THE SCARLET LAKE MYSTERY
A RICK BRANT SCIENCE-ADVENTURE STORY
BY JOHN BLAINE
GROSSET & DUNLAP, INC., 1958 NEW YORK, N. Y.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Printed in the United States of America
[Transcriber Note: Extensive research did not discover a U.S. copyright renewal.]
II ASSIGNMENT: ROCKET BASE
III LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
IV SCARLET LAKE
V PROJECT PEGASUS
VI SIGN OF THE EARTHMAN
VII CARELESS MESA
VIII PROJECT ORION
IX GHOST TOWN CLUE
X STRANDED IN STEAMBOAT
XI DEADROCK OGG, MAYOR
XII SERVOMOTORS MISSING
XIII FLY THE WINGED HORSE!
XIV CHECK PILOT
XV THE OPEN HATCHWAY
XVI THE BOARD SHOWS GREEN
XVII WEIGHT, ONE TON
XVIII OUT OF CONTROL!
XIX THE UNYIELDING GROUND
XX THE EARTHMAN
List of Illustrations
Grim-faced men came running to help still the holocaust
Etched on the bar was a puzzling inscription
A bullet whined off the top of the rock pile, and then there was silence
"What are you doing here?" the man demanded
Rick hung in the air, as though suspended by some weird magic
Rick Brant released the sling pouch with his left hand and let it drop smoothly to the end of its double string. The sling swung through a complicated arc, out to its full length, down again behind his back, then, with rapidly increasing speed, over his right shoulder. With a final whip he swung the pouch forward and released the free end of the string at precisely the right moment.
The rock left the pouch at astonishing speed, whistling as it traveled out to sea. Over fifty yards from shore it slapped into the water only a few feet from a bottle that bobbed there as a target.
Don Scott, nicknamed Scotty, nodded his approval. "Okay, David. Another hour of practice and you can go hunting Goliath."
Rick grinned. "I'm getting the hang of it," he admitted. "Let's see you heave another one out there."
The boys had collected a pile of assorted water-polished stones from the beach near Pirate's Field, and brought them to the front of the big Brant house facing the Atlantic Ocean.
Scotty selected one of the larger ones, then checked his sling. The sling was simplicity itself. Two pieces of strong cord were connected to each side of the pouch, made of heavy canvas about four inches long and three wide. One string ended in a loop, which Scotty slipped over his right forefinger. The other string ended in a large knot, which Scotty held between his forefinger and thumb.
Scotty placed the stone in the pouch and gripped it in his left hand, holding the stone in place with thumb and forefinger. He took throwing position, left hand holding the pouch slightly lower than shoulder height while his right held the strings in the center of his body just above his belt buckle.
He released the pouch and put his solid weight into the throw.
Rick's lips pursed in a silent whistle. The stone sang shrilly as it flew up, up, up and far out. Then the trajectory dropped off rapidly and it fell into the sea.
"Bless Bess!" Rick exclaimed. "Three hundred yards if it was an inch!"
Even Scotty looked a little surprised. "I'm going to quit while I'm ahead," he announced.
Barbara Brant, a slim, pretty, blond girl a year Rick's junior, hailed them from the porch, then ran down and joined them. "Hi! What are you two doing?"
"Scotty just won the rock-throwing championship of the East Coast," Rick told her.
Barby looked surprised. "He did? I thought you were waiting for Dr. Gordon?"
"We are, but we decided to try out Scotty's new sling while we were waiting."
The boys, and in fact the entire scientific staff of Spindrift Island, had been in a state of excitement for the past few days because of a telegram received from Dr. John Gordon. Dr. Gordon had been on leave for some time, working on a special project at a rocket experimental station in the West. A few days before, Dr. Hartson Brant, Rick's father and head of the Spindrift Scientific Foundation, a world-famous research organization, had received word from Gordon that Rick and Scotty were needed for a special assignment. Gordon had not given any details in his wire.
This morning Dr. Gordon had phoned that he had been delayed, but would arrive by Navy plane around noontime. Long before noon, Rick and Scotty had moved Rick's four-passenger Sky Wagon off the grassy runway that ran along the seaward side of the island, then settled down to the rock-throwing session.
Barby said, "I'm pretty good with a slingshot. Let me try."
Scotty handed her the sling. She looked at it dubiously. "What's this? It isn't a slingshot."
"It's a sling," Rick explained. "Not a slingshot. You know—like David and Goliath."
Barby looked her disbelief. "You mean David killed Goliath with two pieces of string and a piece of canvas?"
"He probably used leather thongs and a leather pouch," Scotty said, "but the idea is the same."
"Show her," Rick suggested.
Scotty picked up another of the larger stones and let fly. It dropped short of the earlier throw, but the effect was enough to make Barby's blue eyes open wide.
"Where did you get it?" she asked excitedly.
"Made it. Steve Ames showed me how, and how to throw."
The Spindrift Scientific Foundation, located on Spindrift Island off the New Jersey coast, had been called upon several times to assist the United States Government. In many of the cases, the scientific staff worked under the direction of a topnotch intelligence agent by the name of Steven Ames. Rick and Scotty had taken an active part, in spite of the fact that they were only in their teens.
Working for JANIG, the intelligence group that Steve Ames represented, had taught both boys a great deal about intelligence procedures. This training was a major reason why John Gordon had called on them for assistance.
"Isn't it a funny weapon for Steve Ames to use?" Barby asked. "I mean, after all, spies are supposed to use guns or knives, aren't they?"
Rick grinned. "Sure. They carry knives between their teeth, and they have at least two guns each. Walking arsenals, that is what they are. It takes a strong man to be a spy, on account of all the heavy metal he has to lug around."
Barby ignored him. "Scotty, how come Steve knows about slings?"
"It's a hobby. He and a few others are trying to keep the art of using slings alive," Scotty explained. "It's been nearly forgotten."
"I see." Barby glared at Rick. "If you can't give me a civil answer when I ask a question, I won't ask you any more!"
Rick pointed out, "You'll have to stop for now, anyway, because Scotty and I have to leave on this special job of John Gordon's. Besides, the only reason you're mad is because you can't go."
Barby always felt cheated when Rick and Scotty left the island on some exciting expedition or job. She had vowed to be a boy in her next reincarnation.
Scotty stepped in as peacemaker. "Barby won't mind," he said. "After all, Jan Miller will be here in a few days."
After completion of The Electronic Mind Reader case Hartson Brant had persuaded Dr. Walter Miller, an expert who had worked with the Spindrift staff, to join the Foundation permanently. That meant Barby would have Miller's daughter, Jan, as a companion, and Barby was delighted beyond words. The boys were pleased, too. Not only was Jan nice to have around, but her presence—they hoped—would mean less trouble from Barby when they were going off somewhere.
The Millers would move into one of the new cottages behind the orchard, next to Parnell Winston, the staff cyberneticist. Howard Shannon, expert in the natural sciences, and his family would be their other neighbors.
At the moment, however, Shannon and Tony Briotti, the staff archaeologist, were away on an expedition in the Sulu Sea. Rick and Scotty had been keenly disappointed at being left behind. But Dr. Gordon's offer of a new job had cheered them up considerably.
"Shouldn't Dr. Gordon be arriving?" Barby asked.
Scotty looked at his watch. "He should. But he didn't give any definite time."
Barby poked at a sling stone with one slipper. "Where are you supposed to go?"
"Somewhere in Nevada, Dad says," Rick replied.
"I thought Dr. Gordon was at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico."
"So did I," Scotty remarked. "The telegram was the first I knew about his working in Nevada."
Barby held up her hand. "Listen!"
A plane was in sight! Rick identified it as a prop-driven Navy utility job. No doubt of it, Gordon was arriving!
They watched eagerly as the plane lost altitude, flaps and wheels lowered for the landing. The pilot brought it in over the big radar antenna on the laboratory roof, then dropped onto the runway for a three-point landing opposite the orchard.
The three ran around the wing, bracing themselves against the prop blast. Rick took the suitcase that was handed to him by Dr. Gordon, who leaped lightly to the ground after his luggage.
The scientist, a short, wiry man with gray hair cropped crew-cut fashion, waved to the pilot, then motioned the young people back as the pilot turned with a blast of his prop and taxied to take-off position in front of the lab.
Because of the racket, no one tried to talk until the plane was nearly out of earshot. Then Barby spoke for all of them as they walked to the house. "We thought you'd never get here!"
Dr. Gordon smiled his pleasure at being home again. He shook hands with the boys. "You've no idea how nice and green this island looks after the Nevada desert. And you've no idea how hungry I am! Is it too late for lunch?"
Mrs. Brant answered him from the porch. "You have just two minutes to wash up and come to the table, John!"
Hartson Brant appeared behind her. He shook hands with Dr. Gordon as the three young people escorted him to the porch. "Welcome home, John."
"Thanks, Hartson. It's good to be back. Where are the others? Zircon, Weiss, and Winston? I know Tony and Howard are off on an expedition, but I thought the others were home."
"They are. Parnell Winston is probably having lunch at his cottage. Hobart and Julius are in New York, examining some new equipment for the lab. They'll be back tonight."
Rick was dying to ask questions, but he knew this was not the right time. At lunch, perhaps, they might be given some details.
John Gordon looked at him and grinned. "Here's Rick Brant," he declared, "politely holding his tongue when he's about to pop like a firecracker with questions. Your self-control does you credit, Rick. Want one bit of data to chew on while you're waiting?"
Rick gulped, then returned the grin. "Yes, sir!"
John Gordon lowered his voice to a confidential pitch. "We have an enemy," he stated. "What kind of enemy may be seen clearly in the name by which he goes." He paused.
"What name?" Rick asked impatiently.
John Gordon turned and hurried upstairs to his room to wash up for lunch.
Rick stared after him. What in the name of a simple-minded spacefish did that mean?
Man of Earth.
Assignment: Rocket Base
Rick turned the phrase over and over in his head, trying to make sense out of it. Earthman? Who wasn't an earthman? The whole human race was composed of them. Of course ordinary people didn't refer to themselves as homo terrestrialis, but that's what they were just the same.
Scotty was just as puzzled. "Do you make anything out of it?" he inquired.
Rick shook his head mutely.
As Barby made a beeline for the library, Scotty called after her, "Where are you going? It's lunchtime."
She answered without pausing. "I'm going to consult the dictionary before Dr. Gordon comes down."
"Maybe she has something there," Rick said. "Let's go."
But the dictionary gave no clues. Homo was simply "man," and terrestrial was simply "of earth."
"Terrestrial is in here, but not terrestrialis," Barby complained.
"Same thing," Rick said. "Adding 'is' just makes it a Latin form. No, there's nothing strange about the term, except it's strange that anyone should use it."
"We'll find out," Scotty reminded him. "John Gordon was just teasing us. Let's go eat. Maybe he'll break down at lunch."
Rick realized the sense of what Scotty said, but he couldn't stop worrying the problem as his dog, Dismal, might worry a bone. Then, when they all sat down to lunch, his father effectively blocked discussion of it, and their new assignment, by talking with Dr. Gordon about mutual friends out West.
Finally Mrs. Brant came to her son's rescue. "Now, Hartson, and you too, John. You've teased Rick and Scotty enough."
Mr. Brant chuckled. "I wondered how long he was going to put up with our reminiscences before blowing a fuse or something."
Rick grinned sheepishly. He should have guessed that the two scientists were deliberately keeping the conversation off the main subject just as a joke.
John Gordon took a generous helping of salad. "All right. I'll talk, but you'll have to excuse me if I mumble a little. I intend to go right on eating. I've been looking forward to this for months!"
"We'll excuse you," Barby said quickly. "Only please start!"
Gordon smiled at her. "Can you keep secrets?"
"I always have," Barby retorted.
"All right. Then you can listen. But what I say must not be repeated."
The scientist paused long enough to drain his glass of milk and refill it from the pitcher.
"Well, to begin with, we moved from New Mexico to Nevada only a short while ago, in order to separate our work from military research. We created a new test base in Nevada, not too far from the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Test Site, although we have no connection with it."
"Then you're not on a military project?" Scotty asked.
"Yes and no. The work is sponsored jointly by the Department of Defense and some other agencies, including the National Science Foundation. However, we are not working on military projects, in the sense that our rockets are not weapons. They're for research purposes. Of course some of the things we're doing will be valuable for military application later, and so our test base is closed to the public and most of our work has a high classification. Usually the work is secret, but sometimes it's top secret. Is that clear?"
Scotty and the Brants agreed that it was.
"Very well. Since we operate under security, every person who works on the base is fully investigated and cleared for top secret. This is an important point. You know how thorough these investigations are. Once a security check for top secret is completed, there is literally nothing of importance that isn't known about a person. But in spite of the most careful security work, there is someone on our base about whom we do not know everything.
"It's absolutely baffling," Gordon continued. "Our first project was a simple one, with a tested rocket system. Actually, we used a modified Aerobee, a rocket of proven dependability. Nothing should have gone wrong. But when we fired, the rocket exploded at the top of the launcher. We investigated thoroughly, of course, and found someone had cleverly sabotaged the shoot."
"The what?" Barby asked.
"The shoot. When we launch a rocket we simply call it a shoot."
"Oh. Now I understand."
"Ask any questions you want. Well, we discovered that someone had rigged a steel bar at the top of the launching tower. It was spring-loaded and triggered to move right across the path of the rocket when we fired."
"What does spring-loaded mean?" Mrs. Brant asked.
"The bar was activated by a spring. The spring was under tension. The steel bar lay along one of the pieces of the frame, and was held by a latch. When the trigger withdrew the latch, the spring pushed the bar across the path of the rocket. That's what spring-loaded means in this case."
"Couldn't anyone have found the steel bar?" Scotty wanted to know.
"Yes, if anyone had looked for it. But once the launching tower was erected, there was no reason for anyone to go to the top for an inspection."
Scotty nodded his understanding.
"To go on, as soon as we found the bar and the spring mechanism we knew we'd been sabotaged. But that wasn't all. Etched on the bar was a rather good picture of a knight in armor, in the process of driving his sword through a rocket. Underneath was the inscription: Homo Terrestrialis."
"I don't get it," Rick complained.
Gordon grinned. "Neither did we. And we still don't get it. But you can be sure we started a few balls rolling. First, Security checked every man's file again. They missed no one. Even the security officers and guards were rechecked. Then they started a program to find out who on the base had any talent as an artist. Nothing was found. The security chief sent photos of the etched picture and the whole bar mechanism to every security agency in the government, including the FBI, Central Intelligence, and the military. He drew a blank. No one had ever heard of anyone calling himself the Earthman, and the technique wasn't familiar."
The scientist paused long enough to eat a little more, then resumed.
"Meanwhile, we were getting a Viking rocket ready to launch. We checked it from nose to fins. We didn't miss a thing. Then we posted a guard around it, and a guard to watch the guard. We took no chances at all. The project engineer even slept near the rocket where he could keep an eye on it."
"Did anyone climb the tower?" Barby asked.
"There was no tower. A Viking rests on its fins. Anyway, it took off. It climbed ten miles, then went on an erratic course. We couldn't control it. Fortunately it crashed on the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range, which is a closed military area nearby, so no one was hurt. At first we thought it was just one of those typical accidents that happen during rocket research. Even the best-performing rockets sometimes go haywire. But when we got into the wreckage, we found the steering vanes had been tampered with, in a way that inspection couldn't have disclosed."
"Was there a picture?" Scotty asked.
"Not in or on the rocket. But when we got back to the base after inspecting it, everyone was excited. Someone had sketched a knight in armor with crayon right on the concrete of the launching pad."
Rick said thoughtfully, "Then you can eliminate those who went to inspect the crashed Viking."
"Unfortunately, no. We have no way of telling when the picture was drawn. No one was seen near the launching pad between the time the rocket was fired and the discovery of the sketch on our return from the gunnery range."
"Do you think this sabotage is the work of an enemy agent?" Hartson Brant inquired.
John Gordon shrugged. "Perhaps. Yet we don't really think so. In the first place, an enemy agent would probably not leave a calling card. And second, we're reasonably sure no agent could have gotten past the security check."
There was silence while Scotty and the Brants thought over what Gordon had said. The scientist busied himself with the excellent food, and finally accepted a cup of coffee.
Rick voiced aloud the angles that puzzled him the most. "If not an enemy agent, then why the sabotage at all? Who would have anything to gain but an enemy?"
"If we had the answers, we could find the saboteur," Gordon pointed out. "If we knew why he calls himself 'The Earthman' we might also have a lead. But as it is, we're stumped. It could be anyone on the base, including me."
"Is it you?" Barby asked in a stage whisper.
Gordon looked around, as though to make sure there were no eavesdroppers. "I don't think so," he whispered, "but I'll have to admit I haven't looked since yesterday."
"What do you want the boys to do?" Mrs. Brant asked.
The scientist became serious again. "It's a desperate hope," he admitted, "but there is always a possibility they might turn up something if we plant them as undercover agents. Rick and Scotty not only have good sense, but they're lucky. Maybe they'll be lucky enough to stumble over or sniff out a lead."
"How do we do this?" Rick wanted to know. He was definitely interested in the job. Just the idea of witnessing a big rocket shoot was exciting enough, even without the added attraction of a saboteur to be uncovered.
"You get jobs," Gordon stated. "But you'll have to get them on your own merits, because if I intervened in your behalf that would be a tip-off. Only I and the Chief of Security will know about you."
"Can you trust the Chief of Security?" Barby asked.
Gordon smiled. "A fair question. All I can say is, trust must start somewhere. If Tom Preston is the Earthman, I'll turn in my spaceman's suit and proton disintegrator and resign from the human race."
Rick grinned. "All right. We'll trust the Chief of Security on your say-so. What's the next step?"
"Well, you're not old enough to have much of a work history, so we'll have to exaggerate your ages and the time you've worked. It will be safe enough, so far as being found out is concerned," Gordon said. "Security makes all reference checks, including employment, and Tom Preston will handle your cases personally."
Dismal rubbed against Gordon's leg. The scientist slipped him a scrap of cheese from the salad, then looked guiltily at Mrs. Brant.
"John Gordon! How many times have I told you not to feed Dismal at the table?" she exclaimed in mock anger.
Gordon looked sheepish and hung his head. "I'm sorry. Anyway, boys, I'll advance you funds. You fly to Las Vegas as soon as possible and apply to Lomac for jobs."
"To who? I mean, to whom?"
"Lomac, Rick. The base is run by a contractor, an engineering firm by the name of Logan and Macklin, Lomac for short. They hire all but a handful of scientific personnel, like project directors and their chief assistants, who come from a variety of places, including government agencies, universities under contract to the government, and so on."
"Do we apply in Las Vegas?" Scotty asked.
"Yes. Lomac's recruiting office is there. I'll give you the address. However, the base is some distance away, so you'll need transportation. I suggest a jeep. You can pick one up secondhand after you arrive. I'll give you sufficient funds. Also, prepare to hang around Las Vegas for a while. It will take at least a week to process your papers."
"Are we supposed to know you once we get there?" Rick queried.
"Only casually, because of the Spindrift connection. You know who I am, but you don't know me well because you've never worked on a project of mine. I'll find occasion to talk with you privately as needed."
"Another question," Rick said. "Have there been any more sabotage attempts besides the two you mentioned?"
"No. Those first projects went off in fast order, but the next shoot isn't scheduled for about two weeks."
Scotty asked, "What's the name of this base? You haven't told us."
Gordon looked grim. "I hope the name isn't prophetic," he said. "The base was named for the dry lake where the rocket pads are located: Scarlet Lake."
Las Vegas, Nevada
Rick and Scotty picked up their luggage at the baggage counter, then paused to survey their surroundings. McCarran Field, the airport for Las Vegas, Nevada, was modern and attractive. But there was no mistaking that this was desert country. Beyond the airport they saw the barren mountains of the Charleston Range, and behind the motels clustered around the airport, they saw flat desert, thinly populated with mesquite and creosote brush.
"Welcome to the wild West," Rick said with a grin.
"Not a cowboy in sight," Scotty commented. "Plenty of dudes, though." He gestured at a group dressed in loud sports clothes. "What now?"
"Let's take a taxi into town, register at the hotel, and then go to Lomac."
"Okay." Scotty hailed a cab from the front of the taxi line. They loaded their baggage and climbed in.
"El Cortez," Rick directed. John Gordon had suggested that hotel, since it was close to Lomac's office in downtown Las Vegas, and the food was good and not expensive.
The taxi rolled through the gateway of McCarran Field and turned toward town. In a few moments they began to pass the fabulous resort hotels on the famous "Strip."
"Wow!" Scotty exclaimed. "Some bunch of fancy shanties!"
The taxi left The Strip, traversed the long lines of motels on Fifth Street, and emerged on Fremont a block from the Cortez. A few minutes later they had checked in and were unpacking their bags in a comfortable room in the Cortez Annex.
Scotty picked up the telephone directory and leafed through it until he found Logan and Macklin. "We have to go to Sixth Street and First Avenue. Any idea where that is?"
"Just a couple of blocks from here." While riding in the taxi, Rick had watched street signs and quickly figured out the simple street plan of the town. "Let's go."
The Lomac offices were on the second floor of a building less than five minutes walk from the hotel. The boys received application forms from a bored clerk and sat down at a table to fill them out according to previous plan. In his application Rick emphasized his experience with electronic equipment and in wiring circuits. Scotty stressed his mechanical experience with standard machine-shop equipment, and with motor repair. This had been John Gordon's suggestion, since it would result in their being placed in different departments at the rocket base, thus enabling them to cover more ground.
The clerk checked their forms, then nodded. "Okay. We can use both of you, if you pass the security check. Ever been cleared?"
"We're both cleared for top secret," Rick told him.
The clerk glanced up but made no comment. Rick guessed that JANIG clearances were not common. He was a little surprised that the clerk knew the agency; not many people did, because JANIG's activities were never publicized.
"It will take anywhere from a few days to two weeks to get your clearances verified and your files transferred. We can't do anything for you until then. When we want you, we'll call you. That's all."
Rick hesitated at the door. "Where are the used-car dealers located?"
"Fifth Street and Main Street."
Rick thanked him and the boys walked out into the brilliant sunlight. "Feel up to getting the jeep?" Rick asked. The boys had taken off from New York shortly after midnight and had ridden all night on a plane that, as Scotty had said, "landed in every cow pasture west of Chicago." They had not slept much.
"Let's get the jeep," Scotty replied. "We can catch up on our sleep after lunch."
However, getting the jeep was not as simple as they had expected. Not until they reached the fifth used-car dealer did they find one for sale.
Scotty put the jeep through its paces, then drove it back to the car lot. He looked at it thoughtfully and shrugged. "I wouldn't call it a pile of junk, but that's only because I'm polite."
The salesman, a lean Westerner, looked pained. "What do you want for the price? A Jaguar?"
"No," Scotty said. "Just something that runs."
"Not exactly. It limps. Put a new timer in, replace the front-wheel bearings, grind the valves, and we'll take it."
Rick smothered a grin. Scotty's wink had told him the jeep would do. His pal was trying to get the price down.
The salesman sighed. "How are you going to pay for it?"
"Cash. Either repair it, or knock off the cost of repairs, and it's a deal."
"You named it. We'll knock off the repair costs."
In another hour the jeep was theirs and the boys had obtained a vehicle registration and Nevada driver's licenses. As they drove to the hotel, Rick asked, "Is it really in good shape?"
"Not bad. It does need some work, but we can do it in a few hours ourselves."
"Now that we have wheels, let's get cleaned up, have a nap, and then see the town," Rick suggested.
"I'm with you," Scotty agreed.
It was lunchtime when they returned to the hotel. They settled for ham and eggs in the Cortez Coffee Shop, then stopped on the way through the casino to watch the gambling. Even at noontime the dice table was jammed with customers, and the blackjack tables were nearly full. The roulette table was not getting much play, however, and they watched for a few spins of the wheel.
"At least you get an even break on this one," Scotty said. "The odds are thirty-five to one, and there are only thirty-six numbers."
Rick grinned. "How'd you like to have your life hanging on odds of thirty-five to one?"
Scotty chuckled. "Anyway, you don't have to play numbers. You can play black or red, or odd or even. That gives you fifty-fifty odds."
Rick shook his head. "You forgot something. The wheel has zero and double zero, and they're green, and neither odd nor even. That makes the odds less than fifty-fifty. You can't win, Scotty."
"Kill-joy. How about the one-arm bandits?" He pointed to several rows of slot machines.
"No help there, either. It depends on how they're set, but usually out of every four coins you put in, one drops out of play completely. The only one who ever sees it again is the man who owns the machine. So, if you keep feeding money in, eventually the machine will take it all. Sometimes the machines are set to take one coin out of every three, or even one out of every two."
"But people do win, gambling," Scotty objected.
"Sure they do. That's why people gamble—and hope. But the great majority lose." Rick waved at the luxurious casino. "If most people didn't lose, these casinos couldn't operate."
"Maybe I'd be the lucky one," Scotty said.
A deputy sheriff had been listening to the conversation with amusement. He tapped Scotty on the shoulder. "I said that once, son. I was going to be the luckiest ringdangdoo that ever hit Vegas. And what happened? I've been working in this hotel as a guard for two years, trying to make a stake big enough to go back home and start where I left off when the bug bit me."
"Tough," Rick murmured.
"The town is full of people like me. Besides, you lads can't gamble, anyway. The legal age is twenty-one. Come back in a few years if you feel rich and foolish, and try bucking the tiger. You'll see what I mean."
"We'll take your word for it," Scotty assured him. "Come on, Rick. Let's hit the hay. I can use a nap."
If Las Vegas was spectacular by day, it was a neon nightmare after dark. The boys dined well, and more than sufficiently, at El Rancho Vegas, then got in the jeep for a ride around town.
Scotty loosened his belt with a groan. "For once," he admitted, "I overdid it. Did you ever see so much chow?"
"Not outside of a supermarket," Rick agreed. He let his own belt out a notch or two.
The boys drove to Fremont Street, past the incredible gambling halls with their elaborate signs and miles of neon tubing.
Scotty remarked, "I guess you and that deputy sheriff were right. It takes an awful lot of lost money to keep all these places going."
Tiring of the neon wilderness they turned north on Main Street and headed out toward Nellis Air Force Base. For a brief stretch the neon glow faded, then resumed again as they reached North Las Vegas.
Suddenly Scotty pointed. "Hey! We're on another planet."
Rick stared. Towering into the sky was a huge, illuminated figure clad in a spacesuit. The transparent helmet glowed red, then blue, green, yellow, and finally red again. In one colossal hand was a supermodern pistol. Colored flame spurted from the muzzle.
Rick laughed as he noticed another figure in front of the establishment. "Look! He's got a pup."
Acting as a doorman was another figure, human size, clad in a similar getup.
Across the building which served as a base for the giant spaceman was a glowing sign:
THE SPACEMAN CASINO
"What say we drop in?" Scotty suggested.
"Sure," Rick replied, falling into the role of a science-fiction spaceman. "We might pick up the latest gossip on that uranium strike on Venus, or the discovery of live prodsponders on Mars."
Scotty swung into the parking lot. "Tell me, Space Commander, what are prodsponders?"
"A subspecies of sponprodders. Your ignorance surprises me, Cadet Scott."
"I haven't been to the inner planets for a week," Scotty apologized. "I lose touch."
They walked across the driveway, noting that the customary shrubs and plants were replaced here by artificial ones, made in a form that represented someone's idea of what plants from other worlds must look like. The effect was actually pretty good. The place had been built with imagination.
The spacesuit-clad doorman nodded, and they saw that he was perspiring freely inside the transparent helmet.
"Who ever heard of a non-airconditioned spacesuit?" Rick murmured. "Bet he couldn't survive the Venus-Mercury run in that rig."
Inside were the inevitable slot machines, in banks of fifty or more. Rick decided the objective must be one slot machine for each person in town. Behind the slot machines were the dice layouts, roulette tables, and blackjack tables.
Beyond the casino proper, however, was a pleasant lounge that included a snack bar and tables for dining. The boys wandered over to the snack bar and sat down on stools, looking around with appreciation. The walls were decorated with murals—photographic reproductions of a famous artist's conception of other planets.
"This is nice," Rick said appreciatively.
"Best place I've seen since Callisto Connie's joint on Jupiter," Scotty agreed whimsically.
A waiter, not much older than they were, wandered down the counter. He was dressed in a loose tunic that glittered.
"Howdy, fellas," he greeted them.
Rick and Scotty "howdy'd" back.
The counter clerk eyed them with interest. "Haven't seen you in here before."
"First time," Rick admitted. "Nice place."
"We like it. You from Scarlet Lake?"
The boys stiffened. "What gave you that idea?" Scotty asked quickly.
The waiter admired his fingernails. "Easy. You're not local folks and you don't look like tourists. So, you came here to work. Maybe the atomic test site, maybe Nellis, maybe Scarlet Lake. I said Scarlet Lake because a lot of people from there come in to eat when they're in town. Some of 'em here right now."
"Where?" Rick asked.
"At the tables over against the wall. What are you going to have?"
Neither boy wanted any more food at the moment, and said so. They agreed on coffee.
"Here or at a table?"
"Table," Rick said. "Might as well move in with the people from Scarlet Lake, starting now." He led the way across the room and picked out a table next to two men in loud sports shirts. One man was big, nearly the size of Dr. Zircon of the Spindrift staff. He had red hair and a curly red beard. His eyes were dark and penetrating under bushy red eyebrows. He looked the boys over with slow deliberation, as though memorizing what they looked like.
The second man was big, too, although he didn't approach the redhead in size. He was slightly over six feet, Rick guessed. He was dark-complexioned and clean-shaven. His eyes, a light blue, were a surprising contrast to his dark hair and heavily tanned skin.
The redhead leaned over as the boys sat down. "I haven't seen you kids before. You from Scarlet Lake?"
"We hope to be," Rick replied civilly. "We've applied for jobs at Lomac, but now we have to wait for a security check."
The redhead turned to his friend. "Catching 'em kind of young these days, hey, Pancho?"
Pancho showed white teeth in a smile. "Looks like it."
"We can do a day's work," Scotty said shortly.
"Never doubted it for a minute." The redhead thrust out a massive paw. "I'm Mac McCline. Big Mac, they call me. This here is Pancho Kelly."
The boys shook hands and gave their names.
"Any idea what you're getting into at Scarlet Lake?" Big Mac asked.
"Not much," Rick said truthfully.
Big Mac guffawed. "Well, I'll tell you. Heat, dirt, sidewinders, and crazy rockets. And if they don't get you, one thing will."
"What's that?" Scotty asked.
Rick and Scotty never found out what Big Mac meant by his crack about the Earthman. He evaded their questions, apparently feeling that he had said too much. Otherwise he was cordial enough. As the days of waiting to hear from Lomac passed by, the boys made the Spaceman Casino their headquarters, hoping to pick up information from the Scarlet Lake people who hung out there.
Men came and went, but Mac and Pancho were there every night. Once, Rick commented on their nightly presence at the casino and said jokingly that work on the base seemed to allow plenty of free time.
"We don't go back to the base every night," Big Mac said. "Pancho and I do our job when there's work to be done. Other times we do what we want. If anyone at the base needs us, they know where to come."
Rick thought that over. It seemed reasonable. He asked, "Is it okay to ask what you do?"
"Sure it's okay. We're radar operators. We track the rockets on a radar set from a field station." Big Mac pulled a red-checkered handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose violently. "Good operators are scarce. That's why no one bothers us, so long as we're on the job when we're needed."
Scotty leaned over and picked up something that had dropped to the floor when Mac pulled out his handkerchief. "You dropped this, Mr. McCline."
Rick identified it easily. It was a tiny transistor, an integral part of modern electronic apparatus.
Mac took it in his big fingers. "Thanks. I must have stuck it in my pocket absent-mindedly while we were repairing the equipment."
"Where do you go when you're on a field radar job?" Rick asked. "Just tell me to mind my own business, if I get into anything classified."
"There's no classification on what we do," Pancho Kelly said. "Only the results. We go to Careless Mesa. Everyone knows that."
The boys let the conversation lag and ordered dinner. They didn't want to seem too inquisitive. Constant questions would only make Mac and Pancho suspicious.
Later, as they rode through the star-studded night in their jeep, Scotty suddenly asked, "What do you think of Big Mac and Pancho?"
Rick shrugged. He knew what had prompted Scotty's question. He had the same feeling himself. "They're friendly enough, but I think it's an act. What I mean, is ..."
"That they haven't any real interest in being friendly, they're just cordial for the sake of appearances," Scotty concluded.
"On the nose, pal. I get the feeling they could switch from casual conversation to mayhem without batting an eye."
Scotty thought it over for a moment. "Mac's the driving force of the pair, but I'd say they're equally tough. I'd guess Pancho is a combination of Irish and Mexican, both from his looks and his name."
"Is Pancho a name? Or a nickname?"
"Nickname. Usually short for Francisco."
Rick thought back over the past few days, and their meetings with Big Mac and Pancho. "Funny thing, Scotty. The casino is usually pretty busy, and mostly with men from Scarlet Lake. But instead of getting acquainted with many of them we always seem to sit near those two."
Scotty gave him a sideways glance. "What about it?"
"I think we do it instinctively," Rick went on. "Every time we walk in, they're deep in conversation. There's a kind of atmosphere about them, as though the talk is always very secret. None of the other men seem like that. They're more—well, open. No secrets. Know what I mean?"
Scotty nodded. "Now that you point it out, I do."
"So I think we sort of gravitate toward them automatically. On a hunch that we haven't even recognized, so to speak."
"Because there's more to be learned from them than from the others?"
"That's it!" Rick was glad he had finally put his feelings into words. "We'll keep an eye on those two," he said emphatically.
On the sixth day of their stay in Las Vegas, Lomac called. The boys hurried to the office and were told they could report to the base personnel office at once. They were given a map showing the location of the base. Scarlet Lake, they learned, was about two hours' drive northwest of Las Vegas.
They packed hurriedly, checked out, and loaded the jeep. After a brief stop for gas, they headed out Route 95. Within a few minutes they had left Las Vegas behind and were in open desert country.
The jeep was not capable of fast travel, and nearly an hour passed before they saw signs of civilization. It was the air force base at Indian Springs. They stopped for a coke, and topped off the gas tank. Rick bought a canteen and a desert water bag at the general store, and filled both.
A few miles beyond Indian Springs they saw the entrance road to the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Test Site, and the Sixth Army's Camp Desert Rock. After that, there was no sign of civilization for miles.
A few miles before the town of Lathrop Wells, Scotty spotted their turnoff. The sign was small and inconspicuous. It simply read: "Scarlet Lake," and an arrow was painted underneath the name.
The paving ended after a mile or two and became a very good dirt road. The jeep was climbing steadily now, and in a short time Scotty shifted to second gear.
"We must be nearly out of Nevada and into California," Scotty commented.
"Almost," Rick agreed. "According to the map, the base is right next to Death Valley." Suddenly he leaned forward as the jeep rounded a turn. Far below and still many miles away was the pinkish gleam of a dry lake bed. Scarlet Lake!
"I see where they got the name," Scotty said.
Rick grinned. "Scarlet Lake makes sense but some of the other names around here don't. Did you notice the town marked 'Steamboat' on the map? And not enough water to float a bar of soap."
"See anything of the base?"
Five miles later they began to see signs that Scarlet Lake was occupied. Black strips indicated aircraft runways. Then, tiny concrete squares came into view. But not until they were in the valley, only a mile from the base, could they see buildings.
The buildings turned out to be a few single-story administrative shacks clustered around a check-in point. A uniformed guard waved them into a parking lot and told them to report to Security for badges.
They walked into the building marked "Security Office, Badge Division" and found a counter with another guard behind it. He took their names and asked for identification, then directed them to stand with chins resting on a tray. He slipped plastic letters into slots and formed their names, then took pictures with a fixed camera.
"Sit down and wait," he said. "We'll have these for you in five minutes."
Rick looked his surprise. "Can you process the pictures that fast?"
"Don't have to. This is a Polaroid camera."
Rick joined Scotty on a wooden bench. "I expected a barbed-wire fence. But there's no fence at all."
"The whole desert is a fence, I guess," Scotty surmised. "The only access roads are probably guarded, and the only other ways to get into the base would be by foot or horseback. No one could make it on foot, and anyone on horseback would attract instant attention."
Scotty probably was right, Rick thought. Still, it wasn't at all what he expected.
In a few moments the guard was back. He handed them laminated plastic badges with their names and pictures. At the bottom of Rick's were the numbers one, two, and three. Scotty's badge had only the numbers two and three.
"What do these mean?" Rick asked.
"Those are the areas where you're allowed to go. Area One is the blockhouse. Area Two is the main base and firing pads. Area Three is the machine shop and maintenance depot. You can go anywhere. Scott can go anywhere but inside the blockhouse. Sign these, please." He handed them forms in which they agreed to be bound by all security regulations, under penalty of the Espionage Act. They signed, and returned the forms.
"Go through the gate," the guard directed, "and report to the reception desk in Building Five. That's personnel. They'll take it from there."
They returned to the jeep and drove to the gate. The guard inspected their badges, compared the pictures with their faces, then waved them on.
"Taking no chances," Rick remarked. "There's Building Five."
The personnel office gave them another map, showing installations and buildings on the base itself, and assigned them to bunks nine and ten in Barracks Seven. Rick was told to report at eight in the morning to Dr. Gould in Building Twelve, while Scotty was told to report to Mr. Rhodes in Maintenance Building Twenty-three. They received a leaflet marked: "Read This."
They followed the map for another three miles, leaving the gate buildings out of sight behind a ridge of rock. Their map showed that the main cluster of buildings was three miles from the gate and nine miles from the blockhouse and the firing pads on the dry lake bed. Again, Rick began to appreciate Western distances.
The boys found their barracks without difficulty, and moved into a room containing four bunks. It wasn't elaborate, but it was adequate for a camp of this kind. It was clear that the other bunks were occupied, but at the moment their bunkmates were apparently out.
Rick stowed his gear in the locker with his bed number on it, then sat down to read the leaflet. It was a directory of camp facilities, plus a written lecture on security. He was allowed to say what kind of work he did, and that was about all.
"Let's look the place over," he suggested.
They located the mess halls, the base movie house, post exchange, and post office. There was also a laundry and a snack bar. Set off by itself was a recreation hall, equipped with TV sets, comfortable chairs, card tables, and pool tables.
Rick followed the map to the laboratory buildings, and was surprised to find that they were enormous sheds, like hangars. Most of the doors were wide open, and he caught glimpses of shapes that could only have been rocket sections. His pulse quickened. There was an atmosphere of excitement, of big jobs being performed. At least his quick imagination told him there was.
Then, in one shed he saw the broken remains of a rocket. From its size he concluded that it must be the Viking that had crashed. The sight brought sharp realization of the real job he and Scotty were here to do.
Rick checked his map. "Our barracks has space for eighty bunks. And, according to this, there are twenty-eight barracks."
"Interesting facts about Scarlet Lake," Scotty declaimed. "What about it?"
"That's over two thousand men."
"A lot of men," Scotty agreed. "What are you getting at?"
"Needles in haystacks. Out of more than two thousand we're supposed to pick one—the Earthman!"
Dr. Gerald Gould, known to the staff as "Gee-Gee," looked more like a high school football coach than a scientist. His blond hair was cropped short, and his face was boyish except for a beautifully waxed military-style mustache. His speech was a remarkable combination of slang and rocket jargon.
He asked, "Do you know vector analysis?"
Rick shook his head. "No, sir."
"Hmmm. Well, boy-oh, we'll plant you with the electronic cooks in the spaghetti department. It says in your job application that you've had plenty of experience in circuit wiring. Roger?"
"Yes, sir." Rick understood that he was to join the technicians in the wiring department. His eyes kept wandering into the huge shed that housed the project on which he was to work. He identified rocket sections, and pretty big ones at that. The rocket was not assembled, but apparently it would tower several stories into the air when assembly was complete. One thing puzzled, him, however. One section obviously had wings. They couldn't be anything else, even though they were tiny and thin as knives. He hadn't heard anything about rockets with wings.
Dr. Gould saw that he was staring with interest at the activity in the shed and grinned sympathetically. "Ever see a big rocket before?"
"Only in pictures," Rick replied.
"Well, you'll see plenty of them before we're through here."
Rick hesitated. "Sir, is it okay to ask what this is all about?"
"Sure it's okay. We have three projects underway at present. In the shed on the left is Orion, which is a two-stage rocket for deep penetration into the exosphere. It's about ready to shoot. In the shed on the right is Cetus, a sounding rocket for ionospheric measurements."
Dr. Gould paused. "If you don't get me, speak up and I'll scoop you the answers. Roger so far?"
Rick nodded. "I'm with you." He understood from the scientist's explanation that Orion was to travel far into the exosphere, actually beyond the atmosphere, while Cetus was a smaller, single-stage rocket for research in the ionosphere, the ionized layer of atmosphere just beyond the stratosphere. The projects, he realized, were named for constellations.
"In this shed we have Pegasus."
"Pegasus was a winged horse," Rick commented, "And aren't those airfoils on that rocket section near the back of the shed? Is that the connection?"
Dr. Gould chuckled. "Sharp-oh! Those are indeed airfoils. Wings for Pegasus. Now make with the reason, if you can."
Rick pondered. He knew rockets achieved stability through fins, or steerable motors, and that wings were no help. Furthermore, there wasn't enough air for wings to be of use beyond the atmosphere where the big rockets traveled. He could see no reason for wings, and said so.
"You're not looking far enough ahead," Dr. Gould said severely. "Put on your spaceman's helmet. Connect up and think. You're on Space Platform Number One and you want to come home to Terra. What are the wings for?"
Light dawned. Rick's chin dropped on his chest and stayed there. Finally he gasped, "You mean the wings are to turn the upper section into a glider in order to land it again?"
Dr. Gould put a hand on his shoulder and nodded gravely. "Ole Gee-Gee is pleased with you. You have demonstrated something between the ears besides strawberry Jello. You have just described the objective of Project Pegasus. We intend to shoot the beast into space and bring the top stage home again by drone control."
The scientist grew serious. "It's not an easy thing, young Brant. No one has yet succeeded in getting a big rocket down in one piece. If we can do it, we'll be one step through the biggest barrier to manned space flight.
"You will work on wiring in the drone control section. Just remember that every touch of your soldering iron is critical. Take no chances at all; everything must be perfect. Do your job and do it well, and someday you'll be able to say that you made the big horse's wings work when it really counted. Now come on, and I'll introduce you to Dick Earle and you can get started."
Dick Earle turned out to be a bigger and darker copy of Gee-Gee. He had the same crew cut and mustache, but his hair was jet black.
Rick also met Dr. Carleton Bond, a tall, slender man of advanced years who was a consultant on drone controls, and Frank Miller, a studious, rather curt young man who was an electronics design engineer.
He began to make some order out of the organization. Gee-Gee Gould was electronics chief for all three projects. Dick Earle was electronics chief for Pegasus, under Gould, and there were also electronics chiefs for Orion and Cetus. Similarly, the projects had air-frame departments, propulsion departments, instrumentation departments, and administrative departments.
Each project also had a technical director, who was a sort of co-ordinator, trouble shooter, and general expert. The technical directors reported to Dr. John Gordon, on loan from Spindrift, who had the title of Senior Project Engineer.
Later, Rick explained it to Scotty. "Each project has its own staff, but there's a top staff that is responsible for all projects. I'm making a little sense out of it, but people keep showing up that I can't fit into the organization."
"They're probably support people," Scotty explained. "Seems the base is divided into two groups; the scientific gang and the support gang. I'm in support, in the vehicle maintenance section. Lomac runs the whole support group. Besides transportation, there's the tracking and monitoring gang—that's what Big Mac and Pancho are in—the machine-shop gang, and all the housekeeping facilities like the fire department, the security force, housing and feeding, and so on."
The boys' roommates turned out to be a security officer named Hank Leeming and one of the janitors, an elderly man of Mexican descent named Maximilian Rodriguez.
On the second day of work Rick met another interesting character, although a nonhuman one, and got an additional duty imposed on him.
He was at work installing a tiny servomotor in the drone control unit when something landed on his head and gripped his hair firmly. Instinctively he started to swing at it, but Dr. Bond's voice stopped him in time.
"Easy, Rick! He won't hurt you."
Rick reached up carefully and his hands met fur. He lifted the little creature down and stared at it, his lips slowly parting in a grin. It was a tiny monkey no larger than a squirrel, with soft brown fur and tufted ears. The little animal pulled free, jumped onto Rick's shoulder and kissed him ecstatically, making happy chirrupy noises.
"What on earth is a monkey doing here?"
Dr. Bond smiled. "Prince Machiavelli is more than a monkey," he replied. "Actually, he is a true marmoset of the genus Callithrix. He is also a genuine spacemonk."
The elderly scientist smiled. "Spacemonk. The simian equivalent of spaceman. The Prince has been into space twice now. Fortunately, the nose section was parachuted down intact both times, so he survived. Other spacemonks have been less fortunate. He will be our surrogate for Project Pegasus."
Rick stared at the little creature with increased interest. The marmoset was to substitute, then, for human occupants of the big rocket. His life would depend on their ability to get the winged nose section down in one piece. He stroked the tiny spacemonk gently, and got a contented series of chirps in response.
Dick Earle walked in and smiled as the monkey snuggled down happily in Rick's cupped hands. "Looks as if you've made a friend, Rick. Good. In addition to your other duties you can take over as the monk's keeper. He won't be any trouble. Sometimes I think he has better manners than some of the staff." Earle turned and walked out again.
Rick stared after him. "What was that last crack about?"
Dr. Bond smiled. "Dick has his problems. I won't gossip, but you'll soon see what I mean."
The elderly consultant's prediction came true in short order. The next day, Rick ran headlong into an unwarranted and particularly nasty dressing down at the hands of Frank Miller. Rick, annoyed with himself for having done a rather poor job of connecting up the servomotor, was busily ripping it out when Miller came over to see what he was doing. Without waiting for an explanation, the design engineer launched into a tirade. Rick's face slowly reddened and his temper grew frayed. It was so completely unjust that he was on the verge of swinging at the engineer when Dick Earle walked in.
Earle asked crisply, "What's this all about?"
Miller turned on him. "You're supposed to be in charge here, but you let sloppy work like this go on! What good does it do for me to design circuits if—"
Earle cut him off. "Shut up, Frank. Rick, what's your story?"
Rick clenched his hands. "I installed this servo, and didn't do a clean job of it. It was pretty sloppy. So I pulled it out to do it over again. I won't settle for anything less than perfect work. But he came along and jumped on me without letting me explain what I was doing."
Earle nodded. "All right. Go ahead with your work. Frank, you are not this boy's supervisor. Let him alone."
Miller glared at the electronics chief, then turned on his heel and stalked out of the shop. Earle watched him go, his pleasant face sober. "I'm sorry, Rick. Frank is like that, and I don't know why. I suspect he has troubles of some sort and takes it out on us. Try to overlook it, because he's an extremely competent engineer. We'd have great trouble replacing him."
Rick nodded. "Yes, sir."
The work progressed smoothly. Rick finished the part he was working on and was assigned another. He met other members of the project, including Phil Sherman and Charlie Kassick who, like himself, were technicians at work on wiring and assembly. He met Cliff Damon, chief of the instrumentation section, who showed him the intricate devices used to track the big rockets and to record just about everything that went on inside them.
It was pleasant and exciting, and only the incident with Frank Miller marred the contentment Rick felt at being a part of Pegasus. Then, near the end of his first week on the job, Miller dropped in and watched Rick at work for a moment. The boy tensed, but said nothing beyond a civil good morning.
Miller cleared his throat. "Brant, I want to apologize."
Rick looked up in surprise.
"I'm known as a crank, and I guess I deserve the reputation. But just because I feel rotten doesn't mean I have to take it out on you. I'm sorry."
Rick looked at the engineer thoughtfully. Miller was apparently sincere. "That's all right," he said. "Why do you feel rotten, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Ulcers. The doctor says the only way to cure them is to get out of this business, and go into something with less stress and strain. But I can't. I've been a rocketeer ever since I graduated from college, and I can't leave. So if I snap at you, please forget it."
Rick nodded. "I'll play it that way if you say so."
"Thanks." Miller turned and walked out.
The design engineer was polite enough after that, and Rick discounted the few times when he appeared too curt. So, with pleasant working conditions all around, the work fell into an exciting routine. The days passed and the drone control began to shape up as a complete unit. Meanwhile, other sections of the big rocket were readied, and the first two stages, now completely assembled, were loaded on their special trucks and taken to the firing area.
In the next shed, Orion was almost ready. The rocket stages were trucked to the firing pad assigned to the project and the staff vanished from next door. They had moved their base of operation to the blockhouse and the pad. Time for the Orion shoot was only two days off.
Rick saw little of Scotty. His pal was at work in the vehicle maintenance shed, and making friends of his own. The two met only at night, usually at bedtime, because the entire base was working overtime.
The work was so absorbing that Rick actually forgot for long periods the reason for his presence on the base. To be sure, he heard much about the mysterious Earthman, but it was all a rehash of the earlier sabotage attempts, mixed with pretty wild speculation. Scotty reported that among the mechanics, machinists, and housekeeping staffs, the Earthman was regarded with considerable fear and superstition.
Then, with shattering impact, the Earthman returned from the realm of legend to stark reality!
Sign of the Earthman
Dick Earle handed Rick a series of requisition forms. "We're running out of parts. Take this to Warehouse Eight and get the requisitions filled. The clerk will lend you a hand truck to bring the stuff back."
Rick found the warehouse, handed the forms to a clerk, and waited at the counter for the supplies. The clerk moved from bin to bin, collecting the variety of electronic parts. The pile in front of Rick grew.
The clerk returned the last two sheets and scanned them. "All transistors. And not the cheap kind, either. Just a minute and I'll have them for you." He vanished behind the tiers of shelves. Rick waited.
The wait grew longer and the boy fidgeted. Couldn't the clerk find them? Rick hoped the base hadn't run out, because that would mean a delay on his project. Already he thought of it as "his," and he was impatient as any of the project staff to push the work to completion.
The clerk reappeared, a single carton and a sheet of paper in hand. The man's face was white and his eyes looked as though they were about to drop out. He grabbed the phone on the counter and dialed, missed because his hand was shaking so, and dialed again. This time he got the number.
"Security? Is this security? Get over here, quick! Warehouse Eight. Hurry! The Earthman has been here!"
Rick stared, popeyed. The Earthman! He asked quickly, "What happened?"
The clerk swallowed hard. Obviously he was scared stiff. "They were empty," he said. "All of them. Empty! Honest! And in one I found this." He handed Rick the scrap of paper he carried.
Rick smoothed it out on the counter and his pulse speeded. It was a good sketch, done in ink, of a knight in full armor. Crushed under one mailed foot was a rocket. The knight carried a shield, and emblazoned on it were two words.
The mark of the Earthman!
Hank Leeming, Rick's security officer roommate, and an older man he identified as Colonel Tom Preston, Chief of Security, pulled up at the door in a jeep and hurried inside.
Preston took over. "All right, Jimmy. What's this about the Earthman?"
The clerk silently handed him the slip of paper.
The Security Chief examined it. "His mark, all right. Where did you find it?"
The clerk was still shaky, and he had a hard time putting his discovery into words. Rick tried to help him out. "He found some cartons that were empty. Transistor cartons, I guess. This was in one of them."
Preston's eyes fixed on him. "Who are you?"
"My name is Brant, sir. I'm with Pegasus."
Preston's eyes acknowledged Rick's name, but he turned to the clerk. "Is that right, Jimmy? Transistors missing?"
Jimmy found his voice. "Yes, Colonel. At first I thought it was a mistake—a few empties put back on the shelf by accident. But they were all empty, sir. All of them! There isn't a transistor in the warehouse!"
Preston nodded. "Take over, Hank. Shake the place down. Get one of the boys with a kit and check for fingerprints on the stacks and empty cartons. Jimmy, come with me. We'll check your inventory with Pat O'Connor."
Pat O'Connor was the base supply officer. Preston and the clerk departed. Hank paused long enough to say, "Better take the stuff you have, Rick. Looks as if you'll have to wait for the transistors."
Obviously there wasn't anything else to be done. Rick found a hand truck, loaded on the supplies, and went back to his shed.
By dinnertime the base was one solid mass of rumor. Rick heard variously that the Earthman had been found, that he had stolen an entire rocket assembly, that the warehouse had been loaded with dynamite triggered to explode, that he had killed the clerk, that the clerk had seen him just before he flickered into invisibility, and so on.
He phoned Scotty and found that his pal was hearing equally wild rumors. The boys set a time and place to meet, just outside the main project building at five-thirty. Scotty was there when Rick arrived.
"John Gordon come out yet?" Rick asked.
Scotty shook his head. "Any news? I've got a million rumors more or less, but nothing solid."
Rick told him in detail of the incident at the warehouse, and concluded, "Beyond that I don't know a thing. But Gordon will probably know something if we can catch him."
"We'll wait. We can pretend it's the first time we've seen him here and talk for a few minutes about old times at Spindrift. That shouldn't make anyone suspicious."
Rick agreed. It would be natural enough, and if anyone came within earshot they could make the conversation sound harmless.
Scotty grinned. "How's your pal and special charge?" At least once a day he kidded Rick about becoming nursemaid to a monkey.
"Fine," Rick replied. "He asks for you every day. After all, he knows you're the only other ape on the base."
Scotty ignored the crack. "When do I get to see this beloved child of yours?"
"Come on over to the project any time. He'd like to meet you."
"I'll do it, first time I can get away from those doggone trucks. Seems like they break down every hour."
At that moment John Gordon came out of the project building. Rick, who was facing the door, pretended surprise. "Aren't you Dr. Gordon," he called.
The scientist turned and hesitated. "Yes. You're ... let's see ... you were at Spindrift for a while. I'm afraid I don't remember your names."
Rick introduced himself and Scotty, for the benefit of a few men who were passing by, en route to the mess hall.
"Ah, yes. I remember now. Going to eat? So am I. Come along and tell me where you're working now. Obviously you're employed on the base, but on what projects?"
They chatted idly as they walked slowly toward the mess hall. Then, when no one was in earshot, Rick said swiftly, "I was at the warehouse when the mark of the Earthman was found. Any developments we should know about?"
Gordon answered softly, "Yes. Inventory showed nearly a quarter of a million in transistors missing. Also, no one had called for transistors in nearly three weeks."
"Isn't that unusual?" Scotty asked.
"Not particularly. Each project has its own stock-room. Since we're a new base, the projects have been working from an initial supply."
"So the transistors may have been missing for some time?"
"They could have been missing since the last requisition, exactly nineteen days ago. But they probably were stolen during the Viking shoot."
"Is the warehouse guarded?"
"No. A clerk is on duty at all times when the warehouse is open. At night it's locked. There was no sign of tampering, and anyway, the locks are tamper-proof."
Scotty said warningly, "Company coming." Then, in a louder voice, he continued, "Of course we worked for Dr. Zircon."
"Very capable man, Zircon," Gordon said, taking Scotty's cue. "We could use him here. Any idea where he is now?"
"No, sir," Rick replied. "We haven't seen him since we left Spindrift."
At the door of the mess hall Gordon left them with a polite handshake, explaining that he had to eat with someone else by previous arrangement.
During dinner Rick thought over the events of the day. But not until the meal was ended and he and Scotty wandered on foot toward the edge of camp could he put his idea into words.
"This business today puts a new light on the Earthman, Scotty."
"I read you loud and clear. A quarter of a million bucks makes a little sabotage worth while, huh?"
Rick nodded. "We can't know, of course, but if you were a warehouse clerk and a big rocket went haywire, wouldn't you be out watching it?"
"I'd be out where the view was best. So would you," Scotty replied.
"Remember where we saw a transistor recently?" Rick asked.
Scotty reached in his pocket, brought out his sling, and unwrapped it. He picked up a stone, tested it for weight, then reconsidered and put the sling back. "I remember. Big Mac and Pancho. Mac said he must have stuck it in his pocket absent-mindedly while repairing his equipment."
"That's what he said," Rick agreed. "Only transistors aren't like radio tubes. They don't need replacing often."
"He might have been telling the truth or he might not."
Scotty tossed the stone away. "How much space would that many transistors take up?"
"Hard to say. We could find out, I suppose. But transistors are small, and they don't weigh much. Besides, some of the types used here are fantastically expensive. A couple of hundred dollars might pay for a transistor the size of a kidney bean."
Scotty whistled. "They must be made of diamonds! Anyway, a quarter of a million is a lot of money, and even at two hundred bucks each the transistors would make quite a bundle. The Earthman would have to hide them, and then get them off the base. And I'll tell you one thing: If Big Mac stole them, he didn't take them off the base in his own car."
"How do you know?" Rick challenged.
"He's got a Porsche. There's about enough room in the luggage compartment for a spare handkerchief."
"I'll buy it." Another idea hit him. "But he has some other transportation, hasn't he? How about the radar unit he and Pancho run?"
Scotty snapped his fingers. "Now you're cooking! It's a panel truck, loaded with equipment, and they pull the radar antenna behind it on a trailer. There would be plenty of room in the truck. Only he doesn't take it into town, remember?"
"Would he need to? He could drop the transistors somewhere to be picked up later."
"That's his station. Come on. Let's look at a map of the area." Scotty turned and led the way to their barracks.
One thing about the robbery was a major puzzle to Rick. He could see that a rocket shoot might provide the opportunity to commit the theft, and he could see how use of a radar van might get the stolen goods off the base. But the thief had carefully emptied cartons, leaving the cartons as camouflage. That took more time than any thief would have. He considered various ways in which it might have been done and rejected them all.
Tacked up in the entryway of their barracks was a large-scale map. Scarlet Lake was marked with crayon. The boys studied the area, looking for Careless Mesa. Finally Scotty found it, almost due north of the base. "About twenty miles. Only one road to the mesa, but two roads lead away from it. Let's see where they go."
The first road from Careless Mesa ended at a point in the mountains marked "Dry Spring." The second road led to the town marked "Steamboat," where the road forked again. One branch eventually joined other roads in Pahrump Valley, the other led to Death Valley.
The boys looked at each other triumphantly. Rick said, "So you can get from Careless Mesa to state highways without returning to the base."
Scotty scratched his chin. "Any idea what's at Careless Mesa?"
"Not the slightest."
"Neither do I. Maybe we'd better have a look."
That was fine with Rick. "When?"
"How about tomorrow?"
"I'll have to check. Suppose I wander over to the project? If Dick Earle is there, I can sound him out."
"Okay, and I'll check with my people."
The boys parted, and Rick walked to the Pegasus shed. Dick Earle and Dr. Bond were in the cubicle where the project paper work was done. The marmoset was with them, perched on top of the file safe. As Rick entered, the little spacemonk jumped to his shoulder and caressed his cheek.
"Come in, Rick," Dr. Bond said. "We're just having a gloom session."
"Gloom? What about?" Rick petted the marmoset, then put him back on his file-safe perch. "Is something wrong?"
"Transistors," Dick Earle stated flatly. "No transistors left on the base. That means we come to a grinding halt until we get supplies."
"The whole project?" Rick asked in astonishment. He hadn't realized a few parts would mean so much.
"Not all of it. Just our part. The air frame and propulsion people can keep on, because they don't use the gadgets. But we'll be tied up for a few days until a supply can get here."
Dr. Bond added, "An order has been placed, Rick. By telephone. But the supplier can't possibly make delivery until after the Orion shoot."
Dick Earle nodded. "Correct. So you might as well plan to loaf for a day or so, Rick."
The trip to Careless Mesa would be no problem now, Rick thought. He wouldn't even need to ask permission.
"Strange that anyone would steal a whole supply of transistors," he commented.
Dick Earle shook his head. "Not particularly. The transistor is still a critical item in electronics and production isn't up to demand, especially for special designs. That means the stolen transistors can be sold fairly easily, once the proper channels to get them into the market are found."
"What kind of channels?" Rick asked.
Earle shrugged. "Anything to hide the fact that the transistors are stolen stock. The Earthman could make a deal with some jobber who handles electronic materials, and feed the transistors into regular trade channels through the jobber."
"But aren't they numbered, or trade-marked, or something like that?"
"Numbers and trade-marks can be changed," Dr. Bond reminded him.
As Rick walked back to his barracks he pondered over the meaning of the day's development. For one thing, theft of the transistors put a new light on the Earthman's activities. It added a profit motive to whatever else motivated the mysterious saboteur. Or did it?
How Big Mac and Pancho fitted into all this remained to be determined. Rick could easily imagine that the two would take considerable risk for big profits, but it was harder to imagine them acting from any other motive. Somehow, he just couldn't believe that money was the underlying reason for the Earthman's actions. Sabotaging research rockets just to provide a diversion that would allow a theft did not make sense.
The Earthman's activities had become more than just a challenging puzzle, too. Rick's work on Pegasus had become important in its own right. He was excited at being a part of something so dramatic, and with such far-reaching consequences for the whole future of space travel and high-altitude research. He had become a part of Pegasus. Perhaps he wasn't an important part, but he was making at least a small contribution to the project's success. That made it his project, and the Earthman was interfering with it.
Somehow, he and Scotty had to find the Earthman—for personal reasons now, as well as official ones!
The boys climbed in the jeep early the following morning.
Scotty shifted into gear and drove through the base. "The time is now zero minus twenty-two hours."
Rick looked at him. "What does that mean?"
"Firing time for Orion is tomorrow morning, twenty-two hours from now. That must be the reason for the balloon that we just saw go up. The weather group is starting to watch winds and visibility. Something else I picked up at maintenance, too. There's going to be a dry run today."
"Spell it out," Rick requested.
"As I get it, all hands go through the same procedures they'll follow tomorrow morning. The Orion group will fire a small weather rocket to check the circuits, and to allow the tracking and monitoring group to check their equipment. And do you know what that means?"
Rick saw it at once. "Mac and Pancho will be going to Careless Mesa!"
"Yep. But the dry run doesn't start until ten this morning. That gives us plenty of time to get there, look around, and shove off before Mac and Pancho show up."
"Suppose they get there early?" Rick asked.
"They probably will. We won't hang around, though. According to the control board in the vehicle shop their truck isn't supposed to be ready until eight, which is an hour and a half from now."
Rick thought that was cutting it fine, but he made no further comment.
Both boys had checked the map again, and knew the route to follow. Scotty drove through the base and onto the access road that led to the firing areas. In a short time they had a clear view of Orion waiting on its pad, project personnel swarming over the gantry crane as they performed a variety of last-day chores. The sight filled Rick with excitement. To-morrow he would see the big rocket go up.
"Pretty," Scotty said.
Rick nodded. Orion was a beautiful sight. Its lines were clean, and its paint job was colorful, mixing white with high-visibility colors to allow greater ease of visual tracking.
"Blockhouse ahead," Scotty pointed out.
It was the first time either of them had seen the blockhouse, the control point from which the rockets were fired. It was within a mile of the concrete firing pads, close enough to be in great danger from wild rockets that had gone out of control. For that reason it was made of heavily reinforced concrete, several feet thick. It could take a direct hit from even the biggest rockets without harm to the personnel inside.
Then the firing area was passed and the jeep sped along next to the miles-long black, oiled path of the airstrip. Soon the strip was behind, then the level floor of the dry lake bed became rough terrain and the jeep began to climb toward the foothills.
"Isn't there a guard post this way?" Rick asked.
There was, a few miles beyond, as the jeep mounted the foothills and went through a pass. The guard inspected their badges, then waved them on. They were outside of the base area now.
The dirt road led them across a valley and up a gradual slope to another pass through the mountains. This time, as they emerged, Rick pointed to a flat-topped mountain directly ahead. "That's a mesa," he declared. "Suppose it's the right one?"
Scotty squinted against the glare. "Probably. I don't see any others on the horizon."
"What are we going to do when we get there?" Rick asked.
Scotty waved a hand. "Look, and hope there's something to see."
"Okay. Let it go. We'll wait and see." Rick fell silent, watching the desert. It was odd, he thought, that most people thought of deserts in terms of sand. It was a fact that some deserts were sandy, but this one was composed of hard-packed earth and stones in which plants struggled for survival. It was more like smooth clay. Then, as the desert rose from smooth plain to mountains, the ground became simply broken rock, sparsely dotted with creosote bush and cholla.
Once or twice he turned and looked back at the road over which they had come. The jeep left a trail of dust behind it, but he could see no dust from any other vehicle. Apparently they were well ahead of Big Mac and Pancho. He hoped they would stay ahead.
"If Mac and Pancho do catch up," he said thoughtfully, "we can always say we just came out for the ride, to see a little of the country."
Scotty gave him a sideways glance. "Think they'd buy it?"
"Could be. They have no reason to suspect us. We're just a couple of kids who work on the base."
The road was steep now, and Scotty shifted into second to take some of the strain off the engine.
Careless Mesa loomed ahead. Rick wondered if the road led all the way to the top. Apparently it did, because the trail twisted and turned, climbing constantly. He closed his eyes and visualized the map. Somewhere up there the road split.
Suddenly Scotty pointed. "Look!"
In a shady spot just off the road two sidewinders were coiled on a rock, beady eyes watching the jeep's passage. The snakes were the color of mottled sand, the "horns" on their diamond-shaped heads clearly identifiable. Their tails were a blur, and he knew they were rattling a warning, but the distinctive buzz couldn't be heard above the jeep's engine noise.
Rick restrained a shudder. Although he had no particular fear of snakes, he had an inborn dislike of the creatures. He had read that the sidewinder, or "horned" rattlesnake, was common in the Western deserts.
Then the jeep rounded a turn with a sheer drop of several hundred feet on Rick's side, and the sidewinders were lost to view. Rick looked down at the steep slope and said, "Nice place to meet a car coming down."
"Let's not meet one," Scotty replied. He had to drop back into first gear now, because the climb was very steep.
The road cut through a notch and emerged onto a relatively level area. Rick tried to get his bearings. The road had twisted and turned so much he had lost his sense of direction. The sun's position helped him to get oriented again, and he realized they were high on the side of Careless Mesa, overlooking the road across which they had just traveled.
"Clearing ahead," Scotty said. "Bet we've reached the station."
He was right. The road led across a wide shelf, perhaps fifty feet below the top of the mesa. On the far side of the shelf the road dipped again. Scotty let the jeep roll to the edge of the dip and they looked down the roadway which twisted and turned and finally forked a thousand feet below.
Scotty put the jeep in reverse and backed to the center of the shelf. It was about two hundred feet wide, the road hugging the inner cliff. Toward the edge of the shelf the ground was disturbed by vehicle tracks.
"Stop here," Rick said.
Scotty killed the engine, and pointed to a pile of cans near the remains of a fire. "This must be where Mac and Pancho set up their radar gear."
Rick looked around him appreciatively. In the direction of Scarlet Lake there was a clear view for miles. Only the low ridges of intervening hills prevented them from seeing the base itself. A radar outfit could track the rockets from here with no interference at all, once the rocket had risen above the range of low hills.
Scotty indicated the scenery with a wave of his hand. "Plenty to see. But twenty tons of transistors could be in plain sight and we'd never know it. How would you hide stolen goods, if you had to do it?"
Rick turned and surveyed the base of the cliff that led to the top of the mesa. "I'd probably hunt for a space between two big rocks, pack it in, and load rocks on top."
"And that ain't stuff and nonsense," Scotty agreed. "Come on. Let's start moving boulders."
Rick shook his head as his eyes encompassed the more than a hundred yards of strewn rocks at the cliff's bottom. "Shall we move them a ton at a time?"
Scotty grinned helplessly. "At that rate we'd be here six months." He kicked an empty beer can. "Maybe we'd better look in the cans instead."
As though by magic the can flew into the air, flashing in the sunlight. At the same instant they heard the spiteful crack of a rifle.
Scotty reacted instantly, and Rick was only a fraction of a second behind. They dashed across the road and dove for cover in the rocks behind the jeep.
The rifle cracked again. A slug whined into space a few feet from their noses, leaving a silvery streak of lead on a rock.
The boys moved again, closer into the face of the cliff, and took shelter under a slight overhang.
"Now what?" Rick asked.
Scotty surveyed the situation, estimated the line of fire from the lead smear on the rock, then shook his head.
"We can't get in the jeep and make a run for it, because we'd be right in the line of fire. He's on top of the mesa, whoever he is. He can't reach us here, but he can reach us if we move, or if he moves."
The rifle punctuated Scotty's estimate of the situation. This time the slug slapped rock close enough to spatter sandstone chips in their faces.
"We can't stay here," Scotty said grimly. "I'm going to see what I can do."
"How?" Rick demanded.
Scotty was busily picking up stone fragments, choosing them by weight and shape. "I can move along the face of the cliff, staying under cover. At least I think I can. If I reach the place where the road drops, I can get up to the top. With luck, I won't be seen. Besides, you can distract him."
"I don't know. Put the Brant brain to work and figure out something." Scotty unrolled his sling, slipped the loop over his index finger, and gave Rick a tight grin. "Keep the boy busy, chum. Here I go."
Scotty moved rapidly but silently, across the bottom of the cliff, taking advantage of every overhanging rock. When Scotty was perhaps ten yards away, Rick moved into action. He picked up a rock, hefted it, then threw it into the pile of cans. They scattered noisily, bringing a rifle shot in reply.
Rick thought swiftly, then peeled off his shirt and wrapped it in a good-sized rock. He gauged the distance and heaved it in the direction opposite the one Scotty had taken, aiming for a niche under an overhang six yards away. He hoped the motion would be mistaken for one of them. Evidently he succeeded, because a rifle slug chipped rock a foot away from the shirt as it rolled under the overhang.
Raising his head cautiously, he saw a rock perched precariously on the steep slopes. Evidently it had come to rest there, or the rains had washed away much of its support. He found a rock to throw, sighted with care, and tossed it underhand. It struck directly under the balanced rock and dug away enough dirt to upset its equilibrium. The rock tumbled down, bringing a tiny landslide of other rocks and dirt with it. There was no response from the rifle this time.
Rick turned to see how Scotty was doing, but his pal was out of sight, behind some boulder along the way. Now what? His bag of tricks was almost exhausted.
He looked outward, across the road. A few yards to the right of the campfire and cache of cans was a rock pile. It was big enough to shield him, if he could make it. He took a deep breath. If he dodged and twisted fast enough, the rifleman probably couldn't hit him, and he would certainly have the man's full attention. That would give Scotty a better chance.
He chose a rock, hefted it, and got up into a sprinting position. He made sure of his footing, then simultaneously tossed the rock sideways to attract the rifleman's eye, and charged out of the niche.
Ten feet and he jumped sideways, took two forward leaps, and went sideways again. The rifle barked and dirt spurted where he had just been. But by then Rick was within reach of the rock pile, and he went over it in a headlong dive, rolling like a tumbler as he landed. Quickly he flattened out, as close to the rocks as he could get. A bullet whined off the top of the pile, and then there was silence.
Rick's heart pounded and his breath came in gasps. He had made it! But how about Scotty? He risked a push-up that brought his head to the level of the upper rocks in time to see Scotty fire his first sling stone. His pal had reached a position just below the top of the mesa, where his stones would clear the top without exposing him. As Rick watched, Scotty put another stone in the pouch and let fly. The stone smashed into rock on top of the mesa. A third stone, and Rick suddenly caught a glimpse of motion on the mesa top, directly above him. The rifleman was changing position! Evidently Scotty's stones were coming too close!
"Watch it!" he yelled. "Watch out, Scotty! He's moving!"
Three closely spaced shots sent Scotty to the ground as slugs whined off the mesa rim directly above him. Then there was silence. Rick heard, as though from far off, the clatter of rock. He waited. Scotty was waiting, too.
Minutes ticked by. Then, faintly, Rick heard a sound that could only have been a horse whinnying.
Scotty stood upright and climbed to the very top of the mesa. Rick started to yell, then choked it back. Scotty must know what he was doing. He saw his pal walk leisurely out of sight. Rick stood up, watching. In a moment Scotty reappeared, climbing down the incline he had used to get to the top. In a moment the boys were face to face.
"He's gone," Scotty announced. "Had a horse staked out below the opposite side of the mesa. I saw him ride off. He was too far away for me to get a good look at him."
"Mighty strange," Rick said with a sigh of relief.
Scotty nodded. "Strange is right. You know what? He saw me standing there on the rim. He turned and looked at me, and he waved."