Children of the Fleet
Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card

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Children of the Fleet


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Children of the Fleet

Copyright © 2017 by Orson Scott Card


Only after Graff issued his challenges did Dabeet realize that perhaps mercy was an attribute of a good leader. Suppose I’m on an expedition and one of my team has a moment of mental weakness, making a dangerous mistake. Suppose it costs the life of another team member. It would be simple justice to kill the offender—that way he could never endanger anyone else by his careless errors.

On the other hand, it was quite likely that all the team members were chosen because of the contribution they would make to mutual survival and the success of the mission. How would it benefit those goals to add a second corpse to the first? Or even to inflict some kind of punishment on the offender? He would, as a leader, have to take that person’s weakness into account. But he would still need to show enough mercy to allow the weakling to continue doing whatever had made him valuable enough to be on the expedition in the first place.


Maybe I should have taken martial arts and self-defense classes seriously instead of regarding them as a waste of time.

No. If somebody wants to pound on me a little, to make sure I know my place, my best tactic is to give a couple of punches at first and then curl up in a ball and call out my surrender. Accept whatever place I’m assigned by the other kids, and then work to improve it over time. To live among baboons, you have to accept the baboon rituals and pretend to believe in the baboon reliigojn, whatever it is.

And then try not to think of your peers as baboons, because if this is going to work out at all, you have to be able to lead them, rely on the ones who have useful abilities, and keep everybody happy.


The vanity of high officers is a career-eating tiger, always needing to be fed on the blood of lesser ranks, but prone to purring when properly petted.

– You’re a poet of bureaucratic maneuver, sir.




A casual visit, suited up, should do no harm, but even a brief colonial experiment of, say, five years, may provide opportunistic Terran species a chance to become invasive and outcompete the local life.

However, the problem may be self-curing. If herbivores get loose that can only eat gaiagenic vegetation, then they can only live where that vegetation continues to thrive. Therefore the local flora will be safe on any isolated continents. If carnivores get loose, they can only live on gaiagenic herbivores and each other. It can be assumed that any problems we cause will be localized or self-curing.

The only exception I foresee is the statistically most-invasive mammal species, the hyperpredator and hypercarnivore we call “housecat.” Felis catus quickly returns to a wild foraging habit when cut off from human subsidies—if indeed it ever left that state.

Housecats have invaded every ecosystem that humans have entered, brought with us because of our fantasy that they love us and the reality that we love them. Having no loyalty except to food, housecats will inevitably stray into the wild.

They will always pose a danger to every small animal, bird, or fish that we try to establish, and it is also not far-fetched to imagine that if any creature can acquire the ability to make some use of the proteins found in alien life-forms, it will be the housecat, which kills without hunger, so that it would keep experimenting with every available ambulatory life-form until it found those whose proteins it could digest.



“The enemy that beats you is always the one who does something you didn’t train for.”
[...] I have this stupid reputation to live up to, and what if I can’t? Passing tests designed by professional educators doesn’t show whether I can actually think.”

The human brain was such a design nightmare, cobbled together from repurposed parts. What use was it to have his most productive thinking take place at a level where his conscious mind was unaware of it and incapable of retrieving it? Why couldn’t it all happen where he could see it?

“I fed him a cock-and-bull story but I think he’s better at pretending to believe me than I am at lying to him.”

“You really stink at lying,” said Monkey. “It takes a lot of human interaction to work up decent lying skills.”

“I hope you teach classes in that someday soon, because that’s a survival skill I really need.”

“Oh, you’re already doing the most important thing, which is, Don’t talk. Don’t tell anybody you have a secret. Don’t tell lies, don’t tell anything at all.”



“They didn’t strike me as suicide-bomber types,” said Dabeet.

“What type is that?”

“True believers in a cause they’re willing to die for.”

“The guys you met are the kind who are true believers in a cause they expect other people to die for.”


“I can’t help where I was born.”

“I know that, and I don’t criticize you for it,” said Monkey. “Though if you were a friend, I could tease you about it.”

“If you were a friend, you wouldn’t want to.”

“If you had ever had a friend, you’d know how idiotic that statement is. The way you know you have a friend is, they spill a little wind from your sails, when you’re running before the wind. And then tighten your lashings when you’ve been a little storm-whipped.”



“Think what it means to take a test in a class. They say they’re giving us problems that we’re supposed to solve. But that’s never true, is it? Because they give us problems to which the solutions are already known. That’s why they’re able to give us grades. So all you do in classroom tests is solve problems that have already been solved.”

“This isn’t a problem to which a solution is already known. But you have to be ready to adapt to whatever happens. And here’s what doesn’t work: trying to solve it by yourself. On classroom tests, if you don’t solve it alone, it’s called cheating and they kick you out of school. But in space, if you try to solve things alone, you endanger everybody because we’re all in it together, and no one person can think of everything.”

“I get it, I get it,” whispered Dabeet. “I’m the most stupid useless person here because I don’t have any useful skill.”

“It’s not about you,” said Monkey. “It’s not about whether you’re the most of this or the least of that. It’s about the whole community that lives in this fragile habitat. I’m sounding like my own father now, but it’s the lesson we all learned by the time we were four. We never, never, never do anything without telling somebody else what we’re doing, and where, and why, and for how long, because our lives all depend on knowing everything about everybody else.”

14 Likeliest reason for the lax security was the normal one: laziness. Close runner-up: incompetence. Third place: stupidity. These were always the likeliest explanations for procedural lapses. Constant vigilance might be essential to keep a system safe, but constant vigilance was also unbearably tedious, and it was easy to talk yourself into reasons why it wasn’t all that important.

– Mind-reading is essential to human life, but we’re all so bad at it.

– I knew you would say that.

“I think you’ve just discovered a new mental discipline. Self-contradiction as a spur to creative thinking. You think up something, then you assume it’s an idiotic idea and figure out why it’s dumb, then you think of ways to make it less dumb, and then think of why those things are idiotic—”

“And meanwhile I also assume that the assumption of idioticness is also idiotic and poke holes in that—”

And in the end, you never reach any useful conclusion or plan of action.”

“Once they hear of this new mental discipline,” said Dabeet, “geniuses everywhere are bound to adopt it as their primary means of analysis.”

“Until it occurs to them that such a mental discipline is also idiotic.”

“Leading to exactly the same result that most commanders get to in war with far less effort,” said Dabeet, “which is why the real geniuses beat them.”

“Why?” asked Monkey. “What result is that?”

“When you focus on trying to figure out the enemy’s plan before he’s shown it to you by taking action, you’re basically playing mental chess against yourself and doing nothing. What if the enemy is so much smarter than you that all your guesses are ridiculously wrong? Or what if the enemy is so stupid that you give them way too much credit?”

“It’s stupid to assume your enemy is stupid,” said Monkey.

“True,” said Dabeet, “but it’s even stupider to try to wage war by out-guessing the enemy.”

“Well, you have to try.”

“What you mean is, you can’t help but try,” said Dabeet, “but it’s such a waste of time that you can’t regard anything you think of as a ‘plan.’ ”

“So we just sit here trying not think,” said Monkey.

“Not at all. We spend our time planning what we will do to them.”




Do I have honor?

I do if I want it. All I have to do is keep my word.

No. I have to mean my promises when I make them. When I say I’ll do something, I mean to do it, and then I do it. That’s honor. Not to give your word unless you can keep it, unless you intend to keep it. To be the kind of person who, when they say they’ll do a thing, the other people can go about their business because that job is as good as done.




– We can’t count on our gene pool squeezing out military geniuses whenever we need them. Good commanders are hard to find, but even the best commanders can’t win lopsided wars of attrition, and a species confined to one planet is a single roach waiting to be stepped on.

– Not a roach. Roaches can scurry.

– So we’re a fly caught in a web of our own weaving.

– Better.

– You took botany.

– The best preparation for a soldier. So that when the war is over, I can return, like Cincinnatus, to the farm, and make war against dandelion, thistle, nettle, and vetch.

– That’s what our geniuses are born for. Not to fight off aliens, not to prevent astronomical or ecological catastrophes, but to stop our own home-grown monsters from eating us alive from the inside out.



“You’re going to be a lousy bureaucrat,” said Zhang. “You don’t even know how to modestly take all the credit.”


“You gave me advice,” said Dabeet. “ ‘Knowledge you have no use for is rarely worth having. The secret is not to avoid learning useless knowledge. It’s to make use of whatever knowledge you have.’ ”

“Have you followed my advice?” asked Graff.

“It was bad advice,” said Dabeet. “What I have lived by is this: Whatever I need to know, and don’t, I must learn. And if learning it fights against my natural inclinations, then it’s all the more important that I learn it anyway.”




text checked (see note) Feb 2023

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