Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  “They didn’t get back,” Oscar said softly.

  “Let’s talk about something else,” Matt requested. “I’m covered with goose pimples as it is.”

  “Okay,” Oscar concurred, “I’d better get back and see what her royal nibs is doing anyway.” He left, to return almost at once, accompanied by the city mother. “She was just waiting to be invited,” he called out ahead of them, in Basic, “and huffy at being forgotten. Help me butter her up.”

  The native official turned out to be helpful; except for the control room the other spaces were dark, even to her. She stepped to the door, made known her wants, and returned with one of the glowing orange spheres they used for lighting. It was a poor excuse for a flashlight, but about as effective as a candle.

  Everywhere the ship was orderly and clean, save for a faint film of dust. “Say what you like, Oscar,” commented Matt, “I’m beginning to get my hopes up. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with her. It looks as if the crew had just gone out for a walk. We may be able to put her in commission.”

  “I’m ready to throw in with Oscar,” Tex objected. “I’ve lost my enthusiasm—I’d rather go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.”

  “They flew her,” Matt pointed out.

  “Sure they did—and my hat’s off to them. But it takes heroes to fly a box as primitive as this and I’m not the hero type.”

  The mother-of-many lost interest presently and went outside. Tex borrowed the orange sphere and continued to look around while Matt and Oscar gave the control room a careful going over. Tex found a locker containing small, sealed packages marked “Personal effects of Roland Hargraves,” “Personal effects of Rupert H. Schreiber,” and other names. He put them back carefully.

  Oscar shouted for him presently. “I think we had better get going. Her nibs hinted that when she left.”

  “Come see what I’ve found. Food!”

  Matt and Oscar came to the door of the galley storeroom. “Do you suppose any of it is any good?” asked Matt.

  “Why not? It’s all canned. Jigger for me and we’ll find out.” Tex operated with a can opener. “Phewey!” he said presently. “Anybody want to sample some embalmed corned beef hash? Throw it outside, Matt, before it stinks up the place.”

  “It already has.”

  “But look at this!” Tex held up a can marked: Old Plantation Hotcake Flour. “This won’t be spoiled—hotcakes for breakfast, troops. I can hardly wait.”

  “What good are flapjacks without syrup?”

  “All the comforts of home—half a dozen cans of it.” He produced one marked: Genuine Vermont Maple Syrup, unadulterated.

  Tex wanted to take some back with them. Oscar vetoed it, on both practical and diplomatic grounds. Tex suggested that they remain in the ship, not go back. “Presently, Tex, presently,” Oscar agreed. “You forgot about Lieutenant Thurlow.”

  “So I did. Close my big mouth.”

  “Speaking of Mr. Thurlow,” put in Matt, “you’ve given me an idea. He won’t touch much of that native hash, even when he seems to come pretty far out of it. How about that sugar syrup? I could feed it to him from a drinking bladder.”

  “It can’t hurt him and it might help,” decided Oscar. “We’ll take half the syrup back with us.” Tex picked the cans up, Matt tucked a can opener in his pouch, and they went outside.

  Matt was pleased to find Th’wing on watch in Thurlow’s room when they got back; she would be easier to deal with than the other nurses. He explained to her what he had in mind, in polite circumlocutions. She accepted a can Matt had opened and tasted beforehand, and turned her back apologetically while she tasted it.

  She spat it out. “Art thou sure that this will not harm thy ailing mother?”

  Matt understood her hesitation, since Venerian diet runs to starch and protein, not to sugar. He assured her that Thurlow would be helped thereby. They transferred the contents to a bladder.

  The cadets talked over what they should do about the Astarte after dinner that night. Matt insisted that she could be made to fly; Tex remained of the opinion that they would be silly to attempt it. “She might get high enough to crash—no higher.”

  Oscar listened, then said, “Matt, did you check the tanks?” Matt admitted that he had. “Then you know there isn’t any fuel.”

  “Then why are you arguing?” Tex interrupted. “The matter is settled.”

  “No, it’s not,” announced Oscar. “We’ll try to fly her.”


  “She can’t fly and we’ll try anyhow,” Oscar went on.

  “But why?”

  “Okay—here’s why. If we just sit here long enough, the Patrol will come along and find us, won’t they?”

  “Probably,” agreed Matt.

  “Absolute certainty. That’s the way the Patrol works. They won’t let us down. Look at the search for the Pathfinder—four ships, month after month. If their mishap hadn’t killed them, the Patrol would have brought them back alive. We’re still alive and we are somewhere near our original destination. They’ll find us—the delay simply means they aren’t sure we are lost yet; we haven’t been out of touch so very long. Anyhow, we knew there wasn’t a ship ready at either North Pole or South Pole to attempt an equatorial search, or we wouldn’t have gotten the mission in the first place, so it may take a while before they can come for us. But they’ll come.”

  “Then why not wait?” insisted Tex.

  “Two reasons. The first is the boss—we’ve got to get him to a proper hospital before he just fades away and dies.”

  “And kill him in the take off.”

  “Maybe. That wouldn’t faze him, is my guess. The second reason is—we are the Patrol.”

  “Huh? Come again.”

  “It’s agreed that the Patrol wouldn’t give up looking for us. Okay, if that’s the sort of an outfit the Patrol is and we are part of the Patrol, then when they find us, they’ll find us doing our level best to pull out unassisted, not sitting on our fat fannies waiting for a lift.”

  “I get you,” said Tex. “I was afraid your busy little brain would figure that out, given time. Very well—mark me down as a reluctant hero. I think I’ll turn in; this hero business is going to be sweaty and wearing.”

  It was indeed sweaty. The Venerians continued to be helpful but the actual work of attempting to outfit a ship for space had to be done entirely by the humans. With the permission of the city mother Oscar transferred their headquarters to the Astarte. Thurlow was not moved, but arrangements were made for one cadet to be ferried each day back to the city, to report on Thurlow and to bring food back. There were few supplies left in the Astarte which were still edible.

  However the pancake mix turned out to be usable. Tex had gadgeted together an oil burner of sorts—they had no electrical power as yet—and had charged the contraption with a fish oil obtained from the natives. Over this he baked his hotcakes. They were noticeably inferior to any that any of the three had ever tasted, for the flour had aged and changed flavor. They showed little tendency to rise.

  But they were hotcakes and they were drowned in maple syrup. It was a ceremony, at the beginning of each working day, held on the sly behind a locked door, lest one of their puritanical friends be offended.

  They embarked on a systematic campaign to vandalize each of the other ships for anything at all that might prove useful in outfitting the Astarte. In this, too, they were dependent on the natives; Matt or Tex could pick out what was wanted, but it took the little folk to move anything several miles through swamp and water and unmarked jungle.

  They talked of the flight as if they really expected to make it. “You give me radar,” Matt told Oscar, “any sort of approach radar, so that I’ve got a chance to land, and I’ll set her down somewhere at South Pole. You can forget about the astrogational junk; it’ll be dead reckoning.”

  They had settled on New Auckland, South Pole, as their nominal destination. North Pole would have been equally reasonable, but Oscar w
as a southern colonial, which decided it.

  Oscar had promised the radar, not knowing quite how he could manage it. The Gary was the only hope; her communications room had been wrecked but Oscar had hopes of salvaging her belly radar. He set about doing it, while swearing at the impossibility of doing delicate work with one arm in a sling.

  Little from the jeep was worth salvaging and none of it was entirely intact. Oscar had tried at first to use the radar equipment of the Astarte, but had given up—a century of difference in technology baffled him. Not only were the electronic circuits of the Astarte vastly more complicated and equally less efficient than the gear he had been brought up with but the nomenclature was different—the markings, for example, on a simple resistor were Greek to him.

  As for radio circuits the only sending installation actually fit to operate was a suit walkie-talkie from the Gary.

  Nevertheless there came a morning when they had done what they could do. Tex was dealing out hotcakes. “It looks to me,” he said, “as if we were ready to go, if we had some ‘go’ juice.”

  “How do you figure that,” asked Matt. “The control board isn’t even hooked to the jet.”

  “What of it? I’m going to have to throttle by hand anyhow. I’m going to take that big piece of tubing we pulled out of the Gary and string it from you back to me, at the jet throttle. You can shout down it and if I like it I’ll do it.”

  “And if you don’t like it?”

  “Then I’ll do something else. Easy on that syrup, Oz; it’s the very last.”

  Oscar stopped himself, syrup can in midair. “Oh, I’m sorry, Tex. Here—let me slop some from my plate onto yours.”

  “Don’t bother. It was just a reflex remark. To tell the truth, I’m sick of hotcakes. We’ve had them every day now for more than two weeks, with nothing to break the monotony but hash à la native.”

  “I’m sick of them, too, but it didn’t seem polite to say so, with you doing the cooking.” Oscar pushed back his plate. “I don’t mind the syrup running out.”

  “But it hasn’t—” Matt stopped.

  “Something bite you, Matt?”

  “No, I—nothing.” He continued to look thoughtful.

  “Close your mouth, then. Say, Oz, if we had some ‘go’ juice for the Tart, what would you pick?”

  “Monatomic hydrogen.”

  “Why pick the one thing she can’t burn? I’d settle for alcohol and oxygen.”

  “As long as you haven’t got it, why not wish for the best?”

  “Because we agreed to play this game for keeps. Now we’ve got to go through the motions of trying to make some fuel, from now till they find us. That’s why I say alcohol and oxygen. I’ll whomp up some sort of a still and start cooking alky while you and Matt figure out how to produce liquid oxygen with just your bare hands and a ship’s equipment.”

  “How long do you figure it will take you to distil several tons of alcohol with what you can rig up?”

  “That’s the beauty of it. I’ll still be working away at it, like a good little boy, busy as a moonshiner, when they come to rescue us. Say, did I ever tell you about Uncle Bodie and the moonshiners? It seems—”

  “Look here,” interrupted Matt, “how would you go about cooking up some maple syrup—here?”

  “Huh? Why fret about it? We’re sick of hotcakes.”

  “So am I, but I want to know how you can make maple syrup right here. Or, rather, how the natives can do it?”

  “Are you nuts, or is this a riddle?”

  “Neither one. I just remembered something I had overlooked. You said there wasn’t any more maple syrup, and I was about to say that there was still plenty in Thurlow’s room.” Two days before, it had been Matt’s turn to go into the city. As usual he had visited Thurlow’s sickroom, his friend Th’wing had been on watch and had left him alone with the lieutenant for twenty minutes or so.

  During the interval the patient had roused and Matt had wished to offer him a drink; there were several drinking bladders at hand.

  The first one Matt picked up turned out to be charged with maple syrup, and so did the next and the next—the entire row, in fact. Then he found the one he wanted, lying on the couch. “I didn’t think anything about it at the time—I was busy with the lieutenant. But this is what bothers me: He’s been taking quite a lot of the syrup; you might say he’s been living on nothing else. I opened the first can when we first took it to him, and I opened both the other cans myself, as needed—Th’wing couldn’t cope with the can opener. So I know that the syrup was almost gone.

  “Where did the rest of the syrup come from?”

  “Why, I suppose the natives made it,” answered Oscar. “It wouldn’t be too hard to get sugar from some of the plants around here. There’s a sort of grass somewhat like sugar cane, up near the Poles; they could find something of the sort.”

  “But, Oz, this was maple syrup!”

  “Huh? It couldn’t be. Your taster has gone haywire.”

  “It was maple, I tell you.”

  “Well, what if it was—mind you, I don’t concede that you can get the true maple flavor this side of Vermont, but what difference does it make?”

  “I think we’ve been overlooking a bet. You were talking about distilling alcohol; I’ll bet the natives can supply alcohol in any quantities.”

  “Oh.” Oscar thought about it. “You’re probably right. They are clever about things like that—that gunk they use to jell mud and those solvents they cleaned the Tart with. Kitchen chemists.”

  “Maybe they aren’t kitchen chemists. Maybe they are the real thing.”

  “Huh?” said Tex. “What do you mean, Matt?”

  “Just what I said. We want ‘go’ juice for the Tart—maybe if we just had sense enough to ask the mother-of-many for it, we’d get it.”

  Oscar shook his head. “I wish you were right, Matt. Nobody has more respect for the Little People than I have, but there isn’t a rocket fuel we can use that doesn’t involve one or more liquefied gases. We might even make them understand what we needed but they wouldn’t have the facilities for it.”

  “Why are you so sure?”

  “Well, shucks, Matt, liquid oxygen—even liquid air—calls for high pressures and plenty of power, and high-pressure containers for the intermediate stages. The Little People make little use of power, they hardly use metal.”

  “They don’t use power, eh? How about those orange lights?”

  “Well, yes, but that can’t involve much power.”

  “Can you make one? Do you know how they work?”

  “No, but—”

  “What I’m trying to get at is that there may be more ways of doing engineering than the big, muscley, noisy ways we’ve worked out. You’ve said yourself that we don’t really know the natives, not even around the poles. Let’s at least ask!”

  “I think he’s got something there, Oz,” said Tex. “Let’s ask.”

  Oscar was looking very thoughtful. “I’ve realized for some time that our friends here were more civilized than the ones around the colonies, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.”

  “What is civilization?”

  “Never mind the philosophy—let’s get going.” Oscar unlocked the ship’s outer door and spoke to a figure, waiting in what was to her bright sunlight and busy looking at the pictures in a 1971 Saturday Evening Post. “Hey, girlie! Wouldst thou graciously conduct us to the home of thy mother?”

  It was maple syrup. Both Tex and Oscar agreed. Th’wing explained quite readily that, when the supply ran low, they had made more, using the original terrestrial stuff as a sample.

  Oscar went to see the city mother, taking with him a bottle of grain alcohol salvaged from the medical supplies of the Gary. Matt and Tex had to sweat it out, for it had been agreed that Oscar did best with her nibs when not accompanied. He returned after more than two hours, looking stunned.

  “What gives, Oz? What did you find out?” Matt demanded.

It’s bad news,” said Tex. “I can tell from your face.”

  “No, it’s not bad news.”

  “Then spill it, man, spill it—you mean they can do it?”

  Oscar swore softly in Venerian. “They can do anything!”

  “Back off and try again,” advised Tex. “They can’t play a harmonica. I know; I let one try. Now tell us.”

  “I started in by showing her the ethyl alcohol and tried to explain that we still had a problem and asked her if her people could make the stuff. She seemed to think it was a silly question—just sniffed it and said they could. Then I positively strained myself trying to act out liquid oxygen, first telling her that there were two different things in air, one inert and one active. The best I could do was to use their words for living’ and ‘dead.’ I told her I wanted the living part to be like water. She cut me off and sent for one of her people. They talked back and forth for several minutes and I swear I could understand only every second or third word and could not even get the gist of it. It was a part of their language totally new to me. Then the other old girl leaves the room.

  “We waited. She asked me if we would be leaving soon if we got what we wanted. I said, yes if—Then she asked me to do her the favor of taking Burke along; she was apologetic about it but firm. I said we would.”

  “I’m glad of that,” said Matt. “I despise Stinky’s insides, but it sticks in my craw to leave him to die here. He ought to have a trial.”

  “Keep quiet, Matt,” said Tex. “Who cares about Stinky? Go on, Oscar.”

  “After quite a wait, the other old girl came back, with a bladder—just an ordinary bladder by the appearance, but darker than a drinking bladder. Her nibs hands it to me and asks me if this is what I wanted. I said sorry but I did not want water. She squeezed a few drops out on my hand.” Oscar held out his hand. “See that? It burned me.”

  “It actually was liquid oxygen?”

  “That or liquid air. I didn’t have any way to test. I think it was oxygen. But get this—the bladder wasn’t even cold. And it didn’t fume until she squeezed out the droop. The other gal was carrying it around as casually as you carry a hot-water bottle.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]