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The
Native
Soil

by Alan E. Nourse


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."

"And then this so-called biological survey of yours," Kielland
continued, warming to his subject. "From a scientific man, it's a prize.


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Online LibraryAlan Edward NourseThe Native Soil → online text (page 1 of 2)