Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  “Looks like nobody’s home, Oz.”

  “I hope you’re wrong, Tex. Most of Venus is supposed to be inhabited, but this might be a tabu spot.”

  A triangular head, large as a collie’s, broke water about ten feet from them. Tex jumped. The Venerian regarded him with shiny, curious eyes. Oscar stood up. “Greetings, thou whose mother was my mothers friend.”

  The Venerian turned her attention to Oscar. “May thy mother rest happily.” She surface-dived and disappeared almost without a ripple.

  “That’s a relief,” said Oscar. “Of course they say this planet has only one language but this is the first time I’ve put it to a test.”

  “Why did it leave?”

  “Gone back to report, probably. And don’t say ‘it,’ Matt; say ‘she.’”

  “It’s a difference that could only matter to another Venerian.”

  “Well, it’s a bad habit, anyway.” Oscar squatted down and waited.

  After a time made longer by insects, heat, and sultriness the water was broken in a dozen places at once. One of the amphibians climbed gracefully up on the bank and stood up. She came about to Matt’s shoulder. Oscar repeated the formal greeting. She looked him over. “My mother tells me that she knows thee not.”

  “Doubtless being busy with important thoughts she has forgotten.”

  “Perhaps. Let us go to my mother and let her smell thee.”

  “Thou art gracious. Canst thou carry my sibling?” Oscar pointed to Thurlow. “Being ill, ‘she’ cannot close ‘her’ mouth to the waters.”

  The Venerian agreed. She called one of her followers to her side and Oscar joined the consultation, illustrating how Thurlow’s mouth must be covered and his nose pinched together “—lest the waters return ‘her’ to ‘her’ mother’s mother’s mother.” The second native argued but agreed.

  Tex was getting more and more round-eyed. “See here, Matt,” he said urgently in Basic, “surely you’re not figuring on going under water?”

  “Unless you want to stay here until the insects eat you up, you’ve got to. Just take it easy, let them tow you, and try to keep your lungs full. When they dive you may have to stay under several minutes.”

  “I don’t like it either,” said Matt.

  “Shucks, I visited my first Venerian home when I was nine. They know you can’t swim the way they do. At least the ones around the colonies know it,” he admitted doubtfully.

  “Maybe you had better impress them with it.”

  “I’ll try.”

  The leader cut him short with assurances. She gave a sharp command and six of her party placed themselves by the cadets, two to each man. Three others took over Thurlow, lifting him and sliding him into the water. One of them was the one who had been instructed.

  Oscar called out, “Take it easy, fellows!” Matt felt little hands urging him into the lake. He took a deep breath and stepped off into the water.

  The water closed over his head. It was blood warm and fresh. He opened his eyes, saw the surface, then his head broke water again. The little hands grasped his sides and propelled him along, swimming strongly. He told himself to relax and stop fighting it.

  After a while it even began to seem pleasant, once he was sure that the little creatures did not intend to pull him under. But he remembered Oscar’s advice and tried to watch out for a dive. Luckily, he saw the trio of which Tex was the middle go under; he gulped air just in time.

  They went down and down, until his eardrums hurt, then forward. By the time they started up the pains in his chest were almost unbearable. He was fighting a reflex to open his mouth and breathe anything, even water, when they broke surface again.

  There were three more of the lung-searing passages under water; when they broke water for the last time Matt saw that they were no longer outdoors.

  The cave—if it was a cave—was about a hundred feet long and less than half as wide. In the center of it was the water entrance through which they had come. It was lighted from above, rather dimly, from some sort of glowing, orange clusters.

  Most of this he noticed after he pulled himself up to the bank. His first impression was a crowd of Venerians surrounding the pool. They were obviously curious about their guests and chattered among themselves. Matt picked up a few words of it and heard a reference to “—slime spawn—” which annoyed him.

  The three with Thurlow broke water. Matt pulled away from his custodians and helped drag him onto dry land. He was frantic for a moment when he could not find the lieutenant’s pulse; then he located it. It was fast and fluttery.

  Thurlow opened his eyes and looked at him. “Matt—the gyros…”

  “It’s all right, Lieutenant. Just take it easy.”

  Oscar was standing over him. “How is he Matt?”

  “Coming out of it, it looks like.”

  “Maybe the immersion did him good.”

  “It didn’t do me any good,” asserted Tex. “I swallowed about a gallon of water on that last one. Those little frogs are careless.”

  “They’re more like seals,” said Matt.

  “They’re neither one,” Oscar cut in sharply. “They’re people. Now,” he went on, “to try to set up some friendly relations.” He turned around, looking for the leader of the group.

  The crowd separated, leaving an aisle to the pool. An amphibian, walking alone, but followed by three others, came slowly down this aisle toward them. Oscar faced her. “Greetings, most worthy mother of many.”

  She looked him slowly up and down, then spoke, but not to him. “As I thought. Take them away.”

  Oscar started to protest, but it did him no good. Four of the little people closed in around him. Tex yelled at him. “How about it, Oz? Let ’em have it?”

  “No!” Oscar called back. “Don’t resist.”

  Three minutes later they were herded into a small room that was almost completely dark, the gloom being broken only by a single sphere of the orange light. After depositing Thurlow on the floor the little people went away, closing the door after them by drawing across it a curtain. Tex looked around him, trying to adjust his eyes to the dim light, and said, “About as cozy as a grave. Oz, you should have let us put up a scrap. I’ll bet we could have licked the whole caboodle of ’em.”

  “Don’t be silly, Tex. Suppose we had managed it—a possibility which I doubt, but suppose we had; how would you like to try to swim your way out of here?”

  “I wouldn’t try it. We’d dig a tunnel up to the surface—we’ve got two knives.”

  “Maybe you would; I wouldn’t attempt it. The Little People generally built their cities underneath lakes.”

  “I hadn’t thought of that angle—say, that’s bad.” Tex studied the ceiling as if wondering when it would give way. “Look, Oz, I don’t think we’re under the lake, or the walls of this dungeon would be damp.”

  “Huh uh, they’re good at this sort of thing.”

  “Well—okay, so they’ve got us. I’m not beefing, Oz—your intentions were good—but it sure looks like we should ’a’ taken our chances in the jungle.”

  “For Pete’s sake, Tex—haven’t I got enough to worry about without you second-guessing me? If you’re not beefing, then stop beefing.”

  There was a short silence, then Tex said, “Excuse me, Oscar. My big mouth.”

  “Sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. My arm hurts.”

  “Oh. How’s it doing? Didn’t I set it right?”

  “I think you did a good job on it, but it aches. And it’s beginning to itch, under the wrappings—makes me edgy. What are you doing, Matt?”

  After checking on Thurlow’s condition—unchanged—Matt had gone to the door and was investigating the closure. The curtain he found to be a thick, firm fabric of some sort, fastened around the edges. He was trying his knife on it when Oscar spoke to him.

  “Nothing,” he answered. “This stuff won’t cut.”

  “Then quit trying to and relax. We don’t want to get out of here—not yet,

  “‘Speak for yourself, John.’ Why don’t we?”

  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Tex. I won’t say this is a pleasure resort but we are about eight hundred per cent better off than we were a couple of hours ago, in every way.”


  “Have you got any idea of what it means to spend a night in the jungle here, with nothing at all to shut it out? When it gets dark and the slime worms come up and start nibbling at your toes? Maybe we could live through a night of it, or even two nights, by being active and very, very lucky—but how about him?” Oscar gestured at Thurlow’s still form. “That’s why I made it our first business to find natives. We’re safe, even if we are locked up.”

  Matt shivered. The slime worms have no teeth; instead they excrete an acid that dissolves what they wish to sample. They average about seven feet long. “You’ve sold me.”

  Tex said, “I wish my Uncle Bodie was here.”

  “So do I—he’d keep you shut up. I’m not anxious to get out of here until we’ve had something to eat and some sleep. Then maybe the boss will be back on his feet and will know what to do next.”

  “What makes you think they’ll feed us?”

  “I don’t know that they will, but I think they will. If they are anything like the same breed of cat as the natives around the polar colonies, they’ll feed us. To keep another creature shut up without feeding it is a degree of orneriness they just wouldn’t think of.” Oscar groped for words. “You have to know them to understand what I mean, but the Little People don’t have the cussedness in them that humans have.”

  Matt nodded. “I know that they are described as being a gentle, unwarlike race. I can’t imagine becoming really fond of them, but the spools I studied showed them as friendly.”

  “That’s just race prejudice. A Venerian is easier to like than a man.”

  “Oz, that’s not fair,” Tex protested. “Matt hasn’t got any race prejudice and neither have I. Take Lieutenant Peters—did it make any difference to us that he’s as black as the ace of spades?”

  “That’s not the same thing—a Venerian is really different. I guess you have to be brought up with them, like I have, to take them for granted. But everything about them is different—for instance, like the fact that you never lay eyes on anything but females.”

  “Say, how about that, Oz? Are there really male Venerians, or is it just a superstition?”

  “Sure there are—the Little People are unquestionably bisexual. But I doubt if we’ll ever get a picture of one or a chance to examine one. The guys who claim to have seen one are mostly liars,” he added, “because their stories never add up.”

  “Why do you suppose they are so touchy about it?”

  “Why won’t a Hindu eat beef? There doesn’t have to be any reason for it. I go for the standard theory; the males are little and helpless and have to be protected.”

  “I’m glad I’m not a Venerian,” Matt commented.

  “Might not be such a bad life,” Tex asserted. “Me—I could use a little coddling right now.”

  “Don’t go taking me for an authority on Venerians,” warned Oscar. “I was born here, but I wasn’t born here.” He patted the floor. “I know the polar region natives, the sort around my own home town—and that’s just about the only sort anybody knows.”

  “You think that makes such a difference?” Matt wanted to know.

  “I think we’re lucky to be able to talk with them at all—even if the accent does drive me wild. As for other differences—look, if the only humans you had ever met were Eskimos, how far would that get you in dealing with the mayor of a Mexican town? The local customs would all be different.”

  “Then maybe they won’t feed us, after all,” Tex said mournfully.

  But they were fed, and shortly. The curtain was thrust back, something was deposited on the floor, and the door was closed again.

  There was a platter of some lumpish substance, color and texture indeterminate in the dim light, and an object about the size and shape of an ostrich egg. Oscar took the platter and sniffed at it, then took a small piece and tasted it. “It’s all right,” he announced. “Go ahead and eat.”

  “What is it?” inquired Tex.

  “It’s…well, never mind. Eat it. It won’t hurt you and it will keep you alive.”

  “But what is it? I want to know what I’m eating.”

  “Permit me to point out that you eat this or go hungry. I don’t care which. If I told you, your local prejudices would get in your way. Just pretend it’s garbage and learn to love it.”

  “Aw, quit horsing around, Oz.”

  But Oscar refused to be drawn into any further discussion. He ate rapidly until he had finished his share, glanced at Thurlow and said reluctantly, “I suppose we ought to leave some for him.”

  Matt tried the stuff. “What’s it like?” asked Tex.

  “Not bad. Reminds me of mashed soybeans. Salty—it makes me thirsty.”

  “Help yourself,” suggested Oscar.

  “Huh? Where? How?”

  “The drinking bladder, of course.” Oscar handed him the “ostrich egg.” It was soft to Matt’s touch, despite its appearance. He held it, looking puzzled.

  “Don’t know how to use it? Here—” Oscar took it, looked at the ends, and selected one, which he placed to his lips.

  “There!” he said, wiping his lips. “Try it. Don’t squeeze too hard, or you’ll get it all over you.” Matt tried it and got a drink of water. It was a bit like using a nursing bottle.

  “It’s a sort of a fish’s gizzard,” explained Oscar, “and spongy inside. Oh, don’t look squeamish, Tex! It’s sterile.”

  Tex tried it gingerly, then gave in and tackled the food. After a while they all sat back, feeling considerably better. “Not bad,” admitted Tex, “but do you know what I’d like? A stack of steaming hotcakes, tender and golden brown—”

  “Oh, shut up!” said Matt.

  “—with melted butter and just swimming in maple syrup. Okay, I’ll shut up.” He unzipped his pouch and took out his harmonica. “Well, what d’yuh know! Still dry.” He tried a couple of notes, then broke into a brilliant execution of The Cross-Eyed Pilot.

  “Hey, stop that,” said Oscar. “This is a sort of a sick room, you know.”

  Tex turned a troubled glance, at the patient. “You think he can hear it?”

  Thurlow turned and muttered in his sleep. Matt bent over him. “J’ai soif,” the lieutenant mumbled, then repeated distinctly, “J’ai soif.”

  “What did he say?”

  “1 don’t know.”

  “It sounded like French to me. Either of you guys savvy French?”

  “Not me.”

  “Nor me,” Matt concurred. “Why would he talk French? I always thought he was North American; he spoke Basic like one.”

  “Maybe he was French-Canadian.” Tex knelt beside him and felt his forehead. “He seems sort of feverish. Maybe; we should give him some water.”

  “Okay.” Oscar took the bladder and put it to Thurlow’s lips; he squeezed gently so that a little welled out. The injured man worked his lips and then began to suck on it, without appearing to wake up. Presently he let it fall from his mouth. “There,” said Oscar, “maybe he’ll feel better now;

  “Are we going to save that for him?” asked Tex, eyeing the remainder of the food.

  “Go ahead and eat it, if you want it. It turns a few hours after it’s…well, it turns rancid.”

  “I don’t believe I want any more,” Tex decided.

  They had been sleeping an undetermined length of time when a noise awakened them—a voice, unquestionably human. “Hey!” it demanded, “where art thou taking me? I insist that thou take me to see thy mother!”

  The noise was right at their door. “Quell thy tongue!” answered a native accent; the curtain was shoved aside and someone was pushed into the room before the door was again closed.

  “Hello there!” called out Osca

  The figure spun around. “Men…” he said, as if he could not believe it. “Men!” He began to sob.

  “Hello, Stinky,” said Tex. “What are you doing here?”

  It was Girard Burke.

  There was considerable confusion for the next several moments. Burke alternated between tears and uncontrollable shaking. Matt, who had awakened last, had trouble sorting out what was going on from the fantasy he had been dreaming, and everybody talked at once, all asking questions and none of them answering.

  “Quiet!” commanded Oscar. “Let’s get this straight. Burke, as I understand it, you were in the Gary?”

  “I’m skipper of the Gary.”

  “Huh? Well, I’ll be switched. Come to think of it, we knew the captain of the Gary was named Burke, but it never occurred to anybody that it could be Stinky Burke. Who would be crazy enough to trust you with a crate, Stinky?”

  “It’s my own ship—or, anyhow, my father’s. And I’ll thank you to call me Captain Burke, not ‘Stinky.’”

  “Okay, Captain Stinky.”

  “But how did he get here?” Matt wanted to know, still trying to catch up.

  “He’s just explained that,” said Tex. “He’s the guy that yelled for help. But what beats me is that it should happen to be us—it’s like dealing out a bridge hand and getting thirteen spades.”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” objected Oscar. “It’s a coincidence, but not a very startling one. He’s a spaceman, he hollers for help, and naturally the Patrol responds. It happened to be us. It’s about as likely, or as unlikely, as running across your piano teacher on the downtown streets of your home town.”

  “I don’t have a piano teacher,” objected Tex.

  “Skip it. Neither do I. Now I think—”

  “Wait a minute,” broke in Burke, “do I gather that you were sent here, in answer to my message?”


  “Well, thank heaven for that—even if you guys were stupid enough to stumble right into it. Now tell me—how many are there in the expedition and how are they equipped? This is going to be a tough nut to crack.”

  “Huh? What are you talking about, Stinky? This is the expedition, right in front of you.”

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