TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE
THE TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET STORIES
By Carey Rockwell
STAND BY FOR MARS! DANGER IN DEEP SPACE ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES THE SPACE PIONEERS THE REVOLT ON VENUS TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE SABOTAGE IN SPACE THE ROBOT ROCKET
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1954, BY ROCKHILL RADIO
[TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: EXTENSIVE RESEARCH SHOWS NO EVIDENCE OF REQUIRED COPYRIGHT RENEWAL]
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOUIS GLANZMAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
"Great galaxy! There must be a hundred ships!" 27
The giant Venusian held up the oil-smeared test tube 63
"Yeow!" bawled Astro. "Thanks, sir. Thanks a million!" 102
Tom got down on his knees and felt around for an opening 131
"Look!" Strong cried. "It's Brett's ship!" 151
It would be a rough ride, but at least he was hidden 165
Slowly and cautiously he began climbing 181
"Proceed to quadrant five and seize the Space Knight!" 196
TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE
"All right, you blasted Earthworms! Stand to!"
Three frightened cadet candidates for Space Academy stiffened their backs and stood at rigid attention as Astro faced them, a furious scowl on his rugged features. Behind him, Tom Corbett and Roger Manning lounged on the dormitory bunks, watching their unit mate blast the freshman cadets and trying to keep from laughing. It wasn't long ago that they had gone through the terrifying experience of being hazed by stern upperclassmen and they knew how the three pink-cheeked boys in front of them felt.
"So," bawled Astro, "you want to blast off, do you?"
Neither of the three boys answered.
"Speak when you're spoken to, Mister!" snapped Roger at the boy in the middle.
"Answer the question!" barked Tom, finding it difficult to maintain his role of stern disciplinarian.
"Y-y-yes, sir," finally came a mumbled reply.
"What's your name? And don't say 'sir' to me!" roared Astro.
"Coglin, sir," gulped the boy.
"Don't say 'SIR'!"
"Yes, sir—er—I mean, O.K.," stuttered Coglin.
"And don't say O.K., either," Roger chimed in.
"Yes ... all right ... fine." The boy's face was flushed with desperation.
Astro stepped forward, his chin jutting out. "For your information," he bawled, "the correct manner of address is 'Very well.'"
"Very well," stammered Coglin.
Astro shook his head and turned back to Tom and Roger. "Have you ever seen a greater display of audacity and sheer gall?" he demanded. "The nerve of these three infants assuming that they could ever become Space Cadets!"
Tom and Roger laughed, not at the three Earthworms, but at Astro's sudden eloquence. The giant Venusian cadet usually limited his comments to a gruff Yes or No, or at most, a garbled sentence full of a veteran spaceman's oaths. Then, resuming his stern expression, Roger faced the three boys.
"Sound off! Quick!" he demanded.
"You call those names?" Roger snorted incredulously. "Which of you ground crawlers is radar officer?"
"I am, very well," replied Spears.
The blond-haired cadet stared at him in amazement.
"Very well, what?" he demanded.
"You said that's the correct form of address," replied Spears doggedly.
Roger turned to Tom. "Well, thump my rockets," he exclaimed, "I didn't know they made them that dumb any more!"
"Who is the command cadet?" asked Tom, suppressing a grin.
"I am, very well," replied Duke.
"How fast is fast?"
"Fast is as fast must be, without being either supersonic or turgid. Fast is necessarily that amount of speed that will not be the most nor the least, yet will be sufficient unto the demands of fast ..." Duke quoted directly from the Earthworm Manual, a book that was not prescribed learning in the Academy, but woe unto the Earthworm who did not know it by heart when questioned by a cadet upperclassman.
"What is a blip on a radar, Mister?" demanded Roger of Spears.
"A blip is never a slip. It is constant with the eye of the beholder, and constant with the constant that is always—" Spears faltered, his face flushing with embarrassment.
"Always what?" hounded Roger.
"I—I don't know," stammered the fledgling helplessly.
"You don't know?" yelled Roger. He looked at Tom and Astro, shaking his head. "He doesn't know." The two cadets frowned at the quivering boy and Roger faced him again. "For your information, Mr. Spears," he said at his sarcastic best, "there are five words remaining in that sentence. And for each word, you will spend one hour cleaning this room. Is that clear?"
Spears could only nod his head.
"And for your further information," continued Roger, "the remaining words are 'constantly alert to constant dangers'! Does that help you, Mister?"
"Yes, Cadet Manning," gulped Spears. "You are very kind to give me this information. And it will be a great honor to clean your room."
Astro stepped forward to take his turn. He towered over the remaining cadet candidate and glowered at the thoroughly frightened boy. "So," he roared, "I guess this means you're going to handle the power deck in one of our space buckets, eh?"
"Yes, very well," came the quavering, high-pitched reply.
"Give me the correction of thrust when you are underway in a forward motion and you receive orders from the control deck for immediate reversal."
Coglin closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and the words poured from his lips. "To go forward is to overtake space, and to go sternward is to retake space already overtaken. To correct thrust, I would figure in the beginning of my flight how much space I intended to take and how much I would retake, and since overtake and retake are both additional quotients that have not been divided, I will add them together and arrive at a correction." The cadet candidate stopped abruptly, gasping for breath.
Secretly disappointed at the accuracy of the reply, Astro grunted and turned to Tom and Roger. "Any questions before they blast off on their solo hop?" he growled.
The two cadets shook their heads and Roger quickly lined three chairs in a row. Tom addressed the frightened boys solemnly. "This is your spaceship. The first chair is the command deck; second, radar deck; third, power deck. Take your stations and stand by to blast off."
Spears, Coglin, and Duke jumped into the chairs and Tom walked around them eying them coldly. "Now, Misters," he said, "you are to blast off, make a complete circle of the Earth, and return to the Academy spaceport for a touchdown. Is that clearly understood?"
"All clear," chorused the boys.
"Stand by to raise ship!" bawled Tom.
"Power deck, check in!" snapped Duke from the first chair. "Radar deck, check in!"
"Just one moment, Mister," interrupted Roger. "When you issue an order over the intercom, I want to see you pick up that mike. I want to see all the motions. It's up to you, Misters, to make us believe that you are blasting off!"
"Very well," replied Duke with a nervous glance back at his unit mates.
"Carry on!" roared Tom.
Then, as Tom, Roger, and Astro sprawled on their bunks, grinning openly, the three Earthworm cadets began their simulated flight through space. Going through the movements of operating the complicated equipment of a spaceship, they pushed, pulled, jerked, snapped on imaginary switches, read unseen meters and gauges, and slammed around in their chairs to simulate acceleration reaction. The three cadets of the Polaris unit could no longer restrain themselves and broke into loud laughter at the antics of the aspirants. Finally, when they had landed their imaginary ship again, the Earthworms were pounded on the back heartily.
"Welcome to Space Academy!" said Tom with a grin. "That was as smooth a ride as I've ever had."
"Yeah," agreed Astro, pumping Coglin's hand. "You handled those reactors and atomic motors like a regular old space buster!"
"And that was real fine astrogation, Spears," Roger chimed in. "Why, you laid out such a smooth course, you never left the ground!"
The three Earthworms relaxed, and while Astro brewed hot cups of tea with synthetic pellets and water from the shower, Tom and Roger told them about the traditions and customs of the Academy.
Tom began by telling them how important it was for each crew member to be able to depend on his unit mate. "You see," he said, "in space there isn't much time for individual heroics. Too many things can happen too fast for it to be a one-man operation."
"I'll say," piped up Roger. "A couple of times I've been on the radar deck and seen a hunk of space junk coming down on us fast. So instead of following book procedure, relaying the dope to Tom on the control deck to pass it on to Astro, I'd just sing out to Astro direct on the intercom, 'Give me an upshot on the ecliptic!' or 'Give me a starboard shot!' and Astro would come through because he knows I always know what I'm talking about."
"Not always, hot-shot!" growled Astro. "How about the time we went out to Tara and snatched that hot copper asteroid out of Alpha Centauri's mouth? You said the time on that reactor blast should be set at—"
"Is that so?" snapped Roger. "Listen, you big overgrown hunk of Venusian space gas—" Roger got no further. Astro grabbed him by the shirt front, held him at arm's length, and began tickling him in the ribs. The three freshmen cadets backed out of the way, glancing fearfully at the giant Venusian. Astro's strength was awesome when seen for the first time.
"Lemme go, you blasted space ape!" bellowed Roger, between fits of laughter.
"Say uncle, Manning!" roared Astro. "Promise you won't call me names again, or by the stars, I'll tickle you until you shake yourself apart!"
"All right—un-un-uncle!" managed Roger.
Astro dropped his unit mate on a bunk like a rag doll and turned back to Tom with a shrug of his shoulders. "He'll never learn, will he?"
Tom grinned at Duke. "Astro's like a big overgrown puppy."
"Someone ought to put him on a leash," growled Roger, crawling out of the bunk and rubbing his ribs. "Blast it, Astro, the next time you want to show off, go play with an elephant and leave me alone."
Astro ignored him, turning to Coglin. "As much as I gas Roger," the giant cadet said seriously, "I'd rather ride a thrust bucket with him on the radar deck than Commander Walters. He's the best."
Tom smiled. "That's what I mean, Duke. Astro believes in Roger, and Roger believes in Astro. I believe in them, and they in me. We've got to, or we wouldn't last long out there in space."
The three fledgling spacemen were silent, watching and listening with awe and envy as the Polaris crew continued their indoctrination. They considered themselves lucky to have been drawn by these famous cadets for their hazing. The names of Corbett, Manning, and Astro were becoming synonymous with great adventure in space. But, with all their hairbreadth escapes, the Polaris unit was still just learning its job. The boys were still working off demerits, arguing with instructors on theory, listening to endless study spools, learning the latest advanced methods of astrogation, communication, and reactor-unit operation. They were working toward the day when they would discard the vivid blue uniforms of the Space Cadet Corps and don the magnificent black and gold of the Solar Guard.
Tom was aware of the eager expressions on the faces of the Earthworms and he smiled to himself. It was not a smile of smugness or conceit, but rather of honest satisfaction. More than once he had shaken his head in wonder at being a Space Cadet. The odds against it were enormous. Each year thousands of boys from all the major planets and the occupied satellites competed for entrance to the famed Academy and pitifully few were accepted. And he was happy at having two unit mates like Roger Manning and Astro to depend on when he was out in space, commanding one of the finest ships ever built, the powerful rocket cruiser Polaris.
As Roger and Astro continued to talk to the fledglings, Tom sipped his tea and thought of his own first days at the Academy. He remembered his fear and insecurity, and how hard he had fought to make what was then Unit 42-D a success, the unit that eventually became the Polaris unit. And how each assignment had brought him closer to his dream of becoming an officer in the Solar Guard.
He got up and walked to the window and looked out across the Academy campus, over the green lawns and white buildings connected by the rolling slidewalks, to the gleaming crystal Tower, the symbol of man's conquest of space. And beyond the Tower building, Tom saw a spaceship blasting off from the spaceport, her rockets bucking hard against thin air as she clawed her way spaceward. When it disappeared from sight, he followed it with his mind's eye and it became the Polaris, his ship! He and Roger and Astro were blasting through the cold black void, their own personal domain!
A loud burst of laughter behind him suddenly brought Tom back to Earth. He smiled to himself and shook his head, as though reluctant to leave his dream world. He glanced out of the window again, this time down at the quadrangle, and far below he recognized the squat, muscular figure of Warrant Officer Mike McKenny drilling another group of newly arrived cadet candidates. Tom saw the slidewalks begin to fill with boys and men in varicolored uniforms, all released from duty as the day drew to a close. Tonight, Astro, Roger, and he would go to see the latest stereo, and tomorrow they would blast off in the Polaris for the weekly checkout of her equipment. He turned back to Spears, Coglin, and Duke. Roger was just finishing the story of their latest adventure (described in The Revolt on Venus).
"The best part, of course, was the actual hunting of the tyrannosaurus," said Astro.
"A tyrannosaurus?" exploded Spears, the youngest and most impressionable of the three Earthworms. "You actually hunted for a dinosaur?"
Astro grinned. "That's right. They're extinct here on Earth, but on Venus we catch 'em and make pets out of the baby ones."
"We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble, though," commented Roger mockingly. "We have several officers here that would have served just as well. Major 'Blast-off' Connel, for instance, the toughest, meanest old son of a hot rocket you have ever seen!"
The six boys nearly broke their backs jumping to attention. A squat, muscular figure, wearing the black-and-gold uniform of a Solar Guard, strode heavily into their line of vision. Roger gulped as Major Connel stopped in front of him. "Still gassing, eh, Manning?" he roared.
"'Evening, Major, sir," mumbled Roger, his face beet red. "We—er—ah—were just telling this Earthworm unit about the Academy, sir. Some of its pitfalls."
"Some of the cadets are going to fall into a pit if they don't learn to keep their mouths shut!" snapped Connel. He glared at Tom, Astro, and Roger, then wheeled sharply to face the three quaking freshmen cadets. "You listen to anything they tell you and you'll wind up with a book full of demerits! What in blazes are you doing here, anyway? You're supposed to be at physical exams right this minute!"
The three boys began to shake visibly, not knowing whether to break ranks and run or wait until ordered.
"Get out of here!" Connel roared. "You've got thirty seconds to make it. And if you don't make it, you'll go down on my bad-rocket list!"
Almost in one motion, the three cadet candidates saluted and charged through the door. When they had gone, Connel turned to the Polaris cadets who were still at attention. "At ease!" he roared and then grinned.
The boys came to rest and smiled back at him tentatively. They never knew what to expect from Connel. "Well, did you put them through their paces?" he asked as he jerked his thumb toward the door.
"Yes, sir!" said Tom.
"Did they know their manual? Or give you any lip when you started giving them hot rockets?" Connel referred to the hazing that was allowed by the Academy, only as another of the multitude of tests given to cadets. Cadet candidates might possibly hide dangerous flaws from Academy officials but never from boys near their own ages.
"Major," said Astro, "those fellows came close to blasting off right here in these chairs. They really thought they were out in space!"
"Fine!" said Connel. "Glad to hear it. I've singled them out as my personal unit for instruction."
"Poor fellows," muttered Roger under his breath.
"What was that, Manning?" bellowed Connel.
"I said lucky fellows, sir," replied Roger innocently.
Connel glared at him. "I'll bet my last rocket that's what you said, Manning."
Connel turned to the door and then spun around quickly to catch Roger grinning at Astro.
"'Poor fellows,' wasn't it?" said Connel with a grin. Roger reddened and his unit mates laughed. "Oh, yes," continued Connel, "I almost forgot. Report to Commander Walters on the double. You're getting special assignments. I recommended you for this job, so see that you behave yourselves. Especially you, Manning."
He turned and disappeared through the doorway, leaving the three cadets staring at each other.
"Wowie!" yelled Astro. "And I thought we were going to get chewed up for keeping those Earthworms too long!"
"Same here," said Roger.
"Wonder what the assignment is?" said Tom, grabbing his tunic and racing for the door. Neither Roger nor Astro answered as they followed on his heels. When they reached the slidestairs, a moving belt of plastic that spiraled upward to an overhead slidewalk bridge connecting the dormitory to the Tower of Galileo, Tom's eyes were bright and shiny. "Whatever it is," he said, "if Major Connel suggested us for it, you can bet your last reactor it'll be a rocket buster."
As the boys stepped on the slidestairs that would take them to Commander Walters' office, each of them was very much aware that this was the first step to a new adventure in space. And though the three realized that they could expect danger, the special assignment meant that they were going to hit the high, wide, and deep again. And that was all they asked of life. To be in space, a spaceman's only real home!
Commander Walters, the commandant of Space Academy, stood behind his desk and slammed his fist down sharply on its plastic top. "I must insist that you control your tempers and refrain from these repeated outbursts," he growled.
The angry voices that had filled the room began to subside, but Walters did not continue his address. He stood, arms folded across his chest, glaring at the assembled group of men until, one by one, they stopped talking and shifted nervously in their chairs. When the room was finally still, the commander glanced significantly at Captain Steve Strong, standing at the side of the desk, smiled grimly, and then resumed in a calm, conversational tone of voice.
"I am quite aware that we have departed from standard operational procedure in this case," he said slowly. "Heretofore, the Solar Guard has always granted interplanetary shipping contracts to private companies on the basis of sealed bids, the most reasonable bid winning the job. However, for the job of hauling Titan crystal to Earth, we have found that method unsatisfactory. Therefore, we have devised this new plan to select the right company. And let me repeat"—Walters leaned forward over his desk and spoke in a firm, decisive voice—"this decision was reached in a special executive session of the Council of the Solar Alliance last night."
A short, wiry man suddenly rose from his chair in the front row, his face clearly showing his displeasure. "All right, get on with it, Walters!" he snapped, deliberately omitting the courtesy of addressing the commander by his title. "Don't waste our time with that 'official' hogwash. It might work on your cadets and your tin soldiers, but not on us!"
There was a murmur of agreement from the assembled group of men. Present were some of the wealthiest and most powerful shipping magnates in the entire Solar Alliance—men who controlled vast fleets of commercial spaceships and whose actions and decisions carried a great deal of weight. Each hoped to win the Solar Guard contract to transport Titan crystal from the mines on the tiny satellite back to Earth. Combining steellike strength and durability with its great natural beauty, the crystal was replacing metal in all construction work and the demand was enormous. The shipping company that got the job would have a guaranteed income for years to come, and each of the men present was fighting with every weapon at his command to win the contract.
Heartened by the reaction of the men around him, the speaker pressed his advantage. "We've all hauled cargo for the Solar Guard before, and the sealed-bid system was perfectly satisfactory then!" he shouted. "Why isn't it satisfactory now? What's all this nonsense about a space race?"
Again, the murmur filled the room and the men glared accusingly at Walters. But the commander refused to knuckle down to any show of arrogance. He fixed a cold, stony eye on the short man. "Mr. Brett," he snapped in a biting voice, "you have been invited to this meeting as a guest, not by any right you think you have as the owner of a shipping company. A guest, I said, and I ask that you conduct yourself with that social obligation in mind!"
Before Brett could reply, Walters turned away from him and addressed the others calmly. "Despite Mr. Brett's outburst, his question is a good one. And the answer is quite simple. The bids submitted by your companies were not satisfactory in this case because we believe that they were made in bad faith!"
For once, there was silence in the room as the men stared at Walters in shocked disbelief. "There are fourteen shipping companies represented in this room, some of them the most respected in the Solar Alliance," he continued, his voice edged with knifelike sarcasm. "I cannot find it in my conscience to accuse all of you of complicity in this affair, but nevertheless we are faced with one of the most startling coincidences I have ever seen."
Walters paused and looked around the room, measuring the effect of his words. Satisfied, he went on grimly, "There isn't enough difference between the bids of each of you, not five credits' worth of difference, to award the contract to any single company!"
The men in the room gasped in amazement.
"The bids were exactly alike. The only differences we found were in operational procedure. But the cost to the Solar Guard amounted to, in the end, exactly the same thing from each of you! The inference is clear, I believe," he added mockingly. "Someone stole the minimum specifications and circulated them among you."
In the shocked quiet that followed Walters' statement, no one noticed Tom, Roger, and Astro slip into the room. They finally caught the eye of Captain Strong, who acknowledged their presence with a slight nod, as they found seats in the rear of the room.
"Commander," a voice spoke up from the middle of the group, "may I make a statement?"
"Certainly, Mr. Barnard," agreed Walters, and stepped back from his desk as a tall, slender man in his late thirties rose to address the men around him. The three Space Cadets stared at him with interest. They had heard of Kit Barnard. A former Solar Guard officer, he had resigned from the great military organization to go into private space-freight business. Though a newcomer, with only a small outfit, he was well liked and respected by every man in the room. And everyone present knew that when he spoke, he would have something important to say, or at least advance a point that should be brought to light.
"I have no doubt," said Barnard in a slow, positive manner, "that the decision to substitute a space race between us as a means of awarding the contract was well considered by the Solar Council." He turned and shot Brett a flinty look. "And under the circumstances, I, for one, accept their decision." He sat down abruptly.
There were cries of: "Hear! Hear!" "Righto!" "Very good!"
"No!" shouted Brett, leaping to his feet. "By the craters of Luna, it isn't right! I demand to know exactly who submitted the lowest bid!"
Walters sighed and shuffled through several papers on his desk. "You are within your rights, Mr. Brett," he said, eying the man speculatively. "It was you."
"Then why in blue blazes didn't I get the contract?" screamed Brett.
"For several reasons," replied Walters. "Your contract offered us the lowest bid in terms of money, but specified very slow schedules. On the other hand, Universal Spaceways Limited planned faster schedules, but at a higher cost. Kit Barnard outbid both of you in money and schedules, but he has only two ships, and we were doubtful of his ability to complete the contract should one of his ships crack up. The other companies offered, more or less, the same conditions. So you can understand our decision now, Mr. Brett." Walters paused and glared at the man. "The Solar Council sat in a continuous forty-eight-hour session and considered everyone. The space race was finally decided on, and voted for by every member. Schedules were the most vital point under consideration. But other points could not be ignored, and these could only be determined by actual performance. Now, does that answer all your questions, Mr. Brett?"
"No, it doesn't!" yelled Brett.
"Oh, sit down, Brett!" shouted a voice from the back of the room.
"Yes! Sit down and shut up!" called another. "We're in this too, you know!"
Brett turned on them angrily, but finally sat down, scowling.
In the rear of the room Tom nudged Roger. "Boy! The commander sure knows how to lay it on the line when he wants to, doesn't he?"
"I'll say!" replied Roger. "That guy Brett better watch out. Both the commander and Captain Strong look as if they're ready to pitch him out on his ear."
Six feet tall, and looking crisp, sure, and confident in his black-and-gold uniform, Captain Steve Strong stood near Walters and scowled at Brett. Unit instructor for the Polaris crew and Commander Walters' executive officer, Strong was not as adept as Walters in masking his feelings, and his face clearly showed his annoyance at Brett's outbursts. He had sat the full forty-eight hours with the Council while they argued, not over costs, but in an effort to make sure that none of the companies would be slighted in their final decision. It made his blood boil to see someone like Brett selfishly disregard these efforts at fairness.
"That is all the information I can give you, gentlemen," said Walters finally. "Thank you for your kind attention"—he shot an ironic glance at Brett—"and for your understanding of a difficult situation. Now you must excuse me. Captain Strong, whom you all know, will fill in the details of the race."
As Walters left the room, Strong stepped to the desk, faced the assembly, and spoke quickly. "Gentlemen, perhaps some of you are acquainted with the present jet car race that takes place each year? The forerunner of that race was the Indianapolis Five-Hundred-Mile Race of some few hundred years ago. We have adopted their rules for our own speed tests. Time trials will be held with all interested companies contributing as many ships that they think can qualify, and the three ships that make the fastest time will be entered in the actual race. This way we can eliminate the weaker contenders and reduce the chance of accidents taking place millions of miles out in space. Also, it will result in a faster time for the winner. Now, the details of the race will be given to your chief pilots, crew chiefs, and power-deck officers at a special meeting in my office here in the Tower building tomorrow. You will receive all information and regulations governing the minimum and maximum size of the ships entered, types of reactor units, and amount of ballast to be carried."
"How many in the crew?" asked a man in the front.
"Two," replied Steve, "or if the ship is mostly automatic, one. Either can be used. The Solar Guard will monitor the race, sending along one of the heavy cruisers." Strong glanced at his notes. "That is all, gentlemen. Are there any questions?"
There were no questions and the men began to file out of the room. Strong was relieved to see Brett was among the first to leave. He didn't trust himself to keep his temper with the man. As the room emptied, Strong stood at the door and grabbed Kit Barnard by the sleeve. "Hello, spaceman!" he cried. "Long time, no see!"
"Hello, Steve," replied Kit, with a slow, warm smile.
"Say! Is that the way to greet an old friend after four, or is it five years?"
"Five," replied Kit.
"You look worried, fellow," said Strong.
"I am. This race business leaves me holding the bag."
"Well, I made a bid on the strength of a new reactor unit I'm trying to develop," explained Kit. "If I had gotten the contract, I could have made a loan from the Universal Bank and completed my work easily. But now—" Kit stopped and shook his head slowly.
"What is this reactor?" Strong asked. "Something new?"
"Yes. One quarter the size of present standard reactors and less than half the weight." Kit's eyes began to glow with enthusiasm as he spoke. "It would give me extra space in my ships and be economical enough on fuel for me to be able to compete with the larger outfits and their bigger ships. Now, all I've got is a reactor that hasn't been tested properly, that I'm not even sure will work on a long haul and a hot race."
"Is there any way you can soup up one of your present reactors to make this run?" asked Strong.
"I suppose so," added Kit. "I'll give the other fellows a run for their money all right. But it'll take every credit I have. And if I don't win the race, I'm finished. Washed up."
"Excuse me, Captain Strong," said Tom Corbett, coming to attention. "Major Connel ordered us to report here for special assignment."
"Oh, yes," said Strong, turning to Tom, Roger, and Astro with a smile. "Meet Kit Barnard. Kit—Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro, the Polaris unit. My unit," he added proudly.
The boys saluted respectfully, and Barnard smiled and shook hands with each of them.
"You've heard about the race now," said Strong to Tom.
"Yes, sir," replied the young cadet. "It sounds exciting."
"It will be, with spacemen like Kit Barnard, Charley Brett, and the other men of the big outfits competing. You're going to work with me on the time trials, and later the Polaris will be the ship that monitors the race. But first, you three will be inspectors."
"Of what, sir?" asked Roger.
"You'll see that all regulations are observed—that no one gets the jump on anyone else. These men will be souping up their reactors until those ships will be nothing but 'go,' and it's your job to see that they use only standard equipment."
"We're going to be real popular when we tell a spaceman he can't use a unit he's rigged up specially," commented Astro with a grin.
Tom laughed. "We'll be known as the cadets you love to hate!"
"Especially when you run up against Charley Brett," said Kit.
The cadets looked at the veteran spaceman inquiringly, but he was not smiling, and they suddenly felt a strange chill of apprehension.
"It's about time you got here!"
Charley Brett glared angrily at his chief pilot, Quent Miles, as he sauntered into the office and flopped into a chair.
"I had a heavy date last night. I overslept," the spaceman replied, yawning loudly.
"We're late for Strong's meeting over at the Academy," Brett snapped. "Get up! We've got to leave right away."
Quent Miles looked at the other man, his black eyes gleaming coldly. "I'll get up when I'm ready," he said slowly.
The two men glared at each other for a moment, and finally Brett lowered his eyes. Miles grinned and yawned again.
"Come on," said Brett in a less demanding tone. "Let's go. No use getting Strong down on us before we even get started."
"Steve Strong doesn't scare me," replied Miles.
"All right! He doesn't scare you. He doesn't scare me, either," said Brett irritably. "Now that we both know that neither of us is scared, let's get going."
Quent smiled again and rose slowly. "You know something, Charley?" he said in a deceptively mild voice. "One of these days you're going to get officious with the wrong spaceman, one that isn't as tolerant as I am, and you're going to be pounded into space dust."
Quent Miles stood in front of Brett's desk and stretched like a languid cat. Brett noted the powerful hands and arms and the depth of the shoulders and chest, all emphasized by the tight-fitting clothes the spaceman affected. The man was dark and swarthy, and dressed all in black. Brett had often imagined that if the devil ever took human form it would look like Quent Miles. He shivered uncontrollably and waited. Finally Miles turned to him, a mocking smile on his face.
"Well, Charley? What are we waiting for?"
A few moments later they were speeding through the broad streets of Atom City in a jet cab on the way to the Atom City spaceport.
"What's this all about?" demanded Quent, settling back in his seat. "Why the rush call?"
"I didn't get the contract to haul the crystal," replied Brett grimly. "All the bids were so close the Solar Council decided to have a space race out to Titan to pick the outfit that would get the job."
Quent turned toward him, surprised. "But I thought you had all that sewed up tight!" he exclaimed. "I thought after you got your hands on the—"
"Shut up!" interrupted Brett. "The details on the specifications leaked out. Now the only way I can get the contract is to win the race."
"And I'm the guy to do it?" asked Quent with a smile.
"That's what you're here for. If we don't win this race, we're finished. Washed up!"
"Who else is in the race?"
"Every other major space-freight outfit in the system," replied Brett grimly. "And Kit Barnard."
"Has Barnard got that new reactor of his working yet?"
"I don't think so. But I have no way of telling."
"If he has, you're not going to win this race," said Quent, shaking his head. "Nor is anyone else."
"You are here for one reason," said Brett pointedly.
"I know." Quent grinned. "To win a race."
Quent laughed. "With those heaps you've fooled people into thinking are spaceships? Don't make me laugh."
"There are going to be time trials before the race," said Brett. "The three fastest ships are going to make the final run. I'm not worried about the race itself. I've got a plan that will assure us of winning. It's the time trials that's got me bothered."
"Leave that to me," said Quent.
The jet cab pulled up to the main gate of the spaceport and the two men got out. Far across the field, a slender, needle-nosed ship stood poised on her stabilizer fins ready for flight. She was black except for a red band painted on the hull across the forward section and around the few viewports. It gave her the appearance of a huge laughing insect. Quent eyed the vessel with a practiced eye.
"I'll have to soup her up," he commented. "She wouldn't win a foot race now."
"Don't depend too heavily on your speed," said Brett. "I would just as soon win by default. After all," he continued, looking at Miles with calculating eyes, "serious accidents could delay the other ships."
"Sure. I know what you mean," replied the spaceman.
"Good!" Brett turned away abruptly and headed for the ship. Quent following him. In a little while the white-hot exhaust flare from the rocket tubes of the sleek ship splattered the concrete launching apron and it lifted free of the ground. Like an evil, predatory bug, the ship blasted toward the Academy spaceport.
* * * * *
"Well, blast my jets!" Astro gasped, stopping in his tracks and pointing. Tom and Roger looked out over the quadrangle toward the Academy spaceport where ship after ship, braking jets blasting, sought the safety of the ground.
"Great galaxy," exclaimed Tom, his eyes bulging, "there must be a hundred ships!"
"At least," commented Roger.
"But they can't all be here for the trials," said Astro.
"Why not?" asked Roger. "This is a very important race. Who knows what ship might win? It pays the company to enter every ship they have."
"Roger's right, Astro," said Tom. "These fellows are playing for big stakes. Though I don't think there'll be more than thirty or forty ships in the actual speed trials. See those big-bellied jobs? They're repair ships."
"I hadn't thought about that," acknowledged the big Venusian cadet. "They'll probably be jazzing up those sleek babies and that takes a lot of repair and work."
"Come on," said Tom. "We've got to get over to the meeting. Captain Strong said he wanted us to be there."
The three cadets turned back toward the nearest slidewalk and hopped on. None of them noticed the black ship with the red band around its bow which suddenly appeared over the field, rockets blasting loudly as it began to drop expertly to the ground.
From early morning the skies over the Academy had been vibrating to the thunderous exhausts of the incoming fleet of ships. Painted with company colors and insignia, the ships landed in allotted space on the field, and almost immediately, mechanics, crew chiefs, and specialists of all kinds swarmed over the space vessels preparing them for the severest tests they would ever undergo. The ships that actually were to make the trial runs were stripped of every spare pound of weight, while their reactors were taken apart and specially designed compression heads were put on the atomic motors.
The entire corps of Space Cadets had been given a special three-day holiday to see the trials, and the Academy buildings were decorated with multicolored flags and pennants. A festive atmosphere surrounded the vast Solar Guard installation.
But in his office in the Tower of Galileo, Captain Strong paced the floor, a worried frown on his face. He stepped around his desk and picked up a paper to re-read it for the tenth time. He shook his head and flipped open the key of his desk intercom, connecting him with the enlisted spaceman in the next office.
"Find Kit Barnard, spaceman!" Strong called. "And give him an oral message. Personal. Tell him I said he can't use his reactor unit unless he changes it to more standard operational design." Strong paused and glanced at the paper again. "As it stands now, his reactor will not be approved for the trials," he continued. "Tell him he has until midnight tonight to submit new specifications."
As Strong closed the intercom key abruptly, the three members of the Polaris unit stepped into his office and saluted smartly. Strong looked up. "Hello, boys. Sit down." He waved them to nearby chairs and turned back to his desk. The drawn expression of their unit commander did not go unnoticed.
"Is there something wrong, sir?" asked Tom tentatively.
"Nothing much," replied Strong wearily. He indicated the sheaf of papers in front of him. "These are reactor-unit specifications submitted by the pilots and crew chiefs of the ships to be flown in the time trials. I've just had to reject Kit Barnard's specifications."
"What was the matter?" asked Astro.
"Not enough safety allowance. He's running too close to the danger point in feeding reactant to the chambers, using D-18 rate of feed and D-9 is standard."
"What about the other ships, sir?" asked Tom. "Do they all have safety factors?"
Strong shrugged his shoulders. "They all specify standard reaction rates without actually using figures," he said. "But I'm certain that their feeders are being tuned up for maximum output. That's where your job is going to come in. You've got to inspect the ships to make sure they're safe."
"Then Kit Barnard put down his specifications, knowing that there was a chance they wouldn't pass," Tom remarked.
Strong nodded. "He's an honest man."
The door opened and several men stepped inside. They were dressed in the mode of merchant space officers, wearing high-peaked hats, trim jackets, and trousers of a different color. Strong stood up to greet them.
"Welcome, gentlemen. Please be seated. We will begin the meeting as soon as all the pilots are here."
Roger nudged Astro and whispered, "What's the big deal about a D-18 rate and a D-9 rate? Why is that so important?"
"It has to do with the pumps," replied the power-deck cadet. "They cool the reactant fuel to keep it from getting too hot and wildcatting. At a D-9 rate the reactant is hot enough to create power for normal flight. Feeding at a D-18 rate is fine too, but you need pumps to cool the motors, and pumps that could do the job would be too big."
"Kit's problem," commented Tom, "is not so much building the reactor, but a cooling system to keep it under control."
"Will that make a big difference in who wins the race?" asked Roger.
"With that ship of Kit's," said Astro, shaking his head, "I doubt if he'll be able to come even close to the top speeds in the trials unless he can use the new reactor."
The room had filled up now and Strong rapped on the desk for attention. He stared at the faces of the men before him, men who had spent their lives in space. They were the finest pilots and crew chiefs in the solar system. They sat quietly and attentively as Strong gave them the details of the greatest race of spaceships in over a hundred years.
After Strong had outlined the plans for the time trials, he concluded, "Each of you competing in the time trials will be given a blast-off time and an orbital course. Only standard, Solar-Guard-approval equipment will be allowed in the tests. I will monitor the trials, and Space Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro will be in complete charge of all inspections of your ships." Strong paused and looked around. "Are there any questions?"
"When will the first ship blast off, Captain Strong?" asked a lean and leathery-looking spaceman in the back of the room.
"First time trial takes place at 0600 hours tomorrow morning. Each ship has a designated time. Consult your schedules for the blast-off time of your ships."
"What if a ship isn't ready?" asked Kit Barnard, who had slipped into the room unnoticed.
"Any ship unable to blast off at scheduled time," said Strong, finding it difficult to look at his old friend, "will be eliminated."
There was a sudden murmur in the room and Quent Miles rose quickly. "That's not much time to prepare our ships," he said. "I don't know who's going to be first, but I can't even strip my ship by tomorrow morning, let alone soup up the reactant." His voice was full of contempt, and he glanced around the room at the other pilots. "Seems to me we're being treated a little roughly."
There were several cries of agreement.
Strong held up his hand. "Gentlemen, I know it is difficult to prepare a ship in twelve hours for a race as important as this one," he said. "But I personally believe that any spaceman who really wants to make it can make it!"
"Well, I'm not going to break my back to make a deadline," snarled Quent. "And I don't think any of the other fellows here will either."
"If you are scheduled to blast off tomorrow at 0600 hours, Captain Miles," Strong announced coldly, "and you are unable to raise ship, you will be eliminated."
Stifling an angry retort, Quent Miles sat down, and while Strong continued to answer questions, Astro, a worried frown on his face, stared at the spaceman dressed in black. Tom noticed it. "What's wrong with you, Astro?" he asked.
"That spaceman Miles," replied Astro. "I could swear I know him, yet I'm sure that I don't."
"He's not a very ordinary-looking guy," observed Roger. "He's plenty big and he's so dark that it wouldn't be easy to mistake him."
"Still," said Astro, screwing up his forehead, "I know I've seen him before."
"If there are no further questions, gentlemen," said Strong, "we'll close this meeting. I know you're anxious to get to your ships and begin work. But before you go, I would like to introduce the cadet inspectors to you. Stand up, boys."
Self-consciously, Tom, Roger, and Astro stood up while Strong addressed the pilots.
"Cadet Manning will be in charge of all electronics inspections, Cadet Astro in charge of the power deck, and Cadet Corbett will cover the control deck and over-all inspection of the ship itself."
Quent Miles was on his feet again, shouting, "Do you mean to tell me that we're going to be told what we can and can't do by those three kids!" He turned and glared at Tom. "You come messing around my ship, buster, and you'll be pitched out on your ear!"
"If the cadets do not pass on your ship," said Strong, with more than a little edge to his voice, "it will not get off the ground."
The two men locked eyes across the room.
"We'll see about that!" growled Miles, and stalked from the room, his heavy shoulders swinging from side to side in an exaggerated swagger.
"I believe that's all, gentlemen," announced Strong coldly, "and spaceman's luck to each of you."
After the men had left, the three cadets crowded around Strong. "Do you think we'll have any trouble with Miles, sir?" asked Tom.
"You have your orders, Tom," said Strong. "If any ship does not meet standards established for the race, it will be disqualified!"
Astro stared at the doorway through which Quent Miles had disappeared. He scratched his head and muttered, "If it wasn't for just one thing, I'd swear by the stars that he's the same spaceman who—" He stopped and shook his head.
"Who what?" asked Strong.
"Nothing, sir," said Astro. "I must be mistaken. It can't be the same man."
"I suggest that you sleep out at the spaceport tonight," said Strong. "The first ship will have to be inspected before she blasts off, and that means you will have to look her over before six."
"Yes, sir," replied Tom.
"And watch out for Quent Miles," warned Strong.
"Yes, sir," said the curly-haired cadet. "I know what you mean."
"The course is to Luna and return! Spaceman's luck."
Captain Strong's voice rasped out over the public address system as a lone spaceship stood poised on the starting ramp, her ports closed, her crew making last-minute preparations. Ringing the huge spaceport, crews from other ships paused in their work to watch the first vessel make the dash around the Moon in a frantic race against the astral chronometer. In the temporary grandstands at the north end of the field, thousands of spectators from cities all over Earth leaned forward, hushed and expectant.
"Are you ready Star Lady?" Strong called, his voice echoing over the field.
A light flashed from the viewport of the ship.
"Stand by to raise ship!" roared Strong. "Blast off, minus five, four, three, two, one—zero!"
There was a sudden, ear-shattering roar and smoke and flame poured from the exhaust of the ship, spilling over the blast-off ramp. The ship rocked from side to side gently, rose into the air slowly, and then gathering speed began to move spaceward. In a moment it was gone and only the echoing blasts of thunder from its exhausts remained.
"There goes number one," said Tom to his unit mates as they watched from a vantage point near one of the service hangars.
"He got a pretty shaky start there at the ramp," commented Astro. "He must've poured on so much power, he couldn't control the ship."
"Heads up, fellas," announced Roger suddenly. "Here comes work." Kit Barnard was walking toward them, carrying a small metallic object in his hand.
"'Morning, boys," said Kit with a weary smile. His eyes were bloodshot. The cadets knew he had worked all night to revise and resubmit his specification sheet to Strong.
"'Morning, sir," said Tom.
"I'd like to have you O.K. this gear unit. I made it last night."
Astro took the gear and examined it closely.
"Looks fine to me," he said finally, handing it back. "Part of your main pumps?"
"Why, yes," replied Kit, surprised. "Say, you seem to know your business."
"Only the best rocket buster in space, sir," chimed in Tom. "He eats, sleeps, and dreams about machinery on a power deck."
"Is that for your new reactor, sir?" asked Astro.
"Yes. Want to come over and take a look at it?"
"Want to!" exclaimed Roger. "You couldn't keep him away with a ray gun, Captain Barnard."
"Fine," said Kit. "Incidentally, I'm not in the Solar Guard any more; don't even hold a reserve commission, so you don't have to 'sir' me. I'd prefer just plain Kit. O.K.?"
The three boys grinned. "O.K., Kit," said Tom.
Astro began to fidget and Tom nudged Roger. "Think we can spare the Venusian for a little while?"
"Might as well let him go," grunted Roger. "He'd only sneak off later, anyway."
Astro grinned sheepishly. "If anyone wants me to check anything, I'll be over at Kit's. Where is your ship?" he asked the veteran spaceman.
"Hangar Fourteen. Opposite the main entrance gate."
"Fine, that's where I'll be, fellows. See you later."
With Astro bending over slightly to hear what Kit was saying, the two men walked away. Roger shook his head. "You know, I still can't get used to that guy. He acts like a piece of machinery was a good-looking space doll!"
"I've seen you look the same way at your radarscope, Roger."
"Yeah, but it's different with me."
"Is it?" said Tom, turning away so that Roger would not see him laughing. And as he did, he saw something that made him pause. In front of the hangar, Captain Strong was talking to Quent Miles. There was no mistaking the tall spaceman in his severe black clothes.
"Here comes more work," muttered Tom. Quent had turned away from Strong and was walking toward them.
"Strong said I had to get you to O.K. this scope," said Quent with a sneer. "Hurry it up! I haven't got all day."
He handed them a radarscope that was common equipment on small pleasure yachts, and was considerably lighter in weight than the type used on larger freight vessels.
"What's the gross weight of your ship?" asked Roger after a quick glance at the large glass tube with a crystal surface that had been polished to a smooth finish.
"Two thousand tons," said Quent. "Why?"
Roger shook his head. "This is too small, Mr. Miles. You will have to use the standard operational scope."
"But it's too big."
"I'm sorry, sir—" began Roger.
"Sorry!" Quent exploded. "Give me that tube, you squirt." He snatched it out of Roger's hand. "I'm using this scope whether you like it or not!"
"If you use that scope," said Tom coldly, "your ship will be disqualified."
Quent glared at the two boys for a moment, his black eyes cold and hard. "They make kids feel mighty important around here, don't they?"
"They give us jobs to do," said Roger. "Usually we can handle them fine. Occasionally we run into a space-gassing bum and he makes things difficult, but we manage to take care of him."
Quent stepped forward in a threatening manner, but Roger did not move. "Listen," the spaceman snarled, "stay out of my way, you young punk, or I'll blast you."
"Don't ever make the mistake of touching me, Mister," said Roger calmly. "You might find that you're the one who's blasted."
Quent stared at them a moment, then spun on his heels and swaggered back to his ship.
"You know, Roger," said Tom, watching Miles disappear into the hangar, "I have an idea he is one spaceman who'll back up his threats."
Roger ignored Tom's statement. "Come on. We've got a lot of work to do," he said, turning away.
The two cadets headed for the next hangar and boarded a ship with the picture of a chicken on its nose. While Roger examined the communications and astrogation deck, Tom busied himself inspecting the control deck, where the great panels of the master control board were stripped of everything but absolute essentials. Later, they called Astro back to make a careful inspection of the power deck on the ship. While they waited for the Venusian cadet, Tom and Roger talked to the pilot.
Gigi Duarte was a small, dapper Frenchman who somehow, in the course of his life, had acquired the nickname "Chicken" and it had been with him ever since. The cadets had met him once before when they rode on a passenger liner from Mars to Venusport and liked the small, stubby spaceman. Now, renewing their friendship, the boys and "Gigi the Chicken" sat on the lower step of the air lock and chatted.
"This is the greatest thing that has happened to me," said Gigi. "Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to race in space!"
"Don't get much chance when you're hauling passengers around, I guess," said Tom.
Gigi shook his head. "One must always be careful. Just so fast, over a certain route, taking all the precautionary steps for fuel! Bah! But this flight! This time, I will show you speed! Watch the French Chicken and you will see speed as you have never—" Suddenly he stopped and frowned. "But you cannot see me. I will be going too fast!"
Tom and Roger laughed. After Astro joined them, they shook hands with the Frenchman, wished him luck, and went to the next ship to inspect it. Gigi's ship was already being towed out to the blast-off ramp, and by the time the three boys had completed their inspection of the next ship, the gaily colored French ship flashed the ready signal to Strong.
"Blast off, minus five, four, three, two, one—zero!" Strong's voice boomed out over the loud-speakers and the French Chicken poured on the power. His ship arose from the ground easily, and in five seconds was out of sight in the cloudless skies above.
* * * * *
All day the spaceport rocked with the thunderous noise of stripped-down spaceships blasting off on their trial runs around the Moon. Kit Barnard worked like a demon to complete the cooling system in his aged ship, and as each ship blasted off on its scheduled run to the Moon, the time for his own flight drew nearer. Kit worked with his chief crewman, Sid Goldberg, a serious, swarthy-faced youngster who rivaled Astro in his love for the power-deck machinery on a spaceship. By nightfall, with Tom, Roger, and Astro standing by to make their final inspection, Kit wiped the oil and grime from his hands and stepped back. "Well, she's finished. You can make your inspections now, boys," he said.
While Tom, Astro, and Roger swarmed over the vessel, examining the newly designed and odd-looking gear, the veteran spaceman and his young helper stretched out on the concrete ramp and in thirty seconds were asleep.
The Polaris unit quickly checked out Kit's ship as qualified for the race, and then turned, fascinated, to the tangle of pipes, cables, and mechanical gear of the reactor unit and cooling pumps. Tom and Roger were unable to figure out exactly what changes Kit had made, but Astro gazed at the new machinery fondly, almost rapturously. He tried to explain the intricate work to his unit mates, but would stop in the middle of a sentence when a new detail of the construction would catch his eye.
"Come on, Roger," Tom sighed. "Let's go on to the next ship. This lovesick Venusian can catch up with us later."
They turned away and left Astro alone on the power deck, doubtful that he had even noticed their departure.
The trials had been suspended at nightfall, and the ships that had already blasted off left sections of the huge spaceport empty. The day had been a grueling one for the cadets, and Tom and Roger climbed wearily on the nearest slidewalk that would take them back to the Academy grounds. Just as they rode through the main field gate, Roger nudged Tom. "Look! There's Quent Miles up ahead of us," he said. "Isn't he scheduled to blast off in the morning?"
"Yes. Why?" asked Tom.
"He hasn't called us in to inspect his ship yet."
"Maybe he isn't ready yet," said Tom. "Probably still souping it up."
"I've been watching him. He hasn't done very much."
"What do you mean?"
"He's the only one working on his ship," replied Roger. "Not one helper."
Tom snorted. "You're beginning to suspect everything, Roger. He might be going to get a part or grab a bite to eat."
"Where? In Atom City?" asked Roger. "That's the slidewalk to the monorail station." He pointed to the black-suited figure as he hopped on another moving belt that angled away from theirs.
"Oh, forget it," groaned Tom. "I'm too tired to think about it now. Let's just report to Captain Strong and get some sack time. I'm all out of reactant."
"I suppose Astro will spend half the night trying to figure out what it took Kit Barnard years to build," mused Roger.
"And if I know Astro," chuckled Tom, "he'll get it figured out too!"
As the two weary cadets continued their ride into the Academy grounds, on another slidewalk going in the opposite direction, Quent Miles watched the darkening countryside closely. It was several miles from the Academy to the monorail station, and the moving belt dipped and turned through the rugged country that surrounded Space Academy. Suddenly Quent straightened, and making certain no one was watching him, he jumped off the slidewalk and hurried to a clump of bushes a few hundred yards away. He disappeared into the thick foliage and then reached inside his tunic and pulled out a paralo-ray gun.
"You in here, Charley?" Miles whispered.
There was a movement to his left and he leveled the gun. "All right! Come out of there!"
The bushes parted and Charley Brett stepped out. "Put that thing away!" he snarled. "What's that for?"
"After I got your message to meet you out here, I didn't know what was up, so I brought this along just in case," Quent replied. "What's so secret that you couldn't come to the spaceport?"
"I've got the stuff for Kit Barnard's reactor."
"This." Brett took a small lead container out of his pocket and handed it to Quent. "This is impure reactant. Dump it into his feeders and we can count him out of the race."
Quent took the lead container, looked at it, and then stuffed it inside his tunic. "What'll happen?"
"Nothing. He'll just get out in space and find his pumps won't handle the heat from his feeders, that's all. He's the only one I'm worried about."
"Reports are coming in from Luna City. You can worry about Gigi Duarte, too. He's burning up space."
"Ross is at the Luna spaceport," replied Brett. "He'll take care of any ship that looks like it's going to be too fast."
"Then why not have him take care of Kit Barnard too?" demanded Quent. "There will be less chance of getting caught. Remember, I've got those three Space Cadets and Strong to worry about."
"You can't expect to get what we're after unless you take chances. Now get back to the spaceport and put this stuff in Barnard's feeders. You blast off tomorrow morning before he does and won't have much time."
"O.K.," agreed Quent. "When did Ross get to Luna City?"
"Yesterday. I had him come in from the hide-out."
"You think there'll be any cause for suspicion with him on the Moon and me down here?" asked Quent.
"When you land at Luna City spaceport, he'll disappear. By that time we should know how the time trials are shaping up."
"O.K. Where are you going now?"
"Back to the office. I've still got some things to check on before the big race. We're going to use the hide-out for that."
A smile spread across Quent Miles' face. "So that's it, eh? Pretty clever, Charley. Ross know about it?"
"Yeah. He's leaving as soon as he knows we've won the time trials. Now get back to the spaceport and take care of Barnard's ship."
Quent slipped his hand inside his tunic and patted the lead container. "Too bad this isn't a baby bomb," he muttered. "We could be sure Barnard wouldn't finish."
"He's finished right now, but he doesn't know it." Brett smiled. "He's borrowed heavily just on this race, and when he loses, the banks will close him up. Kit Barnard is through."
"We regret to announce that the spaceship La Belle France, piloted by Gigi Duarte, has crashed!"
Captain Strong's voice was choked with emotion as he made the announcement over the spaceport public-address system. There was an audible groan of sympathy from the thousands of spectators in the grandstands. In spite of every precaution for safety, death had visited the spaceways.
Strong continued, "We have just received official confirmation from Luna City that the Paris-Venusport Transfer Company entry exploded in space soon after leaving Luna City. Captain Duarte had flown the first leg of the race from Earth to the Moon in record time."
The Solar Guard officer snapped off the microphone and turned to Tom, Roger, and Astro. "It's hard to believe that the French Chicken won't be shuttling from Paris to Venusport any more," he murmured.
"Are there any details, sir?" asked Tom.
"You know there are never any details, Corbett," said Strong with a little edge in his voice. Then he immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, Tom. Gigi was an old friend."
The door behind them opened and an enlisted spaceman stepped inside, saluting smartly. "Ready for the next blast-off, Captain Strong," he announced.
"Who is it?" asked Strong, turning to the intercom connecting him with the control tower that co-ordinated all the landings and departures at the spaceport.
The spaceman referred to a clipboard. "It's the Space Lance, sir. Piloted by Captain Sticoon. He's representing an independent company from Marsopolis."
"Right, thanks." Strong turned to the intercom mike, calling, "Captain Strong to control tower, check in."
"Say, I'd like to see this fellow blast," said Tom. "He's supposed to be one of the hottest pilots ever to hit space."
"Yeah," agreed Roger. "He's so good I don't see how anyone else could have a chance."
"With that hot rocket in this race," said Astro, "the others will have to fight for second and third place."
"Control tower to Strong," a voice crackled over the intercom loud-speaker. "Ready here, sir."
"Right. Stand by for the next flight, Mac," replied Strong. "It's Sticoon."
Strong flipped a switch on the intercom to direct contact with the waiting ship and gave Sticoon the oft-repeated final briefing, concluding, "Do not go beyond the necessary limitations of fuel consumption that are provided for in the Solar Guard space code. If you return here with less than a quarter supply of reactant fuel, you will be disqualified. Stand by to blast off!"
"Uh-huh!" was all the acknowledgment Strong received from the Martian. Famed for his daring, Sticoon was also known for his taciturn personality.
"Clear ramp! Clear ramp!" Strong boomed over the public-address system. When he received the all-clear from the enlisted spaceman on the ramp, Strong flipped both the public-address system and the intercom on. "Stand by to raise ship!"
He glanced at the astral chronometer. "Blast off, minus five, four, three, two, one—zero!"
Tom, Roger, and Astro crowded to the viewport in Strong's command shack to watch the bulky Martian's ship take to space. With Sticoon at the controls, there was no hesitation. He gave the ship full throttle from the moment of blast-off and in three seconds was out of sight. There wasn't much to see at such speed.
The three members of the Polaris unit left the shack to return to their task of inspection. They passed the maintenance hangar where Kit Barnard was readying his ship for blast-off in the next half hour.
"Any last-minute hitches, Kit?" asked Astro, vitally interested in the new reactor unit and its cooling system.
Kit smiled wearily and shook his head. "All set!"
"Good." Tom smiled. "We'll try to be back before you blast. We've got to check Quent Miles' ship now."
As the three cadets approached the sleek black vessel with its distinctive markings, the air lock opened and Quent Miles stepped out on the ladder.
"It's about time you three jerks showed up," he sneered. "I have to blast off in twenty minutes! What's the idea of messing around with that Barnard creep? He hasn't got a chance, anyway."
"Is that so?" snapped Roger. "Listen—!"
"Roger!" barked Tom warningly.
Quent grinned. "That's right. Lay off, buster. Get to your inspecting and let a spaceman blast off."
"Kit Barnard will blast off after you, and still beat you back," growled Roger, stepping into the ship. He stopped suddenly and gasped in amazement. "Well, blast my jets!"
Tom and Astro crowded into the air lock and looked around, openmouthed. Before them was what appeared to be a hollow shell of a ship. There were no decks or bulkheads, nothing but an intricate network of ladders connecting the various operating positions of the spaceship. Everything that could be removed had been taken out of the ship.
"Is this legal?" asked Roger incredulously.
"I'm afraid it is, Roger," said Tom. "But we're going to make sure that everything that's supposed to be in a spaceship is in this one."
"When I blast off, I don't intend carrying any passengers," growled Miles behind them. "If you're going to inspect, then inspect and stop gabbing."
"Let's go," said Tom grimly.
The three boys split up and began crawling around in the network of exposed supporting beams and struts that took the place of decks and bulkheads. It did not take them long to determine that Quent Miles' ship was in perfect condition for blast-off. With but a few minutes to spare, they returned to face Miles at the air lock.
"O.K., you're cleared," Tom announced.
"But it'll take more than a light ship to win this race," said Roger, and unable to restrain himself, he added, "You're bucking the best space busters in the universe!"
"One of them"—Quent held up his finger—"is dead."
"Yeah," growled Astro, "but there are plenty more just as good as Gigi Duarte."
The intercom buzzer sounded in the ship and Quent snapped, "Beat it! I've got a race to win." He pushed the three cadets out of the air lock and slammed the pluglike door closed. From two feet away it was impossible to spot the seams in the metal covering on the port and the hull.
"Clear ramp! Clear ramp!" Strong's voice echoed over the spaceport. Tom, Roger, and Astro scurried down the ladder and broke away from the ramp in a run. They knew Quent Miles would not hesitate to blast off whether anyone was within range of his exhaust or not.
"Blast off, minus five, four, three, two, one—zero!"
Again the spaceport reverberated to the sound of a ship blasting off. All eyes watched the weirdly painted black ship shudder under the surge of power, and then shoot spaceward as if out of a cannon.
"Well, ring me around Saturn," breathed Tom, looking up into the sky where the black ship had disappeared from view. "Whatever Quent Miles is, he can sure take acceleration."
"Spaceman," said Astro, taking a deep breath, "you can say that again. Wow!"
"I hope it broke his blasted neck," said Roger.
* * * * *
"And you saw him messing around here, Sid?" asked Kit Barnard of his young helper.
"That's right," replied the crew chief. "I was on the control deck checking out the panel and I happened to look down. I couldn't see too well, but it was a big guy."
"Messing around the reactor, huh?" mused Kit, almost asking the question of himself.
"That's right. I checked it right away, but I couldn't find anything wrong."
"Well, it's too late now, anyway. I blast in three minutes." Grimly Kit Barnard looked up at the sky where the black ship had just vanished.
"Spaceman's luck, Kit," said Sid, offering his hand. Kit grasped it quickly and jumped into his ship, closing the air lock behind him.
As Sid climbed down from the ramp, the three cadets rushed up breathlessly, disappointed at being unable to give Kit their personal good wishes.
"Well, anyway, I gave the new reactor my blessing last night," said Astro as they walked away from the ramp.
"You were aboard the ship last night?" Sid exclaimed.
"Uh-huh," replied Astro. "Hope you don't mind."
"No, not a bit!" Sid broke into a smile. "Whew! I thought for a while it was Quent."
"What about Quent?" asked Tom.
"I saw someone messing around on the power deck last night and thought it might be Quent. But now that you say it was you, Astro, there isn't anything to worry about."
Reaching a safe distance from the ramp, they stopped just as Strong finished counting off the seconds to blast off.
The three cadets and Sid waited for the initial shattering roar of the jets, but it did not come. Instead, there was a loud bang, followed by another, and then another. And only then did the ship begin to leave the ground, gradually picking up speed and shooting spaceward.
"What was wrong?" asked Tom, looking at Sid.
"The feeders," replied the young engineer miserably. "They're not functioning properly. They're probably jamming."
Astro looked puzzled. "But I checked those feeders myself, just before you closed the casing," he said. "They were all right then."
"Are you sure?" asked Sid.
"Of course I'm sure," said Astro. "Checking the feeders is one of my main jobs."
"Then it must be the reactant," said Tom. "Did Kit use standard reactant?"
Sid nodded. "Got it right here at the spaceport. Same stuff everyone else is using."
Gloomily the four young spacemen turned away from the ramp and headed for the control tower to hear the latest reports from the ships already underway. There were only a few more ships scheduled to blast off, and the cadets had already inspected them.
"Wait a minute," said Tom, stopping suddenly. "The fuel tanks are on the portside of the ship, and the feeders are on the starboard. Where did you see this fellow messing around, Sid?"
Sid thought a moment and then his face clouded. "Come to think of it, I saw him on the portside."
"I wasn't even close to the tanks!" exclaimed Astro.
"There was someone messing around them, then," said Roger.
"Yes," said Tom grimly. "But we don't know who—or what he did."
"From the sound of those rockets," said Astro, "Kit's feeders are clogged, or there's something in his reactant that the strainers are not filtering out."
"Well," sighed Roger, "there isn't anything Kit can do but keep going and hope that everything turns out for the best."
"If he can keep going!" said Tom. "You know, there are some things about this whole race that really puzzle me."
"What?" asked Roger.
"Impure reactant in Kit's ship, after fellows like Kit, Astro, and Sid checked it a hundred times. Gigi Duarte crashing after making record speed to the Moon. The minimum specifications being stolen from Commander Walters...." Tom stopped and looked at his friends. "That enough?"
Roger, Astro, and Sid considered the young cadet's words. The picture Tom presented had many curious sides and no one had the slightest idea of how to go beyond speculation and find proof!
"The winners are—" Captain Strong's voice rang loud and clear over the loud-speakers—"first place, Captain Sticoon, piloting the Marsopolis Limited entry, Space Lance! Second place, Captain Miles, piloting the Charles Brett Company entry, Space Knight! Third place, Captain Barnard, piloting his own ship, Good Company!"
There was a tremendous roar from the crowd. In front of the official stand, Tom, Roger, and Astro pounded Sid Goldberg on the back until he begged for mercy. On the stand, Strong and Kit shook hands and grinned at each other. And Commander Walters stepped up to congratulate the three winners. Walters handed each of them a personal message of good wishes from the Solar Council, and then, over the public-address system, made a short speech to the pilots of the losing ships thanking them for their co-operation and good sportsmanship. He paused, and in a voice hushed with emotion, offered a short prayer in memory of Gigi Duarte. The entire spaceport was quiet for two minutes without prompting, voluntarily paying homage to the brave spaceman.
After Walters left and the ceremonies were over, the three winners stood looking at each other, sizing up one another. Each of them knew that the winner of this race probably would go down in the history of deep space. There was fame and fortune to be won now. Quent Miles ignored Sticoon and swaggered over to Kit Barnard.
"You were lucky, Barnard," he sneered. "Too bad it won't last for the race."
"We'll see, Quent," said Kit coolly.
Sticoon said nothing, just watched them quietly. Quent Miles laughed and walked off the stand. Kit Barnard looked at Sticoon. "What's the matter with him?" he asked.
The Martian shrugged. "Got a hot rocket in his craw," he said quietly. "But watch your step with him, Kit. Personally, I wouldn't trust that spaceman as far as I could throw an asteroid."
Kit grinned. "Thanks—and good luck."
"I'll need it if you get that reactor of yours working," said the Martian.
He turned and left the stand without a word to Tom, Roger, or Astro. The three cadets looked at each other, feeling the tension in the air suddenly relax. Strong was busy talking to someone on the portable intercom and had missed the byplay between the three finalists.
"That Quent sure has a talent for making himself disliked," Tom commented to his unit mates.
"And all he's going to get for it is trouble," quipped Sid, who would not let any argument take away the pleasure he felt over winning the trials. "I'm going back to our ship and find out what happened to those feeders."
"I'll come with you," volunteered Astro.
"Just a minute, Astro," interrupted Strong. "I've been talking with Commander Walters. He's on his way back to the Tower of Galileo and called me from the portable communicator on the main slidewalk. He wants me to report to his office on the double. You three will have to take care of the final details here."
"Come down when you can," said Sid to Astro, and turned to leave with Kit.
"Something wrong, sir?" asked Tom.
"I don't know, Tom," replied Strong, a worried frown on his face. "Commander Walters seemed excited."
"Does it have anything to do with the race?" asked Roger.
"In a way it does," replied Strong. "I'm leaving on special assignment. I'm not sure, but I think you three will have to monitor the race by yourselves."
* * * * *
Major Connel sat to one side of Commander Walters' desk, a scowl on his heavy, fleshy face. The commander paced back and forth in front of the desk, and Captain Strong stood at the office window staring blankly down on the dark quadrangle below. The door opened and the three officers turned quickly to see Dr. Joan Dale enter, carrying several papers in her hand.
"Well, Joan?" asked Walters.
"I'm afraid that the reports are true, sir," Dr. Dale said. "There are positive signs of decreasing pressure in the artificial atmosphere around the settlements on Titan. The pressure is dropping and yet there is no indication that the force screen, holding back the real methane ammonia atmosphere of Titan, is not functioning properly."
"How about leaks?" Connel growled.
"Not possible, Major," replied the pretty physicist. "The force field, as you know, is made up of electronic impulses of pure energy. By shooting these impulses into the air around a certain area, like the settlement at Olympia, we can refract the methane ammonia, push it back if you will, like a solid wall. What the impulses do, actually, is create a force greater and thicker in content than the atmosphere of Titan, creating a vacuum. We then introduce oxygen into the vacuum, making it possible for humans to live without the cumbersome use of space helmets." Dr. Dale leaned against Commander Walters' desk and considered the three Solar Guard officers. "If we don't find out what's happening out there," she resumed grimly, "and do something about it soon, we'll have to abandon Titan."
"Abandon Titan!" roared Connel. "Can't be done."
"Impossible!" snapped Walters.
"It's going to happen," asserted the girl stoutly.
Connel sprang out of his chair and began pacing the floor. "We can't abandon Titan!" he roared. "Disrupt the flow of crystal and you'll set off major repercussions in the system's economy."
"We know that, Major," said Walters. "That's the prime reason for this meeting."
"May I make a suggestion, sir?" asked Strong.
"Go ahead, Steve," said Walters.
"While these graphs of Joan's show us what's happening, I think it will take on-the-spot investigations to find out why it's happening."
Connel flopped back in his chair, relaxed again. He looked at Walters. "Send Steve out there and we'll find out what's going on," he said confidently.
Walters looked at Strong. "When are the ships supposed to blast off for the race?"
"Tomorrow at 1800, sir."
"You planned to use the Polaris to monitor the race?"
"Think we should send the Polaris unit out alone?"
"I have a better suggestion, sir," said Strong.
"Since there are only three finalists, how about putting one cadet on each ship? Then I can take the Polaris and go on out to Titan now. When the boys arrive, they could help me with my investigation."
Walters looked at Connel. "What do you think, Major?"
"Sounds all right to me," replied the veteran spaceman. "If you think the companies won't object to having cadets monitor their race for them."
"They won't have anything to say about it," replied Walters. "I'd trust those cadets under any circumstances. And the race won't mean a thing unless we can find the source of trouble on Titan. There won't be any crystal to haul."
"Fine," grunted Connel. He rose, nodded, and left the room. He was not being curt, he was being Connel. The problem had been temporarily solved and there was nothing else he could do. There were other things that demanded his attention.
"What about me going along too, Commander?" asked Joan.
"Better not, Joan," said Walters. "You're more valuable to us here in the Academy laboratory."
"Very well, sir," she said. "I have some work to finish, so I'll leave you now. Good luck, Steve." She shook hands with the young captain and left.
Walters turned back to Strong. "Well, now that's settled, tell me, what do you think of the race tomorrow, Steve?"
"If Kit Barnard gets that reactor of his functioning properly, he'll run away from the other two."
"I don't know," mused Walters. "Wild Bill Sticoon is a hot spaceman. One of the best rocket jockeys I've ever seen. Did I ever tell you what we went through a few years back trying to get him to join the Solar Guard?" Walters laughed. "We promised him everything but the Moon. But he didn't want any part of us. 'Can't ride fast enough in your wagons, Commander,' he told me. Quite a boy!"
"And with Quent Miles in there, it's going to be a very hot race," asserted Strong.
"Ummmmh," Walters grunted. "He's the unknown quantity. Did you see that ship of his? Never saw anything more streamlined in my whole life."
"And the cadets said he stripped her of everything but the hull plates."
"It paid off for him," said Walters. "He and Charley Brett are certainly working hard to get this contract."
"There's a lot of money involved, sir," said Strong. "But in any case we're bound to get a good schedule with the speeds established so far."
"Well, advise the cadets to stand by for blast-off with the finalists tomorrow."
"Any particular ship you want them each assigned to, sir?" asked Strong.
"No, let them decide," replied Walters. "But it would be best if you could keep Manning away from Miles. That's like putting a rocket into a fire and asking it not to explode."
The two men grinned at each other and then settled down to working out the details of Strong's trip. Before the evening was over, Walters had decided, if necessary, he would follow Strong out to Titan.
In the distance, they could hear the muffled roar of rocket motors as the three finalists tuned up their ships, preparing for the greatest space race in history. And it seemed to Strong that with each blast there was a vaguely ominous echo.
* * * * *
"I've strained that fuel four times and come up with the same answer," said Astro. The giant Venusian held up the oil-smeared test tube for Kit Barnard's inspection. "Impure reactant. And so impure that it couldn't possibly have come from the Academy supply depot. It would have been noticed."
"Then how did it get in my feeders?" asked Kit, half to himself.
"Whoever was messing around on the power deck just before you blasted off for the trials must have dumped it in," said Tom.
"Obviously." Kit nodded. "But who is that? Who would want to do a dirty thing like that?"
"Who indeed?" said a voice in back of them. They all spun around to face Quent Miles. He lounged against the stabilizer fin and grinned at them.
"What do you want, Miles?" asked Kit.
"Just stopped by to give you the proverbial handshake of good luck before we blast off," replied the spaceman with a mocking wink.
"Kit doesn't need your good wishes," snapped Sid.
"Well, now, that's too bad," said Quent. "I have a feeling that he's going to need a lot more than luck."
"Listen, Miles," snapped Kit, "did you come aboard my ship and tamper with the fuel?"
Quent's eyes clouded. "Careful of your accusations, Barnard."
"I'm not accusing you, I'm asking you."
"See you in space." Quent laughed, turning to leave, not answering the question. "But then, again, maybe I won't see you." He disappeared into the darkness of the night.
"The nerve of that guy," growled Tom.
"Yes," Kit agreed, shrugging his shoulders. "But I'm more concerned about this unit than I am about Quent Miles and his threats. Let's get back to work."
Renewing their efforts, Tom, Roger, Astro, Sid, and Kit Barnard turned to the reactor unit and began the laborious job of putting it back together again, at the same time replacing worn-out parts and adjusting the delicate clearances.
It was just before dawn when Strong visited Kit's ship. Seeing the cadets stripped to the waist and working with the veteran spaceman, he roared his disapproval. "Of all the crazy things to do! Don't you know that you could have Kit disqualified for helping him?"
"But—but—" Tom tried to stammer an explanation.
"I couldn't have done it alone," explained Kit. He looked at Strong and their eyes met. Understanding flowed between them.
"Very well," said Strong, fighting to control himself. "If no one makes a complaint against you, we'll let it pass."
"Thanks, Steve," said Kit.
"You should have known better, Kit," said Strong. "The Solar Guard is supposed to be neutral throughout the entire race and do nothing but judge it."
"I know, Steve," said Kit. "But someone dumped impure reactant into my—"
"What?" It was the first time Strong had heard of it and he listened intently as the cadets and Sid told him the whole story.
"Why didn't you make a complaint?" demanded Strong finally. "We'd have given you more time to get squared away."
"It's not important," said Kit. "I won a place in the finals and now the boys and Sid have helped me clean it out."
Strong nodded. "All right. I guess one seems to balance out the other. Forget it." He smiled. "And excuse me for jumping like that and thinking that you would do anything—er—" He hesitated.
"That's all right, Steve." Kit spoke up quickly to save his friend embarrassment.
Strong turned to the cadets. "I've got news for you three. You are going to monitor the race by yourselves."
Tom, Roger, and Astro looked at each other dumfounded as Strong quickly outlined the plan. Later, when Sid and Kit were working inside the ship, he told them of the sudden danger on Titan.
"So I'm going to leave it up to you which ship you want to ride," he concluded. "The commander has suggested that Roger not be sent along with Miles on the Space Knight. He seems to think the two of you wouldn't get along."
"On the contrary, skipper," said Roger, "I'd like the opportunity of keeping an eye on him."
Strong thought a moment. "Not a bad idea, Roger," he said as he turned to Astro. "And I suppose you want to ride with Kit and his reactor?"
Astro grinned. "Yes, sir. If I may."
"All right. Tom, I guess that means you ride with Wild Bill Sticoon."
"That's all right with me, sir," the young cadet said excitedly. "This is something I'll be able to tell my grandchildren—riding with the hottest spaceman in the hottest race through space."
* * * * *
Quent Miles spun around, his paralo-ray gun leveled. He saw a figure enter through the hatch, but when light revealed the face he relaxed.
"Oh, it's you!" he grumbled. "I thought you were setting things up back at Atom City."
"You fumble-fisted, space-gassing jerk!" snarled Charley Brett. "Depend on you to get things messed up! That Barnard guy is all set to roll with his reactor!"