Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  “Well, for heaven’s sake, why didn’t you say so, instead of banging your choppers?” Matt stopped what he was doing and hurriedly started climbing into his uniform. Because of the heat and the humidity in the “farm” Matt habitually worked there bare naked, both for comfort and to save his clothes.

  “Well, I did tell you, didn’t I?”

  The Captain was in his cabin. “Cadet Dodson, sir.”

  “So I see.” Yancey held up a sheet of paper. “Dodson, I’ve just written a letter to the Department, to be transmitted as soon as we are in radio contact, recommending that fresh flowers be grown in all ships, as a means of stimulating morale. You are credited therein as the originator of the idea.”

  “Er…thank you, sir.”

  “Not at all. Anything that relieves the tedium, the boredom, the barrenness of life in deep space is in the interest of the Patrol. We have enough people going space-happy as it is. Flowers are considered good for psychotics on Earth; perhaps they will help to keep spacemen from going wacky. Enough of that—I’ve a question to ask you.”

  “Yes, sir?”

  “I want to know why in the devil you were spending your time growing pansies when you are behind in your study schedule?”

  Matt did not have anything to say.

  “I’ve been looking over the reports Mr. Thurlow sends me and I find that both Mr. Jensen and Mr. Jarman are covering more ground than you are. In the past few weeks they have pulled ’way ahead of you. It’s a fine thing to have hobbies but your duty is to study.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “I’ve marked your performance unsatisfactory for this quarter; you have the next quarter in which to make up the deficiency. By the way, have you made up your mind about your next move?”

  Matt did a double take, then realized that the Captain had changed the subject to chess; he and Matt were fighting it out for first place in the ship’s tournament. “Uh, yes, sir—I’ve decided to take your pawn.”

  “I thought so.” Yancey reached behind him; Matt heard the pieces click into their sockets as the Captain made the move on his own board. “Wait till you see what’s going to happen to your queen!”

  The speeds of the asteroids, flying boulders, rocks, sand, and space drift that infest the area between Mars and Jupiter vary from about fifteen miles per second near Mars to about eight miles per second near Jupiter. The orbits of this flying junkyard are erratically inclined to the plane of the ecliptic an average of about nine degrees and some of the orbits are quite eccentric as well.

  All this means that a ship on a circular orbit, headed “east,” or with the traffic, may expect the possibility of side-swiping collisions at relative speeds averaging two miles per second, with crashes remotely possible at double that speed.

  Two miles per second is only about twice the muzzle velocity of a good sporting rifle. With respect to small stuff, sand and gravel, the Aes Triplex was built to take it. Before the ship reached the danger zone, an all-hands chore in space suits took place; armor-plate segments, as thick as the skin of the ship, were bolted over the ship’s quartz ports, leaving only the eyes of the astrogational instruments and the radar antennae exposed.

  To guard against larger stuff Captain Yancey set up a meteor-watch much tighter than is usual in most parts of space. Eight radars scanned all space through a global 360°. The only condition necessary for collision is that the other object hold a steady bearing—no fancy calculation is involved. The only action necessary then to avoid collision is to change your own speed, any direction, any amount. This is perhaps the only case where theory of piloting is simple.

  Commander Miller put the cadets and the sublieutenants on a continuous heel-and-toe watch, scanning the meteor-guard ’scopes. Even if the human being failed to note a steady bearing the radars would “see” it, for they were so rigged that, if a “blip” burned in at one spot on the screen, thereby showing a steady bearing, an alarm would sound—and the watch officer would cut in the jet, fast!

  However, even the asteroid belt is very empty space indeed; the chances were strongly against collision with anything larger than a grain of sand. The only difference in the Aes Triplex, aside from the increased work for the junior officers, was a ship’s order directing all hands to strap down when sleeping, instead of floating loosely and comfortably about, so that the sleeper would not break his neck in case of sudden acceleration.

  P.R.S. Aes Triplex was equipped with two jeeps, nestled in hangar pockets—quite ordinary short-range, chemically-powered rockets except that they were equipped with search radar as powerful as the ship’s. When they reached their search area a pilot and co-pilot were assigned to each jeep—and a second crew also, as each rocket was to remain away from the ship a week at a time, then swap crews and go out again.

  Lieutenants Brunn, Thurlow, and Novak, and Sublieutenant Peters were designated pilots. A cadet was assigned to each senior lieutenant and Sublieutenant Gomez was teamed with Sublieutenant Peters. Matt drew Lieutenant Thurlow.

  Dr. Pickering took over the mess. That left Sublieutenant Cleary as “George,” the man who does everything—an impossibility, since meteor-guard and search watches would have to be kept up. Consequently the two jeep crews not actually in space had to help out even during their week of rest.

  Each Monday the ship placed the jeep rockets on station so that the three vessels would sweep the largest possible volume of space, with their search fields barely overlapping. The placement was made by the mother ship, so that the jeep would be left with full tanks in the unhappy event that she was not picked up—and thereby have enough fuel to shape an orbit toward the inner planets, if need be.

  Matt took along a supply of study spools on his first week of search intending to play them on the jeep’s tiny, earphones-type viewer. He did not get much chance; four hours out of eight he had to keep his eyes glued to the search scopes. During the four hours off watch he had to sleep, eat, attend to chores, and study, if possible.

  Besides that, Lieutenant Thurlow liked to talk.

  The bomb officer was expecting Earth-side duty in post-graduate study at the end of the cruise. “And then I’ll have to make up my mind, Matt. Do I stay in and make physics a part-time specialty, or resign and go in for research?”

  “It depends on what you want to do.”

  “Trite but true. I think I want to be a scientist, full-time—but after a few years the Patrol becomes a father and a mother to you. I don’t know. That pile of rock is creeping up on us—I can see it through the port now.”

  “It is, eh?” Matt moved forward until he, too, could see the undersized boulder that Thurlow had been watching by radar. It was of irregular shape, a pattern of sunlight and sharp, dark shadow.

  “Mister Thurlow,” said Matt, “look—about the middle. Doesn’t that look like striation to you?”

  “Could be. Some specimens have been picked up that were definitely sedimentary rock. That was the first proof that the asteroids used to be a planet, you know.”

  “I thought that Goodman’s integrations were the first proof?”

  “Nope, you’re switched around. Goodman wasn’t able to run his checks until the big ballistic computer at Terra Station was built.”

  “I knew that—I just had it backwards, I guess.” The theory that the asteroids had once been a planet, between Mars and Jupiter, was denied for many years because their orbits showed no interrelation, i.e., if a planet had blown to bits the orbits should intersect at the point of the explosion. Professor Goodman, using the giant, strain-free computer, had shown that the lack of relationship was caused by the perturbations through the ages of the other planets acting on the asteroids.

  He had assigned a date to the disaster, nearly half a billion years ago, and had calculated as well that most of the ruined planet had escaped from the System entirely. The debris around them represented about one per cent of the lost planet.

  Lieutenant Thurlow measured the angular width of the fragment, noted its d
istance by radar, and recorded the result as gross size. The rock, large as it was, was too small to merit investigation of its orbit; it was simply included in the space-drift survey. Smaller objects were merely listed while collisions with minute particles were counted by an electronic circuit hooked to the hull of the jeep.

  “The thing that bothers me,” went on Thurlow, “about getting out is this—Matt, have you noticed the difference between people in the Patrol and people not in the Patrol?”

  “Haven’t I, though!”

  “What is the difference?”

  “The difference? Uh, why, we’re spacemen and they’re not. I guess it’s a matter of how big your world is.”

  “Partly. But don’t get carried away by mere size. A hundred million miles of empty space isn’t significant—if it’s empty. No, Matt, the split goes deeper. We’ve given the human race a hundred years of peace, and now there is no one left who remembers war. They’ve come to accept peace and comfort as the normal way of life. But it isn’t. The human animal has millions of years of danger and starving and death behind him; the past century is just a flicker of an eyelash in his history. But only the Patrol seems aware of it.”

  “Would you abolish the Patrol?”

  “Oh, my, no, Matt! But I wish there were some way to make people realize by how thin a barrier the jungle has been shut out. And another thing, too—” Thurlow grinned sheepishly. “—I wish they had some understanding of what we are. The taxpayer’s hired man, that’s what they think of us.”

  Matt nodded. “They think we’re some sort of traffic cop. There is a man back home who sells used copters—asked me why Patrolmen should be pensioned when they retire. He said that he hadn’t been able to sit back and take it easy at thirty-five and he didn’t see why he should have to support somebody else who did.” Matt looked puzzled. “At the same time he sort of glamorized the Patrol—wants his son to be a cadet. I don’t understand it.”

  “That’s it. To them we are a kind of expensive, useless prize pet—their property. They don’t understand that we are not for hire. The sort of guardian you can hire is worth about as much as the sort of wife you can buy.”

  The following week Matt found time to look up what the ship’s library afforded on the subject of the exploded planet. There was not much—dry statistics on sizes of asteroids, fragments, and particles, distributional and orbital data, Goodman’s calculations summarized. Nothing at all about what he wanted to know—how it happened!—nothing but some fine-spun theories.

  He took it up with Thurlow the next time they were out on Patrol. The lieutenant shrugged. “What do you expect, Matt?”

  “I don’t know, but more than I found.”

  “Our time scale is all wrong for us to learn much. Suppose you pick out one of the spools you’ve been studying—here, this one.” The officer held out one marked “Social structures of the Martian aborigines.” “Now suppose you examine a couple of frames in the middle. Can you reconstruct the thousands and thousands of frames that come before it, just by logic?”

  “Naturally not.”

  “That’s the situation. If the race manages to keep from blowing its top for a few million years, maybe we’ll begin to find out some things. So far, we don’t even know what questions to ask.”

  Matt was dissatisfied, but had no answer ready. Thurlow knit his brows. “Maybe we aren’t built to ask the right questions. You know the Martian ‘double-world’ idea—”

  “Certainly, but I don’t understand it.”

  “Who does? Let’s forget the usual assumption that a Martian is talking in religious symbols when he says that we live just on ‘one side’ while he lives on ‘both sides.’ Suppose that what he means is as real as butter and eggs, that he really does live in two worlds at the same time and that we are in the one he regards as unimportant. If you accept that, then it accounts for the Martian being unwilling to waste time talking with us, or trying to explain things to us. He isn’t being stuffy, he’s being reasonable. Would you waste time trying to explain rainbows to an earthworm?”

  “The cases aren’t parallel.”

  “Maybe they are to a Martian. An earthworm can’t even see, much less have a color sense. If you accept the ‘double world’ as real, then to a Martian we just don’t have the proper senses to be able to ask the right questions. Why bother with us?”

  The radio squealed for attention. Thurlow glanced toward it and said, “Someone calling, Matt. See who it is and tell ‘em we don’t want any.”

  “Okay.” Matt flipped the switch and answered, “Jeep One, Triplex—go ahead.”

  “Triplex calling,” came Sublieutenant Cleary’s familiar voice. “Stand by to be picked up.”

  “Huh? Cut the comedy—we’re only three days out.”

  “Stand by to be picked up—official. Jeep Two has found the Pathfinder.”

  “The deuce you say! Did you hear that, Mr. Thurlow? Did you hear that?”

  It was true; Peters and Gomez, in the other jeep, had discovered the missing ship, almost by accident. The Pathfinder was found anchored to a smallish asteroid about a mile in greatest dimension. Since it was a listed body, 1987-CD, the crew of the jeep had paid little attention to it, until its rotation brought the Pathfinder into view.

  With fine consideration Captain Yancey had elected to pick up Thurlow and Dodson before rendezvousing with the second jeep. Once they were inside, the Aes Triplex moved toward 1987-CD and matched orbits. Sublieutenant Peters had elected to expend some of his get-away fuel and had matched orbits also.

  Matt fidgeted while the second jeep was brought into the ship. He could see nothing, since the ports were covered, and for the moment had no assigned duties. With maddening deliberation Captain Yancey secured his ship to the Pathfinder, sending a line over by Sublieutenant Gomez. The rest of the ship’s company was crowded into the control room. Tex and Matt took the opportunity to question Sublieutenant Peters.

  “Couldn’t tell much,” he informed them. “Off hand, she looks undamaged, but the door of the lock was standing open.”

  “Any chance anyone is alive inside?” asked Tex.

  “Possible. Hardly likely.”

  Captain Yancey looked around. “Pipe down,” he ordered. “This is a control room, not a sewing circle.” When he had finished he ordered Peters and Gomez to come with him; the three suited up and left the ship.

  They were gone about an hour. When they returned the Captain called them all into the mess room. “I am sorry to tell you, gentlemen, that none of our comrades is alive.”

  He went on heavily, “There is not much doubt as to what happened. The outer armored door of the lock was open and undamaged. The inner door had been punched through by a missile about the size of my fist, producing explosive decompression in the connecting compartments. Apparently they had had the enormous bad luck to have a meteor enter the ship through the door just as it was opened.”

  “Wait a minute, Skipper,” objected Miller. “Was every airtight door in the ship wide open? One rock shouldn’t have done the trick.”

  “We couldn’t get into the after part of the ship; it still holds pressure. But we could reconstruct what happened, because we could count the bodies—seven of them, the entire ship’s company. They were all near the lock and not in spacesuits, except for one man in the lock—his suit was pierced by a fragment apparently. The others seem to have been gathered at the lock, waiting for him to come in.” Yancey looked grave. “Red, I think we are going to have to put in a recommended technical order over this—something to require personnel to spread out while suit operations are going on, so that an accident to the lock won’t affect the entire ship’s company.”

  Miller frowned. “I suppose so, Captain. Might be awkward to comply with, sometimes, in a small ship.”

  “It’s awkward to lose your breath, too. Now about the investigation—you’ll be the president, Red, and Novak and Brunn will be your other two members. The rest of us will remain in the ship until the
board has completed its work. When they have finished and have removed from the Pathfinder anything needed as evidence I will allow sufficient time for each of you to satisfy his curiosity.”

  “How about the surgeon, Captain? I want him for an expert witness.”

  “Okay, Red. Dr. Pickering, you go with the board.”

  The cadets crowded into the stateroom shared by Matt and Oscar. “Can you beat it?” said Tex. “Of all the cheap tricks! We have to sit in here, a week or ten days, maybe, while a board measures how big a hole there is in the door.”

  “Forget it, Tex,” advised Oscar. “I figure the Old Man didn’t want you carving your initials in things, or maybe snagging the busted door for a souvenir, before they found out what the score was.”

  “Oh, nuts!”

  “Quit crabbing. He promised you that you could snoop around and take pictures and satisfy your ghoulish appetites as soon as the board is finished. In the meantime, enjoy the luxury of eight hours of sleep for a change. No watches, none of any sort.”

  “Say, that’s right!” agreed Matt. “I hadn’t thought about it, but there’s no point in watching for rocks when you’re tied down and can’t duck.”

  “As the crew of the Pathfinder know only too well.”

  Last Muster was held for the Pathfinder on the following day. The bodies themselves had been sealed into a compartment of the dead ship; muster took place in the wardroom of the Aes Triplex. It was rather lengthy, as it was necessary to read the services of three different faiths before the Captain concluded with the Patrol’s own all-inclusive farewell: “Now we shape our orbit home—”

  It so happened that there were just enough persons present to answer the roll. The Aes Triplex’s company was a captain and eleven others. For the Pathfinder there were exactly eleven—six patrol officers, one civilian planetologist, and the Four who are present at every muster. Captain Yancey called off the Pathfinder’s roll and the others answered, one after the other, from Commander Miller down to Tex—while The Long Watch, muted down to a requiem, played softly over the ship’s speaker system.

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