ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES
A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure
By CAREY ROCKWELL
WILLY LEY Technical Adviser
ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOUIS GLANZMAN
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York
COPYRIGHT, 1953, BY ROCKHILL RADIO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
[Transcriber's note: This is a rule 6 clearance. PG has not been able to find a copyright renewal for this book.]
Hawks stood up and eyed the two men coldly
Tom saw three pretty girls board the ship
The hatch opened again and the two spacemen entered the air lock
The scar-faced man obviously wanted something from Tom
The young cadet timed his move perfectly
All Solar Guard defense measures seemed to be futile
Astro and Coxine were locked in mortal combat
ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES
A metallic voice rasped over the loud-speakers and echoed through the lofty marble and aluminum concourse of the New Chicago Monorail Terminal. "Atom City express on Track Seven! Space Academy first stop! Passengers for Space Academy will please take seats in the first six cars!"
As the crowd of people waiting in the concourse surged through the gate leading to Track Seven, three boys in the royal-blue uniforms of the Space Cadet Corps slowly picked up their plastic space bags and joined the mass of travelers.
Wearily, they drifted with the crowd and stepped on the slidestairs leading down to the monorail platform. In the lead, Tom Corbett, the command cadet of the unit, a tall, curly-haired boy of eighteen, slouched against the handrail and looked back at his two unit-mates, Roger Manning and Astro. Manning, a slender cadet, with close-cropped blond hair, was yawning and blinking his eyes sleepily, while Astro, the third member of the unit, a head taller than either of his unit-mates and fifty pounds heavier, stood flat-footed on the step, eyes closed, his giant bulk swaying slightly with the motion of the slidestairs.
"Huh! A real snappy unit!" Tom muttered to himself.
"Hmmm? What?" Roger blinked and stared bleary-eyed at Tom.
"Nothing, Roger," Tom replied. "I only hope you guys can stay awake long enough to get on the monorail."
"It's your own fault, Tom," rumbled Astro in his bull-like voice. "If your family hadn't thrown so many parties for us while we were on leave, we'd have had more sleep."
"I didn't hear any complaints then," snorted Tom. "Just get into the car before you cork off, will you? I'm in no shape to carry you."
Seconds later, the slidestairs deposited the three boys on the platform and they slowly made their way through the crowd toward the forward cars of the monorail. Entering the third car, they found three seats together and collapsed into their luxurious softness.
"Oh, brother!" Tom groaned as he curled himself into the cushions, "I'm going to sleep all the way to the Academy."
"I'm asleep already," mumbled Roger, his voice muffled by his cap pulled low over his face.
Suddenly Astro sat bolt upright. "I'm hungry!" he announced.
"Oh, no!" moaned Tom.
"Why, you overgrown Venusian ape, Mrs. Corbett gave you dinner less than an hour ago!" Roger complained. "Steak, French fries, beans, corn, pie, ice cream...."
"Two helpings," chimed in Tom.
"And now you're hungry!" Roger was incredulous.
"Can't help it," calmly answered Astro. "I'm a big guy, that's all." He began digging through his space bag for an apple Mrs. Corbett had thoughtfully provided.
Tom finally stirred and sat up. He had learned a long time ago the futility of trying to deny Astro's Gargantuan appetite. "There's a dining car on this section of the monorail, Astro," he said, slapping a crumpled mass of credits into the Venusian's hamlike hand. "Here. Have yourself a good time." He slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes.
"Yeah," growled Roger, "and when you come back, don't make any noise!"
Astro smiled. He got up carefully and climbed over his two sleeping mates. Standing in the aisle, he counted the credits Tom had given him and turned to the front of the car. Suddenly a heavy voice growled behind him.
"One side, spaceboy!"
A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him to one side. Caught off balance, Astro fell back on his sleeping unit-mates.
"Hey! What th—" stuttered Astro as he sprawled on top of his friends. The two sleepy cadets came up howling.
"Astro! What in blazes do you think you're doing?" roared Tom.
"Why, you space-brained idiot," yelled Roger, "I ought to lay one on your chin!"
There was a tangle of arms and legs and finally the three cadets struggled to their feet. Astro turned to see who had pushed him.
Two men standing at the end of the car grinned back at him.
"It was those two guys at the end of the car," explained Astro. "They pushed me!" He lumbered toward them, followed by Tom and Roger.
Stopping squarely in front of them, he demanded, "What's the big idea?"
"Go back to your beauty rest, spaceboy!" jeered the heavier of the two men and turned to his companion, adding with a snarl, "How do you like his nerve? We not only have to pay taxes to support these lazy kids and teach them how to be spacemen, but they're loud-mouthed and sassy on top of it!"
The other man, smaller and rat-faced, laughed. "Yeah, we oughta report them to their little soldier bosses at Space Academy."
Astro suddenly balled his fists and stepped forward, but Tom grabbed his arm and pulled him back while Roger eased himself between his mates and the two grinning men.
"You know, Tom," he drawled, looking the heavier of the two right in the eye, "the only thing I don't like about being a Space Cadet is having to be polite to all the people, including the space crawlers!"
"Why, you little punk," sneered the bigger man, "I oughta wipe up the deck with you!"
Roger smiled thinly. "Don't try it, mister. You wouldn't know what hit you!"
"Come on, Wallace," said the smaller man. "Leave 'em alone and let's go."
Astro took another step forward and roared, "Blast off. Both of you!"
The two men turned quickly and disappeared through the door leading to the next monorail car.
The three cadets turned and headed back down the aisle to their seats.
"Let's get some sleep," said Tom. "We better be in good shape for that new assignment when we hit the Academy. No telling what it'll be, where we'll go, or worse yet, when we'll blast off. And I, for one, want to have a good night's rest under my belt."
"Yeah," agreed Roger, settling himself into the cushions once more. "Wonder what the orders will be. Got any ideas, Tom?"
"No idea at all, Roger," answered Tom. "The audiogram just said report back to the Academy immediately for assignment."
"Hey, Astro!" exclaimed Roger, seeing the Venusian climb back into his seat. "Aren't you going to eat?"
"I'm not hungry any more," grunted Astro. "Those guys made me lose my appetite."
Tom looked at Roger and winked. "Maybe we'd better tell Captain Strong about this, Roger."
"Get Astro mad enough and he won't want to eat. The Academy can cut down on its food bills."
"Ah, rocket off, you guys," growled Astro sleepily.
Tom and Roger smiled at each other, closed their eyes, and in a moment the three cadets of the Polaris unit were sound asleep.
* * * * *
Suspended from a single gleaming rail that stretched across the western plains like an endless silver ribbon, the monorail express hurtled through the early dawn speeding its passengers to their destination. As the gleaming line of streamlined cars crossed the newly developed grazing lands that had once been the great American desert, Tom Corbett stirred from a deep sleep. The slanting rays of the morning sun were shining in his eyes. Tom yawned, stretched, and turned to the viewport to watch the scenery flash past. Looming up over the flat grassy plains ahead, he could see a huge bluish mountain range, its many peaks covered with ever-present snow. In a few moments Tom knew the train would rocket through a tunnel and then on the other side, in the center of a deep, wide valley, he would see Space Academy, the university of the planets and headquarters of the great Solar Guard.
He reached over and shook Roger and Astro, calling, "All right, spacemen, time to hit the deck!"
"Uh? Ah-ummmh!" groaned Roger.
"Ahhhoooohhhhhh!" yawned Astro. Standing up, he stretched and touched the top of the monorail car.
"Let's get washed before the other passengers wake up," said Tom, and headed for the morning room. Astro and Roger followed, dragging their feet and rubbing their eyes.
Five minutes later, as the sleek monorail whistled into the tunnel beneath the mountain range, the boys of the Polaris unit returned to their seats.
"Back to the old grind," sighed Roger. "Drills, maneuvers, books, lectures. The same routine, day in day out."
"Maybe not," said Tom. "Remember, the order for us to report back was signed by Commander Walters, not the cadet supervisor of leaves. I think that means something special."
Suddenly the monorail roared out of the tunnel and into brilliant early-morning sun again.
The three cadets turned quickly, their eyes sweeping the valley for the first sight of the shining Tower of Galileo.
"There it is," said Tom, pointing toward a towering crystal building reflecting the morning light. "We'll be there in a minute."
Even as Tom spoke, the speed of the monorail slackened as it eased past a few gleaming structures of aluminum and concrete. Presently the white platform of the Academy station drifted past the viewport and all forward motion stopped. The doors opened and the three boys hurried to the exit.
All around the cadets, men and women in the vari-colored uniforms of the Solar Guard hurried through the station. The green of the Earthworm cadets, first-year students of the Cadet Corps; the brilliant rich blue of the senior cadets like the Polaris unit; the scarlet red of the enlisted Solar Guard; and here and there, the black and gold of the officers of the Solar Guard.
The three cadets hurried to the nearest slidewalk, a moving belt of plastic that glided silently across the ground toward Space Academy. It whisked them quickly past the few buildings nestled around the monorail station and rounded a curve. The three cadets looked up together at the gleaming Tower of Galileo. Made of pure Titan crystal, it soared above the cluster of buildings that surrounded the grassy quadrangle and dominated Space Academy like a translucent giant.
The cadets stepped off the slidewalk as it glided past the Tower building and ran up the broad marble stair. At the huge main portal, Tom stopped and looked back over the Academy grounds. All around him lay the evidence of mankind's progress. It was the year 2353, when Earthman had long since colonized the inner planets, Mars and Venus, and the three large satellites, Moon of Earth, Ganymede of Jupiter, and Titan of Saturn. It was the age of space travel; of the Solar Alliance, a unified society of billions of people who lived in peace with one another, though sprawled throughout the universe; and the Solar Guard, the might of the Solar Alliance and the defender of interplanetary peace. All these things Tom saw as he stood in the wide portal of the Tower Building, flanked by Astro and Roger.
Turning into the Tower, the three cadets went directly to the office of their unit commander. The training program at Space Academy consisted of three cadets to a unit, with a Solar Guard officer as their teacher and instructor. Steve Strong, captain in the Solar Guard, had been their cadet instructor since the unit had been formed and he now smiled a welcome as the cadets snapped to attention in front of his desk.
"Polaris unit reporting as ordered, sir," said Tom, handing over the audiogram order he had received the day before.
"Thank you, Corbett," said Strong, taking the paper. "At ease."
The three boys relaxed and broke into wide grins as Strong rounded his desk and shook hands with each of them.
"Glad to have you back, boys," he said. "Did you enjoy your leave?"
"And how, sir," replied Tom.
"Tom's mother showed us a whale of a good time," chimed in Roger.
"And how she can cook!" Astro licked his lips involuntarily.
"Well, I hope you had a good rest—" said Strong, but was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a small bell. Behind his desk a small teleceiver screen glowed into life to reveal the stern face of Commander Walters, the commander of Space Academy.
Strong turned to the teleceiver and called, "Yes, Commander Walters?"
"Did the Polaris unit arrive yet, Steve?" asked the commander.
"Yes, sir," replied Strong. "They're here in my office now, sir."
"Good," said the commander with a smile. "I just received a report the exposition will open sooner than expected. I suggest you brief the cadets and raise ship as soon as possible."
"Very well, sir," answered Strong. The screen darkened and he turned back to the cadets. "Looks like you got back just in time."
"What's up, sir?" asked Tom.
Strong returned to his chair and sat down. "I suppose you've all heard about the Solar Exposition that opens on Venus next week?"
Tom's eyes lit up. "Have we! That's all the stereos and visunews and teleceivers have been yacking about for weeks now."
"Well," said Strong with a smile, "we're going!"
The three cadets couldn't restrain themselves and burst out in a happy shout. Then Roger calmed down enough to comment, "Sounds more like another vacation than an assignment, sir."
"Hardly, Manning," replied Strong. "You see, every industry, society, organization, and governmental agency is setting up exhibits at the exposition to show the people what's taking place in their part of the solar system. There'll also be an amusement section." Strong chuckled. "I've seen pictures of some of the tricks and rides they've developed to entertain the younger generation. Believe me, I'd rather take full acceleration on a rocket ship than ride on any of them."
"But what will we do, sir?" asked Tom.
"Our job is very simple. We're to take the Polaris to the exposition and land on the fairgrounds. When the fair opens, we show all the visitors who are interested, everything about her."
"You mean we're going to be"—Roger swallowed—"guides?"
"That's right, Manning," said Strong. "You three will guide all visitors through the Polaris."
"How long will we be there, sir?" asked Tom.
"A month or so, I guess. The Polaris will be the first Academy exhibit. When you leave, another unit will replace you with their ship and do the same thing."
"But—but—" stammered Astro, "what will we say to them? The visitors, I mean?"
"Just answer all their questions, Astro. Also, make up a little speech about the functions of your particular station."
Strong looked at his watch and rose to his feet. "It's getting late. Check the Polaris over and stand by to raise ship in an hour."
"Yes, sir," said Tom.
The cadets came to attention, preparing to leave.
"One thing more! Don't get the idea that this is going to be a space lark," said Strong. "It's very important for the people of the Solar Alliance to know what kind of work we're doing here at the Academy. And you three have been selected as representatives of the entire Cadet Corps. So see that you conduct yourselves accordingly. All right, dismissed!"
The three cadets saluted sharply and filed out of the room, their skipper's final words ringing in their ears.
Fifteen minutes later, having packed the necessary gear for the extended trip, the Polaris unit rode the slidewalk through the grassy quadrangle and the cluster of Academy buildings, out toward the spaceport. In the distance they could see the rocket cruiser Polaris, poised on the launching ramp, her long silhouette outlined sharply against the blue sky. Resting on her four stabilizer fins, her nose pointed toward the stars, the ship looked like a giant projectile poised and ready to blast its target.
"Look at her!" exclaimed Astro. "If she isn't the most beautiful ship in the universe, I'll eat my hat."
"Don't see how you could," drawled Roger, "after the way you put away Mrs. Corbett's pies!"
Tom laughed. "I'll tell you one thing, Roger," he said, pointing to the ship, "I feel like that baby is as much my home as Mom's and Dad's house back in New Chicago."
"All right, all right," said Roger. "Since we're all getting sloppy, I have to admit that I'm glad to see that old thrust bucket too!"
Presently the three cadets were scrambling into the mighty spaceship, and they went right to work, preparing for blast-off.
Quickly, with sure hands, each began a systematic check of his station. On the power deck Astro, a former enlisted Solar Guardsman who had been admitted to the Cadet Corps because of his engineering genius, stripped to the waist and started working on the ship's massive atomic engines. A heavy rocketman's belt of tools slung around his waist, he crawled through the heart of the ship, adjusting a valve here, turning a screw there, seeing that the reactant feeders were clean and clear to the rocket firing chambers. And last of all he made sure the great rocket firing chambers were secure and the heavy sheets of lead baffling in place to protect him from deadly radioactivity.
On the radar bridge in the nose of the ship, Roger removed the delicate astrogation prism from its housing and cleaned it with a soft cloth. Replacing it carefully, he turned to the radar scanner, checking the intricate wiring system and making sure that the range finders were in good working order. He then turned his attention to the intercom.
"Radar bridge to control deck," he called. "Checking the intercom, Tom."
Immediately below, on the control deck, Tom turned away from the control panel. "All clear here, Roger. Check with Astro."
"All clear on the power deck!" The big Venusian's voice boomed over the loud-speaker. The intercom could be heard all over the ship unless the many speakers were turned off individually.
Tom turned his attention back to the great control panel, and one by one tested the banks of dials, gauges, and indicators that controlled the rocket cruiser. Tom Corbett had wanted to be a space Cadet as long as he could remember. After taking the entrance exams, he had been accepted for the rigid training that would prepare him to enter the ranks of the great Solar Guard. He had met his two unit-mates, Roger and Astro, on his very first day at the Academy, and after a difficult beginning, adjusting to each other's personalities and the discipline of the Academy routine, the three boys had become steadfast friends.
As control-deck cadet and pilot, Tom was head of the unit, second-in-command to Captain Strong. And while he could issue orders to Astro and Roger and expect to be obeyed, the three cadets all spoke their minds when it came to making difficult decisions. This had solidified the three cadets into a fighting, experienced, dependable unit.
Tom made a final check on the gravity generator and turned to the intercom.
"All departments, report!" he called.
"Radar bridge checks in O.K.," replied Roger.
"Power deck checks in on the nose, Tom," reported Astro.
"Right! Stand by! We blast as soon as the skipper gets around."
Tom turned to the teleceiver and switched it on. The screen blurred and then steadied into a view of the spaceport outside. Tom scanned the launching ramp below, and, satisfied it was clear, he switched the teleceiver to the spaceport traffic-control circuit.
"Rocket cruiser Polaris to spaceport control," he called. "Come in, spaceport control. Request orbit clearance."
"Spaceport traffic control to Polaris," reported the traffic officer, his face in focus on the teleceiver screen. "Your orbit has been cleared for blast-off. Orbit number 3847—repeat, 3847—raise ship when ready!"
"Orbit 3847," repeated Tom. "End transmission!"
"End transmission," said the officer. Tom flipped off the teleceiver and the officer's face disappeared.
At the rear of the control deck, Captain Strong suddenly stepped through the hatch and dropped his black plastic space bag on the deck. Tom got up and saluted sharply.
"Polaris ready to blast off, sir," he said. "Orbit cleared."
"Very well, Corbett," replied Strong, returning the salute. "Carry on!"
Tom turned back to the control board and flipped on the intercom. "Control deck to power deck! Energize the cooling pumps!"
"Cooling pumps, aye!" said Astro.
From the power deck, the massive pumps began their whining roar. The great ship shuddered under the pressure.
Tom watched the gauge that indicated the pressure control and then called into the intercom.
"Radar bridge, do we have a clear trajectory?'
"All clear forward and up, Tom," reported Roger from the radar bridge.
"Strap in for blast-off!" bawled the curly-haired cadet.
Captain Strong took his place in the pilot's chair next to Tom and strapping himself in snapped out, "Feed reactant!"
Spinning a small wheel at the side of the control panel, Tom reported, "Feeders at D-9 rate, sir!"
Then, as the hiss of fuel pouring into the mighty engines of the ship blended with the whine of the pumps, Tom snapped out a third order. "Cut in take-off six yards!"
Receiving acknowledgment from below, he grasped the master blast-off switch and watched the sweeping hand of the astral chronometer.
"Stand by to raise ship!" he yelled. "Blast off minus—five—four—three—two—one—zero!"
He pulled the switch.
Slowly, the rockets blasting evenly, the giant ship lifted itself free of the ground. Then, gaining speed, it began rocketing away from the Earth. Like a giant shining bullet, the great spaceship blasted through the dark void of space, her nose pointed to the distant misty planet of Venus.
Once again Tom Corbett and his unit-mates had embarked on a mission for the Solar Guard.
"Stand by for touchdown!" bellowed Captain Strong's voice on the big spaceship's intercom.
"Control deck standing by," replied Tom.
"Corbett," Strong continued, "you may take her down as soon as you get clearance from Venusport traffic control."
Tom acknowledged the order with a brisk "Aye, sir! In a few moments he received permission to touch down on the newly colonized planet. Then, turning his attention to the control board, he requested a ground-approach check from Roger.
"About two miles to touchdown, Tom," reported Roger from the radar bridge. "Trajectory clear!"
"O.K., Roger," said Tom. Glancing quickly at the air speed and rocket thrust indicators, he flipped a switch and sang out, "Power deck, reduce thrust on main drive rockets to minimum!"
"Got ya, Tom," boomed Astro.
"Closing in fast, sir," said Tom to Strong, who had come up from below and now stood at the cadet's shoulder watching as Tom maneuvered the big ship through the Venusian atmosphere, his keen eyes sweeping the great panel of recording gauges and dials.
"One thousand feet to touchdown," intoned Roger from the radar bridge.
Reacting swiftly, Tom adjusted several levers, then picking up the intercom microphone, he threw a switch and yelled, "Power deck! Full braking thrust!"
Deep inside the Polaris, Astro, who tended the mighty rocket power plant with loving care, eased home the sensitive control mechanism, applying even pressure to the braking rockets.
As the giant spaceship settled smoothly to within a few feet of the surface of the concrete spaceport, Tom threw the master switch that cut all power. A moment later the huge craft dropped easily, then settled on the landing platform with a gentle thump.
"Touchdown!" yelled Tom. Then, glancing at the astral chronometer on the control board, he turned to Strong, and saluting smartly, reported, "Polaris completes space flight at exactly seven fifty-two-O-two!"
Strong returned the salute. "Very well, Tom. Now, I want you, Roger, and Astro to come with me to the exposition commissioner's office for an interview and detailed orders."
"Yes, sir," said Tom.
A few minutes later, dressed in fresh uniforms, the three cadets followed their unit commander out of the ship, then stood by as Strong ordered the chief petty officer of an enlisted Solar Guard working party to prepare the Polaris for moving to the exposition site.
"Empty the reactant fuel tanks of all but enough for us to raise ship and touch down over to the fairgrounds," said Strong. "Better strip her of armament, too. Paralo-ray pistols and rifles, the three-inch and six-inch atomic blasters, narco sleeping gas; in fact, everything that could possibly cause any trouble."
"Yes, sir," replied the scarlet-clad enlisted spaceman.
"One thing more," added Strong. "There will be a crew living aboard, so please see that the galley is stocked with a full supply of both fresh and synthetic foods. That's about all, I guess."
"Very well, sir," replied the petty officer with a crisp salute. He turned and began bawling orders to a squad of men behind him and immediately they were swarming over the great ship like ants.
Fifteen minutes later, a jet cab swerved to a stop in front of the tallest of the Venusport buildings, the Solar Alliance Chamber. Strong paid the driver, adding a handsome tip, and flanked by his three cadets strode briskly into the building.
Crossing a high-ceilinged lobby, they entered an express vacuum elevator and five seconds later stepped out onto the four-hundredth floor. There, Strong slid a panel door to one side, and, followed by the cadets, stepped inside the office of Mike Hawks, exposition commissioner and retired senior officer of the Solar Guard.
The office was impressively large and airy, with an outside wall forming a viewport of clear Titan crystal reaching from floor to vaulted ceiling and affording a magnificent view of the city of Venusport and, beyond it, the futuristic buildings of the exposition itself. Another wall, equally as large, was covered by a map of the exposition grounds.
Mike Hawks, a man with steel-gray hair, clear blue eyes, and a ramrod military bearing, sat behind a massive desk talking to two men. He looked up when Strong and the cadets walked in and rose quickly with a broad smile to greet them.
"Steve!" he exclaimed, rounding the desk to shake hands with his old friend. "I never dreamed we'd have you and the Polaris unit at our fair!" He nodded warmly to the cadets who stood at rigid attention. "At ease, cadets. Glad to have you aboard."
"I was just as surprised to get this assignment, Mike," said Strong, pumping the officer's hand. Nodding toward the men seated in front of Hawks' desk, he apologized, "Sorry to bust in on you like this, old man. Didn't know you were busy."
"It's quite all right." The commissioner smiled. "Just handing out a few licenses for the concessions in the amusement section at the fair. People expect to have a little fun when they go to a fair, you know. By the stars, they're going to have it so long as I'm commissioner." He turned to the cadets. "Sit down, boys. You too, Steve. I'll be with you in a minute." He turned back to his desk and the waiting men.
The cadets, at a nod from Strong, sat down on a leather couch that stretched the length of one wall and listened while Hawks completed his business with the two men.
"There you are," said Hawks, applying the seal of his office to a slip of paper. "That gives you the right to operate a concession in the amusement area as long as the fair is open."
One of the men took the paper and glanced at it quickly.
"Wait a minute, Commissioner. This is over near the edge of the area," he complained. "We wanted to get in the middle. How do you expect us to make any credits away out there by ourselves?" The man's tone was surly and disrespectful.
"Sorry, but that's the only location left. In fact," Hawks added acidly, "you're lucky to get it!"
"Really?" sneered the heavier of the two. "Well, I'm sure going to find out about this!"
Hawks stood up and eyed the two men coldly. "I've been appointed commissioner of this exposition by the delegates to the Solar Alliance Council. I answer only to the council. If you have a complaint, then you must present your case before that body." He cleared his throat and glared at them from behind his desk. "Good day, gentlemen!" he said.
The two men, who until now had been seated facing the desk, got up, and after glaring at Hawks, turned and walked toward the door. Tom gasped, and grabbing Roger by the arm, involuntarily pointed at the two men.
"Look, Roger—those men—" he whispered.
"Yeah," said Roger. "Those are the wise-guy space crawlers we met on the monorail, the ones who called us punks!"
"How'd they get here so fast?" asked Astro.
"Must have taken a jetliner from Atom City, I guess."
Strong, who sat near Tom, heard the exchange between the cadets.
"You know those men?" he asked.
"Well—uh—not exactly, sir. We just had a little run-in with them on the monorail returning from leave, that's all," said Tom. "Nothing serious. They don't think much of the Solar Guard, though."
"I gathered as much," said Hawks dryly. He walked over from his desk. "I hated to give them the license to operate, but I had to, since I had no valid reason to turn them down. They have a good idea, too."
"That so? What is it?" asked Strong.
"They have an old chemical-burning space freighter in which they're going to take fair visitors up for a short ride. You see, the big one, Gus Wallace, is an old deep-space merchantman. The smaller one is Luther Simms, a rocketman."
"Hm. Not a bad idea at all," mused Strong. "They should make out all right."
With that, the two Solar Guard officers dropped the incident of Wallace and Simms and turned to exchanging news of mutual friends and of what each had been doing since their last meeting. Finally, as the conversation was brought around to the exposition, Hawks got up and sat on the side of the desk, facing Strong and the cadets. His eyes glowed as he spoke.
"Steve," he said, "this is going to be the greatest gathering of minds, thoughts, and ideas in the knowledgeable history of mankind! There are going to be lectures from the greatest minds in the system on any and all subjects you can think of. In one building we're going to build a whole spaceship—a rocket cruiser—piece by piece, right in front of the eyes of fair visitors. In another building we're going to have the greatest collection of musicians in the universe, continuously playing the most beautiful music, in a hall built to seat a half million people. Industry, science, medicine, art, literature, astrophysics, space flight, to say nothing of a comparative history exhibit designed to show the people where our forefathers went off the track by warring against each other. In fact, Steve, everything you can think of, and then more, will be represented here at the exposition. Why, do you know I've been working for three years, co-ordinating ideas, activity, and information!"
Strong and the cadets sat transfixed as they listened to the commissioner speak in glowing terms of the exposition, which, until this time, by the cadets at least, had been considered little more than a giant amusement park. Finally Strong managed to say, "And we thought the Polaris was going to be so big, it'd be the center of attraction." He smiled.
Hawks waved his hand. "Look, I don't want to offend you or the boys, Steve, but the fact is, the Polaris is one of the smaller exhibits!"
"I can see that now," answered Strong. "Tell me, Mike, just what do you want us to do?"
"I'll answer that in two parts. First, I would like the cadets to set up the Polaris, get her shining and bright, and with quiet courtesy, answer any question anyone might ask concerning the ship, referring any question they can't answer to the information center in the Space Building."
"That's all, sir?" asked Tom incredulously.
"That's all, Corbett. You open the Polaris at nine in the morning and close her at nine at night. You'll be living aboard, of course."
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir."
"That sounds so simple," drawled Roger, "it might be tough."
"It will be tough, Manning," commented Hawks. "Don't fool yourself into assuming otherwise."
"Don't worry about these boys, Mike. Now, what is part two?" Strong asked.
Hawks smiled. "Here it is, Steve. The Solar Alliance has decided to open the exposition with a simple speech made by a relatively unknown person, but one who is deserving of such an honor. They left the choice of that person up to me." He paused and added quietly, "I'd like you to make that opening speech, Steve."
"Me!" cried Strong. "Me, make a speech?"
"I can't think of anyone more deserving—or dependable."
"But—but—" stammered the captain, "I can't make a speech. I wouldn't know what to say."
"Say anything you want. Just make it short and to the point."
Strong hesitated a moment. He realized it was a great honor, but his naturally shy personality kept him from accepting.
"Steve, it may make it easier for you to know," said Hawks teasingly, "that there's going to be a giant capsule lowered into the ground which will contain a record of every bit of progress made since the inception of the Solar Alliance. It's designed to show the men of the future how to do everything from treating a common cold to exploding nuclear power. This capsule will be lowered at the end of your opening address. So, most of the attention will be focused on the capsule, not you." The commissioner smiled.
"All right, Mike," said Strong, grinning sheepishly. "You've got yourself a speechmaker!"
"Good!" said Hawks and the two men shook hands.
Tom Corbett could contain himself no longer. "Congratulations, sir!" he blurted out as the three cadets stood up. "We think Commissioner Hawks couldn't have made a better choice!" His unit-mates nodded a vigorous assent.
Strong shook hands with the cadets and thanked them.
"You want the cadets for anything right now, Mike?" asked Strong.
"Not a thing, Steve."
Strong turned back to the boys. "Better hop out to the spaceport and get the Polaris over the exposition site, cadets. Soon as you set her down, clean her up a little, then relax. I'll be at the Galaxy Hotel if you need me."
"Yes, sir," said Tom.
The cadets saluted sharply and left the office.
Arriving at the spaceport, they found the Polaris stripped of her guns and her galley stocked with food. The chief petty officer in charge of the enlisted spacemen detail was roving through the passageways of the rocket cruiser when Tom found him.
"Everything set, chief?" asked Tom.
"All set, Cadet Corbett," reported the elderly spaceman, saluting smartly. He gave Tom a receipt for the list of the equipment that had been removed from the ship and signed the logbook. Tom thanked him and made a hurried check of the control deck, with Roger and Astro reporting from the radar and power decks. With the precision and assurance of veteran spacemen, the three Space Cadets lifted the great ship up over the heart of the sprawling Venusian city and brought it down gently in the clearing provided for it at the exposition site, a grassy square surrounded on three sides by buildings of shimmering crystal walls.
No sooner had the giant ship settled itself to the ground, than a crew of exposition workers began laying a slidewalk toward her, while another crew began the construction of an aluminum staircase to the entrance port in her giant fin.
Almost before they realized it, Tom, Roger, and Astro found themselves busy with a hundred little things concerning the ship and their part in the fair. They were visited by the subcommissioner of the exposition and advised of the conveniences provided for the participants of the fair. Then, finally, as a last worker finished the installation of a photoelectric cell across the entrance port to count visitors to the ship, Tom, Roger, and Astro began the dirty job of washing down the giant titanium hull with a special cleaning fluid, while all around them the activity of the fair buzzed with nervous excitement.
Suddenly the three cadets heard the unmistakable roar of jets in the sky. Automatically, they looked up and saw a spaceship, nose up, decelerating as it came in for a touchdown on a clearing across one of the wide spacious streets of the fairgrounds.
"Well, blast my jets!" exclaimed Astro, his eyes clinging to the flaming exhausts as the ship lowered itself to the ground.
"That craft must be at least fifty years old!"
"I've got a rocket-blasting good idea, Tom," said Roger.
The exit port of the spaceship opened, and the three cadets watched Gus Wallace and Luther Simms climb down the ladder.
"Hey," yelled Roger, "better be careful with that broken-down old boiler. It might blow up!"
The two men glared at the grinning Roger but didn't answer.
"Take it easy, Roger," cautioned Tom. "We don't want to start anything that might cause us and Captain Strong trouble before the fair even opens. So let's leave them alone."
"What are you afraid of?" drawled Roger, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Just a little fun with those guys won't hurt." He stepped to the side of the clearing and leaned over the fence separating the two areas.
"Tell me something, spaceman," he yelled to Wallace, who was busy with some gear at the base of the ship, "you don't expect people to pay to ride that thing, do you?" He smiled derisively and added, "Got insurance to cover the families?"
"Listen, punk!" sneered Wallace, "get back over to your Solar Guard space toy and keep your trap shut!"
"Now—now—" jeered Roger, "mustn't get nasty. Remember, we're going to be neighbors. Never can tell when you might want to borrow some baling wire or chewing gum to keep your craft together!"
"Look, wise guy, one more crack out of you, and I'll send you out of this world without a spaceship!" snarled Wallace through grating teeth.
"Any time you'd like to try that, you know where I am," Roger snapped back.
"Okay, punk! You asked for it," yelled Wallace. He had been holding a length of chain and now he swung it at Roger. The cadet ducked easily, hopped over the fence, and before Wallace knew what was happening, jolted him with three straight lefts and a sharp right cross. Wallace went down in a heap, out cold.
Luther Simms, who had been watching the affair from one side, now rushed at Roger with a monkey wrench. With the ferocity of a bull, Astro roared at the small spaceman, who stopped as if pulled up by a string. Roger spun around, made an exaggerated bow, and smiling, asked, "Next?"
At this point, aware that things were getting a bit thick, Tom strode across the clearing, and grabbing the still smiling Roger, pulled him away.
"Are you space happy?" he asked, "You know you goaded him into swinging that chain, Roger. And that makes you entirely responsible for what just happened!"
"Yeah," growled Astro. "Suppose he had hit you with it, then what?"
Roger, still grinning, glanced over his shoulder and saw Simms helping Wallace to his feet. He turned to Astro, threw his arm over the big cadet's shoulder, and drawled, "Why, then you'd have just taken them apart to avenge me! Wouldn't you, pal?"
"Aw, stow it," snapped Tom. For a second Roger looked at him sharply, then broke into a smile again. "O.K., Tom, I'm sorry," he said. "O.K., let's get back to work," ordered Tom.
Back at the Polaris, as they continued cleaning the hull of the ship, Tom saw the two men disappear into their craft, throwing dirty looks back at the three cadets as they went.
"You know, Roger, I think you made a very bad mistake," he said. "One way or another, they'll try to even the score with you."
"And it won't be just a report to Captain Strong," added Astro darkly.
Roger, cocky and unafraid, broke out his engaging grin again and shrugged his shoulders.
"... And so we dedicate this capsule to the civilizations of the future. Those who may dig this cylinder out of the ground in ages to come will find within it the tools, the inventions, and the scientific wonders which have made the era of the Solar Alliance one of peace and lasting prosperity."
Captain Steve Strong paused, glanced at the huge crane and the shimmering steel capsule that dangled at the end of a cable, then called out, "Lower the capsule!"
The cheers of a hundred thousand people massed in the exposition plaza greeted the order. The stereo camera and teleceiver scanners that were sending the opening ceremonies of the Solar Exposition to all parts of the Alliance moved in to focus on the capsule as it was lowered into a deep, concrete-lined pit.
The three members of the Polaris unit, standing to one side of the platform, joined in the cheers as their skipper shook hands with the delegates and waved again and again at the roaring crowd.
"That was some speech, Tom," commented Roger. "I wonder who wrote it for him?"
"He wrote it himself, Roger," replied Tom.
"Ah, go on," scoffed Roger.
"Sure he did," said Astro indignantly. "He sweated over it for nearly a week."
"Here he comes," said Tom. The three cadets watched Captain Strong, resplendent in his dress gold-and-black uniform, fight his way off the platform, shaking hands with congratulating strangers along the way.
"Congratulations, Captain Strong," said Tom with a smile.
"That was swell!" Roger and Astro chorused their agreement.
"Thanks, boys," gasped Strong. "But let me tell you, I never want to do that again. I was never so scared in my life!"
"Just making a speech?" asked Roger. "After all the lectures you've given at Space Academy?"
"They weren't before teleceiver and stereo cameras." Strong laughed. "Do you realize this ceremony is being seen on Mars, Earth, and all the colonized moons, clear out to Titan."
"Wow!" breathed Astro. "That would make me tongue-tied!"
"Huh! All that to stick a metal box into the ground," snorted Roger.
"It's not the capsule, Roger," said Tom. "It's what's inside the capsule."
"Right, Tom," said Strong. "Inside that capsule scientists have packed the whole history of man's march through the stars. They've included scientific formulas, medical, cultural, and industrial facts. Everything we know. Even some things that are known by only a handful of the most trusted men in the universe!" Strong stopped suddenly and laughed. "There I go, making another speech! Come on. Let's get out of here," he cried.
"Do we start showing people through the Polaris now, sir?" asked Astro.
"In the morning, Astro," replied Strong. "Tonight there's a big Solar Alliance banquet. You three are invited, too."
"Er—" stammered Roger, "you mean—a banquet—with—uh—?"
Strong laughed. "More speeches? I'm afraid so, Manning. Of course there'll be plenty of food."
"Well, it's not that we're against speeches," ventured Astro.
"Not yours anyway, sir," added Tom hastily. "But what we mean, sir, is that—"
Strong held up his hand. "I understand perfectly. Suppose you stay here on the exposition grounds. Have a look around. See the sights, have some fun."
"Yes, sir!" The boys chorused their reply.
"Just don't spend all your credits at the first booth," continued Strong. "And watch that Venusian cloud candy. It's good, but murder on the Earthman's stomach."
"Captain Strong!" A voice called from the platform above. It was one of the Venusian delegates. "They want some pictures of you!"
"Be right there, sir," replied Strong. He turned to the boys and smiled. "You're lucky you don't have to go through this. See you aboard ship later." Spinning quickly on his heel, he made his way back through the crowd to the platform.
"What a great guy," sighed Tom.
"Sure is," agreed Astro.
"Well, fellas," announced Roger, "we've got twelve hours liberty and a small scale model of the whole solar system to have fun in! What're we waiting for?"
Fighting their way through the crowds in the plaza, the three boys finally reached the amusement area where they wandered among gaily colored booths and plastic tents, their eyes lighting up with each new attraction.
Two hours later, stuffed with spaceburgers and Martian water, their arms loaded with assorted prizes, won by Astro's prowess in the weight-lifting booth, Tom's skill as a marksman, and Roger's luck at the wheels of chance, the cadets wearily returned to the Polaris.
As they neared their section of the fair site they heard a harsh voice appealing to a small crowd around the stand in front of Wallace and Simms' spaceship. A huge sign spelled out the attraction: RIDE IN SPACE—ONE CREDIT.
Luther Simms, a bamboo cane in one hand, a roll of tickets in another, was hawking his attraction to the bystanders.
"Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Step right up! It's a thrill of a lifetime, the greatest sensation of the entire exposition. Ride a rocket ship, and all this for one credit! A lone, single credit, ladies and gents, will buy you a pathway to the stars! Step right up—"
In laughing groups, the crowd around the stand began to purchase tickets and climb aboard the old freighter.
The three cadets watched from the outer edge of the crowd.
"Hey, fellas," said Roger suddenly, "whaddya say we go?"
"What?" gulped Astro. "On that thing?"
"Why not?" urged Roger.
"But that hulk should have been shipped back to the scrap furnace years ago!" Tom protested.
"So what, Junior?" drawled Roger. "Scared?"
"Don't be silly," replied Tom. "But with all the other things to do here, why should we—"
"Oh," said Astro, nudging Tom, "now I get it!"
"You get what?" asked Roger innocently.
"Those girls," said Astro. "They're just climbing aboard."
Glancing at the air lock, Tom saw three young and pretty girls file into the ship. "Oh, so that's it, huh?" he said, looking quizzically at his unit-mate.
The blond cadet's eyes were wide with mock surprise.
"Girls? Well, what do you know about that? I never noticed!"
"Yeah, I'll bet you didn't!" said Tom.
"Well, they are trim little space dolls. And there are three of them!"
"Come on, Astro," sighed Tom. "We have to give the little boy his fun."
They walked toward the stand where Simms was still making his pitch to the crowd.
"Just five more seats left, ladies and gentlemen, only five chances to blast into space ..."
Tom stepped up and put three credits on the counter. "Three, please," he said.
Simms looked down and suddenly stopped his harangue. His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he saw the three cadets standing before him. Hesitating, he glanced around, seemingly looking for help. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he handed over the tickets and turned to the crowd. "Three tickets for the Space Cadets, who live out there in space. Just can't stay away from it, eh, boys?"
"I only hope that tub of yours holds together," said Tom.
Simms snarled out of the side of his mouth, "Shut up, wise guy!" And then continued aloud, "Yes, Space Cadet, I agree with you. Everyone should take a trip into space."
Tom started to protest, but then shrugged his shoulders and followed Roger and Astro into the ship. On the stand, Simms continued his appeal to the crowd.
"Just two more tickets left, ladies and gentlemen! Who'll be the lucky two?"
Suddenly Gus Wallace appeared from behind the ship and approached the stand, calling, "Hey, Simms!"
Simms stopped speaking and turned to his partner. "Yeah?"
"Everything's all set. Let's blast off!"
"I'll be with you as soon as I sell the last two tickets," said Simms. "Here you are, ladies and gents, the last two—"
Wallace grabbed him by the arm and yanked him from the stand. "I said we blast off, you idiot! You want to risk everything for two lousy credits?"
"O.K., O.K. Don't blow a fuse!"
Simms quickly closed the stand, turned out the lighted sign, and followed Wallace into the old freighter. He then collected the tickets and made sure all the passengers were strapped into their acceleration chairs and finally went below to the power deck. Wallace disappeared into the control room and seconds later his voice was heard over the ship's intercom gruffly announcing the blast-off. The lights in the cabin dimmed, the air was filled with a low whining hiss, and for an instant the old ship bucked and groaned. Suddenly, with a loud explosive roar, she blasted into the sky and began a sluggish arching climb into space.
"All right, fellas," said Roger, after the force of acceleration eased off, "let's try a little encircling maneuver on those girls up ahead."
"Oh, no, Roger," answered Tom. "You're flying solo on that project!"
"Yeah, you go ahead, Romeo." Astro laughed. "I'd like to see the Manning technique in action."
A loud explosion suddenly rocked the spaceship.
"What was that?" cried Roger. "Maybe this old tub won't make it after all!"
Astro smiled. "This is a chemical burner, remember? Her initial acceleration isn't enough. They have to keep blasting her to make speed."
"Oh, sure," drawled Roger, relaxing again and watching the girls ahead. "Well, here I go!" He got up and lurched down the aisle running between the seats.
"Hey there!" roared Simms, who had suddenly appeared at the power-deck hatch. "Keep your seat!"
"Who, me?" asked Roger.
"Not your Aunt Tilly, wise guy! Sit down and shut up!"
"Listen," said Roger, "you don't seem to realize—"
"I realize you're going to sit down or else!" snarled Simms.
Roger retreated to his seat and sat down. "Ah, go blast your jets," he grumbled as Simms continued up the aisle to the control deck.
Tom and Astro doubled over with laughter. "Welcome back, Roger," bellowed the big Venusian. "I don't think those girls are the sociable type, anyway."
"Wouldn't you know," moaned Roger, "that space creep had to show up just when I had the whole campaign laid out in my mind." He gazed sadly at the pert heads of the girls in front of him.
Tom gave Astro a wink. "Poor Manning. All set to go hyperdrive and ran into space junk before he cleared atmosphere."
Suddenly another explosion racked the ship and the rockets cut out all together. The passengers began to look around nervously.
"By the craters of Luna, what was that?" demanded Tom, looking at Astro.
"The rockets have cut out," answered the Venusian. "Hope we're out in free fall, beyond the pull of Venus' gravity."
The forward hatch of the passenger cabin opened and Simms reappeared followed by Wallace.
"Take it easy, folks," said Wallace, "nothing to get excited about. We're in free fall, holding a course around the planet. So just sit back and enjoy the view!"
A chorus of sighs filled the cabin and the passengers began laughing and chatting again, pointing out various sights on the planet below them. Smiling, Wallace and Simms marched down the aisle. Suddenly Roger and Tom rose and blocked their path.
"What's up, Wallace?" demanded Tom.
Wallace gave the two boys a hard look. "So it's you, huh? You got a lot of nerve coming aboard this ship."
"If there's something wrong, Wallace," said Tom, "maybe we could give you a hand."
"Get back in your seats," ordered Wallace. "We don't need any cadet squirts getting in our way!"
"Why, you overweight space jockey," snapped Roger, "we know more about spaceships than you'll ever learn!"
"One more crack out of you and I'll blast your ears off!" roared Wallace. "Now sit down!"
Roger's face turned a deep red and he moved toward Wallace, but Tom put out a restraining hand.
"Take it easy, Roger," he said. "Wallace is the skipper of this boiler. In space he's the boss."
"You bet I'm the boss," snarled Wallace. "Now keep that loud-mouthed punk quiet, or I'll wipe up the deck with him and send the pieces back to Space Academy!"
"Hey, Wallace," yelled Simms, who had walked away when the argument started. "Come on. We gotta fix that reactor unit!"
"Yeah—yeah," Wallace called back. He turned to Roger again. "Just remember what I said, cadet!" Brushing the boys aside, he strode down the aisle to join Simms.
As the two men disappeared through the power-deck hatch, Tom turned to Roger and tried to calm him down. "Skippers are skippers, Roger, even aboard a piece of space junk!"
"Yeah," growled Roger, "but I don't like to be called a squirt or a punk! Why, I know more about reactor units than—"
"Reactor units?" broke in Astro from his seat.
"Yeah. Didn't you hear what Simms said?"
"But this is a chemical burner," said Astro. "Why an atomic reactor unit aboard?"
"Might be a booster for extra speed," offered Tom. "And more power."
"On a simple hop like this? Hardly out of the atmosphere?" Astro shook his head. "No, Tom. It doesn't make sense."
"Well," chimed in Roger, "here's something else I've been wondering about. They charge one credit for this ride. Which makes a total of about fifty credits for a capacity load—"
"I get you," Tom interrupted. "It costs at least two hundred credits in fuel alone to get one of these chemical jalopies off the ground!"
Roger looked at Tom solemnly. "You know, Tom, I'd certainly like to know what those guys are doing. You just don't hand out free rides in space."
"How about snooping around?" asked Astro.
Tom thought a moment. "O.K. You two stay here. I'll go aft and see what they're doing."
Tom walked quickly to the stern of the ship, entered the power-deck hatch, and disappeared. Astro and Roger, each taking one side of the ship, strained for a look from the viewports. In a few minutes Tom returned.
"Spot anything?" asked Roger.
"I'm not so sure," answered Tom. "They weren't on the power deck and the cargo hatch was locked. I looked out the stern viewport, but all I could see was a thick black cloud."
"Well, that's no help," said Roger. Suddenly the blond cadet snapped his fingers. "Tom, I'll bet they're smugglers!"
"What?" asked Tom.
"That's it," said Roger. "I'll bet that's it. The concession is just a phony to cover up their smuggling. It lets them take a load of stuff up without a custom's search. Then, when they're far enough out—"
"They dump it," supplied Astro.
"Right!" agreed Tom finally. "What better place to hide something than in space?"
"For someone else to pick up later!" added Roger triumphantly.
When Wallace and Simms returned, the three cadets were busy looking out the viewports. And later, when the spaceship was letting down over the exposition grounds, Tom commented on the ease with which the ship made her approach for a touchdown.
"Roger," asked Tom quietly, "notice how she's handling now?"
"How do you mean?" asked Roger.
"Going out," said Tom, "she wallowed like an old tub filled with junk. Now, while she's no feather, there's a big difference in the way she's maneuvering!"
"Then they did dump something in space!" said Roger.
"I'm sure of it!" said Tom. "And from now on, we're going to keep our eyes open and find out what it is!"
Tom glanced at the astral chronometer over the control board of the Polaris and sighed with relief. It was nine P.M. He turned to the intercom.
"Attention, please! Attention, please! The exhibit is now closing for the night. All visitors will kindly leave the ship immediately." He repeated the announcement again and turned to smile at the last lingering youngster ogling him before being yanked toward an exit by a tired and impatient mother.
The hatch to the radar bridge opened and Roger climbed down the ladder to flop wearily in the pilot's seat in front of the control panel.
"If one more scatterbrained female asks me how the astrogation prism works," groaned the blond cadet, "I'll give it to her and let her figure it out for herself!"
Astro joined them long enough to announce that he had made sandwiches and brewed hot chocolate. Tom and Roger followed him back to the galley.
Sipping the hot liquid, the three cadets looked at each other without speaking, each understanding what the other had been through. Even Astro, who normally would rather talk about his atomic engine than eat, confessed he was tired of explaining the functions of the reaction fuel force feed and the main valve of the cooling pumps.
"The worst of it is," sighed Astro, "they all pick on the same valve. What's so fascinating about one valve?"
Tom's job on the control deck was less tiring, since his was more of a command post, which demanded decisions, as conditions arose, rather than a fixed routine that could be explained. But even so, to be asked over and over what the astral chronometer was, how he could read time on Earth, Mars, Venus, Titan, Ganymede, and all the satellites at the same time was wearing on the toughest of young spirits.
Eager to forget the grueling day of questions and answers, the cadets turned their thoughts to the mysterious midnight activity that had been taking place around the spaceship concession during the last ten days.
"I just can't figure out what those guys are up to," said Roger, blowing on his hot chocolate. "We've watched those guys for over a week now and no one has even come near them with anything that could be smuggled."
"Could be a small package," suggested Astro, his mouth full of ham sandwich. "Somebody could take a ride and slip it to them."
"Hardly," said Tom. "Remember, that ship blasts off like she's loaded to the nose with cargo. And then she comes back like a feather. You can tell by the sound of her jets. So it wouldn't be anything small enough for someone to carry."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," agreed Astro.
"Well," said Tom finally, "I'm stumped. I think the only thing left to do is to decide if it's anything important enough to tell Captain Strong about. Working on the Polaris twelve hours a day and staying up all night to watch those two jokers has me all in."
Roger and Astro looked at each other and then silently nodded their agreement.
"O.K.," said Tom, "we'll go to the skipper's hotel in Venusport and tell him the whole thing. Let's see what he makes of it."
* * * * *
At that moment Captain Strong was in the office of Exposition Commissioner Mike Hawks trying to make sense out of a series of reports that had landed on the commissioner's desk. Hawks watched him carefully as he studied the papers.
"You say this is the ninth report you've received since the fair opened, Mike?" asked Strong finally.
Hawks nodded. He hadn't known whether to laugh off or seriously consider the nine space skippers' reports that the sky over the exposition site was dirty.
"Yes, Steve," he said. "That one came from the skipper of an express freighter. He blasted off this morning and ran through this so-called dirt. He thought it was just a freak of nature but reported it to be on the safe side."
"I don't suppose he took a sample of the stuff?"
"No. But I'm taking care of that," replied Hawks. "There's a rocket scout standing by right now. Want to come along?"
"Let me finish these reports first."
As Strong carefully checked each report, Commissioner Hawks rose and began to stride restlessly back and forth across the spacious office. He stopped in front of the window and stared out over the exposition grounds, watching the thousands of holiday visitors streaming in and out of the buildings, all unaware of the strange mystery in the sky above them. Hawks' attention was drawn to the giant solar beacon, a huge light that flashed straight out into space, changing color every second and sending out the message: "Quis separabit homo"—Who shall separate mankind?
This beacon that at the beginning of the exposition had reached into the black void of space like a clean bright ray was now cloudy and murky—the result of the puzzling "dirty sky."
"All right, Mike," Strong announced suddenly. "Let's go."
"Get anything more out of those reports?" asked Hawks, turning back to his desk.
"No," replied the Solar Guard officer. "They all tell the same story. Right after blast-off, the ships ran into a dirty sky."
"Sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?"
"Crazy enough to check."
Hawks pressed a button on the desk intercom.
"Yes, sir?" replied a metallic voice.
"Have the rocket scout ready for flight in five minutes," Hawks ordered. He snapped off the intercom without waiting for a reply and turned to Strong. "Let's go, Steve."
The two veteran spacemen left the office without further comment and rode down in the vacuum elevator to the highway level. Soon they were speeding out to the spaceport in Hawks' special jet car.
At the blast-pitted field they were met by a young Solar Guard officer and an elderly man carrying a leather case, who were introduced as Lieutenant Claude and Professor Newton.
While Claude prepared the rocket scout for blast-off, Strong, Hawks, and Newton discussed the possibility of lava dust having risen to great heights from another side of the planet.
"While I'm reasonably sure," stated Newton, "that no volcano has erupted recently here on Venus, I can't be sure until I've examined samples of this so-called dirt."
"I'll have Lieutenant Claude contact the University of Venus," said Hawks. "Their seismographs would pick up surface activity."
Claude stuck his head out of the hatch and reported the ship ready for blast-off. Strong followed the professor and Hawks aboard and strapped himself into an acceleration chair. In a moment they were blasting through the misty atmosphere of Venus into the depths of space.
Fifteen minutes later, Hawks and Strong were standing on the hull of the ship in space suits, watching the professor take a sample of a dirty black cloud, so thick it was impossible to see more than three feet. Strong called to the professor through the spacephone.
"What do you make of it, sir?" he asked.
"I wouldn't want to give you a positive opinion without chemical tests," answered the professor, his voice echoing in Strong's fish-bowl helmet. "But I believe it's one of three things. One, the remains of a large asteroid that has broken up. Two, volcanic ash, either from Venus or from Jupiter. But if it came from Jupiter, I don't see how it could have drifted this far without being detected on radar."
Now, holding a flask full of the black cloud, the professor started back to the air lock.
"You said three possibilities, professor," said Strong.
"The third," replied the professor, "could be—"
The professor was interrupted by Lieutenant Claude calling over the intercom.
"Just received a report from the University of Venus, sir!" said the young officer. "There's been no volcanic activity on Venus in the last ten years serious enough to create such a cloud."
Strong waited for the professor's reaction, but the elderly man was already entering the air lock. Before Strong and Hawks could catch up to him, the air-lock hatch slammed closed.
"Hey," exclaimed Strong, "what does he think he's doing?"
"Don't worry about it, Steve," replied Hawks. "He probably forgot we were out here with him, he's so concerned about this dirt. We'll just have to wait until he's out of the air lock."
The Solar Guard officer nodded, then looked around him at the thick black cloud that enveloped the ship. "Well," he said, "one of the professor's theories has been knocked out."
"Yes," replied Hawks. "Which means this stuff is either the remains of a large asteroid or—"
"The third possibility," finished Strong, "which the professor never explained."
Suddenly the air-lock hatch opened again and the two spacemen stepped inside. Closing the hatch behind them, they waited until the pressure was built up again to equal that of the ship, and then they removed their helmets and space suits.
Leaving the air lock and walking down the companionway, Hawks suddenly caught Strong by the arm.
"Have you considered the possibility of this cloud being radioactive, Steve?" he asked.
Strong nodded slowly. "That's all I've been thinking about since I first heard about it, Mike. I think I'd better report this to Commander Walters at Space Academy."
"Wait, Steve," said Hawks. "If you do that, Walters might close the exposition. Wait until you get a definite opinion from Professor Newton."
Strong considered a moment. "I guess a few more minutes won't make a lot of difference," he said finally. He realized how important the exposition was to his old friend. But at the same time, he knew what would happen if a radioactive cloud suddenly settled on the city of Venusport without warning. "Come on. Let's see what the professor has to say about this stuff."
They found the professor on the control deck bending over a microscope, studying samples taken from the flask. He peered intently into the eyepiece, wrote something on a pad, and then began searching through the pages of a reference book on chemicals of the solar system.
Lieutenant Claude stepped up to Hawks and saluted sharply. "Power deck reports they've got a clogged line, sir. It's in the gas exhaust."
Strong and Hawks looked at each other, and then Hawks turned to the young officer. "Send a couple of men outside to clear it."
"Aye, aye, sir," said Claude, and then hesitated. "Shall the men wear lead suits against possible radioactivity, sir?"
Before Hawks could answer, Newton turned to face the three men. The professor was smiling. "No need to take that precaution, Lieutenant. I never did tell you my third opinion, did I, Captain Strong?"
"Why, no, you didn't, sir," said Strong.
The professor held up a sheet of paper. "Here's your answer. Nothing but plain old Venusport topsoil. Pure dirt!"
"What?" exclaimed Hawks hastily, reaching for the paper.
"Well, blast me for a Martian mouse," muttered Strong under his breath. "But how?"
Newton held up his hand. "Don't ask me how it got here. That isn't my line of work. All I know is that, without a doubt, the black cloud is nothing more than dirt. Plain ordinary dirt! And it comes from the area in and around Venusport. As a matter of fact, certain particles I analyzed lead me to believe it came from the exposition site!"
Hawks looked at Newton dumbfounded. "By the craters of Luna, man, we're a thousand miles over the exposition!"
The professor was stubborn. "I can't tell you how it got here, Commissioner Hawks. But I do know it's Venusian dirt. And that's final!"
Hawks stared at the elderly man for a second, still bewildered. Then he suddenly smiled and turned to Claude. "As soon as that exhaust is cleared, blast off for Venusport, Lieutenant. I'm going to find out who dirtied up the sky!"
* * * * *
Two hours later, when Captain Strong returned to his hotel in Venusport with Mike Hawks, he was surprised to see the three cadets of the Polaris crew slumped, sleepy-eyed, on a couch in the lobby.
"What are you doing here, boys?" he asked.
The three cadets came to attention and were wide awake immediately. Tom quickly related their suspicions of Wallace and Simms.
"And we've watched them every night, sir," Tom concluded. "I don't know what it is, but something certainly is going on in that shack they use for an office."
"Yes, sir," agreed Astro, "and no one is going to fool me about a rocket ship. I know when they blast off loaded and return light."
Strong turned to Hawks who said quietly, "Wallace and Simms are the only ones in this whole area that blast off regularly without a customs search."
"You mean," stammered Strong, "Wallace and Simms are dumping"—he could hardly say the word—"dirt in space?"
"They have a ship. The cadets say the ship blasts off loaded and returns light. And we've got the sky full of dirt. Venusian dirt!"
"I suggest we go out to the exposition grounds right now and ask them!" said Hawks coldly. "And believe me, they'd better have some rocket-blasting good answers!"
The great educational exhibits had long been closed and only a few sections of the amusement park of the big exposition remained open. The giant solar beacon, its brilliant colors changing every second, maintained a solemn solitary watch over the exhibition buildings, while here and there groups of fair visitors wandered wearily back to their hotels.
There was a sudden flurry of activity at the space-ride concession. Gus Wallace and Luther Simms tumbled out of the shack and raced into their ship. Once inside the ancient craft, they secured the hatch and turned toward each other smiling broadly. Wallace stuck out his hand.
"Put 'er there, Simms. We did it!"
The two men shook hands heartily.
"By the craters of Luna," said Simms, "I thought we'd never make it! And if we did, that it wouldn't be there!"
"But it was, Simms! It was! And now we've got it!"
"Yeah," agreed the other. "I never worked so hard in all my life. But it's worth it. Are we going to set the Solar Guard back on its ear!"
Wallace laughed. "Not only that, but think of what the boss will say when we show up with it!"
"You know, Wallace," said Simms, a sly look on his face, "we could take it and use it ourselves—"
"Don't even think a thing like that!" snapped Wallace.
"Oh, of course not," said Simms hurriedly. "It doesn't pay to cross the boss. There's enough here for all of us."
"You know," mused Wallace, "there's only one thing I regret."
"What's that?" asked his partner.
"That I didn't get a chance to kick the space dust out of that punk, Cadet Manning!"
"Forget him," said Simms, waving his hand. "You'll meet him again someday. Besides, why think about him, when you've got the whole universe at your finger tips?"
"You're right. But someday I'm going to catch him and tear him apart!" snarled Wallace. "Come on. We've got to change over to atomic drive on this baby. I don't want to hang around here any longer than I have to."
"Yeah," said Simms. "Be pretty stupid if we're caught now!"
The two men climbed down into the power deck and began the job of refitting the freighter from chemical to atomic drive. Having already outfitted the vessel with atomic engines, it was a simple matter to change the exhaust, reset the feed lines, and emplace the protective lead baffles. In an hour the two spacemen were ready to blast off.
"There she is," said Simms, standing back to survey their work. "As fast as anything in space, except the Solar Guard cruisers on hyperdrive."
"O.K.," said Wallace. "Let's get out of here!"
Minutes later, in a jet car speeding along the main highway toward the exposition grounds, Captain Strong, Mike Hawks, and the three cadets of the Polaris saw a rocket ship blast off. They watched it disappear into the dark space above.
"That might be they," said Strong to Hawks. "I'd better alert the patrol ship near the space station and tell them to pick them up."
"That couldn't be Wallace and Simms, sir," said Astro.
"How do you know, Astro?" asked Strong.
"That was an atomic-powered ship. The wagon Wallace and Simms have is a chemical job. I know the sound of her jets almost as well as I do the Polaris."
Hawks looked at Strong.
"You can depend on Astro's opinion, Mike," said Strong. "He was born with a rocket wrench in his hand and cut his teeth on a reactor valve."
They soon reached the outskirts of the exposition grounds and were forced to slow down as they wound their way through the darkened streets. In the amusement section, the last of the whirlaway rides and games of chance had closed down and only the occasional roar of a caged animal in the interplanetary zoo disturbed the night.
Hawks drove the low, sleek jet car around the fair, taking a short cut through the outdoor mercuryball field and pulled up in front of the Polaris.
The five spacemen turned toward the concession site across the promenade and stopped, aghast.
"Gone!" exclaimed Strong. "Astro, you made a mistake! It was their ship we saw blasting off. It's too late to warn the space-station patrol. Wallace and Simms could be anywhere in space now!"
"But, sir," protested Astro, "I'm certain that an atomic-powered ship blasted off. And their old freighter was a chemical burner!"
"Well," said Hawks resignedly, "they're not here."
"Come on," said Strong, getting out of the jet car. "Let's take a look around."
Strong and Hawks hurried across the street to the empty lot and the three cadets followed.
"Take it easy, Astro," said Tom, when he saw the big Venusian gripping his fists in frustration. "Anyone could make a mistake."
"That's just it," said Astro. "I'm not mistaken! Those jokers must have changed over from chemical fuel to reactant drive!"
"But why?" asked Roger. "That would cost more than they could make in ten years of hauling passengers on joy rides!"
Astro whirled around and faced the two cadets. "I'm telling you the ship that blasted off from here was an atomic drive. I don't know any more than that, but I do know that!"
There was a sudden shout from Strong and the three boys hurried to the shack. The Solar Guard captain and the exposition commissioner were standing inside and playing the beam of an electric torch around the walls.
"Looks as though you were right about the atomic drive, Astro," said Strong. He flashed the light into one corner where a tangled jumble of lines lay on the floor. "That's feed-line gear for a chemical burner, and over there"—he played the light on some empty cartons—"is what's left of the crate's lead baffling it shipped in. They must have changed over to atomic drive recently."
Astro accepted the statement with a nod. It wasn't in the nature of the big cadet to boast. Now that the secret of the ship had been resolved, he turned, like the others, to the question of why?
"I think the best thing we can do," said Strong, "is to spread out and search the whole area. Might find something to indicate where they went." Commissioner Hawks nodded his head in agreement.
While Tom, Roger, and Astro searched outside, Strong and Hawks went through the drawers of the dusty desk standing in one corner.
"Nothing here but a record of the flights they made, bills for chemical fuel delivered, and the like," said Hawks at last. "They were losing money on the operation, too. Think they might have just gotten fed up and pulled out?"
Strong was rummaging around in one corner of the shack. "I'd go along with that, but for one thing, Mike," he said. "Take a look at this." He held up a small cloth bag. "There's dirt in the bottom of this bag. And there are about fifty more bags in that corner."
"Dirt!" exclaimed the commissioner.
"Yep," said Strong grimly. "So we found out who was dumping the dirt. But we still haven't found out why."
"Or where it came from," said Hawks.
Strong tossed the bag into the corner. "Well, I guess I'd better make a report to Commander Walters."
Hawks moved to the corner where the pile of chemical feed-line equipment lay on the floor. "Want to take a look at this stuff? Might be something important in it."
Strong thought a moment. "We can have the cadets do that. I want to get this report off to Walters right away, and issue an order to pick up Wallace and Simms."
"On what charges, Steve?" asked the commissioner. "I mean, what's wrong with what they've done?" The commissioner's question was based on one of the cardinal rules among all Solar Guard officers of authority. "Has the man committed any crime?"
Steve realized this and answered slowly. "They've changed over to reactor drive without a license or permission. That's a violation of the space code, section twenty-one, paragraph A. That is punishable by a suspension of space papers, and if the intention proved to be willful neglect of the code, a year on a penal asteroid. I think we can get them on that."
The captain stepped to the door and called the cadets.
"Find anything?" he asked, when they entered the shack.
"Nothing, sir," replied Tom. "Except more evidence that they changed over to atomic drive."
"That's enough" said Strong. "I'm going to send a report to Commander Walters. Is the teleceiver on the Polaris hooked up, Roger?"
"Yes, sir," replied Roger. "But Astro will have to start up the auxiliary generators to give you power."
"Very well, then," said Strong. "Corbett, you give Astro a hand on the power deck. And while we're gone, Manning, you go through that feed-line junk there in the corner and see if there's anything important in it!"
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Roger.
Strong and Hawks, followed by Tom and Astro, left the shack and hurried to the Polaris.
On the power deck, Tom and Astro made the necessary connections on the generator, and in a few minutes, as power surged through the ship, Strong flipped on the teleceiver.
"Attention! Attention! This is Captain Strong on the Polaris calling Commander Walters at Space Academy! Earth emergency circuit, priority B—"
In a few moments the Solar Guard officer's call had been picked up by a monitor station on Earth and relayed directly to Space Academy. Commander Walters was roused out of bed, and when he appeared on the teleceiver screen, Strong saw he was still in sleeping dress.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir," said Strong, "but something has come up here at the exposition that needs your immediate attention."
"That's quite all right, Steve," said the commander with a smile. "What is it? Manning get into more trouble?"
"No, sir," answered Strong grimly. "I wish it were as simple as that." He quickly related the details of the strange dirt cloud and his suspicions of Wallace and Simms. Walters' expression grew serious.
"I'll get out an emergency bulletin on them at once, Steve. Meantime, you have full authority to head an investigation. Use any service you need. I'll confirm my verbal order with official orders at once. Get on this thing, Steve. It sounds serious."
"I will, sir, and thanks!" said Strong.
"End transmission," returned Strong, flipping off the teleceiver and turning to the ship's intercom. "Attention, power deck! Corbett, you and Astro go back to the shack and give Roger a hand. I'm going to work with the commissioner here setting up search operations."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Tom from the power deck.
The two cadets hurriedly closed the power units and left the ship.
"Did you hear what Captain Strong said, Astro?" asked Tom. "Search operations."
"I wonder what's up," the big Venusian remarked. "They don't set up search operations unless it's awfully serious!"
"Come on," urged Tom. "Maybe Roger's found something."
They entered the shack together and Tom called out, "Say, Roger, Captain Strong just spoke to Commander Walters at the Academy and—"
The curly-haired cadet stopped short. "Astro, look!"
"By the rings of Saturn!" exclaimed the big cadet.
The two cadets stood gaping at a huge hole in the middle of the room. The wooden floor was splintered around the edges of the opening and several pieces of the chemical feed-line equipment lay close to the edge, with trailing lines leading down into the hole. They heard a low moan and rushed up to the hole, flashing their lights down into it.
"Great galaxy!" yelled Tom. "Astro, look! It's a shaft! It must be a thousand feet deep!"
"And look!" bellowed Astro. "There's Roger! See him? He's hanging there! His foot's caught in that feed-line cable!"
The big cadet leaned over the hole and shouted, "Roger! Roger! Are you all right?"
There was no answer from the shaft. Nothing but the echo of Astro's voice.
"Easy, Astro," said Strong, standing behind the big cadet. "Pull that line up slowly and gently."
"Yes, sir," gasped Astro. He didn't have to be told to pull the rope with caution. He knew only too well that the slightest jar or bump against the side of the shaft might dislodge Roger's unconscious body from the tangle of line, causing him to fall to the bottom of the shaft. How far down the shaft went, none of the anxious spacemen around the hole in the splintered floor knew. And they didn't want to use Roger's body to find out!
"I'll give you a hand, Astro," said Commissioner Hawks. He reached for the line, but the big cadet warned him away.
"That's all right, sir," he said. "He's almost up now."
Astro pulled gently, hand over hand, until Roger's limp body was a mere foot from the edge.
"Grab him, quick!" he panted.
Immediately Strong and Hawks were down on their knees at the edge of the hole. Each taking an arm, they pulled Roger out and laid him gently on the floor of the shack. They crouched over him and began a quick examination.
"How is he, sir?" asked Tom, hovering anxiously over the still form of his friend. "Will he be all right?"
Strong didn't answer for a moment, continuing his hurried, though careful check. Then he sat back on his heels and sighed in relief. "A few bruises but no broken bones, thank the universe. He's just suffering from shock. A day or so in sick bay and he'll be good as new."
"I'll take him over there right away, Steve," offered Hawks.
"Thanks, Mike," replied Strong. Then as he and the commissioner lifted the still form of the cadet and started to carry him out of the shack, he turned to Astro. "Blast over to the Polaris and call Solar Guard headquarters in Venusport. Tell them to send an emergency crew down here right away."
"Aye, aye, sir," snapped the big Venusian and dashed out of the shack.
Turning back to Hawks, Strong said, "Corbett and I will stay here and try to find out where that shaft leads."
"All right, Steve," nodded the commissioner. "Too bad we had to find out where that dirt came from the hard way."
Reaching the jet car, the two men placed Roger in the back seat, and Hawks slid in under the wheel to start the powerful jets. Just then Astro, racing back from the Polaris, pulled up breathlessly.
"Solar Guard crew is on the way, sir," he reported. He glanced anxiously into the back seat of the jet car.
"All right, Astro," said Strong gently, "take care of Roger." Strong gestured to the back seat and without a word Astro leaped in beside his friend. Hawks stepped on the accelerator and the car shot away in a roar of blasting jets.
Tom and Captain Strong watched the car disappear and then turned back to the shack. Each felt the same emotion, an unspoken determination to see that Wallace and Simms paid dearly for causing the accident.
Re-entering the shack, they began a careful examination of the shaft. Strong played his emergency light down the sides, but the beam penetrated only a short distance.
"We'll leave a note for the emergency crew," said Strong. "Our belt communicators might not work so far underground."
"You're going down, sir?" asked Tom.
Strong nodded. "If necessary. Tie that valve on the end of the rope Astro used and lower it into the shaft. If we can touch bottom with it, we'll climb down and see what Wallace and Simms were after."
"Yes, sir," said Tom. He took the length of rope, tied the heavy metal valve to the end, and began lowering it into the shaft. Strong continued to play the light down the shaft until the valve disappeared into the darkness.
"Rope's getting short, sir," warned Tom. "Only have about two hundred feet left."
Strong glanced at the remaining coils of line on the floor. "I'll get more from the Polaris, if we need it," he said. "How long was that line to begin with?"
"It's a regulation space line, sir," said Tom. "Astro took it out of the emergency locker. It's about twelve hundred feet."
By this time the line, hanging straight down the shaft, had become increasingly heavy. Suddenly it grew slack.
"I think I've hit bottom, sir," cried the cadet. "But I can't pull the valve back up again to make sure."
Strong grabbed the end of the line and helped the cadet pull it back up a short distance. Then they dropped the line again and felt a distinct slackening of weight.
"That's bottom all right," said Strong. "Take this end of the line, run it out of the window on your right, and back through the one on your left. Then make it fast."
"Yes, sir," said Tom. He jumped out of the window, trailing the rope after him, and reappeared almost immediately through the other window to tie a loop in the line. After checking the knot and testing the line by throwing his full weight against it, Strong stripped off his jacket and wrapped it about the line to prevent rope burns. Then, hooking the emergency light on his belt, he stepped off into the shaft. Tom watched his skipper lower himself until nothing but the light, a wavering pin point in the dark hole, could be seen. At last the light stopped moving and Tom knew Strong had reached the bottom.
"Hallooooooo!" The captain's voice echoed faintly up the dark shaft. "The belt communicators don't work!" he yelled. "Come on down!"
"Be right with you, sir!" yelled Tom. He scratched a message on the wooden floor of the shack for the emergency crew. Then he stripped off his jacket, wrapped it around the rope, secured the light to his belt, and stepped off into the darkness.
Slowly, his hands tight around the rope through his jacket, Tom slipped down the deep shaft. He kept his eyes averted from the black hole beneath him, looking instead at the sides of the shaft. Once, when he thought he had gone about seven hundred feet, he saw that he was passing through a stratum of thick clay and could see the preserved bones of long-dead mammals, protruding from the side of the shaft.
Finally Tom's feet touched solid ground and he released the rope. It was cold in the bottom of the shaft and he hastily put his jacket back on.
"Captain Strong?" he called. There was no answer. Tom flashed the light around and saw a low, narrow tunnel leading off to his left.
He walked slowly, and the newly dug sides of the tunnel seemed to close in on him menacingly. It was quiet. Not the blank silence of space that Tom was used to, but the deathlike stillness of a tomb. It sent chills up and down his spine. Finally he stepped around a sharp bend and stopped abruptly.
The Solar Guard officer was stooping over, his light resting on the ground, reading something he held in his hand. He looked up at Tom and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. Tom flashed his light in that direction.
"By the rings of Saturn!" exclaimed Tom. There in front of him, ripped open like a can of sardines, was the gleaming metal skin of the time capsule! The dirt floor of the tunnel around Strong and beside the capsule was littered with audio spools, sound disks, micropapers, and stereo slides.
Tom kneeled down beside his skipper and stammered, "What—what does it mean, sir?"
"It means," answered Strong slowly, "that we're dealing with two of the cleverest men in the universe! If they've stolen what I think they have, the entire Solar Guard, Solar Alliance, and just about everyone in the universe is at their mercy!"
* * * * *
"How do you feel, Roger?" asked Astro.
The blond-haired cadet sat up in bed, dangled his feet over the side, and rubbed his neck. He groaned as he moved. "I don't think I'm going to dance much this month, if that answers your question. I feel like every bone in my body was broken!"
"They very nearly were, Cadet Manning," said the medical officer, standing near by.
"What happened, Manning?" asked Commissioner Hawks.
"I really don't know, sir," replied Roger. "I was moving the junk out of the corner of the shack so I could examine it. I was piling it up in the middle of the floor when—wham—something gave way and I took a header into nowhere!" He looked at Astro. "Now suppose you tell me what happened!"
Astro told Roger about finding him dangling at the end of the tangled feed lines. Then he said, "Tom and Captain Strong are out there now, waiting for one of the Solar Guard emergency crews."
"Well, what are we hanging around here for?" asked Roger, and hopped off the bed. He groaned, staggered, and then straightened up. "Nothing to worry about," he said, as Astro rushed to his side. "I'm as good as new!"
"What do you say, Doctor?" asked Hawks.
The doctor hesitated a moment and then smiled. "Well, Commissioner, Cadet Manning has several strained muscles in his back, but the best treatment for that is exercise."
Hawks nodded and signed a release slip which the doctor gave him. Astro helped Roger put on his space boots, and five minutes later they were speeding back to the exposition grounds in the commissioner's jet car. As they sped through the streets, the two cadets speculated on what they would find at the bottom of the shaft. Arriving at the shack, they were immediately challenged by an enlisted Solar Guardsman.
"Halt!" said the guard gruffly. "Advance slowly for recognition!"
With Commissioner Hawks leading the way, Roger and Astro walked up to the guard.
"Say," said Roger, nudging Astro, "look at what's going on around here!"
"Yeah," agreed Astro, wide-eyed. "Something must be plenty hot to have guards posted!"
Hawks was immediately recognized by the guard, but he still stubbornly demanded proof of their identity. Hawks, Roger, and Astro hauled out their Solar Guard identification disks, small metal plates with their images engraved in the shiny metal. On the other side was a detailed description of the bearer.
"Very well, sir," said the guard and let them pass.
In the pale light of dawn, feverish activity could be seen taking place around the shack. Two huge jet vans, filled with every possible piece of emergency equipment, were parked near by. The Polaris had been taken over as a temporary headquarters and the area was crowded with scarlet-clad enlisted men. Astro could hear the hum of generators on the Polaris and immediately felt concern for his power deck.
Proceeding to the shack they were again challenged by a guard and again had to produce their identification disks before entering. Once inside, they were amazed at the transformation. An aluminum tripod, ten feet tall, had been erected over the hole in the floor, and several steel cables, connected to a motor-driven steel drum, were looped over the apex of the tripod, one hanging straight down into the shaft. A thick plastic hose hung over the edge of the shaft, jerking spasmodically as air was pumped into the dark hole.
"By the craters of Luna," cried Hawks, "what's going on here?"
A young lieutenant stepped up to the commissioner and saluted sharply. "Lieutenant Silvers, sir. Second-in-command to Captain Allison of the emergency crew."
Hawks returned the salute and Lieutenant Silvers continued.
"Captain Strong, Cadet Corbett, and Captain Allison are at the bottom of the shaft, sir. The cage will be up in a moment and you may go down if you care to."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," said Hawks.
"Congratulations, Cadet Manning," said Silvers. "I understand you had a close call in the shaft."
"I did, sir," said Roger. "It was very close."
A light suddenly flashed on and the four spacemen turned to watch a large wire cage rise out of the shaft. It was built in three sections, each seven feet high. A ladder on one side of the cage gave easy access to the higher and lower levels. Astro climbed to the top section while Hawks took the lower. Roger stepped into the center section to avoid a climb. An enlisted man secured the gates and turned on the motor. The cage dropped through the shaft with sickening speed.