Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  His thoughts went back to the problem he had been considering. Certainly he had not decided to stick simply because his own leave had been fairly quiet; he had never thought of home as being a night club, or a fair ground.

  One night at dinner his father had asked him to describe just what it was that the Nobel did in circum-Terra patrol. He had tried to oblige. “After we lift from Moon Base we head for Terra on an elliptical orbit. As we approach the Earth we brake gradually and throw her into a tight circular orbit from pole to pole—”

  “Why pole to pole? Why not around the equator?”

  “Because, you see, the atom-bomb rockets are in pole-to-pole orbits. That’s the only way they can cover the whole globe. If they were circling around the equator—”

  “I understand that,” his father had interrupted, “but your purpose, as I understand it, is to inspect the bomb rockets. If you—your ship—circled around the equator, you could just wait for the bomb rockets to come past.”

  “You may understand it,” his mother had said to his father, “but I don’t.”

  Matt looked from one to the other, wondering which one to answer—and how. “One at a time…please,” he protested. “Dad, we can’t just intercept the bombs; we have to sneak up on them, match orbits until you are right alongside it and making exactly the same course and speed. Then you bring the bomb inside and ship and inspect it.”

  “And of what does that inspection consist?”

  “Just a sec, Dad. Mother, look here for a moment.” Matt took an orange from the table’s centerpiece. “The rocket bombs go round and round, like this, from pole-to-pole, every two hours. In the meantime the Earth is turning on its axis, once every twenty-four hours.” Matt turned the orange slowly in his left hand while moving a finger of his right hand rapidly around it from top to bottom to simulate a pole-to-pole bomb. “That means that if a bomb passes over Des Moines on this trip, it will just about pass over the Pacific Coast on its next trip. In twenty-four hours it covers the globe.”

  “Goodness! Matthew, I wish you wouldn’t talk about an atom bomb being over Des Moines, even in fun.”

  “In fun?” Matt had been puzzled. “As a matter of fact…let me think; we’re about forty-two north and ninety-four west—” He glanced at his watch finger and studied for a few moments. “Jay-three ought to be along in about seven minutes—yes, it will be almost exactly overhead by the time you finish your coffee.” Long weeks in the Nobel, plotting, calculating, and staring in radarscopes had gotten Matt so that he knew the orbits of circum-Terra prowler rockets a bit better than a farmer’s wife knows her own chickens; Jay-three was an individual to him, one with fixed habits.

  His mother was looking horrified. She spoke directly to her husband as if she expected him to do something about it. “John… I don’t like this. I don’t like it, do you hear me? What if it should fall?”

  “Nonsense, Catherine—it can’t fall.”

  Matt’s younger brother chortled. “Mom doesn’t even know what holds the Moon up!”

  Matt turned to his brother. “Who pushed your button squirt? Do you know what holds the Moon up?”


  “Not exactly. Suppose you give me a quick tell, with diagrams.”

  The boy tried; his effort was hardly successful. Matt shut him off. “You know somewhat less about astronomy than the ancient Egyptians. Don’t make fun of your elders. Now, look, Mother—don’t get upset. Jay-three can’t fall on us. It’s in a free orbit that does not intersect the Earth—like smarty-pants here says, it can’t fall down any more than the Moon can fall. Anyhow, if the Patrol was to bomb Des Moines tonight, at this time, it wouldn’t use Jay-three for the very reason that it is overhead. To bomb a city you start with a rocket heading for your target and a couple of thousand miles away, because you have to signal its robot to start the jet and seek the target. You have to slow it down and bend it down. So it wouldn’t be Jay-three; it would be—” He thought again. “—Eye-two, or maybe Ache-one.” He smiled wryly. “I got bawled out over Eye-two.”

  “Why?” demanded his brother.

  “Matt, I don’t think you have picked the right tack to quiet your mother’s fears,” his father said dryly. “I suggest we not talk about bombing cities.”

  “But I didn’t—Sorry, Father.”

  “Catherine, there really is nothing to get worked up over—you might just as well be afraid of the local policeman. Matt, you were going to tell me about inspection. Why do the rockets have to be inspected?”

  “I want to know why Mattie got bawled out!”

  Matt cocked an eyebrow at his brother. “I might as well start by telling him, Dad—it has to do with inspection. Okay, Bill—I made a poor dive when we started to pick it up and had to come back on my suit jet and try again.”

  “What do you mean, Matthew?”

  “He means—”

  “Pipe down, Billie. Dad, you send a man out in a suit to insert the trigger guard and attach a line to the rocket so you can bring her inboard of the ship and work on her. I was the man. I made a bad push-off and missed the rocket entirely. She was about a hundred yards away and I guess I misjudged the distance. I turned over and found I was floating on past her. I had to jet back and try again.”

  His mother still seemed confused, but did not like what she heard. “Matthew! That sounds dangerous to me.”

  “Safe as houses, Mother. You can’t fall, any more than the rocket can, or the ship. But it’s embarrassing. Anyhow, I finally got a line on her and rode her back into the ship.”

  “You mean you were riding an atom bomb?”

  “Shucks, Mother, it’s safe—the tamper around the fission material stops most of the radioactivity. Anyhow, the exposure is short.”

  “But suppose it went off?”

  “It can’t go off. To go off it has to either crash into the ground with a speed great enough to slap the subcritical masses together as fast as its trigger-gun could do it, or you have to fire the trigger-gun by radio. Besides that, I had inserted the trigger guard—that’s nothing more nor less than a little crowbar, but when it’s in place not even a miracle could set it off, because you can’t bring the subcritical masses together.”

  “Maybe we had better drop this subject, Matt. It seems to make your mother nervous.”

  “But, Dad, she asked me.”

  “I know. But you still haven’t told me what you inspect for.”

  “Well, in the first place, you inspect the bomb itself, but there’s never anything wrong with the bomb. Anyhow, I haven’t had the course for bomb-officer yet—he has to be a nucleonics engineer. You inspect the rocket motor, especially the fuel tanks. Sometimes you have to replace a little that has escaped through relief valves. But mostly you give her a ballistic check and check her control circuits.”

  “Ballistic check?”

  “Of course, theoretically you ought to be able to predict where a prowler bomb would be every instant for the next thousand years. But it doesn’t work out that way. Little things, the effect of the tidal bulges and the fact that the Earth is not a perfect uniform sphere and such, cause them to gradually wander a little away from the predicted orbits. After you find one and service it—they’re never very far from where they ought to be—you correct the orbit by putting the whole ship in just precisely the proper trajectory and then put the rocket outside the ship again. Then you go after the next one.”

  “Clear enough. And these corrections have to be made often enough that a ship is kept busy just inspecting them?”

  “Well, no, Dad, we inspect oftener than we really have to—but it keeps the ship and the crew busy. Keeps it from getting monotonous. Anyhow, frequent inspections keep you on the safe side.”

  “Sounds like a waste of taxpayers’ money to inspect too often.”

  “But you don’t understand—we’re not there to inspect; we’re there to patrol. The inspection ship is the ship that would deliver an attack in case anybody started acting u
p. We have to stay on patrol until the next ship relieves us, so we might as well inspect. Granted that you can bomb a city from Moon Base, you can do a better, more accurate job, with less chance of hitting the wrong people, from close by.”

  His mother was looking very upset. His father raised his eyebrows and said, “We’ve wandered back to the subject of bombing, Matt.”

  “I was simply answering your questions, sir.”

  “I’m afraid I asked the wrong question. Your mother is not able to take the answers impersonally. Catherine, there isn’t the slightest chance of the North American Union being bombed. Tell her that, Matt—I think she’ll believe you.”

  Matt had remained silent. His father had insisted, “Go ahead, Matt. Catherine, after all, it’s our Patrol. For all practical purposes the other nations don’t count. A majority of the Patrol officers are from North America, That’s true, Matt, isn’t it?”

  “I’ve never thought about it I guess so.”

  “Very well. Now, Catherine, you can’t imagine Matt bombing Des Moines, now can you? And that is what it amounts to. Tell, her, Matt.”

  “But—Dad, you don’t know what you are saying!”

  “What? What’s that, young man!”

  “I—” Matt had looked around him, then had gotten up very suddenly and left the room.

  His father came into his room some time later. “Matt?”

  “Yes, sir?”

  “Look, Matt, I let the conversation get out of hand tonight. I’m sorry and I don’t blame you for getting upset. Your mother, you know. I try to protect her. Women get worked up so easily.”

  “It’s all right, Dad. I’m sorry I walked out”

  “No matter. Let’s forget it. There’s just one thing I feel we ought to get straight on. I know that you feel loyal to the Patrol and its ideals and it’s good that you should, but—well, you are a little young still to see the political realities involved, but you must know that the Patrol could not bomb the North American Union.”

  “It would in a showdown!”

  “But there won’t be any show down. Even if there were, you couldn’t bomb your own people and neither could your shipmates.”

  Matt thought about it, fiercely. He remembered Commander Rivera—one of the Four, of the proud Tradition—how Rivera, sent down to reason with the official in his own capital, his very native city, had kept the trust. Suspecting that he might be held as hostage, he had left orders to go ahead with the attack unless he returned in person to cancel the orders. Rivera, whose body was decaying radioactive dust but whose name was mustered whenever a unit of the Patrol called the roll.

  His father was still talking. “Of course, the Patrol has to patrol this continent just as it patrols all through the System. It would look bad, otherwise this is no reason to frighten women with an impossibility.”

  “I’d rather not talk about it, Dad.”

  Matt glanced at his watch and figured how long it would be until the New Moon reached Terra Station. He wished he could sleep, like the others. He was sure now what it was that had changed his mind about resigning and remaining in Des Moines. It was not a desire to emulate Rivera. No, it was an accumulation of things—all of them adding up to just one idea, that little Mattie didn’t live there any more!

  For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.

  He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of the Hog Alley team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session; with Lieutenant Wong.

  “Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”

  “Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”

  “That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”

  “Well… I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”

  “I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.

  “All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”

  “I rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”

  “Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”

  Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”

  “Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”

  “I don’t know. You tell me.”

  “I don’t know where to start.”

  “Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”

  “Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”

  Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”

  Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”

  “You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”

  “Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”

  “Well…can you tell me about it?”

  Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a show down, I’m expected to bomb my own home town. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”

  “Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”

  “That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, then the whole system breaks down.”

  Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your home town in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called on to carry out the attack is equally slight—you might be away on Mars. Taking the two chances together you have something close to zero.

  “But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

  Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze and no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”

  Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.”

  Oscar, Matt, and Tex were gathered in their common room just before lunch when Pete bounced in. Literally so—he caromed off the door frame and zipped into the room, shouting, “Hey, fellows!”

  Oscar grabbed his arms as he rebounded from the
inner wall. “Cut your jet and ground—what’s the excitement?”

  Peter turned in the air and faced them. “The new ‘Passed’ list is posted!”

  “Who’s on it?”

  “Don’t know—just heard about it. Come on!”

  They streamed after him. Tex came abreast of Matt and said, “I don’t know why I should be getting in a sweat—I won’t be on it.”

  “Pessimist!” They turned out of Hog Alley, went inboard three decks, and forward. There was a clot of cadets gathered around the bulletin board outside the watch office. They crowded in.

  Pete spotted his own name at once. “Look!” The paragraph read: “Armand, Pierre—temporary duty P.R.S. Charles’ Wain, rpt. Terr.St, dtch. Leda, Gnymd, d.&a.o.”

  “Look!” he repeated. “I’m going home—‘delay and await orders.’”

  Oscar patted his shoulder. “Congratulations, Pete—that’s swell. Now if you will kindly get your carcass out of the way—”

  Matt spoke up. “I’m on it!”

  “What ship?” asked Tex.

  “The Aes Triplex.”

  Oscar turned at this. “What ship?”

  “Aes Triplex.”

  “Matt—that’s my ship. We’re shipmates, boy!”

  Tex turned disconsolately away. “Just as I said—no ‘Jarman.’ I’ll be here five years, ten years, fifteen years—old and grizzled. Promise to write on my birthday.”

  “Gee, Tex, I’m sorry!” Matt tried to swallow his own elation.

  “Tex, did you look on the other half of the list?” Pete wanted to know.

  “What other half? Huh?”

  Pete pointed. Tex dove back into the swarm; presently he reappeared. “What do you know? They passed me!”

  “Probably didn’t want to expose another class of youngsters to you. What ship?”

  “P.R.S. Oak Ridge. Say, you and Oscar got the same ship?”

  “Yep—the Aes Triplex.”

  “Rank discrimination, that’s what it is. Well, come on, we’ll be late to lunch.”

  They ran into Girard Burke in the passageway. Tex stopped him. “No use bothering to look, Stinky. Your name’s not on the list.”

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