But running around space and missing school?”

“Relax.  Daddy said he had M.I.T. covered for you.  I told you.”

“I thought you were talking about a week or two, not a year or two.”

“One cannot reliably predict the future, Kip.  Now let’s get this crate off the ground before the army shows up.  The outer hull’s pretty tough, but I’m not sure it’s that tough.”

She beat me to the control room, but she had been more familiar with those ships to begin with.  Someone had ripped out that wormface pedestal and put in an Earth-style seat that would swing around between the various consoles.  But right away, I noticed one confounded, antagonizing piece of hardware was missing: that walnut-shaped doodad the lack of which had left us stranded on the moon.

“Where’s the brain?”

“Oh, the engineering things fixed that stupid design, too.  The brain logic is now built in, and the ship knows who’s allowed to fly it.  The only people in the whole universe who can operate this sky buggy are you and me, and you haven’t learned yet.”

“Not even The Mother Thing?”

“Why would she?  Besides, she isn’t anatomically equipped for these controls.”

“So they figured out how everything worked.”

“Oh, in like a microsecond.  Compared with the Vegans, humans and wormfaces are both cave dwellers.  You know that.”

Peewee dropped into the seat and touched some controls that made the circle of holographic panels come on.  The wormface display dome that surrounded the control console and made it look like you were outside flashed on next.  It was spectacular on the moon, but comical in the middle of Centerville.  We could see that the townsfolk had already backed away half a block, and when Peewee started up the drive, they made it a full block.  No one was joking now.  They had all seen me leave Doc Charton’s before quitting time and walk hand-in-hand with a skinny little girl into a flying saucer — OK, an oblate spheroid, if you insist on being geometrically correct.  I didn’t give a hoot what they thought about Peewee — she was above any of them like cirrus clouds, anyway — but they’d be as nosy as a pack of wart hogs about it.  Doc’s business would be booming as they filled the place trying to get a head start on the other gossips.

A second later, as we left the ground, the crowd of rubberneckers backed even farther away.  What had they been thinking?  That we’d block that intersection forever?  Peewee was just as careful not to destroy the town on lift-off as she had been on landing, and it was only seconds later that we were on the express elevator to the sky.

It was probably about five or six minutes — though it seemed like less with all the new sensory input — before the sky turned to black and the stars came out.

“OK,” Peewee said as if she did it every day.  “I have that trajectory programmed.  We were close enough.  A little over a week to the Jupiter area.  I guess we’re done here until turn-around.”

“That easy?”

“When you have a wormface ship, yeah.  OK, let me show you around.”

The ship was organized like a donut on two levels, but I remembered that much from the last time I was on one.  All the most cool things were on the upper level.  All we would probably ever need on the lower level was the airlock and the all-terrain vehicle Peewee had mentioned that sounded like the same thing Tim and Jock had captured us in just before we would have made it to Tombaugh Station.

She opened one door rather proudly. “This is our room.”

There were two twin beds and a table clamped to the floor, and shelves clamped to the wall. Peewee already had most of the ones on her side filled with books, safely secured behind a strap to keep them in place.

“We’re supposed to share a room?” Something seemed a little unconventional about that.

She put on her indignant face.  “Are you suggesting it would be improper?”

“Well….”

“Wake up, Kip!  It’s you and me we’re talking about.  We survived Pluto together.  And it’s not like I’m going to slay you in your sleep.  Besides…”  She reddened a little around the eyes.  “… I told them I’d probably have trouble sleeping with just me and Madame Pompadour by ourselves.”

I gawked.  “You?  Scared?  You attacked a wormface with your bare hands!”

She shrugged.  “That doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared.  I would tell you just how scared, but I’m not allowed to talk that way.”

I could tell the moment we had walked in which bed was supposed to be mine, because it looked just like my bed at home.  But when I tested it, I found it was a lot more comfortable.  I could want to fall asleep just sitting on it.  Peewee’s looked rather like hers at home, too, but I had only been in her room once and hadn’t checked it all that closely.

Peewee sat next to me.  “Well, here we go again, Kip.”

“Do you know what this emergency is all about, Peewee?”

“Only a little.  But I know it’s something big.  Something that has the Three Galaxies so worried their gills are turning green.”

I couldn’t imagine anything worrying the Three Galaxies, not after what they did to the wormfaces’ planet.  Not after what they almost did to Earth.  That was enough to worry me even more.  Some of the Three Galaxies representatives actually did have gills, and some of those are already green.

“Anyway,” she added, quite seriously, “I’m glad we’re back together again.”

“I know.  Even on the phone all the time, it was weird not seeing your face every day.”

We stared at each other for a moment before we blurted out in near-perfect synchronization, “I missed you!”

She hugged me, and naturally, I hugged her back.  I just can’t help it when she does that.

I sat there reminiscing about our last adventure, the one that had almost killed us several times and seen us 160,000 light-years from home.  Questions I had about the way the Three Galaxies were handling things.  About what this adventure might be about.  I didn’t even notice that Peewee’s replies were getting softer and less frequent until they stopped coming altogether.

She was fast asleep against my side.

I grunted and chuckled at the same time.  It’s not hard to do.

But what the heck?  Peewee was only eleven despite her college professor intellect, she’d had a really exciting day, and she was from Princeton, where it was two hours later than in Centerville.  No wonder she’d be tired.  So I just grabbed the covers with one hand while I lowered her to the pillow beside me using the other.  She squirmed just a little to get her dolly comfortable.

So with her arm around Madame Pompadour and my arm around them both, I blew her hair out of my nose and let myself drift off toward sleep as well.  But before it overcame me, I had the curious thought that in all the universe, there was no life more precious than Peewee’s.

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