My Aunt Mattie, Matthewa H. Tombs, is President of the Daughters of Terra. I am her nephew, the one who didn’t turn out well. Christened Hapland Graves, after Earth President Hapland, a cousin by marriage, the fellows at school naturally called me Happy Graves.
“Haphazard Graves, it should be,” Aunt Mattie commented acidly the first time she heard it. It was her not very subtle way of reminding me of the way I lived my life and did things, or didn’t do them. She shuddered at anything disorderly, which of course included me, and it was her beholden duty to right anything which to her appeared wrong.
“There won’t be any evil to march on after you get through, Aunt Mattie,” I once said when I was a child. I like now to think that even at the age of six I must have mastered the straight face, but I’m afraid I was so awed by her that I was sincere.
“That will do, Hapland!” she said sternly. But I think she knew I meant it--then--and I think that was the day I became her favorite nephew. For some reason, never quite clear to me, she was my favorite aunt. I think she liked me most because I was the cross she had to bear. I liked her most, I’m sure, because it was such a comfortable ride.
A few billions spent around the house can make things quite comfortable.
She had need of her billions to carry out her hobbies, or, as she called it, her “life’s work.” Aunt Mattie always spoke in clichés because people could understand what you meant. One of these hobbies was her collection of flora of the universe. It was begun by her maternal grandfather, one of the wealthier Plots, and increased as the family fortunes were increased by her father, one of the more ruthless Tombs, but it was under Aunt Mattie’s supervision that it came, so to speak, into full flower.
“Love,” she would say, “means more to a flower than all the scientific knowledge in the world.” Apparently she felt that the small army of gardeners, each a graduate specialist in duplicating the right planetary conditions, hardly mattered.
The collection covered some two hundred acres in our grounds at the west side of the house. Small, perhaps, as some of the more vulgar displays by others go, but very, very choice.
The other hobby, which she combines with the first, is equally expensive. She and her club members, the Daughters of Terra (D.T.s for short), often find it necessary to take junkets on the family space yacht out to some distant planet--to straighten out reprehensible conditions which have come to her attention. I usually went along to take care of--symbolically, at least--the bags and (their) baggage.
My psychiatrist would say that expressing it in this way shows I have never outgrown my juvenile attitudes. He says I am simply a case of arrested development, mental, caused through too much over-shadowing by the rest of the family. He says that, like the rest of them, I have inherited the family compulsion to make the universe over to my own liking so I can pass it on to posterity with a clear conscience, and my negative attitude toward this is simply a defense mechanism because I haven’t had a chance to do it. He says I really hate my aunt’s flora collection because I see it as a rival for her affection. I tell him if I have any resentments toward it at all it is for the long hours spent in getting the latinized names of things drilled into me. I ask him why gardeners always insist on forcing long meaningless names upon non-gardeners who simply don’t care. He ignores that, and says that subconsciously I hate my Aunt Mattie because I secretly recognize that she is a challenge too great for me to overcome. I ask him why, if I subconsciously hate Aunt Mattie, why I would care about how much affection she gives to her flora collection. He says, ahah! We are making progress.
He says he can’t cure me--of what, I’m never clear--until I find the means to cut down and destroy my Aunt Mattie.
This is all patent nonsense because Aunt Mattie is the rock, the firm foundation in a universe of shifting values. Even her clichés are precious to me because they are unchanging. On her, I can depend.
He tells Aunt Mattie his diagnoses and conclusions, too. Unethical? Well now! Between a mere psychiatrist and my Aunt Mattie is there any doubt about who shall say what is ethical?
After one of their long conferences about me she calls me into her study, looks at me wordlessly, sadly, shakes her head, sighs--then squares her shoulders until the shelf of her broad, although maiden, bosom becomes huge enough to carry any burden, even the burden of my alleged hate. This she bears bravely, even gratefully. I might resent this needless pain the psychiatrist gives her, except that it really seems to make her happier in some obscure way.
Perhaps she has some kind of guilt complex, and I am her deserved punishment? Aunt Mattie with a guilt complex? Never! Aunt Mattie knows she is right, and goes ahead.
So all his nonsense is completely ridiculous. I love my Aunt Mattie. I adore my Aunt Mattie. I would never do anything to hurt my Aunt Mattie.
Or, well, I didn’t mean to hurt her, anyway. All I did was wink. I only meant...
We were met at the space port of Capella IV by the planet administrator, himself, one John J. McCabe.
It was no particular coincidence that I knew him. My school was progressive. It admitted not only the scions of the established families but those of the ambitious families as well. Its graduates, naturally, went into the significant careers. Johnny McCabe was one of the ambitious ones. We hadn’t been anything like bosom pals at school; but he’d been tolerant of me, and I’d admired him, and fitfully told myself I should be more like him. Perhaps this was the reason Aunt Mattie had insisted on this particular school, the hope that some of the ambition would rub off on me.
Capella IV wasn’t much of a post, not even for the early stages in a young man’s career, although, socially, it was perhaps the best beginning Johnny’s family could have expected. It was a small planet, entirely covered by salt. Even inside the port bubble with its duplication of Earth atmosphere, the salt lay like a permanent snow scene. Actually it was little more than a way station along the space route out in that direction, and Johnny’s problems were little more than the problems of a professional host at some obscure resort. But no doubt his dad spoke pridefully of “My son, a planet administrator,” and when I called on the family to tell them I’d visited their son, I wouldn’t be one to snitch.
There was doubt in my mind that even Johnny’s ambition could make the planet into anything more than it was already. It had nothing we wanted, or at least was worth the space freight it would cost to ship it. The natives had never given us any trouble, and, up until now, we hadn’t given them any. So Earth’s brand upon it was simply a small bubble enclosing a landing field, a hangar for checkup and repair of ships requiring an emergency landing, some barracks for the men and women of the port personnel, a small hotel to house stranded space passengers while repairs were made to their ship, or stray V.I.P.’s.
A small administration building flying Federated Earth flag, and a warehouse to contain supplies, which had to be shipped in, completed the installation. The planet furnished man nothing but water pumped from deep in the rock strata beneath the salt, and even that had to be treated to remove enough of the saline content to make it usable. At the time, I didn’t know what the natives, outside our bubble, lived on. The decision to come had been a sudden one, and I hadn’t had more than enough time to call the State Department to find out who the planet administrator might be.
I was first out of the yacht and down the landing steps to the salt covered ground. Aunt Mattie was still busy giving her ship captain his instructions, and possibly inspecting the crew’s teeth to see if they’d brushed them this morning. The two members of her special committee of the D.T.’s who’d come along, a Miss Point and a Mrs. Waddle, naturally would be standing at her sides, and a half pace to the rear, to be of assistance should she need them in dealing with males.
There was a certain stiff formality in the way McCabe, flanked by his own two selected subordinates, approached the ship--until I turned around at the foot of the steps and he recognized me.
“Hap!” he yelled, then. “Happy Graves, you old son of a gun!” He broke into a run, dignity forgotten, and when he got to me he grabbed both my shoulders in his powerful hands to shake me as if he were some sort of terrier--and I a rat. His joy seemed all out of proportion until I remembered he probably hadn’t seen anybody from school for a long time; and until I further remembered that he would have been alerted by the State Department to Aunt Mattie’s visit and would have been looking forward to it with dread and misgivings.
To realize he had a friend at court must really have overjoyed him.
“Johnny,” I said. “Long time.” It had been. Five-six years anyway. I held out my hand in the old school gesture. He let loose my shoulders and grabbed it in the traditional manner. We went through the ritual, which my psychiatrist would have called juvenile, and then he looked at me pointedly.
“You remember what it means,” he said, a little anxiously I thought, and looked significantly at my hand. “That we will always stand by each other, through thick and thin.” His eyes were pulled upward to the open door of the yacht.
“You can expect it to be both thick and thin,” I said drily. “If you know my Aunt Mattie.”
“She’s your aunt?” he asked, his eyes widening. “Matthewa H. Tombs is your aunt. I never knew. To think, all those years at school, and I never knew. Why, Hap, Happy, old boy, this is wonderful. Man, have I been worried!”
“Don’t stop on my account,” I said, maybe a little dolefully. “Somebody reported to the Daughters of Terra that you let the natives run around out here stark naked, and if Aunt Mattie says she’s going to put mother hubbards on them, then that’s exactly what she’s going to do. You can depend on that, old man.”
“Mother Hub...” he gasped. He looked at me strangely. “It’s a joke,” he said. “Somebody’s pulled a practical joke on the D.T.’s. Have you ever seen our natives? Pictures of them? Didn’t anybody check up on what they’re like before you came out here? It’s a joke. A practical joke on the D.T.’s. It has to be.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “But if they’re naked they won’t be for long, I can tell you that. Aunt Mattie...”
His eyes left my face and darted up to the door of the ship which was no longer a black oval. The unexplained bewilderment of his expression was not diminished as Aunt Mattie came through the door, out on the loading platform, and started down the steps. He grew a little white around the mouth, licked his lips, and forgot all his joy at meeting an old school mate. His two subordinates who had remained standing just out of earshot, as if recognizing a crisis now, stepped briskly up to his sides.
Aunt Mattie’s two committee women, as if to match phalanx with phalanx, came through the door and started down the steps behind her. I stepped to one side as the two forces met face to face on the crunching salt that covered the ground. It might look like a Christmas scene, but under Capella’s rays it was blazing hot, and I found myself in sympathy with the men’s open necked shirts and brief shorts. Still, they should have known better than to dress like that. Somebody in the State Department had goofed.
Aunt Mattie and her two committee women were dressed conservatively in something that might have resembled an English Colonel’s wife’s idea of the correct tweeds to wear on a cold, foggy night. If they were already sweltering beneath these coverings, as I was beginning to in my lighter suit, they were too ladylike to show it. Their acid glance at the men’s attire showed what they thought of the informality of dress in which they’d been received. But they were too ladylike to comment. After that first pointed look at bare knees, they had no need of it.
“This is the official attire prescribed for us by the State Department,” Johnny said, a little anxiously, I thought. It was hardly the formal speech of welcome he, as planet administrator, must have prepared.
“I have no doubt of it,” Aunt Mattie said, and her tone told them what she thought of the State Department under the present administration. “You would hardly have met ladies in such--ah--otherwise.” I could see that she was making a mental note to speak to the State Department about it.
“Make a note,” she said and turned to Miss Point. “I will speak to the State Department. How can one expect natives to ... if our own representatives don’t ... etc., etc.”
“May I show you to your quarters, ma’am?” Johnny asked humbly. “No doubt you will wish to freshen up, or...”
Miss Point blushed furiously.
“We are already quite fresh, young man,” Aunt Mattie said firmly.
I happened to know that Aunt Mattie didn’t like to browbeat people, not at all. It would all have been so much more pleasant, gracious, if they’d been brought up to know right from wrong. But what parents and schools had failed to do, she must correct as her duty. I thought it about time I tried to smooth things over. I stepped up into their focus.
“Aunt Mattie,” I said. “This is Johnny McCabe. We were at school together.”
Her eyebrows shot upward.
“You were?” she asked, and looked piercingly at Johnny. “Then, I realize, young man, that your attire is not your fault. You must have been acting under orders, and against your personal knowledge of what would be correct. I understand.” She turned again to Miss Point. “Underscore that note to the State Department,” she said. “Mark it emergency.” She turned back to Johnny. “Very well, Mr. McCabe, we would appreciate it, after all, if you would show us to our quarters so that we may--ah--freshen up a bit. It is rather a warm day, isn’t it?”
She was quite gracious now, reassured because Johnny was an old school mate of mine, and would therefore know right from wrong. If I sometimes didn’t seem to, she knew me well enough to know it had not been the fault of the school.
The three of us, Johnny on one side of Aunt Mattie and I on the other side, started toward the frame building on the other side of the bubble, which I assumed was the hotel. The four subordinates trailed along behind, silent, wary of one another.
Behind them the baggage truck, which had been piled high by the ship’s crew, hissed into life and started moving along on its tractor treads. Johnny caught a glimpse of it, without actually turning around, and his eyes opened wide. He misinterpreted, of course. From the mountain of baggage it looked like our intention to stay a long time.
But then he wouldn’t have been particularly reassured, either, had he realized that our own supplies were quite scant and these bags, boxes, and crates contained sewing machines and many, many bolts of gaily colored cloth.
I had hardly more than--ah--freshened up a bit myself in my hotel room, when I heard a discreet knock on my door. I opened it and saw Johnny McCabe.
“May I come in, Hap?” he asked. As if against his will, he glanced quickly down the hall toward the suite where aunt and her committee had been put.
“Sure, Johnny,” I said, and opened the door wide. I pointed to an aluminum tube torture rack, government issue’s idea of a chair. “You can have the chair,” I said. “I’ll sit on the edge of the bed.”
“I’m sorry about the furnishings,” he said apologetically as he sat down and I closed the door. “It’s the best government will issue us in this hole.”
“Aunt Mattie would be disappointed if it were better,” I said as I sat on the edge of the bed, which was little softer than the chair. “She expects to rough it, and finds special virtue in doing her duty as uncomfortably as possible.”
He looked sharply at me, but I had merely stated an accepted fact, not an opinion, and was therefore emotionless about it.
“I’m in trouble, Hap,” he said desperately. He leaned forward with his clasped hands held between his knees.
“Well, old man,” I answered. “You know me.”
“Yes,” he said. “But there isn’t anybody else I can turn to.”
“Then we understand each other,” I agreed. He looked both resentful and puzzled.
“No, I never did understand you,” he disagreed. “I suppose it’s all those billions that act as shock insulation for you. You never had to plan, and scheme, and stand alert indefinitely like a terrier at a rat hole waiting for opportunity to stick out its nose so you could pounce on it. So I don’t see how you can appreciate my problem now.”
“I might try,” I said humbly.
“This job,” he said. “It’s not much, and I know it. But it was a start. The department doesn’t expect anything from me but patience. It’s not so much ability, you know, just a matter of who can hang on the longest without getting into trouble. I’ve been hanging on, and keeping out of trouble.”
“But you’re in trouble now.”
“I will be when your aunt fails to put mother hubbards on the natives.”
“She won’t fail,” I said confidently.
“And when she storms into the State Department with fire in her eye and starts turning things upside down, it’ll be my fault--somehow,” he said miserably.
“So let her put some clothes on some natives,” I said. “She’ll go away happy and then, for all you care, they can take ‘em off and burn ‘em if they insist on going around naked. Just swing with the punch, man. Don’t stand up and let ‘em knock your block off. Surely you have some influence with the natives. I don’t hear any war drums, any tom-toms. I don’t see them trying to tear holes in the sides of your bubble to let the air out. You must be at peace with them. You must have some kind of mutual cooperation. So just get a tribe or so to go along with the idea for a while.”
He looked at me and shook his head sadly. Sort of the way Aunt Mattie shook her head after a conference with my psychiatrist. But Johnny didn’t seem somehow happier. He had a pretty good chest, but it didn’t look enormous enough to carry any burden.
“I’ve been pretty proud of myself,” he said. “After five years of daily attempts, and after using everything I ever learned in school courses on extraterrestrial psychology, plus some things I’ve made up myself, I established a kind of communication with the natives--if you could call it communication. I’d go out in my spacesuit into their chlorinated atmosphere, I’d stand in front of one of them and talk a blue streak, think a blue streak. After about five years of it, one of them slowly closed his eye and then opened it again. I invited one of them to come inside the bubble. I told him about the difference in atmosphere, that it might be dangerous. I got one of them to come in. It made no difference to him.”
“Well, fine, then,” I said. “Just get some of them to come in again, let Aunt Mattie put some clothes on them, and everybody’s happy.”
He stood up suddenly.
“Take a walk with me, Hap,” he said. It was more of a command than an invitation. “Over to the edge of the bubble. I want to show you some natives.”
I was willing.
On the way around to the back of the building, over the crunching salt, I had a thought.
“If all he did was close an eye,” I said. “How did you learn their language, so you could invite him inside, explain about the atmosphere?”
“I don’t even know they have a language,” he said. “Maybe he learned mine. I used to draw pictures in the salt, the way they taught us at school, and say words. Maybe it took him five years to put the thoughts together, maybe they don’t have any concept of language at all, or need it. Maybe he was thinking about something else all those five years, and just got around to noticing me. I don’t know, Hap.”
We came around the edge of an outbuilding then to an unobstructed view of the bubble edge. Even through dark glasses he’d cautioned me to wear with a gesture, as he put on another pair for himself, the scene through the clear plastic was blinding white. Scattered here and there on the glistening salt were blobs of black.
“Why,” I exclaimed. “Those are octopi. I suppose that’s what the natives use for food? I’ve wondered.”
“Those are the natives,” he answered, drily.
By now we were up to the plastic barrier of our bubble and stood looking out at the scene.
“Well,” I said after some long moments of staring. “It will be a challenge to the D.T.’s, won’t it?”
He looked at me with disgust.
“What do they eat?” I asked. “Salt?”
“I don’t know if they eat,” he said. “Can’t you get it through your thick skull, man, that these things are alien? Completely alien? How do I know?”
“Well you must know some things after five years of study. You must have observed them. They must get food somehow, they must sleep and wake, they must procreate. You must have observed something.”
“I’ve observed the process of procreation,” he answered cautiously.
“Well fine, then,” I said. “That’s what’s going to concern Aunt Mattie the most.”
“Here’s something that may help you understand them,” he said, and I felt a bit of the sardonic in his voice, a grimness. “When that one visited me inside here,” he said. “I took him into my office, so I could photograph him better with all the equipment. I was explaining everything, not knowing how much he understood. I happened to pick up a cigarette and a lighter. Soon as I flipped the lighter on, he shot up a tentacle and took it out of my hand. I let him keep it, of course. Next day, when I went outside, everyone of them, as far as I could see in the distance, had a lighter, exactly like the one I’d given him. Furthermore, in a chlorinated atmosphere, without oxygen, those lighters burned normally. Does that help you to understand them better?” he asked with no attempt to hide the heavy irony.
I didn’t have a chance to answer because we both heard a crunching in the salt behind us. We turned about and there was Aunt Mattie and her two committee women behind her also now in dark glasses. I waited until the ladies had come up to us, then I waved my arm grandly at the scene beyond the plastic.
“Behold the natives in all their nakedness, Aunt Mattie,” I said. Then, to soften the blow it must have been, “I’m afraid somebody was pulling your leg when they reported it to the D.T.’s.”
Miss Point gasped audibly.
Mrs. Waddle said, “Shocking!”
I couldn’t tell whether it was the sight of the natives, or my remark which indicated I knew they had legs to pull.
For the first time in my life I saw uncertainty in Aunt Mattie’s eyes as she looked, startled, at me, and then at Johnny. Then her chin squared, her back straightened still more, the shelf of her bosom firmed.
“It really won’t be too much of a problem, girls,” she said. “Actually simpler than some we’ve solved. Take a square of cloth, cut a hole in the center for that headlike pouch to come through where its eye is, put in a draw string to cinch it up tight, above those--ah--those protuberances, and let it flow out over those--ah--legs. Simple, and quite attractive, don’t you think?”
The girls nodded happily, and Johnny just stood there gasping for breath.
It was simpler than any of us had thought.
Johnny looked at me desperately when Aunt Mattie told him to have one of the natives come in so she could fit a pattern on it, to see if any gussets would be needed for fullness--whatever gussets might be.
“One of them came inside before,” I said in answer to Johnny’s pleading look. “Ask him again. If he refuses, Mohammed will go to the mountain. I’m sure you have extra space suits. I’m sure the ladies won’t mind going out to the natives if the natives won’t come to them.”
“I don’t know,” Johnny said miserably. “He may have had sufficient curiosity to come inside once, but not sufficient to bring him in again. You see, ladies,” he turned to them desperately. “They don’t seem to care about us, one way or the other.”