Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein


  “Coming.” He hurried out and shortly found himself thrust into a room with an older man in civilian clothes.

  “Sit down. I’m Joseph Kelly.” He took Matt’s instruction sheet. “Matthew Dodson…nice to know you, Matt.”

  “How do you do, Mr. Kelly.”

  “Not too badly. Why do you want to join the Patrol, Matt?”

  “Why, uh, because—” Matt hesitated. “Well, to tell the truth, sir, I’m so confused right now that I’m darned if I know!”

  Kelly chuckled. “That’s the best answer I’ve heard today. Do you have any brothers or sisters, Matt?” The talk wandered along, with Kelly encouraging Matt to talk. The questions were quite personal, but Matt was sophisticated enough to realize that “Mr. Kelly” was probably a psychiatrist; he stammered once or twice but he tried to answer honestly.

  “Can you tell me now why you want to be in the Patrol?”

  Matt thought about it “I’ve wanted to go out into space ever since I can remember.”

  “Travel around, see strange planets and strange people—that’s understandable, Matt. But why not the merchant service? The Academy is a long, hard grind, and it’s three to one you won’t finish, even if you are sworn in as a cadet—and not more than a quarter of the candidates will pass muster. But you could enter the merchant school—I could have you transferred today—and with your qualifications you’d be a cinch to win your pilot’s ticket before you are twenty. How about it?”

  Matt looked stubborn.

  “Why not, Matt? Why insist on trying to be an officer of the Patrol? They’ll turn you inside out and break your heart and no one will thank you for your greatest efforts. They’ll make you over into a man your own mother wouldn’t recognize—and you won’t be any happier for it. Believe me, fellow—I know.”

  Matt did not say anything.

  “You still want to try it, knowing chances are against you?”

  “Yes. Yes, I think I do.”

  “Why, Matt?”

  Matt still hesitated. Finally he answered in a low voice. “Well, people look up to an officer in the Patrol.”

  Mr. Kelly looked at him. “That’s enough reason for now, Matt. You’ll find others—or quit.” A clock on the wall suddenly spoke up:

  “Thirteen o’clock! Thirteen o’clock!” Then it added thoughtfully, “I’m hungry.”

  “Mercy me!” said Kelly. “So am I. Let’s go to lunch, Matt.”

  Matt’s instructions told him to mess at table 147, East Refectory. A map on the back of the sheet showed where East Refectory was; unfortunately he did not know where Matt was—he had gotten turned around in the course of the morning’s rat race. He ran into no one at first but august personages in the midnight black of officers of the Patrol and he could not bring himself to stop one of them.

  Eventually he got oriented by working back to the rotunda and starting over, but it made him about ten minutes late. He walked down an endless line of tables, searching for number 147 and feeling very conspicuous. He was quite pink by the time he located it.

  There was a cadet at the head of the table; the others wore the coveralls of candidates. The cadet looked up and said, “Sit down, mister—over there on the right. Why are you late?”

  Matt gulped. “I got lost, sir.”

  Someone tittered. The cadet sent a cold glance down the table. “You. You with the silly horse laugh—what’s your name?”

  “Uh, Schultz, sir.”

  “Mister Schultz, there is nothing funny about an honest answer. Have you never been lost?”

  “Why—Well, uh, once or twice, maybe.”

  “Hm… I shall be interested in seeing your work in astrogation, if you get that far.” The cadet turned back to Matt. “Aren’t you hungry? What’s your name?”

  “Yes, sir. Matthew Dodson, sir.” Matt looked hurriedly at the controls in front of him, decided against soup, and punched the “entrée,” “dessert,” and “milk” buttons. The cadet was still watching him as the table served him.

  “I am Cadet Sabbatello. Don’t you like soup, Mr. Dodson?”

  “Yes, sir, but I was in a hurry.”

  “There’s no hurry. Soup is good for you.” Cadet Sabbatello stretched an arm and punched Matt’s “soup” button. “Besides, it gives the chef a chance to clean up the galley.” The cadet turned away, to Matt’s relief. He ate heartily. The soup was excellent, but the rest of the meal seemed dull compared with what he had been used to at home.

  He kept his ears open. One remark of the cadet stuck in his memory. “Mr. van Zook, in the Patrol we never ask a man where he is from. It is all right for Mr. Romolus to volunteer that he comes from Manila; it is incorrect for you to ask him.”

  The afternoon was jammed with tests; intelligence, muscular control, reflex, reaction time, sensory response. Others required him to do two or more things at once. Some seemed downright silly. Matt did the best he could.

  He found himself at one point entering a room containing nothing but a large, fixed chair. A loudspeaker addressed him: “Strap yourself into the chair. The grips on the arms of the chair control a spot of light on the wall. When the lights go out, you will see a lighted circle. Center your spot of light in the circle and keep it centered.”

  Matt strapped himself down. A bright spot of light appeared on the wall in front of him. He found that the control in his right hand moved the spot up and down, while the one in his left hand moved it from side to side. “Easy!” Matt told himself. “I wish they would start.”

  The lights in the room went out; the lighted target circle bobbed slowly up and down. He found it not too difficult to bring his spot of light into the circle and match the bobbing motion.

  Then his chair turned upside down.

  When he recovered from his surprise at finding himself hanging head down in the dark, he saw that the spot of light had drifted away from the circle. Frantically he brought them together, swung past and had to correct.

  The chair swung one way, the circle another, and a loud explosion took place at his left ear. The chair bucked and teetered; a jolt of electricity convulsed his hands and he lost the circle entirely.

  Matt began to get sore. He forced his spot back to the circle and nailed it. “Gotcha!”

  Smoke poured through the room, making him cough, watering his eyes, and veiling the target. He squinted and hung on grimly, intent only on hanging onto that pesky circle of light—through more explosions, screaming painful noise, flashing lights, wind in his eyes, and endless, crazy, motions of his chair.

  Suddenly the room lights flared up, and the mechanical voice said: “Test completed. Carry out your next assignment.”

  Once he was given a handful of beans and a small bottle, and was told to sit down and place the bottle at a mark on the floor and locate in his mind the exact position of the bottle. Then he was to close his eyes and drop the beans one at a time into the bottle—if possible.

  He could tell from the sound that he was not making many hits, but he was mortified to find, when he opened his eyes, that only one bean rested in the bottle.

  He hid the bottom of his bottle in his fist and queued up at the examiner’s desk. Several of those lined up had a goodly number of beans in their bottles, although he noted two with no beans at all. Presently he handed his bottle to the examiner. “Dodson, Matthew, sir. One bean.”

  The examiner noted it without comment. Matt blurted out, “Excuse me, sir—but what’s to keep a person from cheating by peeking?”

  The examiner smiled. “Nothing at all. Go on to your next test.”

  Matt left, grumbling. It did not occur to him that he might not know what was being tested.

  Late in the day he was ushered into a cubbyhole containing a chair, a gadget mounted on a desk, pencil and paper, and framed directions.

  “If any score from a previous test,” Matt read, “appears in the window marked SCORE, return the starting lever to the position marked NEUTRAL to clear the boar
d for your test.”

  Matt found the window labeled “SCORE”; it had a score showing in it—“37.” Well, he thought, that gives me a mark to shoot at. He decided not to clear the board until he had read the instructions.

  “After the test starts,” he read, “a score of ‘1’ will result each time you press the lefthand button except as otherwise provided here below. Press the lefthand button whenever the red light appears provided the green light is not lighted as well except that no button should be pressed when the righthand gate is open unless all lights are out. If the righthand gate is open and the lefthand gate is closed, no score will result from pressing any button, but the lefthand button must nevertheless be pressed under these circumstances if all other conditions permit a button to be pressed before any score may be made in succeeding phases of the test. To put out the green light, press the righthand button. If the lefthand gate is not closed, no button may be pressed. If the lefthand gate is closed while the red light is lighted, do not press the lefthand button if the green light is out unless the righthand gate is open. To start the test move the starting lever from neutral all the way to the right. The test runs for two minutes from the time you move the starting lever to the right. Study these instructions, then select your own time for commencing the test. You are not permitted to ask questions of the examiner, so be sure that you understand the instructions. Make as high a score as possible.”

  “Whew!” said Matt.

  Still, the test looked simple—one lever, two pushbuttons, two colored lights, two little gates. Once he mastered the instructions, it would be as easy as flying a kite, and a durn sight simpler than flying a copter!—Matt had had his copter license since he was twelve. He got to work.

  First, he told himself, there seems to be just two ways to make a score, one with the red light on and one with both lights out and one gate open.

  Now for the other instructions—Let’s see, if the lefthand gate is not closed—no, if the lefthand gate is closed—he stopped and read them over again.

  Some minutes later he had sixteen possible positions of gates and conditions of lights listed. He checked them against the instructions, seeking scoring combinations. When he was through he stared at the result, then checked everything over again.

  After rechecking he stared at the paper, whistled tunelessly, and scratched his head. Then he picked up the paper, left the booth, and went to the examiner.

  That official looked up. “No questions, please.”

  “I don’t have a question,” Matt said. “I want to report something. There’s something wrong with that test. Maybe the wrong instructions sheet was put in there. In any case, there is no possible way to make a score under the instructions that are in there.”

  “Oh, come, now!” the examiner answered. “Are you sure of that?”

  Matt hesitated, then answered firmly, “I’m sure of it, want to see my proof?”

  “No. Your name is Dodson?” The examiner glanced at a timer, then wrote on a chart. “That’s all.”

  “But—Don’t I get a chance to make a score?”

  “No questions, please! I’ve recorded your score. Get along—it’s dinner time.”

  There were a large number of vacant places at dinner. Cadet Sabbatello looked down the long table. “I see there have been some casualties,” he remarked. “Congratulations, gentlemen, for having survived thus far.”

  “Sir—does that mean we’ve passed all the tests we took today?” one of the candidates asked.

  “Or at least won a retest. You haven’t flunked.” Matt sighed with relief. “Don’t get your hopes up. There will be still fewer of you here tomorrow.”

  “Does it get worse?” the candidate went on.

  Sabbatello grinned wickedly. “Much worse. I advise you all to eat little at breakfast. However,” he went on, “I have good news, too. It is rumored that the Commandant himself is coming down to Terra to honor you with his presence when you are sworn in—if you are sworn in.”

  Most of those present looked blank. The cadet glanced around. “Come, come, gentlemen!” he said sharply. “Surely not all of you are that ignorant. You!” He addressed Matt. “Mister, uh—Dodson. You seem to have some glimmering of what I am talking about. Why should you feel honored at the presence of the Commandant?”

  Matt gulped. “Do you mean the Commandant of the Academy, sir?”

  “Naturally. What do you know about him?”

  “Well, sir, he’s Commodore Arkwright.” Matt stopped, as if the name were explanation.

  “And what distinguishes Commodore Arkwright?”

  “Uh, he’s blind, sir.”

  “Not blind, Mr. Dodson, not blind! It simply happens that he had his eyes burned out. How did he lose his eyesight?” The cadet stopped him. “No—don’t tell them. Let them find out for themselves.”

  The cadet resumed eating and Matt did likewise, while thinking about Commodore Arkwright. He himself had been too young to pay attention to the news, but his father had read an account of the event to him—a spectacular, singlehanded rescue of a private yacht in distress, inside the orbit of Mercury. He had forgotten just how the Patrol officer had exposed his eyes to the Sun—something to do with transferring the yacht’s personnel—but he could still hear his father reading the end of the report: “—these actions are deemed to be in accordance with the tradition of the Patrol.”

  He wondered if any action of his would ever receive that superlative distinction. Unlikely, he decided; “duty satisfactorily performed” was about the best an ordinary man could hope for.

  Matt ran into Tex Jarman as he left the mess hall. Tex pounded him on the back. “Glad to see you, kid. Where are you rooming?”

  “I haven’t had time to look up my room yet.”

  “Let’s see your sheet.” Jarman took it. “We’re in the same corridor—swell. Let’s go up.”

  They found the room and walked in. Sprawled on the lower of two bunks, reading and smoking a cigarette, was another candidate. He looked up.

  “Enter, comrades,” he said, “Don’t bother to knock.”

  “We didn’t,” said Tex.

  “So I see.” The boy sat up. Matt recognized the boy who had made the crack about Tex’s boots. He decided to say nothing—perhaps they would not recognize each other. The lad continued, “Looking for someone?”

  “No,” Matt answered, “this is the room I’m assigned to.”

  “My roommate, eh? Welcome to the palace. Don’t trip over the dancing girls. I put your stuff on your bed.”

  The sack containing Matt’s bag and civilian clothes rested on the upper bunk. He dragged it down.

  “What do you mean, his bed?” demanded Tex. “You ought to match for the lower bunk.”

  Matt’s roommate shrugged. “First come, first served.”

  Tex clouded up. “Forget it, Tex,” Matt told him. “I prefer the upper. By the way,” he went on, to the other boy, “I’m Matt Dodson.”

  “Girard Burke, at your service.”

  The room was adequate but austere. Matt slept in a hydraulic bed at home, but he had used mattress beds in summer camp. The adjoining refresher was severely functional but very modern—Matt noted with pleasure that the shower was installed with robot massage. There was no shave mask, but shaving was not yet much of a chore.

  In his wardrobe he found a package, marked with his serial number, containing two sets of clothing and a second pair of space boots. He stowed them and his other belongings; then turned to Tex. “Well, what’ll we do now?”

  “Let’s look around the joint.”

  “Fine. Maybe we can go through the Kilroy.”

  Burke chucked his cigarette toward the oubliette. “Wait a sec. I’ll go with you.” He disappeared into the ’fresher.

  Tex said in a low voice. “Tell him to go fly a kite, Matt.”

  “It’ud be a pleasure. But I’d rather get along with him, Tex.”

  “Well, maybe they’ll eliminate him tomorrow.”

/>   “Or me.” Matt smiled wryly.

  “Or me. Shucks, no, Matt—we’ll get by. Have you thought about a permanent roomie? Want to team up?”

  “It’s a deal.” They shook hands.

  “I’m glad that’s settled,” Tex went on. “My cellmate is a nice little guy, but he’s got a blood brother, or some such, he wants to room with. Came to see him before dinner. They chattered away in Hindustani, I guess it was. Made me nervous. Then they shifted to Basic out of politeness, and that made me more nervous.”

  “You don’t look like the nervous type.”

  “Oh, all us Jarmans are high-strung. Take my Uncle Bodie. Got so excited at the county fair he jumped between the shafts of a sulky and won two heats before they could catch him and throw him.”

  “Is that so?”

  “My solemn word. Didn’t pay off, though. They disqualified him because he wasn’t a two-year-old.”

  Burke joined them and they sauntered down to the rotunda. Several hundred other candidates had had the same idea but the administration had anticipated the rush. A cadet stationed at the stairway into the pit was permitting visitors in parties of ten only, each party supervised by a cadet. Burke eyed the queue. “Simple arithmetic tells me there’s no point in waiting.”

  Matt hesitated. Tex said, “Come on, Matt. Some will get tired and drop out.”

  Burke shrugged, said, “So long, suckers,” and wandered away.

  Matt said doubtfully, “I think he’s right, Tex.”

  “Sure—but I got rid of him, didn’t I?”

  The entire rotunda was a museum and memorial hall of the Patrol. The boys found display after display arranged around the walls—the original log of the first ship to visit Mars, a photo of the takeoff of the disastrous first Venus expedition, a model of the German rockets used in the Second Global War, a hand-sketched map of the far side of the Moon, found in the wrecked Kilroy.

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