Space Cadet


  He had fancied himself, before becoming a cadet, as rather bright in mathematics, and so he was—by ordinary standards. He had not anticipated what it would be like to be part of a group of which every member was unusually talented in the language of science. He signed up for personal coaching in mathematics and studied harder than ever. The additional effort kept him from failing, but that was all.

  It is not possible to work all the time without cracking up, but the environment would have kept Matt from overworking even if he had been so disposed. Corridor number five of “A” deck, where Matt and his roommates lived, was known as “Hog Alley” and had acquired a ripe reputation for carefree conduct even before Tex Jarman added his talents.

  The current “Mayor of Hog Alley” was an oldster named Bill Arensa. He was a brilliant scholar and seemed able to absorb the most difficult study spool in a single playing, but he had been in the Randolph an unusually long time—a matter of accumulated demerits.

  One evening after supper, soon after arrival, Matt and Tex were attempting to produce a little harmony. Matt was armed with a comb and a piece of tissue paper; Tex had his harmonica. A bellow from across the hallway stopped them. “Open up in there! You youngsters—come busting out!”

  Tex and Matt appeared as ordered. The Mayor looked them over. “No blood,” he remarked. “I’d swear I heard someone being killed. Go back and get your noisemakers.”

  Arensa ushered them into his own room, which was crowded. He waved a hand around at the occupants. “Meet the Hog Alley People’s Forum—Senator Mushmouth, Senator Filibuster, Senator Hidebound, Doctor Dogoodly, and the Marquis de Sade. Gentlemen, meet Commissioner Wretched and Professor Farflung.” The oldster went into his study cubicle.

  “What’s your name, Mister?” said one of the cadets, addressing Tex.

  “Jarman, sir.”

  “And yours?”

  “We’ve got no time for those details,” announced Arensa, returning bearing a guitar. “That number you gentlemen were working on—let’s try it again. Brace yourself for the downbeat…and a one, and a two!”

  Thus was born the Hog Alley band. It grew to seven pieces and started working on a repertoire to be presented at a ship’s entertainment. Matt dropped out when he became eligible for the space polo league, as he could not spare time for both—his meager talent was no loss to the band.

  Nevertheless he remained in the orbit of the oldster. Arensa adopted all four of them, required them to report to his room from time to time, and supervised their lives. However, he never placed them on the report. By comparing notes with other youngster cadets on this point, Matt discovered that he and his friends were well off. They attended numerous sessions of the “Forum,” first by direction, later from choice. The staple recreation in the Randolph, as it is in all boarding schools, was the bull session. The talk ranged through every possible subject and was kept spiced by Arensa’s original and usually radical ideas.

  However, no matter what was discussed, the subject usually worked around to girls and then broke up with the unstartling conclusion: “There’s no sense in talking about it—there aren’t any girls in the Randolph. Let’s turn in.”

  Almost as entertaining was the required seminar in “Doubt.” The course had been instituted by the present commandant and resulted from his own observation that every military organization—with the Patrol no exception—suffered from an inherent vice. A military hierarchy automatically places a premium on conservative behavior and dull conformance with precedent; it tends to penalize original and imaginative thinking. Commodore Arkwright realized that these tendencies are inherent and inescapable; he hoped to offset them a bit by setting up a course that could not be passed without original thinking.

  The method was the discussion group, made up of youngsters, oldsters, and officers. The seminar leader would chuck out some proposition that attacked a value usually regarded as axiomatic. From there on anything could be said.

  It took Matt a while to get the hang of it. At his first session the leader offered: “Resolved: that the Patrol is a detriment and should be abolished.” Matt could hardly believe his ears.

  In rapid succession he heard it suggested that the past hundred years of Patrol-enforced peace had damaged the race, that the storm of mutations that followed atomic warfare were necessarily of net benefit under the inexorable laws of evolution, that neither the human race nor any of the other races of the system could expect to survive permanently in the universe if they deliberately forsook war, and that, in any case, the Patrol was made up of a bunch of self-righteous fatheads who mistook their own trained-in prejudices for the laws of nature.

  Matt contributed nothing to the first discussion he attended.

  The following week he heard both mother love and love of mother questioned. He wanted to reply, but, for the life of him, could think of no other answer than “Because!” Thereafter came attacks on monotheism as a desirable religious form, the usefulness of the scientific method, and the rule of the majority, in reaching decisions. He discovered that it was permissible to express opinions that were orthodox as well as ones that were unorthodox and began to join the debate by defending some of his own pet ideas.

  At once he found his own unconscious assumptions that lay behind his opinions subjected to savage attack and found himself again reduced to a stubborn and unvoiced “Because!”

  He began to catch on to the method and found that he could ask an innocent question that would undermine someone else’s line of argument. From then on he had a good time.

  He particularly enjoyed it after Girard Burke was assigned to his seminar. Matt would lie in wait until Girard would express some definite opinion, then jump him—always with a question; never with a statement. For some reason not clear to Matt, Burke’s opinions were always orthodox; to attack them Matt was forced to do some original thinking.

  But he asked Burke about it after class one day. “See here, Burke—I thought you were the bird with a new slant on everything?”

  “Well, maybe I am. What about it?”

  “You don’t sound like it in ‘Doubt.’”

  Burke looked wise. “You don’t catch me sticking my neck out.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Do you think our dear superiors are really interested in your bright ideas? Won’t you ever learn to recognize a booby trap, son?”

  Matt thought about it. “I think you’re crazy.” Nevertheless he chewed it over.

  The days rolled past. The pace was so hard that there was little time to be bored. Matt shared the herd credo of all cadets that the Randolph was a madhouse, unfit for human habitation, sky junk, etc., etc.—but in fact he had no opinion of his own about the school ship; he was too busy. At first he had had some acute twinges of homesickness; thereafter it seemed to recede. There was nothing but the treadmill of study, drill, more study, laboratory, sleep, eat, and study again.

  He was returning from the communications office, coming off watch late one night, when he heard sounds from Pete’s cubicle. At first he thought Pete must be running his projector, studying late. He was about to bang on his door and suggest going up to the galley to wheedle a cup of cocoa when he became convinced that the sound was not a projector.

  Cautiously he opened the door a crack. The sound was sobbing. He closed the door noiselessly and knocked on it. After a short silence Pete said, “Come in.”

  Matt went in. “Got anything to eat?”

  “Some cookies in my desk.”

  Matt got them out. “You look sick, Pete. Anything wrong?”

  “No. Nothing.”

  “Don’t give me the space drift. Out with it.”

  Pete hesitated. “It’s nothing. Nothing anybody can do anything about.”

  “Maybe so, maybe not. Tell me.”

  “There’s nothing you can do. I’m homesick, that’s all!”

  “Oh—” Matt had a sudden vision of the rolling hills and broad farms of Iowa. He suppressed it. “That’s ba
d, kid. I know how you feel.”

  “No, you don’t. Why, you’re practically at home—you can just step to a port and see it.”

  “That’s no help.”

  “And it hasn’t been so terribly long since you’ve been home. Me—it took me two years just to make the trip to Terra; there’s no way of telling when I’ll ever see home again.” Pete’s eyes got a faraway look; his voice became almost lyrical. “You don’t know what it’s like, Matt. You’ve never seen it. You know what they say: ‘Every civilized man has two planets, his own and Ganymede.’”

  “Huh?”

  Pete did not even hear him. “Jupiter hanging overhead, filling half the sky—” He stopped. “It’s beautiful, Matt. There’s no place like it.”

  Matt found himself thinking about Des Moines in a late summer evening…with fireflies winking and the cicadas singing in the trees, and the air so thick and heavy you could cup it in your hand. Suddenly he hated the steel shell around him, with its eternal free fall and its filtered air and its artificial lights. “Why did we ever sign up, Pete?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t know!”

  “Are you going to resign?”

  “I can’t. My father had to put up a bond to cover my passage both ways—if I leave voluntarily he’s stuck for it.”

  Tex came in, yawning and scratching. “What’s the matter with you guys? Can’t you sleep? Don’t you want anybody else to sleep?”

  “Sorry, Tex.”

  Jarman looked them over. “You both look like your pet dog had died. What’s the trouble?”

  Matt bit his lip. “Nothing much. I’m homesick, that’s all.”

  Pete spoke up at once. “That’s not quite straight. I was the one that was pulling the baby act—Matt was trying to cheer me up.”

  Tex looked puzzled. “I don’t get it. What difference does it make where you are so long as you aren’t in Texas?”

  “Oh, Tex, for heaven’s sake!” Matt exploded.

  “What’s the matter? Did I say something wrong?” Tex looked from Matt to Pete. “Pete, you certainly are a mighty far piece away from your folks, I’ve got to admit. Tell you what—comes time we get some leave, you come home with me. I’ll let you count the legs on a horse.”

  Pete grinned feebly. “And meet your Uncle Bodie?”

  “Sho’, sho’! Uncle Bodie’ll tell you about the time he rode the twister, bareback. Is it a deal?”

  “If you’ll come to visit at my home someday. You, too, Matt.”

  “It’s a deal.” They shook hands all around.

  The effects of the nostalgic binge with Pete might have worn off if another incident had not happened soon after. Matt went across the passage to Arensa’s room, intending to ask the oldster for some help in a tricky problem in astrogation. He found the oldster packing. “Come in, Senator,” said Arensa. “Don’t clutter up the doorway. What’s on your mind, son?”

  “Uh, nothing, I guess. You got your ship, sir?” Arensa had been passed for outer duty the month before; he was now technically a “passed cadet” as well as an “oldster.”

  “No.” He picked up a sheaf of papers, glanced at them, and tore them across. “But I’m leaving.”

  “Oh.”

  “No need to be delicate about it—I wasn’t fired. I’ve resigned.”

  “Oh.”

  “Don’t stare at me and say ‘oh’! What’s so odd about resigning?”

  “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

  “You were wondering why, weren’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve had it, that’s why. I’ve had it and I’m sick of it. Because, sonny, I have no wish to be a superman. My halo is too tight and I’m chucking it. Can you understand that?”

  “Oh, I wasn’t criticizing!”

  “No, but you were thinking it. You stick with it, Senator. You’re just the sort of serious-minded young squirt they want and need. But not for me—I’m not going to be an archangel, charging around the sky and brandishing a flaming sword. Did you ever stop to think what it would feel like to atom-bomb a city? Have you ever really thought about it?”

  “Why, I don’t know. It hasn’t been necessary for the Patrol actually to use a bomb since they got it rolling right. I don’t suppose it ever will be.”

  “But that’s what you signed up for, just the same. It’s your reason for being, my boy.” He stopped and picked up his guitar. “Forget it. Now what can I do with this? I’ll sell it to you cheap, Earth-side price.”

  “I couldn’t even pay Earth-side prices right now.”

  “Take it as a gift.” Arensa chucked it at him. “The Hog Alley band ought to have a gitter and I can get another. In thirty minutes I shall be in Terra Station, Senator, and six hours later I shall be back with the ground crawlers, the little people who don’t know how to play God—and wouldn’t want to!”

  Matt couldn’t think of anything to say.

  It seemed odd thereafter not to have Arensa’s bellowing voice across the passageway, but Matt did not have time to think about it. Matt’s drill section in piloting was ordered to the Moon for airless-landing.

  The section had progressed from scooters to drill in an A-6 utility rocket rigged for instruction. The cargo space of this ship—P.R.S. Shakysides to the cadets; drill craft #106 on the rolls of the Randolph—had been fitted as a dozen duplicate control rooms, similar in every visible detail to the real control rooms, to the last switch, dial, scope and key. The instruments in the duplicate rooms showed the same data as their twins in the master room but when a cadet touched a control in one of the instruction rooms, it had no effect on the ship; instead the operation was recorded on tape.

  The pilot’s operations were recorded, too, so that each student pilot could compare what he did with what he should have done, after having practiced under conditions identical with those experienced by the actual pilot.

  The section had completed all it could learn from practice contacts at the Randolph and at Terra Station. They needed the hazard of a planet. The two-day trip to Moon Base was made in the Shakysides herself, under conditions only a little worse than those encountered by an emigrant.

  Matt and his companions saw nothing of the Lunar colonies. There was no liberty; they lived for two weeks in pressurized underground barracks at the Base and went up to the field each day for landing drill, first in the dummy control rooms of the Shakysides, then in dual-controlled A-6 rockets for actual piloting.

  Matt soloed at the end of the first week. He had the “feel” for piloting; given a pre-calculated flight plan he could make his craft respond. It was as natural to him as mathematical astrogation was difficult.

  Soloing left him with time on his hands. He explored the Base and took a space-suited walk on the burned and airless Lunar plain. The student pilots were quartered in a corner of the marine barracks. Matt killed time by watching the space marines and chinning with the non-coms.

  He liked the spit-and-polish style with which the space marines did things, the strutting self-confidence with which they handled themselves. There is no more resplendent sight in the solar system than an old space-marine sergeant in full dress, covered with stripes, hash marks, and ribbons, the silver at his temples matching the blazing sunburst on his chest. Matt began to feel dowdy in the one plain, insignialess uniform he had brought in his jump bag.

  He enjoyed their frequent ceremonials. At first it startled him to hear a unit mustered without the ghostly repetition of the names of the Four—“Dahlquist! Martin! Rivera! Wheeler!”—but the marines had traditional rites of their own and more of them.

  Faithful to his intention of swotting astrogation as hard as possible, Matt had brought some typical problems along. Reluctantly he tackled them one day. “Given: Departure from the orbit of Deimos, Mars, not earlier than 1200 Greenwich, 15 May 2087; chemical fuel, exhaust velocity 10,000 meters per second; destination, suprastratospheric orbit around Venus. Required: Most economical orbit to destination and quickest orbit, mass-ratios and times of departure and arrival
for each. Prepare flight plan and designate check points, with pre-calculation for each point, using stars of 2nd magnitude or brighter. Questions: Is it possible to save time or fuel by tacking on the Terra-Luna pair? What known meteor drifts will be encountered and what evasive plans, if any, should be made? All answers must conform to space regulations as well as to ballistic principles.”

  The problem could not be solved in any reasonable length of time without machine calculation. However, Matt could set it up and then, with luck, sweet-talk the officer in charge of the Base’s computation room into letting him use a ballistic integrator. He got to work.

  The sweet voice of a bugle reached him, first call for changing the guard. He ignored it.

  He was sweating over his preliminary standard approximation when the bugle again interrupted him with call-to-muster. It completely disrupted his chain of reasoning. Confounded problem!—why would they assign such a silly problem anyhow? The Patrol didn’t fiddle around with chemical fuels and most economical orbits—that was merchant service stuff.

  Two minutes later he was watching guard mount, down in the main hall under the barracks. When the band sounded off with “Till the Suns are cold and the heavens dark—” Matt found himself choking up.

  He stopped by the guard office, reluctant to get back to the fussy complexities of mathematics. The new sergeant of the guard was an acquaintance, Master Sergeant Macleod. “Come in, young fellow, and rest yourself. Did you see the guard mount?”

  “Thanks. Yes, I did. It’s pretty wonderful to see.”

  “Know what you mean. Been doing it twenty years and I get more of a bang out of it than I did when I was a recruit. How’s tricks? They keeping you busy?”

  Matt grinned sheepishly. “I’m playing hooky. I should be studying astrogation, but I get so darned sick of it.”

  “Don’t blame you a bit. Figures make my head ache.”

  Matt found himself telling the older man his troubles. Sergeant Macleod eyed him with sympathetic interest. “See here, Mr. Dodson—you don’t like that long-haired stuff. Why don’t you chuck it?”

  “Huh?”

 
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