STAND BY FOR MARS!
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
STAND BY FOR MARS!
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1952, BY ROCKHILL RADIO
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
STAND BY FOR MARS!
"Stand to, you rocket wash!"
A harsh, bull-throated roar thundered over the platform of the monorail station at Space Academy and suddenly the lively chatter and laughter of more than a hundred boys was stilled. Tumbling out of the gleaming monorail cars, they froze to quick attention, their eyes turned to the main exit ramp.
They saw a short, squat, heavily built man, wearing the scarlet uniform of the enlisted Solar Guard, staring down at them, his fists jammed into his hips and his feet spread wide apart. He stood there a moment, his sharp eyes flicking over the silent clusters, then slowly sauntered down the ramp toward them with a strangely light, catfooted tread.
"Form up! Column of fours!"
Almost before the echoes of the thunderous voice died down, the scattered groups of boys had formed themselves into four ragged lines along the platform.
The scarlet-clad figure stood before them, his seamed and weather-beaten face set in stern lines. But there was a glint of laughter in his eyes as he noticed the grotesque and sometimes tortuous positions of some of the boys as they braced themselves in what they considered a military pose.
Every year, for the last ten years, he had met the trains at the monorail station. Every year, he had seen boys in their late teens, gathered from Earth, Mars and Venus, three planets millions of miles apart. They were dressed in many different styles of clothes; the loose flowing robes of the lads from the Martian deserts; the knee-length shorts and high stockings of the boys from the Venusian jungles; the vari-colored jacket and trouser combinations of the boys from the magnificent Earth cities. But they all had one thing in common—a dream. All had visions of becoming Space Cadets, and later, officers in the Solar Guard. Each dreamed of the day when he would command rocket ships that patrolled the space lanes from the outer edges of Pluto to the twilight zone of Mercury. They were all the same.
"All right now! Let's get squared away!" His voice was a little more friendly now. "My name's McKenny—Mike McKenny. Warrant Officer—Solar Guard. See these hash marks?"
He suddenly held out a thick arm that bulged against the tight red sleeve. From the wrists to the elbow, the lines of boys could see a solid corrugation of white V-shaped stripes.
"Each one of these marks represents four years in space," he continued. "There's ten marks here and I intend making it an even dozen! And no bunch of Earthworms is going to make me lose the chance to get those last two by trying to make a space monkey out of me!"
McKenny sauntered along the line of boys with that same strange catlike step and looked squarely into the eyes of each boy in turn.
"Just to keep the record straight, I'm your cadet supervisor. I handle you until you either wash out and go home, or you finally blast off and become spacemen. If you stub your toe or cut your finger, come to me. If you get homesick, come to me. And if you get into trouble"—he paused momentarily—"don't bother because I'll be looking for you, with a fist full of demerits!"
McKenny continued his slow inspection of the ranks, then suddenly stopped short. At the far end of the line, a tall, ruggedly built boy of about eighteen, with curly brown hair and a pleasant, open face, was stirring uncomfortably. He slowly reached down toward his right boot and held it, while he wriggled his foot into it. McKenny quickly strode over and planted himself firmly in front of the boy.
"When I say stand to, I mean stand to!" he roared.
The boy jerked himself erect and snapped to attention.
"I—I'm sorry, sir," he stammered. "But my boot—it was coming off and—"
"I don't care if your pants are falling down, an order's an order!"
The boy gulped and reddened as a nervous titter rippled through the ranks. McKenny spun around and glared. There was immediate silence.
"What's your name?" He turned back to the boy.
"Corbett, sir. Cadet Candidate Tom Corbett," answered the boy.
"Wanta be a spaceman, do ya?" asked Mike, pushing his jaw out another inch.
"Been studying long hard hours in primary school, eh? Talked your mother and father deaf in the ears to let you come to Space Academy and be a spaceman! You want to feel those rockets bucking in your back out in the stars? EH?"
"Yes, sir," replied Tom, wondering how this man he didn't even know could know so much about him.
"Well, you won't make it if I ever catch you disobeying orders again!"
McKenny turned quickly to see what effect he had created on the others. The lines of bewildered faces satisfied him that his old trick of using one of the cadets as an example was a success. He turned back to Corbett.
"The only reason I'm not logging you now is because you're not a Space Cadet yet—and won't be, until you've taken the Academy oath!"
McKenny walked down the line and across the platform to an open teleceiver booth. The ranks were quiet and motionless, and as he made his call, McKenny smiled. Finally, when the tension seemed unbearable, he roared, "At ease!" and closed the door of the booth.
The ranks melted immediately and the boys fell into chattering clusters, their voices low, and they occasionally peered over their shoulders at Corbett as if he had suddenly been stricken with a horrible plague.
Brooding over the seeming ill-fortune that had called McKenny's attention to him at the wrong time, Tom sat down on his suitcase to adjust his boot. He shook his head slowly. He had heard Space Academy was tough, tougher than any other school in the world, but he didn't expect the stern discipline to begin so soon.
"This could be the beginning of the end," drawled a lazy voice in back of Tom, "for some of the more enthusiastic cadets." Someone laughed.
Tom turned to see a boy about his own age, weight and height, with close-cropped blond hair that stood up brushlike all over his head. He was lounging idly against a pillar, luggage piled high around his feet. Tom recognized him immediately as Roger Manning, and his pleasant features twisted into a scowl.
"About what I'd expect from that character," he thought, "after the trick he pulled on Astro, that big fellow from Venus."
Tom's thoughts were of the night before, when the connecting links of transportation from all over the Solar Alliance had deposited the boys in the Central Station at Atom City where they were to board the monorail express for the final lap to Space Academy.
Manning, as Tom remembered it, had taken advantage of the huge Venusian by tricking him into carrying his luggage. Reasoning that since the gravity of Venus was considerably less than that of Earth, he convinced Astro that he needed the extra weight to maintain his balance. It had been a cheap trick, but no one had wanted to challenge the sharpness of Manning's tongue and come to Astro's rescue. Tom had wanted to, but refrained when he saw that Astro didn't mind.
Finishing his conversation on the teleceiver, McKenny stepped out of the booth and faced the boys again.
"All right," he bawled. "They're all set for you at the Academy! Pick up your gear and follow me!" With a quick light step, he hopped on the rolling slidewalk at the edge of the platform and started moving away.
"Hey, Astro!" Roger Manning stopped the huge boy about to step over. "Going to carry my bags?"
The Venusian, a full head taller, hesitated and looked doubtfully at the four suitcases at Roger's feet.
"Come on," prodded Roger in a tone of mock good nature. "The gravity around here is the same as in Atom City. It's the same all over the face of the Earth. Wouldn't want you to just fly away." He snickered and looked around, winking broadly.
Astro still hesitated, "I don't know, Manning. I—uhh—"
"By the rings of Saturn! What's going on here?" Suddenly from outside the ring of boys that had gathered around, McKenny came roaring in, bulling his way to the center of the group to face Roger and Astro.
"I have a strained wrist, sir," began Roger smoothly.
"And this cadet candidate"—he nodded casually toward Astro—"offered to carry my luggage. Now he refuses."
Mike glared at Astro. "Did you agree to carry this man's luggage?"
"Well—I—ah—" fumbled Astro.
"Well? Did you or didn't you?"
"I guess I sorta did, sir," replied Astro, his face turning a slow red.
"I don't hold with anyone doing another man's work, but if a Solar Guard officer, a Space Cadet, or even a cadet candidate gives his word he'll do something, he does it!" McKenny shook a finger in Astro's face, reaching up to do it. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," was the embarrassed reply.
McKenny turned to Manning who stood listening, a faint smile playing on his lips.
"What's your name, Mister?"
"Manning. Roger Manning," he answered easily.
"So you've got a strained wrist, have you?" asked Mike mockingly while sending a sweeping glance from top to bottom of the gaudy colored clothes.
"Can't carry your own luggage, eh?"
"Yes," answered Roger evenly. "I could carry my own luggage. I thought the candidate from Venus might give me a helping hand. Nothing more. I certainly didn't intend for him to become a marked man for a simple gesture of comradeship." He glanced past McKenny toward the other boys and added softly, "And comradeship is the spirit of Space Academy, isn't it, sir?"
His face suddenly crimson, McKenny spluttered, searching for a ready answer, then turned away abruptly.
"What are you all standing around for?" he roared. "Get your gear and yourselves over on that slidewalk! Blast!" He turned once again to the rolling platform. Manning smiled at Astro and hopped nimbly onto the slidewalk after McKenny, leaving his luggage in a heap in front of Astro.
"And be careful with that small case, Astro," he called as he drifted away.
"Here, Astro," said Tom. "I'll give you a hand."
"Never mind," replied Astro grimly. "I can carry 'em."
"No, let me help." Tom bent over—then suddenly straightened. "By the way, we haven't introduced ourselves. My name's Corbett—Tom Corbett." He stuck out his hand. Astro hesitated, sizing up the curly-headed boy in front of him, who stood smiling and offering friendship. Finally he pushed out his own hand and smiled back at Tom.
"Astro, but you know that by now."
"That sure was a dirty deal Manning gave you."
"Ah, I don't mind carrying his bags. It's just that I wanted to tell him he's going to have to send it all back. They don't allow a candidate to keep more than a toothbrush at the Academy."
"Guess he'll find out the hard way."
Carrying Manning's luggage as well as their own, they finally stepped on the slidewalk and began the smooth easy ride from the monorail station to the Academy. Both having felt the sharpness of Manning's tongue, and both having been dressed down by Warrant Officer McKenny, they seemed to be linked by a bond of trouble and they stood close together for mutual comfort.
As the slidewalk whisked them silently past the few remaining buildings and credit exchanges that nestled around the monorail station, Tom gave thought to his new life.
Ever since Jon Builker, the space explorer, returning from the first successful flight to a distant galaxy, came through his home town near New Chicago twelve years before, Tom had wanted to be a spaceman. Through high school and the New Chicago Primary Space School where he had taken his first flight above Earth's atmosphere, he had waited for the day when he would pass his entrance exams and be accepted as a cadet candidate in Space Academy. For no reason at all, a lump rose in his throat, as the slidewalk rounded a curve and he saw for the first time, the gleaming white magnificence of the Tower of Galileo. He recognized it immediately from the hundreds of books he had read about the Academy and stared wordlessly.
"Sure is pretty, isn't it?" asked Astro, his voice strangely husky.
"Yeah," breathed Tom in reply. "It sure is." He could only stare at the shimmering tower ahead.
"It's all I've ever wanted to do," said Tom at length. "Just get out there and—be free!"
"I know what you mean. It's the greatest feeling in the world."
"You say that as if you've already been up there."
Astro grinned. "Yup. Used to be an enlisted space sailor. Bucked rockets in an old freighter on the Luna City—Venusport run."
"Well, what are you doing here?" Tom was amazed and impressed.
"Simple. I want to be an officer. I want to get into the Solar Guard and handle the power-push in one of those cruisers."
Tom's eyes glowed with renewed admiration for his new friend. "I've been out four or five times but only in jet boats five hundred miles out. Nothing like a jump to Luna City or Venusport."
By now the slidewalk had carried them past the base of the Tower of Galileo to a large building facing the Academy quadrangle and the spell was broken by McKenny's bull-throated roar.
"Haul off, you blasted polliwogs!"
As the boys jumped off the slidewalk, a cadet, dressed in the vivid blue that Tom recognized as the official dress of the Senior Cadet Corps, walked up to McKenny and spoke to him quietly. The warrant officer turned back to the waiting group and gave rapid orders.
"By twos, follow Cadet Herbert inside and he'll assign you to your quarters. Shower, shave if you have to and can find anything to shave, and dress in the uniform that'll be supplied you. Be ready to take the Academy oath at"—he paused and glanced at the senior cadet who held up three fingers—"fifteen hundred hours. That's three o'clock. All clear? Blast off!"
Just as the boys began to move, there was a sudden blasting roar in the distance. The noise expanded and rolled across the hills surrounding Space Academy. It thundered over the grassy quadrangle, vibrating waves of sound one on top of the other, until the very air quivered under the impact.
Mouths open, eyes popping, the cadet candidates stood rooted in their tracks and stared as, in the distance, a long, thin, needlelike ship seemed to balance delicately on a column of flame, then suddenly shoot skyward and disappear.
"Pull in your eyeballs!" McKenny's voice crackled over the receding thunder. "You'll fly one of those firecrackers some day. But right now you're Earthworms, the lowest form of animal life in the Academy!"
As the boys snapped to attention again, Tom thought he caught a faint smile on Cadet Herbert's face as he stood to one side waiting for McKenny to finish his tirade. Suddenly he snapped his back straight, turned sharply and stepped through the wide doors of the building. Quickly the double line of boys followed.
"Did you see that, Astro?" asked Tom excitedly. "That was a Solar Guard patrol ship!"
"Yeah, I know," replied Astro. The big candidate from Venus scratched his chin and eyed Tom bashfully. "Say, Tom—ah, since we sort of know each other, how about us trying to get in the same quarters?"
"O.K. by me, Astro, if we can," said Tom, grinning back at his friend.
The line pressed forward to Cadet Herbert, who was now waiting at the bottom of the slidestairs, a mesh belt that spiraled upward in a narrow well to the upper stories of the building. Speaking into an audioscriber, a machine that transmitted his spoken words into typescript, he repeated the names of the candidates as they passed.
"Cadet Candidate Tom Corbett," announced Tom, and Herbert repeated it into the audioscriber.
"Cadet Candidate Astro!" The big Venusian stepped forward.
"What's the rest of it, Mister?" inquired Herbert.
"That's all. Just Astro."
"No other names?"
"No, sir," replied Astro. "You see—"
"You don't say 'sir' to a senior cadet, Mister. And we're not interested in why you have only one name!" Herbert snapped.
"Yes, sir—uhh—Mister." Astro flushed and joined Tom.
"Cadet Candidate Philip Morgan," announced the next boy.
Herbert repeated the name into the machine, then announced, "Cadet Candidates Tom Corbett, Astro, and Philip Morgan assigned to Section 42-D."
Turning to the three boys, he indicated the spiraling slidestairs. "Forty-second floor. You'll find Section D in the starboard wing."
Astro and Tom immediately began to pile Manning's luggage to one side of the slidestairs.
"Take your luggage with you, Misters!" snapped Herbert.
"It isn't ours," replied Tom.
"Isn't yours?" Herbert glanced over the pile of suitcases and turned back to Tom. "Whose is it then?"
"Belongs to Cadet Candidate Roger Manning," replied Tom.
"What are you doing with it?"
"We were carrying it for him."
"Do we have a candidate in the group who finds it necessary to provide himself with valet service?"
Herbert moved along the line of boys.
"Will Cadet Candidate Roger Manning please step forward?"
Roger slid from behind a group of boys to face the senior cadet's cold stare.
"Roger Manning here," he presented himself smoothly.
"Is that your luggage?" Herbert jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
Roger smiled confidently, but Herbert merely stared coldly.
"You have a peculiar attitude for a candidate, Manning."
"Is there a prescribed attitude, Mr. Herbert?" Roger asked, his smile broadening. "If there is, I'll be only too glad to conform to it."
Herbert's face twitched almost imperceptibly. Then he nodded, made a notation on a pad and returned to his post at the head of the gaping line of boys. "From now on, Candidate Manning, you will be responsible for your own belongings."
Tom, Astro, and Philip Morgan stepped on the slidestairs and began their spiraling ascent to the forty-second floor.
"I saw what happened at the monorail station," drawled the third member of Section 42-D, leaning against the bannister of the moving belt. "By the craters of Luna, that Manning felluh sure is a hot operator."
"We found out for ourselves," grunted Astro.
"Say, since we're all bunkin' togethuh, let's get to knowin' each othuh. My name's Phil Morgan, come from Georgia. Where you all from?"
"New Chicago," replied Tom. "Name's Tom Corbett. And this is Astro."
"Hiya." Astro stuck out a big paw and grinned his wide grin. "I guess you heard. Astro's all the name I've got."
"How come?" inquired the Southerner.
"I'm from Venus and it's a custom from way back when Venus was first colonized to just hand out one name."
"Funny custom," drawled Phil.
Astro started to say something and then stopped, clamping his lips together. Tom could see his face turn a slow pink. Phil saw it too, and hastily added:
"Oh—I didn't mean anything. I—ah—" he broke off, embarrassed.
"Forget it, Phil." Astro grinned again.
"Say," interjected Tom. "Look at that!"
They all turned to look at the floor they were passing. Near the edge of the step-off platform on the fourth floor was an oaken panel, inscribed with silver lettering in relief. As they drew even with the plaque, they caught sight of someone behind them. They turned to see Manning, the pile of suitcases in front of him, reading aloud.
" ... to the brave men who sacrificed their lives in the conquest of space, this Galaxy Hall is dedicated...."
"Say, this must be the museum," said Tom. "Here's where they have all the original gear used in the first space hops."
"Absolutely right," said Manning with a smile.
"I wonder if we could get off and take a look?" Astro asked.
"Sure you can," said Roger. "In fact, the Academy regs say every cadet must inspect the exhibits in the space museum within the first week."
The members of Section 42-D looked at Roger questioningly.
"I don't know if we have time." Tom was dubious.
"Sure you have—plenty. I'd hop off and take a look myself but I've got to get this junk ready to ship home." He indicated the pile of bags in front of him.
"Aw, come on, Tom, let's take a look!" urged Astro. "They have the old Space Queen in here, the first ship to clear Earth's gravity. Boy, I'd sure like to see her!" Without waiting for the others to agree, the huge candidate stepped off the slidestairs.
"Hey, Astro!" yelled Tom. "Wait! I don't think—" His voice trailed off as the moving stair carried him up to the next floor.
But then a curious thing happened. As other boys came abreast of the museum floor and saw Astro they began to get off and follow him, wandering around gazing at the relics of the past.
Soon nearly half of the cadet candidates were standing in silent awe in front of the battered hull of the Space Queen, the first atomic-powered rocket ship allowed on exhibition only fifty years before because of the deadly radioactivity in her hull, created when a lead baffle melted in midspace and flooded the ship with murderous gamma rays.
They stood in front of the spaceship and listened while Astro, in a hushed voice, read the inscription on the bronze tablet.
"—Earth to Luna and return. 7th March 2051. In honor of the brave men of the first atomic-powered spaceship to land successfully on the planet Moon, only to perish on return to Earth...."
Like a clap of thunder Warrant Officer McKenny's voice jarred the boys out of their silence. He stepped forward like a bantam rooster and faced the startled group of boys.
"I wanna know just one thing! Who stepped off that slidestairs first?"
The boys all hesitated.
"I guess I was the first, sir," said Astro, stepping forward.
"Oh, you guess you were, eh?" roared McKenny.
Taking a deep breath McKenny launched into a blistering tirade. His choice of words were to be long remembered by the group and repeated to succeeding classes. Storming against the huge Venusian like a pygmy attacking an elephant, McKenny roared, berated and blasted.
Later, when Astro finally reached his quarters and changed into the green coveralls of the cadet candidates, Tom and Phil crowded around him.
"It was Roger, blast him!" said Tom angrily. "He was getting back at you because Cadet Herbert made him carry his own gear."
"I asked for it," grumbled Astro. "Ah, I should've known better. But I just couldn't wait to see the Queen." He balled his huge hands into tight knots and stared at the floor.
"Now hear this!!!"
A voice suddenly rasped over the PA system loud-speaker above the door. "All cadet candidates will come to attention to receive the Space Academy oath from Commander Walters." The voice paused. "AT-TENT-SHUN! Cadet candidates—Staaaaannnnd TO!"
"This is Commander Walters speaking!" A deep, powerful voice purred through the speaker. "The Academy oath is taken individually.
"It is something each candidate locks in his spirit, his mind and his heart. That is why it is taken in your quarters. The oath is not a show of color, it is a way of life. Each candidate will face as closely as possible in the direction of his home and swear by his own individual God as he repeats after me."
Astro stepped quickly to the window port and gazed into the blue heavens, eyes searching out the misty planet Venus. Phil Morgan thought a moment, and faced toward the wall with the inlaid star chart of the sky, thinking of sun-bathed Georgia. Tom Corbett stared straight at a blank wall.
Each boy did not see what was in front of him yet he saw further, perhaps, than he had ever seen before. He looked into a future which held the limitlessness of the universe and new worlds and planets to be lifted out of the oblivion of uncharted depths of space to come.
They repeated slowly....
" ... I solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the Solar Alliance, to obey interplanetary law, to protect the liberties of the planets, to safeguard the freedom of space and to uphold the cause of peace throughout the universe ... to this end, I dedicate my life!"
Tom Corbett's first day at Space Academy began at 0530 hours with the blaring of the Cadet Corps Song over the central communicators:
"From the rocket fields of the Academy To the far-flung stars of outer space, We're Space Cadets training to be Ready for dangers we may face.
Up in the sky, rocketing past Higher than high, faster than fast, Out into space, into the sun Look at her go when we give her the gun.
From the rocket fields of the...."
Within sixty seconds, the buildings of the Academy rocked with the impact of three thousand voices singing the last stanza. Lights flashed on in every window. Cadets raced through the halls and across the quadrangle. The central communicator began the incessant mustering of cadets, and the never-ending orders of the day.
" ... Unit 38-Z report to Captain Edwards for astrogation. Unit 68-E report to Commander Walters for special assignments."
On and on, down the list of senior cadets, watch officers, and the newly arrived Earthworms. Units and individuals to report for training or study in everything from ground assembly of an atomic rocket motor, to the history of the founding of the Solar Alliance, the governing body of the tri-planet civilization.
Tom Corbett stepped out of the shower in Section 42-D and bellowed at the top of his voice.
"Hit the deck, Astro! Make use of the gravity!" He tugged at an outsized foot dangling over the side of an upper bunk.
"Uhhhh-ahhhh-hummmmm," groaned the cadet from Venus and tried to go back to sleep.
Philip Morgan stepped into the shower, turned on the cold water, screeched at the top of his voice, gradually trailing off into countless repetitions of the last verse of the Academy song.
"Damp your tubes, you blasted space monkey," roared Astro, sitting up bleary-eyed.
"What time do we eat?" asked Tom, pulling on the green one-piece coverall of the Earthworm cadet candidates.
"I don't know," replied Astro, opening his mouth in a cavernous yawn. "But it'd better be soon. I like space, but not between my backbone and my stomach!"
Warrant Officer McKenny burst into the room and began to compete with the rest of the noise outside the buildings.
"Five minutes to the dining hall and you'd better not be late! Take the slidestairs down to the twenty-eighth floor. Tell the mess cadet in charge of the hall your unit number and he'll show you to the right table. Remember where it is, because you'll have to find it yourself after that, or not eat. Finish your breakfast and report to the ninety-ninth floor to Dr. Dale at seven hundred hours!"
And as fast as he had arrived, he was gone, a flash of red color with rasping voice trailing behind.
Exactly one hour and ten minutes later, promptly at seven o'clock, the three members of Unit 42-D stood at attention in front of Dr. Joan Dale, along with the rest of the green-clad cadets.
When the catcalls and wolf whistles had died away, Dr. Dale, pretty, trim, and dressed in the gold and black uniform of the Solar Guard, held up her hand and motioned for the cadets to sit down.
"My answer to your—" she paused, smiled and continued, "your enthusiastic welcome is simply—thank you. But we'll have no further repetitions. This is Space Academy—not a primary school!"
Turning abruptly, she stood beside a round desk in the well of an amphitheater, and held up a thin tube about an inch in diameter and twelve inches long.
"We will now begin your classification tests," she said. "You will receive one of these tubes. Inside, you will find four sheets of paper. You are to answer all the questions on each paper and place them back in the tube. Take the tube and drop it in the green outline slot in this wall."
She indicated a four-inch-round hole to her left, outlined with green paint. Beside it, was another slot outlined with red paint. "Remain there until the tube is returned to you in the red slot. Take it back to your desk." She paused and glanced down at her desk.
"Now, there are four possible classifications for a cadet. Control-deck officer, which includes leadership and command. Astrogation officer, which includes radar and communications. And power-deck officer for engine-room operations. The fourth classification is for advanced scientific study here at the Academy. Your papers are studied by an electronic calculator that has proven infallible. You must make at least a passing grade on each of the four classifications."
Dr. Dale looked up at the rows of upturned, unsmiling faces and stepped from the dais, coming to a halt near the first desk.
"I know that all of you here have your hearts set on becoming spacemen, officers in the Solar Guard. Most of you want to be space pilots. But there must be astrogators, radar engineers, communication officers and power-deck operators on each ship, and," she paused, braced her shoulders and added, "some of you will not be accepted for any of these. Some of you will wash out."
Dr. Dale turned her back on the cadets, not wanting to look at the sudden pallor that washed over their faces. It was brutal, she thought, this test. Why bring them all the way to the Academy and then give the tests? Why not start the entrance exams at the beginning with the classification and aptitude? But she knew the answer even before the thoughtful question was completed. Under the fear of being washed out, the weaker ones would not pass. The Solar Guard could not afford to have cadets and later Solar Guard officers who could not function under pressure.
She began handing out the tubes and, one by one, the green-clad candidates stepped to the front of the room to receive them.
"Excuse me, Ma'am," said one cadet falteringly. "If—if—I wash out as a cadet—as a Solar Guard officer cadet"—he gulped several times—"does that mean there isn't any chance of becoming a spaceman?"
"No," she answered kindly. "You can become a member of the enlisted Solar Guard, if you can pass the acceleration tests."
"Thank you, Ma'am," replied the boy and turned away nervously.
Tom Corbett accepted the tube and hurried back to his seat. He knew that this was the last hurdle. He did not know that the papers had been prepared individually, the tests given on the basis of the entrance exams he had taken back at New Chicago Primary Space School.
He opened the tube, pulling out the four sheets, printed on both sides of the paper, and read the heading on the first: ASTROGATION, COMMUNICATIONS, SIGNALS (Radar)
He studied the first question.
" ... What is the range of the Mark Nine radar-scope, and how far can a spaceship be successfully distinguished from other objects in space?..."
He read the question four times, then pulled out a pencil and began to write.
Only the rustle of the papers, or the occasional sigh of a cadet over a problem, disturbed the silence in the high-ceilinged room, as the hundred-odd cadets fought the questions.
There was a sudden stir in the room and Tom looked up to see Roger Manning walk to the slot and casually deposit his tube in the green-bordered slot. Then he leaned idly against the wall waiting for it to be returned. As he stood there, he spoke to Dr. Dale, who smiled and replied. There was something about his attitude that made Tom boil. So fast? He glanced at his own papers. He had hardly finished two sheets and thought he was doing fine. He clenched his teeth and bent over the paper again, redoubling his efforts to triangulate a fix on Regulus by using dead reckoning as a basis for his computations.
Suddenly a tall man, wearing the uniform of a Solar Guard officer, appeared in the back of the room. As Dr. Dale looked up and smiled a greeting, he placed his finger on his lips. Steve Strong, Captain in the Solar Guard, gazed around the room at the backs bent over busy pencils. He did not smile, remembering how, only fifteen years before, he had gone through the same torture, racking his brains trying to adjust the measurements of a magnascope prism. He was joined by a thin handsome young man, Lieutenant Judson Saminsky, and finally, Warrant Officer McKenny. They nodded silently in greeting. It would be over soon. Strong glanced at the clock over the desk. Another ten minutes to go.
The line of boys at the slots grew until more than twenty stood there, each waiting patiently, nervously, for his turn to drop the tube in the slot and receive in return the sealed cylinder that held his fate.
Still at his desk, his face wet with sweat, Astro looked at the question in front of him for the fifteenth time.
" ... Estimate the time it would take a 300-ton rocket ship with half-filled tanks, cruising at the most economical speed to make a trip from Titan to Venusport. (a) Estimate size and maximum capacity of fuel tanks. (b) Give estimate of speed ship would utilize...."
He thought. He slumped in his chair. He stared at the ceiling. He chewed his pencil....
Five seats away, Tom stacked his examination sheets neatly, twisted them into a cylinder and inserted them in the tube. As he passed the line of desks and headed for the slot, a hand caught his arm. Tom turned to see Roger Manning grinning at him.
"Worried, spaceboy?" asked Roger easily. Tom didn't answer. He simply withdrew his arm.
"You know," said Roger, "you're really a nice kid. It's a shame you won't make it. But the rules specifically say 'no cabbageheads.'"
"No talking!" Dr. Dale called sharply from her desk.
Tom walked away and stood in the line at the slots. He found himself wanting to pass more than anything in the world. "Please," he breathed, "please, just let me pass—"
A soft gong began to sound. Dr. Dale stood up.
"Time's up," she announced. "Please put your papers in the tubes and drop them in the slot."
Tom turned to see Astro stuffing his papers in the thin cylinder disgustedly. Phil Morgan came up and stood in back of Tom. His face was flushed.
"Everything O.K., Phil?" inquired Tom.
"Easy as free falling in space," replied the other cadet, his soft Georgian drawl full of confidence. "How about you?"
"I'm just hoping against hope."
The few remaining stragglers hurried up to the line.
"Think Astro'll make it?" asked Phil.
"I don't know," answered Tom, "I saw him sweating over there like a man facing death."
"I guess he is—in a way."
Astro took his place in line and shrugged his shoulders when Tom leaned forward to give him a questioning look.
"Go ahead, Tom," urged Phil. Tom turned and dropped his tube into the green-bordered slot and waited. He stared straight at the wall in front of him, hardly daring to breathe. Presently, the tube was returned in the red slot. He took it, turned it over in his hands and walked slowly back to his desk.
"You're washed out, cabbagehead!" Manning's whisper followed him. "Let's see if you can take it without bawling!"
Tom's face burned and he fought an impulse to answer Manning with a stiff belt in the jaw. But he kept walking, reached his desk and sat down.
Astro, the last to return to his desk, held the tube out in front of him as if it were alive. The room was silent as Dr. Dale rose from her desk.
"All right now, boys," she announced. "Inside the tubes you will find colored slips of paper. Those of you who have red slips will remain here. Those who find green slips will return to their quarters. Blue will go with Captain Strong, orange with Lieutenant Saminsky, and purple with Warrant Officer McKenny. Now—please open the tubes."
There was a tinkling of metal caps and then the slight rustle of paper as each boy withdrew the contents of the tube before him.
Tom took a deep breath and felt inside for the paper. He held his breath and pulled it out. It was green. He didn't know what it meant. He looked around. Phil was signaling to him, holding up a blue slip. Tom's heart skipped a beat. Whatever the colors meant, he and Phil were apart. He quickly turned around and caught Astro's eye. The big Venusian held up a green slip. Tom's heart then nearly stopped beating. Phil, who had breezed through with such confidence, held a blue slip, and Astro, who hadn't even finished the test, held up the same color that he had. It could only mean one thing. Failure. He felt the tears welling in his eyes, but had no strength left to fight them back.
He looked up, his eyes meeting the insolent stare of Roger Manning who was half turned in his seat. Remembering the caustic warning of the confident cadet, Tom fought back the flood in his eyes and glared back.
What would he tell his mother? And his father? And Billy, his brother, five years younger than himself, whom he had promised to bring a flask of water from the Grand Canal on Mars. And his sister! Tom remembered the shining pride in her eyes when she kissed him good-bye at the Stratoport as he left for Atom City.
From the front of the room, McKenny's rasping voice jarred him back to the present.
There was a shuffle of feet as the boys rose as one.
"All the purple slips follow me," he roared and turned toward the door. The cadets with purple slips marched after him.
Lieutenant Saminsky stepped briskly to the front of the room.
"Cadets with orange slips will please come with me," he said casually, and another group of cadets left the room.
From the rear of the room Captain Strong snapped out an order.
"Blue slips will come with me!"
He turned smartly and followed the last of Lieutenant Saminsky's cadets out of the room.
Tom looked around. The room was nearly empty now. He looked over at Astro and saw his big friend slumped moodily over against his desk. Then, suddenly, he noticed Roger Manning. The arrogant cadet was not smiling any longer. He was staring straight ahead. Before him on the desk, Tom could see a green slip. So he had failed too, thought Tom grimly. It was poor solace for the misery he felt.
Dr. Dale stepped forward again.
"Will the cadets holding green slips return to their quarters. Those with red slips will remain in their seats," she announced.
Tom found himself moving with difficulty. As he walked through the door, Astro joined him. A look more eloquent than words passed between them and they made their way silently up the slidestairs back to their quarters.
Lying in his bunk, hands under his head, eyes staring into space, Tom asked, "What happens now?"
Sprawled on his bunk, Astro didn't answer right away. He merely gulped and swallowed hard.
"I—I don't know," he finally stammered. "I just don't know."
"What'll you do?"
"It's back to the hold of a Venusport freighter, I guess. I don't know." Astro paused and looked at Tom. "What'll you do?"
"Go home," said Tom simply. "Go home and—and find a job."
"Ever think about the enlisted Solar Guard? Look at McKenny—"
"I know how you feel," sighed Astro. "Being in the enlisted section—is like—well, being a passenger—almost."
The door was suddenly flung open.
"Haul off them bunks, you blasted Earthworms!"
McKenny stood in the doorway in his usual aggressive pose, and Tom and Astro hit the floor together to stand at attention.
"Where's the other cadet?"
"He went with Captain Strong, sir," answered Tom.
"Oh?" said Mike. And in a surprisingly soft tone he added, "You two pulled green slips, eh?"
"Yes, sir," they replied together.
"Well, I don't know how you did it, but congratulations. You passed the classification tests. Both of you."
Tom just looked at the scarlet-clad, stumpy warrant officer. He couldn't believe his ears. Suddenly he felt as if he had been lifted off his feet. And then he realized that he was off his feet. Astro was holding him over his head. Then he dumped him in his bunk as easily as if he had been a child. And at the same time, the big Venusian let out a loud, long, earsplitting yell.
McKenny matched him with his bull-like roar.
"Plug that foghorn, you blasted Earthworm. You'll have the whole Academy in here thinking there's a murder."
By this time Tom was on his feet again, standing in front of McKenny.
"You mean, we made it? We're really in? We're cadets?"
"That's right." McKenny looked at a clip board in his hand and read, "Cadet Corbett, Tom. Qualified for control deck. Cadet Astro. Power deck."
Astro took a deep breath and started another yell, but before he could let go, McKenny clamped a big hand over his mouth.
"You bellow like that again and I'll make meteor dust out of you!"
Astro gulped and then matched Tom's grin with one that spread from ear to ear.
"What happened to Philip Morgan?" asked Tom.
"What color slip did he have?"
"Anything besides green washed out," replied Mike quickly. "Now let's see, you have a replacement for Morgan in this unit. An astrogator."
"Greetings, gentlemen," drawled a voice that Tom recognized without even looking. "Allow me to introduce myself to my new unit-mates. My name is Manning—Roger Manning. But then, we're old friends, aren't we?"
"Stow that rocket wash, Manning," snapped Mike. He glanced at the clock over the door. "You have an hour and forty-five minutes until lunch time. I suggest you take a walk around the Academy and familiarize yourselves with the arrangement of the buildings."
And then, for the first time, Tom saw the hard little spaceman smile.
"I'm glad you made it, boys. All three of you." He paused and looked at each of them in turn. "And I can honestly say I'm looking forward to the day when I can serve under you!"
He snapped his back straight, gave the three startled boys a crisp salute, executed a perfect about-face and marched out of the room.
"And that," drawled Roger, strolling to the bunk nearest the window, "is the corniest bit of space gas I've ever heard."
"Listen, Manning!" growled Astro, spinning around quickly to face him.
"Yeah," purred Roger, his eyes drawn to fine points, hands hanging loosely at his sides. "What would you like me to listen to, Cadet Astro?"
The hulking cadet lunged at Manning, but Tom quickly stepped between them.
"Stow it, both of you!" he shouted. "We're in this room together, so we might as well make the best of it."
"Of course, Corbett—of course," replied Manning easily. He turned his back on Astro, who stood, feet wide apart, neck muscles tight and hands clenched in hamlike fists.
"One of these days I'll break you in two, Manning. I'll close that fast-talking mouth of yours for good!"
Astro's voice was a low growl. Roger stood near the window port and appeared to have forgotten the incident.
The light shining in from the hallway darkened, and Tom turned to see three blue-clad senior cadets arranged in a row just inside the door.
"Congratulations, gentlemen. You're now qualified cadets of Space Academy," said a redheaded lad about twenty-one. "My name is Al Dixon," he turned to his left and right, "and these are cadets Bill Houseman and Rodney Withrop."
"Hiya," replied Tom. "Glad to know you. I'm Tom Corbett. This is Astro—and Roger Manning."
Astro shook hands, the three senior cadets giving a long glance at the size of the hand he offered. Roger came forward smartly and shook hands with a smile.
"We're sorta like a committee," began Dixon. "We've come to sign you up for the Academy sports program."
They made themselves comfortable in the room.
"You have a chance to take part in three sports. Free-fall wrestling, mercuryball and space chess." Dixon glanced at Houseman and Withrop. "From the looks of Cadet Astro, free-fall wrestling should be child's play for him!"
Astro merely grinned.
"Mercuryball is pretty much like the old game of soccer," explained Houseman. "But inside the ball is a smaller ball filled with mercury, making it take crazy dips and turns. You have to be pretty fast even to touch it."
"Sounds like you have to be a little Mercurian yourself," smiled Tom.
"You do," replied Dixon. "Oh, yes, you three play as a unit. Competition starts in a few days. So if you've never played before, you might go down to the gym and start practicing."
"You mentioned space chess," asked Roger. "What's that?"
"It's really nothing more than maneuvers. Space maneuvers," said Dixon. "A glass case, a seven-foot cube, is divided by light shafts into smaller cubes of equal shape and size. Each man has a complete space squadron. Three model rocket cruisers, six destroyers and ten scouts. The ships are filled with gas to make them float, and your power is derived from magnetic force. The problem is to get a combination of cruisers and destroyers and scouts into a space section where it could knock out your opponent's ships."
"You mean," interrupted Astro, "you've got to keep track of all those ships at once?"
"Don't worry, Astro," commented Roger quickly. "You use your muscles to win for dear old 42-D in free-fall wrestling. Corbett here can pound down the grassy field for a goal in mercuryball, and I'll do the brainwork of space chess."
The three visiting cadets exchanged sharp glances.
"Everybody plays together, Manning," said Dixon. "You three take part in each sport as a unit."
"Of course," nodded Roger. "Of course—as a unit."
The three cadets stood up, shook hands all around and left. Tom immediately turned to Manning.
"What was the idea of that crack about brains?"
Manning slouched over to the window port and said over his shoulder, "I don't know how you and your king-sized friend here passed the classifications test, Corbett, and I don't care. But, as you say, we're a unit. So we might as well make adjustments."
He turned to face them with a cold stare.
"I know this Academy like the palm of my hand," he went on. "Never mind how, just take it for granted. I know it. I'm here for the ride. For a special reason I wouldn't care to have you know. I'll get my training and then pull out."
He took a step forward, his face a mask of bitterness.
"So from now on, you two guys leave me alone. You bore me to death with your emotional childish allegiance to this—this"—he paused and spit the last out cynically—"space kindergarten!"
"I just can't understand it, Joan," said Captain Steve Strong, tossing the paper on his circular desk. "The psychographs of Corbett, Manning and Astro fit together like gears. And yet—"
The Solar Guard officer suddenly rose and walked over to a huge window that filled the entire north wall of his office, a solid sheet of glass that extended from the high domed ceiling to the translucent flooring. Through the window, he stared down moodily toward the grassy quadrangle, where at the moment several hundred cadets were marching in formation under a hot sun.
"—And yet," continued Strong, "every morning for the last three weeks I've got a report from McKenny about some sort of friction between them!"
"I think it'll work out, Steve," answered the pretty girl in the uniform of the Solar Guard, seated in an easy chair on the other side of the desk.
Joan Dale held the distinction of being the first woman ever admitted into the Solar Guard, in a capacity other than administrative work. Her experiments in atomic fissionables was the subject of a recent scientific symposium held on Mars. Over fifty of the leading scientists of the Solar Alliance had gathered to study her latest theory on hyperdrive, and had unanimously declared her ideas valid. She had been offered the chair as Master of Physics at the Academy as a result, giving her access to the finest laboratory in the tri-planet society.
Now facing the problem of personality adjustment in Unit 42-D, she sat across the desk from her childhood friend, Steve Strong, and frowned.
"What's happened this time?"
"Manning." He paused. "It seems to be all Manning!"
"You mean he's the more aggressive of the three?"
"No—not necessarily. Corbett shows signs of being a number-one spaceman. And that big cadet, Astro"—Strong flashed a white smile that contrasted with his deep space tan—"I don't think he could make a manual mistake on the power deck if he tried. You know, I actually saw him put an auxiliary rocket motor together blindfolded!"
The pretty scientist smiled. "I could have told you that after one look at his classification tests."
"On questions concerning the power-deck operations, he was letter perfect—"
"And on the others? Astrogation and control deck?"
"He just skimmed by. But even where the problem involved fuel, power, supply of energy, he offered some very practical answer to the problem." She smiled. "Astro is as much an artist on that power deck as Liddy Tamal doing Juliet in the stereos."
"Yes," mused Strong. "And Corbett is the same on the control deck. Good instinctive intelligence. That boy soaks up knowledge like a sponge."
"Facile mind—quick to grasp the essentials." She smiled again. "Seems to me I remember a few years back when a young lieutenant successfully put down a mutiny in space, and at his promotion to captain, the citation included the fact that he was quick to grasp the essentials."
Strong grinned sheepishly. A routine flight to Titan had misfired into open rebellion by the crew. Using a trick picked up in ancient history books of sea-roving pirates in the seventeenth century, he had joined the mutiny, gained control of the ship, sought out the ring-leaders and restored discipline.
"And Manning," asked Strong. "What about Manning?"
"One of the hardest, brightest minds I've come across in the Academy. He has a brain like a steel trap. He never misses."
"Then, do you think he's acting up because Corbett is the nominal head of the unit? Does he feel that he should be the command cadet in the control deck instead of Corbett?"
"No," replied Dr. Dale. "Not at all. I'm sure he intentionally missed problems about control deck and command in his classification test. He concentrated on astrogation, communications and signal radar. He wanted to be assigned to the radar deck. And he turned in the best paper I've ever read from a cadet to get the post."
Strong threw up his hands. "Then what is it? Here we have a unit, on paper at least, that could be number one. A good combination of brains, experience and knowledge. Everything that's needed. And what is the result? Friction!"
Suddenly a buzzer sounded, and on Steve Strong's desk a small teleceiver screen glowed into life. Gradually the stern face of Commander Walters emerged.
"Sorry to disturb you, Steve. Can you spare me a minute?"
"Of course, Commander," replied Strong. "Is anything wrong?"
"Very wrong, Steve. I've been looking over the daily performance reports on Unit 42-D."
"Dr. Dale and I have just been discussing that situation, sir." A relieved expression passed over the commander's face.
"Good! I wanted to get your opinions before I broke up the unit."
"No, sir!" said Strong quickly. "Don't do that!"
"Oh?" replied the commander. On the screen he could be seen settling back in his chair.
"And why not?"
"Well, Joan—er—Dr. Dale and myself feel that the boys of Unit 42-D make it potentially the best in the Academy—if they stay together, sir."
Walters considered this for a moment and then asked thoughtfully, "Give me one good reason why the unit shouldn't be washed out."
"The academy needs boys like this, sir," Steve answered flatly. "Needs their intelligence, their experience. They may be a problem now, but if they're handled right, they'll turn out to be ace spacemen, they'll—"
The commander interrupted. "You're pretty sold on them, aren't you, Steve?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"You know, tomorrow all the units will be assigned to their personal instructors."
"Yes, sir. And I've selected Lieutenant Wolcheck for this unit. He's tough and smart. I think he's just the man for the job."
"I don't agree, Steve. Wolcheck is a fine officer and with any other unit there'd be no question. But I think we have a better man for the job."
"Whom do you suggest, sir?"
The commander leaned forward in his chair.
"What do you think, Joan?"
"I wanted to make the same suggestion, Commander," smiled Joan. "But I didn't know if Steve really would want the assignment."
"Well, what about it, Steve?" asked the commander. "This is no reflection on your present work. But if you're so convinced that 42-D is worth the trouble, then take them over and mold them into spacemen. Otherwise, I'll have to wash them out."
Strong hesitated a moment. "All right, sir. I'll do my best."
On the screen the stern lines in Commander Walters' face relaxed and he smiled approvingly.
"Thanks, Steve," he said softly. "I was hoping you'd say that. Keep me posted."
The screen blacked out abruptly and Captain Strong turned to Joan Dale, a troubled frown wrinkling his brow.
"Huh. I really walked into that one, didn't I?" he muttered.
"It isn't going to be easy, Steve," she replied.
"Easy!" He snorted and walked over to the window to stare blankly at the quadrangle below. "I'd almost rather try a landing on the hot side of Mercury. It would be icy compared to this situation!"
"You can do it, Steve. I know you can." Joan moved to his side to place a reassuring hand on his arm.
The Solar Guard officer didn't answer immediately. He kept on staring at the Academy grounds and buildings spread out before him. When he finally spoke, his voice rang with determination.
"I've got to do it, Joan. I've got to whip those boys into a unit. Not only for their sakes—but for the sake of the Academy!"
The first three weeks of an Earthworm's life at Space Academy are filled with never-ending physical training and conditioning to meet the rigors of rocket flight and life on distant planets. And under the grueling pressure of fourteen-hour days, filled with backbreaking exercises and long forced marches, very few of the boys can find anything more desirable than sleep—and more sleep.
Under this pressure the friction in Unit 42-D became greater and greater. Roger and Astro continually needled each other with insults, and Tom gradually slipped into the role of arbiter.
Returning from a difficult afternoon of endless marching in the hot sun with the prospect of an evening of free-fall wrestling before them, the three cadets dragged themselves wearily onto the slidestairs leading to their quarters, their muscles screaming for rest.
"Another day like this," began Astro listlessly, "and I'm going to melt down to nothing. Doesn't McKenny have a heart?"
"No, just an asteroid," Tom grumbled. "He'll never know how close he came to getting a space boot in the face when he woke us up this morning. Oh, man! Was I tired!"
"Stop complaining, will you?" snarled Roger. "All I've heard from you two space crawlers is gripes and complaints."
"If I wasn't so tired, Roger," said Astro, "I'd give you something to gripe about. A flat lip!"
"Knock it off, Astro," said Tom wearily. The role of keeping them apart was getting tiresome.
"The trouble with you, Astro," pursued Roger, "is that you think with your muscles instead of your head."
"Yeah, I know. And you've got an electronic calculator for a brain. All you have to do is push a button and you get the answers all laid out for you."
They had reached their quarters now and were stripping off their sweat-soaked uniforms in preparation for a cool shower.
"You know, Roger," continued Astro, "you've got a real problem ahead of you."
"Any problem you think I have is no problem at all," was the cool reply.
"Yes, it is," insisted Astro. "When you're ready for your first hop in space, you won't be able to make it!"
"They don't have a space helmet in the Academy large enough to fit that overinflated head of yours!"
Roger turned slowly and spoke to Tom without looking at him. "Close the door, Corbett!"
"Why?" asked Tom, puzzled.
"Because I don't want any interruptions. I'm going to take that big hunk of Venusian space junk apart."
"Anything you say, you bigmouthed squirt!" roared Astro.
"Hey—knock it off!" yelled Tom, jumping between them and grabbing Astro's arm. "If you guys don't lay off each other, you're going to be thrown out of the Academy, and I'll be thrown out with you! I'll be blasted if I'll suffer for your mistakes!"
"That's a very interesting statement, Corbett!" A deep voice purred from the doorway and the three boys whirled to see Captain Strong walk into the room, his black and gold uniform fitting snugly across the shoulders betraying their latent strength. "Stand to—all of you!"
As the boys quickly snapped to attention, Strong eyed them slowly and then moved casually around the room. He picked up a book, looked out of the window port, pushed a boot to one side and, finally, removed Tom's sweat-stained uniform from a chair and sat down. The cadets held their rigid poses, backs stiff, eyes looking straight ahead.
"Corbett?" snapped Strong.
"What was the meaning of that little speech I heard a moment ago?"
"I—ah—don't quite understand what you mean, sir," stumbled Tom.
"I think you do," said Strong. "I want to know what provoked you to make such a statement."
"I'd rather not answer that, sir."
"Don't get cute, Corbett!" barked Strong. "I know what's going on in this unit. Were Manning and Astro squaring off to fight?"
"Yes, sir," replied Tom slowly.
"All right. At ease all of you," said Strong. The three boys relaxed and faced the officer.
"Manning, do you want to be a successful cadet here at Space Academy?"
"Yes, sir," answered Roger.
"Then why don't you act like it?" asked Strong.
"Is there something wrong with my work, sir?" Tom recognized the smooth Manning confidence begin to appear, and he wondered if Captain Strong would be taken in.
"Everything's wrong with your work," barked Strong. "You're too smart! Know too much!" He stopped short and then added softly with biting sarcasm, "Why do you know so much, Cadet Manning?"
Roger hesitated. "I've studied very hard. Studied for years to become a Space Cadet," he replied.
"Just to be a cadet or a successful cadet and a Solar Guard officer?"
"To be successful at both, sir."
"Tell me, Manning, do you have any ideas on life?"
"That's a pretty general question, sir. Do you mean life as a whole or a specific part of life?" They're fencing with each other, thought Tom. He held his breath as Strong eyed the relaxed, confident cadet.
"A spaceman is supposed to have but one idea in life, Manning. And that idea is space!"
"I see, sir," replied Roger, as a faraway look came into his eyes.
"Yes, sir, I have some ideas about life in space."
"I'd like to hear them!" requested Strong coldly.
"Very well, sir." Roger relaxed his shoulders and leaned against the bunk. "I believe space is the last frontier of man—Earthman. It's the last place for man to conquer. It is the greatest adventure of all time and I want to be a part of that adventure."
"Thank you, Manning." Strong's voice was even colder than before. "But as it happens, I can read too. That was a direct quote from the closing paragraph of Jon Builker's book on his trip to the stars!" He paused. "Couldn't you think of anything original to say?"
Roger flushed and gritted his teeth. Tom could hardly keep himself from laughing. Captain Strong had scored heavily!
The Solar Guard officer then turned his attention to Astro.
"Astro, where in the name of the universe did you get the idea you could be an officer in the Solar Guard?"
"I can handle anything with push in it, sir!" Astro smiled his confidence.
"Know anything about hyperdrive?"
"Then you can't handle everything with, as you say, push in it!" snapped Strong.
"Er—no, sir," answered Astro, his face clouding over.
There was a long moment of silence while Strong lifted one knee, swung it over the arm of his chair, and looked steadily at the two half-naked boys in front of him. He smiled lazily.
"Well, for two Earthworms, you've certainly been acting like a couple of space aces!"
He let that soak in while he toyed with the gleaming Academy ring on his finger. He allowed it to flash in the light of the window port, then slipped it off and flipped it over to Corbett.
"Know what that is?" he asked the curly-haired cadet.
"Yes, sir," replied Tom. "Your Academy graduation ring."
"Uh-huh. Now give it to our friend from Venus." Tom gingerly handed Astro the ring.
"Try it on, Astro," invited Strong.
The big cadet tried it on all of his fingers but couldn't get it past the first joint.
"Give it to Manning."
Roger accepted the ring and held it in the palm of his hand. He looked at it with a hard stare, then dropped it in the outstretched hand of the Solar Guard officer. Replacing it on his finger, Strong spoke casually.
"All units design their own rings. There are only three like this in the universe. One is drifting around in space on the finger of Sam Jones. Another is blasting a trail to the stars on the finger of Addy Garcia." He held up his finger. "This is the third one."
Strong got up and began to pace in front of the boys.
"Addy Garcia couldn't speak a word of English when he first came to the Academy. And for eight weeks Sam and I sweated to figure out what he was talking about. I think we spent over a hundred hours in the galley doing KP because Addy kept getting us fouled up. But that didn't bother us because we were a unit. Unit 33-V. Class of 2338."
Strong turned to face the silent cadets.
"Sam Jones was pretty much like you, Astro. Not as big, but with the same love for that power deck. He could always squeeze a few extra pounds of thrust out of those rockets. What he knew about astrogation and control, you could stick on the head of a pin. On long flights he wouldn't even come up to the control deck. He just sat in the power hole singing loud corny songs about the Arkansas mountains to those atomic motors. He was a real power-deck man. But he was a unit man first! The only reason I'm here to tell you about it is because he never forgot the unit. He died saving Addy and myself."
The room was still. Down the long hall, the lively chatter of other cadets could be heard as they showered and prepared for dinner. In the distance, the rumble of the slidewalks and test firing of rockets at the spaceport was dim, subdued, powerful.
"The unit is the backbone of the Academy," continued Strong. "It was set up to develop three men to handle a Solar Guard rocket cruiser. Three men who could be taught to think, feel and act as one intelligent brain. Three men who would respect each other and who could depend on each other. Tomorrow you begin your real education. You will be supervised and instructed personally.
"Many men have contributed to the knowledge that will be placed in front of you—brave, intelligent men, who blasted through the atmosphere with a piece of metal under them for a spaceship and a fire in their tail for rockets. But everything they accomplished goes to waste if the unit can't become a single personality. It must be a single personality, or it doesn't exist. The unit is the ultimate of hundreds of years of research and progress. But you have to fight to create it and keep it living. Either you want it, or you get out of the Academy!"
Captain Strong turned away momentarily and Tom and Astro looked at Roger significantly.
The three boys snapped to attention as the wide-shouldered captain addressed them again.
"Tomorrow you begin to learn how to think as a single brain. To act with combined intelligence as one person. You either make up your minds to start tomorrow or you report to Commander Walters and resign. There isn't any room here for individuals."
He stepped to the door and paused.
"One more thing. I've been given the job of making you over into spacemen. I'm your unit commander. If you're still here in the morning, I'll accept that as your answer. If you think you can't take"—he paused—"what I'm going to dish out, then you know what you can do. And if you stay, you'll be the best unit, or I'll break you in two in the attempt. Unit dis ... missed!" And he was gone.
The three cadets stood still, not knowing quite what to do or say. Finally Tom stepped before Astro and Roger.
"Well," he said quietly, "how about it, you guys? Are you going to lay off each other now?"
Astro flushed, but Roger eyed Corbett coolly.
"Were you really taken in with that space gas, Tom?" He turned to the shower room. "If you were, then you're more childish than I thought."
"A man died to save another man's life, Roger. Sam Jones. I never knew him. But I've met Captain Strong, and I believe that he would have done the same thing for Jones."
"Very noble," commented Roger from the doorway.
"But I'll tell you this, Manning," said Tom, following him, fighting for self-control, "I wouldn't want to have to depend on you to save my life. And I wouldn't want to be faced with the situation where I would have to sacrifice mine to save yours!"
Roger turned and glared at Tom.
"The Academy regs say that the man on the control deck is the boss of the unit. But I have my private opinion of the man who has that job now!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Tom.
"Just this, spaceboy. There's a gym below where I'll take you or your big friend on—together—or one at a time." He paused, a cold smile twisting his lips. "And that offer is good as of right now!"
Tom and Astro looked at each other.
"I'm afraid," began Astro slowly, "that you wouldn't stand much of a chance with me, Manning. So if Tom wants the chore of buttoning your lip, he's welcome to it."
"Thanks, Astro," said Tom evenly. "It'll be my pleasure."
Without another word, the three cadets walked out of the door.
"Will this do, Manning?" asked Tom.
The three boys were in a secluded corner of the gym, a large hall on the fourteenth floor of the dormitory building. At the far end of the gym, a group of cadets had just finished a game of mercuryball and were sauntering to the showers. When the last boy had disappeared, the floor was deserted except for Tom, Roger and Astro.
"This will do fine, Corbett," said Roger.
The boxing ring had been taken down the week before to make room for drills and the physical exercises of the Earthworms, so the three boys had to improvise a ring. They dragged four large tumbling mats together, spreading them side by side to form a square close to the size of an actual ring. Astro went to one of the small lockers under the balcony and returned with two pairs of boxing gloves.
"Here," offered Astro, "put these on."
"Gloves?" asked Roger, in a voice of mock surprise. "I thought this was going to be a battle of blood."
"Any way you want it, Manning. Any way at all," said Tom.
"You're going to use gloves," growled Astro. "I don't want anybody killed." He threw a pair at each of them.
"There'll be three-minute rounds, with one minute rest," he continued. "Go off the mats and you'll be counted out. Usual rules otherwise. Any questions?"
"Clear to me, Astro," said Tom.
"Let's go," nodded Roger.
"One more thing," said Astro. "I hope Tom pins your ears back, Manning. But I'm going to see that both of you get a fair deal. So keep the punches up—and fight it out. All right—time!"
The two boys moved carefully to the center of the improvised ring, their guards up, while Astro stood off the edge of the mat and watched the sweeping second hand of his wrist chronograph.
Shuffling forward Tom pushed out a probing left and then tried to cross his right, but Manning stepped back easily, countering with a hard left to Tom's heart.
"I forgot to tell you, Corbett," he called out, "I'm considered a counterpuncher. I always—"
He was cut off with a sharp left to the face that snapped his head back, and his lips curled in a smile of condescension.
"Good—very good, Corbett."
Then with lightning speed and the grace of a cat, Roger slipped inside Tom's guard, punching hard and true. A left, a right and a left pounded into Tom's mid-section, and as he gave way momentarily Tom's face clouded over.
They circled. Tom kept leading with sharp lefts that popped in and out like a piston, always connecting and keeping Roger off balance. Roger concentrated on penetrating Tom's defense, methodically pounding his ribs and heart and trying to wear him down.
"Time!" bawled Astro.
The two boys dropped their hands and turned back to their corners. They squatted on the floor breathing slowly and easily. Astro stood in the middle of the ring, glaring at both of them in turn and shaking his head.
"Huh. I expected to see you two try to wallop each other into meteor dust! Keep fighting like that and we'll be here all night!"
"Talk to Corbett," sneered Roger. "Looks like he's afraid to mix it up!"
"You fight your way, Roger, and I'll fight mine," replied Tom, his voice cold and impersonal.
"Time!" suddenly yelled Astro and stepped back off the mat.
The two cadets jumped to their feet and met in the center of the ring again. With a bull-like rush, Roger changed tactics and began to rain punches all over Tom's body, but the curly-haired cadet stood his ground coolly, picking some off in mid-air with his gloves and sliding under the others. Then, as Roger slowed down, Tom took the offensive, popping his left into his opponent's face steadily and methodically, while keeping his right cocked for a clear opening to the chin.
Roger danced in and out, watching Tom's left as though it was a snake and trying unsuccessfully to get through his guard. But the sharp lefts kept snapping his head back and his face began to redden, not only from the sting of the blows but with the mounting fury of his frustration.
Suddenly, as Astro raised his arm to call time for the end of the round, Roger jumped forward and rained another series of harmless blows on Tom's shoulders and arms. But then, as the big Venusian called time, he stepped back and Tom dropped his guard. Instantly, Roger threw a right with all his weight behind it. It landed flush on Tom's jaw and he dropped, sprawling full length on the mats and lying still.
Smiling, Roger sauntered to his corner while Astro charged in and bent over the fallen cadet.
"None of that, Astro!" snapped Roger. "Since when does a referee take sides? Leave him alone! If he doesn't come out for the next round, you have to count him out!"
The big Venusian straightened and walked menacingly toward Roger's corner. "You hit him after I called time," he growled.
"So I have to take you on too, huh?" Roger jumped to his feet. "All right—come on, you big blast of space gas!"
"Wait, Astro ... wait!"
Astro suddenly wheeled around to see Tom shaking his head weakly and trying to rise up on his elbows. He rushed back to the fallen boy's side.
Roger shouted at him angrily, "Leave him alone!"
"Ahhh—go blow your jets!" was Astro's snarling reply as he bent over Tom, who was now sitting up. "Tom, are you O.K.?"
"Yeah—yeah," he replied weakly. "But stay out of this. You're the referee. How much time left?"
"Twenty seconds," said Astro. "Roger smacked you after I called time."
"If he did, I didn't know a thing about it. I was out." Tom managed a cold smile. "Nice punch, Roger."
"Ten seconds," said Astro, stepping back off the mat.
"Thanks for the compliment, Corbett." Roger eyed the other cadet speculatively. "But are you sure you want to go on?"
"I was saved by the bell, wasn't I?"
"Yeah—sure—but if you'd rather quit—"
"Time!" cried Astro.
Tom rose to his feet—shook his head—and brought up his hands. He wasn't a moment too soon. Roger had rushed across the mat, trying to land another murderous right. Tom brought up his shoulder just in time, slipping with the punch, and at the same time, bringing up a terrific left to Roger's open mid-section. Manning let out a grunt and clinched. Tom pursued his advantage, pumping rights and lefts to the body, and he could feel the arrogant cadet weakening. Suddenly, Roger crowded in close, wrestling Tom around so that Astro was on the opposite side of the mat, then brought up his head under Tom's chin. The pop of Tom's teeth could be heard all over the great hall. Roger quickly stepped back, and back-pedaled until Astro called time.
"Thanks for teaching me that one, Roger. Learned two tricks from you today," said Tom, breathing heavily, but with the same cold smile on his face.
"That's all right, Corbett. Any time," said Manning.
"What tricks?" asked Astro. He looked suspiciously at Manning, who was doubled over, finding it hard to breath.
"Nothing I can't handle in time," said Tom, looking at Roger.
"Time!" called Astro and stepped off the mat.
The two boys got to their feet slowly. The pace was beginning to show on them and they boxed carefully.
The boys were perfectly matched, Tom constantly snapping Roger's head back with the jolting left jabs and following to the head or heart with a right cross. And Roger counterpunching, slipping hooks and body punches in under Tom's long leads. It was a savage fight. The three weeks of hard physical training had conditioned the boys perfectly.
At the end of the twelfth round, both boys showed many signs of wear. Roger's cheeks were as red as the glow of a jet blast deflector from the hundreds of lefts Tom had pumped into his face, while Tom's ribs and mid-section were bruised and raw where Roger's punches had landed successfully.
It couldn't last much longer, thought Astro, as he called time for the beginning of the thirteenth round.
Roger quickened his pace, dancing in and out, trying to move in under Tom's lefts, but suddenly Tom caught him with a right hand that was cocked and ready. It staggered him and he fell back, covering up. Tom pressed his advantage, showering rights and lefts everywhere he could find an opening. In desperation, his knees buckling, Roger clinched tightly, quickly brought up his open glove and gouged his thumb into Tom's eyes. Tom pulled back, instinctively pawing at his eye with his right glove. Roger, spotting the opening, took immediate advantage of it, shooting a hard looping right that landed flush on Tom's jaw. Tom went down.
Unaware of Roger's tactics, Astro jumped into the ring and his arm pumped the deadly count.
It was going to be tough if Roger won, Astro thought, as he counted.
Arrogant enough now, he would be impossible to live with.
Tom struggled up to a sitting position and stared angrily at his opponent in the far corner.
With one convulsive effort, Tom regained his feet. His left eye was closed and swollen, his right bleary with fatigue. He wobbled drunkenly on his feet. But he pressed forward. This was one fight he had to win.
Roger moved in for the finish. He slammed a left into Tom's shell, trying to find an opening for the last finishing blow. But Tom remained in his shell, forearms picking off the smashes that even hurt his arms, as he waited for the strength to return to his legs and arms and his head to clear. He knew that he couldn't go another round. He wouldn't be able to see. It would have to be this round, and he had to beat Roger. Not because he wanted to, but because Roger was a member of the unit. And he had to keep the unit together.
He circled his unit-mate with care, shielding himself from the shower of rights and lefts that rained around him. He waited—waited for the one perfect opening.
"Come on! Open up and fight, Corbett," panted Roger.
Tom snapped his right in reply. He noticed that Roger moved in with a hook every time he tried to cross his right. He waited—his legs began to shake. Roger circled and Tom shot out the left again, dropped into a semicrouch and feinted with the right cross. Roger moved in, cocking his fist for the left hook and Tom was ready for him. He threw the right, threw it with every ounce of strength left in his body. Roger was caught moving in and took the blow flush on the chin. He stopped as if poleaxed. His eyes turned glassy and then he dropped to the mat. He was out cold.
Astro didn't even bother to count.
Tom squatted on the mat beside Roger and rubbed the blond head with his glove.
"Get some water, Astro," he said, gasping for breath. "I'm glad I don't have to fight this guy again. And I'll tell you something else—"
"What?" asked Astro.
"Anybody that wants to win as much as this guy does, is going to win, and I want to have him on my side!"
Astro merely grunted as he turned toward the water cooler.
"Maybe," he called back. "But he ought to read a book of rules first!"
When he came back to the mat with the water, Roger was sitting up, biting the knots of the laces on his gloves. Tom helped him, and when the soggy leather was finally discarded, he stuck out his hand. "Well, Roger, I'm ready to forget everything we've said and start all over again."
Roger looked at the extended hand for a moment, his eyes blank and expressionless. Then, with a quick movement, he slapped it away and lurched to his feet.
"Go blow your jets," he snarled, and turning his back on them, stumbled across the gym.
Tom watched him go, bewilderment and pain mirrored on his face.
"I thought sure this would work, Astro," he sighed. "I thought he'd come to his senses if—"
"Nothing'll make that space creep come to his senses," Astro broke in disgustedly. "At least, nothing short of an atomic war head! Come on. Let's get you cleaned up!"
Putting his arm around Tom's shoulder, the big Venusian led him across the floor of the deserted gym, and as they disappeared through the automatic sliding doors, a tall figure in the uniform of the Solar Guard stepped out of the shadows on the balcony above. It was Captain Strong.
He stood silently at the rail, looking down at the mats and the soggy discarded boxing gloves. Tom had won the fight, he thought, but he had lost the war. The unit was now farther apart than it had ever been.
"Well, Steve, how's everything going?"
Captain Steve Strong didn't answer right away. He returned the salute of a Space Cadet passing on the opposite slidewalk and then faced Commander Walters who stood beside him, eyeing him quizzically.
"Things are shaping up pretty well, Commander," he replied, finally, with an air of unconcern.
"The Earthworm units buckling down to business?" Commander Walters' voice matched Strong's in nonchalance.
"Yes, I'd say so, sir. Speaking generally, of course." Strong felt the back of his neck begin to flush as Walters kept eyeing him.
"And—speaking specifically, Steve?"
"Why—ah—what do you mean, sir?"
"Let's stop fencing with each other, Steve." Walters spoke kindly but firmly. "What about Manning and Unit 42-D? Are those boys learning to work together or not? And I want facts, not hopes!"
Strong hesitated, trying to word his reply. In these weeks that had followed Tom's fight with Roger in the gym, there had been no further incidents of open warfare. Roger's attitude, once openly defiant, had now subsided into a stream of never-ending sarcasm. The sting had been taken out of his attack and he seemed satisfied merely to annoy. Astro had withdrawn into a shell, refusing to allow Roger to bother him and only an occasional rumble of anger indicated his true feelings toward his troublesome unit-mate. Tom maintained his role of peacemaker and daily, in many ways, showed his capacity for leadership by steering his unit-mates away from any storm-provoking activities.
Strong finally broke the silence. "It's difficult to answer that question with facts, Commander Walters."
"Why?" insisted Walters.
"Well, nothing's really happened," answered Steve.
"You mean, nothing since the fight in the gym?"
"Oh—" Strong flushed. "You know about that?"
Commander Walters smiled. "Black eyes and faces that looked like raw beef don't go unnoticed, Steve."
"Uhh—no, sir," was Strong's lame reply.
"What I want to know is," pursued Walters, "did the fight prove anything? Did the boys get it out of their systems and are they concentrating on becoming a unit?"
"Right now, Commander, they're concentrating on passing their manuals. They realize that they have to work together to get through this series of tests. Why, Dr. Dale told me the other day that she's sure Tom's been giving Roger a few pointers on control-deck operation. And one night I found Manning giving Astro a lecture in compression ratios. Of course, Manning's way of talking is a way that would confuse the Venusian more than it would help him, but at least they weren't snarling at each other."
"Hmm," Walters nodded. "Sounds hopeful, but still not conclusive. After all, they have to help each other in the manuals. If one member of the unit fails, it will reflect on the marks of the other two and they might be washed out too. Even the deadliest enemies will unite to save their lives."
"Perhaps, sir," replied Strong. "But we're not dealing with deadly enemies now. These are three boys, with three distinct personalities who've been lumped together in strange surroundings. It takes time and patience to make a team that will last for years."
"You may have the patience, Steve, but the Academy hasn't the time." Commander Walters was suddenly curt. "When does Unit 42-D take its manuals?"
"This afternoon, sir," replied Strong. "I'm on my way over to the examination hall right now."
"Very well. I won't take any action yet. I'll wait for the results of the tests. Perhaps they will solve both our problems. See you later, Steve." Turning abruptly, Commander Walters stepped off the slidewalk onto the steps of the Administration Building and rapidly disappeared from view.
Left alone, Strong pondered the commander's parting statement. The implication was clear. If the unit failed to make a grade high enough to warrant the trouble it took keeping it together, it would be broken up. Or even worse, one or more of the boys would be dismissed from the Academy.
A few minutes later Strong arrived in the examination hall, a large, barren room with a small door in each of the three walls other than the one containing the entrance. Tom Corbett was waiting in the center of the hall and saluted smartly as Strong approached.
"Cadet Corbett reporting for manual examination, sir!"
"Stand easy, Corbett," replied Strong, returning the salute. "This is going to be a rough one. Are you fully prepared?"
"I believe so, sir." Tom's voice wasn't too steady.
A fleeting smile passed over Strong's lips, then he continued. "You'll take the control-deck examination first. Manning will be next on the radar bridge and Astro last on the power deck."
"They'll be here according to schedule, sir."
"Very well. Follow me."
Strong walked quickly to the small door in the left wall, Tom staying a respectful step behind. When they reached the door, the officer pressed a button in the wall beside it and the door slid open.
"All right, Corbett. Inside." Strong nodded toward the interior of the room.
The boy stepped in quickly, then stopped in amazement. All around him was a maze of instruments and controls. And in the center, twin pilot's chairs.
"Captain Strong!" Tom was so surprised that he could hardly get the words out. "It's—it's a real control deck!"
Strong smiled. "As real as we can make it, Corbett, without allowing the building to blast off." He gestured toward the pilot's chairs. "Take your place and strap in."
"Yes, sir." His eyes still wide with wonder, Tom stepped over to the indicated chair and Strong followed him, leaning casually against the other.
He watched the young cadet nervously adjust his seat strap and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Nervous, Corbett?"
"Yes, sir—just a little," replied Tom.
"Don't worry," said Strong. "You should have seen the way I came into this room fifteen years ago. My cadet officer had to help me into the control pilot's seat."
Tom managed a fleeting smile.
"Now, Corbett"—Strong's voice became businesslike—"as you know, these manual tests are the last tests before actually blasting off. In the past weeks, you cadets have been subjected to every possible examination, to discover any flaw in your work that might later crop up in space. This manual operations test of the control board, like Manning's on the radar bridge and Astro's on the power deck, is designed to test you under simulated space conditions. If you pass this test, your next step is real space."
"I warn you, it isn't easy. And if you fail, you personally will wash out, and if other members of the unit do not get a high enough mark to average out to a passing grade for all of you, you fail as a unit."
"I understand, sir," said Tom.
"All right, then we'll begin. Your crew is aboard, the air lock is closed. What is the first thing you do?"
"Adjust the air circulating system to ensure standard Earth conditions."
"How do you do that?"
"By pressing this button which will activate the servo units. They automatically keep the circulating pumps in operation, based on thermostatic readings from the main gauge." Tom pointed to a black clock face, with a luminous white hand and numbers.
"All right, carry on," said Strong.
Tom reached over the huge control board that extended around him for some two feet on three sides. He placed a nervous finger on a small button, waited for the gauge below to register with a swing of the hand, and then released it. "All pressures steady, sir."
"Check the crew, sir—all departments—" replied Tom.
"Carry on," said Strong.
Tom reached out and pulled a microphone toward him.
"All hands! Station check!" said Tom, and then was startled to hear a metallic voice answer him.
"Power deck, ready for blast-off!" And then another voice: "Radar deck, ready for blast-off!"
Tom leaned back in the pilot's seat and turned to the captain. "All stations ready, sir."
"Good! What next?" asked Strong.
"Ask spaceport tower for blast-off clearance—"
Strong nodded. Tom turned back to the microphone, and without looking, punched a button in front of him.
"Rocket cruiser—" He paused and turned back to Strong. "What name do I give, sir?"
Strong smiled. "Noah's Ark—"
"Rocket cruiser Noah's Ark to spaceport control! Request blast-off clearance and orbit."
Once again a thin metallic voice answered him and gave the necessary instructions.
On and on, through every possible command, condition or decision that would be placed in front of him, Tom guided his imaginary ship on its imaginary flight through space. For two hours he pushed buttons, snapped switches and jockeyed controls. He gave orders and received them from the thin metallic voices. They answered him with such accuracy, and sometimes with seeming hesitation, that Tom found it difficult to believe that they were only electronically controlled recording devices. Once, when supposedly blasting through space at three-quarters space speed, he received a warning from the radar bridge of an approaching asteroid. He asked for a course change, but in reply received only static. Believing the recording to have broken down, he turned inquiringly to Captain Strong, but received only a blank stare in return. Tom hesitated for a split second, then turned back to the controls. He quickly flipped the teleceiver button on and began plotting the course of the approaching asteroid, ignoring for the moment his other duties on the control deck. When he had finished, he gave the course shift to the power deck and ordered a blast on the starboard jet. He waited for the course change, saw it register on the gauges in front of him, then continued his work.
Strong suddenly leaned over and clapped him on the back enthusiastically.
"Good work, Corbett. That broken recording was put there intentionally to trap you. Not one cadet in twenty would have had the presence of mind you showed in plotting the course of that asteroid yourself."
"Thank you, sir," stammered Tom.
"That's all—the test is over. Return to your quarters." He came over and laid a hand on Tom's shoulder. "And don't worry, Corbett. While it isn't customary to tell a cadet, I think you deserve it. You've passed with a perfect score!"
"I have, sir? You mean—I really passed?"
"Next step is Manning," said Strong. "You've done as much as one cadet can do."
"Thank you, sir"—Tom could only repeat it over and over—"thank you, sir—thank you."
Dazed, he saluted his superior and turned to the door. Two hours in the pilot's chair had made him dizzy. But he was happy.
Five minutes later he slammed back the sliding door and entered the quarters of 42-D with a lusty shout.