Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  The entire audience stirred. Matt wondered if Oscar had overplayed his hand. The expression of the leader changed but Matt had no way of reading it. “My city and my daughters live ever by custom—” She used a more inclusive term, embracing tabus and other required acts, as well as the law of assistance, “—and I have never before heard it suggested that we fail in performance.”

  “I hear thee, gracious mother of many, but thy words confuse me. We come, my ‘sisters’ and I, seeking shelter and help for ourselves and our ‘mother’ who is gravely ill. I myself am injured and am unable to protect my younger ‘sisters.’ What have we received in thy house? Thou hast deprived us of our freedom; our ‘mother’ lies unattended and failing. Indeed we have not even been granted the common decency of personal rooms in which to eat.”

  A noise rose from the spectators which Matt correctly interpreted as the equivalent of a shocked gasp. Oscar had deliberately used the offensive word “eat,” instead of talking around it. Matt was sure now that Oscar had lost his judgment.

  If so, Oscar went on to confirm it. “Are we fish, that such should be done to us? Or are the customs such among thy daughters?”

  “We follow the customs,” she said shortly, and even Matt and Tex could interpret the anger in her voice. “It was my understanding that thy breed had no decencies. It will be corrected.” She spoke sharply in an aside to one of her staff; the little creature trotted away. “As to thy freedom, what I had done was lawful for it was to protect my daughters.”

  “To protect thy daughters? From what? From my ailing ‘mother’? Or from my injured arm?”

  “Thy sister who knows no customs has forfeited thy freedom.”

  “I hear thy words, wise mother, but I understand them not.”

  The amphibian seemed nonplused. She inquired specifically about Burke, naming him by his terrestrial tag, calling it “Captain-Burke,” as one word. Oscar assured her that Burke was no “daughter” of Oscar’s “mother,” nor of Oscar’s “mother’s mother.”

  The matriarch considered this. “If we return you to the upper waters will you leave us?”

  “What of my ‘mother’?” asked Oscar. “Wouldst thou, cast ‘her’ forth thus ailing, to die and to be destroyed by the creatures of the slime?” On this occasion he carefully avoided the Venerian expression for “to be eaten.”

  The mother-of-many had Thurlow carried up to the dais on which she sat. Several of the little folk gathered around him and examined him, speaking to each other in high, lisping whispers. Presently the matriarch herself joined the consultation, then spoke again. “Thy mother sleeps.”

  “It is a sickly sleep. ‘Her’ head was injured by a blow.” Oscar joined the group and showed them the lump on the back of Thurlow’s head. They compared it with Oscar’s own head, running gentle, inquisitive little hands through his blond hair. There was more lisping chatter; Matt found himself unable to follow even what he could hear; most of the words were strange.

  “My learned sisters tell me that they dare not take thy mother’s head apart for fear that they could not get it back together,” announced the mother-of-many.

  “Well, that’s a relief!” Tex said out of the corner of his mouth.

  “Old Oz wouldn’t let them anyhow,” Matt whispered.

  The leader gave instructions and four of her “daughters” picked up the unconscious officer and started carrying him out of the room. Tex called out, “Hey, Oz—do you think that’s safe?”

  “It’s all right,” Oscar called back, then explained to the matriarch, “My ‘sister’ feared for the safety of our ‘mother.’”

  The creature made a gesture that reminded Matt suddenly of his great-aunt Dora—she positively sniffed. “Tell her that her nose need not twitch!”

  “She says not to get in an uproar, Tex.”

  “I heard her. Okay, you’re the boss,” Tex answered, and then muttered, “My nose, indeed!”

  When Thurlow had been removed the leader turned toward them again. “May thy dreams be of daughters.”

  “May thy dreams be as pleasant, gracious mother.”

  “We will speak again.” She gathered herself up to a lordly four feet and left the chamber. When she was gone the group of escorts conducted the cadets out of the council hall but by a different passageway than that from which they had come. The group stopped presently at another doorway. The guide in charge wished them farewell with the same formula as the matriarch. A curtain was drawn but it was not fastened, a point that Matt immediately checked. He turned to Oscar.

  “I’ve got to hand it to you, Oz. Anytime you get tired of the Patrol and don’t want to run for prime minister of the System, I can book you for a swell job, selling snow to Eskimos. For you it would be a cinch.”

  “Matt’s not just fanning the air,” agreed Tex. “Oscar, you were wonderful. Uncle Bodie couldn’t have handled the old gal any slicker.”

  “That’s high praise, Tex. I’ll admit to being relieved. If the Little People weren’t so downright decent it wouldn’t have worked.”

  The living room of their apartment—there were two rooms—was about the size of the room they had been in, but was more comfortable. There was a softly padded, wide couch running around the wall. In the center of the room was a pool of water, black under the dim light. “Oz, do you suppose that bathtub connects with the outside?” Tex wanted to know.

  “They almost always do.”

  Matt became interested. “Maybe we could swim out.”

  “Go ahead and try it. Don’t get lost in the dark and remember not to swim under water more than half the distance you can hold your breath.” Oscar smiled cynically.

  “I see your point.”

  “Anyhow, we want to stay until we’ve gotten over the last hurdle.”

  Tex wandered on into the second room. “Hey, Oz—come look at this.”

  Matt and Oscar joined him. There were rows of little closets down each side, ten in all, each with its own curtain. “Oh, yes, our eating booths.”

  “That reminds me,” said Matt. “I thought you had wrecked everything, Oz, when you started talking about eating. But you pulled out of it beautifully.”

  “I didn’t pull out of it; I did it on purpose.”


  “It was a squeeze play. I had to shock them with the idea that they were indecent, or looked that way to us. It established us as ‘people,’ from their point of view. After that it was easy.” Oscar went on. “Now that we are accepted as people, we’ve got to be awfully careful not to undo it. I don’t like to eat in one of these dark little cubbyholes any better than you do, but we don’t dare take a chance of being seen eating—you don’t dare even fail to draw the curtain, as one of them might come popping in. Remember, eating is the only sort of privacy they observe.”

  “I get you,” agreed Tex. “Pie with a fork.”


  “Never mind—it’s a painful memory. But Matt and I won’t slip.”

  Oscar was summoned again the next day into the presence of the city’s chief magistrate and started laying the foundation, in a leisurely, indirect fashion, for formal diplomatic relations in the future. He began by getting her story of the trouble with the Gary and its skipper. It was much as Burke had admitted it to be, although from a different viewpoint.

  Oscar had inquired casually as to why the swamp Burke wanted was tabu. He was worried that he might be invading religious matters but he felt that he needed to know—it was a dead certainty that others would be along, in due course, to attempt to exploit the trans-uranic ores; if the Patrol was to prevent further breaches of the peace the matter must be investigated.

  The matriarch answered without hesitation; the swamp was tabu because the ore muds were poisonous.

  Oscar felt the relief of a man who has just been told that it will not be necessary to lose a leg, after all. The ores were understandably poisonous; it was a matter that the Patrol could undoubtedly negotiate—conditional or practical tab
us had been overcome many times with natives. He tabled the matter, as something to be taken up at a later time by the appropriate experts.

  In a later interview he sounded her out on the subject of the Patrol. She had heard of it, in a fashion, apparently—she used the native word given by the polar-region natives to all colonial government, a word meaning “guardians of the customs” or “keepers of the law.”

  The native meaning was quite useful to Oscar, for he found it impossible to get over to her the idea that the Patrol was intended to prevent war—“war” was a concept she had never heard of!

  But her conservative mind was naturally prejudiced in favor of any organization tagged as “guardians of the customs.” Oscar approached it from that viewpoint. He explained to her that more of his own kind would be arriving; therefore the “great mother of many” of his own people had sent them as messengers to propose that a “mother” from Oscar’s people be sent to aid her in avoiding friction.

  She was receptive to the idea as it fitted her own experience and concepts. The groups of natives near the polar colonies were in the habit of handling their foreign affairs by exchanging “mothers”—actually judges—who ruled on matters arising out of differences in custom; Oscar had presented the matter in the same terms.

  He had thus laid the groundwork for a consulate, extraterritorial courts, and an Earthman police force; the mission, as he saw it, was complete—provided he could get back to base and report before other prospectors, mining engineers, and boomers of all sorts started showing up.

  Only then had he spoken to her of getting back—to have her suggest that he remain permanently as “mother” for his people. (The root word translated as “mother” is used for every position of authority in the Venerian speech; the modifiers and the context give the word its current meaning.)

  The proposal left Oscar temporarily speechless. “I didn’t know what to say next,” he confessed later. “From her point of view she was honoring me. If I turned it down, it might offend her and crab the whole deal.”

  “Well, how did you talk your way out of it?” Tex wanted to know. “Or did you?”

  “I think so. I explained as diplomatically as possible that I was too young for the honor and that I was acting as ‘mother’ only because Thurlow was laid up and that, in any case, my ‘great mother of many’ had other work which I was obliged, by custom, to carry out.”

  “I guess that held her.”

  “I think she just filed it away as a point to negotiate. The Little People are great negotiators; you’ll have to come to New Auckland some time and listen to the proceedings of a mixed court.”

  “Keep to the point,” suggested Matt.

  “That is to the point—they don’t fight; they just argue until somebody gives in. Anyhow, I told her that we had to get Thurlow back where he could get surgical attention. She understood that all right and expressed regret for the steenth time that her own little girls couldn’t do the trick. But she had a suggestion for curing the boss.”

  “Yes?” demanded Matt. “What was it?” Matt had appointed himself Thurlow’s caretaker, working with the amphibian healers who now had him as a professional responsibility. He had taught them to take his pulse and to watch his respiration; now there was always one of the gentle creatures squatting on the end of Thurlow’s couch, watching him with grave eyes. They seemed genuinely distressed at not being able to help him; the lieutenant had remained in a semi-coma, coming out of it enough occasionally that it had been possible to feed him and give him water, but never saying anything that the cadets could understand. Matt found that the little nurses were quite unsqueamish about feeding a helpless person; they accepted offensive necessities with the same gallantry as a human nurse.

  But Thurlow, while he did not die, did not get any better.

  “The old girl’s suggestion was sort of radical, but logical. She suggested that her healers take Burke’s head apart first, to see how it was made. Then they could operate on the boss and fix him.”

  “What?” said Matt.

  Tex was having trouble controlling himself. He laughed so hard he strangled, then got hiccoughs and had to be pounded on the back. “Oh, boy!” he finally exploded, tears streaming down his cheeks. “This is wonderful. I can’t wait to see Stinky’s face. You haven’t told him, have you?”


  “Then let me. Dibs on the job.”

  “I don’t think we ought to tell him,” objected Oscar. “Why kick him when he’s down?”

  “Oh, don’t be so noble! It won’t hurt any to let him know that his social rating is ‘guinea pig.’”

  “She really hates him, doesn’t she?” Matt commented.

  “Why shouldn’t she?” Tex answered. “A dozen or more of her people dead—do you expect her to regard it as a schoolboy prank?”

  “You’ve both got her wrong,” Oscar objected. “She doesn’t hate him.”


  “Could you hate a dog? Or a cat—”

  “Sure could,” said Tex. “There was an old tomcat we had once—”

  “Pipe down and let me finish. Conceding your point, you can hate a cat only by placing it on your own social level. She doesn’t regard Burke as…well, as people at all, because he doesn’t follow the customs. We’re ‘people’ to her, because we do, even though we look like him. But Burke in her mind is just a dangerous animal, like a wolf or a shark, to be penned up or destroyed—but not hated or punished.

  “Anyhow,” he went on, “I told her it wouldn’t do, because we had an esoteric and unexplainable but unbreakable religious tabu that interfered—that blocked her off from pressing the point. But I told her we’d like to use Burke’s ship to get the lieutenant back. She gave it to me. We go out tomorrow to look at it.”

  “Well, for crying out loud—why didn’t you say so, instead of giving all this buildup?”

  They had made much the same underwater trip as on entering the city, to be followed by a longish swim and a short trip overland. The city mother herself honored them with her company.

  The Gary was everything Burke had claimed for her, modern, atomic-powered, expensively outfitted and beautiful, with sharp wings as graceful as a swallow’s.

  She was also a hopeless wreck.

  Her hull was intact except the ruined door, which appeared to have been subjected to great heat, or an incredible corrosive, or both. Matt wondered how it had been done and noted it as still another indication that the Venerians were not the frog-seal-beaver creatures his Earth-side prejudices had led him to think.

  The inside of the ship had looked fairly well, too, until they started checking over the controls. In searching the ship the amphibians, to whom even a common door latch was a puzzle, had simply burned their way through impediments—including the access hatch to the ship’s autopilot and gyro compartment. The circuits of the ship’s nervous system were a mass of fused and melted junk.

  Nevertheless they spent three hours convincing themselves that it would take the resources of a dockyard to make the ship fly again. They gave up reluctantly at last and started back, their spirits drooping.

  Oscar had at once taken up with the city mother the project of recovering the jeep. He had not mentioned it before as the Gary seemed the better bet. Language difficulties would have hampered him considerably—their hostesses had no word for “vehicle,” much less a word for “rocket ship”—but the Gary gave him something to point to wherewith to explain.

  When she understood what he was driving at she gave orders which caused the party to swim to the point where the cadets had first been picked up. The cadets made sure of the spot by locating the abandoned litter and from there Oscar had led them back to the sinkhole that was the grave of the jeep. There he acted out what had happened, showing her the scar in the bank where the jeep had balanced and pacing off on the bank the dimensions of the ship.

  The mother-of-many discussed the problem with her immediate staff while the cadets waited, ignored r
ather than excluded. Then she abruptly gave the order to leave; it was getting on in the late afternoon and even the Venerians do not voluntarily remain out in the jungle overnight.

  That had ended the matter for several days. Oscar’s attempts to find out what, if anything, was being done about the jeep were brushed off as one might snub a persistent brat. It left them with nothing to do. Tex played his harmonica until threatened with a ducking in the room’s center pool. Oscar sat around, nursing his arm and brooding. Matt spent much of his time watching over Thurlow and became well acquainted with the nurses who never left him, especially one bright-eyed cheerful little thing who called herself “Th’wing.”

  Th’wing changed his viewpoint about Venerians. At first he regarded her much as he might a good and faithful, and unusually intelligent dog. By degrees he began to think of her as a friend, an interesting companion—and as “people.” He had tried to tell her about himself and his own kind and his own world. She had listened with alert interest, but without ever taking her eyes off Thurlow.

  Matt was forced willy-nilly into the concepts of astronomy—and came up against a complete block. To Th’wing there was the world of water and swamp and occasional dry land; above that was the endless cloud. She knew the Sun, for her eyes, perceptive to infrared, could see it, even though Matt could not, but she thought of it as a disc, of light and warmth, not as a star.

  As for other stars, none of her people had ever seen them and the idea did not exist. The notion of another planet was not ridiculous; it was simply incomprehensible—Matt got nowhere.

  He told Oscar about it. “Well, what did you expect?” Oscar had wanted to know. “All the natives are like that. They’re polite but they think you are talking about your religion.”

  “The natives around the colonies, too?”

  “Same deal.”

  “But they’ve seen rocket ships, some of ’em, anyhow. Where do they think we come from? They must know we haven’t been here always.”

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