Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein
Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein
The Proxima Centauri Expedition, sponsored by the Jordan Foundation in 2119, was the first recorded attempt to reach the nearer stars of this galaxy. Whatever its unhappy fate we can only conjecture. — Quoted from The Romance of Modern Astrography, by Franklin Buck, published by Lux Transcriptions, Ltd., 3.50 cr.
“THERE’S A MUTIE! Look out!”
At the shouted warning, Hugh Hoyland ducked, with nothing to spare. An egg-sized iron missile clanged against the bulkhead just above his scalp with force that promised a fractured skull. The speed with which he crouched had lifted his feet from the floor plates. Before his body could settle slowly to the deck, he planted his feet against the bulkhead behind him and shoved. He went shooting down the passageway in a long, flat dive, his knife drawn and ready.
He twisted in the air, checked himself with his feet against the opposite bulkhead at the turn in the passage from which the mutie had attacked him, and floated lightly to his feet. The other branch of the passage was empty. His two companions joined him, sliding awkwardly across the floor plates.
“Is it gone?” demanded Alan Mahoney.
“Yes,” agreed Hoyland. “I caught a glimpse of it as it ducked down that hatch. A female, I think. Looked like it had four legs.”
“Two legs or four, we’ll never catch it now,” commented the third man.
“Who the Huff wants to catch it?” protested Mahoney.
“Well, I do, for one,” said Hoyland. “By Jordan, if its aim had been two inches better, I’d be ready for the Converter.”
“Can’t either one of you two speak three words without swearing?” the third man disapproved. “What if the Captain could hear you?” He touched his forehead reverently as he mentioned the Captain.
“Oh, for Jordan’s sake,” snapped Hoyland, “don’t be so stuffy, Mort Tyler. You’re not a scientist yet. I reckon I’m as devout as you are; there’s no grave sin in occasionally giving vent to your feelings. Even the scientists do it. I’ve heard ’em.”
Tyler opened his mouth as if to expostulate, then apparently thought better of it. Mahoney touched Hoyland on the arm. “Look, Hugh,” he pleaded, “let’s get out of here. We’ve never been this high before. I’m jumpy; I want to get back down to where I can feel some weight on my feet.”
Hoyland looked longingly toward the hatch through which his assailant had disappeared while his hand rested on the grip of his knife, then be turned to Mahoney. “OK, kid,” he agreed, “It’s along trip down anyhow.”
He turned and slithered back toward the hatch, whereby they had reached the level where they now were, the other two following him. Disregarding the ladder by which they had mounted, he stepped off into the opening and floated slowly down to the deck fifteen feet below, Tyler and Mahoney close behind him. Another hatch, staggered a few feet from the first, gave access to a still lower deck. Down, down, down, and still farther down they dropped, tens and dozens of decks, each silent, dimly lighted, mysterious. Each time they fell a little faster, landed a little harder. Mahoney protested at last, “Let’s walk the rest of the way, Hugh. That last jump hurt my feet.”
“All right. But it will take longer. How far have we got to go? Anybody keep count?”
“We’ve got about seventy decks to go to reach farm country,” answered Tyler.
“How d’you know?” demanded Mahoney suspiciously.
“I counted them, stupid. And as we came down I took one away for each deck.”
“You did not. Nobody but a scientist can do numbering like that. Just because you’re learning to read and write you think you know everything.”
Hoyland cut in before it could develop into a quarrel. “Shut up, Alan. Maybe he can do it. He’s clever about such things. Anyhow, it feels like about seventy decks — I’m heavy enough.”
“Maybe he’d like to count the blades on my knife.”
“Stow it, I said. Dueling is forbidden outside the village. That is the Rule.” They proceeded in silence, running lightly down the stairways until increasing weight on each succeeding level forced them to a more pedestrian pace. Presently they broke through into a level that was quite brilliantly lighted and more than twice as deep between decks as the ones above it. The air was moist and warm; vegetation obscured the view.