Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  They came to an alcove the back wall of which was filled by a stereo picture of an outdoor scene. They entered and found themselves gazing, in convincing illusion, out across a hot and dazzling lunar plain, with black sky, stars, and Mother Terra herself in the background.

  In the foreground, life size, was a young man dressed in an old-fashioned pressure suit. His features could be seen clearly through his helmet, big mouth, merry eyes, and thick sandy hair cut in the style of the previous century.

  Under the picture was a line of lettering: Lieutenant Ezra Dahlquist, Who Helped Create the Tradition of the Patrol—1969-1996.

  Matt whispered, “There ought to be a notice posted somewhere to tell us what he did.”

  “I don’t see any,” Tex whispered back. “Why are you whispering?”

  “I’m not—yes, I guess I was. After all, he can’t hear us, can he? Oh—there’s a vocal!”

  “Well, punch it.”

  Matt pressed the button; the alcove filled with the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth. The music gave way to a voice: “The Patrol was originally made up of officers sent to it by each of the nations then in the Western Federation. Some were trustworthy, some were not. In 1996 came a day shameful and glorious in the history of the Patrol, an attempted coup d’état, the so-called Revolt of the Colonels. A cabal of high-ranking officers, acting from Moon Base, tried to seize power over the entire world. The plot would have been successful had not Lieutenant Dahlquist disabled every atom-bomb rocket at Moon Base by removing the fissionable material from each and wrecking the triggering mechanisms. In so doing he received so much radiation that he died of his burns.” The voice stopped and was followed by the Valhalla theme from Götterdämmerung.

  Tex let out a long sigh; Matt realized that he had been holding his own breath. He let it go, then took another; it seemed to relieve the ache in his chest.

  They heard a chuckle behind them. Girard Burke was leaning against the frame of the alcove. “They go to a lot of trouble to sell it around here,” he remarked. “Better watch it, me lads, or you will find yourselves buying it.”

  “What do you mean by that? Sell what?”

  Burke gestured toward the picture. “That. And the plug that goes with it. If you care for that sort of thing, there are three more, one at each cardinal point of the compass.”

  Matt stared at him. “What’s the matter with you, Burke? Don’t you want to be in the Patrol?”

  Burke laughed. “Sure I do. But I’m a practical man; I don’t have to bamboozled into it by a lot of emotional propaganda.” He pointed to the picture of Ezra Dahlquist. “Take him. They don’t tell you he disobeyed orders of his superior officer—if things had fallen the other way, he’d be called a traitor. Besides that, they don’t mention that it was sheer clumsiness that got him burned. Do you expect me to think he was a superman?”

  Matt turned red. “No, I wouldn’t expect it.” He took a step forward. “But, since you are a practical man, how would you like a nice, practical punch in the snoot?”

  Burke was no larger than Matt and a shade shorter, but he leaned forward, balanced on the balls of his feet, and said softly, “I’d love it. You and who else?”

  Tex stepped forward. “I’m the ‘who else.’”

  “Stay out of this, Tex!” Matt snapped.

  “I will not! I don’t believe in wasting fair fighting on my social inferiors.”

  “Stay out, I tell you!”

  “Nope, I want a piece of this. You slug him and I’ll kick him in the stomach as he goes down.”

  Burke looked at Jarman, and relaxed, as if he knew that the fighting moment was past. “Tut, tut, gentlemen! You’re squabbling among yourselves.” He turned away. “Goodnight, Dodson. Don’t wake me coming in.”

  Tex was still fuming. “We should have let him have it. He’ll make your life miserable until you slap him down. My Uncle Bodie says the way to deal with that sort of pimple is to belt him around until he apologizes.”

  “And get kicked out of the Patrol before we’re in it? I let him get me mad, so that puts him one up. Come on—let’s see what else there is to see.”

  But Call-to-Quarters sounded before they worked around to the next of the four alcoves. Matt said good night to Tex at his door and went inside. Burke was asleep or shamming. Matt peeled off his clothes, shinnied up into his bunk, looked for the light switch, spotted it, and ordered it to switch off.

  The unfriendly presence under him made him restless, but he was almost asleep when he recalled that he had not called his father back. The thought awakened him. Presently he became aware of a vague ache somewhere inside him. Was he coming down with something?

  Could it be that he was homesick? At his age? The longer he considered it the more likely it seemed, much as he hated to admit it. He was still pondering it when he fell asleep.

  The next morning Burke ignored the trouble they had had; he made no mention of it. He was even moderately cooperative about sharing the ’fresher. But Matt was glad to hear the call to breakfast.

  Table 147 was not where it should be. Puzzled, Matt moved down the line until he found a table marked “147-149,” with Cadet Sabbatello in charge. He found a place and sat down, to find himself sitting next to Pierre Armand. “Well! Pete!” he greeted him. “How are things going?”

  “Glad to see you, Matt. Well enough, I guess.” His tone seemed doubtful.

  Matt looked him over. Pete seemed—“dragged through a knothole” was the phrase Matt settled on. He was about to ask what was wrong when Cadet Sabbatello rapped on the table. “Apparently,” said the cadet, “some of you gentlemen have forgotten my advice last night, to eat sparingly this morning. You are about to go over the bumps today—and groundhogs have been known to lose their breakfasts as well as their dignity.”

  Matt looked startled. He had intended to order his usual lavish breakfast; he settled for milk toast and tea. He noticed that Pete had ignored the cadet’s advice; he was working on a steak, potatoes, and fried eggs—whatever ailed Pete, Matt decided, it had not affected his appetite.

  Cadet Sabbatello had also noticed it. He leaned toward Pete. “Mister, uh—”

  “Armand, sir,” Pete answered between bites.

  “Mr. Armand, either you have the digestion of a Martian sandworm, or you thought I was joking. Don’t you expect to be dropsick?”

  “No, sir.”


  “You see, sir, I was born on Ganymede.”

  “Oh! I beg your pardon. Have another steak. How are you doing?”

  “Pretty well, on the whole, sir.”

  “Don’t be afraid to ask for dispensations. You’ll find that everyone around here understands your situation.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  “I mean it. Don’t play ‘iron man.’ There’s no sense in it.”

  After breakfast, Matt fell in step with Armand. “Say, Pete, I see why Oscar carried your bag yesterday. Excuse me for being a stupe.”

  Pete looked self-conscious. “Not at all. Oscar has been looking out for me—I met him on the trip down from Terra Station.”

  Matt nodded. “I see.” He had no expert knowledge of interplanetary schedules, but he realized that Oscar, coming from Venus, and Pete, coming from one of Jupiter’s moons, would have to change ships at the artificial satellite of Earth called Terra Station, before taking the shuttle rocket down. It accounted for the two boys being well acquainted despite cosmically different backgrounds. “How do you feel?” he went on.

  Pete hesitated. “As a matter of fact, I feel as if I were wading in quicksand up to my neck. Every move is an effort.”

  “Gee, that’s too bad! Just what is the surface gravity on Ganymede? About one-third ‘g’ isn’t it?”

  “Thirty-two per cent. Or from my point of view, everything here weighs three times as much as it ought to. Including me.”

  Matt nodded. “As if two other guys were riding on you, one on your shoulders, and one on your back.”

nbsp; “That’s about it. The worst of it is, my feet hurt all the time. I’ll get over it—”

  “Sure you will!

  “—since I’m of Earth ancestry and potentially just as strong as my grandfather was. Back home, I’d been working out in the centrifuge the last couple of earth-years. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. There’s Oscar.” Matt greeted Oscar, then hurried to his room to phone his father in private.

  A copter transport hopped Matt and some fifty other candidates to the site of the variable acceleration test—in cadet slang, the “Bumps.” It was west of the base, in the mountains, in order to have a sheer cliff for free fall. They landed on a loading platform at the edge of this cliff and joined a throng of other candidates. It was a crisp Colorado morning. They were near the timberline; gaunt evergreens, twisted by the winds, surrounded the clearing.

  From a building just beyond the platform two steel skeletons ran vertically down the face of the two-thousand-foot cliff. They looked like open frames for elevators, which one of them was. The other was a guide for the testing car during the drop down the cliff.

  Matt crowded up to the rail and leaned over. The lower ends of the skeleton frameworks disappeared, a dizzy distance below, in the roof of a building notched into the sloping floor of the canyon. He was telling himself that he hoped the engineer who had designed the thing knew what he was doing when he felt a dig in the ribs. It was Tex. “Some roller coaster, eh, Matt?”

  “Hi, Tex. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.”

  The candidate on Matt’s left spoke up. “Do you mean to say we ride down that thing?”

  “No less,” Tex answered. “Then they gather the pieces up in a basket and haul ’em up the other one.”

  “How fast does it go?”

  “You’ll see in a mom—Hey! Thar she blows!”

  A silvery, windowless car appeared inside one guide frame, at its top. It poised for a split second, then dropped. It dropped and dropped and dropped, gathering speed, until it disappeared with what seemed incredible velocity—actually about two hundred and fifty miles per hour—into the building below. Matt braced himself for the crash. None came, and he caught his breath.

  Seconds later the car reappeared at the foot of the other framework. It seemed to crawl; actually it was accelerating rapidly during the first half of the climb. It passed from view into the building at the top of the cliff.

  “Squad nine!” a loudspeaker bawled behind them.

  Tex let out a sigh “Here I go, Matt,” he said. “Tell mother my last words were of her. You can have my stamp collection.” He shook hands and walked away.

  The candidate who had spoken before gulped; Matt saw that he was quite pale. Suddenly he took off in the same direction but did not line up with the squad; instead he went up to the cadet mustering the squad and spoke to him, briefly and urgently. The cadet shrugged and motioned him away from the group.

  Matt found himself feeling sympathetic rather than contemptuous.

  His own test group was mustered next. He and his fellows were conducted into the upper building, where a cadet explained the test: “This test examines your tolerance for high acceleration, for free fall or weightlessness, and for violent changes in acceleration. You start with centrifugal force of three gravities, then all weight is removed from you as the car goes over the cliff. At the bottom the car enters a spiraling track which reduces its speed at deceleration of three gravities. When the car comes to rest, it enters the ascending tower; you make the climb at two gravities, dropping to one gravity, and momentarily to no weight, as the car reaches the top. Then the cycle is repeated, at higher accelerations, until each of you has reacted. Any questions?”

  Matt asked, “How long is the free fall, sir?”

  “About eleven seconds. We would increase it, but to double it would take four times as high a cliff. However, you will find this one high enough.” He smiled grimly.

  A timid voice asked, “Sir, what do you mean by ‘react’?”

  “Any of several things—hemorrhage, loss of consciousness.”

  “It’s dangerous?”

  The cadet shrugged. “What isn’t? There has never been any mechanical failures. Your pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and other data are telemetered to the control room. We’ll try not to let you die under test.”

  Presently he led them out of the room, down a passage and through a door into the test car. It had pendulum seats, not unlike any high-speed vehicle, but semi-reclining and heavily padded. They strapped down and medical technicians wired them for telemetering their responses. The cadet inspected, stepped out and returned with an officer, who repeated the inspection. The cadet then distributed “sick kits”—cloth bags of double thickness to be tied and taped to the mouth, so that a person might retch without inundating his companions. This done, he asked, “Are you all ready?” Getting no response, he went out and closed the door.

  Matt wished that he had stopped him before it was too late.

  For a long moment nothing happened. Then the car seemed to incline; actually, the seats inclined as the car started to move and picked up speed.

  The seats swung back to the at-rest position but Matt felt himself getting steadily heavier and knew thereby that they were being centrifuged. He pressed against the pads, arms leaden, legs too heavy to move.

  The feeling of extra weight left him, he felt his normal weight again, when suddenly that, too, was taken from him. He surged against the safety belts.

  His stomach seemed to drop out of him. He gulped and swallowed; his breakfast stayed down. Somebody yelled, “We’re falling!” It seemed to Matt the most unnecessary statement he had ever heard.

  He set his jaw and braced himself for the bump. It did not come—and still his stomach seemed trying to squirm its way out of his body. Eleven seconds? Why, he had been falling more than eleven seconds already. What had gone wrong?

  And still they fell, endlessly.

  And fell.

  Then he was forced back against the pads. The pressure increased smoothly until he was as heavy as he had been just before the drop. His abused stomach tried to retch but the pressure was too much for it.

  The pressure eased off to normal weight. A short while later the car seemed to bounce and momentarily he was weightless, while his insides grabbed frantically for anchorage. The feeling of no weight lasted only an instant; he sagged into the cushions.

  The door was flung open; the cadet strode in, followed by two medical technicians. Someone yelled, “Let me out of here! Let me out of here!” The cadet paid no attention but went to the seat in front of Matt. He unstrapped the occupant and the two medical assistants carried him out. His head lolled loosely as they did so. The cadet then went to the candidate who was kicking up the fuss, unstrapped him, and stepped back. The boy got up, staggered, and shuffled out.

  “Anyone need a fresh sick kit?” There were muffled responses. Working swiftly, the cadet helped those who needed it. Matt felt weakly triumphant that his own kit was still clean.

  “Stand by for five gravities,” commanded the cadet. He made them answer to their names, one by one. While he was doing so another boy started clawing at his straps. Still calling the roll, the cadet helped him free and let him leave. He followed the lad out the door and shut it.

  Matt felt himself tensing unbearably. He was relieved when the pressure took hold—but only momentarily, for he found that five gravities were much worse than three. His chest seemed paralyzed, he fought for air.

  The giant pressure lifted—they were over the edge again, falling. His mistreated stomach revenged itself at once; he was sorry that he had eaten any breakfast at all.

  They were still falling. The lights went out—and someone screamed. Falling and still retching, Matt was sure that the blackness meant some sort of accident; this time they would crash—but it did not seem to matter.

  He was well into the black whirlpool of force that marked the deceleration at the bottom before he realized
that he had come through without being killed. The thought brought no particular emotion; breathing at five gravities fully occupied him. The ride up the cliff, at double weight dropping off to normal weight, seemed like a vacation—except that his stomach protested when they bounced to a stop.

  The lights came on and the cadet re-entered the room. His gaze stopped at the boy on Matt’s right. The lad was bleeding at his nose and ears. The candidate waved him away feebly. “I can take it,” he protested. “Go on with the test.”

  “Maybe you can,” the cadet answered, “but you are through for today.” He added, “Don’t feel bad about it. It’s not necessarily a down check.”

  He inspected the others, then called in the officer. The two held a whispered consultation over one boy, who was then half led, half carried from the test chamber. “Fresh sick kits?” asked the cadet.

  “Here,” Matt answered feebly. The change was made, while Matt vowed to himself never to touch milk toast again.

  “Seven gravities,” announced the cadet. “Speak up, or stand by.” He called the roll again. Matt was ready to give up, but he heard himself answer “ready” and the cadet was gone before he could make up his mind. There were only six of them left now.

  It seemed to him that the lights were going out again, gradually, as the weight of his body built up to nearly a thousand pounds. But the lights “came on” again as the car dropped over the cliff; he realized dully that he had blacked out.

  He had intended to count seconds on this fall to escape the feeling of endless time, but he was too dazed. Even the disquiet in his middle section seemed remote. Falling—falling—

  Again the giant squeezed his chest, drained the blood from his brain, and shut the light from his eyes. The part that was Matt squeezed out entirely…

  “How do you feel?” He opened his eyes, saw a double image, and realized dimly that the cadet was leaning over him. He tried to answer. The cadet passed from view; he felt someone grasping him; he was being lifted and carried.

  Someone wiped his face with a wet, cold towel. He sat up and found himself facing a nurse. “You’re all right now,” she said cheerfully. “Keep this until your nose stops bleeding.” She handed him the towel. “Want to get up?”

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