SABOTAGE IN SPACE
THE TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET STORIES
By Carey Rockwell
STAND BY FOR MARS!
DANGER IN DEEP SPACE
ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES
THE SPACE PIONEERS
THE REVOLT ON VENUS
TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE
SABOTAGE IN SPACE
THE ROBOT ROCKET
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
SABOTAGE IN SPACE
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1955, BY ROCKHILL RADIO
COPYRIGHT ROCKHILL RADIO 1955
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOUIS GLANZMAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Transcriber's Note Extensive search has failed to uncover any evidence of renewal of copyright of this work.
Tom shot a hard right to his opponent's stomach 13
Tom swerved the jet car in front of the runaway truck 81
The men inside were tough-looking and steely-eyed 89
Tom saw that the Space Marines were watching the passengers very closely 137
"He's hanging on to the cleat over the main tube!" 185
"The projectiles blew Devers' ship into rocket dust!" 209
SABOTAGE IN SPACE
"Bong-g-g! Bong-g-g! Bong-g-g!—"
With a hollow booming sound reminiscent of old eighteenth-and nineteenth-century clock towers, the electronic time tone rang out from the Tower of Galileo, chiming the hour of nine. As the notes reverberated over the vast expanse of Space Academy, U.S.A., the lights in the windows of the cadet dormitories began to wink out and the slidewalks that crisscrossed the campus, connecting the various buildings, rumbled to a halt. When the last mournful note had rolled away to die in the distant hills, the school was dark and still. The only movement to be seen was the slow pacing of the cadet watch officers, patrolling their beats; the only sound, the measured clicking of their boots on the metal strips of the slidewalks.
On the north side of the quadrangle near the Tower, a young watch officer paused in front of one of the dormitories and scanned the darkened windows of the durasteel and crystal building. Satisfied that all was in order, he continued on his lonely way. A moment later a shadowy figure rose out of the bushes opposite the dormitory entrance and stepped forward quickly and cautiously. Pausing on the slidewalk to stare after the disappearing watch officer, the figure was illuminated by the dim light from the entrance hall. He was a young man wearing the royal-blue uniform of a Space Cadet. Tall and wiry, with square features topped by a shock of close-cropped blond hair, he stood poised on the balls of his feet, ready to move quickly should another watch officer appear.
After a quick glance at his wrist chronometer, the young cadet darted across the slidewalk toward the transparent crystal portal of the dormitory. Hesitating only long enough to make certain that the inner hallway was clear, he slid the portal open, ducked inside, and sprinted down the hall toward a large black panel on the wall near the foot of the slidestairs. On the panel, in five long columns, were the name plates of every cadet quartered in the dormitory and beside each plate were two words, IN and OUT, with a small tab that fitted over one of the words.
Out of the one hundred and fifty cadets in the dormitory, one hundred and forty-nine were marked IN. The slender, blond-haired cadet quickly made it unanimous, reaching up to the tab next to the name of Roger Manning and sliding it over to cover the word OUT. With a last final look around, he raced up the slidestairs, smiling in secret triumph.
In Room 512 on the fifth floor of the dormitory, Tom Corbett and Astro, the two other cadets who, with Roger Manning, made up the famed Polaris unit of the Space Cadet Corps, were deep in their studies. Though the lights-out order had been given over the dormitory loud-speaker system, the desk lamp burned brightly and there was a blanket thrown over the window. The boys of the Polaris unit weren't alone in their disobedience. All over the dormitory, lights were on and cadets were studying secretly. But they all felt fairly safe, for the cadet watch officers on each floor were anxious to study themselves and turned a blind eye. Even the Solar Guard officer of the day, in charge of the entire dormitory, was sympathetic to their efforts and made a great deal of unnecessary noise while on his evening rounds.
His brown curly hair falling over his forehead, Tom Corbett frowned in concentration as he kept the earphones of his study machine clamped tightly to his ears and listened to a recorded lecture on astrophysics as it unreeled from the spinning study spool. As command cadet of the Polaris unit, Tom was required to know more than merely his particular duty as pilot of a rocket ship. He had to be familiar with every phase of space travel, with a working knowledge of the duties of all his unit mates.
Astro, the power-deck officer of the unit, paced back and forth between the bunks like a huge, hulking bear, muttering to himself as he tried to memorize the table of reaction times for rocket motors. Though the huge Venusian cadet was a genius at all mechanical tasks, and able to work with tools the way a surgeon worked with instruments, he had great difficulty in learning the theories and scientific reasons for all the things he did instinctively. Suddenly Astro stopped, looked at his chronometer, then turned to Tom.
"Hey, Tom!" he called. "Where's that jerk, Manning?"
"Huh?" replied Tom, lifting one of the earphones from his ears. "What did you say, Astro?"
"Where's Manning?" reiterated Astro. "It's ten minutes after lights out."
"He was going to get those study spools for us, wasn't he?" mused Tom.
"He should've been back by now," grunted the Venusian. "The library closed an hour ago. Besides, he couldn't have gotten those spools. Every other cadet in the Academy is after them."
"Well, he's a pretty resourceful joker," sighed Tom, turning back to the study machine. "When he goes after something, he gets it by hook or crook."
"It's the crook part that bothers me," grumbled Astro. "Besides, if the O.D. catches him out of quarters, he'll be doing his studying while he's polishing up the mess hall."
Suddenly the door to the room burst open and slammed closed. Tom and Astro whirled to see their missing unit mate lounging against the doorframe, grinning broadly.
"Where've you been, blast you?"
Tom and Astro both jumped forward and spoke at the same time. The blond-haired cadet merely looked at them lazily and then sauntered forward, pulling six small study spools from his pockets.
"You wanted these study spools, didn't you?" he drawled, giving his unit mates three apiece. "Be my guest and study like mad."
Tom and Astro quickly read the titles of the spools and then looked at Roger in amazement. They were the ones the unit needed for their end-term exams, the ones all the cadets needed.
"Roger," Tom demanded, "how did you get these spools? The library was out of them this afternoon. Did you take them from another unit's quarters?"
"I did not!" said Roger stoutly. "And I don't like your insinuations that I would." He grinned. "Relax! We have them and we can breeze through them in the morning and have them back where they belong by noon tomorrow."
"Where they belong!" Tom exclaimed. "Then you have no right to them."
"Listen, hot-shot!" growled Astro. "I want to know where you got these spools and how."
"Well, if that isn't gratitude for you!" muttered Roger. "I go out and risk my neck for my dear beloved unit mates and they stand around arguing instead of buckling down to study."
"This is no joke, Roger," said Tom seriously. "Now for the last time, will you tell us how you got them?"
Roger thought a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. "All right," he said finally. "When I went down to the library to see if it was our turn for them yet, I found that we were still twenty-seventh in line."
"Twenty-seventh?" gasped Astro.
"That's right, spaceboy!" snorted Roger. "So I tried to con that little space doll of a librarian into moving our names up on the list, but just then an Earthworm cadet came in with an order from Tony Richards of the Capella unit, an order for the very spools we needed."
"You mean, you took them from an Earthworm?" queried Tom.
"Well, I didn't take them exactly," replied Roger. "I waited for him out on the quadrangle and I told him he was wanted in the cadet dispatcher's office right away and that I would take the spools on up to Tony."
"And you brought them here!" howled Astro.
"Yup." Roger grinned. "Do you think that squirt will know who I am? Not in a million years. And by the time Tony and the others do find out who has them, we'll be finished. Get it?"
"I get it, all right, you crummy little chiseler," growled Astro. "Tom, we gotta give these back to Tony."
Tom nodded. "You're right," he said.
"Now wait a minute!" said Roger angrily. "I went to a lot of trouble to get these things for you—"
"Look, Roger," Tom interrupted, "I would rather have one night with those spools than a two-week leave in Atom City right now. But the Capella unit is having a tough time making the Spring passing lists. They need those spools more than we do."
"Yeah," said Astro. "We could probably take the tests now and pass, but they really have to study. I'm for getting them back to the Capella unit right now. How about you, Tom?"
The young cadet nodded and turned to Roger who stood there, frowning. "Roger," said Tom, "both Astro and I really appreciate it. But you wouldn't want the Capella unit to flunk out of the Academy, would you?"
Roger gnawed at his thumbnail and then looked at his two unit mates sheepishly. "You're right, fellas," he said. "It was kind of a dirty trick. Give me the spools. I'll take them back to Tony right now."
"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Astro. "It's after hours. We're not supposed to be out of the dorm."
For a second the three boys looked at each other hesitantly. Then, as though they had telepathically conveyed their individual decisions to each other, they turned toward the door. Tom opened it and stepped out into the hall cautiously, then turned back and nodded. Roger and Astro followed him quickly.
As Roger closed the door behind him, he murmured, "There's no reason for all of us to go. I was the one who took the spools, so I should bring them back. Why should you two guys risk getting caught?"
Astro punched him in the shoulder fondly. "We always work together, don't we?" he declared. "If one's gonna get into trouble, we all should."
"Let's go," urged Tom in a sharp whisper, and they all raced silently toward the slidestairs.
Seconds later, the three cadets of the Polaris unit were down in the main hallway of the dormitory building, tiptoeing toward the front portal. Pausing only to look into the O.D.'s office to make sure the officer wouldn't spot them, they reached the portal and ducked out. Pausing again to scan the immediate area for any watch officers, they darted across the slidewalk and into the shadows of the shrubbery.
Quickly and soundlessly, they raced across the green lawn of the quadrangle toward the dormitory where the Capella unit was quartered. Once they sprawled headlong on the turf and lay still as a watch officer suddenly appeared out of the darkness at the base of the Tower of Galileo. But he walked past without seeing them and they continued on across the quadrangle.
Reaching another clump of shrubbery right opposite the Capella unit's dormitory, the boys stopped and discussed their final move.
"This is getting ridiculous," whispered Roger. "I shouldn't have let you two come with me. But I'm going the rest of the way myself."
"We came this far, Roger," asserted Tom. "We'll go the rest of the way and help you explain."
"And you've got a space-blasting lot to explain."
The three cadets whirled as a familiar voice snarled out of the darkness behind them. They saw three figures, all in cadet uniforms, wearing the insigne of the Capella unit. In the forefront was Tony Richards scowling angrily.
"Tony!" gasped Tom. "What are you doing out here?"
"We were on our way over to your dorm, Corbett," growled Tony Richards. "We saw you three sneaking across the quadrangle."
"Coming to pay us a visit, fellas?" asked Roger blandly.
"You know blasted well why we were coming," snapped McAvoy, the second member of the Capella crew.
Davison, the third member of the unit, stepped forward. "Give us back our study spools," he demanded.
"Take it easy," said Tom in a calm voice. "We were bringing them back to you."
"I'll bet," snapped McAvoy.
"Relax," growled Astro. "Tom said we were returning them. We admit it was a dirty trick, but you haven't lost much time. Half an hour maybe."
"Don't try to cover for Manning, Astro," said Tony heatedly. "It's a shame you two guys are stuck with a bad rocket like Manning in your unit."
"Bad rocket!" exclaimed Roger.
"Now, wait a minute, Tony," Tom said, advancing toward the broad-shouldered cadet. "We are returning the spools, and we apologize for yanking them from the Earthworm. But that doesn't mean we'll listen to that kind of talk about Roger."
"He stole them, didn't he?" retorted Davison.
Roger stepped forward. "Davy, my boy," he said in a low controlled tone, "I don't like that remark. I've got a notion to make you eat that word."
"I don't think you can, Manning," replied the angry cadet.
Tom stepped between them quickly. "Listen, fellows, we don't want any trouble. Here are the spools." He held them out.
"That's what I mean, Corbett," said McAvoy sarcastically. "Manning gets you in trouble and then you and the big boy have to bail him out."
"We've apologized," retorted Astro angrily. "You're getting the spools back. So no more cracks about Roger."
"I can take care of myself, Astro," said Roger.
"Here, take the spools and get back to your dorm," growled Tom. He handed the pile of spools over, but as Tony extended his hands, one of the spools dropped to the grass. No one made a move to pick it up.
"There are the spools," said Tom icily. "Now beat it."
"Let's go," said Davison, leaning over to pick up the spool. "The air is beginning to stink around here."
Red-faced, Roger stepped forward and put his foot on the spool just as Davison reached for it. "That's enough, Davison," he snarled.
"Why, you dirty space crawler—" Davison straightened up and swung wildly. Roger ducked the blow easily, then spun the heavy-set cadet around and pushed him back into the bushes.
Tony Richards stepped forward and Astro turned to him threateningly, but Tom quickly shoved them aside and faced Richards.
"Listen, Tony," he said. "We're all out after hours, and if a watch officer spots us, we've had it. We don't want any trouble." He glanced at Davison, who was being restrained by McAvoy. "We apologize. Now get out of here before we're all logged."
Richards nodded and started to turn to his unit mates when suddenly Davison jerked free and lunged at Roger. The blond-haired cadet was not caught unawares. He stepped aside and threw a quick jolting right straight to the Capella cadet's jaw. Davison staggered back and fell to the ground. He shook his head, jumped to his feet again, and charged back with a roar.
Both Tom and Astro and Tony Richards and McAvoy grabbed at their respective unit mates and tried to restrain them. In the struggle to keep Roger and Davison apart, Astro accidentally pushed Richards to one side.
"What in blazes—!" yelled Richards. He suddenly released Davison and gave Astro a shove that sent the big cadet sprawling. And then, without warning, McAvoy swung at Tom. The curly-haired cadet saw the blow coming a fraction of a second too late and caught it on the side of his head. He fell back into the bushes.
Roger yelled in anger at the sudden attack, and grabbing Davison by the front of his tunic, slammed a hard right into the cadet's stomach. Richards grabbed Roger, holding him around the head and neck, as McAvoy swung at him viciously. Seeing their unit mate pommeled, Tom and Astro charged back and the battle was on. The two units forgot about the watch officers and the strong possibility of being caught and slugged it out in the darkness of the quadrangle. The fight seemed to be the climax of a long-standing feud. The Polaris crew had first come to grips with Richards and his unit mates when they were assigned to the old rocket cruiser Arcturus. When the ship was scrapped, the cadets were transferred to the Capella, but the rivalry continued stronger than before. Time and time again, the two crack units had competed for hours on the athletic fields, in space flight tests, and in the classroom. The Polaris unit had constantly come out ahead, often by no more than a fraction of points, but their superiority was clear, and the Capella unit could not repress its resentment and jealousy.
Tony Richards and Tom had squared off and were boxing with lightninglike thrusts of their fists, each waiting for an opening. In back of them, Roger and Davison were simply hammering away at each other's mid-sections, and Astro and McAvoy were rolling around on the ground like bears, growling and tugging. It was brute strength against brute strength.
Tom danced away from Richards' rapierlike left, weaved low, and shot a hard right to his opponent's stomach that left him gasping. Richards doubled over and stepped in to bring up a solid right, then hesitated. Richards was through. The blow to the mid-section had taken all the fight out of him. Tom refused to pursue his advantage while the other could not fight back. His anger cooling rapidly, Tom realized that the whole fight was nothing more than a misunderstanding. As Richards sank to the grass helpless and gasping for breath, Tom turned to break up the other two fights. But Roger was just finishing his battle with Davison. Feinting to the mid-section and pulling Davison's guard down, Roger hooked his left cleanly to the jaw, following immediately with a haymaker right. Davison dropped to the turf, out cold.
Meanwhile, Astro had rolled on top of the last cadet of the Capella unit, and with his great strength, clamped McAvoy's arms to his side. Face to face, the two cadets glared at each other. The muscles tightened in Astro's arms, and beads of sweat popped out on his face.
"Give up!" demanded the Venusian, tightening his grip.
Slowly McAvoy sagged under the pressure Astro was applying and his face began to redden.
"He'll break his back," whispered Roger to Tom.
Tom nodded and stepped forward. "Let him go, Astro. He's finished."
Astro did not let go. His face was white with anger. McAvoy bent further back. "Give up," demanded Astro.
"Grab him," said Tom to Roger. "Get him off Mac before he breaks his back."
Tom and Roger jumped to Astro's side and each grabbed one of the powerful arms encircling McAvoy. It took all their strength to break the viselike hold the giant Venusian had on the other cadet, but slowly they pulled the muscular arms back and McAvoy slumped to the grass.
The three victorious cadets paused and looked down at the beaten Capella crew, then looked at each other.
"Well," sighed Roger, "I suppose that the least we can do now is get them back to their dorm."
Tom and Astro nodded. As the three boys started forward they were stopped by a voice behind them—a voice that roared like an atomic blast.
Whirling around in surprise for the second time within a space of ten minutes, Tom, Astro, and Roger saw a menacing sight standing behind them, his balled fists jammed on his hips, his booted legs widespread, and his massive head thrust forward. It was Major Lou Connel, more familiarly known as "Blast-off" Connel, a Senior Line Officer of the Solar Guard and the sternest disciplinarian in the whole Academy. Behind him stood a short, thin man, whom none of the boys recognized.
Connel stepped forward slowly and menacingly, glaring at the three boys.
"Out a little late, aren't you, boys?" he asked with a mildness that sent a chill down their spines.
"Y-yes sir," replied Tom, a slight tremor in his voice.
"On official business, I presume?" The major's voice was still as smooth as silk.
Tom gulped and then shook his head. "N-no, sir," he quavered.
Connel's eyes widened in mock horror. "Why, Corbett," he exclaimed, "didn't anyone ever tell you the rules of Space Academy? Or perhaps you didn't know what time it was?"
Tom bit his lip. He knew that he and his unit mates were caught in a hopeless trap and that Connel was simply baiting them. "I knew what time it was, sir," he said. "We're out after hours."
Suddenly there was a movement in the brush behind Tom as McAvoy stumbled to his feet. Richards also sat up groggily.
"Major!" It was the man behind Connel who spoke. "Who are they?"
As though in answer, Davison stood up too and the three members of the Capella unit were suddenly and horribly aware of the presence of Connel. They immediately braced themselves, their faces white with sudden fear.
"So!" Now the major's voice began to roar again. "Fighting, eh? Well, now we really have something here."
"Sir," began Richards tremulously, "if you'll let us explain—"
"I'll let you explain all right," thundered Connel. "Out after hours, fighting, you'll have a great time explaining to an inquiry."
"An inquiry!" Tom exclaimed involuntarily.
"Did you expect anything less?" roared Connel. "You are all under arrest and confined to quarters."
The six cadets all trembled but said nothing, standing at rigid attention, eyes straight ahead.
"Return to your quarters immediately."
As one, the cadets wheeled and marched off. Tom, Astro, and Roger walked across the quadrangle back to their dorm, and the Capella unit took the slidewalk that led to their quarters. Connel watched them go, a ferocious scowl on his craggy features.
"Little rough on them, weren't you, Major?" asked the man who stood beside the Solar Guard officer.
"Rules are meant to be obeyed, Professor Hemmingwell," retorted Connel stiffly.
"Perhaps you're right," mused the stranger. "But what's this about an inquiry?"
"A trial, Professor. A trial conducted by the cadets themselves to see whether or not the accused should be kicked out of the Academy."
"Kicked out?" exclaimed the professor. "You certainly do believe in discipline."
"These boys are to be Solar Guardsmen," replied Connel shortly. "If they can't obey orders now, they never will."
"Well, it's all very unimportant really, Major," Hemmingwell said with a shrug. "We have many more vital things to think about now than mere cadets. Shall we go? Commander Walters is waiting for us."
As the little man in civilian clothes walked away, Connel stifled a blistering retort. True, his mission here at the Academy was of great importance. But cadets were important too. And he was afraid. The Polaris unit was in grave trouble, grave enough to cause expulsion from the Academy.
Space Academy, U.S.A.!
This was the dream and goal of every boy in the thrilling year 2354, when mankind had reached out beyond the bounds of Earth and had conquered space, colonizing planets and blazing trails to distant worlds deep in the black void of the outer universe. To support the ever-growing need for trained spacemen to man the rocket ships that linked the planets and distant satellite outposts, the Solar Alliance, the government of the solar system, had erected Space Academy. It was there that the most promising boys were trained to become members of the Solar Guard to patrol the space lanes and keep peace in the universe.
Organized into tight, hard-hitting units of three, the Academy cadets were trained to work together under the most severe conditions. Their waking hours were spent in one of two places; in powerful rocket cruisers, blasting through space on endless training missions, or at the Academy in classrooms and lecture halls, where they studied everything from the theory of space flight to the application of space laws. A very important course of study was the theory of government. For, above all else, the Solar Alliance was a government of the people. And to assure the survival and continuance of that democratic system, the officers of the Solar Guard functioned as the watchdogs of the space democracy, entrusted with the vital mission of making sure the government reflected the will of the people.
As a practical approach to this course, the Academy officials had established a Cadet Council for the settlement of disputes and infractions of rules by the cadets. It was to this cadet governing body that the fight between the Polaris and the Capella units was referred by Major Connel.
The Academy had buzzed with talk since the fight, and sides were drawn hard and fast. Both units were extremely popular and the arguments raged through the dormitories as to which unit was at fault.
Meanwhile, the Cadet Council decided to have a full trial to give each unit a fair chance to defend itself against the charges. A judge and jury were selected and lawyers appointed for each side. Finally a date was set for the trial.
During this time, Tom, Roger, and Astro were confined to their quarters. They did not talk much, each conscious of the fact that should the Cadet Council decide against them, they might be expelled from the Academy. The same was true about the Capella unit, of course, but the Council might decide the Polaris had instigated the whole affair. Roger was particularly silent, since his actions in obtaining the study spools had started the whole chain of disastrous events.
The boys did not know which cadet would be appointed to defend them until late the following afternoon when there was a knock on the door, and a small, thin cadet, wearing a thick pair of eyeglasses that gave him a decided owllike look, entered the room.
"Alfie Higgins!" cried Tom.
"The Brain!" yelled Astro.
"Glad to see you, pal!" shouted Roger.
The three cadets surrounded little Alfie and pommeled him playfully in their joy at seeing another cadet. Alfie merely looked at them gravely.
"Hello, Tom, Roger, Astro," he said somberly.
"What are you doing here?" asked Tom. "We're not allowed visitors."
"I'm not a visitor, Tom," replied the little cadet. "I'm your defense lawyer." He glanced at Roger and Astro. "I hope that will be satisfactory to you."
"Satisfactory!" exclaimed Tom. "Alfie, we couldn't ask for anyone better."
"That's right, Brain," said Roger. "You're the boy for us."
Astro grunted his approval. "Yeah."
"Well, in that case," said Alfie, opening his brief case, "I would suggest that we get right down to the facts. The trial is tomorrow."
"All right, Alfie, we're ready," said Tom. "I suppose you want to hear the whole thing."
"If you don't mind," said Alfie, adjusting his eyeglasses. "You start, Roger."
Sitting around the room, relaxed, yet concerned, the four cadets discussed the details of the case. Alfie took copious notes, occasionally interrupting Tom or Roger or Astro to ask a pointed question.
They talked for nearly four hours before Alfie was finally satisfied that he knew all the facts. He left them with the same somber attitude he had when he first arrived, and when the boys were alone, they each felt a chill of fear. The full meaning of a defense lawyer hit them. They were in serious trouble. After a few moments of silence, Tom rose and went into the bathroom to take a shower. Astro flopped on his back in his bunk and went to sleep. Roger began throwing darts idly at his "solar system" over his bunk. It was a map of his own design depicting the planets revolving around the sun, only each planet was represented by a picture of a girl, and his own grinning countenance was the sun. He was known to have made dates by throwing a dart at the map blindly and taking out the girl whose picture he had hit.
When Tom returned a few minutes later, he looked at his unit mates and shook his head. Never, in all the adventures they had shared or all the tough situations they had been in, had either Roger or Astro given up as they seemed to be doing now.
"And," thought Tom miserably, "with good reason too! I feel like tossing in the sponge myself."
* * * * *
The huge Space Academy gymnasium had been converted into a temporary courtroom, and at ten A.M. the following day the cavernous chamber was packed with all the cadets who could get off duty, in addition to a liberal sprinkling of Solar Guard officers and instructors who were keenly interested in their pupils' handling of orderly democratic procedure.
As the cadet judge opened the proceedings, Commander Walters, Major Connel, Captain Strong, and Lieutenant Wolchek, unit commander of the Capella crew, watched intently from their seats in the back of the gym. Up forward, at two small tables immediately in front of the Council's platform, the Polaris and Capella units sat rigidly, while their defense lawyers arranged papers and data on the table for quick reference. Little Alfie Higgins didn't say a word to Tom, Roger, or Astro, merely studied his opponent, Cadet Benjy Edwards, who was acting as attorney for the Capella unit. Edwards, a beefy boy with a florid face, looked across the chamber and sneered at Tom. The young cadet repressed a quick shudder of anger. There was bad blood between the two. Once, Tom had found Edwards bullying a helpless group of Earthworm cadets, forcing them to march and exercise under a broiling Martian sun for no reason at all, and Tom had put a stop to it. Edwards had taken every opportunity to get back at Tom, and now he had his best chance.
From the beginning, the trial was argued bitterly. Though the issues were clear-cut—illegal possession of the study spools, out on the quadrangle after hours, and fighting—Edwards tried to accuse the Polaris unit of irrelevant infractions. But Alfie Higgins was his equal. From the beginning, he admitted that the Polaris unit was guilty of the first charge, but made a strong claim that they had more than made up for the infraction by risking censure to return the spools to their rightful owners. In addition, he forced Tony Richards to admit that he had accepted Roger's apology. The Council agreed to drop that charge and to hold the second charge in abeyance, since both units seemed to have had good reason for being out after hours. Benjy Edwards scowled but could find no reason to object to the Council's decision. Alfie, on the other hand, broke into a smile for the first time that morning. He turned to the Council and announced that the only point of issue was the fight and who struck the first blow.
In the back of the room, Connel turned to Strong. "I, personally, am going to sign the pass for a week's leave for Alfie when this is over," he said. "I never saw such a ding-blasted brain in operation in all my life."
"He really slipped one over on Benjy Edwards all right," muttered Strong, his voice tinged with pride.
In front of the Council platform, Alfie turned to the judge.
"I would like to call to the stand, if the court please," he said in a clear voice, "Cadet Tom Corbett."
Tom walked to the chair, was sworn in, and sat down, facing Alfie.
"Cadet Corbett," Higgins paused, and then asked almost casually, "did you strike the first blow?"
"No," replied Tom.
"Dismissed," said Higgins suddenly. "Call Roger Manning to the stand, please."
Roger rose, and passing Tom on the way back, took his place on the stand and repeated the oath.
Alfie looked at Roger calmly and in a clear voice asked, "Cadet Manning, did you strike the first blow?"
"Dismissed," said Alfie. "Please call Cadet Astro to the stand."
The cadet audience began to murmur and sit forward tensely.
"What the devil is he doing?" growled Connel.
Strong grinned. "Blast me if I know, Lou," he said. "But wait and see. I'll bet you ten credits it's a lulu."
Astro was sworn in and Alfie waited for the room to become quiet.
"Cadet Astro," he said finally, "you have heard the other members of the Polaris unit state, under solemn oath, that they did not strike the first blow. Now, I ask you to consider carefully your answer. Did you, Cadet Astro"—Alfie paused dramatically, and nearly shouted the final part of the question—"strike the first blow?"
"No!" bellowed Astro.
"Dismissed," said Alfie quickly, turning to the Council. "Gentlemen," he said, "he did not strike the first blow, nor did Cadet Corbett, nor Cadet Manning. And I will not insist that the three members of the Capella unit be asked the same question, since I concede that they are three impeccable gentlemen who could not strike the first blow in a common fight."
As the audience in the courtroom burst into a roar, Benjy Edwards jumped to his feet.
"Your honor," he appealed, "I insist that the Capella unit be allowed to take the stand and deny the charge—"
"Your honor," interrupted Alfie, "the Polaris unit makes no charge. They freely admit that the Capella unit could not, I repeat, sir, could not have struck the first blow. And the Polaris unit—"
"Your honor—!" cried Edwards. "I insist."
The cadet judge rapped his gavel. "Polaris counsel will speak."
"Thank you, your honor. I just wanted to say that the members of the Polaris unit defer to the Capella unit. I submit, your honor, that it was nothing more than a misunderstanding and that both sides should be punished or freed."
"Is that all?" asked the cadet judge.
"Yes, sir," said Alfie.
"Counsel for the Capella unit may speak now. Do you insist on having your defendants brought to the stand to swear they did not start the fight?"
"Your honor—" began Benjy. But Alfie had already planted the seed. There were shouts of "Give it to both of them" from the gym.
Red-faced, Edwards held up his hand and appealed for quiet. "Your honor," he began at last, "after consultation with the members of the Capella unit, they have directed me to state that they are willing to abide by the suggestion of the Polaris counsel."
As the cadets in the courtroom roared their approval, the cadet judge consulted quickly with the members of the Council. A decision was reached quickly. A verdict of conduct unbecoming cadets was brought against both units, with orders for a strong reprimand to be placed on their individual official records. In addition, each unit was denied leaves and week-end passes from the Academy until the end of the term, four weeks away. All spare time was to be spent on guard duty.
"You are to report to Chief Warrant Officer Timothy Rush for further orders on all time not actually accountable for in Academy schedules," concluded the cadet judge. "Dismissed."
The case was closed with a loud roar of approval from the entire cadet audience, who had seen justice done and democracy in action. Tom, Astro, and Roger looked at each other and smiled. They were still Space Cadets.
"Where is Captain Strong?"
Startled, Commander Walters glanced up to see Major Connel enter his office, accompanied by Professor Hemmingwell. The thin little man scowled with irritation as he walked right up to the commander's desk.
"I wanted Captain Strong here for this meeting," the professor continued.
"Of course," replied Walters. "Captain Strong should be here." He turned to Connel. "Have you seen him, Connel?"
As Connel lowered his bulk into a soft chair, he sighed. "Steve is with his unit, chewing them out over that fight with the Capella unit."
Walters grinned. "You heard about our trial, Professor?"
"Yes," replied Hemmingwell stiffly. "Frankly, I cannot see how Captain Strong can ignore this meeting to hold hands with those infantile cadets."
Connel's face turned red and he glanced quickly at Walters, whose face was approaching the same color. Neither expected such a comment from a scientist.
"Professor," said Connel heavily, leaning forward in his chair, "I assure you Steve Strong is not holding their hands. In fact, I would hate to be in those cadets' shoes right now."
Hemmingwell grunted and drew back from Connel's burning glare. "Be that as it may," he said. "I cannot see that the staff of this institution has done anything constructive for the last three days. So far as I'm concerned, this childish talk about a common fight has been a complete waste of time."
"Professor Hemmingwell," said Commander Walters, rising from his chair, "if there had to be a choice between your project, as valuable as it may be, and the valuable lesson learned today by my cadets, I'll tell you right now that the lesson would come first. This was a very important issue. The cadets had their real taste of democracy in action today, down on a level where they could understand it. And, I dare say, there are quite a few boys who heard that childish talk, as you put it, and will remember it some time in the future when they are called on to act as officers of the Solar Alliance."
Connel cleared his throat noisily. "I think we'd better get on with the meeting," he said. "Do you have the plans and specifications, Hemmingwell?"
But the wiry professor refused to be dissuaded. He faced Commander Walters and wagged his finger under the spaceman's nose.
"You have a perfect right to your own ideas concerning the education of your cadets!" he shouted. "But I have a right to my ideas regarding my space projectile operations. I've devoted a good part of my life to this plan, and I will not allow anything, or anyone, to stand in my way."
Before Walters could reply, Connel jumped up and growled.
"All right! Now that we've got the speeches out of the way, let's get down to work."
Walters and the professor suddenly stopped short and grinned at the brusque line officer, who, for all his bullying tactics, knew how to take the edge off a touchy situation. Walters sat down again and Hemmingwell spread out several large maps on Walters' desk. He pointed to a location on the chart of the area surrounding Space Academy.
"This is the area here," he said, placing his finger on the map. "I think it is best suited for our purpose. Dave Barret and Carter Devers concur—"
"Someone mention my name?"
The sliding door to the commander's office opened and a tall, distinguished man with iron-gray hair entered, followed by a handsome, younger man.
"Devers!" exclaimed Hemmingwell in obvious delight. "I didn't expect you until this evening."
"Got away earlier than I figured," replied the elder man, who then turned to the two Solar Guard officers. "Hello, Commander Walters, Major Connel. Meet Dave Barret, my assistant." He gestured toward the young man beside him and they shook hands in turn.
"Well," said Devers, "have we missed anything?"
"Just starting," replied Walters.
"Fine," said Devers. "Oh, by the way, I want it understood, Commander, that while I am lending Dave to you to work on the operation with the professor, I'm not even going to let you pay him. He remains on my payroll, so you can't take him away from me. The Jilolo Spaceways would be lost without him."
Walters smiled. "All right with me," he said.
"I don't care who pays him, as long as he's with me on this, Commander," said Hemmingwell, wiping his glasses carefully. "That young man has a mind equipped with a built-in calculator."
Dave Barret grinned in obvious embarrassment. "If Mr. Devers can devote his time to you for one credit a year as salary, I have no objections to working on this project," he said. "In fact, I told Mr. Devers that if he didn't let me come down here, I'd quit and come, anyway."
Hemmingwell beamed. "Well, now, if Captain Strong were only here, we could get along with the business at hand."
Devers frowned. "Why is he so important?" he asked.
"Steve has been placed in charge of procurement for the construction of the hangar and getting the spur line in from the monorail station," replied Connel. "And that reminds me, Professor," he continued. "Where is your hangar going to be? And where is that spur coming in from? Are we going to have a lot of building to do to get that blasted thing snaked over those hills?" Connel pointed to the protective ring of high rugged peaks that surrounded the Academy.
"That's why Dave Barret here is so important," replied Hemmingwell. "He figured out a way of tunneling through this section here"—he pointed to a particularly rugged section of the hills—"at half the cost of bringing it straight in on that plain there."
Connel and Walters studied the map closely. "Very good," said Walters.
"You think you can do it, Dave?" asked Connel.
"I'm sure I can, sir," replied the young man.
"And save time?" growled Connel.
"I'll have that line through, and in operation, bringing in the first haul of hangar material in three weeks."
Impressed by the young man's confidence, Connel turned to Commander Walters and nodded.
"Well, if you can do that, Barret," said Walters, "Professor Hemmingwell will have to begin his operations now, won't you, Professor?"
"That's right," said the wiry old man. "Right now, this very minute."
Devers suddenly spoke up. "I would like to have one thing explained, Commander, unless, of course, it's a breach of security, but—" He hesitated.
"What is it?" asked Connel.
"I've been going along with you for some time now," explained Devers. "But I still don't know the exact nature of the projectile you propose to build. What's the purpose of it?"
"You certainly deserve an answer to that question," said Commander Walters warmly. "You've contributed your services to this operation absolutely blindly. Now you should know everything." He paused and looked at Hemmingwell and Connel, who nodded in return. "Carter," he resumed, "we are going to create a spaceship that can launch a large projectile filled with cargo and send it to any small area."
Carter Devers' face lighted up. "You mean, you are going to fire payloads from space freighters instead of landing with them?"
"Exactly," said Walters. "These freighters will deliver mail and supplies to out-of-the-way settlements that do not have a spaceport large enough to handle the giant freighters and have to depend on surface transport from the larger cities."
Carter Devers shook his head slowly. "This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard of in my life."
"I thought you'd be surprised, Carter," said Walters, his face glowing with pleasure. "The big item, of course, is to lick the problem of standardizing the receivers for the projectiles. They must be lightweight, easily assembled, and precision made, since it's going to have an electronic gismo inside for the projectile to 'home' on."
Professor Hemmingwell grunted. "That electronic gismo, as you call it, is the real idea behind the whole operation."
"How is that, Professor?" asked Devers.
"Well, it works on this principle," began Hemmingwell. "The receiver will send out a distinctive radar beam. In the spaceship, the projectile designated for that receiver will be tuned in to the frequency of that beam and fired from the ship. A homing device, built into the projectile will take over, guiding it right down the beam to its destination."
"And how does that radar beam work?" asked Devers.
"That," said Connel stiffly, "is a military secret."
"Of course," nodded Devers, smiling. "I was just curious."
"Well, now that we're agreed on a site for the operation," said Professor Hemmingwell, "is there anything else you want to discuss, Commander?"
"Not for the moment, Professor," replied the commandant of Space Academy. "You have any more questions, Major Connel?"
When Connel shook his head, Devers spoke up again.
"There is something else I would like to know, if it isn't a breach of military secrecy," he said with a smile at Connel. "I don't remember seeing anything about this project in the bills sent before the Solar Council. When was it authorized?"
"It wasn't," snapped Hemmingwell. "It was blocked before it came to a vote. So I ran around the whole Solar Alliance, begging and borrowing the money to finance the project myself."
"And the Solar Guard is just lending technical assistance and facilities," supplied Walters. "Of course, should the project succeed, we will go before the Solar Council with an emergency request to incorporate the idea into the defense of all Solar Guard outposts."
"Private capital, eh?" said Devers, turning to look at the professor admiringly. "You are a very brave man, Professor Hemmingwell, to risk so much. And, I might add, you must be an excellent salesman to sell Solar Alliance bankers your ideas."
"Common sense," snorted the professor. "Plain horse sense."
"Still," insisted Devers, "most of the bankers with whom I've ever tried to talk common sense were horses." As everyone laughed, he turned to Walters. "Now, just what do you want me to do, Commander?"
"Carter, you've done so much for this project already that I'm going to give you a rest," said Walters.
"I don't understand."
"From now on," Major Connel broke in, "the project will be in the hands of the professor. If he needs anything, he'll tell Steve Strong. If Strong can't fulfill the request, he'll pass it on to Commander Walters, and if the commander feels it necessary to have your help, he will contact you."
"You understand, of course," said Walters, trying to soften the major's flat statement.
"Of course," replied Devers easily. "Still, if you need my help on this thing at all, don't fail to call me."
"Thank you, Carter," said Walters. "You've been a great help already."
Shaking hands all around and wishing them well, Devers left the office. Dave Barret, Commander Walters, and Professor Hemmingwell turned to their study of the map, but Major Connel remained where he was, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He shook his head as if to brush an impossible idea out of his mind and then turned to the map.
* * * * *
Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro stood at rigid attention in their dormitory room, backs ramrod straight, eyes front, hands stiffly at their sides. Captain Steve Strong, his face red and voice hoarse, strode up and down in front of them.
"And another thing!" he roared. "This court reprimand goes on your official records, and you're going to spend your time on guard duty like any common Earthworm that doesn't know its rocket from its pocket!" For nearly half an hour the cadets had listened to their unit instructor bawl them out. "When I think," he continued, "when I think of how close you three space brats came to getting kicked out of the Academy—" Words seemed to fail the young captain momentarily and he slumped on one of the bunks and looked at the row of cadets, shaking his head. "Why, in the name of Saturn, I ever accepted the responsibility of making you three bird brains into cadets is beyond me. And to think that when you first came here, I thought you had that special something to make you an outstanding unit. I even went out on a limb for you. And now you pull a stunt like this."
Behind them, the door opened and a short man, no more than five feet tall, but with the bulging muscles of a tiny giant stretching his bright-red enlisted man's uniform, stepped inside. He saluted Strong smartly.
"Chief Petty Officer Rush here to assign the Polaris unit to guard duty, sir," he announced.
"All right, Firehouse," said Strong, using the man's nickname. "Give it to them. Show them no mercy. By the rings of Saturn, they've got to be made to realize their responsibilities!"
"Yes, sir," said the thick little man.
Strong walked out of the room without another word, nor even a backward glance at the cadets.
As soon as the door closed, Timothy "Firehouse" Rush faced the three cadets, his beaten and battered face glowing with anticipation.
"Get this!" he growled. "When you're assigned to guard duty with the E.M.'s of the Solar Guard, you leave your immunity as cadets here in the Academy. From now on, you belong to me. And I'll tell you right now, there isn't anything in space that I hate more, or think less of, than Space Cadets. You get special privileges you don't deserve because you wear that uniform. You get a chance to learn to be a spaceman and most of you muff it. I've got E.M.'s in my outfit that could blast circles around either of you—guys that deserve the chance you've got, and fouled out because they can't spell or don't know how to hold a cup of tea with their fingers the right way. When you come to me, it means you've done something bad. You're on your way out. And I'm going to try my best to see that you make it—out." He took a step forward and glared at them. "Report to me at 1800 hours and"—his voice dropped to a gravelly roar—"you better not be late—and you better not be early."
He spun on his heels in a perfect about-face and left the room.
"There is only one consolation," sighed Tom. "The Capella unit is getting the same thing we're getting."
"Here we go!" breathed Roger slowly.
"I've been thinking about quitting the Academy, anyway," growled Astro.
Roger growled the order into the darkness and unslung the paralo-ray rifle from his shoulder, bringing it around to firing position. "Advance and be recognized," he said flatly.
Nothing moved. Even the air seemed still.
"Advance and be recognized," Roger ordered again. Still nothing moved. The cadet glanced around quickly in the direction of the guardhouse where he knew there was a communicator to the sergeant of the guard. Should he call for help? He decided against it and moved forward toward the noise he had heard, his finger poised on the trigger of the paralo-ray gun.
"Advance and be recognized," he called again. As he walked slowly between the huge packing cases piled outside the newly constructed hangar, he saw a shadowy movement to his left. He raised the deadly ray gun, and his finger tightened on the trigger.
"Advance and be recognized," he said over the sights of the gun.
A tiny white kitten flashed out of a gap between two boxes and ran to his feet, purring, rubbing up against his space boots.
"Well, blast my rockets!" Roger laughed. He slung the gun over his shoulder and reached down to pick the kitten up in his arms. He began stroking its fur and making little soothing noises. He started back to the other end of his patrol post.
"You're a cute little fella," murmured Roger, nuzzling the kitten against his chin. "But you almost got blasted."
"Guard! Stand to!"
Startled, Roger whirled around to see Firehouse Tim behind him, his battered and beaten face clouded with rage. "Drop that animal at once," the petty officer roared.
Roger stooped over to let the kitten run free and it dashed away into a crack between the boxes and disappeared.
"Manning," began the enlisted spaceman, "the next time I catch you not attending to your duty, I will bring you up on charges of neglect! Carry on!" Rush spun on his heel and vanished into the darkness.
"Blasted muscle-bound squirt!" sneered Roger under his breath, shouldering his rifle and resuming his slow patrol outside the hangar.
For three weeks, Tom, Roger, and Astro, along with the three members of the Capella unit, had been spending close to eight hours a day on guard duty, eight to ten hours a day in classroom work, and the rest of the time studying. They only averaged some two to three hours of sleep per day. They were dead tired but they stuck to their task doggedly, without complaint.
Around them, the work on Professor Hemmingwell's project had proceeded with amazing speed. The tunnel promised by Dave Barret had been finished in less than five days, with the rail for the monorail spur installed overhead as each yard of the shaft was completed. In the second week, scores of cars loaded with building materials began rolling into the deserted plain several miles away from Space Academy. Then, one morning, nearly a thousand construction workers arrived and built a hangar in thirty-six hours. No sooner had the huge building been completed than a tight guard had been placed around it. Specially designed identification tags were issued to the guards and workers on the project. Gradually the huge store of cases and boxes outside the hangar had been moved inside, with all but a few of the smaller ones remaining outside. The secret work inside the hangar was advancing rapidly, but this did not enter into the thoughts of the three cadets of the Polaris unit, nor of the Capella unit. The harsh discipline instituted by Tim Rush and the extra study necessary for the end-of-year exams had forced the cadets into a round-the-clock struggle not only to keep awake but to make the class promotion lists.
Roger paced off the required distance, wheeled smartly, and in so doing came face to face with Astro, who was patrolling another side of the hangar.
"I just saw Firehouse," said Astro quietly. "Did he catch you goofing?"
"Yeah," growled Roger. "I found a kitten and he walked up just as I was holding it."
Astro grinned. "I wouldn't be surprised if that pocket-sized giant didn't send that cat down there to tempt you."
"How's Tom?" asked Roger. Astro, in his patrol, came in contact with both unit mates.
"Sleepy. He's having a tough time with that chapter on space law. He didn't sleep at all last night."
"He better keep awake," said Roger. "That little fireman's got his rockets hot tonight. He'll blast Tom sure if—"
"Wait a minute," said Astro suddenly, looking off into the darkness. "What was that?"
Roger spun around, his rifle in his hands, ready to fire. "What is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," replied Astro in a whisper. "I thought I saw something move inside the hangar." He pointed to a large window. "Sort of a shadow against the frosted glass."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure."
"I'll investigate. You get Tom and call Firehouse."
"Right," replied Astro, and raced down the path, alongside the hangar.
Grasping his rifle firmly, Roger inched toward a nearby door. He opened it a crack, then flattened himself against the wall and watched Astro run toward the other end of the hangar. He saw the big Venusian say a few quick words to Tom and then rush off toward the guardhouse and the communicator. Tom waved to Roger, indicating that he would enter the opposite door of the hangar.
Roger dropped to his hands and knees and poked his head through the open door, peering around from one end of the huge dark chamber to the other. Then, taking a deep breath, he rose and stepped quickly inside. He closed the door behind him and stood still, listening for some sound.
Suddenly there was a flash of light from the opposite wall. Roger brought the paralo-ray gun up to his shoulder quickly and was about to fire when he realized that the light he saw was Tom opening the door on the opposite side. He breathed easier and waited until he could distinguish Tom's moving figure clearly, and then walked stealthily forward on a parallel line.
It was the first time Roger had been inside the hangar since it had been constructed and he was not sure of his way around, but gradually, the moonlight filtering in through the frosted plates of Titan crystal illuminated the huge forms of the machines around him.
He stopped and gasped. Without even realizing it, he emitted a long whistle of astonishment. Before him, reaching up into the shadows of the cavernous hangar, was the gleaming hull of a huge rocket ship. Two hundred feet long, the space vessel stood on its stabilizer fins, ladders and cables running into the open ports on both sides.
Roger waved to Tom, who had also stopped to stare at the giant spaceship, and the two of them met beneath the gleaming hull.
"What's the matter?" asked Tom. "Astro said you saw someone."
"I didn't see a blasted thing," said Roger in an exasperated whisper. "That big goof said he did."
"Wow!" said Tom, looking up at the ship. "This is some baby. I never saw one with lines like that before. Look at the funny bulges on the lower side of the hull."
"Sh!" hissed Roger. "I just heard something."
The two cadets stood silently, ears cocked for the slightest sound in the huge hangar. They heard a distinct tapping sound from somewhere above them.
"It's coming from inside the ship!" said Tom.
"You climb in the other port," said Roger. "I'll take this one."
"Right," said Tom. "And remember, if there's any trouble, shoot first and ask questions later."
Tom slipped away from Roger and moved to the opposite side of the ship. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he climbed up the ladder silently toward the open port.
Making his way noiselessly through the air lock, he entered the huge main deck of the ship and was able to see his way around by the faint glow of the emergency reflectors in the bulkheads. Tiny, sparkling gemlike pieces of specially coated Titan crystal, they glowed with steady intensity for many hours after having been exposed to any form of light. The deck was a mass of cables, boxes, tools, and equipment. Tom noticed curious-looking machines behind, what he judged to be, the odd bulges on the outside of the hull. Ahead of him, a hatch was partially open and he could see light streaking through the opening. He gripped his rifle tightly, finger on the trigger, and moved forward.
At the hatch he paused and looked into the next compartment. From the opposite side, he saw another hatch partially open and the outline of Roger's head and shoulders. Between them, a man was bending over a makeshift desk, copying information from a calculator and a set of blueprints. Tom nodded across to Roger and they both stepped into the compartment at the same time.
"Put up your hands, mister, or I'll freeze you so hard it'll take a summer on the Venus equator to warm you up," Roger drawled.
The man jerked upright, stumbled back from the desk, and moved toward Tom, keeping his eyes on Roger. He backed into the barrel of Tom's ray gun and stopped, terrified. He threw up his hands.
"What—wh—" he stammered and then caught himself. "How dare you do this to me?" he demanded.
"Shut up!" snapped Tom. "What are you doing here?"
"None of your business," the man replied.
"I'm making it my business," snapped Tom, pressing the gun into the man's back. "Who are you and how did you get in here?"
The man turned and looked Tom in the eye. "I have a right to be here," he stated coldly. "I'll show you my identification—" He brought his hands down and reached into his jacket, but Roger stepped over quickly and brought the barrel of his gun down sharply on the man's head. He slumped to the floor with a groan and was still.
"What did you do that for?" growled Tom.
Roger didn't reply. He reached down into the unconscious man's jacket and pulled out a small paralo-ray gun stuck in the top of his waistband. "Some identification," Roger drawled.
"Thanks, pal," said Tom sheepishly. "Let's search him. Maybe we can find out who he is."
As Roger bent over the fallen man, there was a commotion in the hangar outside the ship, followed by the sound of footsteps clattering up the ladders to the ports. Seconds later, Astro, followed by Tim Rush and a squad of enlisted spacemen, surged into the compartment. Rush stopped short when he saw the man on the floor.
"Great jumping Jupiter," gasped the petty officer, then whirled on Tom and Roger. "You space-blasted idiots!" he shouted. "You good-for-nothing harebrained, moronic dumbbells! Do you know what you've done?"
Tom and Roger stared at each other in amazement. Astro, standing to one side, looked confused.
"Sure we know what we've done," declared Tom. "We found this guy in here copying secrets from some blueprints there on the desk and—"
"Copying secrets!" screamed Rush. "Why, you ding-blasted idiots, that's Dave Barret, the supervisor of this whole project!"
The man on the floor stirred and Firehouse ordered the squad of enlisted men to help him up. Just then, there was a bellow of rage from the hatch. Major Connel stepped into the compartment, his face a mask of disgust and anger.
"By the rings of Saturn!" he roared. "I've been sitting in the laboratory for the last hour and a half waiting for Dave Barret to come back with vital information, so we could get on with our experiments, and I find that you—you—" Connel was so furious, he could hardly talk.
He faced the three cadets. "There isn't anything in the books that says you should be disciplined for this—this—outrage, but believe me, Cadets"—his voice sounded like thunder in the small compartment—"this is the very last time I'll stand for this kind of stupidity."
Tom gulped but stepped forward bravely. "Sir," he said clearly, "I would like respectfully to submit the facts for the major's honest consideration. Neither of us has ever seen this man before and we found him copying information from these blueprints. When I challenged him, he said he was going to show us his identification. He put his hands in his jacket to get it, but Roger saw a gun in his belt, and thinking he was going to use it, Roger hit him on the head." Tom stopped, clamped his mouth shut, and stared the major in the eye. "That's all, sir."
Connel returned the stare, his eyes meeting those of the cadet for a full half minute. "All right," he said finally. "I guess it's just a case of misjudgment. But," he added scathingly, "in the face of the Polaris unit's record, you can understand my initial opinion."
As Dave Barret was assisted from the ship by the guards, Connel turned to Rush. "Firehouse!" he barked.
"See that these cadets don't cause any more mischief."
"Dismissed," snapped Connel.
"All right, you space brats," bellowed Rush, "back to your patrol!"
Tom, Roger, and Astro left the ship and returned to their posts outside the hangar. Just before they separated to resume their endless march around the hangar, Tom winked at his unit mates. "At least we didn't get demerits," he said.
"Only because Connel couldn't find any reason to give them to us," sneered Roger. "What a busted rocket he's getting to be!"
"Yeah," agreed Astro quietly.
The three cadets began their round again, their eyes heavy with lack of sleep, their arms and legs leaden, and their desire to become successful Space Cadets more determined than ever. But they didn't know they had started a chain reaction that would affect their very lives.
Tom turned away from the lists posted on the dormitory bulletin board and with his arms around Astro and Roger pushed through the knot of cadets.
"Yeow!" bellowed Astro.
"We made it," murmured Roger with a note of disbelief in his voice. "We made it!" And then, with the realization that he was still a Space Cadet for at least another term, he turned and began pounding Astro on the back. "You big Venusian ape, we made it."
Arm in arm, the three cadets strolled across the quadrangle and shouted to friends they passed. Occasionally they fell silent when they saw a boy carrying his gear to the supply building. These had failed to pass the rigid examinations.
Near the Tower of Galileo, the cadets came face to face with Tony Richards, McAvoy, and Davison. The two units looked at each other silently, remembering what had happened only four short weeks before. Then they all smiled and pounded each other on the back, congratulating each other on passing. Neither of the units had made top honors as a result of their fight and the trial, and having to spend so much time on guard duty, but they had passed and that was the most important thing. The boys all adjourned to the credit exchange and gorged themselves on Martian fruit pies covered with ice cream. Finally the party broke up when Tom remembered that he and his unit mates had to go on guard duty in half an hour.
"Well," said Tony Richards, rising, "we relieve you guys at midnight, so we might as well hit the sack right now. I've been waiting for this night for a long time."
"No study," sighed Davison. "What heaven! I feel as if I've been pardoned from prison."
The three boys of the Capella crew said good-by to Tom, Roger, and Astro, and walked off. Tom settled back in his chair and sighed. "Sure wish I was in their boots," he said. "I don't see how I'm going to get through tonight."
"Don't think about it," said Roger. "Only seven more days to go, and then we go on summer cruise with the Polaris."
"I can't wait to get back on that power deck," said Astro. "It'll be like going home."
Later, riding the new slidewalk to the area where the huge hangar had been built, they saw Captain Strong returning from the restricted area on the other slidewalk. They hopped off their walk and waited for the young officer.
"I'm happy that you passed the exams, boys," he said. "And I want you to know Commander Walters and Major Connel think a lot more of you, though they wouldn't admit it, for the way you worked to make it."
"Thank you, sir," said Astro respectfully.
"You'll have to excuse us, sir," said Tom. "We've got to get out to the hangar and go on guard."
"Yes, and you'd better hurry," said Strong. "After that mix-up with Dave Barret, Firehouse Tim has his eye on you. Barret put up quite a fuss about it."
"I still don't see how Mr. Barret got in there," said Tom. "The fourth side of the hangar faces the hills, and we three covered the other three sides."
"However he got in," interrupted Strong, "he had a right to be there. And he also had a right to carry sidearms."
"Captain Strong," said Roger, "we've talked about it a lot, the three of us. And we decided that regardless of what Major Connel or Firehouse or Barret have said, we'd do the same thing, in the same way again."
"I think you're perfectly right, Manning. But don't quote me," said Strong, his voice serious. "This is one of the most important projects I've ever been connected with and—" He stopped suddenly. "Well, I can't tell you any more. That's how tight the security is on it."
"But everyone knows that it's a projectile that will home on a target, sir," said Tom.
"Yes, that was given to the stereos for general news release, but there are other factors involved, factors so important that they could revolutionize the whole concept of space flight."
"Wow!" said Tom. "No wonder they have this place so well guarded."
"Humph," snorted Roger. "I'd give up the opportunity of guarding this revolutionary secret for one night's good sleep."
"You'll get that tomorrow when we go off duty," said Tom. "And please, Roger, no blunders tonight, eh? Let's not take any chances of losing the summer cruise in the Polaris."
"Listen! You want to talk to the Venusian hick about that, not me," declared Roger. "He's the one that spotted Barret."
"But you hit him on the head," growled Astro. "You and your catlike reflexes." The big cadet referred to a recent letter he had seen in which one of the blond-haired cadet's many space dolls referred to his sensitivity as being that of a poet, and his dancing as smooth as the reflexes of a cat.
Roger spun on the big cadet. "You blasted throwback to a Venusian ape!" he roared. "If I ever catch you reading my mail again—"
"You'll what?" growled Astro. "You'll do just exactly what?" He grabbed Roger by the arm and held him straight out, so that he looked as if he were hanging from a tree.
Strong laughed and shook his head. "I give you three to the loving, tender care of Firehouse Tim," he said, hopping over on the moving slidewalk, back to the Academy.
"Put me down, you overgrown idiot," Roger howled.
"Not until you promise not to threaten me with violence again," said Astro with a wink at Tom. The young curly-haired cadet doubled up with laughter. Finally Roger was lowered to the ground, and, though he rubbed his shoulder and grumbled, he was really pleased that Astro felt like roughhousing with him. The events of the last few weeks had so tired all of them that there had been no energy left for play.
Lightheartedly they stepped over to the slidewalk and were back on their way to the secret project.
* * * * *
Two huge wire fences had been built around the hangar area now, fences carrying a surge of paralyzing power ready to greet anyone that dared touch it. More than twenty feet high, the outer fence was buried six feet into the ground and was some hundred yards away from the hangar building itself, and fifty yards away from the second fence. The entire area was also guarded by radar. Should any unauthorized person or object be found in that area, an automatic alarm sounded and in fifteen seconds a hundred fully armed guards were ready for action. The men who had been cleared by security to work in and around the restricted area wore specially designed belts of sensitized metal that offset the effects of the radar. But the fence was still the untouchable for everyone.
Tom, Roger, and Astro had now been moved inside the hangar itself, to stand guard over the only three doors in the cavernous structure. They were armed with powerful heat blasters. These rifles were different from the paralo-ray guns they had used previously. A beam of light from the ray guns would only paralyze a human being, while the blaster destroyed anything it touched, burning it to a crisp.
As soon as the three cadets saw the change in armament, they knew they were guarding something so secret that human life, if it interfered with the project, would be disintegrated. Only once before, on a hunting trip to Venus, had they ever used the blasters, but they knew the deadly power of the weapons.
Nothing was said to them. Firehouse Tim had not posted any special orders or given them any special instructions. Each man who worked inside the hangar had to pass a simple but telling test of identification. On a table at each entrance to the hangar was a small box with a hole in the top. Each worker, guard, and person that entered the hangar had to insert a key into the hole and it made contact with a highly sensitive electronic device inside. The keys were issued only by Major Connel or Captain Strong, and should anyone attempt to enter the hangar without it, or should the key not make the proper contact, lighting up a small bulb on the top of the box, Tom, Roger, and Astro had simple instructions: Shoot to kill.
This form of identification had been employed for some time now, even before the wire fence had been installed, but the really spectacular change was in the heat blasters each guard carried. This, more than anything else, impressed on everyone connected with the project, that to move the wrong way, to say the wrong thing, or to act in any suspicious manner might result in instant death.
It was a mark of trust that Tom, Roger, and Astro had been placed in such a highly sensitive position. They could kill a man and simply explain, "The light didn't go on!" and that would be the end of it. Neither of them knew that Connel had specifically requested that they be assigned to the day shift, when the hangar would be crowded with workers, who, intent on their assigned jobs, might be careless and leave themselves open to instant action on the part of the guards. Connel reasoned that Tom, Roger, and Astro, aside from their occasional antics in the Academy, would be more responsible than rough enlisted spacemen. The orders were specific: shoot to kill, but there was almost always one poor human being who would forget. In spite of the necessity for tight security, Connel felt he had to allow for that one percent of human failure. Secretly he was very happy that he had a crack unit like the Polaris to place in such a job. And the Capella unit had been entrusted with the same responsibility.
It was under such tight conditions that Astro, watching the least busy of the three entrances and exits, saw Dave Barret walk to a nearby public teleceiver booth, and, with the door ajar, place a transspace call to Venusport.
The booth was used often by the workers and Astro did not think much of it, until he accidentally overheard Barret's conversation.
"... Yeah, I know, but things are so tight, I can't even begin to get at it." Barret had his mouth close to the transmitter and his voice was low, but Astro could still hear him. "Yeah, I know how important it is to you, but I can be burned to a cinder if I make one false move. You'll just have to wait until I find an opening somewhere. Good-by!"
Barret switched off the teleceiver set and stepped out of the booth to face the muzzle of Astro's blaster. "Stand where you are!" growled the big cadet.
"What, why you—" Barret clamped his mouth shut. There was a difference between being frozen and being blasted into a crisp.
Astro reached over and touched the button that would alert a squad of guards, Major Connel, and Tim Rush. In a flash the alarm sounded throughout the hangar and troopers stormed in brandishing their guns. Firehouse Tim and Connel arrived seconds later. They skidded to a stop when they saw Barret with his hands in the air and Astro's finger on the trigger of the blaster.
"By the blessed rings of Saturn!" roared Connel. "Not again."
"Put down that gun," demanded Rush, stepping forward quickly. Astro lowered the gun and Barret dropped his hands.
"What's the meaning of this?" demanded Connel, his face reddening with rage.
Astro turned and looked the major right in the eye. "Major," he said calmly, "this man just made a teleceiver call—a transspace call to Venusport."
"Well, what about it?" cried Barret.
"Sir," said Astro, unruffled by Barret's screaming protest, "this man spoke of getting at something, and that he was unable to do so, because he might be burned to a cinder. And the other party would have to wait until he found an opening."
"What!" exclaimed Connel, turning to look at Barret. "What is the meaning of this, Barret?"
"Why, that knuckle-headed baboon!" yelled Barret. "Sure, I made a transspace call to Venusport—to the Venusian Atomic By-Products Corporation."
"What was the call about?" demanded Connel.
The guards had not moved and the workers in the hangar were now gathering around the small knot of men by the teleceiver booth.
"Come on, man!" shouted Connel. "Out with it."
"I called about getting a new timer for the projectile fuel-injection system," snapped Barret. "The timer is too slow for our needs. I wanted to adjust it myself, but the projectile is so compact, I can't get at it without taking a chance of getting doused by the fuel."
"What about that remark about finding an opening?" growled Connel.
"What's going on here?" called Professor Hemmingwell as he bustled up to the group. "Why aren't these men working? Dave, why aren't you up there—?"
"Just a minute, Professor!" Connel barked, and turned back to Barret. "Go ahead, Barret."
"They can't make a new timer until I find a way of installing it without taking apart the whole projectile," said Barret, adding sarcastically, "in other words, Major—finding an opening."
"All right," barked Connel. "That's enough." He turned to the assembled workers. "Get back to work, all of you." The men moved away and Firehouse Tim led the guards back to their quarters. Professor Hemmingwell, Barret, and Astro remained where they were.
Connel turned to Astro. "Good work, you dumb Venusian," he snorted. "But so help me, if you had burned this man, I, personally, would've buried you on a prison rock." The major then turned to Barret. "As for you—" he snarled.
"Yes?" asked Barret coolly.
"You make one more call like that over a public teleceiver," Connel roared, "especially a transspace call that's monitored by the idiots in the teleceiver company, and I'll send you to a prison asteroid!"
"Now, Major," said Hemmingwell testily, "I don't think you should speak to Dave that way. After all, he's a very valuable man in this project."
"How valuable would he be if this cadet had gone ahead and blasted him?" snarled Connel.
"It's just another example of how these stupid boys have obstructed my work here," replied Hemmingwell angrily. "I can't see why they have to interfere this way. And they always pick on poor Dave."
"Yes," snarled Barret. "I'm getting pretty tired of being a clay pigeon for a bunch of brats." He turned to Astro. "You'll have a head full of socket wrench if you mess with me again."
"You'll get a receipt, Barret," growled Astro. "Paid in full."
"All right, break it up," growled Connel. "Back to your post, Astro. And you get back to work, Barret, and remember what I said about using that public teleceiver."
Barret and Hemmingwell walked off, with the little professor talking rapidly to the younger scientist, trying to calm his anger.
Astro, Tom, and Roger were extraordinarily strict about the exit of the workers that night and there was angry muttering in the ranks of the men who wanted to get home. But the three cadets refused to be hurried and made each man perform the ritual of getting out to the letter. Still later, after they had been relieved by the Capella unit and had told them of the incident between Astro and Barret, they headed back to the Academy dormitory more tired than they had ever been before in their lives. Thirty seconds after reaching their room, they were asleep in their bunks, without undressing or washing. Like whipped dogs, they sprawled on their bunks, dead to the world.
Major Connel, Commander Walters, Captain Strong, Professor Hemmingwell, and Dave Barret stared unbelievingly at the tangle of wires and smashed tubes on the main deck of the sleek spaceship.
"Get every man that has been in this hangar during the last twenty-four hours and have him brought under guard to the laboratory for psychographs." Commander Walters' face was grim as he snapped out the order.
Professor Hemmingwell and Barret got down on their hands and knees and examined the wrecked firing device carefully. After a long period of silence, while Strong, Walters, and Connel watched them pawing through the tangle of wires and broken connections, Hemmingwell stood up.
"It can be replaced in twelve hours," he announced. "I believe that whoever did this either didn't know what he was doing, or it was an accident."
"Explain that, will you, Professor?" asked Strong. "I don't understand."
"This is an important unit," Hemmingwell replied, indicating the wreckage, "but not the most important part of the whole unit. Anyone who really knew what he was doing and wanted to delay the project could have done so much more easily by simply destroying this." Hemmingwell held out a small metallic-looking cylinder.
"What is that, Professor?" asked Barret.
"Don't you know?" asked Connel.
"No, he doesn't," snapped Professor Hemmingwell. "This is something I developed that only the commander and myself know about."
"So, if you and Commander Walters are the only ones that know about it," said Steve Strong slowly, "then a saboteur would have thought it unimportant and concentrated on the rest of the mechanism."
"Looks that way," mused Connel. "But there is still the possibility that it was an accident, as the professor said."
Strong looked at Connel questioningly and then back to the wreckage. The unit had been hurled from the upper deck of the spaceship, down to the main deck, and it looked as if someone had trampled on its delicate works.
"I'll have a crew put right to work on this," said Hemmingwell.
"Commander," Connel suddenly announced, "I'm going ahead with my trip to Mars to inspect the testing receivers. I don't think this incident is serious enough for me to delay leaving, and if Professor Hemmingwell and his men can get this unit back in operation in twelve hours, then there's very little time lost and we can go ahead with the tests on schedule."
"All right, Lou," said Walters. "Do whatever you think best. I'll have a ship made ready for you at the Academy spaceport any time you want to leave."
Connel nodded his thanks. "I think I'll take the Polaris, with Cadet Corbett along as second pilot," he said. "I'm getting too old to make a solo hop in a scout all the way to Mars. I need my rest." He grinned slyly at Walters.
"Rest," Walters snorted. "If I know you, Lou Connel, you'll be up all night working out standard operational procedures for the space projectiles." He turned to Strong. "He's so sure this will work that he's already writing a preliminary handbook for the enlisted personnel."
Strong turned and looked at the major, amazed. Every day he learned more and more about the space-hardened veteran.
Connel turned to Strong. "Will you give Corbett the order to be ready at 0600 hours tomorrow morning, Steve?" he asked.
"Certainly, Lou," replied Strong.
As the major turned away, Walters called after him, "Take it easy."
Leaving Hemmingwell and Barret to take care of clearing away the wreckage, Strong and Walters climbed out of the ship, left the hangar, and headed for the Academy.
"Do you think it was sabotage, sir?" asked Strong, as they rode on the slidewalk.
"I don't know, Steve," said the commander. "If that special unit of Hemmingwell's had been damaged, I would say it might have been an accident. But the things that were damaged would have put the whole works out of commission if we didn't have that unit."
"Yes, sir," said Strong grimly. "So the man who did it thought he was doing a complete job."
"Right," said Walters. "Assuming that it was sabotage."
"Anyone you suspect?"
"Not a living soul," replied Walters. "Every man in that hangar has been carefully screened by our Security Section. Background, history, everything. No, I think it really was an accident."
"Yes, sir," replied Strong, but not with the conviction he would like to have felt.
* * * * *
Pat Troy had been Professor Hemmingwell's foreman for nearly two years. It was his job to read the complicated blueprints and keep the construction and installation work proceeding on schedule. Troy lacked a formal education, but nevertheless he could read and interpret the complicated plans which the professor and his assistants drew up, and transform their ideas into actual mechanical devices. Professor Hemmingwell considered himself fortunate to have a man of Troy's ability not only as a co-worker, but as a close friend.
But Dave Barret did not like Troy, and he made this dislike obvious by giving Troy as much work as possible, mainly tasks that were beneath his ability, claiming he only trusted the trained scientists. Barret put the professor in the position of having to defend one to the other. He needed both men, both being excellent in their respective fields, and found it more and more difficult to maintain any kind of peaceful relationship between them. Barret, as Hemmingwell's chief assistant and supervisor of the project, was naturally superior in rank to Troy, and made the most of it. A placid, easy-going man, Troy took Barret's gibes and caustic comments in silence, doing his work and getting it finished on time. But occasionally he had difficulty in controlling his resentment.
The day after the accident, or sabotage attempt on the firing unit, the hangar was quiet, most of the workers still being psychographed. Troy, one of the first to be graphed, had been detained by the technicians longer than usual, but was now back at his bench, working on the unit. This incident gave Barret the opportunity he was looking for, and as he and Professor Hemmingwell strode through the hangar, he commented casually, "I hate to say this, sir, but I don't like the way Troy has been acting lately."
"What do you mean, Dave?" asked Hemmingwell.
"I depend a great deal on instinct," replied Barret. "And as good as Troy's work has been, I feel the man is hiding something."
"Come now, Dave," snorted the professor. "I've known him a long time. I think you're being a little harsh."
As Barret shrugged and didn't reply, a troubled expression crossed Hemmingwell's face. "But at the same time," he said slowly, "if you have any reservations, I don't suppose it would hurt to keep an eye on him."
"Yes!" agreed Barret eagerly. "That's just what I was thinking."
They reached the workbench where Troy, a small man with powerful arms and shoulders, was working on a complicated array of wires and vacuum tubes. He looked up, nodded casually at the two men, and indicated the instrument.
"Here it is, Professor," he said. "All ready to go. But I had a little trouble fitting that coil where the blueprints called for it."
"Why?" Barret demanded. "I designed that coil myself. Isn't it a little odd that a coil I designed, and the professor O.K.'d, should not fit?"
"I don't care who designed it," said Troy easily. "It didn't fit where the blueprint indicated. I had to redesign it."
"Now, now," said Professor Hemmingwell, sensing trouble. "Take it easy, boys."
"Professor," Barret exploded, "I insist that you fire this man!"
"Fire me!" exclaimed Troy angrily. "Why, you space crawler, you're the one who should be fired. I saw you come back to the hangar the other night alone and...."
"Of course I did!" snapped Barret. "I was sent down here to get information about—" He stopped suddenly and eyed Troy. "Wait a minute. How could you see me down here? What were you doing here?"
"Why—I—" Troy hesitated. "I came down to check over some equipment."
"Why were you detained at the psychograph tests this morning?" demanded Barret.
"None of your business!" shouted Troy. "I was doing my job. That's all."
"I'll bet," snapped Barret. "Professor, here is your sabotage agent. Who are you working for, Troy?"
"None of your business," stammered Troy, seemingly confused. "I mean, I'm not working for anyone."
"There! You see, Professor!" shouted Barret.
"I think you'd better explain yourself, Pat," said the professor, looking troubled and suspicious. "Why were you detained so long this morning?"
"They were asking me questions."
"What kind of questions?" demanded Barret.
"I'm not allowed to tell you."
"What were you doing here the other night?" pursued Barret. "The night you saw me here."
"I came down to check our supplies. I knew that we were running short on certain equipment."
"What kind of things?" demanded the professor.
"Well, the timers on the oscillators," Troy replied. "I knew we would need them for the new units you and Commander Walters were planning."
"Guard!" shouted Barret suddenly. "Guard!" He turned and called to Roger and Astro, who were standing guard at the doors. They both came running up, their blasters held at ready.
"What is it?" demanded Astro. "What's going on here?"
"Arrest that man!" shouted Barret. Astro and Roger looked questioningly at Troy. They did not know him personally but had seen him around the hangar and knew that he worked closely with the professor and Barret.
Still vaguely distrustful of Barret's behavior, Astro turned to Hemmingwell. "How about it, Professor?" he asked. "Do we haul this guy in?"
Hemmingwell looked at Troy steadily. "Pat, you knew about that new unit I was building?"
"Yes, sir," replied Troy forthrightly. "I accidentally overheard you and Commander Walters discussing it. From what you said about it, I knew you would need new timers for the oscillators—"
Roger and Astro had heard about the vital unit that had not been destroyed, and realized that Troy was admitting to knowledge he shouldn't have had. Roger raised the blaster menacingly. "All right, buster!" he growled. "Move this way and move slowly."
"Professor," exclaimed Troy, "you're not going to let them—!"
"I'm sorry, Pat," said the professor, a dejected look in his eyes. "I have nothing to do with it now. You should have told me that you knew about the new unit. And the fact that you were here the night it was destroyed, well—" He shrugged meaningfully and turned away.