Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “Take my arm. We’ll go out into the air.”

  Out on the loading platform Matt sat in the sunshine, dabbling at his nose and regaining his strength. He could hear sounds of excitement from the rail behind each time the car dropped. He sat there, soaking in the sun and wondering whether or not he really wanted to be a spaceman.

  “Hey, Matt.” It was Tex, looking pale and not too sure of himself. There was a blood stain down the front of his coverall.

  “Hello, Tex. I see you’ve had it.”


  “How many g’s?”


  “Same here. What do you think of it?”

  “Well—” Tex seemed at a loss. “I wish my Uncle Bodie could have tried it. He wouldn’t talk so much about the time he rassled the grizzly.”

  There were many vacant seats at lunch. Matt thought about those who had gone—did they mind being “bumped out,” or were they relieved?

  He was hungry but ate little, for he knew what was ahead that afternoon—rocket indoctrination. He had looked forward to this part of the schedule most eagerly. Space flight! Just a test jump, but the real thing nevertheless. He had been telling himself that, even if he failed, it would be worth it to get this first flight.

  Now he was not sure; the “bumps” had changed his viewpoint. He had a new, grim respect for acceleration and he no longer thought dropsickness funny; instead he was wondering whether or not he would ever get adjusted to free fall. Some never did, he knew.

  His test group was due in Santa Barbara Field at fourteen-thirty. He had a long hour to kill with nothing to do but fret. Finally it was time to go underground, muster, and slidewalk out to the field.

  The cadet in charge led them up to the surface into a concrete trench about four feet deep. Matt blinked at the sunlight. His depression was gone; he was anxious to start. On each side and about two hundred yards away were training rockets, lined up like giant birthday candles, poised on their fins with sharp snouts thrusting against the sky.

  “If anything goes wrong,” the cadet said, “throw yourself flat in the trench. Don’t let that get your goat—I’m required to warn you.

  “The jump lasts nine minutes, with the first minute and a half under power. You’ll feel three gravities, but the acceleration is only two gravities, because you are still close to the Earth.

  “After ninety seconds you’ll be traveling a little faster than a mile a second and you will coast on up for the next three minutes for another hundred miles to an altitude of about one hundred fifty miles. You fall back toward the earth another three minutes, brake your fall with the jet and ground at the end of the ninth minute.

  “A wingless landing on an atmosphere planet with gravity as strong as that of Earth is rather tricky. The landing will be radar-robot controlled, but a human pilot will stand by and check the approach against the flight plan. He can take over if necessary. Any questions?”

  Someone asked, “Are these atomic-powered ships?”

  The cadet snorted. “These jeeps? These are chemically powered, as you can see from the design. Monatomic hydrogen. They are much like the first big rockets ever built, except that they have variable thrust, so that the pilot and the passengers won’t be squashed into strawberry jam as the mass-ratio drops off.”

  A green signal flare arched up from the control tower. “Keep your eyes on the second rocket from the end, on the north,” advised the cadet.

  There was a splash of orange flame, sun bright, at the base of the ship. “There she goes!”

  The ship lifted majestically, and poised for an instant, motionless as a hovering helicopter. The noise reached Matt, seemed to press against his chest. It was the roar of an impossibly huge blowtorch. A searchlight in the tower blinked, and the ship mounted, up and up, higher and faster, its speed increasing with such smoothness that it was hard to realize how fast it was going—except that the roar was gone. Matt found himself staring straight at the zenith, watching a dwindling artificial sun, almost as dazzling as Sol himself.

  Then it was gone. Matt closed his mouth and started to look away, when his attention was seized by the ice trail left as the rocket sliced its way through the outer atmosphere. White and strange, it writhed like a snake with a broken back. Under the driving force of the many-hundred-miles-an-hour winds of that far altitude it twisted visibly as he watched.

  “That’s all!” the cadet shouted. “We can’t wait for the landing.”

  They went underground, down a corridor, and entered an elevator. It went up right out of the ground and into the air, supported by a hydraulic piston. It mounted close by the side of a rocket ship; Matt was amazed to see how large it was close up.

  The elevator stopped and its door let down drawbridge fashion into the open hatch in the rocket’s side. They trooped across; the cadet raised the bridge and went down again.

  They were in a conical room. Above them the pilot lay in his acceleration rest. Beside them, feet in and head out, were acceleration couches for passengers. “Get in the bunks!” shouted the pilot. “Strap down.”

  Ten boys jostled one another to reach the couches. One hesitated. “Uh, oh, Mister!” he called out.

  “Yes? Get in your couch.”

  “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going.”

  The pilot used language decidedly not officerlike and turned to his control board. “Tower! Remove passenger from number nineteen.” He listened, then said, “Too late to change the flight plan. Send up mass.” He shouted to the waiting boy, “What do you weigh?”

  “Uh, a hundred thirty-two pounds, sir.”

  “One hundred and thirty-two pounds and make it fast!” He turned back to the youngster. “You better get off this base fast, for if I have to skip my take-off I’ll wring your neck.”

  The elevator climbed into place presently and three cadets poured across. Two were carrying sandbags, one had five lead weights. They strapped the sandbags to the vacant couch, and clamped the weights to its sides. “One thirty-two mass,” announced one of the cadets.

  “Get going,” snapped the pilot and turned back to the board.

  “Don’t blow your tubes, Harry,” advised the cadet addressed. Matt was amazed, then decided the pilot must be a cadet, too. The three left, taking with them the boy; the hatch door shut with a whish.

  “Stand by to raise!” the pilot called out, then looked down to check his passengers. “Passengers secure, nineteen,” he called to the tower. “Is that confounded elevator clear?”

  There was silence as the seconds trickled away.

  The ship shivered. A low roar, muffled almost below audibility, throbbed in Matt’s head. For a moment he felt slightly heavy, the feeling passed, then he was pressed strongly against the pads.

  Matt was delighted to find that three gravities were not bad, flat on his back as he was. The minute and a half under power stretched out; there was nothing to hear but the muted blast of the reactor, nothing to see but the sky through the pilot’s port above.

  But the sky was growing darker. Already it was purple; as he watched it turned black. Fascinated, he watched the stars come out.

  “Stand by for free fall!” the pilot called out, using an amplifier. “You’ll find sick kits under each pillow. If you need ’em, put ’em on. I don’t want to have to scrape it off the port.”

  Matt fumbled with heavy fingers under his head, found the kit. The sound of the jet died away, and with it the thrust that had kept them pinned down. The pilot swung out of his rest and floated, facing them. “Now look, sports—we’ve got six minutes. You can unstrap, two at a time and come up for a look-see. But get this: Hang on tight. Any man who starts floating free, or skylarking, gets a down check.” He pointed to a boy. “You—and the next guy.”

  The “next guy” was Matt. His stomach was complaining and he felt so wretched that he did not really want the privilege offered—but his face was at stake; he clamped his jaws, swallowed th
e saliva pouring into his mouth, and unstrapped.

  Free, he clung to one strap, floating loosely, and tried to get his bearings. It was curiously upsetting to have no up-and-down; it made everything swim—he had trouble focusing his eyes. “Hurry up there!” he heard the pilot shout, “or you’ll miss your turn.”

  “Coming, sir.”

  “Hang on—I’m going to turn the ship.” The pilot unclutched his gyros and cut in his processing flywheels. The ship turned end over end. By the time Matt worked his way to the control station, moving like a cautious and elderly monkey, the rocket was pointed toward Earth.

  Matt stared out at the surface, nearly a hundred miles below and still receding. The greens and browns seemed dark by contrast with the white dazzle of clouds. Off to the left and right he could see the inky sky, stabbed with stars. “That’s the Base, just below,” the pilot was saying. “Look sharp and you can make out Hayworth Hall, maybe, by its shadow.”

  It did not seem “just below” to Matt; it seemed “out”—or no direction at all. It was disquieting. “Over there—see?—is the crater where Denver used to be. Now look south—that brown stretch is Texas; you can see the Gulf beyond it.”

  “Sir,” asked Matt, “can we see Des Moines from here?”

  “Hard to pick out. Over that way—let your eye slide down the Kaw River till it strikes the Missouri, then up river. That dark patch—that’s Omaha and Council Bluffs. Des Moines is between there and the horizon.” Matt strained his eyes, trying to pick out his home. He could not be sure—but he did see that he was staring over the bulge of the Earth at a curved horizon; he was seeing the Earth as round. “That’s all,” ordered the pilot. “Back to your bunks. Next pair!”

  He was glad to strap a belt across his middle. The remaining four minutes or so stretched endlessly; he resigned himself to never getting over space sickness. Finally the pilot chased the last pair back, swung ship jet toward Earth, and shouted, “Stand by for thrust—we’re about to ride ’er down on her tail!”

  Blessed weight pressed down on him and his stomach stopped complaining. The ninety seconds of deceleration seemed longer; it made him jumpy to know that the Earth was rushing up at them and not be able to see it. But at last there came a slight bump and his weight dropped suddenly to normal. “Grounded,” announced the pilot, “and all in one piece. You can unstrap, sports.”

  Presently a truck arrived, swung a telescoping ladder up to the hatch, and they climbed down. On the way back they passed a great unwieldy tractor, crawling out to retrieve the rocket. Someone stuck his head out of the tractor. “Hey! Harry—why didn’t you land it in Kansas?”

  Their pilot waved at the speaker. “Be grateful I didn’t!”

  Matt was free until mess; he decided to return to the observation trench; he still wanted to see a ship land on its jet. He had seen winged landings of commercial stratosphere rockets, but never a jet landing.

  Matt had just found a vacant spot in the trench when a shout went up—a ship was coming in. It was a ball of flame, growing in the sky, and then a pillar of flame, streaking down in front of him. The streamer of fire brushed the ground, poised like a ballet dancer, and died out. The ship was down.

  He turned to a candidate near him. “How long till the next one?”

  “They’ve come in about every five minutes. Stick around.”

  Presently a green flare went up from the control tower and he looked around, trying to spot the ship about to take off, when another shout caused him to turn back. There again was a ball of fire in the sky, growing.

  Unbelievably, it went out. He stood there, stupefied—to hear a cry of “Down! Down, everybody! Flat on your faces!” Before he could shake off his stupor, someone tackled him and threw him.

  He was rocked by a sharp shock, on top of it came the roar of an explosion. Something snatched at his breath.

  He sat up and looked around. A cadet near him was peering cautiously over the parapet. “Allah the Merciful,” he heard him say softly.

  “What happened?”

  “Crashed in. Dead, all dead.” The cadet seemed to see him for the first time. “Get back to your quarters,” he said sharply.

  “But how did it happen?”

  “Never mind—this is no time for sightseeing.” The cadet moved down the line, clearing out spectators.

  Matt’s room was empty, which was a relief. He did not want to see Burke, nor anyone. He sat down and thought about it.

  Eleven people—just like that. All happy and excited and then—crrump!—not enough left to cremate. Suddenly he himself was back up in the sky—He broke off the thought, trembling.

  At the end of an hour he had made up his mind that the Patrol was not for him. He had thought of it, he realized, through a kid’s bright illusions—Captain Jenks of the Space Patrol, The Young Rocketeers, stuff like that. Well, those books were all right—for kids—but he wasn’t hero material, he had to admit.

  Anyhow, his stomach would never get used to free fall. Right now it tightened up when he thought about it.

  By the time Burke returned he was calm and, if not happy, at least he was not unhappy, for his mind was at rest.

  Burke came in whistling. He stopped when he saw Matt. “Well, junior, still here? I thought the bumps would send you home.”


  “Didn’t you get dropsick?”

  “Yes.” Matt waited and tried to control his temper. “Didn’t you?”

  Burke chuckled. “Not likely. I’m no groundhog, junior.

  “Call me ‘Matt.’”

  “Okay, Matthew. I was going out into space before I could walk. My old man builds ’em, you know.”

  “I didn’t know.”

  “Sure. ‘Reactors, Limited’—he’s chairman of the board. Say, did you see the fireworks out at the field?”

  “You mean the ship that crashed?”

  “What else? Quite a show, wasn’t it?”

  Matt could feel himself coining to a slow boil. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me,” he said quietly, “that you regard the deaths of eleven human beings as ‘quite a show’?”

  Burke stared at him. Then he laughed. “I’m sorry, old fellow. I apologize. But it actually didn’t occur to me that you didn’t know.”

  “Didn’t know what?”

  “But you weren’t supposed to know, of course. Relax, son—no one was killed. You were framed.”

  “Huh? What are you talking about?”

  Burke sat down and laughed until he had tears. Matt grabbed him by the shoulder. “Cut that out and talk.”

  The other candidate stopped and looked up. “Honest, I rather like you, Dodson—you’re such a perfect country cousin. How do you feel about Santa Claus and the Stork?”


  “Haven’t you caught on to what they’ve been doing to you ever since you checked in?”

  “Doing what?”

  “War of nerves, man. Haven’t you noticed some tests were too easy—too easy to cheat in, that is? When you went over the bumps, didn’t you notice that they let you take a good look at the drop before you made it? When they could just as easily have kept you inside where it wouldn’t worry you?”

  Matt thought about it. It was an enticing notion—he could see how some of the things he had not understood would fit in to such a theory. “Go on.”

  “Oh, it’s a good gag—it cleans out the weak sisters and it cleans out the stupes, too—the guys so dumb that they can’t resist an invitation to cheat, never dreaming that it might be booby-trapped. It’s efficient—a Patrol officer has to be smart and fast on his feet and cool-headed. It keeps from wasting money on second-raters.”

  “You just called me dumb and yet I got by.”

  “Of course you did, junior, because your heart is pure.” He laughed again. “And I got by. But you’ll never make a Patrolman, Matt. They’ve got other ways to get rid of the good, dumb boys. You’ll see.”

  “Okay, so I’m dumb. But don’t call me ju
nior again. What’s this got to do with the ship that crashed?”

  “Why, it’s simple. They want to eliminate all the dead-wood before swearing us in. There are candidates with cast-iron stomachs who don’t get upset by the bumps, or anything. So they send up a ship under robot control—no pilot, no passengers—and crash it, just to scare off those who can be scared. It’s a darn sight cheaper than training just one cadet, if he doesn’t pay off in the long run.”

  “How do you know? Have you got inside information on it?”

  “In a way, yes. It’s a logical necessity—those ships can’t crash, unless you crash ’em on purpose. I know—my old man makes them.”

  “Well—maybe you’re right.” Matt dropped the matter, unsatisfied but lacking basis for further argument. It did convince him of one thing, however—spacesickness or not, come what may, he resolved to hang on as long as Girard Burke did, and at least twenty-four hours longer!

  His table at dinner that night was numbered “147, 149, 151 & 153.” There was room enough to seat the survivors.

  Cadet Sabbatello looked them over pleasantly. “Congratulations, gentlemen, on having lasted it out. Since you will be sworn in tonight, when next we meet it will be in a different status.” He grinned. “So relax and enjoy your last meal of freedom.”

  In spite of no effective breakfast and little lunch, Matt found himself unable to eat much. Girard Burke’s interpretation of the tests and what they meant troubled him. He still intended to take the oath, but he had an uneasy feeling that he was about to take it without knowing what it signified—what the Patrol really was.

  When the meal broke up, on sudden impulse he followed the cadet in charge of the table out. “Excuse me—Mr. Sabbatello, could I speak to you privately, sir?”

  “Eh? I suppose so—come along.” He led Matt to his own room; it was exactly like Matt’s. “Now what is it?”

  “Uh—Mr. Sabbatello, that crash today: was anybody hurt?”

  “Hurt? It killed eleven people. Don’t you call that hurt?”

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