THE REVOLT ON VENUS
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
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
THE REVOLT ON VENUS
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1954, BY ROCKHILL RADIO
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOUIS GLANZMAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Transcriber's Note The DP team has failed to uncover any evidence that the copyright on this work was renewed.
"She tried to get farther into the cave" 54
They were completely surrounded by the jungle 57
Astro kept his blaster aimed at the monsters 107
His eyes probed the jungle for further movement 115
"Mr. Sinclair!" cried Tom, suddenly relieved 161
The Solar Guard troops landed on the rim of the canyon 189
Sinclair wasn't able to get clear in time 210
THE REVOLT ON VENUS
"Emergency air lock open!"
The tall, broad-shouldered officer, wearing the magnificent black-and-gold uniform of the Solar Guard, spoke into a small microphone and waited for an acknowledgment. It came almost immediately.
"Cadet Corbett ready for testing," a voice crackled thinly over the loud-speaker.
"Very well. Proceed."
Seated in front of the scanner screen on the control deck of the rocket cruiser Polaris, Captain Steve Strong replaced the microphone in its slot and watched a bulky figure in a space suit step out of the air lock and drift away from the side of the ship. Behind him, five boys, all dressed in the vivid blue uniforms of the Space Cadet Corps, strained forward to watch the lone figure adjust the nozzles of the jet unit on the back of his space suit.
"Come on, Tom!" said the biggest of the five boys, his voice a low, powerful rumble as he rooted for his unit mate.
"If Tom makes this one," crowed the cadet next to him, a slender boy with a thick shock of close-cropped blond hair, "the Polaris unit is home free!"
"This is the last test, Manning," replied one of the remaining three cadets, the insigne of the Arcturus unit on the sleeve of his uniform. "If Corbett makes this one, you fellows deserve to win."
Aboard the rocket cruiser Polaris, blasting through the black void of space two hundred miles above Earth, six Space Cadets and a Solar Guard officer were conducting the final test for unit honors for the term. All other Academy units had been eliminated in open competition. Now, the results of the individual space orientation test would decide whether the three cadets of the Arcturus unit or the three cadets of the Polaris unit would win final top unit honors.
Roger Manning and Astro kept their eyes glued to the telescanner screen, watching their unit mate, Tom Corbett, drift slowly through space toward his starting position. The young cadet's task was basically simple; with his space helmet blacked out so that he could not see in any direction, he was to make his way back to the ship from a point a mile away, guided only by the audio orders from the examining officer aboard the ship. His score was measured by the time elapsed, and the amount of corrections and orders given by the examining officer. It was an exercise designed to test a cadet's steadiness under emergency conditions of space.
The three members of the Arcturus unit had completed their runs and had returned to the ship in excellent time. Roger and Astro had also taken their tests and now it depended on Tom. If he could return to the Polaris in less than ten minutes, with no more than three corrections, the Polaris unit would be victorious.
Seated directly in front of the scanner, Captain Steve Strong, the examining officer, watched the space-suited figure dwindle to a mere speck on the screen. As the regular skipper of the Polaris crew, he could not help secretly rooting for Tom, but he was determined to be fair, even to the extent of declaring the Arcturus unit the winner, should the decision be very close. He leaned forward to adjust the focus on the scanner, bringing the drifting figure into a close-up view, and then lifted the microphone to his lips.
"Stand by, Corbett!" he called. "You're getting close to range."
"Very well, sir," replied Tom. "Standing by."
Behind Strong, Roger and Astro looked at each other and turned back to the screen. As one, they crossed the fingers of both hands.
"Ready, Corbett!" called Strong. "You'll be clocked from the second you're on range. One hundred feet—seventy-five—fifty—twenty-five —ten—time!"
As the signal echoed in his blacked-out space helmet, Tom jerked his body around in a sudden violent move, and grasping the valve of the jet unit on his back, he opened it halfway. He waited, holding his breath, expecting to hear Captain Strong correct his course. He counted to ten slowly, and when no correction came over the headphones, he opened the valve wide and blindly shot through space.
Aboard the Polaris, Astro and Roger shouted with joy and Strong could not repress a grin. The tiny figure on the scanner was hurtling straight for the side of the Polaris!
As the image grew larger and larger, anxious eyes swiveled back and forth from the scanner screen to the steady sweeping hand of the chronometer. Roger bit his lip nervously, and Astro's hands trembled.
When Tom reached a point five hundred feet away from the ship, Strong flipped open the audio circuit and issued his first order.
"Range five hundred feet," he called. "Cut jets!"
"You're already here, spaceboy!" yelled Roger into the mike, leaning over Strong's shoulder. The captain silenced him with a glare. No one could speak to the examinee but the testing officer.
Tom closed the valve of his jet unit and blindly jerked himself around again to drift feet first toward the ship. Strong watched this approach closely, silently admiring the effortless way the cadet handled himself in weightless space. When Tom was fifty feet away from the ship, and still traveling quite fast, Strong gave the second order to break his speed. Tom opened the valve again and felt the tug of the jets braking his acceleration. He drifted slower and slower, and realizing that he was close to the hull of the ship, he stretched his legs, striving to make contact. Seconds later he felt a heavy thump at the soles of his feet, and within the ship there was the muffled clank of metal boot weights hitting the metal skin of the hull.
"Time!" roared Strong and glanced at the astral chronometer over his head. The boys crowded around as the Solar Guard captain quickly computed Tom's score. "Nine minutes, fifty-one seconds, and two corrections," he announced, unable to keep the pride out of his voice.
"We win! We win!" roared Roger. "Term honors go to the Polaris!"
Roger turned around and began pounding Astro on the chest, and the giant Venusian picked him up and waltzed him around the deck. The three members of the Arcturus unit waited until the first flush of victory died away and then crowded around the two boys to congratulate them.
"Don't forget the cadet who did it," commented Strong dryly, and the five cadets rushed below to the jet-boat deck to wait for Tom.
When Tom emerged from the air lock a few moments later, Roger and Astro swarmed all over him, and another wild dance began. Finally, shaking free of his well-meaning but violent unit mates, he grinned and gasped, "Well, from that reception, I guess I did it."
"Spaceboy"—Roger smiled—"you made the Arcturus unit look like three old men in a washtub counting toes!"
"Congratulations, Corbett," said Tony Richards of the Arcturus crew, offering his hand. "That was really fast maneuvering out there."
"Thanks, Tony." Tom grinned, running his hand through his brown curly hair. "But I have to admit I was a little scared. Wow! What a creepy feeling to know you're out in space alone and not able to see anything."
Their excitement was interrupted by Strong's voice over the ship's intercom. "Stand by, all stations!"
"Here we go!" shouted Roger. "Back to the Academy—and leave!"
"Yeeeeooooow!" Astro's bull-like roar echoed through the ship as the cadets hurried to their flight stations.
As command cadet of the Polaris, Tom climbed up to the control deck, and strapping himself into the command pilot's seat, prepared to get under way. Astro, the power-deck cadet who could "take apart a rocket engine and put it back together again with his thumbs," thundered below to the atomic rockets he loved more than anything else in the universe. Roger Manning, the third member of the famed Polaris unit, raced up the narrow ladder leading to the radar bridge to take command of astrogation and communications.
While Captain Strong and the members of the Arcturus unit strapped themselves into acceleration cushions, Tom conducted a routine check of the many gauges on the great control panel before him. Satisfied, he flipped open the intercom and called, "All stations, check in!"
"Radar deck, aye!" drawled Roger's lazy voice.
"Power deck, aye!" rumbled Astro.
"Energize the cooling pumps!" ordered Tom.
"Cooling pumps, aye!"
The whine of the mighty pumps was suddenly heard, moaning eerily throughout the ship.
The sharp hiss of fuel being forced into the rocket engines rose above the whine of the pumps, and the ship trembled.
"Stand by to blast," called Tom. "Standard space speed!"
Instantly the Polaris shot toward Earth in a long, curving arc. Moments later, when the huge round ball of the mother planet loomed large on the scanner screen, Roger's voice reported over the intercom, "Academy spaceport control gives us approach orbit 074 for touchdown on Ramp Twelve, Tom."
"074 Ramp Twelve," repeated Tom. "Got it!"
"Twelve!" roared Astro suddenly over the intercom. "Couldn't you make it closer to the Academy than that, Manning? We'll have to walk two miles to the nearest slidewalk!"
"Too bad, Astro," retorted Roger, "but I guess if I had to carry around as much useless muscle and bone as you do, I'd complain too!"
"I'm just not as lucky as you, Manning," snapped Astro quickly. "I don't have all that space gas to float me around."
"Knock it off, fellows," interjected Tom firmly. "We're going into our approach."
Lying on his acceleration cushion, Strong looked over at Tony Richards of the Arcturus unit and winked. Richards winked and smiled back. "They never stop, do they, sir?"
"When they do," replied Strong, "I'll send all three of them to sick bay for examination."
"Two hundred thousand feet to Earth's surface," called Tom. "Stand by for landing operations."
As Tom adjusted the many controls on the complicated operations panel of the ship, Roger and Astro followed his orders quickly and exactly. "Cut main drive rockets and give me one-half thrust on forward braking rockets!" ordered Tom, his eyes glued to the altimeter.
The Polaris shuddered under the sudden reverse in power, then began an upward curve, nose pointing back toward space. Tom barked another command. "Braking rockets full! Stand by main drive rockets!"
The sleek ship began to settle tailfirst toward its destination—Space Academy, U.S.A.
In the heart of a great expanse of cleared land in the western part of the North American continent, the cluster of buildings that marked Space Academy gleamed brightly in the noon sun. Towering over the green grassy quadrangle of the Academy was the magnificent Tower of Galileo, built of pure Titan crystal which gleamed like a gigantic diamond. With smaller buildings, including the study halls, the nucleonics laboratory, the cadet dormitories, mess halls, recreation halls, all connected by rolling slidewalks—and to the north, the vast area of the spaceport with its blast-pitted ramps—the Academy was the goal of every boy in the year A.D. 2353, the age of the conquest of space.
Founded over a hundred years before, Space Academy trained the youth of the Solar Alliance for service in the Solar Guard, the powerful force created to protect the liberties of the planets. But from the beginning, Academy standards were so high, requirements so strict, that not many made it. Of the one thousand boys enrolled every year, it was expected that only twenty-one of them would become officers, and of this group, only seven would be command pilots. The great Solar Guard fleet that patrolled the space lanes across the millions of miles between the satellites and planets possessed the finest, yet most complicated, equipment in the Alliance. To be an officer in the fleet required a combination of skills and technical knowledge so demanding that eighty per cent of the Solar Guard officers retired at the age of forty.
High over the spaceport, the three cadets of the Polaris unit, happy over the prospect of a full month of freedom, concentrated on the task of landing the great ship on the Academy spaceport. Watching the teleceiver screen that gave him a view of the spaceport astern of the ship, Tom called into the intercom, "One thousand feet to touchdown. Cut braking rockets. Main drive full!"
The thunderous blast of the rockets was his answer, building up into roaring violence. Shuddering, the great cruiser eased to the ground foot by foot, perfectly balanced on the fiery exhaust from her main tubes.
Seconds later the giant shock absorbers crunched on the ramp and Tom closed the master switch cutting all power. He glanced at the astral chronometer over his head and then turned to speak into the audio log recorder. "Rocket cruiser Polaris completed space flight one-seven-six at 1301."
Captain Strong stepped up to Tom and clapped him on the shoulder. "Secure the Polaris, Tom, and tell Astro to get the reactant pile from the firing chamber ready for dumping when the hot-soup wagon gets here." The Solar Guard officer referred to the lead-lined jet sled that removed the reactant piles from all ships that were to be laid up for longer than three days. "And you'd better get over to your dorm right away," Strong continued. "You have to get ready for parade and full Corps dismissal."
Tom grinned. "Yes, sir!"
"We're blasting off, sir," said Tony Richards, stepping forward with his unit mates. "Congratulations again, Corbett. I still can't figure out how you did it so quickly!"
"Thanks, Tony," replied Tom graciously. "It was luck and the pressure of good competition."
Richards shook hands and then turned to Strong. "Do I have your permission to leave the ship, sir?" he asked.
"Permission granted," replied Strong. "And have a good leave."
"Thank you, sir."
The three Arcturus cadets saluted and left the ship. A moment later Roger and Astro joined Strong and Tom on the control deck.
"Well," said Strong, "what nonsense have you three planned for your leave? Try and see Liddy Tamal. I hear she's making a new stereo about the Solar Guard. You might be hired as technical assistants." He smiled. The famous actress was a favorite of the cadets. Strong waited. "Well, is it a secret?"
"It was your idea, Astro," said Roger. "Go ahead."
"Yeah," said Tom. "You got us into this."
"Well, sir," mumbled Astro, turning red with embarrassment, "we're going to Venus."
"What's so unusual about going to Venus?" asked Strong.
"We're going hunting," replied Astro.
"Yes, sir," gulped the big Venusian. "For tyrannosaurus."
Strong's jaw dropped and he sat down suddenly on the nearest acceleration cushion. "I expected something a little strange from you three whiz kids." He laughed. "It would be impossible for you to go home and relax for a month. But this blasts me! Hunting for a tyrannosaurus! What are you going to do with it after you catch it?" He paused and then added, "If you do."
"Eat it," said Astro simply. "Tyrannosaurus steak is delicious!"
Strong doubled with laughter at the seriousness of Astro's expression. The giant Venusian continued doggedly, "And besides, there's a bounty on them. A thousand credits for every tyranno head brought in. They're dangerous and destroy a lot of crops."
Strong straightened up. "All right, all right! Go ahead! Have yourselves a good time, but don't take any unnecessary chances. I like my cadets to have all the arms and legs and heads they're supposed to have." He paused and glanced at his watch. "You'd better get hopping. Astro, did you get the pile ready for the soup wagon?"
"Very well, Tom, secure the ship." He came to attention. "Unit, stand—to!"
The three cadets stiffened and saluted sharply.
Captain Strong turned and left the ship.
Hurriedly, Tom, Roger, and Astro checked the great spaceship and fifteen minutes later were racing out of the main air lock. Hitching a ride on a jet sled to the nearest slidewalk, they were soon being whisked along toward their quarters. Already, cadet units were standing around in fresh blues waiting for the call for final dress parade.
At exactly fifteen hundred, the entire Cadet Corps stepped off with electronic precision for the final drill of the term. By threes, each unit marching together, with the Polaris unit walking behind the standard bearers as honor unit, they passed the reviewing stand. Senior officers of the Solar Guard, delegates from the Solar Alliance, and staff officers of the Academy accepted their salute. Commander Walters stood stiffly in front of the stand, his heart filled with pride as he recognized the honor unit. He had almost washed out the Polaris unit in the beginning of their Academy training.
Major Lou Connel, Senior Line Officer of the Solar Guard, stepped forward when the cadets came to a stop and presented Tom, Roger, and Astro with the emblem of their achievement, a small gold pin in the shape of a rocket ship. He, too, had had his difficulties with the Polaris unit, and while he had never been heard to compliment anyone on anything, expecting nothing but the best all the time, he nevertheless congratulated them heartily as he gave them their hard-won trophy.
After several other awards had been presented, Commander Walters addressed the Cadet Corps, concluding with "... each of you has had a tough year. But when you come back in four weeks, you'll think this past term has been a picnic. And remember, wherever you go, whatever you do, you're Space Cadets! Act like one! But above all, have a good time! Spaceman's luck!"
A cadet stepped forward quickly, turned to face the line of cadets, and held up his hands. He brought them down quickly and words of the Academy song thundered from a thousand voices.
"_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.
We are Space Cadets, and we are proud to say Our fight for right will never cease. Like a cosmic ray, we light the way To interplanet peace!_"
"Dis-missed!" roared Walters. Immediately the precise lines of cadets turned into a howling mob of eager boys, everyone seemingly running in a different direction.
"Come on," said Roger. "I've got everything set! Let's get to the station ahead of the mob."
"But what about our gear?" said Tom. "We've got to get back to the dorm."
"I had it sent down to the station last night. I got the monorail tickets to Atom City last week, and reserved seats on the Venus Lark two weeks ago! Come on!"
"Only Roger could handle it so sweetly," sighed Astro. "You know, hotshot, sometimes I think you're useful!"
The three cadets turned and raced across the quadrangle for the nearest slidewalk that would take them to the Academy monorail station and the beginning of their adventure in the jungles of Venus.
"The situation may be serious and it may not, but I don't want to take any chances."
Commander Walters sat in his office, high up in the Tower of Galileo, with department heads from the Academy and Solar Guard. Behind him, an entire wall made of clear crystal offered a breath-taking view of the Academy grounds. Before him, their faces showing their concern over a report Walters had just read, Captain Strong, Major Connel, Dr. Joan Dale, and Professor Sykes waited for the commanding officer of the Academy to continue.
"As you know," said Walters, "the resolution passed by the Council in establishing the Solar Guard specifically states that it shall be the duty of the Solar Guard to investigate and secure evidence for the Solar Alliance Council of any acts by any person, or group of persons, suspected of overt action against the Solar Constitution or the Universal Bill of Rights. Now, based on the report I've just read to you, I would like an opinion from each of you."
"For what purpose, Commander?" asked Joan Dale, the young and pretty astrophysicist.
"To decide whether it would be advisable to have a full and open investigation of this information from the Solar Guard attache on Venus."
"Why waste time talking?" snapped Professor Sykes, the chief of the nucleonics laboratory. "Let's investigate. That report sounds serious."
Major Connel leveled a beady eye on the little gray-haired man.
"Professor Sykes, an investigation is serious. When it is based on a report like this one, it is doubly serious, and needs straight and careful thinking. We don't want to hurt innocent people."
Sykes shifted around in his chair and glared at the burly Solar Guard officer. "Don't try to tell me anything about straight thinking, Connel. I know more about the Solar Constitution and the rights of our citizens than you'll know in ten thousand light years!"
"Yeah?" roared Connel. "And with all your brains you'd probably find out these people are nothing more than a harmless bunch of colonists out on a picnic!"
The professor shot out of his chair and waved an angry finger under Connel's nose. "And that would be a lot more than I'm finding out right now with that contraption of yours!" he shouted.
Connel's face turned red. "So that's how you feel about my invention!" he snapped.
"Yes, that's the way I feel about your invention!" replied Sykes hotly. "I know three cadets that could build that gadget in half the time it's taken you just to figure out the theory!"
Commander Walters, Captain Strong, and Joan Dale were fighting to keep from laughing at the hot exchange between the two veteran spacemen.
"They sound like the Polaris unit," Joan whispered to Strong.
Walters stood up. "Gentlemen! Please! We're here to discuss a report on the activities of a secret organization on Venus. I will have to ask you to keep to the subject at hand. Dr. Dale, do you have any comments on the report?" He turned to the young physicist who was choking off a laugh.
"Well, Commander," she began, still smiling, "the report is rather sketchy. I would like to see more information before any real decision is made."
Walters turned to Strong. "Steve?"
"I think Joan has the right idea, sir," he replied. "While the report indicates that a group of people on Venus are meeting regularly and secretly, and wearing some silly uniform, I think we need more information before ordering a full-scale investigation."
"He's right, Commander," Connel broke in. "You just can't walk into an outfit and demand a look at their records, books, and membership index, unless you're pretty sure you'll find something."
"Send a man from here," Strong suggested. "If you use anyone out of the Venus office, he might be recognized."
"Good idea," commented Sykes.
Joan nodded. "Sounds reasonable."
"How do you feel about it, Connel?" asked Walters.
Connel, still furious over Sykes's comment on his spectrum recorder, shot an angry glance at the professor. "I think it's fine," he said bluntly. "Who're you going to send?"
Walters paused before answering. He glanced at Strong and then back at Connel. "What about yourself?"
"Why not?" continued Walters. "You know as much about Venus as anyone, and you have a lot of friends there you can trust. Nose around a while, see what you can learn, unofficially."
"But what about my work on the spectrum recorder?" asked Connel.
"That!" snorted Sykes derisively. "Huh, that can be completed any time you want to listen to some plain facts about—"
"I'll never listen to anything you have to say, you dried-up old neutron chaser!" blasted Connel.
"Of course not," cackled Sykes. "And it's the same bullheaded stubbornness that'll keep you from finishing that recorder."
"I'm sorry, gentlemen," said Walters firmly. "I cannot allow personal discussions to interfere with the problem at hand. How about it, Connel? Will you go to Venus?"
Lou Connel was the oldest line officer in the Solar Guard, having recommended the slightly younger Walters for the post of commandant of Space Academy and the Solar Guard so that he himself could escape a desk job and continue blasting through space where he had devoted his entire life. While Walters had the authority to order him to accept the assignment, Connel knew that if he begged off because of his work on the recorder, Walters would understand and offer the assignment to Strong. He paused and then growled, "When do I blast off?"
Walters smiled and answered, "As soon as we contact Venus headquarters and tell them to expect you."
"Wouldn't it be better to let me go without any fanfare?" mused the burly spaceman. "I could just take a ship and act as though I'm on some kind of special detail. As a matter of fact, Higgleston at the Venusport lab has some information I could use."
"Anything Higgleston could tell you," interjected Sykes, "I can tell you! You're just too stubborn to listen to me."
Connel opened his mouth to blast the professor in return, but he caught a sharp look from Walters and he clamped his lips together tightly.
"I guess that's it, then," said Walters. "Anyone have any other ideas?" He glanced around the room. "Joan? Steve?"
Dr. Dale and Captain Strong shook their heads silently. Strong was disappointed that he had not been given the assignment on Venus. Four weeks at the deserted Academy would seem like living in a graveyard. Walters sensed his feelings, and smiling, he said, "You've been going like a hot rocket this past year, Steve. I have a specific assignment for you."
"Yes, sir!" Strong looked up eagerly.
"I want you to go to the Sweet Water Lakes around New Chicago—"
"—go to my cabin—"
"—and go fishing!"
Strong grinned. "Thanks, skipper," he said quietly. "I guess I could use a little relaxation. I was almost tempted to join Corbett, Manning, and Astro. They're going hunting in the jungle belt of Venus for a tyrannosaurus!"
"Blast my jets!" roared Connel. "Those boys haven't killed themselves in line of duty, so they go out and tangle with the biggest and most dangerous monster in the entire solar system!"
"Well," said Joan with a smile, "I'll put my money on Astro against a tyranno any time, pound for pound!"
"Hear, hear!" chimed in Sykes, and forgetting his argument with Connel, he turned to the spaceman. "Say, Lou," he said, "when you get to Venus tell Higgy I said to show you that magnetic ionoscope he's rigging up. It might give you some ideas."
"Thanks," replied Connel, also forgetting the hot exchange of a few minutes before. He stood up. "I'll take the Polaris, Commander. She's the fastest ship available with automatic controls for a solo hop."
"She's been stripped of her reactant pile, Major," said Strong. "It'll take a good eighteen hours to soup her up again."
"I'll take care of it," said Connel. "Are there any specific orders, Commander?"
"Use your own judgment, Lou," said Walters. "You know what we want and how far to go to get it. If you learn anything, we'll start a full-scale investigation. If not, we'll forget the whole matter and no one will get hurt."
"And the Solar Guard won't get a reputation of being nosy," added Strong.
Connel nodded. "I'll take care of it." He shook hands all around, coming to Sykes last. "Sorry I lost my temper, Professor," he said gruffly.
"Forget it, Major." Sykes smiled. He really admired the gruff spaceman.
The thick-set senior officer came to smart attention, saluted crisply, turned, and left the office. For the time being, the mysterious trouble on Venus was his responsibility.
* * * * *
"Atom City express leaving on Track Four!"
A metallic voice boomed over the station loud-speaker, as last-minute passengers boarded the long line of gleaming white monorail cars, hanging from a single overhead steel rail. In the open doorway of one of the end cars, a conductor lifted his arm, then paused and waited patiently as three Space Cadets raced down the stairs and along the platform in a headlong dash for the train. They piled inside, almost one on top of the other.
"Thanks for waiting, sir," gasped Tom Corbett.
"Not at all, Cadet," said the conductor. "I couldn't let you waste your leave waiting for another train."
The elderly man flipped a switch in the narrow vestibule and the door closed with a soft hiss of air. He inserted a light key into a near-by socket and twisted it gently, completing a circuit that flashed the "go" light in the engineer's cab. Almost immediately, the monorail train eased forward, suspended on the overhead rail. By the time the last building of Space Academy flashed past, the train was rolling along at full speed on its dash across the plains to Atom City.
The ride to the great metropolis of the North American continent was filled with excitement and anticipation for the three members of the Polaris crew. The cars were crowded with cadets on leave, and while there was a lot of joking and horseplay, the few civilian passengers were impressed with the gentlemanly bearing of the young spacemen. Tom and Roger finally settled down to read the latest magazines supplied by the monorail company. But Astro headed for the dining car where he attracted a great deal of attention by his order of a dozen eggs, followed by two orders of waffles and a full quart of milk. Finally, when the dining-car steward called a halt, because it was closing time, Astro made his way back to Tom and Roger with a plastic bag of French fried potatoes, and the three boys sat, munching them happily. The countryside flashed by in a blur of summer color as the train roared on at a speed of two hundred miles an hour.
A few hours and four bags of potatoes later, Astro yawned and stretched his enormous arms, nearly poking Roger in the eye.
"Hey, ya big ape!" growled Roger. "Watch the eye!"
"You'd never miss it, Manning," said Astro. "Just use your radar."
"Never mind, I like this eye just the way it is."
"We're almost there," called Tom. He pointed out the crystal window and they could see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountain range looming ahead. "We cut through the new tunnel in those mountains and we'll be in Atom City in ten minutes!"
There was a bustle of activity around them as other cadets roused themselves and collected their gear. Once again conversation became animated and excited as the train neared its destination. Flashing into the tunnel, the line of cars began to slow down, rocking gently.
"We'd better go right out to the spaceport," said Tom, pulling his gear out of the recessed rack under his seat. "Our ship blasts off for Venus in less than a half-hour."
"Boy, it'll be a pleasure to ride a spaceship without having to astrogate," said Roger. "I'll just sit back and take it easy. Hope there are some good-looking space dolls aboard."
Tom turned to Astro. "You know, Astro," he said seriously, "it's a good thing we're along to take care of this Romeo. If he were alone, he'd wind up in another kind of hunt."
"I'd like to see how Manning's tactics work on a female dasypus novemcinctur maximus," said Astro with a sly grin.
"A female what?" yelled Roger.
"A giant armadillo, Roger," Tom explained, laughing. "Very big and very mean when they don't like you. Don't forget, everything on Venus grows big because of the lighter gravity."
"Yeah," drawled Roger, looking at Astro. "Big and dumb!"
"What was that again?" bellowed the giant Venusian, reaching for the flip cadet. The next moment, Roger was struggling futilely, feet kicking wildly as Astro held him at arm's length six inches off the floor. The cadets in the car roared with laughter.
"Atom City!" a voice over the intercar communicator boomed and the boys looked out the window to see the towering buildings of Atom City slowly slide by. The train had scarcely reached a full stop when the three cadets piled out of the door, raced up the slidestairs, and jumped into a jet cab. Fifteen minutes later they marched up to one of the many ticket counters of the Atom City Interplanetary Spaceport.
"Reservations for Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro on the Venus Lark, please," announced Tom.
The girl behind the counter ran her finger down a passenger manifest, nodded, and then suddenly frowned. She turned back to Tom and said, "I'm sorry, Cadet, but your reservations have been pre-empted by a priority listing."
"Priority!" roared Roger. "But I made those reservations two weeks ago. If there was a change, why didn't you tell us before?"
"I'm sorry, sir," said the girl patiently, "but according to the manifest, the priority call just came in a few hours ago. Someone contacted Space Academy, but you had already left."
"Well, is there another ship for Venusport today?"
"Yes," she replied and picked up another manifest. Glancing at it quickly, she shook her head. "There are no open reservations," she said. "I'm afraid the next flight for Venusport with open reservations isn't for four days."
"Blast my jets!" growled Roger disgustedly. "Four days!" He sat down on his gear and scowled. Astro leaned against the desk and stared gloomily at the floor. At that moment a young man with a thin face and a strained intense look pushed Tom to one side with a curt "Excuse me!" and stepped up to the desk.
"You're holding three reservations on the Venus Lark," he spoke quickly. "Priority number four-seven-six, S.D."
Tom, Roger, and Astro looked at him closely. They saw him nervously pay for his tickets and then walk away quickly without another look at the ticket girl.
"Were those our seats, miss?" asked Tom. The girl nodded.
The three cadets stared after the young man who had bumped them off their ship.
"The symbol S.D. on the priority stands for Solar Delegate," said Roger. "Maybe he's a messenger."
The young man was joined by two other men also dressed in Venusian clothing, and after a few words, they all turned and stepped onto the slidewalk rolling out to the giant passenger ship preparing to blast off.
"This is the most rocket-blasting bit of luck in the universe!" growled Roger. "Four days!"
"Cheer up, Roger," said Tom. "We can spend the four days in Atom City. Maybe Liddy Tamal is here. We can follow Captain Strong's suggestion."
"Even she doesn't make four days delay sound exciting," interrupted Roger. "Come on. We might as well go back to town or we won't even get a room."
He picked up his gear and walked back to the jet cab-stand. Astro and Tom followed the blond-haired cadet glumly.
The stand was empty, but a jet cab was just pulling up to the platform with a passenger. As the boys walked over to wait at the door, it opened and a familiar figure in a black-and-gold uniform stepped out.
"Corbett!" exclaimed Strong. "What are you doing here? I thought you were aboard the Venus Lark."
"We were bumped out of our reservation by an S.D. priority," said Astro.
"And we can't get out of here for another four days," added Roger glumly.
Strong sympathized. "That's rough, Astro." He looked at the three dour faces and then said, "Would you consider getting a free ride to Venus?"
The three cadets looked up hopefully.
"Major Connel's taking the Polaris to Venus to complete some work with Professor Higgleston in the Venus lab," explained Strong. "If you can get back to the Academy before he blasts off, he might give you a ride."
"No, thanks!" said Roger. "I'd rather sit here."
"Wait a minute, Roger," said Tom. "We're on leave, remember? And it's only a short hop to Venus."
"Yeah, hotshot," added Astro. "We'll get to Venus faster than the Venus Lark, and save money besides."
"O.K.," said Roger. "I guess I can take him for a little while."
Strong suppressed a smile. Roger's reluctance to go with Connel was well founded. Any cadet within hailing distance of the hard-bitten spaceman was likely to wind up with a bookful of demerits.
"Are you on an assignment, sir?" asked Tom.
"Vacation," said Strong. "Four weeks of fishing at Commander Walters' cabin at Sweet Water Lakes."
"If you pass through New Chicago," said Tom, "you would be welcome to stop in at my house. Mom and Dad would be mighty happy to meet you. And I think Billy, my kid brother, would flip a rocket."
"Thank you, Tom. I might do that if I have time." He looked at his watch. "You three had better hurry. I'd advise taking a jetcopter back to the Academy. You might not make it if you wait for a monorail."
"We'll do that, sir," said Tom.
The three boys threw their gear into the waiting cab and piled in. Strong watched them roar away, frowning in thought. An S.D. priority, the highest priority in space, was used only by special couriers on important missions for one of the delegates. He shrugged it off. "Getting to be as suspicious as an old space hen," he said to himself. "Fishing is what I need. A good fight with a trout instead of a space conspiracy!"
As the main drive rockets blasted into life, Tom fell back in his seat before the control panel of the Polaris and felt the growing thrust as the giant ship lifted off the ground, accelerating rapidly. He kept his eyes on the teleceiver screen and saw Space Academy fall away behind them. On the power deck Astro lay strapped in his acceleration cushion, his outstretched hand on the emergency booster rocket switch should the main rockets fail before the ship could reach the free fall of space. On the radar bridge Roger watched the far-flung stars become brighter as the rocket ship hurtled through the dulling layers of the atmosphere.
As soon as the ship reached weightless space, Tom flipped on the gravity generators and put the Polaris on her course to Venus. Almost immediately the intercom began to blast.
"Now hear this!" Major Connel's voice roared. "Corbett, Manning, and Astro! I don't want any of your space-blasted nonsense on this trip! Get this ship to Venusport in the shortest possible time without burning out the pump bearings. And, Manning—!"
"Yes, sir," replied the blond-haired cadet.
"If I so much as hear one wisecrack between you and that overgrown rocket jockey, Astro, I'll log both of you twenty-five demerits!"
"I understand, sir," acknowledged Roger lazily. "I rather appreciate your relieving me of the necessity of speaking to that space ape!"
Listening to their voices on the control deck, Tom grinned and waited expectantly. He wasn't disappointed.
"Ape!" came a bull-like roar from the power deck. "Why, you skinny moth-eaten piece of space junk—"
"Yes, sir?" Astro was suddenly meek.
"If you say one more word, I'll bury you in demerits!"
"No buts!" roared Connel. "And you, Manning—!"
"Yes, sir?" chimed in Roger innocently.
"Keep your mouth shut!"
"Very well, sir," said Roger.
"I'm putting you in charge of monitoring the intercom. If those two space idiots start jabbering again, call me. That's an order! I'll be in my quarters working." Connel switched off abruptly.
"You hear that, fellows?" said Tom. "Knock it off."
"O.K., Tom," replied Roger, "just keep him out of my sight."
"That goes for me, too," added Astro. "Ape! Just wait till I—"
"Astro!" Tom interrupted sharply.
"O.K., O.K.," groaned the big cadet.
Glancing over the panel once more and satisfying himself that the ship was functioning smoothly, Tom sighed and settled back in his seat, enjoying the temporary peace and solitude. It had been a tough year, filled with intensive study in the quest for an officer's commission in the Solar Guard. Space Academy was the finest school in the world, but it was also the toughest. The young cadet shook his head, remembering a six-weeks' grind he, Roger, and Astro had gone through on a nuclear project. Knowing how to operate an atomic rocket motor was one thing, but understanding what went on inside the reactant pile was something else entirely. Never had the three cadets worked harder, or more closely together. But Astro's thorough, practical knowledge of basic nucleonics, combined with Roger's native wizardry at higher mathematics, and his own understanding of the theory, had enabled them to pull through with a grade of seventy-two, the highest average ever made by a cadet unit not specializing in physics.
As the ship rocketed smoothly through the airless void of space toward the misty planet of Venus, Tom made another quick but thorough check of the panel, and then returned to his reflections on the past term. It had been particularly difficult since they had missed many valuable hours of classroom work and study because of their adventure on the new colony of Roald (as described in The Space Pioneers), but they had come through somehow. He shook his head wondering how they had made it. Forty-two units had washed out during the term. Instead of getting easier, the courses of study were getting more difficult all the time, and in his speech on the parade grounds, Commander Walters had promised—
Roger's voice over the intercom brought Tom out of his reverie sharply.
"All hands," continued the cadet on the radar bridge hurriedly, "secure your stations and get to the jet-boat deck on the double! Emergency!"
As the sharp clang of the emergency alarm rang out, Tom did not stop to question Roger's sudden order. Neutralizing all controls, he leaped for the hatch leading below. Taking the ladder four steps at a time, Tom saw Major Connel tear out of his quarters. The elder spaceman dived for the ladder himself, not stopping to ask questions. He was automatic in his reliance on the judgment of others. The few seconds spent in talk could mean the difference between life and death in space where you seldom got a second chance.
Tom and Connel arrived on the jet-boat deck to find Astro already preparing the small space craft for launching. As they struggled into space suits, Roger appeared. In answer to their questioning looks, he explained laconically, "Unidentifiable object attached to ship on fin parallel to steering vanes. Thought we'd better go outside first and examine later."
Connel nodded his mute agreement, and thirty seconds later the tiny jet boat was blasting out of the escape lock into space.
Circling around the ship to the stern, the jet boat, under Major Connel's sure touch, stopped fifty feet from the still glowing, exhaust tubes. He and the three cadets stared out at a small metallic boxlike object attached to the underside of the stabilizer fin.
"What do you suppose it is?" asked Astro.
"I don't know," replied Roger, "but it sure doesn't belong there. That's why I rang the emergency on you."
"You were absolutely right, Manning," asserted Connel. "If it's harmless, we can always get back aboard and nothing's been lost except a little time." He rose from the pilot's seat and stepped toward the hatch. "Come with me, Corbett. We'll have a look. And bring the radiation counter along."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
Tom reached into a near-by locker, and pulling out a small, rectangular box with a round hornlike grid in its face, plunged out of the hatch with Major Connel and blasted across the fifty-foot gap to the stabilizer fin of the Polaris.
Connel gestured toward the object on the fin. "See if she's hot, Corbett."
The young cadet pressed a small button on the counter and turned the horn toward the mysterious box. Immediately the needle on the dial above the horn jumped from white to pink and finally red, quivering against the stop pin.
"Hot!" exclaimed Tom. "She almost kicked the pin off!"
"Get off the ship!" roared Connel. "It's a fission bomb with a time fuse!"
Tom dove at the box and tried to pull it off the stabilizer, but Major Connel grabbed him by the arm and wrenched him out into space.
"You space-blasted idiot!" Connel growled. "That thing's liable to go off any second! Get away from here!"
With a mighty shove, the spaceman sent Tom flying out toward the jet boat and then jumped to safety himself. Within seconds he and the young cadet were aboard the jet boat again and, not stopping to answer Astro's or Roger's questions, he jammed his foot down hard on the acceleration lever, sending the tiny ship blasting away from the Polaris.
Not until they were two miles away from the stricken rocket ship did Connel bring the craft to a stop. He turned and gazed helplessly at the gleaming hull of the Polaris.
"So they know," he said bitterly. "They're trying to stop me from even reaching Venus."
The three cadets looked at each other and then at the burly spaceman, bewilderment in their eyes.
"What's this all about, sir?" Roger finally asked.
"I'm not at liberty to tell you, Manning," replied Connel. "Though I want to thank you for your quick thinking. How did you happen to discover the bomb?"
"I was sighting on Regulus for a position check and Regulus was dead astern, so when I swung the periscope scanner around, I spotted that thing stuck to the fin. I didn't bother to think about it, I just yelled."
"Glad you did," nodded Connel and turned to stare at the Polaris again. "Now I'm afraid we'll just have to wait until that bomb goes off."
"Isn't there anything we can do?" asked Tom.
"Not a blasted thing," replied Connel grimly. "Thank the universe we shut off all power. If that baby had blown while the reactant was feeding into the firing chambers, we'd have wound up a big splash of nothing."
"This way," commented Astro sourly, "it'll just blast a hole in the side of the ship."
"We might be able to repair that," said Tom hopefully.
"There she goes!" shouted Roger.
Staring out the windshield, they saw a sudden blinding flash of light appear over the stern section of the Polaris, a white-hot blaze of incandescence that made them flinch and crouch back.
"By the craters of Luna!" exclaimed Connel.
Before their eyes they saw the stabilizer fin melt and curl under the intense heat of the bomb. There was no sound or shock wave in the vacuum of space, but they all shuddered as though an overwhelming force had swept over them. Within seconds the flash was gone and the Polaris was drifting in the cold blackness of space! The only outward damage visible was the twisted stabilizer, but the boys realized that she must be a shambles within.
"I guess we'll have to wait a while before we go back aboard. There might be radioactivity around the hull," Roger remarked.
"I don't think so," said Tom. "The Polaris was still coasting when we left her. We cut out the drive rockets, but we didn't brake her. She's probably drifted away from the radioactivity already."
"Corbett's right," said Connel. "A hot cloud would be a hundred miles away by now." He pressed down on the acceleration lever and the jet boat eased toward the ship. Edging cautiously toward the stern of the spaceship, they saw the blasted section of the fin already cooling in the intense cold of outer space.
"Think I'd better call a Solar Guard patrol ship, sir?" asked Roger.
"Let's wait until we check the damage, Manning," replied Connel.
"Yeah," chimed in Astro grimly, "if I can help it, I'm going to bring the Polaris in." He paused and then added, "If I have to carry her on my back."
As soon as a quick check with the radiation counter showed them that the hull was free of radioactivity, Major Connel and the three cadets re-entered the ship.
While the lack of atmosphere outside had dissipated the full force of the blast, the effect on the inside of the ship, where Earth's air pressure was maintained, was devastating. Whole banks of delicate machinery were torn from the walls and scattered over the decks. The precision instruments of the inner hull showed no signs of leakage, and the oxygen-circulating machinery could still function on an auxiliary power hookup.
Completing the quick survey of the ship, Major Connel realized that they would never be able to continue their flight to Venus and instructed Roger to contact the nearest Solar Guard patrol ship to pick them up.
"The Polaris will have to be left in space," continued Connel, "and a maintenance crew will be sent out to see if she can be repaired. If they decide it isn't worth the labor, they'll junk her here in space."
The faces of the three cadets fell.
"But there's no real damage on her power deck, sir," said Astro. "And the hull is in good shape, except for the stabilizer fin and some of the stern plates. Why, sometimes a green Earthworm unit will crack a fin on their first touchdown."
"And the radar deck can be patched up easy, sir," spoke up Roger. "With some new tubes and a few rolls of wire I could have her back in shape in no time."
"That goes for the control deck, too!" said Tom doggedly. Then, after a quick glance at his unit mates, he faced Connel squarely. "I think it goes without saying, sir, that we'd appreciate it very much if you could recommend that she be restored instead of junked."
Connel allowed himself a smile in the face of such obvious love for the ship. "You forget that to repair her out in space, the parts have to be hauled from Venus. But I'll see what I can do. Meantime, Roger, see if you can't get that patrol ship to give us a lift to Venusport. Tell the C.O. I'm aboard and on urgent official business."
"Yes, sir," said Roger.
"And," continued the spaceman, noticing the downcast looks of Tom and Astro, "it wouldn't hurt if you two started repairing as much as you can. So when the maintenance crew arrives, they won't find her in such a mess."
"Yes, sir!" chorused the two cadets happily.
Connel returned to his quarters and sat down heavily in the remains of his bunk, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Somehow, word had gotten out that he was going to check on the secret organization on Venus and someone had made a bold and desperate attempt to stop him before he could get started. It infuriated him to think that anyone would interrupt official business. As far as Connel was concerned, nothing came before official business. And he was doubly furious at the danger to the three cadets, who had innocently hitched a ride on what was almost a death ship. Someone was going to pay, Connel vowed, clenching his huge fists—and pay dearly.
Roaring with jubilation and jumping high in the air at every other step, Astro raced out of the gigantic maintenance hangar at the Venusport spaceport and charged at his two unit mates waiting on the concrete apron.
"Everything's O.K.," he yelled, throwing his arms around them. "The Polaris is going to be brought in for full repairs! I just saw the audiograph report from the maintenance chief!"
Tom and Roger broke into loud cheers and pounded each other on the back.
"Great Jupiter," gasped Roger, "I feel as though I've been sitting up with a sick friend!"
"Your friend's going to make a full recovery," asserted Astro.
"Did you see Major Connel?" asked Tom.
"Yeah," said Astro. "I think he had a lot to do with it. I saw him talking to the head maintenance officer."
"Well, now that we've sweated the old girl through the crisis," asserted Roger, "how's about us concentrating on our vacation?"
"Great," agreed Tom. "This is your party, Astro. Lead the way."
The three cadets left the spaceport in a jet cab and rode happily into the city of Venusport. As they slid along the superhighway toward the first and largest of the Venusian cities, Astro pointed out the sights. Like slim fingers of glass, the towering Titan crystal buildings of the city arose before them, reaching above the misty atmosphere to catch the sunlight.
"Where do we get our safari gear, Astro?" asked Roger.
"In the secondhand shops along Spaceman's Row," replied the big Venusian. "We can get good equipment down there at half the price."
The cab turned abruptly off the main highway and began twisting through a section of the city shunned by the average Venusian citizen. Spaceman's Row had a long and unsavory history. For ten square blocks it was the hide-out and refuge of the underworld of space. The grimy stores and shadowy buildings supplied the needs of the countless shadowy figures who lived beyond the law and moved as silently as ghosts.
Leaving the jet cab, the three cadets walked along the streets, past the cheaply decorated store fronts and dingy hallways, until they finally came to a corner shop showing the universal symbol of the pawnshop: three golden balls. Tom and Roger looked at Astro who nodded, and they stepped inside.
The interior of the shop was filthy. Rusted and worn space gear was piled in heaps along the walls and on dusty counters. An old-fashioned multiple neon light fixture cast an eerie blue glow over everything. Roger grimaced as he looked around. "Are you sure we're in the right place, Astro?"
Tom winked. Roger had a reputation for being fastidious.
"This is it," nodded Astro. "I know the old geezer that runs this place. Nice guy. Name's Spike." He turned to the back of the shop and bawled, "Hey, Spike! Customers!"
Out of the gloomy darkness a figure emerged slowly. "Yeah?" The man stepped out into the pale light. He dragged one foot as he walked. "Whaddaya want?"
Astro looked puzzled. "Where's Spike?" he asked. "Doesn't Spike Freyer own this place?"
"He died a couple months ago. I bought him out just before." The crippled man eyed the three cadets warily. "Wanna buy something?"
Astro looked shocked. "Spike, dead? What happened?"
"How should I know," snarled the little man. "I bought him out and he died a few weeks later. Now, you wanna buy something or not?"
"We're looking for jungle gear," said Tom, puzzled by the man's strange belligerence.
"Jungle gear?" the man's eyes widened. "Going hunting?"
"Yeah," supplied Roger. "We need complete outfits for three. But you don't look like you have them. Let's go, fellas." He turned toward the door, anxious to get out into the open air.
"Just a minute! Just a minute, Cadet," said the proprietor eagerly. "I've got some fine hunting gear here! A little used, but you won't mind that! Save you at least half on anything you'd buy up in the city." He started toward the back of the store and then paused. "Where you going hunting?"
"Why?" asked Tom.
"So I'll know what kind of gear you need. Light—heavy—kind of guns—"
"Jungle belt in the Eastern Hemisphere," supplied Astro.
"Big game?" asked the man.
"Tyranno, eh?" nodded the little man. "Well, now, you'll need heavy stuff for that. I'd say at least three heavy-duty paralo-ray pistols for side arms, and three shock rifles. Then you'll need camping equipment, synthetics, and all the rest." He counted the items off on grubby little fingers.
"Let's take a look at the blasters," said Tom.
"Right this way," said the man. He turned and limped to the rear of the shop, followed by the three cadets. Opening a large cabinet, he pulled out a heavy rifle, a shock gun that could knock out any living thing at a range of a thousand yards, and stun the largest animal at twice the distance.
"This blaster will knock the scales off any tyranno that you hit," he said, handing the weapon over to Tom who expertly broke it down and examined it.
As Tom checked the gun, the proprietor turned to the other cadets casually.
"Why would three cadets want to go into that section of the jungle belt?"
"We just told you," said Roger. "We're hunting tyranno."
"Uh, yes, of course." He turned away and pulled three heavy-duty paralo-ray pistols out of the cabinet. "Now these ray guns are the finest money can buy. Standard Solar Guard equipment...."
"Where did you get them?" demanded Roger sharply.
"Well, you know how it is, Cadet." The man laughed. "One way or another, we get a lot of gear. A man is discharged from the Solar Guard and he can keep his equipment, then he gets hard up for a few credits and so he comes to me."
Tom closed the shock rifle and turned to Astro. "This gun is clean enough. Think it can stop a tyranno, Astro?"
"Sure," said the big cadet confidently. "Easy."
"O.K.," announced Tom, turning back to the proprietor. "Give us the rest of the stuff."
"And watch your addition when you make out the bill," said Roger blandly. "We can add, too."
A half-hour later the three cadets stood in front of the shop with all the gear they would need and hailed a jet cab. They stowed their newly purchased equipment inside and started to climb in as Astro announced, "Spaceport, driver!"
"Huh?" Roger paused. "Why back there?"
"How do you think we're going to get to the jungle belt?" asked Astro. "Walk?"
"Well, no, but—"
"We have to rent a jet launch," said Astro. "Or try to buy a used one that we can sell back again. Pile in, now!"
As the cab shot away from the curb with the three cadets, the proprietor of the pawnshop stepped out of the doorway and watched it disappear, a puzzled frown on his face. Quickly he re-entered the shop, and limping to a small locker in the rear, opened it, exposing the screen of a teleceiver. He flipped on the switch, tuned it carefully, and in a moment the screen glowed to life.
"Hello, this is the shop," called the little man. "Lemme speak to Lactu! This is urgent!" As he waited he stared out through the dirty window to the street where the cadets had been a moment before and he smiled thinly.
* * * * *
Arriving at the spaceport, Astro led his unit mates to a privately owned repair hangar and dry dock where wealthier Venusian citizens kept their space yachts, jet-powered craft, and small runabouts. Astro opened the door to the office with a bang, and a young girl, operating an automatic typewriter, looked up.
"Astro!" she cried. "How wonderful to see you!"
"Hiya, Agnes," replied Astro shyly. The big cadet was well known and liked at the repair hangar. His early life had been spent in and around the spaceport. First just listening to the stories of the older spacemen and running errands for them, then lending a helping hand wherever he could, and finally becoming a rigger and mechanic. This all preceded his years as an enlisted spaceman and his eventual appointment to Space Academy. His big heart and honesty, his wild enthusiasm for any kind of rocket power had won him many friends.
"Is Mr. Keene around?" asked Astro.
"He's with a customer right now," replied Agnes. "He'll be out in a minute." Her eyes swept past Astro to Tom and Roger who were standing in the doorway. "Who are your friends?"
"Oh, excuse me!" mumbled Astro. "These are my unit mates, Cadet Corbett and Cadet Manning."
Before Tom could acknowledge the introduction, Roger stepped in front of him and sat on the edge of the desk. Looking into her eyes, he announced, "Tell you what, Astro, you and Tom go hunting. I've found all I could ever want to find right here. Tell me, my little space pet, are you engaged for dinner tonight?"
Agnes looked back into his eyes innocently. "As a matter of fact I am." Then, grinning mischievously, she added, "But don't let that stop you."
"I wouldn't let a tyranno stop me," bragged the blond-haired cadet. "Tell me who your previous engagement is with and I'll get rid of him in nothing flat!"
The girl giggled and looked past Roger. He turned to see a tall, solidly built man in coveralls scowling at him.
"Friend of yours, Agnes?" the newcomer asked.
"Friend of Astro's, Roy," said Agnes. "Cadet Manning, I'd like you to meet my brother, Roy Keene."
Roger jumped up and stuck out his hand. "Oh—er—ah—how do you do, sir?"
"Quite well, Cadet," replied Keene gruffly, but with a slight twinkle in his eye. He turned to Astro and gripped the big cadet's hand solidly. "Well, Astro, it's good to see you. How's everything going at Space Academy?"
"Swell, sir," replied Astro, and after introducing Tom and bringing Keene up to date on his life history, he explained the purpose of their visit. "We're on summer leave, sir, and we'd like to go hunting tyrannosaurus. But what we need most right now is a jet boat. We'd like to rent one, or if you've got something cheap, we'd buy it."
Keene rubbed his chin. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Astro. There's nothing available in the shop right now. I'd lend you my Beetle, but one of the boys has it out on a three-day repair job."
Astro's face fell. "Oh, that's too bad." He turned to Tom and Roger. "Well, we could drop in from a stratosphere cruiser and then work our way back to the nearest colony in three or four weeks."
"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Keene. "I've got an idea." He turned and called to a man standing on the other side of the hangar, studying a radar scanner for private yachts. "Hey, Rex, mind coming over here a minute."
The man walked over. He was in his late thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, his hair was almost snow-white, contrasting sharply with his deeply tanned and handsome features.
"This is the Polaris unit from Space Academy, Rex," said Keene. "Boys, meet Rex Sinclair." After the introductions were completed, Keene explained the cadets' situation. Sinclair broke into a smile. "It would be a pleasure to have you three boys as my guests!"
"Guests!" exclaimed Tom.
Sinclair nodded. "I have a plantation right on the edge of the jungle belt. Things get pretty dull down there in the middle of the summer. I'd be honored if you'd use my home as a base of operations while you hunt for your tyrannosaurus. As a matter of fact, you'd be helping me out. Those brutes destroy a lot of my crops and we have to go after them every three or four years."
"Well, thanks," said Tom, "but we wouldn't want to impose. We'd be happy to pay you—"
Sinclair held up his hand. "Wouldn't think of it. Do you have your gear?"
"Yes, sir," replied Astro. "Arms, synthetics, the works. Everything but transportation."
"Well, that's sitting out on the spaceport. That black space yacht on Ramp Three." Sinclair smiled. "Get your gear aboard and make yourselves at home. I'll be ready to blast off in half an hour."
Astro turned to Keene. "Thanks a lot, sir. It was swell of you to set us up this way."
Keene slapped him on the shoulder. "Go on. Have a good time."
Shaking hands all around and saying quick good-bys, the three boys hurried out to stow their gear aboard Sinclair's luxurious space yacht. While Roger and Tom relaxed in the comfortable main cabin, Astro hurried below to inspect the power deck.
Roger laughed as the big cadet disappeared down the hatch. "That guy would rather play with a rocket tube than do anything else in the universe!"
"Yes," said Tom. "He's a real lucky guy."
"Ever meet anyone that didn't love that big hick?"
"Nope," said Roger with a sly grin. "And that goes for me too! But don't you ever tell him!"
* * * * *
Major Connel had been waiting to see the Solar Alliance Delegate from Venus for three hours. And Major Connel didn't like to wait for anyone or anything. He had read every magazine in the lavish outer office atop the Solar Guard Building in downtown Venusport, drunk ten glasses of water, and was now wearing a path in the rug as he paced back and forth in front of the secretary who watched him shyly.
The buzzer on the desk finally broke the silence and the girl answered quickly as Connel stopped and glared at her expectantly. She listened for a second, then replacing the receiver, turned to the seething Solar Guard officer and smiled sweetly. "Delegate James will see you now, Major."
"Thank you," said Connel gruffly, trying hard not to take his impatience out on the pretty girl. He stepped toward an apparently solid wall that suddenly slid back as he passed a light beam and entered the spacious office of E. Philips James, Venusian Delegate to the Grand Council of the Solar Alliance.
E. Philips James was a small man, with small hands that were moving nervously all the time. His head was a little too large for his narrow body that was clothed in the latest fashion, and his tiny black mustache was carefully trimmed. As Connel stalked into the room, James bounced out of his chair to meet him, smiling warmly.
"Major Connel! How delightful to see you again," he said, extending a perfumed hand.
"You could have seen me a lot sooner," growled Connel. "I've been sitting outside for over three hours!"
James lifted one eyebrow and sat down without making any comment. A true diplomat, E. Philips James never said anything unless it was absolutely necessary. And when he spoke, he never really said very much. He sat back and waited patiently for Connel to cool off and get to the point of his call.
In typical fashion, Connel jumped to it without any idle conversational prologue. "I'm here on a security assignment. I need confidential information."
"Just one moment, Major," said James. He flipped open his desk intercom and called to his secretary outside. "Record this conversation, please."
"Record!" roared Connel. "I just told you this was secret!"
"It will be secret, Major," assured James softly. "The record will go into the confidential files of the Alliance for future reference. A precaution, Major. Standard procedure. Please go on."
Connel hesitated, and then, shrugging his shoulders, continued, "I want to know everything you know about an organization here on Venus known as the Venusian Nationalists."
James's expression changed slightly. "Specific information, Major? Or just random bits of gossip?"
"No rocket wash, Mr. James. Information. Everything you know!"
"I don't know why you've come to me," replied James, visibly annoyed at the directness of the rough spaceman. "I know really very little."
"I'm working under direct orders of Commander Walters," said Connel grimly, "who is also a delegate to the Solar Council. His position as head of the Solar Guard is equal to yours in every respect. This request comes from his office, not out of my personal curiosity."
"Ah, yes, of course, Major," replied James. "Of course."
The delegate rose and walked over to the window, seemingly trying to collect his thoughts. After a moment he turned back. "Major, the organization you speak of is, so far as I know, an innocent group of Venusian farmers and frontier people who meet regularly to exchange information about crops, prices, and the latest farming methods. You see, Major"—James's voice took on a slightly singsong tone, as though he were making a speech—"Venus is a young planet, a vast new world, with Venusport the only large metropolis and cultural center. Out in the wilderness, there are great tracts of cultivated land that supply food to the planets of the Solar Alliance and her satellites. We are becoming the breadbasket of the universe, you might say." James smiled at Connel, who did not return the smile.
"Great distances separate these plantations," continued James. "Life is hard and lonely for the Venusian plantation owner. The Venusian Nationalists are, to my knowledge, no more than a group of landowners who have gotten together and formed a club, a fraternity. It's true they speak the Venusian dialect, these groups have taken names from the old Venusian explorers, but I hardly think it is worth while investigating."
"Do they have a headquarters?" Connel asked. "A central meeting place?"
"So far as I know, they don't. But Al Sharkey, the owner of the largest plantation on Venus, is the president of the organization. He's a very amiable fellow. Why don't you talk to him?"
"Al Sharkey, eh?" Connel made a mental note of the name.
"And there's Rex Sinclair, a rather stubborn individualist who wrote to me recently complaining that he was being pressured into joining the organization."
"What kind of pressure?" asked Connel sharply.
James held up his hand. "Don't get me wrong, Major. There was no violence." The delegate suddenly became very businesslike. "I'm afraid that's all the information I can give you, Major." He offered his hand. "So nice to see you again. Please don't hesitate to call on me again for any assistance you feel we can give you."
"Thank you, Mr. James," said Connel gruffly and left the office, a frown creasing his forehead. Being a straightforward person himself, Major Connel could not understand why anyone would hesitate about answering a direct question. He didn't for a moment consider the delegate anything but an intelligent man. It was the rocket wash that went with being a diplomat that annoyed the ramrod spaceman. He shrugged it off. Perhaps he would find out something from Al Sharkey or the other plantation owner, Rex Sinclair.
When he crossed the slidewalk and waited at the curb for a jet cab, Connel suddenly paused and looked around. He felt a strange excitement in the air—a kind of tension. The faces of passing pedestrians seemed strained, intense, their eyes were glowing, as though they all were in on some huge secret. He saw groups of men and women sitting in open sidewalk cafes, leaning over the table to talk to each other, their voices low and guarded. Connel shivered. He didn't like it. Something was happening on Venus and he had to find out what it was before it was too late.
"Wow!" exclaimed Roger.
"Jumping Jupiter!" commented Tom.
"Blast my jets!" roared Astro.
Rex Sinclair smiled as he maneuvered the sleek black space yacht in a tight circle a thousand feet above the Titan crystal roof of his luxurious home in the heart of the wild Venusian jungle.
"She's built out of Venusian teak," said Sinclair. "Everything but the roof. I wanted to keep the feeling of the jungle around me, so I used the trees right out of the jungle there." He pointed to the sea of dense tropical growth that surrounded the house and cleared land.
The ship nosed up for a thousand yards and then eased back, smoothly braked, to a concrete ramp a thousand yards from the house. The touchdown was as gentle as a falling leaf, and when Sinclair opened the air lock, a tall man in worn but clean fatigues was waiting for them.
"Howdy, Mr. Sinclair," he called, a smile on his lined, weather-beaten face. "Have a good trip?"
"Fine trip, George," replied Sinclair, climbing out of the ship. "I want you to meet some friends of mine. Space Cadets Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro. They're going to stay with us during their summer leave while they hunt for tyranno. Boys, this is my foreman, George Hill."
The boys shook hands with the thick-set, muscular man, who smiled broadly. "Glad to meet you, boys. Always wanted to talk to someone from the Academy. Wanted to go there myself but couldn't pass the physical. Bad eyes."
Reaching into the ship, he began lifting out their equipment. "You chaps go on up to the house now," he said. "I'll take care of your gear."
With Sinclair leading the way, the boys slowly walked up a flagstone path toward the house, and they had their first chance to see a Venusian plantation home at close range.
The Sinclair house stood in the middle of a clearing more than five thousand yards square. At the edges, like a solid wall of green vegetation, the Venusian jungle rose more than two hundred feet. It was noon and the heat was stifling. They were twenty-six million miles closer to the sun, and on the equator of the misty planet. While Astro, George, and Sinclair didn't seem to mind the temperature, Tom and Roger were finding it unbearable.
"Can you imagine what it'll be like in the house with that crystal roof!" whispered Roger.
"I'll bet," replied Tom. "But as soon as the sun drops out of the zenith, it should cool off some."
When the group stepped up onto the porch, two house servants met them and took their gear. Then Sinclair and the foreman ushered the cadets inside. They were surprised to feel a distinct drop in temperature.
"Your cooling unit must be pretty large, Mr. Sinclair," commented Tom, looking up at the crystal roof where the sun was clearly visible.
Sinclair smiled. "That's special crystal, mined on Titan at a depth of ten thousand feet. It's tinted, and shuts out the heat and glare of the sun."
George then left to lay out their gear for their first hunt the next morning, and Sinclair took them on a tour of the house. They walked through long corridors looking into all the rooms, eventually winding up in the kitchen, and the three boys marveled at the simplicity yet absolute perfection of the place. Every modern convenience was at hand for the occupant's comfort. When the sun had dropped a little, they all put on sunglasses with glareproof eye shields and walked around the plantation. Sinclair showed them his prize-winning stock and the vast fields of crops. Aside from the main house, there were only four other buildings in the clearing. They visited the smallest, a cowshed.
"Where do your field hands live, Mr. Sinclair?" asked Tom, as they walked through the modern, spotless, milking room.
"I don't have any," replied the planter. "Do most of the work with machinery, and George and the houseboys do what has to be done by hand."
As they left the shed and started back toward the main house they came abreast of a small wooden structure. Thinking they were headed there, Roger started to open the door.
"Close that door!" snapped Sinclair. Roger jerked back. Astro and Tom looked at the planter, startled by the sharpness in his voice.
Sinclair smiled and explained, "We keep some experiments on different kinds of plants in there at special low temperatures. You might have let in hot air and ruined something."
"I'm sorry, sir," said Roger. "I didn't know."
"Forget it," replied the planter. "Well, let's get back to the house. We're having an early dinner. You boys have to get started at four o'clock in the morning."
"Four o'clock!" exclaimed Roger.
"Why?" asked Tom.
"We have to go deep into the thicket," Astro explained, using the local term for the jungle, "so that at high noon we can make camp and take a break. You can't move out there at noon. It gets so hot you'd fall on your face after fifteen minutes of fighting the creepers."
"Everything stops at noon," added Sinclair. "Even the tyrannosaurus. You have to do your traveling in the cool of the day, early and late. Six hours or so will take you far enough away from the plantation to find tracks, if there are any."
"Tell me, Mr. Sinclair," asked Roger suddenly, "is this the whole plantation?" He spread his hands in a wide arc, taking in the clearing to the edge of the jungle.
Sinclair grinned. "Roger, it'd take a man two weeks to go from one corner of my property to another. This is just where I live. Three years ago I had five hundred square miles under cultivation."
Back in the house, they found George setting the table on the porch and his wife busy in the kitchen. Mrs. Hill was a stout woman, with a pleasant face and a ready smile. With very little ceremony, the cadets, Sinclair, George, and his wife sat down to eat. The food was simple fare, but the sure touch of Mrs. Hill's cooking and the free use of delicate Venusian jungle spices added exotic flavor, new but immensely satisfying to the three hungry boys, a satisfaction they demonstrated by cleaning their plates quickly and coming back for second helpings. Astro, of course, was not happy until he had polished off his fourth round. Mrs. Hill beamed with pleasure at their unspoken compliment to her cooking.
After the meal, Mrs. Hill stacked the dishes and put them into a small carrier concealed in the wall. Pressing a button, near the opening, she explained, "That dingus takes them to the sink, washes them, dries them, and puts everything in its right place. That's the kind of modern living I like!"
As the sun dropped behind the wall of the jungle and the sky darkened, they all relaxed. Sinclair and George smoked contentedly, Mrs. Hill brought out some needle point, and the three cadets rested in comfortable contour chairs. They chatted idly, stopping only to listen to the wild calls of birds and animals out in the jungle as George, or Sinclair, identified them all. George told of his experiences on tyrannosaurus hunts, and Astro described his method of hunting as a boy.
"I was a big kid," he explained. "And since the only way of earning a living was by working, I found I could combine business with pleasure. I used to hitch rides over the belt and parachute in to hunt for baby tyrannos." He grinned and added, "When I think back, I wonder how I ever stayed in one piece."
"Land sakes!" exclaimed Mrs. Hill. "It's a wonder you weren't eaten alive! Those tyrannos are horrible things."
"I was almost a meal once," confessed Astro sheepishly, and at the urging of the others he described the incident that had cured him of hunting alone in the jungles of Venus with only a low-powered shock blaster.
"If I didn't get it at the base of the brain where the nerve centers aren't so well protected with the first shot, I was in trouble," he said. "I took a lot of chances, but was careful not to tangle with a mama or papa tyrannosaurus. I'd stalk the young ones. I'd wait for him to feed and then let him have it. If I was lucky, I'd get him with one shot, but most of the time I'd just stun him and have to finish him off with a second blast. Then I'd skin him, take the hams and shoulders, and get out of there fast before the wild dogs got wind of the blood. I'd usually hunt pretty close to a settlement where I could get the meat frozen. After that, I'd just have to call a couple of the big restaurants in Venusport and get the best price. I used to make as much as fifty credits on one kill."
"How would you get the meat to Venusport?" asked Roger, who, for all his braggadocio, was awed by his unit mate's calm bravery and skill as a hunter.
"The restaurant that bought it would send a jet boat out for it and I'd ride back with it. After a while the restaurant owners got to know me and would give me regular orders. I was trying to fill a special order on that last hunt."
"What happened?" asked Tom, equally impressed with Astro's life as a boy hunter.
"I had just about finished hunting in a section near a little settlement on the other side of Venus," began the big cadet, "but I thought there might be one more five-hundred-pound baby around, so I dropped in." Astro paused and grinned. "I didn't find a baby, I found his mother! She must have weighed twenty-five or thirty tons. Biggest tyranno I've ever seen. She spotted me the same time I saw her and I didn't even stop to fire. I never could have dented her hide. I started running and she came after me. I made it to a cave and went as far back inside as I could. She stuck her head in after me, and by the craters of Luna, she was only about three feet away, with me backed up against a wall. She tried to get farther in, opened her mouth, and snapped and roared like twenty rocket cruisers going off at once."
Tom gulped and Roger's eyes widened.
"I figured there was only one thing to do," continued Astro. "Use the blaster, even though it couldn't do much damage. I let her have one right in the eye!" Astro shook his head and laughed. "You should have seen her pull her head out of that cave! I couldn't sleep for months after that. I used to dream that she was sticking her head in my window, always getting closer."
"Did the blaster do any damage at all?" asked Sinclair.
"Oh, yes, sir," said Astro. "I was close enough for the heat charge from the muzzle to get her on the side of the head. Nothing fatal, but she's probably still out there in the jungle more ugly than ever with half a face."
The group fell silent, each thinking of how he would have reacted under similar conditions; each silently thankful that it hadn't happened to him. Finally Mrs. Hill rose and said good night, and George excused himself to take a last look at the stock. Remembering their early call for the next morning, the cadets said good night to Sinclair and retired to their comfortable rooms. In bed at last, each boy stretched full length on his bed and in no time was sound asleep.
It was still dark, an hour and a half before the sun would burst over the top of the jungle, when Sinclair went to the cadets' room to rouse them. He found them already up and dressed in their jungle garb. Each boy was wearing skin-tight trousers and jerseys made of double strength space-suit cloth and colored a dark moldy green. A hunter dressed in this manner and standing still could not be seen at twenty paces. The snug fit of the suit was protection against thorns and snags that could find no hold on the hard, smooth-surfaced material.
After a hearty breakfast the three cadets collected their gear, the paralo-ray pistols, the shock rifles, and the small shoulder packs of synthetic food and camping equipment. Each boy also carried a two-foot jungle knife with a compass inlaid in the handle. A helmet of clear plastic with a small mesh-covered opening in the face covered each boy's head. Dressed as they were, they could walk through the worst part of the jungles and not get so much as a scratch.
"Well," commented Sinclair, looking them over, "I guess you boys have everything. I'd hate to be the tyranno that crosses your path!"
The boys grinned. "Thanks for everything, sir," said Tom. "You've been a lot of help."
"Think nothing of it, Tom. Just bring back a pair of tyranno scalps!"
"Where are Mr. and Mrs. Hill?" asked Astro. "We'd like to say good-by to them."
"They left before you got up," replied Sinclair. "They're taking a few days off for a visit to Venusport."
The boys pulled on their jungle boots. Knee-length and paper-thin, they were nonetheless unpenetrable even if the boys should step on one of the needle-sharp ground thorns.
They waved a last good-by to their host, standing on the steps of the big house, and moved across the clearing to the edge of the jungle wall.
As the cadets approached the thick tangle of vines, the calls and rustling noises from the many crawling things hidden in the forbidding thicket slowly died down. They walked along the edge of the tangle of jungle creepers until they found an opening and stepped through.
After walking only ten feet they were completely surrounded by the jungle and could not even see the clearing they had just left. It was dark, the network of vines, the thick tree trunks and rank growing vegetation shutting out the sun, leaving the interior of the jungle strangely plunged in gloom. Astro moved ahead, followed by Roger, with Tom bringing up the rear. They followed the path they had entered, as far as it went, and then began cutting their way through the underbrush, stopping only to cut notches in the trees to mark their passage.
Their long-bladed knives slicing through vines and brush easily, Tom, Roger, and Astro hacked their way deeper and deeper into the mysterious and suffocating green world.
"I guess that's the Sharkey place over there," mumbled Major Connel to himself, banking his jet launch over the green jungles and pointing the speedy little craft's nose toward the clearing in the distance. The Solar Guard officer wrenched the scout around violently in his approach. He was still boiling over the Venusian Delegate's indifference toward his mission.
The launch skimmed the jungle treetops and glided to a perfect stop near the largest of a group of farm buildings. Cutting the motors, Connel sat and waited for someone to appear. He sat there for ten minutes but no one came out to greet him. Finally he climbed out of the launch and stood by the hatch, peering intently at the buildings around him, his eyes squinting against the glare of the fiery sun overhead. The plantation seemed deserted. Reaching back into the launch and pulling out a paralo-ray gun, he strapped its reassuring bulk to his side and stepped toward the building that was obviously the main house. Nothing else moved in the hot noon sun.
As he strode purposefully toward the house, eyes alert for any sign of life, he thought for a moment everyone might be taking a midday nap. Many of the Venusian colonists adapted the age-old custom of the tropics to escape the intense heat of midday. But he dismissed the thought immediately, realizing that his approach in the jet would have awakened the deepest of sleepers.
Entering the house, he stopped in the spacious front hall and called:
"Hello! Anybody home? Halloo!"
The only answer was the echo of his own voice, vibrating through the large rooms.
"Funny," muttered the spaceman. "Why is this place deserted?"
He walked slowly through the house, opening doors and looking into all the rooms, searching the whole place thoroughly before returning to the clearing. Going to the nearest of the outbuildings, he opened one of the wide doors and stared into the gloomy interior. With his experienced eye he saw immediately that the building had been used to house a large jet craft. There was the slightly pungent odor of jet fuel, and on the floor the tire marks of a dolly used to roll the craft out to the launching strip. He followed the tracks outside and around to the side of the building where he saw the dolly. It was empty.
Shaking his head grimly, Connel made a quick tour of the remaining buildings. They were all deserted but the last one, which seemed to be built a little more sturdily than the others. Unlike the others, it was locked. He looked for a window and discovered that the walls were solid. There were no openings except the locked door. He hesitated in front of the door, looking down at the ground for a sign of what might have been stored in the building. The surrounding area revealed no tracks. He pulled out a thick-bladed pocketknife and stepped to the lock, then suddenly stopped and grinned.
"Great," he said to himself. "A Solar Guard officer about to break into private property without a warrant. Fine thing to have known back at the Academy!"
He turned abruptly and strode back to the scout. Climbing into the craft, he picked up the audioscriber microphone and recorded a brief message. Removing the threadlike tape from the machine, he returned to the house and left it on the spool of the audioscribe-replay machine near the front door.
A few moments later the eerie silence of the Sharkey plantation was once again shattered by the hissing roar of jets as the launch took off and climbed rapidly over the jungle. Air-borne, Connel glanced briefly at a chart, changed course, and sent the launch hurtling at full speed across the jungle toward the Sinclair plantation.