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Rocket Ship Galileo

Robert A. Heinlein




  Printed in the United States of America

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons















































  • 1 •

  “EVERYBODY ALL SET?” Young Ross Jenkins glanced nervously at his two chums. “How about your camera, Art? You sure you got the lens cover off this time?”

  The three boys were huddled against a thick concrete wall, higher than their heads and about ten feet long. It separated them from a steel stand, anchored to the ground, to which was bolted a black metal shape, a pointed projectile, venomous in appearance and ugly—a rocket. There were fittings on each side to which stub wings might be attached, but the fittings were empty; the creature was chained down for scientific examination.

  “How about it, Art?” Ross repeated. The boy addressed straightened up to his full five feet three and faced him.

  “Look,” Art Mueller answered, “of course I took the cover off—it’s on my check-off list. You worry about your rocket—last time it didn’t fire at all and I wasted twenty feet of film.”

  “But you forgot it once—okay, okay, how about your lights?”

  For answer Art switched on his spot lights; the beams shot straight up, bounced against highly polished stainless-steel mirrors and brilliantly illuminated the model rocket and the framework which would keep it from taking off during the test. A third boy, Maurice Abrams, peered at the scene through a periscope which allowed them to look over the reinforced concrete wall which shielded them from the rocket test stand.

  “Pretty as a picture,” he announced, excitement in his voice. “Ross—do you really think this fuel mix is what we’re looking for?”

  Ross shrugged, “I don’t know. The lab tests looked good—we’ll soon know. All right—places everybody! Check-off lists—Art?”




  “And mine’s complete. Stand by! I’m going to start the clock. Here goes!” He started checking off the seconds until the rocket was fired. “Minus ten…minus nine…minus eight…minus seven…minus six…minus five…minus four…” Art wet his lips and started his camera. “Minus three! Minus two! Minus one!—Contact!”

  “Let it roar!” Morrie yelled, his voice already drowned by the ear-splitting noise of the escaping rocket gas.

  A great plume of black smoke surged out the orifice of the thundering rocket when it was first fired, billowed against an earth ramp set twenty feet behind the rocket test stand and filled the little clearing with choking fumes. Ross shook his head in dissatisfaction at this and made an adjustment in the controls under his hand. The smoke cleared away; through the periscope in front of him he could see the rocket exhaust on the other side of the concrete barricade. The flame had cleared of the wasteful smoke and was almost transparent, save for occasional sparks. He could actually see trees and ground through the jet of flame. The images shimmered and shook but the exhaust gases were smoke-free.

  “What does the dynamometer read?” he shouted to Morrie without taking his eyes away from the periscope.

  Morrie studied the instrument, rigged to the test stand itself, by means of a pair of opera glasses and his own periscope. “I can’t read it!” he shouted. “Yes, I can—wait a minute. Fifty-two—no, make it a hundred and fifty-two; it’s second time around. Hunderfiftytwo, fif’three, -four. Ross, you’ve done it! You’ve done it! That’s more than twice as much thrust as the best we’ve ever had.”

  Art looked up from where he was nursing his motion-picture camera. It was a commercial 8-millimeter job, modified by him to permit the use of more film so that every second of a test could be recorded. The modification worked, but was cantankerous and had to be nursed along. “How much more time?” he demanded.

  “Seventeen seconds,” Ross yelled at him. “Stand by—I’m going to give her the works.” He twisted his throttle-monitor valve to the right, wide open.

  The rocket responded by raising its voice from a deep-throated roar to a higher pitch with an angry overtone almost out of the audible range. It spoke with snarling menace.

  Ross looked up to see Morrie back away from his periscope and climb on a box, opera glasses in hand. “Morrie—get your head down!” The boy did not hear him against the scream of the jet, intent as he was on getting a better view of the rocket.

  Ross jumped away from the controls and dived at him, tackling him around the waist and dragging him down behind the safety of the barricade. They hit the ground together rather heavily and struggled there. It was not a real fight; Ross was angry, though not fighting mad, while Morrie was merely surprised. “What’s the idea?” he protested, when he caught his breath.

  “You crazy idiot!” Ross grunted in his ear. “What were you trying to do? Get your head blown off?”

  “But I wasn’t—” But Ross was already clambering to his feet and returning to his place at the controls; Morrie’s explanation, if any, was lost in the roar of the rocket.

  “What goes on?” Art yelled. He had not left his place by his beloved camera, not only from a sense of duty but at least partly from indecision as to which side of the battle he should join.

  Ross heard his shout and turned to speak. “This goon,” he yelled bitterly, jerking a thumb at Morrie, “tried to—”

  Ross’s version of the incident was lost; the snarling voice of the rocket suddenly changed pitch, then lost itself in a bone-shaking explosion. At the same time there was a dazzling flash which would have blinded the boys had they not been protected by the barricade, but which nevertheless picked out every detail of the clearing in the trees with brilliance that numbed the eyes.

  They were still blinking at the memory of the ghastly light when billowing clouds of smoke welled up from beyond the barricade, surrounded them, and made them cough.

  “Well,” Ross said bitterly and looked directly at Morrie, “that’s the last of the Starstruck V.”

  “Look, Ross,” Morrie protested, his voice sounding shrill in the strange new stillness, “I didn’t do it. I was only trying to—”

  “I didn’t say you did,” Ross cut him short. “I know you didn’t do it. I had already made my last adjustment. She was on her own and she couldn’t take it. Forget it. But keep your head down after this—you darn near lost it. That’s what the barricade is for.”

  “But I wasn’t going to sti
ck my head up. I was just going to try—”

  “Both of you forget it,” Art butted in. “So we blew up another one. So what? We’ll build another one. Whatever happened, I got it right here in the can.” He patted his camera. “Let’s take a look at the wreck.” He started to head around the end of the barricade.

  “Wait a minute,” Ross commanded. He took a careful look through his periscope, then announced: “Seems okay. Both fuel chambers are split. There can’t be any real danger now. Don’t burn yourselves. Come on.” They followed him around to the test stand.

  The rocket itself was a complete wreck but the test stand was undamaged; it was built to take such punishment. Art turned his attention to the dynamometer which measured the thrust generated by the rocket. “I’ll have to recalibrate this,” he announced. “The loop isn’t hurt, but the dial and the rack-and-pinion are shot.”

  The other two boys did not answer him; they were busy with the rocket itself. The combustion chamber was split wide open and it was evident that pieces were missing. “How about it, Ross?” Morrie inquired. “Do you figure it was the metering pump going haywire, or was the soup just too hot for it?”

  “Hard to tell,” Ross mused absently. “I don’t think it was the pump. The pump might jam and refuse to deliver fuel at all, but I don’t see how it could deliver too much fuel—unless it reared back and passed a miracle.”

  “Then it must have been the combustion chamber. The throat is all right. It isn’t even pitted—much,” he added as he peered at it in the gathering twilight.

  “Maybe. Well, let’s throw a tarp over it and look it over tomorrow morning. Can’t see anything now. Come on, Art.”

  “Okay. Just a sec while I get my camera.” He detached his camera from its bracket and placed it in its carrying case, then helped the other two drag canvas tarpaulins over all the test gear—one for the test stand, one for the barricade with its controls, instruments, and periscopes. Then the three turned away and headed out of the clearing.

  The clearing was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, placed there at the insistence of Ross’s parents, to whom the land belonged, in order to keep creatures, both four-legged and two-legged, from wandering into the line of fire while the boys were experimenting. The gate in this fence was directly behind the barricade and about fifty feet from it.

  They had had no occasion to glance in the direction of the gate since the beginning of the test run—indeed, their attentions had been so heavily on the rocket that anything less than an earthquake would hardly have disturbed them.

  Ross and Morrie were a little in front with Art close at their heels, so close that, when they stopped suddenly, he stumbled over them and almost dropped his camera. “Hey, watch where you’re going, can’t you?” he protested. “Pick up your big feet!”

  They did not answer but stood still, staring ahead and at the ground. “What gives?” he went on. “Why the trance? Why do—oh!” He had seen it too. “It” was the body of a large man, crumpled on the ground, half in and half out the gate. There was a bloody wound on his head and blood on the ground.

  They all rushed forward together, but it was Morrie who shoved them back and kept them from touching the prone figure. “Take it easy!” he ordered. “Don’t touch him. Remember your first aid. That’s a head wound. If you touch him, you may kill him.”

  “But we’ve got to find out if he’s alive,” Ross objected.

  “I’ll find out. Here—give me those.” He reached out and appropriated the data sheets of the rocket test run from where they stuck out of Ross’s pocket. These he rolled into a tube about an inch in diameter, then cautiously placed it against the back of the still figure, on the left side over the heart. Placing his ear to the other end of the improvised stethoscope he listened. Ross and Art waited breathlessly.

  Presently his tense face relaxed into a grin. “His motor is turning over,” he announced. “Good and strong. At least we didn’t kill him.”


  “Who do you think? How do you think he got this way? Take a look around and you’ll probably find the piece of the rocket that konked him.” He straightened up. “But never mind that now. Ross, you shag up to your house and call an ambulance. Make it fast! Art and I will wait here with…with, uh, him. He may come to and we’ll have to keep him quiet.”

  “Okay.” Ross was gone as he spoke.

  Art was staring at the unconscious man. Morrie touched him on the arm. “Sit down, kid. No use getting in a sweat. We’ll have trouble enough later. Even if this guy isn’t hurt much I suppose you realize this about winds up the activities of the Galileo Marching-and-Chowder Society—at least the rocketry-and-loud-noises branch of it.”

  Art looked unhappy. “I suppose so.”

  “‘Suppose’ nothing. It’s certain. Ross’s father took a very dim view of the matter the time we blew all the windows out of his basement—not that I blame him. Now we hand him this. Loss of the use of the land is the least we can expect. We’ll be lucky not to have handed him a suit for damages too.”

  Art agreed miserably. “I guess it’s back to stamp collecting for us,” he assented, but his mind was elsewhere. Law suit. The use of the land did not matter. To be sure the use of the Old Ross Place on the edge of town had been swell for all three of them, what with him and his mother living in back of the store, and Morrie’s folks living in a flat, but—law suit! Maybe Ross’s parents could afford it; but the little store just about kept Art and his mother going, even with the afterschool jobs he had had ever since junior high—a law suit would take the store away from them.

  His first feeling of frightened sympathy for the wounded man was beginning to be replaced by a feeling of injustice done him. What was the guy doing there anyhow? It wasn’t just trespass; the whole area was posted with warning signs.

  “Let me have a look at this guy,” he said.

  “Don’t touch him,” Morrie warned.

  “I won’t. Got your pocket flash?” It was becoming quite dark in the clearing.

  “Sure. Here…catch.”

  Art took the little flashlight and tried to examine the face of their victim—hard to do, as he was almost face down and the side of his face that was visible was smeared with blood.

  Presently Art said in an odd tone of voice, “Morrie—would it hurt anything to wipe some of this blood away?”

  “You’re dern tootin’ it would! You let him be till the doctor comes.”

  “All right, all right. Anyhow I don’t need to—I’m sure anyhow. Morrie, I know who he is.”

  “You do? Who?”

  “He’s my uncle.”

  “Your uncle!”

  “Yes, my uncle. You know—the one I’ve told you about. He’s my Uncle Don. Doctor Donald Cargraves, my ‘Atomic Bomb’ uncle.”


  • 2 •

  “AT LEAST I’M PRETTY SURE it’s my uncle,” Art went on. “I could tell for certain if I could see his whole face.”

  “Don’t you know whether or not he’s your uncle? After all, a member of your own family—”

  “Nope. I haven’t seen him since he came through here to see Mother, just after the war. That’s been a long time. I was just a kid then. But it looks like him.”

  “But he doesn’t look old enough,” Morrie said judiciously. “I should think—Here comes the ambulance!”

  It was indeed, with Ross riding with the driver to show him the road and the driver cussing the fact that the road existed mostly in Ross’s imagination. They were all too busy for a few minutes, worrying over the stranger as a patient, to be much concerned with his identity as an individual. “Doesn’t look too bad,” the interne who rode with the ambulance announced. “Nasty scalp wound. Maybe concussion, maybe not. Now over with him—easy!—while I hold his head.” When turned face up and lifted into the stretcher, the patient’s eyes flickered; he moaned and seemed to try to say something. The doctor leaned over him.

  Art caught Morrie’s eye and
pressed a thumb and forefinger together. There was no longer any doubt as to the man’s identity, now that Art had seen his face.

  Ross started to climb back in the ambulance but the interne waved him away. “But all of you boys show up at the hospital. We’ll have to make out an accident report on this.”

  As soon as the ambulance lumbered away Art told Ross about his discovery. Ross looked startled. “Your uncle, eh? Your own uncle. What was he doing here?”

  “I don’t know. I didn’t know he was in town.”

  “Say, look—I hope he’s not hurt bad, especially seeing as how he’s your uncle—but is this the uncle, the one you were telling us about who has been mentioned for the Nobel Prize?”

  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. He’s my Uncle Donald Cargraves.”

  “Doctor Donald Cargraves!” Ross whistled. “Jeepers! When we start slugging people we certainly go after big game, don’t we?”

  “It’s no laughing matter. Suppose he dies? What’ll I tell my mother?”

  “I wasn’t laughing. Let’s get over to the hospital and find out how bad he’s hurt before you tell her anything. No use in worrying her unnecessarily.” Ross sighed, “I guess we might as well break the news to my folks. Then I’ll drive us over to the hospital.”

  “Didn’t you tell them when you telephoned?” Morrie asked.

  “No. They were out in the garden, so I just phoned and then leaned out to the curb to wait for the ambulance. They may have seen it come in the drive but I didn’t wait to find out.”

  “I’ll bet you didn’t.”

  Ross’s father was waiting for them at the house. He answered their greetings, then said, “Ross—”

  “Yes, sir?”

  “I heard an explosion down toward your private stamping ground. Then I saw an ambulance drive in and drive away. What happened?”