Transcriber's Note There is no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Several obvious typographical errors were corrected, one possible typographical error was left as is, and hyphenation was standardized. A list of these items may be found at the end of the text. Words and phrases surrounded by _'s _like this_ are in italics in the original text. Although the cover page includes the title "STAND BY FOR MARS!" that book is not included in this e-text. Enjoy!
DANGER IN DEEP SPACE
THE TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET STORIES
By Carey Rockwell
STAND BY FOR MARS! DANGER IN DEEP SPACE
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
DANGER IN DEEP SPACE
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1953, BY ROCKHILL RADIO
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Illustrations by LOUIS GLANZMAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The three weary cadets assembled on the control deck 13
The junior spaceman maneuvered the great rocket ship toward the air lock 36
The jet cab raced along the highway to Venusport 54
Tom could see two space-suited figures floating effortlessly 76
Mason was frozen into a rigid statue, unable to move 133
"Remember," Astro cautioned, "set the fuse for two hours" 161
Landing, they would tumble out of the jet boat and begin their frantic digging 180
"I know we're going to be sent to the prison asteroid and we deserve it," said Loring 206
DANGER IN DEEP SPACE
"Stand by to reduce thrust on main drive rockets!" The tall, broad-shouldered officer in the uniform of the Solar Guard snapped out the order as he watched the telescanner screen and saw the Western Hemisphere of Earth looming larger and larger.
"Aye, aye, Captain Strong," replied a handsome curly-haired Space Cadet. He turned to the ship's intercom and spoke quickly into the microphone.
"Control deck to power deck. Check in!"
"Power deck, aye," a bull-throated voice bellowed over the loud-speaker.
"Stand by rockets, Astro! We're coming in for a landing."
The Solar Guard officer turned away from the telescanner and glanced quickly over the illuminated banks of indicators on the control panel. "Is our orbit to Space Academy clear?" he asked the cadet. "Have we been assigned a landing ramp?"
"I'll check topside, sir," answered the cadet, turning back to the intercom. "Control deck to radar deck. Check in!"
"Radar bridge, aye," drawled a lazy voice over the speaker.
"Are we cleared for landing, Roger?"
"Everything clear as glass ahead, Tom," was the calm reply.
"We're steady on orbit and we touch down on ramp seven. Then"—the voice began to quicken with excitement—"three weeks' liberty coming up!"
The rumbling voice of the power-deck cadet suddenly broke in over the intercom. "Lay off that space gas, Manning. Just see that this space wagon gets on the ground in one piece. Then you can dream about your leave!"
"Plug your jets, you big Venusian ape man," was the reply, "or I'll turn you inside out!"
"Yeah? You and what fleet of spaceships?"
"Just me, buster, with my bare hands!"
The Solar Guard officer on the control deck smiled at the young cadet beside him as the good-natured argument crackled over the intercom speaker overhead. "Looks like those two will never stop battling, Corbett," he commented dryly.
"Guess they'll never learn, sir," sighed the cadet.
"That's all right. It's when they stop battling that I'll start getting worried," answered the officer. He turned back to the controls. "One hundred thousand feet from Earth's surface! Begin landing procedure!"
As Cadet Tom Corbett snapped orders into the intercom and his unit-mates responded by smooth co-ordinated action, the giant rocket cruiser Polaris slowly arched through Earth's atmosphere, first nosing up to lose speed and then settling tailfirst toward its destination—the spaceport at Space Academy, U.S.A.
Far below, on the grounds of the Academy, cadets wearing the green uniforms of first-year Earthworms and the blue of the upper-classmen stopped all activity as they heard the blasting of the braking rockets high in the heavens. They stared enviously into the sky, watching the smooth steel-hulled spaceship drop toward the concrete ramp area of the spaceport, three miles away.
In his office at the top of the gleaming Tower of Galileo, Commander Walters, commandant of Space Academy, paused for a moment from his duties and turned from his desk to watch the touchdown of the great spaceship. And on the grassy quadrangle, Warrant Officer Mike McKenny, short and stubby in his scarlet uniform of the enlisted Solar Guard, stopped his frustrating task of drilling newly arrived cadets to watch the mighty ship come to Earth.
Young and old, the feeling of belonging to the great fleet that patrolled the space lanes across the millions of miles of the solar system was something that never died in a true spaceman. The green-clad cadets dreamed of the future when they would feel the bucking rockets in their backs. And the older men smiled faintly as memories of their own first space flight came to mind.
Aboard the Polaris, the young cadet crew worked swiftly and smoothly to bring their ship to a safe landing. There was Tom Corbett, an average young man in this age of science, who had been selected as the control-deck and command cadet of the Polaris unit after rigid examinations and tests. Topside, on the radar bridge, was Roger Manning, cocky and brash, but a specialist in radar and communications. Below, on the power deck, was Astro, a colonial from Venus, who had been accused of cutting his teeth on an atomic rocket motor, so great was his skill with the mighty "thrust buckets," as he lovingly called the atomic rockets.
Now, returning from a routine training flight that had taken them to the moons of Jupiter, the three cadets, Corbett, Manning, and Astro, and their unit skipper, Captain Steve Strong, completed the delicate task of setting the great ship down on the Academy spaceport.
"Closing in fast, sir," announced Tom, his attention focused on the meters and dials in front of him. "Five hundred feet to touchdown."
"Full braking thrust!" snapped Strong crisply.
Deep inside the Polaris, braking rockets roared with unceasing power, and the mighty spaceship eased itself to the concrete surface of the Academy spaceport.
"Touchdown!" yelled Tom. He quickly closed the master control lever, cutting all power, and sudden silence filled the ship. He stood up and faced Strong, saluting smartly.
"Rocket cruiser Polaris completes mission"—he glanced at the astral chronometer on the panel board—"at fifteen thirty-three, sir."
"Very well, Corbett," replied Strong, returning the salute. "Check the Polaris from radar mast to exhaust ports right away."
"Yes, sir," was Tom's automatic answer, and then he caught himself. "But I thought—"
Strong interrupted him with a wave of his hand. "I know, Corbett, you thought the Polaris would be pulled in for a general overhaul and you three would get liberty."
"Yes, sir," replied Tom.
"I'm not sure you won't get it," said Strong, "but I received a message last night from Commander Walters. I think the Polaris unit might have another assignment coming up!"
"By the rings of Saturn," drawled Roger from the open hatch to the radar bridge, "you might know the old man would have another mission for us! We haven't had a liberty since we were Earthworms!"
"I'm sorry, Manning," said Strong, "but you know if I had my way, you'd certainly get the liberty. If anyone deserves it, you three do."
By this time Astro had joined the group on the control deck.
"But, sir," ventured Tom, "we've all made plans, I mean—well, my folks are expecting me."
"Us, you mean," interrupted Roger. "Astro and I are your guests, remember?"
"Sure, I remember," said Tom, smiling. He turned back to Captain Strong. "We'd appreciate it if you could do something for us, sir. I mean—well, have another unit assigned."
Strong stepped forward and put his arms around the shoulders of Tom and Roger and faced Astro. "I'm afraid you three made a big mistake in becoming the best unit in the Academy. Now every time there's an important assignment to be handed out the name of the Polaris unit sticks out like a hot rocket!"
"Some consolation," said Roger dourly.
Strong smiled. "All right, check this wagon and then report to me in my quarters in the morning. You'll have tonight off at least. Unit dis-missed!"
The three cadets snapped their backs straight, stood rigid, and saluted as their superior officer strode toward the hatch. His foot on the ladder, he turned and faced them again.
"It's been a fine mission. I want to compliment you on the way you've handled yourselves these past few months. You boys are real spacemen!" He saluted and disappeared down the ladder leading to the exit port.
"And that," said Roger, turning to his unit-mates, "is known as the royal come-on for a dirty detail!"
"Ahhh, stop your gassing, Manning," growled Astro. "Just be sure your radar bridge is O.K. If we do have to blast out of here in a hurry, I want to get where we're supposed to be going!"
"You just worry about the power deck, spaceboy, and let little Roger take care of his own department," replied Roger.
Astro eyed him speculatively. "You know the only reason they allowed this space creep in the Academy, Tom?" asked Astro.
"No, why?" asked Tom, playing along with the game.
"Because they knew any time the Polaris ran out of reactant fuel we could just stick Manning in the rocket tubes and have him blow out some of his special brand of space gas!"
"Listen, you Venusian throwback! One more word out of you and—"
"All right, you two!" broke in Tom good-naturedly. "Enough's enough! Come on. We've got just enough time to run up to the mess hall and grab a good meal before we check the ship."
"That's for me," said Astro. "I've been eating those concentrates so long my stomach thinks I've turned into a test tube."
Astro referred to the food taken along on space missions. It was dehydrated and packed in plastic containers to save weight and space. The concentrates never made a satisfactory meal, even though they supplied everything necessary for a healthful diet.
A few moments later the three members of the Polaris stood on the main slidewalk, an endless belt of plastic, powered by giant subsurface rollers, being carried from the spaceport to the main academy administration building, the great gleaming Tower of Galileo.
Space Academy, the university of the planets, was set among the low hills of the western part of the North American continent. Here, in the nest of fledgling spacemen, boys from Earth and the colonies of Venus and Mars learned the complex science that would enable them to reach unlimited heights; to rocket through the endless void of space and visit new worlds on distant planets millions of miles from Earth.
This was the year 2353—the age of space! A time when boys dreamed only of becoming Space Cadets at Space Academy, to learn their trade and later enter the mighty Solar Guard, or join the rapidly expanding merchant space service that sent out great fleets of rocket ships daily to every corner of the solar system.
As the slidewalk carried the three cadets between the buildings that surrounded the grassy quadrangle of the Academy, Tom looked up at the Tower of Galileo dominating the entire area.
"You know," he began haltingly, "every time I go near this place I get a lump in my throat!"
"Yeah," breathed Astro, "me too."
Roger made no comment. His eyes were following the path of the giant telescope reflector that moved in a slow arc, getting into position for the coming night's observations. Tom followed his gaze to the massive domed building, housing the giant one-thousand-inch reflector.
"You think we'll ever go as far into the deep with a rocket ship as we can see with the big eye?" he asked.
"I dunno," replied Roger. "That thing can penetrate other star systems in our galaxy. And that's a long way off!"
"Nearest thing to us is Alpha Centauri in our own galaxy, and that's twenty-three and a half million million miles away," commented Astro.
"That's not so far," argued Tom. "Only a few months ago the Solar Alliance sent out a scientific exploration to take a look at that baby."
"Musta been some hop," commented Roger.
"Hey!" cried Tom suddenly. "There's Alfie Higgins!" He pointed in the direction of another slidewalk moving at right angles to their own. The cadet that he singled out on the slidewalk was so thin and small he looked emaciated. He wore glasses and at the moment was absorbed in a paper he held in his hand.
"Well, what do you know!" cried Astro. "The Brain!"
Roger punched Astro in the mid-section. "If you were as smart as he is, you big grease monkey, you'd be O.K."
"Nah!" replied Astro. "If I was as smart as Alfie, I'd be scared. And besides, what do I need to be smart for? I've got you, haven't I?"
When they drew near the other slidewalk, the three members of the Polaris unit skipped lightly over and jostled their way past other riders to the slightly built cadet.
"Alfie!" Tom yelled and slapped the cadet on the back. Alfie turned, his glasses knocked askew by Tom's blow, and eyed the three Polaris members calmly.
"It gives me great pleasure to view your countenances again, Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro," he said solemnly, nodding to each one.
Astro twisted his face into a grimace. "What'd he say, Roger?"
"He's happy to see you," Roger translated.
"Well, in that case," beamed Astro, "I'm happy to see you too, Alfie!"
"What's the latest space dope around the Academy, Alfie?" asked Tom. "What's this?" he indicated the paper in Alfie's hand.
"By the sheerest of coincidences I happen to have a copy of your new assignment!" replied Alfie.
Tom, Roger, and Astro looked at each other in surprise.
"Well, come on, spaceman," urged Roger. "Give us the inside info. Where are we going?"
Alfie tucked the paper in his inside pocket and faced Roger. He cleared his throat and spoke in measured tones. "Manning, I have high regard for your personality, your capabilities, and your knowledge, all of which makes you an outstanding cadet. But even you know that I occupy a position of trust as cadet courier for Commander Walters and the administrative staff. I am not at liberty to mention anything that I would have occasion to observe while in the presence of Commander Walters or the staff. Therefore, you will please refrain from questioning me any further regarding the contents of these papers!"
Roger's jaw dropped. "Why, you human calculator, you were the one who brought it up in the first place! I oughta knock off that big head of yours!"
Tom and Astro laughed.
"Lay off, Roger," said Tom. "You ought to know Alfie couldn't talk if he wanted to! We'll just have to wait until Captain Strong is ready to tell us what our next assignment will be!"
By this time the slidewalk had carried them to the front of the main dormitory, and the wide doors were crowded with members of the Space Academy Corps heading in for the evening meal. From all corners of the quadrangle, the slidewalks carried Earthworms in their green uniforms, upper-class cadets in deep blue, enlisted spacemen in scarlet red, and Solar Guard officers in their striking uniforms of black and gold. Chatting and laughing, they all were entering the great building.
The Polaris unit was well known among other cadet units, and they were greeted heartily from all sides. As Astro and Roger joked with various cadet units, forming up in front of the slidestairs leading down to the mess halls, Alfie turned to take a slidestairs going up. Suddenly he stopped, grabbed Tom by the shoulders, and whispered in his ear. Just as abruptly he turned and raced up the ascending slidestairs.
"What was that about?" asked Roger, as Tom stood staring after the little cadet.
"Roger—he—he said our next assignment would be one of the great experiments in space history. Something to be done that—that hasn't ever been done before!"
"Well, blast my jets!" said Astro. "What do you suppose it is?"
"Ahhh," sneered Roger, "I'll bet it's nothing more than taking some guinea pigs to see how they react to Jovian gravity. That's never been done before either! Why can't we get something exciting for a change?"
Tom laughed. "Come on, you bloodthirsty adventurer, I'm starved!"
But Tom knew that Alfie Higgins didn't get excited easily, and his eyes were wide and his voice trembled when he had whispered his secret to Tom.
The Polaris unit was due to embark on a great new adventure!
"All O.K. here on the relay circuit," yelled Astro through the intercom from the power deck.
"O.K.," answered Tom. "Now try out the automatic blowers for the main tubes!"
"Wanta give me a little juice for the radar antenna, Astro?" called Roger from the radar deck.
"In a minute, Manning, in a minute," growled Astro. "Only got two hands, you know."
"You should learn to use your feet," quipped Roger. "Any normal Venusian can do just as much with his toes as he can with his fingers!"
Back and forth the bantering had gone for twelve hours, while the three members of the Polaris unit tested, checked, adjusted, and rechecked the many different circuits, relays, junction boxes, and terminals in the miles of delicate wiring woven through the ship. Now, as dawn began to creep pink and gray over the eastern horizon, they made their last-minute search through the cavernous spaceship for any doubtful connections. Satisfied there were none, the three weary cadets assembled on the control deck and sipped the hot tea that Manning had thoughtfully prepared.
"You know, by the time we get out of the Academy I don't think there'll be a single inch of this space wagon that I haven't inspected with my nose," commented Roger in a tired voice.
"You know you love it, Manning," said Astro, who, though as tired as Tom and Roger, could still continue to work if necessary. His love for the mighty atomic rocket motors, and his ability to repair anything mechanical, was already a legend around the Academy. He cared for the power deck of the Polaris as if it were a baby.
"Might as well pack in and grab some sleep before we report to Captain Strong," said Tom. "He might have us blasting off right away, and I, for one, would like to sleep and sleep and then sleep some more!"
"I've been thinking about what Alfie had to say," said Roger. "You know, about this being a great adventure."
"What about it?" asked Astro.
"Well, you don't give this kind of overhaul for just a plain, short hop upstairs."
"You think it might be something deeper?" asked Astro softly.
"Whatever it is," said Tom, getting up, "we'll need sleep." He rose, stretched, and walked wearily to the exit port. Astro and Roger followed him out, and once again they boarded the slidewalk for the trip back to the main dormitory and their quarters on the forty-second floor. A half hour later the three members of the Polaris were sound asleep.
Early morning found Captain Steve Strong in his quarters, standing at the window and staring blankly out over the quadrangle. In his left hand he clutched a sheaf of papers. He had just reread, for the fifth time, a petition for reinstatement of space papers for Al Mason and Bill Loring. It wasn't easy, as Strong well knew, to deprive a man of his right to blast off and rocket through space, and the papers in question, issued only by the Solar Guard, comprised the only legal license to blast off.
Originally issued as a means of preventing overzealous Earthmen from blasting off without the proper training or necessary physical condition, which resulted in many deaths, space papers had gradually become the only effective means of controlling the vast expanding force of men who made space flight their life's work. With the establishment of the Spaceman's Code a hundred years before, firm rules and regulations for space flight had been instituted. Disobedience to any part of the code was punishable by suspension of papers and forfeiture of the right to blast off.
One of these rules stated that a spaceman was forbidden to blast off without authorization or clearance for a free orbit from a central traffic control. Bill Loring and Al Mason were guilty of having broken the regulation. Members of the crew of the recent expedition to Tara, a planet in orbit around the sun star Alpha Centauri, they had taken a rocket scout and blasted off without permission from Major Connel, the commander of the mission, who, in this case, was authorized traffic-control officer. Connel had recommended immediate suspension of their space papers. Mason and Loring had petitioned for a review, and, to assure impartial judgment, Commander Walters had sent the petition to one of his other officers to make a decision. The petition had landed on Strong's desk.
Strong read the petition again and shook his head. The facts were too clear. There had been flagrant disregard for the rules and there was no evidence to support the suspended spacemen's charge that they had been unjustly accused by Connel. Strong's duty was clear. He had to uphold Major Connel's action and suspend the men for a year.
Once the decision was made, Strong put the problem out of his mind. He walked to his huge circular desk and began sorting through the day's orders and reports. On the top of the pile of papers was a sealed envelope, bordered in red and marked "classified." It was from Commander Walters' office. Thoughtfully he opened it and read:
To: CAPTAIN STEVE STRONG: Cadet Supervisor, Polaris Unit Upon receipt of this communication, you are ordered to transfer the supervisory authority of the cadet unit designated as POLARIS unit; i.e., Cadets Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro, and the command of the rocket cruiser Polaris, to the command and supervisory authority of Major Connel for execution of mission as outlined herein:
1. To test range, life, and general performance of audio communications transmitter, type X21.
2. To test the above-mentioned transmitter under conditions of deep space flight.
3. This test to take place on the planet Tara, Alpha Centauri.
This communication and all subsequent information relative to above-mentioned mission shall be classified as topmost secret.
Signed: WALTERS, Commandant, Space Academy
"So that's it," he thought. "A hop into deep space for the Polaris unit!" He smiled. "The cadets of the Polaris unit are in for a little surprise in two ways," he thought. "One from the mission and one from Major Connel!"
He almost laughed out loud as he turned to the small desk teleceiver at his elbow. He pressed a button immediately below the screen and it glowed into life to reveal a young man in the uniform of the enlisted guard.
"Yes, Captain Strong?" he asked.
"Call the cadets of the Polaris unit," Strong ordered. "Have them report to me here on the double!"
"Aye, aye, sir."
Strong started to turn the set off, but the enlisted man added, "By the way, sir, Al Mason and Bill Loring are here to see you."
"Oh—well—" Strong hesitated.
"They're quite anxious to know if you've reached any decision regarding their petition for reinstatement."
"Mmm—yes, of course. Very well, send them in."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The teleceiver screen blackened. In a moment the door opposite Strong's desk slid back, and Loring and Mason stepped into the office. They shambled forward and stopped in front of the huge desk, obviously ill at ease.
Strong stood up, holding their petition in his hand, and glanced over it briefly even though he knew its contents by heart. He motioned to near-by chairs. "Sit down, please," he said.
The two spacemen settled themselves uncomfortably on the edge of their chairs and waited expectantly as Strong continued to look at the paper.
Loring finally broke the heavy silence.
"Well, Captain Strong, have you made a decision?" he asked. Loring was a heavy-set man, in his middle forties. He needed a shave, and when he talked, his mouth twisted into an ugly grimace.
"Hope it's in our favor, sir," suggested Mason. He was shorter than Loring and, seated, his feet hardly reached the floor. His eyes darted nervously about the huge room, and he kept rolling a dirty black spaceman's cap in his hands.
"Yes, I've reached a decision," said Strong slowly. He faced the two men and looked at both of them with a steady cold stare. "I've decided to sustain Major Connel's action. You are both grounded for the next twelve months. Earth months!"
"What?" shouted Loring, jumping to his feet. He banged his fist down on the desk and leaned over, his face close to Strong's. "You can't do that to us!"
Captain Strong didn't move. "I can," he said coldly. "And I have."
"But—but—" Mason began to whine. "But space flight is all we know! How will we live?"
Strong sat down and leaned back in his chair to get away from the foul odor of Loring's breath. He stared at the two men.
"You should have thought of that before you stole a rocket scout from the expedition and made an unauthorized flight while on Tara," Strong replied. "You're lucky you're not accused, tried, and convicted of theft of a Solar Guard spaceship!"
"We had permission to take that flight," snarled Loring. "That Major Connel is so blasted space happy he forgot he gave us permission. Then when we came back, he slapped us in the brig!"
"Do you have any proof of that?" asked Strong.
"No! But it's our word against his!" He slammed his hat down on the desk and shook his finger in Strong's face. "You haven't any right to take away our papers just on the say-so of a lousy Solar Guard officer who thinks he's king of the universe!"
"Take your filthy hat off my desk, Loring!" barked Strong. "And watch your language!"
Loring realized he had made a mistake and tried to backtrack. "Well, I apologize for that. But I don't apologize for saying he thinks he's—"
"Major Connel has been in the Solar Guard for thirty years," said Strong emphatically. "He's been awarded the Solar Medal three times. No other living spaceman has achieved that! Not even Commander Walters! He rose through the ranks of the enlisted Solar Guard and was commissioned as an officer of the Solar Guard in space during an emergency. He qualifies higher than any other spaceman, and he has never been found to be unjust! He's one of the finest spacemen ever to hit the wide, deep, and high!" Strong stopped, choked for breath, and turned away. It wasn't often he lost his temper, but something had to be said in defense of his fellow officer, and particularly since that officer was Connel. He turned back to face the two spacemen, and his voice was hard and cold again.
"You are hereby suspended from space flight for twelve Earth months. Any further petition for appeal of this decision will be denied!"
"All right! All right, Mr. Big!" snapped Loring. "Does this mean we can't even ride as passengers?"
"No rights under the Universal Bill of Rights of the Solar Alliance have been denied you, except that of actively participating in the flight of a spaceship!"
The signal bell of the teleceiver began to chime softly, and on the desk the teleceiver screen glowed again. "Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro are here for their assignments, sir," announced the enlisted man outside.
Loring glared at Strong. "I suppose you're going to send some punk kids out on the next trip to Tara and leave us experienced spacemen to rot on the ground, huh?"
Strong didn't see the door slide open to admit the three cadets who entered quietly. His whole attention was focused on the ugly glaring faces of Bill Loring and Al Mason.
"Get this, Loring!" snapped Strong hotly. "The assignments of the Polaris unit, whether it be to Tara or the Moon, has nothing to do with your own breech of conduct. In any case, if they were to be assigned, they'd do a better job than you 'experienced' spacemen who are disrespectful of your superior officers and break regulations! If either of you makes one more crack about the Solar Guard or Space Cadets, or anything at all, I'll take you out on the quadrangle and pound some common courtesy into your heads! Now get out!"
"All right, all right—" muttered Loring retreating, but with a sneer on his lips. "We'll meet again, Mr. Bigshot Spaceman!"
"I hope so, Loring. And if we do, I hope you've taken a bath. You even smell bad!"
From the rear of the room came a burst of laughter. Tom, Roger, and Astro, unobserved, had been listening and watching their skipper in action. When Loring and Mason had left the room, they advanced to the desk, came to attention, and saluted.
"Polaris unit reporting for duty, sir!" snapped Tom crisply.
"At ease," said Strong. "Did you hear all of that?"
"Yes, sir, skipper!" Roger smiled. "And believe me, you really gave it to those two space bums!"
"Yeah," agreed Astro, "but I don't think even you could do much for Loring. He's just born to smell bad!"
"Never mind that," said Strong. "I suppose you heard the part about the assignments?"
The three cadets assumed looks of pure innocence.
"We didn't hear a thing, sir," said Tom.
"You'll make a fine diplomat, Corbett," Strong laughed. "All right, sit down and I'll give it to you straight."
They hastily took seats and waited for their skipper to begin.
"You've been assigned as cadet observers on a mission to test the range of a new long-range audio transmitter." Strong paused, then added significantly, "The test is to take place in deep space."
The three cadets only beamed their enthusiastic approval.
"Tara," continued Strong, "is your destination—a planet like Earth in many respects, in orbit around the sun star Alpha Centauri. You'll take the Polaris directly to the Venus space station, where the transmitter has been given primary tests, outfit the Polaris for hyperdrive, and blast off!"
"Excuse me, sir," interrupted Tom, "but you say 'you'?"
"I mean," replied Strong, "you, in the sense that I won't be going along with you. Oh, don't worry!" said Strong, holding up his hand as a sudden look of anticipation spread over the faces of the three boys. "You're not going alone! You'll have a commanding officer, all right. In fact, you'll have the nearest thing to the perfect commanding officer in the Solar Guard!" He waited just long enough for each boy to search his mind for a suitable candidate and then added, "Your skipper will be Major Connel!"
"Major Connel!" the three cadets cried in unison.
"You mean Major 'Blast-off' Connel?" uttered Roger unbelievingly.
"That's who I mean," said Strong. "It's the best thing in the universe that could happen to you!"
Roger stood up and saluted smartly. "I request permission to be dismissed from this mission on the grounds of incompatibility, sir," he said.
"Incompatible to what?" asked Strong, amused.
"To Major Connel, sir," replied Roger.
"Permission denied," said Strong with a smile. "Buck up! It isn't so bad." Strong paused and stood up. "Well, that's it. It's close to eleven A.M. and you're to report to the major at eleven on the nose. I hope you've got the Polaris in good shape."
"We were up all night, sir," said Tom. "She's ready to go."
"She's in better shape than we are," said Astro.
"Very well, then. Report to Major Connel immediately. Your papers have been transferred, so all you have to do is report."
Strong rounded the desk and shook hands with each cadet. "This is an important mission, boys," he said soberly. "See that you give Major Connel all the support I know you're capable of giving. He'll need it. I doubt if I'll see you before you blast off, so this is it. Spaceman's luck to each of you!"
"Well, looks like we're big boys now," said Tom, as the three cadets strolled down the corridor away from Captain Strong's office. "They don't hand out secret and important missions to cadet units unless they're really on the ball!"
"But we've got Major 'Blast-off' Connel to educate," grumbled Roger.
"What do you mean 'educate'?" asked Astro.
"You know he's the roughest officer in the Academy," replied the blond-haired cadet. "He eats cadets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then has an extra one for dessert. He isn't just tough—his hide's made of armor plate. But I've got a hunch that if we play dumb at first, then smarten up slowly, we can make him feel that he's done it for us. So he'll be easier on us."
"Say, it's after eleven!" exclaimed Tom. "We'd better hurry!"
Suddenly, as if a rocket cruiser were blasting off in the corridors, a roar, deafening and powerful, filled their ears. And beneath its ferocity there were four unmistakable words:
"Polaris unit—staaaaaaaannnnnndddddd toooooo!"
Every muscle, every bone in their three bodies snapped to rigid attention simultaneously. Eyes straight, chins in, the cadets waited for whatever calamity had befallen them. From behind came quick, heavy footsteps. They drew closer until they passed alongside and then abruptly stopped. There, in front of them, stood the one and only Major "Blast-off" Connel!
Though a few inches shorter than Astro, he was what Astro might become in thirty years, heavily muscular, with a barrel chest that filled the gold-and-black uniform tightly. He stood balanced on the balls of his small feet like a boxer, hands hanging loosely at his sides. A bulldog chin jutted out of his rough-hewn face as if it were going to snap off the head of the nearest cadet. He towered over Tom and Roger, and though shorter than Astro, he made up for this by sheer force of personality. When he spoke, his voice was like a deep foghorn that had suddenly learned the use of vowels.
"So this is the great Polaris unit, eh?" he bellowed. "You're two minutes late!"
Tom suddenly felt that he and his unit-mates were all alone in the corridor with the major. He glanced to one side, then the other, cautiously, and saw it was empty. And for good reason! No one wanted to be around when "Blast-off" Connel was blasting. Cadets, enlisted men, and even officers were not safe from his sudden outbursts. He drove himself so hard that he became impatient with others who were not able to match his drive. It was not because of ego but rather to get the job at hand finished. More than once he had dressed down a captain of the Solar Guard in the same tone he used on a green Earthworm. It was legend around the Academy that once, believing he was right, he had broken into the Council Chamber itself to argue his point. He won by a unanimous decision. Nothing, but nothing, had been devised or thought of that could stop "Blast-off" Connel. Every waking moment of his adult life had been spent in the pursuit of more and more knowledge about space, space travel, and life on the other planets.
Now, his wrath at fever pitch at their being tardy, he stood in front of the cadets, turning his anger on Roger first.
"Your name's Manning, isn't it?" he growled.
"Yes, sir!" replied Roger.
"Father got a medal—used to be a Solar Guard officer?"
"That's right, sir. He was killed in space."
"I know. He was a good man. You'll never be the man he was, if you live ten thousand years. But if you don't try to be a better man than he was, you won't live five minutes with me! Is that clear, Cadet Manning?"
"Very clear, sir!" gulped Roger.
Connel turned to Astro.
"And you're the home-grown atomic-rocket genius, Venusian style, eh?"
"Yes, sir," choked Astro. "I'm from Venus."
"Bucked rockets on the old chemical burners as a kid before entering the Academy, eh?" asked Connel. There was less than an inch and a half between Astro's face and Major Connel's jaw.
"Yes, sir," answered Astro, "I was an enlisted man before coming to the Academy."
"Well, get this, you rocket buster," roared Connel. "I want a power deck that will give me what I want, when I want it, or you'll be back in the ranks again. Is that clear, Cadet Astro?"
"Yes, sir! Everything she's got, when you want it, sir."
"And I like to have a power deck clean enough to eat off the deck plates!"
"Yes, sir," stuttered Astro, growing more and more confused. "You like to eat off the deck plates, sir!"
"By the craters of Luna, no! I don't like to eat off the deck plates, but I want them clean enough to eat there if I want to!"
"Yes, sir!" Astro's voice was hardly above a whisper.
"And you're the tactical wizard that won the space maneuvers recently, singlehanded, eh?" asked Connel, bending down to face Tom.
"Our side won, sir. If that answers your question," replied Tom. He was as nervous as Roger and Astro, but he fought for control. He was determined not to be bullied.
"I didn't ask you who won!" snapped Connel. "But you're the one just the same. Control-deck cadet, eh? Well, you work with me. On the control deck there's only room for one brain, one decision, one answer. And when I'm on the control deck, that decision, answer, and brain will be mine!"
"I understand perfectly, sir," said Tom tonelessly.
Connel stepped back, fists on his hips, eying the three cadets. He had heard about their difficulty in fitting personalities together when they had first arrived at Space Academy (as described in Stand By for Mars!). And he had heard about their triumph over the Martian desert. He was impressed with everything he had learned about them, but he knew that he had a reputation for being tough and that this reputation usually brought out the best in cadets. Early in his long and brilliant career he had learned that his life depended on the courage and ingenuity of his fellow spacemen. When he became an instructor at the Academy, he had determined that no cadet would ever be anything but the best, and that, when they blasted off in later years, they could be depended on.
He looked at the three cadets and felt a tinge of excitement that did not show on his scowling face. "Yes," he thought, "they'll make spacemen. It'll take a little time—but they're good material."
"Now listen to this!" he bawled. "We blast off for the Venus space station in exactly thirty minutes. Get your gear aboard the Polaris and stand by to raise ship." He dropped his voice and pushed out his jaw a little farther. "This will be the toughest journey you'll ever make. You'll either come back spacemen, or you'll come back nothing. I'm going to try my best to make it"—he paused and added coldly—"nothing! Because if you can't take it from me, then you don't belong in space! Unit dis-missed!"
He turned on his heel and disappeared up the slidestairs without another look at the three rigid cadets.
"Yeah—we'll educate him, all right," said Astro softly, with a wink at Tom. "Make him think he's done everything for us."
"Ah, go blast your jets!" snarled Roger after he had found his voice.
"Come on," said Tom. "Let's get the Polaris ready. And, fellows, I mean ready!"
Bill Loring and Al Mason stood near the entrance to the control tower of the Academy spaceport and watched the three cadets of the Polaris scramble into the giant rocket cruiser.
"Every time I think about that Connel kicking us out of space for twelve months I wanta pound his head in with a wrench!" snarled Loring.
Mason snorted. "Well, what's the use of hanging around here?" he asked. "That Connel wouldn't have us aboard the Polaris, even if we were cleared and had our papers. There ain't a thing we can do!"
"Don't give up so easy. There's a fortune setting up there in space—just waiting for me and you to come and take it. And no big-shot Solar Guard officer is going to keep me from getting it!"
"Yeah—yeah," grumbled Mason, "but what are you going to do about it?"
"I'll show you what I'm going to do!" said Loring. "We're heading for Venusport."
"Venusport? By the moons of Jupiter, what are we going to do there?"
"Get a free ride to Tara!"
"But how? I only got a few hundred credits and you ain't got much more. There ain't nobody going to go fifty billion miles on nothing!"
Loring's eyes followed the massive figure of Major Connel on the slidewalk as it swept across the spaceport field toward the Polaris. "You just buy us a coupla seats on the next rocket to Venusport and stop asking stupid questions. When we see Major 'Blast-off' Connel again, we'll be giving the orders with a paralo-ray!"
The two disgruntled spacemen turned quickly and walked to the nearest slidewalk, disappearing around a building.
Aboard the Polaris, Tom confronted his two unit-mates.
"Now look, fellows. After the hard time Major Connel just gave us, let's see if we can't really stay on the ball from now on."
"All right by me, Tom," Astro said, nodding his head.
"You're having space dreams, Corbett!" drawled Roger. "No matter what we do for old 'Blast-off' we'll wind up behind the eight ball."
"But if we really try," urged Tom, "if we all do our jobs, there can't be anything for him to fuss about."
"We'll make it tough for him to give us any demerits," Astro chimed in.
"Right," said Tom.
"It won't work," grumbled Roger. "You saw the way he chewed us up, and for what? I ask you—for what?"
"He was just trying to live up to his reputation, Roger," replied Tom. "But common sense will tell you that if you're on the ball you won't get demerits."
"What's the matter, hot-shot?" growled Astro. "Afraid of a little work?"
"Listen, you Venusian clunk," sneered Roger, "I'll work the pants off you any day in the week, and that includes Titan days, too!"
"O.K." Tom smiled. "Save half of that energy for the Polaris, Roger."
"Yeah, use some of that Manning hot air to shine brass!" suggested Astro.
"Come on. Let's get this wagon in shape," said Tom. He turned to the instrument panel and the great control board.
A moment later the three cadets were busy shining the few bits of brass and rechecking the many controls and levers. Suddenly there was the sound of a hatch slamming below and then Astro's voice came whispering over the intercom, "... watch it, fellows. Here he comes!"
The airtight hatch leading to the control deck slid back, and Major Connel stepped inside. With one sweeping glance he took in the control deck and the evidence of their work.
"Unit—staaaaand to!" he roared.
Astro climbed into the control deck and snapped to attention with his unit-mates as Connel began a quick but thorough check of the many dials and switches and relays on the control panel.
"Ummmmh," he mused. "Been doing a little work, I see."
"Oh, nothing special, sir," said Roger.
"Well, from now on it's going to be special!" roared Connel.
"Yes, sir," acknowledged Roger quickly.
"All right, at ease," ordered Connel. As the three boys relaxed, Connel stepped over to the astrogation board and snapped a switch. Immediately a solar chart filled the huge chart screen. It was a black-and-white view of the planet Venus.
"This is where we're going first," he said, placing a finger on a ball-shaped satellite in orbit around the misty planet. "This is the Venus space station. As you know, Venus has no natural satellite of its own, so we built one. We'll blast off from here and go directly to the space station where the Polaris will be fitted with hyperdrive for deep-space operations. While at the station you will acquaint yourselves with the operation of the new audio communications transmitter. When I'm satisfied that you can handle it under the prevailing conditions of an extended space flight, we'll blast off for a test of its range and performance."
Major Connel paused and faced the cadets squarely. Then he continued: "This is an important mission—one which I hope will enable the Solar Guard to establish the first base outside of our solar system. Our destination is Tara, in the star system of Alpha Centauri. Tara is a planet in a stage of development similar to that of Earth several million years ago. Its climate is tropical, and lush vegetation—jungles really—covers the land surface. Two great oceans separate the land masses. One is called Alpha, the other Omega. I was on the first expedition, when Tara was discovered, and have just returned from the second, during which we explored it and ran tests to learn if it could sustain human life. All tests show that Tara can be transformed into a paradise."
Connel paused, took a deep breath, and continued: "I shall expect more than just hard work from you. I want everything you have to offer. Not just good performance, but excellence! I will not tolerate anything less, and if I'm forced to resort to extreme disciplinary action to get what I demand, then you can expect to receive every demerit in the book!" He stepped closer to the three cadets. "Remember! Spacemen—or nothing! Now, stand by to blast off!"
Without a word, the three cadets hurried to their stations and began routine procedure to raise ship.
"All departments ready to blast off, Major Connel," reported Tom, saluting sharply.
"Very well, Corbett, proceed," said Connel.
Tom called into the intercom, "Stand by for blast-off!" He then opened the circuit to the teleceiver screen overhead and spoke to the spaceport control tower.
"Polaris to spaceport control. Request permission to blast off. Request orbit."
"Spaceport traffic to Polaris. Your orbit has been cleared 089—repeat 089—blast off in two minutes ..."
"Orbit 089—blast off minus one fifty-nine fifty-eight."
"You read me clear, Polaris ..."
Tom clicked off the switch and turned to the intercom. "Control deck to radar bridge. Do we have a clear tangent forward and up?"
"All clear forward and up, Tom," replied Roger.
"Control deck to power deck. Energize the cooling pumps!"
"Cooling pumps in operation," answered Astro briskly.
The giant ship began to shudder as the mighty pumps on the power deck started their slow, whining build-up. Tom sat in front of the control panel, strapped himself into the acceleration chair, and began checking the dials and gauges. Satisfied everything was in order, he fastened his eyes to the sweeping red second hand on the solar clock. The teleceiver screen brought a sharp picture of the surrounding base of the spaceship, and he saw that it was all clear. The second hand reached the ten-second mark.
"Stand by to raise ship!" bawled Tom into the intercom. The red hand moved steadily, surely, to the zero at the top of the clock face. Tom reached for the master switch.
"Blast off minus five—four—three—two—one—zero!"
Tom threw the switch.
Slowly the giant ship raised itself from the ground. Then faster and faster, pushing the four spacemen deep into their acceleration cushions, it hurtled spaceward.
In a few seconds the Polaris was gravity-free. Once again, Earthmen had started another journey to the stars.
"Stand by to reduce speed three-quarters!" roared Major Connel.
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Tom, and began the necessary adjustments on the control panel. He spoke into the intercom. "Control deck to power deck. Stand by to reduce thrust on main drive rockets by three-quarters. We're coming onto the space station, Astro."
"Power deck, aye," acknowledged Astro.
Drifting in a steady orbit around its mother planet, the Venus space station loomed ahead of the Polaris like a huge metal ball set against a backdrop of cold, black space. It was studded with gaping holes, air locks which served as landing ports for spaceships. Inside the station was a compact city. Living quarters, communications rooms, repair shops, weather observations, meteor information, everything to serve the great fleet of Solar Guard and merchant spaceships plying the space lanes between Earth, Mars, Venus, and Titan.
"I'm getting the identification request from the station, sir. Shall I answer her?" asked Roger over the intercom.
"Of course, you space-brained idiot, and make it fast!" exploded Connel. "What do you want to do? Get us blasted out of space?"
"Yes, sir!" replied Roger. "Right away, sir!"
Tom kept his eyes on the teleceiver screen above his head. The image of the space station loomed large and clear.
"Approaching a little too fast, I think, sir," volunteered Tom. "Shall I make the adjustment?"
"What's the range?" asked Connel.
Tom named a figure.
"Ummmmh," mused Connel. He glanced quickly over the dials and then nodded in assent. Tom turned once more to the intercom. "Control deck to power deck," he called. "Stand by for maneuvering, Astro, and reduce your main drive thrust to minimum space speed."
"Space station traffic control to rocket cruiser Polaris. Come in, Polaris. This is traffic control on space station to Polaris," the audio teleceiver crackled.
"Rocket cruiser Polaris to space station and traffic control. Request touchdown permission and landing-port number," replied Tom.
"Permission to touch down granted, Polaris. You are to line up on approach to landing-port seven—repeat—seven. Am now sending out guiding radar beam. Can you read beam?"
Tom turned to the intercom. "Have you got the station's guiding beam, Roger?"
"All lined up, Tom," replied Roger from the radar bridge. "Get that Venusian on the power deck to give me a three-second shot on the starboard rocket, if he can find the right handles!"
"I heard that, Manning!" roared Astro's voice on the intercom. "Another crack like that and I'll make you get out and push this baby around!"
"You execute that order and do it blasted quick!" Major Connel's voice exploded over the intercom. "And watch that loose talk on the ship's intercom. From now on, all directions and orders will be given and received in a crisp, clear manner without unnecessary familiarity!"
Connel didn't expect them to acknowledge his order. The cadets had heard him and that was enough. He knew it was enough. In the short time it had taken them to traverse the immense gulf of space between the Academy and the station Connel had handed out demerits by fives and tens! Each of the cadets was now tagged with enough black marks to spend two months in the galley working them off!
Now, working together like the smooth team of junior spacemen they were, Tom, Roger, and Astro maneuvered the great rocket ship toward the gaping hole of the air lock in the side of the white ball-like satellite.
"Drop your bow one half degree, Polaris, you're up too high," warned the station control.
"A short burst on the upper trim rocket, Astro," called Tom.
The great ship bucked slightly under the force of sudden thrust, and then its nose dropped the required half degree.
"Cut all thrust and brake your speed to dead ship, Polaris," ordered traffic control.
Again Tom relayed the order to Astro, and a moment later the great ship hung silently in the airless void of space, a scant half mile from the station.
Through the teleceiver Tom could see the jet boats darting out from the station carrying the magnetic cables. In a moment the lines were attached to the steel skin of the ship, and gradually the lines tightened, pulling the mighty spaceship into the waiting port. Once inside, the outer air lock was closed and the Polaris was slung in the powerful magnetic cradles that held her in a rigid position. Elsewhere on the satellite, quick calculations were made for the additional weight, and the station was counterbalanced to assure an even orbit around Venus.
Tom flicked the many switches off on the great board, glanced at the time of arrival on the solar clock, and reported to Major Connel.
"Touchdown at one-nine-four-nine, sir."
"Very well, Corbett," answered Connel. Then he added grudgingly, "That was as fine a job of control-deck operations as I've seen. Keep up the good work, spaceman."
Tom gulped. The unexpected compliment caught him off guard. And he was even more pleased that for the first time Connel had referred to him as spaceman!
"I'll be needed at the space station commander's quarters for a while, Corbett," said Connel. "Meanwhile, you and Manning and Astro acquaint yourselves with the station. Report to me back aboard the ship in exactly two hours. Dismissed."
Tom saluted, and Connel disappeared toward the exit port.
"Well, spaceman," Roger drawled casually from behind, "it looks like you've got yourself in solid with the old man!"
Tom smiled. "With a guy like that, Roger, you're never in solid. Maybe I did get a pat on the back, but you didn't hear him cancel any of those demerits he gave me for not signing the logbook after that last watch, did you?"
"Let's get some chow," growled Astro, who came hustling through the hatch. "I'm half starved. By the craters of Luna, how many times can you change course in five minutes?"
Astro referred to the countless times Tom had had to call for fraction-degree course changes in their approach to the gaping entrance port.
Tom laughed. "With Connel on the bridge, you're lucky I didn't give you twice as many," he replied. "Can you imagine what would have happened if we had missed and hit the station?"
"Brrrrrr!" shuddered Roger. "I hate to think about it. Come on. Let's rustle up some grub for the Venusian. I could use some myself."
The three boys quickly changed to their dress blue cadet uniforms and left the ship. A moment later they were being whisked up an electric elevator to the main—or "street"—level. The door opened, and they stepped out into a large circular area about the size of a city block in the rear of the station. The area had been broken into smaller sections. One side of the "street" was devoted to shops, a small stereo house which was playing the latest Liddy Tamal hit, "Children of Space" (a sensational drama about the lives of men in the future), restaurants, and even a curio shop. The Venus space station handled ninety per cent of the traffic into and out of Venusport. It was a refueling stop for the jet liners and space freighters bound for the outer planets, and for those returning to Earth. Some ships went directly to Venusport for heavy overhaul or supplies, but the station was established primarily for quick turn arounds. Several ex-enlisted spacemen who had been injured or retired were given special permission to open shops for the convenience of the passengers and crews of the ships and the staff of the station. In twenty years the station had become a place where summer tourists from Earth and winter tourists from Titan made a point of stopping. The first of its kind in the universe, it was as near a perfect place to live as could be built by man.
Tom, Roger, and Astro strolled down the short street, pushing through a crowd of tourists admiring the shops. Finally they found a restaurant that specialized in Venusian dishes.
"Now you two spindly Earthmen are going to have the best meal of your lives! Broiled dinosaur on real Venusian black bread!"
"D-dinosaur!" stuttered Tom in amazement. "Why—why—that's a prehistoric monster!"
"Yeah, Astro," agreed Roger. "What are you trying to hand us?"
Astro laughed. "You'll see, fellows," he replied. "I used to go hunting for them when I was a kid. Brought the best price of any wild game. Fifty credits for babies under three hundred pounds. Over that, you can't eat 'em. Too tough!"
Tom and Roger looked at each other, eyes bulging.
"Ah, come on, Tom," drawled Roger. "He's just trying to pull our leg."
Without a word, Astro grabbed them by the arms and rushed them into the restaurant. They were no sooner seated when a recorded voice announced the menu over a small loud-speaker on the table. Astro promptly ordered dinosaur, and to his unit-mates' amazement, the voice politely inquired:
"Would the spacemen prefer to have it broiled a la Venusian black bread, baked, or raw?"
A sharp look from Roger and Tom, and Astro ordered it broiled.
One hour and fifteen minutes later the three members of the Polaris unit staggered out of the restaurant.
"By the rings of Saturn," declared Tom, "that wasn't only the most I ever ate—it was the best!"
Roger nodded in silent agreement, leaning against the plastic window in front of the restaurant.
"You see," Astro beamed, "maybe you guys will listen to me from now on!"
"Boy, I can't wait to see Mom's face when I tell her that her chicken and dumplings have taken second place to broiled monster!"
"By the jumping blazes of the stars!" yelled Roger suddenly. "Look at the time! We're ten minutes late!"
"Ohhhhh," moaned Tom. "I knew it was too good to be true!"
"Step on it!" said Astro. "Maybe he won't notice."
"Some chance," groaned Roger, running after Tom and Astro. "That old rocket head wouldn't miss anything!"
The three boys raced back to the electric elevator and were silently whisked to the air-lock level. They hurried aboard the Polaris and into the control room. Major Connel was seated in a chair near the chart screen, studying some papers. The cadets drew themselves to attention.
"Unit reporting for duty, sir," Tom quavered.
Connel spun around in the swivel chair, glanced at the clock, put the papers to one side, and slowly advanced toward the cadets.
"Thirteen and a half minutes late!" he said, dropping his voice to a biting growl. "I'll give you five seconds to think up a good excuse. Every man is entitled to an excuse. Some have good ones, some have truthful ones, and some have excuses that sound as though they made them up in five seconds!"
He eyed the cadets speculatively. "Well?" he demanded.
"I'm afraid we were carried away by our enthusiasm for a meal Astro introduced us to, sir," said Tom honestly.
"All right," snapped Connel, "then here's something else to carry you all away!" He paused and rocked on the balls of his feet. "I had planned to give you three liberty of the station while here, whenever you weren't working on the new transmitter. But since you have shown yourselves to be carried away so easily, I don't think I can depend on your completing your regular duties. Therefore, I suggest that each of you report to the officer in charge of your respective departments and learn the operation and function of the station while we're here. This work will be in addition to your assigned duties on the new transmitter operation!"
The three cadets gulped but were silent.
"Not only that," Connel's voice had risen to an angry bark, "but you will be logged a demerit apiece for each minute you reported late. Thirteen and a half minutes, thirteen and a half demerits!"
The gold and black of the Solar Guard uniform never looked more ominous as the three cadets watched the stern spaceman turn and stomp out the exit port.
Alone, their liberty taken away from them before they even knew they had it, the boys sat around on the control deck of the silent ship and listened to the distant throb of a pump, rising and falling, pumping free air throughout the station.
"Well," sighed Tom, "I always did want to know how a space station worked. Now I guess I'll learn firsthand."
"Me, too," said Astro. He propped his big feet up on a delicate instrument panel of the control board.
"Me, too!" sneered Roger, his voice filled with a bitterness that surprised Tom and Astro. "But I didn't think I would find out like this! How in the universe has that—that tyrant managed to stay alive this long!"
"The space station's biggest headache," said Terry Scott, a young Solar Guard officer assigned the job of showing the Polaris crew around, "is to maintain perfect balance at all times."
"How do you achieve that, sir?" asked Tom.
"We create our own gravity by means of a giant gyroscope in the heart of the station. When more weight is taken aboard, or weight leaves the station, we have to adjust the gyro's speed."
They entered the power deck of the great ball-like satellite. Astro's eyes glowed with pleasure as he glanced approvingly from one massive machine to another. The fuel tanks were made of thin durable aluminite; a huge cylinder, covered with heat-resistant paint, was the air conditioner; power came from a bank of atomic dynamos and generators; while those massive pumps kept the station's artificial air and water supply circulating.
Dials, gauges, meters, were arrayed in seemingly endless rows—but each one of them actually played its part in keeping the station in balance.
Astro's face was one big, delighted grin.
"Well," said Roger with a sly wink at Tom, "you can't tell me that Connel has made our Venusian unhappy. Even if he had given us liberty, I'll bet Astro would have spent it down here with the grease monkeys!"
Astro didn't rise to the bait. His attention was riveted on a huge dynamo, which he watched with appreciative eyes. But then Terry Scott introduced the Polaris unit to an older Solar Guard officer.
"Cadets, meet Captain Jenledge," said Scott. "And, sir, this is Cadet Astro. Major Connel would like him to work with you while he's here."
"Glad to know you, boys," said Jenledge, "and particularly you, Cadet Astro. I've heard about your handiness with the thrust buckets on the cruisers. What do you think of our layout?"
The officer turned and waved his hand to indicate the power-deck equipment.
"This is just about the finest—the most terrif—"
The officer smiled at Astro's inability to describe his feelings. Jenledge was proud of his power deck, proud of the whole establishment, for that matter. He had conceived it, had drawn the plans, and had constructed this space station.
Throughout the solar system it was considered his baby. And when he had asked for permission to remain on as senior power-deck chief, the Solar Alliance had jumped at the chance to keep such a good man on the job. The station had become a sort of postgraduate course for power-deck cadets and junior Solar Guard officers.
Astro beamed. So, the great Jenledge had actually heard of him—of humble Cadet Astro. He could hardly restrain himself from ripping off his blue uniform and going right to work on a near-by machine that had been torn apart for repairs. Finally he managed to gasp, "I think it's great, sir—just wonderful!"
"Very well, Cadet Astro," said the officer. "There's a pair of coveralls in my locker. You can start right to work." He paused and his eyes twinkled. "If you want to, that is!"
"Want to!" roared Astro, and was off to the locker room.
Jenledge turned to Scott. "Leave him with me, Scotty. I don't think Cadet Astro's going to care much about the rest of the station!"
Scott smiled, saluted, and walked away. Tom and Roger came to attention, saluted, and followed the young officer off the power deck.
"Astro's probably happier now than he'll ever be in his life, Tom," whispered Roger.
"Yeah," agreed Tom. "Did you see the way his eyes lit up when we walked in there? Like a kid with a brand-new toy!"
A moment later Scott, Tom, and Roger, in a vacuum elevator, were being hurtled to the station's upper decks. They got out on the observation deck, and Scott walked directly to a small door at the end of a corridor. A light over the door flashed red and Scott stopped.
"Here's the weather and meteor observation room," he said. "Also radar communications. When the red light's on, it means photographs are being taken. We'll have to wait for them to finish."
As they waited, Tom and Roger talked to Scott. He had graduated from Space Academy seven years before, they learned. He'd been assigned to the Solar Alliance Chamber as liaison between the Chamber and the Solar Guard. After four years, he had requested a transfer to active space operations.
Then, he told them, there'd been an accident. His ship exploded. He'd been badly injured—in fact, both his legs were now artificial.
The cadets, who had thought him a bit stuffy at first, were changing their minds fast. Why hadn't he quit, they wanted to know?
"Leave space?" said Scott. "I'd rather die. I can't blast off any more. But here at the station I'm still a spaceman."
The red light went out, and they opened the door.
In sharp contrast to the bustle and noise on the power deck, the meteor, weather, and radar observation room was filled with only a subdued whisper. All around them huge screens displayed various views of the surface of Venus as it slowly revolved beneath the station. Along one side of the room was a solid bank of four-foot-square teleceiver screens with an enlisted spaceman or junior officer seated in front of each one. These men, at their microphones, were relaying meteor and weather information to all parts of the solar system. Now it was Roger's turn to get excited at seeing the wonderful radar scanners that swept space for hundreds of thousands of miles. They were powerful enough to pick up a spaceship's identifying outline while still two hundred thousand miles away! Farther to one side, a single teleceiver screen, ten feet square, dominated the room. Roger gasped.
Scott smiled. "That's the largest teleceiver screen in the universe," he said. "The most powerful. And it's showing you a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, thousands of light years away. Most of the lights you see there are no more than that, just light, their stars, or suns, having long ago exploded or burned. But the light continues to travel, taking thousands of years to reach our solar system."
"But—but—" gasped Tom. "How can you be so accurate with this screen? It looks as though we were smack in the center of the galaxy itself!"
"There's a fifty-inch telescope attached to the screen," Scott replied, "which is equal to the big one-thousand-inch 'eye' back at the Academy."
"Why is that, sir?" asked Roger.
"You don't get any distortion from atmosphere up here," replied the young officer.
As Tom and Roger walked silently among the men at the teleceiver screens, Scott continued to explain. "This is where you'll be, Manning," he said, indicating a large radarscope scanner a little to one side and partially hidden from the glow of the huge teleceiver screen. "We need a man on watch here twenty-four hours a day, though there isn't much doing between midnight and eight A.M. on radar watch. A little traffic, but nothing compared to what we get during the regular working day."
"Any particular reason for that, sir?" asked Tom.
"Oh, there just aren't many arrivals and departures during that period. We have night crews to handle light traffic, but by midnight the station is pretty much like any sleepy Middle Western town. Rolls up the sidewalks and goes to bed."
He motioned to Roger to follow him to the radar section and left Tom watching the interesting spectacle on the giant teleceiver. A huge star cluster flashed brilliantly, filling the screen with light, then faded into the endless blackness of space. Tom caught his breath as he remembered what Scott had told him about the light being thousands of years old before reaching the solar system.
"Manning's all set, Corbett," said Scott at Tom's elbow. "Come on. I'll show you the traffic-control deck."
Tom followed the young officer out of the room. As all true spacemen do at one time or another in their lives, he thought about the pitifully small part mankind had played so far in the conquest of the stars. Man had come a long way, Tom was ready to admit, but there was still a lot of work ahead for young, courageous spacemen.
As Scott and Tom climbed the narrow stairs to the traffic-control deck, the Solar Guard officer continued to speak of the man-made satellite. "When the station was first built," he said, "it was expected to be just a way station for refueling and celestial observations. But now we're finding other uses for it, just as though it were a small community on Earth, Mars, or Venus. In fact, they're now planning to build still larger stations." Scott opened the door to the traffic-control room. He motioned to Tom to follow him.
This room, Tom was ready to admit, was the busiest place he had ever seen in his life. All around the circular room enlisted Solar Guardsmen sat at small desks, each with a monitoring board in front of him holding three teleceiver screens. As he talked into a mike near by, each man, by shifting from one screen to the next, was able to follow the progress of a spaceship into or out of the landing ports. One thing puzzled Tom. He turned to Scott.
"Sir, how come some of those screens show the station from the outside?" he asked. Tom pointed to a screen in front of him that had a picture of a huge jet liner just entering a landing port.
"Two-way teleceivers, Corbett," said Scott with a smile. "When you arrived on the Polaris, didn't you have a view of the station on your teleceiver?"
"Yes, sir," answered Tom, "of course."
"Well, these monitors picked up your image on the Polaris teleceiver. So the traffic-control chief here could see exactly what you were seeing."
In the center of the circular room Tom noticed a round desk that was raised about eight feet from the floor. This desk dominated all activity in the busy room. Inside it stood a Solar Guard officer, watching the monitoring teleceivers. He wore a throat microphone for sending out messages, and for receiving calls had a thin silver wire running to the vibrating bone in his ear. He moved constantly, turning in a circle, watching the various landing ports on the many screens. Three-thousand-ton rocket liners, Solar Guard cruisers, scout ships, and destroyers all moved about the satellite lazily, waiting for permission to enter or depart. This man was the master traffic-control officer who had first contacted Tom on his approach to the station. He did that for all approaching ships—contacted them, got the recognition signal, found out the ship's destination, its weight, and its cargo or passenger load.
Then the connection was relayed to one of the secondary control officers at the monitoring boards.
"That's Captain Stefens," said Scott in a whisper. "Toughest officer on the station. He has to be. From five hundred to a thousand ships arrive and depart daily. It's his job to see that every arriving ship is properly taken into the landing ports. Besides that, everything you've seen, except the meteor and weather observation rooms, are under his command. If he thinks a ship is overloaded, he won't allow it to enter and disrupt the balance of the station. Instead, he'll order its skipper to dump part of his cargo out in space to be picked up later. He makes hundreds of decisions a day—some of them really hair-raising. Once, when a rocket scout crew was threatened with exploding reactant mass, he calmly told them to blast off into a desolate spot in space and blow up. The crew could have abandoned ship, but they chose to remain with it and were blown to atoms. It could have happened to the station. That night he got a three-day pass from the station and went to Venusport."
Scott shook his head. "I've heard Venusport will never be the same after that three-day pass of Captain Stefens."
The young officer looked at Corbett quizzically. "That's the man you're going to work for."
Scott walked over to the circular desk and spoke rapidly to the officer inside. As Tom approached, Stefens gave him a quick, sharp glance. It sent a shiver down the cadet's spine. Scott waved to him to come over.
"Captain Stefens, this is Cadet Tom Corbett."
Tom came to attention.
"All right, Corbett," said Stefens, speaking like a man who had a lot to do, knew how to do it, liked to do it, and was losing time. "Stand up here with me and keep your mouth shut. Remember any questions you want to ask, and when I have a spare moment, ask them. And by the rings of Saturn, be sure I'm free to answer. Take my attention at the wrong moment and we could have a bad accident."
Stefens gave Scott a fleeting smile and turned back to his constant keen-eyed inspection of the monitors.
The radar watch was reporting the approach of a ship. Stefens began his cold, precise orders.
"Monitor seven, take freighter out of station on port sixty-six; monitor twelve, stand by for identification signal of jet liner coming in from Mars. Watch her closely. The Venusport Space Line is overloading again...." On and on he went, with Tom standing to one side watching with wide-eyed wonder as the many ships were maneuvered into and out of the station.
Suddenly Stefens turned to Tom. "Well, Corbett," he rasped, "what's the first question?"
Tom gulped. He had been so fascinated by the room's sheer magic and by Stefens' sure control of the traffic that he hadn't had a chance to think.
"I—I—don't have one—yet, sir," he managed finally.
"I want five questions within five minutes!" snapped Stefens, "and they better be rocket-blasting good questions!" He turned back to the monitors.
Tom Corbett, while he had gained the respect of many elder spacemen, was discovering that a cadet's life got no easier as time went on. He wondered fleetingly how Roger and Astro were making out, and then he began to think of some questions.
Beside him, oblivious of his presence, Stefens continued to spout directions. "Monitor three, take rocket scout out of landing-port eight. One crew member is remaining aboard the station for medical treatment. He weighs one hundred and fifty-eight pounds. Make balance adjustments accordingly...."
Tom's head was spinning. It was all too much for one young cadet to absorb on such short notice.
"There goes the jet liner to Mars," said Al Mason wistfully. "Sure wish we wuz on her." His eyes followed the beautiful slim passenger ship just blasting off from Venus.
"Why?" demanded Loring.
"Anything to get away from Venusport. What a stinking hole!" snorted the shorter of the two spacemen.
"For what we want to do," said Loring, "there ain't another city in the system that's got the advantages this place has!"
"Don't talk to me about advantages," whined Mason. "Be darned if I can see any. All we been doing is hang around the spaceport, talk to the spacemen, and watch the ships blast off. Maybe you're up to something but I'm blasted if I see what it can be."
"I've been looking for the right break to come along."
"What kind of break?" growled Mason.
"That kind," said Loring. He pointed to a distant figure emerging from a space freighter. "There's our answer!" said Loring, a note of triumph in his voice. "Come on. Let's get outta here. I don't want to be recognized."
"But—but—what's up? What's that guy and the space freighter Annie Jones got to do with us?"
Loring didn't answer but stepped quickly to the nearest jet cab and hopped into the back seat. Mason tumbled in after him.
"Spaceman's Row," Loring directed, "and make it quick!"
The driver stepped on the accelerator and the red teardrop-shaped vehicle shot away from the curb into the crowd of cars racing along Premier Highway Number One. In the back seat of the jet cab, Loring turned to his spacemate and slapped him on the back.
"Soon's we get into the Row, you go and pack our gear, see! Then meet me at the Cafe Cosmos in half an hour."
"Pack our gear?" asked Mason with alarm. "Are we going some place?"
Loring shot a glance at the driver. "Just do as I tell you!" he growled. "In a few hours we'll be on our way to Tara, and then—" He dropped his voice to a whisper. Mason listened and smiled.
The jet cab slid along the arrow-straight highway toward the heart of the city of Venusport. Soon it reached the outskirts. On both sides of the highway rose low, flat-roofed dwellings, built on a revolving wheel to follow the precious sun, and constructed of pure Titan crystal. Farther ahead and looming magnificent in the late afternoon sun was the first and largest of Venusian cities, Venusport. Like a fantastically large diamond, the startling towers of the young city shot upward into the misty atmosphere, catching the light and reflecting it in every color of the spectrum.
Loring and Mason did not appreciate the beauty of the city as they rode swiftly through the busy streets. Loring, in particular, thought as he had never thought before. He was busily putting a plot together in his mind—a plot as dangerous as it was criminal.
The jet cab slammed to a stop at a busy intersection of the city. This was Spaceman's Row, and it dated back to Venusport's first rough and tough pioneering days.
For two blocks on either side of the street, in building after building, cafes, pawnshops, cheap restaurants above and below the street level, supplied the needs of countless shadowy figures who came and went as silently as ghosts. Spaceman's Row was where suspended spacemen and space rats, prospectors of the asteroids for uranium and pitchblende, gathered and found short-lived and rowdy fun. Here, skippers of rocket ships, bound for destinations in deep space, could find hands willing to sign on their dirty freighters despite low pay and poor working conditions. No questions were asked here. Along Spaceman's Row, hard men played a grim game of survival.
Loring and Mason paid the driver, got out, and walked down the busy street. Here and there, nuaniam signs began to flick on, their garish blues, reds, and whites bathing the street in a glow of synthetic light. It was early evening, but already Spaceman's Row was getting ready for the coming night.
Presently, Mason left Loring, climbing up a long narrow flight of stairs leading to a dingy back hall bedroom to pack their few remaining bits of gear.
Loring walked on amid the noise and laughter that echoed from cheap restaurants and saloons. Stopping before Cafe Cosmos, he surveyed the street quickly before entering the wide doors. Many years before, the Cosmos had been a sedate dining spot, a place where respectable family parties came to enjoy good food and the gentle breezes of a near-by lake. Now, with the lake polluted by industry and with the gradual influx of shiftless spacemen, the Cosmos had been given over to the most basic, simple need of its new patrons—rocket juice!
The large room that Loring entered still retained some of the features of its more genteel beginnings, but the huge blaring teleceiver screen was filled with the pouting face of a popular singer. He advanced to the bar that occupied one entire wall.
"Rocket juice!" he said, slamming down his fist on the wooden bar. "Double!" He was served a glass of the harsh bluish liquid, paid his credits, and downed the drink. Then he turned slowly and glanced around the half-filled room. Almost immediately he spotted a small wizened man limping toward him.
"Been waiting for you," said the man.
"Well," demanded Loring, "did'ja get anything set up, Shinny?"
"Mr. Shinny!" growled the little man, with surprising vigor. "I'm old enough to be your father!"
"Awright—awright—Mr. Shinny!" sneered Loring. "Did'ja get it?"
The little man shook his head. "Nothing on the market, Billy boy." He paused and aimed a stream of tobacco juice at a near-by cuspidor.
Loring looked relieved. "Just as well. I've got something else lined up, anyway."
Shinny's eyes sharpened. "You must have a pretty big strike, Billy boy, if you're so hot to buy a spaceship!"
"Only want to take a little ride upstairs, Mr. Shinny," said Loring.
"Don't hand me that space gas!" snapped Shinny. "A man who's lost his space papers ain't going to take a chance at getting caught by the Solar Guard, busting the void with a rocket ship and no papers." He stopped, and his small gray eyes twinkled. "Unless," he added, "you've got quite a strike lined up!"
"Hey, Loring!" yelled Mason, entering the cafe. He carried two spaceman's traveling bags, small black plastic containers with glass zippers.
"So you've got Al Mason in with you," mused Shinny. "Pretty good man, Al. Let's see now, I saw you two just before you blasted off for Tara!" He paused. "Couldn't be that you've got anything lined up in deep space, now could it?"
"You're an old fool!" snarled Loring.
"Heh—heh—heh," chuckled Shinny. A toothless smile spread across his wrinkled face. "Coming close, am I?"
Al Mason looked at Shinny and back at Loring. "Say! What is this?" he demanded.
"O.K., O.K.," said Loring between clenched teeth. "So we've got a strike out in the deep, but one word outta line from you and I'll blast you with my heater!"
"Not a word," said Shinny, "not a word. I'll only charge you a little to keep your secret."
Mason looked at Loring. "How much?" he demanded.
"A twentieth of the take," said Shinny. "And that's dirt cheap."
"It's robbery," said Loring, "but O.K. We've got no choice!"
"Loring, wait a minute!" objected Mason. "One twentieth! Why, that could add up to a million credits!"
Shinny's eyes opened wide. "Twenty million! Hey, there hasn't been a uranium strike that big since the old seventeenth moon of Jupiter back in 2294!"
Loring motioned to them to sit down at a table. He ordered a bottle of rocket juice and filled three glasses.
"This ain't uranium, Mr. Shinny!" he said.
Shinny's eyes opened wider still. "What then?"
"What's the most precious metal in the system today?" Loring asked.
"Why—gold, I guess."
"Next to gold?"
Shinny thought for a moment. "Couldn't be silver any more, since they're making the artificial stuff cheaper'n it costs to mine it." The little man's jaw dropped and he stared at Loring. "You mean—?"
"That's right," said Loring, "copper!"
Shinny's mind raced. In this year of 2353, all major copper deposits had long since been exhausted and only small new deposits were being found, not nearly enough for the needs of the expanding system. In an age of electronics, lack of copper had become a serious bottleneck in the production of electrical and scientific equipment. Search parties were out constantly, all over the solar system, trying to find more of the precious stuff. So a deposit of the kind Loring and Mason were talking about was a prize indeed.
Shinny's greedy fingers twitched with anticipation.
"So that's why you want to buy a spaceship, eh?"
"Wanted," replied Loring. "I don't want to buy one now. The way things look, we'll get what we want for nothing!"
Mason, who had been sitting quietly, suddenly jumped up. "So that's your angle! Well, I don't want any part of it," he shouted.
Loring and Shinny looked up in surprise.
"What're you talking about?" demanded Loring.
"All of a sudden it's come to me. Now I know why you've been hanging around the spaceport for the last two weeks. And what you meant when you saw the spaceman get out of that freighter today!"
"Sit down!" barked Loring. "If you weren't so dumb, you'd have caught on long ago." He eyed the shorter man from between half-closed lids. "It's the only way we can get out of here!"
"Not me. I ain't pulling anything like that!" whined Mason.
"What's going on here?" demanded Shinny. "What're you two space bums talking about?"
"I'll tell you what! He's going to try—"
Loring suddenly stood up and slapped the shorter spaceman across the mouth. Mason sat down, a dazed look on his face.
"You space-crawling rat!" hissed Loring. "You'll do what I tell you to do, see?"
"Yeah—yeah, sure," bleated Mason. "O.K. Anything you say. Anything."
"What is this?" demanded Shinny.
"You shut up!" growled Loring.
"I won't!" said Shinny, as he also rose from the table. "You may be tough, Billy Loring, but not as tough as me!"
The two men stared at each other for a moment. Finally Loring smiled and patted Mason's shoulder. "Sorry, Al. I guess I got a little hot for a moment."
"Quit talking riddles," pleaded Shinny. "What's this all about?"
"Sit down," said Loring.
They sank back into their chairs.
"It's simple," said Mason fearfully. "Loring wants to steal a spaceship."
"A pirate job!" said Shinny. He drew in his breath sharply. "You must be outta your mind!"
"You've called yourself in on this," Loring reminded him. "And you're staying in."
"Oh, no!" Shinny's voice dropped to a husky, frightened whisper. "Deal's off. I ain't gonna spend the rest of my life on a prison asteroid!"
"Shinny, you know too much!" Loring's hand darted toward the blaster he wore at his belt.
"Your secret's safe with me. I give you my spaceman's word on it," said Shinny, pushing back his chair. Abruptly getting to his feet, he scrambled rapidly out the door of the Cafe Cosmos.
"Loring," said Mason, "get him. You can't let him ..."
"Forget it," shot back the other. "He won't break his spaceman's oath. Not Shinny." He got up. "Come on, Mason. We haven't got much time before the Annie Jones blasts off."
"What are we gonna do?" the shorter man wanted to know.
"Stow away on the cargo deck. Then, when we get out into space, we dump the pilots and head for Tara, for our first load of copper."
"But a job like this'll take money!"
"We'll make enough to go ahead on the first load."
Mason began to get up, hesitated, and then sat down again.
"Come on," snapped Loring. His hand dropped toward his belt. "I'm going to make you rich, Mason," he said quietly. "I'm going to make you one of the richest men in the universe—even if I have to kill you first."
"Space freighter Antares from Venus space station. Your approach course is one-nine-seven—corrected. Reduce speed to minimum thrust and approach spaceport nine—landing-deck three. End transmission!"
Tom stood on the dais of the traffic-control room and switched the Antares beam to one of his assistants at the monitors in the control room. In less than two weeks he had mastered the difficult traffic-control procedure to the point where Captain Stefens had allowed him to handle the midnight shift. He checked the monitors and turned to see Roger walk through the door.
"Working hard, Junior?" asked Roger in his casual drawl.
"Roger!" exclaimed Tom. "What are you fooling around down here for?"
"Ah, there's nothing to do on the radar deck. Besides, I've got the emergency alarm on." He wiped his forehead. "Brother! Of all the crummy places to be stuck!"
"Could be worse," said Tom, his eyes sweeping the monitors.
"Nothing could be worse," groaned Roger. "But nothing. Think of that lovely space doll Helen Ashton alone on earth—and me stuck here on a space station."
"Well, we're doing an important job, Roger," replied Tom. "And doing it well, or Major Connel wouldn't leave us alone so much. How're you making out with the new equipment?"
"That toy?" sneered Roger. "I gave it a look, checked the circuits once, and knew it inside out. It's so simple a child could have built one!"
"Oh, sure," scoffed Tom. "That's why the top scientists worked for years on something small, compact, powerful enough to reach through deep space—and still be easy to repair."
"Quit heckling me, Junior," retorted Roger, "I'm thinking. Trying to figure out some way of getting to the teleceiver set on board the Polaris."
"Why can't you get on the Polaris?" asked Tom.
"They're jazzing up the power deck with a new hyperdrive unit for the big hop to Tara. So many guys buzzing around you can't get near it."
"What do you need a teleceiver for?" asked Tom.
"To give me company," replied Roger sourly. "Say!" He snapped his fingers suddenly. "Maybe if I just changed the frequency—"
"What frequency? What are you talking about?"
"Spaceboy, I'm getting a real hot-rocket idea! See ya later!" And the blond cadet ran for the door.
Tom watched his unit-mate disappear and shook his head in amused despair. Roger, he told himself, might be difficult, but he was certainly never dull.
Then his attention was brought back to the monitors by the warning of another approaching spaceship.
"... jet liner San Francisco to Venus space-station traffic control ..." the metallic voice crackled over the speaker.
"Jet liner San Francisco, this is Venus space-station traffic control," replied Tom. "You are cleared for landing at port eleven—repeat—eleven. Make standard check for approach orbit to station landing. End transmission!"
From one side of the circular dais, Tom saw Major Connel enter the room. He snapped to attention and saluted smartly.
"Morning, Corbett," said Connel, returning Tom's salute. "Getting into the swing of the operation?"
"Yes, sir," said Tom. "I've handled about twenty approaches since Captain Stefens left me alone, and about fifty departures." Tom brought his fist up, with the thumb extended and wiped it across his chest in the traditional spaceman's signal that all was clear. "I didn't scratch one of 'em, sir," he said, smiling.
"Good enough," said Connel. "Keep it that way." He watched the monitor screen as the liner San Francisco settled into landing-port eleven.
When she was cradled and secure, he grunted his satisfaction and turned to leave. At the door he suddenly paused. "By the way, isn't Manning on radar watch?"
"Yes, sir," replied Tom.
"Well, it's one forty-eight. How about his standard check-in with traffic control?"
Tom stammered, "He—uh—he may be plotting some space junk, sir."
"He still must report, regardless of what he's doing!"
"I—uh—ah—yes, sir!" gulped Tom. Blast Roger anyway, he thought, forgetting the all-important quarter-hour check-in.
"I'd better go up and find out if anything's wrong," said Connel.
"Gosh, sir," suggested Tom, desperately seeking an excuse for his shipmate. "I'm sure Roger would have notified us if anything had happened."
"Knowing Manning as I do, I'm not so sure!" And the irascible officer thundered through the door like a jet-propelled tank!
"Come on, Mason. Hurry and put on that space suit," barked Loring.
"Take it easy," grumbled Mason. "I'm working as fast as I can!"
"Of all the rotten luck," growled Loring. "Who'd ever figure the Annie Jones would blast off from Venus—and then stop at the space station!"
"Shows you ain't so smart," retorted Mason. "Lots of ships do that. They carry just enough fuel to get 'em off the surface, so they'll be light while they're blasting out of Venus' gravity. Then they stop at the space station to refuel for the long haul."
"All right," barked Loring, "lay off the lecture! Just get that space suit on in a hurry!"
"Listen, wise guy," challenged Mason, "just tell me one thing. If we bail out of this tub in space suits, who's going to pick us up?"
"We're not bailing out!" said Loring.
"We're not? Then what are we suiting up for?"
"Just in case," said Loring. "Now listen to me. In a few minutes the Annie Jones'll make contact with traffic control. Only instead of talking to the pilot—they'll be talking to us. Because we'll have taken over."
"But unless we land they'll be suspicious. And if we land ..."
Loring interrupted. "Nobody's going to suspect a thing. I'll tell traffic control we've got an extra-heavy load. Then they won't let us land. We follow their orders and blast off into space—find an emergency fuel station—head for Tara—and nobody suspects anything."