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´╗┐Title: Stand by for Mars!
Author: Rockwell, Carey, [pseud.]
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Stand by for Mars!" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



STAND BY
FOR MARS!


[Illustration]



A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure

STAND BY
FOR MARS!

By CAREY ROCKWELL

WILLY LEY _Technical Adviser_

GROSSET & DUNLAP _Publishers_ New York



COPYRIGHT, 1952, BY
ROCKHILL RADIO

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 STAND BY FOR MARS!

[Illustration: _The scarlet-clad figure stood before them_]



CHAPTER 1


"Stand to, you rocket wash!"

A harsh, bull-throated roar thundered over the platform of the monorail
station at Space Academy and suddenly the lively chatter and laughter of
more than a hundred boys was stilled. Tumbling out of the gleaming
monorail cars, they froze to quick attention, their eyes turned to the
main exit ramp.

They saw a short, squat, heavily built man, wearing the scarlet uniform
of the enlisted Solar Guard, staring down at them, his fists jammed into
his hips and his feet spread wide apart. He stood there a moment, his
sharp eyes flicking over the silent clusters, then slowly sauntered down
the ramp toward them with a strangely light, catfooted tread.

"Form up! Column of fours!"

Almost before the echoes of the thunderous voice died down, the
scattered groups of boys had formed themselves into four ragged lines
along the platform.

The scarlet-clad figure stood before them, his seamed and weather-beaten
face set in stern lines. But there was a glint of laughter in his eyes
as he noticed the grotesque and sometimes tortuous positions of some of
the boys as they braced themselves in what they considered a military
pose.

Every year, for the last ten years, he had met the trains at the
monorail station. Every year, he had seen boys in their late teens,
gathered from Earth, Mars and Venus, three planets millions of miles
apart. They were dressed in many different styles of clothes; the loose
flowing robes of the lads from the Martian deserts; the knee-length
shorts and high stockings of the boys from the Venusian jungles; the
vari-colored jacket and trouser combinations of the boys from the
magnificent Earth cities. But they all had one thing in common--a dream.
All had visions of becoming Space Cadets, and later, officers in the
Solar Guard. Each dreamed of the day when he would command rocket ships
that patrolled the space lanes from the outer edges of Pluto to the
twilight zone of Mercury. They were all the same.

"All right now! Let's get squared away!" His voice was a little more
friendly now. "My name's McKenny--Mike McKenny. Warrant Officer--Solar
Guard. See these hash marks?"

He suddenly held out a thick arm that bulged against the tight red
sleeve. From the wrists to the elbow, the lines of boys could see a
solid corrugation of white V-shaped stripes.

"Each one of these marks represents four years in space," he continued.
"There's ten marks here and I intend making it an even dozen! And no
bunch of Earthworms is going to make me lose the chance to get those
last two by trying to make a space monkey out of me!"

McKenny sauntered along the line of boys with that same strange catlike
step and looked squarely into the eyes of each boy in turn.

"Just to keep the record straight, I'm your cadet supervisor. I handle
you until you either wash out and go home, or you finally blast off and
become spacemen. If you stub your toe or cut your finger, come to me. If
you get homesick, come to me. And if you get into trouble"--he paused
momentarily--"don't bother because I'll be looking for _you_, with a
fist full of demerits!"

McKenny continued his slow inspection of the ranks, then suddenly
stopped short. At the far end of the line, a tall, ruggedly built boy of
about eighteen, with curly brown hair and a pleasant, open face, was
stirring uncomfortably. He slowly reached down toward his right boot and
held it, while he wriggled his foot into it. McKenny quickly strode over
and planted himself firmly in front of the boy.

"When I say stand to, I mean stand to!" he roared.

The boy jerked himself erect and snapped to attention.

"I--I'm sorry, sir," he stammered. "But my boot--it was coming off
and--"

"I don't care if your pants are falling down, an order's an order!"

The boy gulped and reddened as a nervous titter rippled through the
ranks. McKenny spun around and glared. There was immediate silence.

"What's your name?" He turned back to the boy.

"Corbett, sir. Cadet Candidate Tom Corbett," answered the boy.

"Wanta be a spaceman, do ya?" asked Mike, pushing his jaw out another
inch.

"Yes, sir!"

"Been studying long hard hours in primary school, eh? Talked your mother
and father deaf in the ears to let you come to Space Academy and be a
spaceman! You want to feel those rockets bucking in your back out in the
stars? _EH?_"

"Yes, sir," replied Tom, wondering how this man he didn't even know
could know so much about him.

"_Well, you won't make it_ if I ever catch you disobeying orders again!"

McKenny turned quickly to see what effect he had created on the others.
The lines of bewildered faces satisfied him that his old trick of using
one of the cadets as an example was a success. He turned back to
Corbett.

"The only reason I'm not logging you now is because you're not a Space
Cadet yet--and won't be, until you've taken the Academy oath!"

"Yes, sir!"

McKenny walked down the line and across the platform to an open
teleceiver booth. The ranks were quiet and motionless, and as he made
his call, McKenny smiled. Finally, when the tension seemed unbearable,
he roared, "At ease!" and closed the door of the booth.

The ranks melted immediately and the boys fell into chattering clusters,
their voices low, and they occasionally peered over their shoulders at
Corbett as if he had suddenly been stricken with a horrible plague.

Brooding over the seeming ill-fortune that had called McKenny's
attention to him at the wrong time, Tom sat down on his suitcase to
adjust his boot. He shook his head slowly. He had heard Space Academy
was tough, tougher than any other school in the world, but he didn't
expect the stern discipline to begin so soon.

"This could be the beginning of the end," drawled a lazy voice in back
of Tom, "for some of the more enthusiastic cadets." Someone laughed.

Tom turned to see a boy about his own age, weight and height, with
close-cropped blond hair that stood up brushlike all over his head. He
was lounging idly against a pillar, luggage piled high around his feet.
Tom recognized him immediately as Roger Manning, and his pleasant
features twisted into a scowl.

"About what I'd expect from that character," he thought, "after the
trick he pulled on Astro, that big fellow from Venus."

Tom's thoughts were of the night before, when the connecting links of
transportation from all over the Solar Alliance had deposited the boys
in the Central Station at Atom City where they were to board the
monorail express for the final lap to Space Academy.

Manning, as Tom remembered it, had taken advantage of the huge Venusian
by tricking him into carrying his luggage. Reasoning that since the
gravity of Venus was considerably less than that of Earth, he convinced
Astro that he needed the extra weight to maintain his balance. It had
been a cheap trick, but no one had wanted to challenge the sharpness of
Manning's tongue and come to Astro's rescue. Tom had wanted to, but
refrained when he saw that Astro didn't mind.

Finishing his conversation on the teleceiver, McKenny stepped out of the
booth and faced the boys again.

"All right," he bawled. "They're all set for you at the Academy! Pick up
your gear and follow me!" With a quick light step, he hopped on the
rolling slidewalk at the edge of the platform and started moving away.

"Hey, Astro!" Roger Manning stopped the huge boy about to step over.
"Going to carry my bags?"

The Venusian, a full head taller, hesitated and looked doubtfully at the
four suitcases at Roger's feet.

"Come on," prodded Roger in a tone of mock good nature. "The gravity
around here is the same as in Atom City. It's the same all over the face
of the Earth. Wouldn't want you to just fly away." He snickered and
looked around, winking broadly.

Astro still hesitated, "I don't know, Manning. I--uhh--"

"By the rings of Saturn! What's going on here?" Suddenly from outside
the ring of boys that had gathered around, McKenny came roaring in,
bulling his way to the center of the group to face Roger and Astro.

"I have a strained wrist, sir," began Roger smoothly.

"And this cadet candidate"--he nodded casually toward Astro--"offered to
carry my luggage. Now he refuses."

Mike glared at Astro. "Did you agree to carry this man's luggage?"

"Well--I--ah--" fumbled Astro.

"Well? Did you or didn't you?"

"I guess I sorta did, sir," replied Astro, his face turning a slow red.

"I don't hold with anyone doing another man's work, but if a Solar Guard
officer, a Space Cadet, or even a cadet candidate gives his word he'll
do something, he does it!" McKenny shook a finger in Astro's face,
reaching up to do it. "Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," was the embarrassed reply.

McKenny turned to Manning who stood listening, a faint smile playing on
his lips.

"What's your name, Mister?"

"Manning. Roger Manning," he answered easily.

"So you've got a strained wrist, have you?" asked Mike mockingly while
sending a sweeping glance from top to bottom of the gaudy colored
clothes.

"Yes, sir."

"Can't carry your own luggage, eh?"

"Yes," answered Roger evenly. "I could carry my own luggage. I thought
the candidate from Venus might give me a helping hand. Nothing more. I
certainly didn't intend for him to become a marked man for a simple
gesture of comradeship." He glanced past McKenny toward the other boys
and added softly, "And comradeship _is_ the spirit of Space Academy,
isn't it, sir?"

His face suddenly crimson, McKenny spluttered, searching for a ready
answer, then turned away abruptly.

"What are you all standing around for?" he roared. "Get your gear and
yourselves over on that slidewalk! Blast!" He turned once again to the
rolling platform. Manning smiled at Astro and hopped nimbly onto the
slidewalk after McKenny, leaving his luggage in a heap in front of
Astro.

"And be careful with that small case, Astro," he called as he drifted
away.

"Here, Astro," said Tom. "I'll give you a hand."

"Never mind," replied Astro grimly. "I can carry 'em."

"No, let me help." Tom bent over--then suddenly straightened. "By the
way, we haven't introduced ourselves. My name's Corbett--Tom Corbett."
He stuck out his hand. Astro hesitated, sizing up the curly-headed boy
in front of him, who stood smiling and offering friendship. Finally he
pushed out his own hand and smiled back at Tom.

"Astro, but you know that by now."

"That sure was a dirty deal Manning gave you."

"Ah, I don't mind carrying his bags. It's just that I wanted to tell him
he's going to have to send it all back. They don't allow a candidate to
keep more than a toothbrush at the Academy."

"Guess he'll find out the hard way."

Carrying Manning's luggage as well as their own, they finally stepped on
the slidewalk and began the smooth easy ride from the monorail station
to the Academy. Both having felt the sharpness of Manning's tongue, and
both having been dressed down by Warrant Officer McKenny, they seemed to
be linked by a bond of trouble and they stood close together for mutual
comfort.

As the slidewalk whisked them silently past the few remaining buildings
and credit exchanges that nestled around the monorail station, Tom gave
thought to his new life.

Ever since Jon Builker, the space explorer, returning from the first
successful flight to a distant galaxy, came through his home town near
New Chicago twelve years before, Tom had wanted to be a spaceman.
Through high school and the New Chicago Primary Space School where he
had taken his first flight above Earth's atmosphere, he had waited for
the day when he would pass his entrance exams and be accepted as a cadet
candidate in Space Academy. For no reason at all, a lump rose in his
throat, as the slidewalk rounded a curve and he saw for the first time,
the gleaming white magnificence of the Tower of Galileo. He recognized
it immediately from the hundreds of books he had read about the Academy
and stared wordlessly.

"Sure is pretty, isn't it?" asked Astro, his voice strangely husky.

"Yeah," breathed Tom in reply. "It sure is." He could only stare at the
shimmering tower ahead.

"It's all I've ever wanted to do," said Tom at length. "Just get out
there and--be _free_!"

"I know what you mean. It's the greatest feeling in the world."

"You say that as if you've already been up there."

Astro grinned. "Yup. Used to be an enlisted space sailor. Bucked rockets
in an old freighter on the Luna City--Venusport run."

"Well, what are you doing here?" Tom was amazed and impressed.

"Simple. I want to be an officer. I want to get into the Solar Guard and
handle the power-push in one of those cruisers."

Tom's eyes glowed with renewed admiration for his new friend. "I've been
out four or five times but only in jet boats five hundred miles out.
Nothing like a jump to Luna City or Venusport."

By now the slidewalk had carried them past the base of the Tower of
Galileo to a large building facing the Academy quadrangle and the spell
was broken by McKenny's bull-throated roar.

"Haul off, you blasted polliwogs!"

As the boys jumped off the slidewalk, a cadet, dressed in the vivid blue
that Tom recognized as the official dress of the Senior Cadet Corps,
walked up to McKenny and spoke to him quietly. The warrant officer
turned back to the waiting group and gave rapid orders.

"By twos, follow Cadet Herbert inside and he'll assign you to your
quarters. Shower, shave if you have to and can find anything to shave,
and dress in the uniform that'll be supplied you. Be ready to take the
Academy oath at"--he paused and glanced at the senior cadet who held up
three fingers--"fifteen hundred hours. That's three o'clock. All clear?
Blast off!"

Just as the boys began to move, there was a sudden blasting roar in the
distance. The noise expanded and rolled across the hills surrounding
Space Academy. It thundered over the grassy quadrangle, vibrating waves
of sound one on top of the other, until the very air quivered under the
impact.

Mouths open, eyes popping, the cadet candidates stood rooted in their
tracks and stared as, in the distance, a long, thin, needlelike ship
seemed to balance delicately on a column of flame, then suddenly shoot
skyward and disappear.

"Pull in your eyeballs!" McKenny's voice crackled over the receding
thunder. "You'll fly one of those firecrackers some day. But right now
you're _Earthworms_, the lowest form of animal life in the Academy!"

As the boys snapped to attention again, Tom thought he caught a faint
smile on Cadet Herbert's face as he stood to one side waiting for
McKenny to finish his tirade. Suddenly he snapped his back straight,
turned sharply and stepped through the wide doors of the building.
Quickly the double line of boys followed.

"Did you see that, Astro?" asked Tom excitedly. "That was a Solar Guard
patrol ship!"

"Yeah, I know," replied Astro. The big candidate from Venus scratched
his chin and eyed Tom bashfully. "Say, Tom--ah, since we sort of know
each other, how about us trying to get in the same quarters?"

"O.K. by me, Astro, if we can," said Tom, grinning back at his friend.

The line pressed forward to Cadet Herbert, who was now waiting at the
bottom of the slidestairs, a mesh belt that spiraled upward in a narrow
well to the upper stories of the building. Speaking into an
audioscriber, a machine that transmitted his spoken words into
typescript, he repeated the names of the candidates as they passed.

"Cadet Candidate Tom Corbett," announced Tom, and Herbert repeated it
into the audioscriber.

"Cadet Candidate Astro!" The big Venusian stepped forward.

"What's the rest of it, Mister?" inquired Herbert.

"That's all. Just Astro."

"No other names?"

"No, sir," replied Astro. "You see--"

"You don't say 'sir' to a senior cadet, Mister. And we're not interested
in why you have only one name!" Herbert snapped.

"Yes, sir--uhh--Mister." Astro flushed and joined Tom.

"Cadet Candidate Philip Morgan," announced the next boy.

Herbert repeated the name into the machine, then announced, "Cadet
Candidates Tom Corbett, Astro, and Philip Morgan assigned to Section
42-D."

Turning to the three boys, he indicated the spiraling slidestairs.
"Forty-second floor. You'll find Section D in the starboard wing."

Astro and Tom immediately began to pile Manning's luggage to one side of
the slidestairs.

"Take your luggage with you, Misters!" snapped Herbert.

"It isn't ours," replied Tom.

"Isn't yours?" Herbert glanced over the pile of suitcases and turned
back to Tom. "Whose is it then?"

"Belongs to Cadet Candidate Roger Manning," replied Tom.

"What are you doing with it?"

"We were carrying it for him."

"Do we have a candidate in the group who finds it necessary to provide
himself with valet service?"

Herbert moved along the line of boys.

"Will Cadet Candidate Roger Manning please step forward?"

Roger slid from behind a group of boys to face the senior cadet's cold
stare.

"Roger Manning here," he presented himself smoothly.

"Is that your luggage?" Herbert jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

"It is."

Roger smiled confidently, but Herbert merely stared coldly.

"You have a peculiar attitude for a candidate, Manning."

"Is there a prescribed attitude, Mr. Herbert?" Roger asked, his smile
broadening. "If there is, I'll be only too glad to conform to it."

Herbert's face twitched almost imperceptibly. Then he nodded, made a
notation on a pad and returned to his post at the head of the gaping
line of boys. "From now on, Candidate Manning, you will be responsible
for your own belongings."

Tom, Astro, and Philip Morgan stepped on the slidestairs and began
their spiraling ascent to the forty-second floor.

"I saw what happened at the monorail station," drawled the third member
of Section 42-D, leaning against the bannister of the moving belt. "By
the craters of Luna, that Manning felluh sure is a hot operator."

"We found out for ourselves," grunted Astro.

"Say, since we're all bunkin' togethuh, let's get to knowin' each othuh.
My name's Phil Morgan, come from Georgia. Where you all from?"

"New Chicago," replied Tom. "Name's Tom Corbett. And this is Astro."

"Hiya." Astro stuck out a big paw and grinned his wide grin. "I guess
you heard. Astro's all the name I've got."

"How come?" inquired the Southerner.

"I'm from Venus and it's a custom from way back when Venus was first
colonized to just hand out one name."

"Funny custom," drawled Phil.

Astro started to say something and then stopped, clamping his lips
together. Tom could see his face turn a slow pink. Phil saw it too, and
hastily added:

"Oh--I didn't mean anything. I--ah--" he broke off, embarrassed.

"Forget it, Phil." Astro grinned again.

"Say," interjected Tom. "Look at that!"

They all turned to look at the floor they were passing. Near the edge of
the step-off platform on the fourth floor was an oaken panel, inscribed
with silver lettering in relief. As they drew even with the plaque, they
caught sight of someone behind them. They turned to see Manning, the
pile of suitcases in front of him, reading aloud.

" ... to the brave men who sacrificed their lives in the conquest of
space, this Galaxy Hall is dedicated...."

"Say, this must be the museum," said Tom. "Here's where they have all
the original gear used in the first space hops."

"Absolutely right," said Manning with a smile.

"I wonder if we could get off and take a look?" Astro asked.

"Sure you can," said Roger. "In fact, the Academy regs say every cadet
must inspect the exhibits in the space museum within the first week."

The members of Section 42-D looked at Roger questioningly.

"I don't know if we have time." Tom was dubious.

"Sure you have--plenty. I'd hop off and take a look myself but I've got
to get this junk ready to ship home." He indicated the pile of bags in
front of him.

"Aw, come on, Tom, let's take a look!" urged Astro. "They have the old
_Space Queen_ in here, the first ship to clear Earth's gravity. Boy, I'd
sure like to see her!" Without waiting for the others to agree, the huge
candidate stepped off the slidestairs.

"Hey, Astro!" yelled Tom. "Wait! I don't think--" His voice trailed off
as the moving stair carried him up to the next floor.

But then a curious thing happened. As other boys came abreast of the
museum floor and saw Astro they began to get off and follow him,
wandering around gazing at the relics of the past.

Soon nearly half of the cadet candidates were standing in silent awe in
front of the battered hull of the _Space Queen_, the first
atomic-powered rocket ship allowed on exhibition only fifty years before
because of the deadly radioactivity in her hull, created when a lead
baffle melted in midspace and flooded the ship with murderous gamma
rays.

They stood in front of the spaceship and listened while Astro, in a
hushed voice, read the inscription on the bronze tablet.

"--Earth to Luna and return. 7th March 2051. In honor of the brave men
of the first atomic-powered spaceship to land successfully on the planet
Moon, only to perish on return to Earth...."

"Candidates--staaaaaaaaannnnnd _too_!"

Like a clap of thunder Warrant Officer McKenny's voice jarred the boys
out of their silence. He stepped forward like a bantam rooster and faced
the startled group of boys.

"I wanna know just _one_ thing! Who stepped off that slidestairs
_first_?"

The boys all hesitated.

"I guess I was the first, sir," said Astro, stepping forward.

"Oh, you guess you were, eh?" roared McKenny.

Taking a deep breath McKenny launched into a blistering tirade. His
choice of words were to be long remembered by the group and repeated to
succeeding classes. Storming against the huge Venusian like a pygmy
attacking an elephant, McKenny roared, berated and blasted.

Later, when Astro finally reached his quarters and changed into the
green coveralls of the cadet candidates, Tom and Phil crowded around
him.

"It was Roger, blast him!" said Tom angrily. "He was getting back at you
because Cadet Herbert made him carry his own gear."

"I asked for it," grumbled Astro. "Ah, I should've known better. But I
just couldn't wait to see the _Queen_." He balled his huge hands into
tight knots and stared at the floor.

"Now hear this!!!"

A voice suddenly rasped over the PA system loud-speaker above the door.
"All cadet candidates will come to attention to receive the Space
Academy oath from Commander Walters." The voice paused. "_AT-TENT-SHUN!_
Cadet candidates--Staaaaannnnd _TO_!"

"This is Commander Walters speaking!" A deep, powerful voice purred
through the speaker. "The Academy oath is taken individually.

"It is something each candidate locks in his spirit, his mind and his
heart. That is why it is taken in your quarters. The oath is not a show
of color, it is a way of life. Each candidate will face as closely as
possible in the direction of his home and swear by his own individual
God as he repeats after me."

Astro stepped quickly to the window port and gazed into the blue
heavens, eyes searching out the misty planet Venus. Phil Morgan thought
a moment, and faced toward the wall with the inlaid star chart of the
sky, thinking of sun-bathed Georgia. Tom Corbett stared straight at a
blank wall.

Each boy did not see what was in front of him yet he saw further,
perhaps, than he had ever seen before. He looked into a future which
held the limitlessness of the universe and new worlds and planets to be
lifted out of the oblivion of uncharted depths of space to come.

They repeated slowly....

" ... I solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the Solar Alliance,
to obey interplanetary law, to protect the liberties of the planets, to
safeguard the freedom of space and to uphold the cause of peace
throughout the universe ... to this end, I dedicate my life!"



CHAPTER 2


Tom Corbett's first day at Space Academy began at 0530 hours with the
blaring of the _Cadet Corps Song_ over the central communicators:

    "_From the rocket fields of the Academy
    To the far-flung stars of outer space,
    We're Space Cadets training to be
    Ready for dangers we may face._

    _Up in the sky, rocketing past
    Higher than high, faster than fast,
    Out into space, into the sun
    Look at her go when we give her the gun._

    _From the rocket fields of the_...."

Within sixty seconds, the buildings of the Academy rocked with the
impact of three thousand voices singing the last stanza. Lights flashed
on in every window. Cadets raced through the halls and across the
quadrangle. The central communicator began the incessant mustering of
cadets, and the never-ending orders of the day.

" ... Unit 38-Z report to Captain Edwards for astrogation. Unit 68-E
report to Commander Walters for special assignments."

On and on, down the list of senior cadets, watch officers, and the newly
arrived Earthworms. Units and individuals to report for training or
study in everything from ground assembly of an atomic rocket motor, to
the history of the founding of the Solar Alliance, the governing body of
the tri-planet civilization.

Tom Corbett stepped out of the shower in Section 42-D and bellowed at
the top of his voice.

"Hit the deck, Astro! Make use of the gravity!" He tugged at an outsized
foot dangling over the side of an upper bunk.

"Uhhhh-ahhhh-hummmmm," groaned the cadet from Venus and tried to go back
to sleep.

Philip Morgan stepped into the shower, turned on the cold water,
screeched at the top of his voice, gradually trailing off into countless
repetitions of the last verse of the Academy song.

"Damp your tubes, you blasted space monkey," roared Astro, sitting up
bleary-eyed.

"What time do we eat?" asked Tom, pulling on the green one-piece
coverall of the Earthworm cadet candidates.

"I don't know," replied Astro, opening his mouth in a cavernous yawn.
"But it'd better be soon. I like space, but not between my backbone and
my stomach!"

Warrant Officer McKenny burst into the room and began to compete with
the rest of the noise outside the buildings.

"Five minutes to the dining hall and you'd better not be late! Take the
slidestairs down to the twenty-eighth floor. Tell the mess cadet in
charge of the hall your unit number and he'll show you to the right
table. Remember where it is, because you'll have to find it yourself
after that, or not eat. Finish your breakfast and report to the
ninety-ninth floor to Dr. Dale at seven hundred hours!"

And as fast as he had arrived, he was gone, a flash of red color with
rasping voice trailing behind.

Exactly one hour and ten minutes later, promptly at seven o'clock, the
three members of Unit 42-D stood at attention in front of Dr. Joan Dale,
along with the rest of the green-clad cadets.

When the catcalls and wolf whistles had died away, Dr. Dale, pretty,
trim, and dressed in the gold and black uniform of the Solar Guard, held
up her hand and motioned for the cadets to sit down.

"My answer to your--" she paused, smiled and continued, "your
enthusiastic welcome is simply--thank you. But we'll have no further
repetitions. This is Space Academy--not a primary school!"

Turning abruptly, she stood beside a round desk in the well of an
amphitheater, and held up a thin tube about an inch in diameter and
twelve inches long.

"We will now begin your classification tests," she said. "You will
receive one of these tubes. Inside, you will find four sheets of paper.
You are to answer all the questions on each paper and place them back in
the tube. Take the tube and drop it in the green outline slot in this
wall."

She indicated a four-inch-round hole to her left, outlined with green
paint. Beside it, was another slot outlined with red paint. "Remain
there until the tube is returned to you in the red slot. Take it back to
your desk." She paused and glanced down at her desk.

"Now, there are four possible classifications for a cadet. Control-deck
officer, which includes leadership and command. Astrogation officer,
which includes radar and communications. And power-deck officer for
engine-room operations. The fourth classification is for advanced
scientific study here at the Academy. Your papers are studied by an
electronic calculator that has proven infallible. You must make at least
a passing grade on each of the four classifications."

Dr. Dale looked up at the rows of upturned, unsmiling faces and stepped
from the dais, coming to a halt near the first desk.

"I know that all of you here have your hearts set on becoming spacemen,
officers in the Solar Guard. Most of you want to be space pilots. But
there must be astrogators, radar engineers, communication officers and
power-deck operators on each ship, and," she paused, braced her
shoulders and added, "some of you will not be accepted for any of these.
Some of you will wash out."

Dr. Dale turned her back on the cadets, not wanting to look at the
sudden pallor that washed over their faces. It was brutal, she thought,
this test. Why bring them all the way to the Academy and then give the
tests? Why not start the entrance exams at the beginning with the
classification and aptitude? But she knew the answer even before the
thoughtful question was completed. Under the fear of being washed out,
the weaker ones would not pass. The Solar Guard could not afford to have
cadets and later Solar Guard officers who could not function under
pressure.

She began handing out the tubes and, one by one, the green-clad
candidates stepped to the front of the room to receive them.

"Excuse me, Ma'am," said one cadet falteringly. "If--if--I wash out as a
cadet--as a Solar Guard officer cadet"--he gulped several times--"does
that mean there isn't any chance of becoming a spaceman?"

"No," she answered kindly. "You can become a member of the enlisted
Solar Guard, if you can pass the acceleration tests."

"Thank you, Ma'am," replied the boy and turned away nervously.

Tom Corbett accepted the tube and hurried back to his seat. He knew that
this was the last hurdle. He did not know that the papers had been
prepared individually, the tests given on the basis of the entrance
exams he had taken back at New Chicago Primary Space School.

He opened the tube, pulling out the four sheets, printed on both sides
of the paper, and read the heading on the first: ASTROGATION,
COMMUNICATIONS, SIGNALS (_Radar_)

He studied the first question.

" ... What is the range of the Mark Nine radar-scope, and how far can a
spaceship be successfully distinguished from other objects in space?..."

He read the question four times, then pulled out a pencil and began to
write.

Only the rustle of the papers, or the occasional sigh of a cadet over a
problem, disturbed the silence in the high-ceilinged room, as the
hundred-odd cadets fought the questions.

There was a sudden stir in the room and Tom looked up to see Roger
Manning walk to the slot and casually deposit his tube in the
green-bordered slot. Then he leaned idly against the wall waiting for it
to be returned. As he stood there, he spoke to Dr. Dale, who smiled and
replied. There was something about his attitude that made Tom boil. So
fast? He glanced at his own papers. He had hardly finished two sheets
and thought he was doing fine. He clenched his teeth and bent over the
paper again, redoubling his efforts to triangulate a fix on Regulus by
using dead reckoning as a basis for his computations.

Suddenly a tall man, wearing the uniform of a Solar Guard officer,
appeared in the back of the room. As Dr. Dale looked up and smiled a
greeting, he placed his finger on his lips. Steve Strong, Captain in the
Solar Guard, gazed around the room at the backs bent over busy pencils.
He did not smile, remembering how, only fifteen years before, he had
gone through the same torture, racking his brains trying to adjust the
measurements of a magnascope prism. He was joined by a thin handsome
young man, Lieutenant Judson Saminsky, and finally, Warrant Officer
McKenny. They nodded silently in greeting. It would be over soon. Strong
glanced at the clock over the desk. Another ten minutes to go.

The line of boys at the slots grew until more than twenty stood there,
each waiting patiently, nervously, for his turn to drop the tube in the
slot and receive in return the sealed cylinder that held his fate.

Still at his desk, his face wet with sweat, Astro looked at the question
in front of him for the fifteenth time.

" ... Estimate the time it would take a 300-ton rocket ship with
half-filled tanks, cruising at the most economical speed to make a trip
from Titan to Venusport. (a) Estimate size and maximum capacity of fuel
tanks. (b) Give estimate of speed ship would utilize...."

He thought. He slumped in his chair. He stared at the ceiling. He chewed
his pencil....

Five seats away, Tom stacked his examination sheets neatly, twisted them
into a cylinder and inserted them in the tube. As he passed the line of
desks and headed for the slot, a hand caught his arm. Tom turned to see
Roger Manning grinning at him.

"Worried, spaceboy?" asked Roger easily. Tom didn't answer. He simply
withdrew his arm.

"You know," said Roger, "you're really a nice kid. It's a shame you
won't make it. But the rules specifically say 'no cabbageheads.'"

"No talking!" Dr. Dale called sharply from her desk.

Tom walked away and stood in the line at the slots. He found himself
wanting to pass more than anything in the world. "Please," he breathed,
"please, just let me pass--"

A soft gong began to sound. Dr. Dale stood up.

"Time's up," she announced. "Please put your papers in the tubes and
drop them in the slot."

Tom turned to see Astro stuffing his papers in the thin cylinder
disgustedly. Phil Morgan came up and stood in back of Tom. His face was
flushed.

"Everything O.K., Phil?" inquired Tom.

"Easy as free falling in space," replied the other cadet, his soft
Georgian drawl full of confidence. "How about you?"

"I'm just hoping against hope."

The few remaining stragglers hurried up to the line.

"Think Astro'll make it?" asked Phil.

"I don't know," answered Tom, "I saw him sweating over there like a man
facing death."

"I guess he is--in a way."

Astro took his place in line and shrugged his shoulders when Tom leaned
forward to give him a questioning look.

"Go ahead, Tom," urged Phil. Tom turned and dropped his tube into the
green-bordered slot and waited. He stared straight at the wall in front
of him, hardly daring to breathe. Presently, the tube was returned in
the red slot. He took it, turned it over in his hands and walked slowly
back to his desk.

"You're washed out, cabbagehead!" Manning's whisper followed him. "Let's
see if you can take it without bawling!"

Tom's face burned and he fought an impulse to answer Manning with a
stiff belt in the jaw. But he kept walking, reached his desk and sat
down.

Astro, the last to return to his desk, held the tube out in front of him
as if it were alive. The room was silent as Dr. Dale rose from her desk.

"All right now, boys," she announced. "Inside the tubes you will find
colored slips of paper. Those of you who have red slips will remain
here. Those who find green slips will return to their quarters. Blue
will go with Captain Strong, orange with Lieutenant Saminsky, and purple
with Warrant Officer McKenny. Now--please open the tubes."

There was a tinkling of metal caps and then the slight rustle of paper
as each boy withdrew the contents of the tube before him.

Tom took a deep breath and felt inside for the paper. He held his breath
and pulled it out. It was green. He didn't know what it meant. He looked
around. Phil was signaling to him, holding up a blue slip. Tom's heart
skipped a beat. Whatever the colors meant, he and Phil were apart. He
quickly turned around and caught Astro's eye. The big Venusian held up a
green slip. Tom's heart then nearly stopped beating. Phil, who had
breezed through with such confidence, held a blue slip, and Astro, who
hadn't even finished the test, held up the same color that he had. It
could only mean one thing. Failure. He felt the tears welling in his
eyes, but had no strength left to fight them back.

He looked up, his eyes meeting the insolent stare of Roger Manning who
was half turned in his seat. Remembering the caustic warning of the
confident cadet, Tom fought back the flood in his eyes and glared back.

What would he tell his mother? And his father? And Billy, his brother,
five years younger than himself, whom he had promised to bring a flask
of water from the Grand Canal on Mars. And his sister! Tom remembered
the shining pride in her eyes when she kissed him good-bye at the
Stratoport as he left for Atom City.

From the front of the room, McKenny's rasping voice jarred him back to
the present.

"Cadets--staaaaaaaand _to!_"

There was a shuffle of feet as the boys rose as one.

"All the purple slips follow me," he roared and turned toward the door.
The cadets with purple slips marched after him.

Lieutenant Saminsky stepped briskly to the front of the room.

"Cadets with orange slips will please come with me," he said casually,
and another group of cadets left the room.

From the rear of the room Captain Strong snapped out an order.

"Blue slips will come with me!"

He turned smartly and followed the last of Lieutenant Saminsky's cadets
out of the room.

Tom looked around. The room was nearly empty now. He looked over at
Astro and saw his big friend slumped moodily over against his desk.
Then, suddenly, he noticed Roger Manning. The arrogant cadet was not
smiling any longer. He was staring straight ahead. Before him on the
desk, Tom could see a green slip. So he had failed too, thought Tom
grimly. It was poor solace for the misery he felt.

Dr. Dale stepped forward again.

"Will the cadets holding green slips return to their quarters. Those
with red slips will remain in their seats," she announced.

Tom found himself moving with difficulty. As he walked through the door,
Astro joined him. A look more eloquent than words passed between them
and they made their way silently up the slidestairs back to their
quarters.

Lying in his bunk, hands under his head, eyes staring into space, Tom
asked, "What happens now?"

Sprawled on his bunk, Astro didn't answer right away. He merely gulped
and swallowed hard.

"I--I don't know," he finally stammered. "I just don't know."

"What'll you do?"

"It's back to the hold of a Venusport freighter, I guess. I don't know."
Astro paused and looked at Tom. "What'll you do?"

"Go home," said Tom simply. "Go home and--and find a job."

"Ever think about the enlisted Solar Guard? Look at McKenny--"

"Yeah--but--"

"I know how you feel," sighed Astro. "Being in the enlisted section--is
like--well, being a passenger--almost."

The door was suddenly flung open.

"Haul off them bunks, you blasted Earthworms!"

McKenny stood in the doorway in his usual aggressive pose, and Tom and
Astro hit the floor together to stand at attention.

"Where's the other cadet?"

"He went with Captain Strong, sir," answered Tom.

"Oh?" said Mike. And in a surprisingly soft tone he added, "You two
pulled green slips, eh?"

"Yes, sir," they replied together.

"Well, I don't know how you did it, but congratulations. You passed the
classification tests. Both of you."

Tom just looked at the scarlet-clad, stumpy warrant officer. He couldn't
believe his ears. Suddenly he felt as if he had been lifted off his
feet. And then he realized that he _was_ off his feet. Astro was holding
him over his head. Then he dumped him in his bunk as easily as if he
had been a child. And at the same time, the big Venusian let out a loud,
long, earsplitting yell.

McKenny matched him with his bull-like roar.

"Plug that foghorn, you blasted Earthworm. You'll have the whole Academy
in here thinking there's a murder."

By this time Tom was on his feet again, standing in front of McKenny.

"You mean, we made it? We're really in? We're cadets?"

"That's right." McKenny looked at a clip board in his hand and read,
"Cadet Corbett, Tom. Qualified for control deck. Cadet Astro. Power
deck."

Astro took a deep breath and started another yell, but before he could
let go, McKenny clamped a big hand over his mouth.

"You bellow like that again and I'll make meteor dust out of you!"

Astro gulped and then matched Tom's grin with one that spread from ear
to ear.

"What happened to Philip Morgan?" asked Tom.

"What color slip did he have?"

"Blue."

"Anything besides green washed out," replied Mike quickly. "Now let's
see, you have a replacement for Morgan in this unit. An astrogator."

"Greetings, gentlemen," drawled a voice that Tom recognized without even
looking. "Allow me to introduce myself to my new unit-mates. My name is
Manning--Roger Manning. But then, we're old friends, aren't we?"

"Stow that rocket wash, Manning," snapped Mike. He glanced at the clock
over the door. "You have an hour and forty-five minutes until lunch
time. I suggest you take a walk around the Academy and familiarize
yourselves with the arrangement of the buildings."

And then, for the first time, Tom saw the hard little spaceman smile.

"I'm glad you made it, boys. All three of you." He paused and looked at
each of them in turn. "And I can honestly say I'm looking forward to the
day when I can serve under you!"

He snapped his back straight, gave the three startled boys a crisp
salute, executed a perfect about-face and marched out of the room.

"And that," drawled Roger, strolling to the bunk nearest the window, "is
the corniest bit of space gas I've ever heard."

"Listen, Manning!" growled Astro, spinning around quickly to face him.

"Yeah," purred Roger, his eyes drawn to fine points, hands hanging
loosely at his sides. "What would you like me to listen to, Cadet
Astro?"

The hulking cadet lunged at Manning, but Tom quickly stepped between
them.

"Stow it, both of you!" he shouted. "We're in this room together, so we
might as well make the best of it."

"Of course, Corbett--of course," replied Manning easily. He turned his
back on Astro, who stood, feet wide apart, neck muscles tight and hands
clenched in hamlike fists.

"One of these days I'll break you in two, Manning. I'll close that
fast-talking mouth of yours for good!"

Astro's voice was a low growl. Roger stood near the window port and
appeared to have forgotten the incident.

The light shining in from the hallway darkened, and Tom turned to see
three blue-clad senior cadets arranged in a row just inside the door.

"Congratulations, gentlemen. You're now qualified cadets of Space
Academy," said a redheaded lad about twenty-one. "My name is Al Dixon,"
he turned to his left and right, "and these are cadets Bill Houseman
and Rodney Withrop."

"Hiya," replied Tom. "Glad to know you. I'm Tom Corbett. This is
Astro--and Roger Manning."

Astro shook hands, the three senior cadets giving a long glance at the
size of the hand he offered. Roger came forward smartly and shook hands
with a smile.

"We're sorta like a committee," began Dixon. "We've come to sign you up
for the Academy sports program."

They made themselves comfortable in the room.

"You have a chance to take part in three sports. Free-fall wrestling,
mercuryball and space chess." Dixon glanced at Houseman and Withrop.
"From the looks of Cadet Astro, free-fall wrestling should be child's
play for him!"

Astro merely grinned.

"Mercuryball is pretty much like the old game of soccer," explained
Houseman. "But inside the ball is a smaller ball filled with mercury,
making it take crazy dips and turns. You have to be pretty fast even to
touch it."

"Sounds like you have to be a little Mercurian yourself," smiled Tom.

"You do," replied Dixon. "Oh, yes, you three play as a unit. Competition
starts in a few days. So if you've never played before, you might go
down to the gym and start practicing."

"You mentioned space chess," asked Roger. "What's that?"

"It's really nothing more than maneuvers. Space maneuvers," said Dixon.
"A glass case, a seven-foot cube, is divided by light shafts into
smaller cubes of equal shape and size. Each man has a complete space
squadron. Three model rocket cruisers, six destroyers and ten scouts.
The ships are filled with gas to make them float, and your power is
derived from magnetic force. The problem is to get a combination of
cruisers and destroyers and scouts into a space section where it could
knock out your opponent's ships."

"You mean," interrupted Astro, "you've got to keep track of all those
ships at once?"

"Don't worry, Astro," commented Roger quickly. "You use your muscles to
win for dear old 42-D in free-fall wrestling. Corbett here can pound
down the grassy field for a goal in mercuryball, and I'll do the
brainwork of space chess."

The three visiting cadets exchanged sharp glances.

"Everybody plays together, Manning," said Dixon. "You three take part in
each sport as a unit."

"Of course," nodded Roger. "Of course--as a unit."

The three cadets stood up, shook hands all around and left. Tom
immediately turned to Manning.

"What was the idea of that crack about brains?"

Manning slouched over to the window port and said over his shoulder, "I
don't know how you and your king-sized friend here passed the
classifications test, Corbett, and I don't care. But, as you say, we're
a unit. So we might as well make adjustments."

He turned to face them with a cold stare.

"I know this Academy like the palm of my hand," he went on. "Never mind
how, just take it for granted. _I know it._ I'm here for the ride. For a
special reason I wouldn't care to have you know. I'll get my training
and then pull out."

He took a step forward, his face a mask of bitterness.

"So from now on, you two guys leave me alone. You bore me to death with
your emotional childish allegiance to this--this"--he paused and spit
the last out cynically--"space kindergarten!"



CHAPTER 3


"I just can't understand it, Joan," said Captain Steve Strong, tossing
the paper on his circular desk. "The psychographs of Corbett, Manning
and Astro fit together like gears. And yet--"

The Solar Guard officer suddenly rose and walked over to a huge window
that filled the entire north wall of his office, a solid sheet of glass
that extended from the high domed ceiling to the translucent flooring.
Through the window, he stared down moodily toward the grassy quadrangle,
where at the moment several hundred cadets were marching in formation
under a hot sun.

"--And yet," continued Strong, "every morning for the last three weeks
I've got a report from McKenny about some sort of friction between
them!"

"I think it'll work out, Steve," answered the pretty girl in the uniform
of the Solar Guard, seated in an easy chair on the other side of the
desk.

Joan Dale held the distinction of being the first woman ever admitted
into the Solar Guard, in a capacity other than administrative work. Her
experiments in atomic fissionables was the subject of a recent
scientific symposium held on Mars. Over fifty of the leading scientists
of the Solar Alliance had gathered to study her latest theory on
hyperdrive, and had unanimously declared her ideas valid. She had been
offered the chair as Master of Physics at the Academy as a result,
giving her access to the finest laboratory in the tri-planet society.

Now facing the problem of personality adjustment in Unit 42-D, she sat
across the desk from her childhood friend, Steve Strong, and frowned.

"What's happened this time?"

"Manning." He paused. "It seems to be all Manning!"

"You mean he's the more aggressive of the three?"

"No--not necessarily. Corbett shows signs of being a number-one
spaceman. And that big cadet, Astro"--Strong flashed a white smile that
contrasted with his deep space tan--"I don't think he could make a
manual mistake on the power deck if he tried. You know, I actually saw
him put an auxiliary rocket motor together blindfolded!"

The pretty scientist smiled. "I could have told you that after one look
at his classification tests."

"How?"

"On questions concerning the power-deck operations, he was letter
perfect--"

"And on the others? Astrogation and control deck?"

"He just skimmed by. But even where the problem involved fuel, power,
supply of energy, he offered some very practical answer to the problem."
She smiled. "Astro is as much an artist on that power deck as Liddy
Tamal doing Juliet in the stereos."

"Yes," mused Strong. "And Corbett is the same on the control deck. Good
instinctive intelligence. That boy soaks up knowledge like a sponge."

"Facile mind--quick to grasp the essentials." She smiled again. "Seems
to me I remember a few years back when a young lieutenant successfully
put down a mutiny in space, and at his promotion to captain, the
citation included the fact that he was quick to grasp the essentials."

Strong grinned sheepishly. A routine flight to Titan had misfired into
open rebellion by the crew. Using a trick picked up in ancient history
books of sea-roving pirates in the seventeenth century, he had joined
the mutiny, gained control of the ship, sought out the ring-leaders and
restored discipline.

"And Manning," asked Strong. "What about Manning?"

"One of the hardest, brightest minds I've come across in the Academy. He
has a brain like a steel trap. He never misses."

"Then, do you think he's acting up because Corbett is the nominal head
of the unit? Does he feel that he should be the command cadet in the
control deck instead of Corbett?"

"No," replied Dr. Dale. "Not at all. I'm sure he intentionally missed
problems about control deck and command in his classification test. He
concentrated on astrogation, communications and signal radar. He wanted
to be assigned to the radar deck. And he turned in the best paper I've
ever read from a cadet to get the post."

Strong threw up his hands. "Then what is it? Here we have a unit, on
paper at least, that could be number one. A good combination of brains,
experience and knowledge. Everything that's needed. And what is the
result? Friction!"

Suddenly a buzzer sounded, and on Steve Strong's desk a small teleceiver
screen glowed into life. Gradually the stern face of Commander Walters
emerged.

"Sorry to disturb you, Steve. Can you spare me a minute?"

"Of course, Commander," replied Strong. "Is anything wrong?"

"Very wrong, Steve. I've been looking over the daily performance reports
on Unit 42-D."

"Dr. Dale and I have just been discussing that situation, sir." A
relieved expression passed over the commander's face.

"Good! I wanted to get your opinions before I broke up the unit."

"No, sir!" said Strong quickly. "Don't do that!"

"Oh?" replied the commander. On the screen he could be seen settling
back in his chair.

"And why not?"

"Well, Joan--er--Dr. Dale and myself feel that the boys of Unit 42-D
make it potentially the best in the Academy--if they stay together,
sir."

Walters considered this for a moment and then asked thoughtfully, "Give
me one good reason why the unit shouldn't be washed out."

"The academy needs boys like this, sir," Steve answered flatly. "Needs
their intelligence, their experience. They may be a problem now, but if
they're handled right, they'll turn out to be ace spacemen, they'll--"

The commander interrupted. "You're pretty sold on them, aren't you,
Steve?"

"Yes, sir, I am."

"You know, tomorrow all the units will be assigned to their personal
instructors."

"Yes, sir. And I've selected Lieutenant Wolcheck for this unit. He's
tough and smart. I think he's just the man for the job."

"I don't agree, Steve. Wolcheck is a fine officer and with any other
unit there'd be no question. But I think we have a better man for the
job."

"Whom do you suggest, sir?"

The commander leaned forward in his chair.

"You, Steve."

"Me?"

"What do you think, Joan?"

"I wanted to make the same suggestion, Commander," smiled Joan. "But I
didn't know if Steve really would want the assignment."

"Well, what about it, Steve?" asked the commander. "This is no
reflection on your present work. But if you're so convinced that 42-D is
worth the trouble, then take them over and mold them into spacemen.
Otherwise, I'll have to wash them out."

Strong hesitated a moment. "All right, sir. I'll do my best."

On the screen the stern lines in Commander Walters' face relaxed and he
smiled approvingly.

"Thanks, Steve," he said softly. "I was hoping you'd say that. Keep me
posted."

The screen blacked out abruptly and Captain Strong turned to Joan Dale,
a troubled frown wrinkling his brow.

"Huh. I really walked into that one, didn't I?" he muttered.

"It isn't going to be easy, Steve," she replied.

"Easy!" He snorted and walked over to the window to stare blankly at the
quadrangle below. "I'd almost rather try a landing on the hot side of
Mercury. It would be icy compared to this situation!"

"You can do it, Steve. I know you can." Joan moved to his side to place
a reassuring hand on his arm.

The Solar Guard officer didn't answer immediately. He kept on staring at
the Academy grounds and buildings spread out before him. When he finally
spoke, his voice rang with determination.

"I've got to do it, Joan. I've got to whip those boys into a unit. Not
only for their sakes--but for the sake of the Academy!"



CHAPTER 4


The first three weeks of an Earthworm's life at Space Academy are filled
with never-ending physical training and conditioning to meet the rigors
of rocket flight and life on distant planets. And under the grueling
pressure of fourteen-hour days, filled with backbreaking exercises and
long forced marches, very few of the boys can find anything more
desirable than sleep--and more sleep.

Under this pressure the friction in Unit 42-D became greater and
greater. Roger and Astro continually needled each other with insults,
and Tom gradually slipped into the role of arbiter.

Returning from a difficult afternoon of endless marching in the hot sun
with the prospect of an evening of free-fall wrestling before them, the
three cadets dragged themselves wearily onto the slidestairs leading to
their quarters, their muscles screaming for rest.

"Another day like this," began Astro listlessly, "and I'm going to melt
down to nothing. Doesn't McKenny have a heart?"

"No, just an asteroid," Tom grumbled. "He'll never know how close he
came to getting a space boot in the face when he woke us up this
morning. Oh, man! Was I tired!"

"Stop complaining, will you?" snarled Roger. "All I've heard from you
two space crawlers is gripes and complaints."

"If I wasn't so tired, Roger," said Astro, "I'd give you something to
gripe about. A flat lip!"

"Knock it off, Astro," said Tom wearily. The role of keeping them apart
was getting tiresome.

"The trouble with you, Astro," pursued Roger, "is that you think with
your muscles instead of your head."

"Yeah, I know. And you've got an electronic calculator for a brain. All
you have to do is push a button and you get the answers all laid out for
you."

They had reached their quarters now and were stripping off their
sweat-soaked uniforms in preparation for a cool shower.

"You know, Roger," continued Astro, "you've got a real problem ahead of
you."

"Any problem you think I have is no problem at all," was the cool reply.

"Yes, it is," insisted Astro. "When you're ready for your first hop in
space, you won't be able to make it!"

"Why not?"

"They don't have a space helmet in the Academy large enough to fit that
overinflated head of yours!"

Roger turned slowly and spoke to Tom without looking at him. "Close the
door, Corbett!"

"Why?" asked Tom, puzzled.

"Because I don't want any interruptions. I'm going to take that big hunk
of Venusian space junk apart."

"Anything you say, you bigmouthed squirt!" roared Astro.

"Hey--knock it off!" yelled Tom, jumping between them and grabbing
Astro's arm. "If you guys don't lay off each other, you're going to be
thrown out of the Academy, and I'll be thrown out with you! I'll be
blasted if I'll suffer for your mistakes!"

"That's a very interesting statement, Corbett!" A deep voice purred
from the doorway and the three boys whirled to see Captain Strong walk
into the room, his black and gold uniform fitting snugly across the
shoulders betraying their latent strength. "Stand to--all of you!"

As the boys quickly snapped to attention, Strong eyed them slowly and
then moved casually around the room. He picked up a book, looked out of
the window port, pushed a boot to one side and, finally, removed Tom's
sweat-stained uniform from a chair and sat down. The cadets held their
rigid poses, backs stiff, eyes looking straight ahead.

"Corbett?" snapped Strong.

"Yes, sir?"

"What was the meaning of that little speech I heard a moment ago?"

"I--ah--don't quite understand what you mean, sir," stumbled Tom.

"I think you do," said Strong. "I want to know what provoked you to make
such a statement."

"I'd rather not answer that, sir."

"Don't get cute, Corbett!" barked Strong. "I know what's going on in
this unit. Were Manning and Astro squaring off to fight?"

"Yes, sir," replied Tom slowly.

"All right. At ease all of you," said Strong. The three boys relaxed and
faced the officer.

"Manning, do you want to be a successful cadet here at Space Academy?"

"Yes, sir," answered Roger.

"Then why don't you act like it?" asked Strong.

"Is there something wrong with my work, sir?" Tom recognized the smooth
Manning confidence begin to appear, and he wondered if Captain Strong
would be taken in.

"Everything's wrong with your work," barked Strong. "You're too smart!
Know too much!" He stopped short and then added softly with biting
sarcasm, "Why do you know so much, Cadet Manning?"

Roger hesitated. "I've studied very hard. Studied for years to become a
Space Cadet," he replied.

"Just to be a cadet or a successful cadet _and_ a Solar Guard officer?"

"To be successful at both, sir."

"Tell me, Manning, do you have any ideas on life?"

"That's a pretty general question, sir. Do you mean life as a whole or a
specific part of life?" They're fencing with each other, thought Tom. He
held his breath as Strong eyed the relaxed, confident cadet.

"A spaceman is supposed to have but one idea in life, Manning. And that
idea is _space_!"

"I see, sir," replied Roger, as a faraway look came into his eyes.

"Yes, sir, I have some ideas about life in space."

"I'd like to hear them!" requested Strong coldly.

"Very well, sir." Roger relaxed his shoulders and leaned against the
bunk. "I believe space is the last frontier of man--Earthman. It's the
last place for man to conquer. It is the greatest adventure of all time
and I want to be a part of that adventure."

"Thank you, Manning." Strong's voice was even colder than before. "But
as it happens, I can read too. That was a direct quote from the closing
paragraph of Jon Builker's book on his trip to the stars!" He paused.
"Couldn't you think of anything original to say?"

Roger flushed and gritted his teeth. Tom could hardly keep himself from
laughing. Captain Strong had scored heavily!

The Solar Guard officer then turned his attention to Astro.

"Astro, where in the name of the universe did you get the idea you could
be an officer in the Solar Guard?"

"I can handle anything with push in it, sir!" Astro smiled his
confidence.

"Know anything about hyperdrive?"

"Uhh--no, sir."

"Then you can't handle everything with, as you say, push in it!" snapped
Strong.

"Er--no, sir," answered Astro, his face clouding over.

There was a long moment of silence while Strong lifted one knee, swung
it over the arm of his chair, and looked steadily at the two half-naked
boys in front of him. He smiled lazily.

"Well, for two Earthworms, you've certainly been acting like a couple of
space aces!"

He let that soak in while he toyed with the gleaming Academy ring on his
finger. He allowed it to flash in the light of the window port, then
slipped it off and flipped it over to Corbett.

"Know what that is?" he asked the curly-haired cadet.

"Yes, sir," replied Tom. "Your Academy graduation ring."

"Uh-huh. Now give it to our friend from Venus." Tom gingerly handed
Astro the ring.

"Try it on, Astro," invited Strong.

The big cadet tried it on all of his fingers but couldn't get it past
the first joint.

"Give it to Manning."

Roger accepted the ring and held it in the palm of his hand. He looked
at it with a hard stare, then dropped it in the outstretched hand of the
Solar Guard officer. Replacing it on his finger, Strong spoke casually.

"All units design their own rings. There are only three like this in the
universe. One is drifting around in space on the finger of Sam Jones.
Another is blasting a trail to the stars on the finger of Addy Garcia."
He held up his finger. "This is the third one."

Strong got up and began to pace in front of the boys.

"Addy Garcia couldn't speak a word of English when he first came to the
Academy. And for eight weeks Sam and I sweated to figure out what he was
talking about. I think we spent over a hundred hours in the galley doing
KP because Addy kept getting us fouled up. But that didn't bother us
because we were a unit. Unit 33-V. Class of 2338."

Strong turned to face the silent cadets.

"Sam Jones was pretty much like you, Astro. Not as big, but with the
same love for that power deck. He could always squeeze a few extra
pounds of thrust out of those rockets. What he knew about astrogation
and control, you could stick on the head of a pin. On long flights he
wouldn't even come up to the control deck. He just sat in the power hole
singing loud corny songs about the Arkansas mountains to those atomic
motors. He was a real power-deck man. But he was a _unit_ man first! The
only reason I'm here to tell you about it is because he never forgot the
unit. He died saving Addy and myself."

The room was still. Down the long hall, the lively chatter of other
cadets could be heard as they showered and prepared for dinner. In the
distance, the rumble of the slidewalks and test firing of rockets at the
spaceport was dim, subdued, powerful.

"The unit is the backbone of the Academy," continued Strong. "It was set
up to develop three men to handle a Solar Guard rocket cruiser. Three
men who could be taught to think, feel and act as one intelligent brain.
Three men who would respect each other and who could depend on each
other. Tomorrow you begin your real education. You will be supervised
and instructed personally.

"Many men have contributed to the knowledge that will be placed in
front of you--brave, intelligent men, who blasted through the atmosphere
with a piece of metal under them for a spaceship and a fire in their
tail for rockets. But everything they accomplished goes to waste if the
unit can't become a single personality. It must be a single personality,
or it doesn't exist. The unit is the ultimate of hundreds of years of
research and progress. But you have to fight to create it and keep it
living. Either you want it, or you get out of the Academy!"

Captain Strong turned away momentarily and Tom and Astro looked at Roger
significantly.

"Stand to!"

The three boys snapped to attention as the wide-shouldered captain
addressed them again.

"Tomorrow you begin to learn how to think as a single brain. To act with
combined intelligence as one person. You either make up your minds to
start tomorrow or you report to Commander Walters and resign. There
isn't any room here for individuals."

He stepped to the door and paused.

"One more thing. I've been given the job of making you over into
spacemen. I'm your unit commander. If you're still here in the morning,
I'll accept that as your answer. If you think you can't take"--he
paused--"what I'm going to dish out, then you know what you can do. And
if you stay, you'll _be_ the best unit, or I'll break you in two in the
attempt. Unit dis ... missed!" And he was gone.

The three cadets stood still, not knowing quite what to do or say.
Finally Tom stepped before Astro and Roger.

"Well," he said quietly, "how about it, you guys? Are you going to lay
off each other now?"

Astro flushed, but Roger eyed Corbett coolly.

"Were you really taken in with that space gas, Tom?" He turned to the
shower room. "If you were, then you're more childish than I thought."

"A man died to save another man's life, Roger. Sam Jones. I never knew
him. But I've met Captain Strong, and I believe that he would have done
the same thing for Jones."

"Very noble," commented Roger from the doorway.

"But I'll tell you this, Manning," said Tom, following him, fighting for
self-control, "I wouldn't want to have to depend on you to save my life.
And I wouldn't want to be faced with the situation where I would have to
sacrifice mine to save yours!"

Roger turned and glared at Tom.

"The Academy regs say that the man on the control deck is the boss of
the unit. But I have my private opinion of the man who has that job
now!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Tom.

"Just this, spaceboy. There's a gym below where I'll take you _or_ your
big friend on--together--or one at a time." He paused, a cold smile
twisting his lips. "And that offer is good as of right now!"

Tom and Astro looked at each other.

"I'm afraid," began Astro slowly, "that you wouldn't stand much of a
chance with me, Manning. So if Tom wants the chore of buttoning your
lip, he's welcome to it."

"Thanks, Astro," said Tom evenly. "It'll be my pleasure."

Without another word, the three cadets walked out of the door.



CHAPTER 5


"Will this do, Manning?" asked Tom.

The three boys were in a secluded corner of the gym, a large hall on the
fourteenth floor of the dormitory building. At the far end of the gym, a
group of cadets had just finished a game of mercuryball and were
sauntering to the showers. When the last boy had disappeared, the floor
was deserted except for Tom, Roger and Astro.

"This will do fine, Corbett," said Roger.

The boxing ring had been taken down the week before to make room for
drills and the physical exercises of the Earthworms, so the three boys
had to improvise a ring. They dragged four large tumbling mats together,
spreading them side by side to form a square close to the size of an
actual ring. Astro went to one of the small lockers under the balcony
and returned with two pairs of boxing gloves.

"Here," offered Astro, "put these on."

"Gloves?" asked Roger, in a voice of mock surprise. "I thought this was
going to be a battle of blood."

"Any way you want it, Manning. Any way at all," said Tom.

"You're going to use gloves," growled Astro. "I don't want anybody
killed." He threw a pair at each of them.

"There'll be three-minute rounds, with one minute rest," he continued.
"Go off the mats and you'll be counted out. Usual rules otherwise. Any
questions?"

"Clear to me, Astro," said Tom.

"Let's go," nodded Roger.

"One more thing," said Astro. "I hope Tom pins your ears back, Manning.
But I'm going to see that both of you get a fair deal. So keep the
punches up--and fight it out. All right--time!"

The two boys moved carefully to the center of the improvised ring, their
guards up, while Astro stood off the edge of the mat and watched the
sweeping second hand of his wrist chronograph.

Shuffling forward Tom pushed out a probing left and then tried to cross
his right, but Manning stepped back easily, countering with a hard left
to Tom's heart.

"I forgot to tell you, Corbett," he called out, "I'm considered a
counterpuncher. I always--"

He was cut off with a sharp left to the face that snapped his head back,
and his lips curled in a smile of condescension.

"Good--very good, Corbett."

Then with lightning speed and the grace of a cat, Roger slipped inside
Tom's guard, punching hard and true. A left, a right and a left pounded
into Tom's mid-section, and as he gave way momentarily Tom's face
clouded over.

They circled. Tom kept leading with sharp lefts that popped in and out
like a piston, always connecting and keeping Roger off balance. Roger
concentrated on penetrating Tom's defense, methodically pounding his
ribs and heart and trying to wear him down.

"Time!" bawled Astro.

The two boys dropped their hands and turned back to their corners. They
squatted on the floor breathing slowly and easily. Astro stood in the
middle of the ring, glaring at both of them in turn and shaking his
head.

"Huh. I expected to see you two try to wallop each other into meteor
dust! Keep fighting like that and we'll be here all night!"

"Talk to Corbett," sneered Roger. "Looks like he's afraid to mix it up!"

"You fight your way, Roger, and I'll fight mine," replied Tom, his voice
cold and impersonal.

"Time!" suddenly yelled Astro and stepped back off the mat.

The two cadets jumped to their feet and met in the center of the ring
again. With a bull-like rush, Roger changed tactics and began to rain
punches all over Tom's body, but the curly-haired cadet stood his ground
coolly, picking some off in mid-air with his gloves and sliding under
the others. Then, as Roger slowed down, Tom took the offensive, popping
his left into his opponent's face steadily and methodically, while
keeping his right cocked for a clear opening to the chin.

Roger danced in and out, watching Tom's left as though it was a snake
and trying unsuccessfully to get through his guard. But the sharp lefts
kept snapping his head back and his face began to redden, not only from
the sting of the blows but with the mounting fury of his frustration.

Suddenly, as Astro raised his arm to call time for the end of the round,
Roger jumped forward and rained another series of harmless blows on
Tom's shoulders and arms. But then, as the big Venusian called time, he
stepped back and Tom dropped his guard. Instantly, Roger threw a right
with all his weight behind it. It landed flush on Tom's jaw and he
dropped, sprawling full length on the mats and lying still.

Smiling, Roger sauntered to his corner while Astro charged in and bent
over the fallen cadet.

"None of that, Astro!" snapped Roger. "Since when does a referee take
sides? Leave him alone! If he doesn't come out for the next round, you
have to count him out!"

The big Venusian straightened and walked menacingly toward Roger's
corner. "You hit him after I called time," he growled.

"So I have to take you on too, huh?" Roger jumped to his feet. "All
right--come on, you big blast of space gas!"

"Wait, Astro ... wait!"

Astro suddenly wheeled around to see Tom shaking his head weakly and
trying to rise up on his elbows. He rushed back to the fallen boy's
side.

Roger shouted at him angrily, "Leave him alone!"

"Ahhh--go blow your jets!" was Astro's snarling reply as he bent over
Tom, who was now sitting up. "Tom, are you O.K.?"

"Yeah--yeah," he replied weakly. "But stay out of this. You're the
referee. How much time left?"

"Twenty seconds," said Astro. "Roger smacked you after I called time."

"If he did, I didn't know a thing about it. I was out." Tom managed a
cold smile. "Nice punch, Roger."

"Ten seconds," said Astro, stepping back off the mat.

"Thanks for the compliment, Corbett." Roger eyed the other cadet
speculatively. "But are you sure you want to go on?"

"I was saved by the bell, wasn't I?"

"Yeah--sure--but if you'd rather quit--"

"Time!" cried Astro.

Tom rose to his feet--shook his head--and brought up his hands. He
wasn't a moment too soon. Roger had rushed across the mat, trying to
land another murderous right. Tom brought up his shoulder just in time,
slipping with the punch, and at the same time, bringing up a terrific
left to Roger's open mid-section. Manning let out a grunt and clinched.
Tom pursued his advantage, pumping rights and lefts to the body, and he
could feel the arrogant cadet weakening. Suddenly, Roger crowded in
close, wrestling Tom around so that Astro was on the opposite side of
the mat, then brought up his head under Tom's chin. The pop of Tom's
teeth could be heard all over the great hall. Roger quickly stepped
back, and back-pedaled until Astro called time.

"Thanks for teaching me that one, Roger. Learned two tricks from you
today," said Tom, breathing heavily, but with the same cold smile on his
face.

"That's all right, Corbett. Any time," said Manning.

"What tricks?" asked Astro. He looked suspiciously at Manning, who was
doubled over, finding it hard to breath.

"Nothing I can't handle in time," said Tom, looking at Roger.

"Time!" called Astro and stepped off the mat.

The two boys got to their feet slowly. The pace was beginning to show on
them and they boxed carefully.

The boys were perfectly matched, Tom constantly snapping Roger's head
back with the jolting left jabs and following to the head or heart with
a right cross. And Roger counterpunching, slipping hooks and body
punches in under Tom's long leads. It was a savage fight. The three
weeks of hard physical training had conditioned the boys perfectly.

At the end of the twelfth round, both boys showed many signs of wear.
Roger's cheeks were as red as the glow of a jet blast deflector from the
hundreds of lefts Tom had pumped into his face, while Tom's ribs and
mid-section were bruised and raw where Roger's punches had landed
successfully.

It couldn't last much longer, thought Astro, as he called time for the
beginning of the thirteenth round.

Roger quickened his pace, dancing in and out, trying to move in under
Tom's lefts, but suddenly Tom caught him with a right hand that was
cocked and ready. It staggered him and he fell back, covering up. Tom
pressed his advantage, showering rights and lefts everywhere he could
find an opening. In desperation, his knees buckling, Roger clinched
tightly, quickly brought up his open glove and gouged his thumb into
Tom's eyes. Tom pulled back, instinctively pawing at his eye with his
right glove. Roger, spotting the opening, took immediate advantage of
it, shooting a hard looping right that landed flush on Tom's jaw. Tom
went down.

Unaware of Roger's tactics, Astro jumped into the ring and his arm
pumped the deadly count.

"One--two--three--four--"

It was going to be tough if Roger won, Astro thought, as he counted.

"Five--six--"

Arrogant enough now, he would be impossible to live with.

"Seven--eight--"

Tom struggled up to a sitting position and stared angrily at his
opponent in the far corner.

"Nine--"

With one convulsive effort, Tom regained his feet. His left eye was
closed and swollen, his right bleary with fatigue. He wobbled drunkenly
on his feet. But he pressed forward. This was one fight he had to win.

Roger moved in for the finish. He slammed a left into Tom's shell,
trying to find an opening for the last finishing blow. But Tom remained
in his shell, forearms picking off the smashes that even hurt his arms,
as he waited for the strength to return to his legs and arms and his
head to clear. He knew that he couldn't go another round. He wouldn't be
able to see. It would have to be this round, and he had to _beat_ Roger.
_Not_ because he wanted to, but because Roger was a member of the unit.
And he had to keep the unit together.

He circled his unit-mate with care, shielding himself from the shower of
rights and lefts that rained around him. He waited--waited for the one
perfect opening.

"Come on! Open up and fight, Corbett," panted Roger.

Tom snapped his right in reply. He noticed that Roger moved in with a
hook every time he tried to cross his right. He waited--his legs began
to shake. Roger circled and Tom shot out the left again, dropped into a
semicrouch and feinted with the right cross. Roger moved in, cocking his
fist for the left hook and Tom was ready for him. He threw the right,
threw it with every ounce of strength left in his body. Roger was caught
moving in and took the blow flush on the chin. He stopped as if
poleaxed. His eyes turned glassy and then he dropped to the mat. He was
out cold.

Astro didn't even bother to count.

Tom squatted on the mat beside Roger and rubbed the blond head with his
glove.

"Get some water, Astro," he said, gasping for breath. "I'm glad I don't
have to fight this guy again. And I'll tell you something else--"

"What?" asked Astro.

"Anybody that wants to win as much as this guy does, is going to win,
and I want to have him on my side!"

Astro merely grunted as he turned toward the water cooler.

"Maybe," he called back. "But he ought to read a book of rules first!"

When he came back to the mat with the water, Roger was sitting up,
biting the knots of the laces on his gloves. Tom helped him, and when
the soggy leather was finally discarded, he stuck out his hand. "Well,
Roger, I'm ready to forget everything we've said and start all over
again."

Roger looked at the extended hand for a moment, his eyes blank and
expressionless. Then, with a quick movement, he slapped it away and
lurched to his feet.

"Go blow your jets," he snarled, and turning his back on them, stumbled
across the gym.

Tom watched him go, bewilderment and pain mirrored on his face.

"I thought sure this would work, Astro," he sighed. "I thought he'd come
to his senses if--"

"Nothing'll make that space creep come to his senses," Astro broke in
disgustedly. "At least, nothing short of an atomic war head! Come on.
Let's get you cleaned up!"

Putting his arm around Tom's shoulder, the big Venusian led him across
the floor of the deserted gym, and as they disappeared through the
automatic sliding doors, a tall figure in the uniform of the Solar Guard
stepped out of the shadows on the balcony above. It was Captain Strong.

He stood silently at the rail, looking down at the mats and the soggy
discarded boxing gloves. Tom had won the fight, he thought, but he had
lost the war. The unit was now farther apart than it had ever been.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 6


"Well, Steve, how's everything going?"

Captain Steve Strong didn't answer right away. He returned the salute of
a Space Cadet passing on the opposite slidewalk and then faced Commander
Walters who stood beside him, eyeing him quizzically.

"Things are shaping up pretty well, Commander," he replied, finally,
with an air of unconcern.

"The Earthworm units buckling down to business?" Commander Walters'
voice matched Strong's in nonchalance.

"Yes, I'd say so, sir. Speaking generally, of course." Strong felt the
back of his neck begin to flush as Walters kept eyeing him.

"And--speaking specifically, Steve?"

"Why--ah--what do you mean, sir?"

"Let's stop fencing with each other, Steve." Walters spoke kindly but
firmly. "What about Manning and Unit 42-D? Are those boys learning to
work together or not? And I want facts, not hopes!"

Strong hesitated, trying to word his reply. In these weeks that had
followed Tom's fight with Roger in the gym, there had been no further
incidents of open warfare. Roger's attitude, once openly defiant, had
now subsided into a stream of never-ending sarcasm. The sting had been
taken out of his attack and he seemed satisfied merely to annoy. Astro
had withdrawn into a shell, refusing to allow Roger to bother him and
only an occasional rumble of anger indicated his true feelings toward
his troublesome unit-mate. Tom maintained his role of peacemaker and
daily, in many ways, showed his capacity for leadership by steering his
unit-mates away from any storm-provoking activities.

Strong finally broke the silence. "It's difficult to answer that
question with facts, Commander Walters."

"Why?" insisted Walters.

"Well, nothing's really happened," answered Steve.

"You mean, nothing since the fight in the gym?"

"Oh--" Strong flushed. "You know about that?"

Commander Walters smiled. "Black eyes and faces that looked like raw
beef don't go unnoticed, Steve."

"Uhh--no, sir," was Strong's lame reply.

"What I want to know is," pursued Walters, "did the fight prove
anything? Did the boys get it out of their systems and are they
concentrating on becoming a unit?"

"Right now, Commander, they're concentrating on passing their manuals.
They realize that they have to work together to get through this series
of tests. Why, Dr. Dale told me the other day that she's sure Tom's been
giving Roger a few pointers on control-deck operation. And one night I
found Manning giving Astro a lecture in compression ratios. Of course,
Manning's way of talking is a way that would confuse the Venusian more
than it would help him, but at least they weren't snarling at each
other."

"Hmm," Walters nodded. "Sounds hopeful, but still not conclusive. After
all, they have to help each other in the manuals. If one member of the
unit fails, it will reflect on the marks of the other two and they might
be washed out too. Even the deadliest enemies will unite to save their
lives."

"Perhaps, sir," replied Strong. "But we're not dealing with deadly
enemies now. These are three boys, with three distinct personalities
who've been lumped together in strange surroundings. It takes time and
patience to make a team that will last for years."

"You may have the patience, Steve, but the Academy hasn't the time."
Commander Walters was suddenly curt. "When does Unit 42-D take its
manuals?"

"This afternoon, sir," replied Strong. "I'm on my way over to the
examination hall right now."

"Very well. I won't take any action yet. I'll wait for the results of
the tests. Perhaps they will solve both our problems. See you later,
Steve." Turning abruptly, Commander Walters stepped off the slidewalk
onto the steps of the Administration Building and rapidly disappeared
from view.

Left alone, Strong pondered the commander's parting statement. The
implication was clear. If the unit failed to make a grade high enough to
warrant the trouble it took keeping it together, it would be broken up.
Or even worse, one or more of the boys would be dismissed from the
Academy.

A few minutes later Strong arrived in the examination hall, a large,
barren room with a small door in each of the three walls other than the
one containing the entrance. Tom Corbett was waiting in the center of
the hall and saluted smartly as Strong approached.

"Cadet Corbett reporting for manual examination, sir!"

"Stand easy, Corbett," replied Strong, returning the salute. "This is
going to be a rough one. Are you fully prepared?"

"I believe so, sir." Tom's voice wasn't too steady.

A fleeting smile passed over Strong's lips, then he continued. "You'll
take the control-deck examination first. Manning will be next on the
radar bridge and Astro last on the power deck."

"They'll be here according to schedule, sir."

"Very well. Follow me."

Strong walked quickly to the small door in the left wall, Tom staying a
respectful step behind. When they reached the door, the officer pressed
a button in the wall beside it and the door slid open.

"All right, Corbett. Inside." Strong nodded toward the interior of the
room.

The boy stepped in quickly, then stopped in amazement. All around him
was a maze of instruments and controls. And in the center, twin pilot's
chairs.

"Captain Strong!" Tom was so surprised that he could hardly get the
words out. "It's--it's a real control deck!"

Strong smiled. "As real as we can make it, Corbett, without allowing the
building to blast off." He gestured toward the pilot's chairs. "Take
your place and strap in."

"Yes, sir." His eyes still wide with wonder, Tom stepped over to the
indicated chair and Strong followed him, leaning casually against the
other.

He watched the young cadet nervously adjust his seat strap and put a
comforting hand on his shoulder. "Nervous, Corbett?"

"Yes, sir--just a little," replied Tom.

"Don't worry," said Strong. "You should have seen the way I came into
this room fifteen years ago. My cadet officer had to help me into the
control pilot's seat."

Tom managed a fleeting smile.

"Now, Corbett"--Strong's voice became businesslike--"as you know, these
manual tests are the last tests before actually blasting off. In the
past weeks, you cadets have been subjected to every possible
examination, to discover any flaw in your work that might later crop up
in space. This manual operations test of the control board, like
Manning's on the radar bridge and Astro's on the power deck, is designed
to test you under simulated space conditions. If you pass this test,
your next step is real space."

"Yes, sir."

"I warn you, it isn't easy. And if you fail, you personally will wash
out, and if other members of the unit do not get a high enough mark to
average out to a passing grade for all of you, you fail as a unit."

"I understand, sir," said Tom.

"All right, then we'll begin. Your crew is aboard, the air lock is
closed. What is the first thing you do?"

"Adjust the air circulating system to ensure standard Earth conditions."

"How do you do that?"

"By pressing this button which will activate the servo units. They
automatically keep the circulating pumps in operation, based on
thermostatic readings from the main gauge." Tom pointed to a black clock
face, with a luminous white hand and numbers.

"All right, carry on," said Strong.

Tom reached over the huge control board that extended around him for
some two feet on three sides. He placed a nervous finger on a small
button, waited for the gauge below to register with a swing of the hand,
and then released it. "All pressures steady, sir."

"What next?"

"Check the crew, sir--all departments--" replied Tom.

"Carry on," said Strong.

Tom reached out and pulled a microphone toward him.

"All hands! Station check!" said Tom, and then was startled to hear a
metallic voice answer him.

"Power deck, ready for blast-off!" And then another voice: "Radar deck,
ready for blast-off!"

Tom leaned back in the pilot's seat and turned to the captain. "All
stations ready, sir."

"Good! What next?" asked Strong.

"Ask spaceport tower for blast-off clearance--"

Strong nodded. Tom turned back to the microphone, and without looking,
punched a button in front of him.

"Rocket cruiser--" He paused and turned back to Strong. "What name do I
give, sir?"

Strong smiled. "_Noah's Ark_--"

"Rocket cruiser _Noah's Ark_ to spaceport control! Request blast-off
clearance and orbit."

Once again a thin metallic voice answered him and gave the necessary
instructions.

On and on, through every possible command, condition or decision that
would be placed in front of him, Tom guided his imaginary ship on its
imaginary flight through space. For two hours he pushed buttons, snapped
switches and jockeyed controls. He gave orders and received them from
the thin metallic voices. They answered him with such accuracy, and
sometimes with seeming hesitation, that Tom found it difficult to
believe that they were only electronically controlled recording devices.
Once, when supposedly blasting through space at three-quarters space
speed, he received a warning from the radar bridge of an approaching
asteroid. He asked for a course change, but in reply received only
static. Believing the recording to have broken down, he turned
inquiringly to Captain Strong, but received only a blank stare in
return. Tom hesitated for a split second, then turned back to the
controls. He quickly flipped the teleceiver button on and began plotting
the course of the approaching asteroid, ignoring for the moment his
other duties on the control deck. When he had finished, he gave the
course shift to the power deck and ordered a blast on the starboard jet.
He waited for the course change, saw it register on the gauges in front
of him, then continued his work.

Strong suddenly leaned over and clapped him on the back
enthusiastically.

"Good work, Corbett. That broken recording was put there intentionally
to trap you. Not one cadet in twenty would have had the presence of mind
you showed in plotting the course of that asteroid yourself."

"Thank you, sir," stammered Tom.

"That's all--the test is over. Return to your quarters." He came over
and laid a hand on Tom's shoulder. "And don't worry, Corbett. While it
isn't customary to tell a cadet, I think you deserve it. You've passed
with a perfect score!"

"I have, sir? You mean--_I really passed?_"

"Next step is Manning," said Strong. "You've done as much as one cadet
can do."

"Thank you, sir"--Tom could only repeat it over and over--"thank you,
sir--thank you."

Dazed, he saluted his superior and turned to the door. Two hours in the
pilot's chair had made him dizzy. But he was happy.

Five minutes later he slammed back the sliding door and entered the
quarters of 42-D with a lusty shout.

"Meet Space Cadet Corbett--an Earthworm who's just passed his
control-deck manual operations exam!"

Astro looked up from a book of tables on astrogation and gave Tom a wan
smile.

"Congratulations, Tom," he said, and turned back to his book, adding
bitterly, "but if I don't get these tables down by this afternoon for my
power-deck manual, you're sunk."

"Say--what's going on here?" asked Tom. "Where's Roger? Didn't he help
you with them?"

"He left. Said he had to see someone before taking his radar-bridge
manual. He helped me a little. But when I'd ask him a question, he'd
just rattle the answer off so fast--well, I just couldn't follow him."

Suddenly slamming the book shut, he got up. "Me and these tables"--he
indicated the book--"just don't mix!"

"What's the trouble?"

"Ah--I can get the easy ones about astrogation. They're simple. But it's
the ones where I have to _combine_ it with the power deck."

"Well--I mean--what specifically?" asked Tom softly.

"For instance, I've got to find the ratio for compression on the main
firing tubes, using a given amount of fuel, heading for a given
destination, and taking a given time for the passage."

"But that's control-deck operations--as well as astrogation and power!"
exclaimed Tom.

"Yeah--I know," answered Astro, "but I've still got to be able to do it.
If anything happened to you two guys and I didn't know how to get you
home, then what?"

Tom hesitated. Astro was right. Each member of the unit had to depend on
the other in any emergency. And if one of them failed...? Tom saw why
the ground manuals were so important now.

"Look," offered Tom. "Suppose we go over the whole thing again together.
Maybe you're fouled up on the basic concept."

Tom grabbed a chair, hitched it close to the desk and pulled Astro down
beside him. He opened the book and began studying the problem.

"Now look--you have twenty-two tons of fuel--and considering the
position of your ship in space--"

As the two boys, their shoulders hunched over the table, began reviewing
the table of ratios, across the quadrangle in the examination hall
Roger Manning stood in a replica of a rocket ship's radar bridge and
faced Captain Strong.

"Cadet Manning reporting for manual examination, sir." Roger brought up
his arm in a crisp salute to Captain Strong, who returned it casually.

"Stand easy, Manning," replied Strong. "Do you recognize this room?"

"Yes, sir. It's a mock-up of a radar bridge."

"A workable mock-up, cadet!" Strong was vaguely irritated by Roger's
nonchalance in accepting a situation that Tom had marveled at. "You will
take your manuals here!"

"Yes, sir."

"On these tests you will be timed for both efficiency and speed and
you'll use all the tables, charts and astrogation equipment that you'd
find in a spaceship. Your problems are purely mathematical. There are no
decisions to make. Just use your head."

Strong handed Roger several sheets of paper containing written problems.
Roger shuffled them around in his fingers, giving each a quick glance.

"You may begin any time you are ready, Manning," said Strong.

"I'm ready now, sir," replied Roger calmly. He turned to the swivel
chair located between the huge communications board, the adjustable
chart table and the astrogation prism. Directly in front of him was the
huge radar scanner, and to one side and overhead was a tube mounted on a
swivel joint that looked like a small telescope, but which was actually
an astrogation prism for taking sights on the celestial bodies in space.

Roger concentrated on the first problem.

" ... you are now in the northwest quadrant of Mars, chart M, area
twenty-eight. You have been notified by the control deck that it has
been necessary to jettison three quarters of your fuel supply. For the
last five hundred and seventy-nine seconds you have been blasting at
one-quarter space speed. The four main drive rockets were cut out at
thirty-second intervals. Making adjustment for degree of slip on each
successive rocket cutout, find present position by using cross-fix with
Regulus as your starboard fix, Alpha Centauri as your port fix."

Suddenly a bell began to ring in front of Roger. Without hesitation he
adjusted a dial that brought the radar scanner into focus. When the
screen remained blank, he made a second adjustment, and then a third and
fourth, until the bright white flash of a meteor was seen on the
scanner. He quickly grabbed two knobs, one in each hand, and twisted
them to move two thin, plotting lines, one horizontal and one vertical,
across the surface of the scanner. Setting the vertical line, he
fingered a tabulating machine with his right hand, as he adjusted the
second line with his left, thus cross-fixing the meteor. Then he turned
his whole attention to the tabulator, ripped off the answer with
lightning moves of his fingers and began talking rapidly into the
microphone.

"Radar bridge to control deck! Alien body bearing zero-one-five,
one-point-seven degrees over plane of the ecliptic. On intersecting
orbit. Change course two degrees, hold for fifteen seconds, then resume
original heading. Will compensate for change nearer destination!"

Roger watched the scanner a moment longer. When the rumbling blast of
the steering jets sounded in the chamber and the meteor flash shifted on
the scanner screen, he returned to the problem in his hand.

Seven minutes later he turned to Strong and handed him the answer.

"Present position by dead reckoning is northwest quadrant of Mars,
chart O, area thirty-nine, sir," he announced confidently.

[Illustration: "_I was unable to get a sight on Alpha Centauri_"]

Strong tried to mask his surprise, but a lifted eyebrow gave him away.
"And how did you arrive at this conclusion, Manning?"

"I was unable to get a sight on Alpha Centauri due to the present
position of Jupiter, sir," replied Roger easily. "So I took a fix on
Earth, allowed for its rotational speed around the sun and took the
cross-fix with Regulus as ordered in the problem. Of course, I included
all the other factors of the speed and heading of our ship. That was
routine."

Strong accepted the answer with a curt nod, motioning for Roger to
continue. It would not do, thought Strong, to let Manning know that he
was the first cadet in thirty-nine years to make the correct selection
of Earth in working up the fix with Regulus, and still have the presence
of mind to plot a meteor without so much as a half-degree error. Of
course the problem varied with each cadet, but it remained essentially
the same.

"Seven-and-a-half minutes. Commander Walters will be surprised, to say
the least," thought Steve.

Forty-five minutes later, Roger, as unruffled as if he had been sitting
listening to a lecture from a sound slide, handed in the rest of his
papers, executed a sharp salute and walked out.

"Two down and one to go," thought Strong, and the toughest one of them
all coming up. Astro. The big Venusian was unable to understand anything
that couldn't be turned with a wrench. The only thing that would prevent
Unit 42-D from taking Academy unit honors over Unit 77-K, the unit
assigned to Lieutenant Wolcheck, would be Astro. While none of the
members of the other units could come up to the individual brilliance of
Corbett or Manning, they worked together as a unit, helping one another.
They might make a higher unit rating, simply because they were better
balanced.

He shrugged his shoulders and collected the papers. It was as much
torture for him, as it was for any cadet, he thought, and turned to the
door. "All right, Astro," he said to himself, "in ten minutes it'll be
your turn and I'm going to make it tough!"

Back in the quarters of Unit 42-D, Tom and Astro still pored over the
books and papers on the desk.

"Let's try again, Astro," sighed Tom as he hitched his chair closer to
the desk. "You've got thirty tons of fuel--you want to find the
compression ratio of the number-one firing-tube chamber--so what do you
do?"

"Start up the auxiliary, burn a little of the stuff and judge what it'll
be," the big cadet replied. "That's the way I did it on the space
freighters."

"But you're not on a space freighter now!" exclaimed Tom. "You've got to
do things the way they want it done here at the Academy. By the book!
These tables have been figured out by great minds to help you, and you
just want to burn a little of the stuff and guess at what it'll be!" Tom
threw up his hands in disgust.

"Seems to me I heard of an old saying back in the teen centuries about
leading a horse to water, but not being able to make him drink!" drawled
Roger from the doorway. He strolled in and kicked at the crumpled sheets
of paper that littered the floor, stark evidence of Tom's efforts with
Astro.

"All right, wise guy," said Tom, "suppose you explain it to him!"

"No can do," replied Roger. "I tried. I explained it to him twenty times
this morning while you were taking your control-deck manual." He tapped
his head delicately with his forefinger. "Can't get through--too thick!"

Astro turned to the window to hide the mist in his eyes.

"Lay off, Roger," snapped Tom. He got up and walked over to the big
cadet. "Come on, Astro, we haven't got much time. You're due in the
examination hall in a few minutes."

"It's no good, Tom, I just can't understand that stuff." Astro turned
and faced his unit-mates, his voice charged with sudden emotion. "Just
fifteen minutes on the power deck of anything with rockets in her and
I'll run her from here to the next galaxy. I--I can't explain it, but
when I look at those motors, I can read 'em like you read an astrogation
chart, Roger, or you the gauges on the control deck, Tom. But I just
can't get those ratios out of a book. I gotta put my hands on those
motors--touch 'em--I mean really _touch 'em_--then I know what to do!"

As suddenly as he had started, he stopped and turned, leaving Tom and
Roger staring at him, startled by this unusual outburst.

"Cadets--stand _to!_" roared a voice from the doorway.

The three cadets snapped to attention and faced the entrance.

"Take it easy, Earthworms!" said Tony Richards. A tall cadet with
closely cut black hair and a lazy, smiling face stood in the doorway.

"Lay off, Richards," said Tom. "We haven't time for gags now. Astro's
going to take his power-deck manual in a few minutes and we're cramming
with him."

"O.K.--O.K.--don't blow your jets," said Richards. "I just wanted to see
if there were any bets on which unit would cop honors in the manuals
this afternoon."

"I suppose you think your Unit 77-K will finish on top?" drawled Roger.

"I'd like to bet all the galley demerits we have in 77-K against yours."

"With Astro on our team?" complained Roger.

"What's the matter with Astro?" asked Richards. "From what I hear, he's
hot stuff!" It wasn't a compliment, but a sharp dig made with a sly
smile. Astro balled his huge hands into fists.

"Astro," said Roger, "is the type that can smell out trouble on any
power deck. But today he came down with a cold. No, I'm afraid it's no
bet, Richards."

"I'll give you two to one," Richards offered.

"Nothing doing," replied Roger. "Not even at five to one. Not with
Astro."

Richards grinned, nodded and disappeared.

Roger turned to face the hard stare of Tom.

"That was the dirtiest sellout I've ever heard, Manning," Tom growled.

"Sorry, Corbett," said Roger. "I only bet on sure things."

"That's O.K. with me, Manning," said Astro, "but I'm afraid you sold
yourself a hot rocket, because I'm going to pass!"

"Who are you kidding?" Roger laughed and sprawled on his bunk.

Astro took a quick step forward, his fists clenched, his face a mask of
burning anger, but Tom quickly jumped in front of him.

"You'll be late for the exam, Astro!" he shouted. "Get going or it'll
count against your mark!"

"Huh. What's a few points more or less when you're going to fail
anyway," snorted Roger from the bunk.

Again, Astro started to lunge forward and Tom braced himself against the
Venusian's charge, but suddenly the burly cadet stopped. Disengaging
Tom's restraining arms, he spoke coldly to the sneering boy on the bed.

"I'm going to pass the exam, Manning. Get that? I'm going to pass and
then come back and beat your head off!" Turning on his heel, he stalked
out of the room.

Tom immediately wheeled to face Roger, fire in his eyes, and the
arrogant cadet, sensing trouble, jumped to his feet to meet him.

"What's the idea of giving Astro a hard time?" demanded Tom.

"Cool off, Corbett," replied Roger warily. "You're fusing your tubes
you're so hot."

"You bet I'm hot! Hot enough to blast you--again!" Tom deliberately spat
out the last word.

Roger flushed and brought his fists up quickly as though to charge in,
then suddenly dropped them again. He turned to the door and slowly
walked out.

"Go blow your jets," his voice drifted back to Tom as he disappeared.

Tom stood there, looking at the empty door, almost blind with rage and
frustration. He was failing in the main job assigned to him, that of
keeping the unit on an even keel and working together. How could he
command a crew out in space if he couldn't keep the friction of his own
unit under control?

Slowly, he left the room to wait for Astro in the recreation hall where
the results of the manuals would be announced. He thought of Astro, now
probably deep in his exam, and wondered how bad it would be for him.
Then another thought crossed his mind. Roger had said nothing of his own
test and neither he nor Astro had even inquired.

He shook his head. No matter where the unit placed in the manuals, it
just couldn't stay together.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 7


It was customary for all Earthworm cadets to gather in the main
recreation hall to wait for the results of the manuals which would be
announced on the huge teleceiver screen. Since all the units were taking
their tests that afternoon, the hall was crowded with green-clad cadets,
talking in low murmurs and waiting tensely for the outcome of the exam.

Tom entered the huge room, looked around and then drifted toward Al
Dixon, the senior cadet who had greeted them as a unit after passing
classification tests. The blue-clad cadet was listening to a story
spool, a device that told a story, rather than let the person read it
from a book.

"Hiya, Corbett," said Dixon, smiling. "Drag up a chair. Listening to a
terrific yarn about a guy stranded on an asteroid and then he finds--"
The redheaded cadet's voice trailed off when he noticed that Tom wasn't
listening.

"Say, what's the matter with you? You look like you just lost your best
friend."

"Not yet, but it won't be long now," commented Tom, a trace of
bitterness creeping into his voice. "Astro's taking his power-deck
manual. What he knows about those compression ratios just isn't known.
But he just can't get it on paper."

"Don't sell your unit-mate short," said Dixon, sensing something
beneath Tom's comment. "I've heard that big fellow knows more about a
rocket deck than McKenny."

"Yeah, that's true," said Tom, "but--"

"You know, Corbett," said Dixon, switching off the story spool, "there's
something screwy in that outfit of yours."

"You can say that again," agreed Tom bitterly.

"You come in here with a face dragging on the floor, and Manning--"

Tom's head jerked up. "Manning! What about that space-gassing hot-shot?"

"--Manning just tore through the rec hall trying to get some of the
other Earthworm units to bet their galley demerits against your outfit."

Tom's mouth sagged open. "You mean, he actually wanted to bet that Astro
would pass?"

"Not just pass, Corbett, but he wanted to bet that your unit would be
top rocket of the Earthworms! The head of the list!"

"But he told Astro that--" he stopped.

"Told him what?" Dixon asked.

"Ah--nothing--nothing--" said Tom. He jumped up and headed for the door.

"Hey, where are you going?"

"To find Manning. There are a couple of things I want to clear up."

Tom left Dixon shaking his head in bewilderment and jumped on the
slidestairs. He was going to have it out with Roger once and for all.
Hopping off the slidestairs onto the forty-second floor, he started down
the long hall to his quarters.

Nearing the door, he heard Roger's laugh, and then his lazy voice
talking to someone inside.

"Sure, they're dumb, but they're not bad guys," said Roger.

Tom walked into the room. Roger was sitting on the side of his bunk
facing Tony Richards.

"Hiya, Corbett," said Roger, "did you hear how Astro made out yet?"

Tom ignored the question.

"I want to talk to you, Roger."

Roger eyed him suspiciously. "Sure, Corbett, go ahead."

"Well, I'll be going along," said Richards. He had heard about the
previous fight between Manning and Corbett and didn't want to be hauled
up as a witness later if they started again. "Remember, Manning," he
called from the doorway, "the bet is two to one, and are you going to
get tired of washing pots and pans!" He waved his hand at Corbett and
disappeared.

"All right, Corbett," Roger turned to Tom. "What's frying you?"

"I just saw Al Dixon down in the rec hall," answered Tom. "He told me
you were looking for bets on the unit ratings. Is that why Richards was
here?"

"That's right," nodded Roger.

"What made you say the things you did to Astro before he went for his
manual?"

"Very simple. I wanted to make him pass and that was the only way."

"You're pretty sure of yourself, Roger."

"I'm always sure of myself, Corbett. And the sooner you learn that, the
easier it'll be for all of us. I never bet unless it's in the bag. I
know Astro's going to pass. Some guys have to have a fire built under
them before they get moving. Astro's one of them."

"That doesn't answer my question," said Tom. "Why did you say the things
you did before a guy goes to take an exam?"

"I said what I did to make Tony Richards give me odds. _And_ to make
Astro mad enough to pass. We're a cinch to win and Richards' outfit
will be indebted to us for a year's worth of galley demerits." He smiled
easily. "Smooth, huh?"

"I think it's rotten," said Tom. "Astro left here feeling like a plugged
credit! And if he does fail, it'll be because you made him think he was
the dumbest guy in the universe!"

"He probably is," mused Roger, "but he still won't fail that manual."

From the hallway behind them, a loud blasting yell was suddenly heard,
echoing from somewhere on the lower floors. Tom and Roger waited, their
eyes wide and hopeful. There was only one person at Space Academy
capable of making such a noise.

"He made it!" Tom exclaimed.

"Of course he made it," said Roger casually.

Astro tore into 42-D with a mad rush.

"Yeeeoooooowwww!" He grabbed the two cadets and picked them up, one in
each hand. "I made it--hands down--I handled those rocket motors like
they were babes in arms! I told you that all I had to do was touch them
and I'd know! I told you!"

"Congratulations, Astro," said Tom with a wide grin. "I knew you'd do
it."

"Put me down, you oversized Venusian jerk," said Roger, almost
good-naturedly. Astro released the smaller cadet and faced him.

"Well, hot-shot, I promised you something when I got back, didn't I?"

"Make it later, will you, and I'll be glad to oblige." He walked toward
the door. "I've got to go down and collect a bet."

"What bet?" asked Astro.

"With Tony Richards."

"But I thought you were afraid to bet on me!"

"Not at all, Astro. I just wanted to make you mad enough to ensure my
winning."

"That sounds like you were more worried about your bet than you were
about Astro passing," snapped Tom.

"You're exactly right, spaceboy," purred Roger, standing in the doorway.

"That's our boy, Manning," growled Astro. "The great team man!"

"Team?" Roger took a step back into the room. "Don't make me laugh,
Astro. For your information, tomorrow morning I'm putting in for a
transfer to another unit!"

"What!" exclaimed Tom. "You can't trans--"

"Yes, I can," interrupted Roger. "Read your Academy regs. Anyone can
request a transfer once the unit has passed its manuals."

"And what excuse are you going to use," snapped Astro bitterly. "That
you can't take it?"

"A personality difference, Astro, my boy. You hate me and I hate you.
It's a good enough reason, I think."

"It's just as well, hot-shot," replied Astro. "Because if you don't
transfer, we will!"

Roger merely smiled, flipped his fingers to his forehead in an arrogant
gesture of farewell and turned to leave again. But his path was blocked
by the sudden appearance of Captain Steve Strong. The three cadets
quickly braced.

The Solar Guard officer strode into the room, his face beaming. He
looked at each of the boys, pride shining out of his eyes, and then
brought his hand up and held it in salute.

"I just want to tell you boys one thing," he said solemnly. "It's the
highest compliment I can pay you, or anyone." He paused. "All three of
you are real spacemen!"

Tom and Astro couldn't repress smiles, but Roger's expression never
changed.

"Then we passed as a unit, sir?" asked Tom eagerly.

"Not only passed, Corbett"--Strong's voice boomed in the small
room--"but with honors. You're the top rockets of this Earthworm group!
I'm proud to be your commanding officer!"

Again Tom and Astro fought back smiles of happiness and even Roger
managed a small grin.

"This is the fightingest group of cadets I've ever seen," Strong
continued. "Frankly, I was a little worried about your ability to pull
together but the results of the manuals showed that you have. You
couldn't have made it without working as a unit."

Strong failed to notice Roger's face darken, and Tom and Astro look at
each other meaningfully.

"My congratulations for having solved that problem too!" Strong saluted
them again and walked toward the door, where he paused. "By the way, I
want you to report to the Academy spaceport tomorrow at eight hundred
hours. Warrant Officer McKenny has something out there he wants to show
you."

Tom's eyes bugged out and he stepped forward.

"Sir," he gasped, scarcely able to get the question past his lips, "you
don't mean we're--we're going to--"

"You're absolutely right, Corbett. There's a brand-new rocket cruiser
out there. Your ship. Your future classroom. You'll report to her in the
blues of the Space Cadets! And from now on your unit identification is
the name of your ship! The rocket cruiser _Polaris_!"

A second later, Strong had vanished down the corridor, leaving Tom and
Astro hugging each other and clapping each other on the back in
delirious joy.

Roger merely stood to one side, a sarcastic smile on his face.

"And now, as we prepare to face the unknown dangers of space," he said
bitingly, "let us unite our voices and sing the Academy hymn together!
Huh!" He strode toward the door. "Don't they ever get tired of waving
that flag around here?"

Before Tom and Astro could reply, he had disappeared. The big Venusian
shrugged his shoulders. "I just don't understand that guy!"

But Tom failed to reply. He had turned toward the window and was staring
out past the gleaming white Tower of Galileo into the slowly darkening
skies of evening to the east. For the moment, the problems of Roger
Manning and the unit were far away. He was thinking of the coming
morning when he would dress in the blues of a Space Cadet for the first
time and step into his own ship as command pilot. He was thinking of the
morning when he would be a real spaceman!

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 8


The campus of Space Academy was quiet that evening. Only a few cadets
were still out on the quadrangle, lounging around in the open before
returning to their quarters for bed-check.

On the forty-second floor of the dormitory building, two thirds of the
newly formed _Polaris_ unit, Tom and Astro, were in heated argument.

"All right, all right, so the guy is brilliant," said Astro. "But who
can live with him? Not even himself!"

"Maybe he is a little difficult," replied Tom, "but somehow, we've got
to adjust to him!"

"How about him adjusting to us? It's two against one!" Astro shambled to
the window and looked out moodily. "Besides, he's putting in for a
transfer and there's nothing we can do about it!"

"Maybe he won't now--not after that little speech Captain Strong made
this afternoon."

"If he doesn't, then, blast it, I will!"

"Aw, now take it easy, Astro!"

"Take it easy, nothing!" Astro was building up a big head of steam.
"Where is that space crawler right now?"

"I don't know. He never came back. Wasn't even down at mess tonight."

"There, that's just what I mean!" Astro turned to Tom to press his
point. "It's close to bed-check and he isn't in quarters yet. If the
MP's catch him outside after hours, the whole unit will be logged and
there goes our chance of blasting off tomorrow!"

"But there's still time, Astro," replied Tom lamely.

"Not much there isn't. It just shows you what he thinks of the unit! He
just doesn't care!" Astro paced the floor angrily. "There's only one
thing to do! He gets his transfer--or we do! Or--" he paused and looked
at Tom meaningfully, "or I do."

"You're not thinking, Astro," argued Tom. "How will that look on your
record? Every time there's a trip into deep space, they yank out your
file to see how you operate under pressure with other guys. When they
see that you asked for a transfer from your unit, that's it!"

"Yeah--yeah--I know--incompatible--but honest, Tom--"

The curly-haired cadet felt his big friend weaken and he pressed his
advantage.

"It isn't every day that a unit gets a ship right after finishing ground
manuals. Captain Strong said he waited for four months after manuals
before getting his first hop into space."

"Yeah--but what do you think it's going to be like out in space with
Manning making sour cracks all the time?"

Tom hesitated before answering his Venusian friend. He was fully aware
that Roger was going to play a lone hand. And that they would never
really have unity among them until some drastic measure was taken. After
all, Tom thought, some guys don't have good hearts, or eyes, a defect to
prevent them from becoming spacemen. Roger is just mixed up inside. And
the handicap is just as real as if he had a physical flaw.

"Well, what do you want to do?" asked Tom finally.

"Go see Captain Strong. Give it to him straight. Tell him we want a
transfer."

"But tomorrow we blast off. We might not have another chance for months!
Certainly not until we get a new astrogator."

"I'd rather wait and have a guy on the radar bridge I know isn't going
to pull something behind my back," said Astro, "than blast off tomorrow
with Manning aboard."

Again Tom hesitated. He knew what Astro was saying was the truth. Life,
so far, at the Academy had been tough enough, but with mutual dependence
and security even more important out in space, the danger of their
constant friction was obvious.

"O.K.," he relented, "if that's the way you really want it. Come on.
We'll go see Captain Strong now."

"You go," said Astro. "You know how I feel. Whatever you say goes for me
too."

"Are you sure you want to do it?" asked Tom. He knew what such a request
would mean. A black mark against Roger for being rejected by his
unit-mates and a black mark against Astro and himself for not being able
to adjust. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, there would
always be a mark on their records.

"Look, Tom," said Astro, "if I thought it was only me I'd keep my mouth
shut. But you'd let Manning get away with murder because you wouldn't
want to be the one to get him into trouble."

"No, I wouldn't," said Tom. "I think Roger would make a fine spaceman;
he's certainly smart enough, and a good unit-mate if he'd only snap out
of it. But I can't let him or anyone else stop me from becoming a
spaceman or a member of the Solar Guard."

"Then you'll go see Captain Strong?"

"Yes," said Tom. If he had been in doubt before, now that he had made
the decision, he felt relieved. He slipped on his space boots and stood
up. The two boys looked at each other, each realizing the question in
the other's mind.

"No!" said Tom decisively. "It's better for everyone. Even Roger. He
might find two other guys that will fit him better." He walked from the
room.

The halls were silent as he strode toward the slidestairs that would
take him to the nineteenth floor and Captain Strong's quarters. Passing
one room after another, he glanced in and saw other units studying,
preparing for bed, or just sitting around talking. There weren't many
units left. The tests had taken a toll of the Earthworms. But those that
remained were solidly built. Already friendships had taken deep root.
Tom found himself wishing he had become a member of another unit. Where
the comradeship was taken for granted in other units, he was about to
make a request to dissolve his because of friction.

Completely discouraged, Tom stepped on the slidestairs and started down.

As he left the dormitory floors, the noise of young cadet life was soon
lost and he passed floors containing offices and apartments of the
administration staff of the Solar Guard.

As he drew level with the floor that was Galaxy Hall, he glanced at the
lighted plaque and for the hundredth time reread the inscription--

" ... to the brave men who sacrificed their lives in the conquest of
space, this Galaxy Hall is dedicated...."

Something moved in the darkness of the hall. Tom strained his eyes for a
closer look and just managed to distinguish the figure of a cadet
standing before the wreckage of the _Space Queen_. Funny, thought Tom.
Why should anyone be wandering around the hall at this time of night?
And then, as the floor slipped past, the figure turned slightly and was
illuminated by the dim light that came from the slidestairs. Tom
recognized the sharp features and close-cropped blond hair of Roger
Manning!

[Illustration: _Roger was still standing in front of the_ Space Queen!]

Quickly changing over to the slidestairs going up, Tom slipped back to
the hall floor and stepped off. Roger was still standing in front of the
_Space Queen_!

Tom started to speak, but stopped when he saw Roger take out a
handkerchief and dab at his eyes.

The movements of the other boy were crystal-clear to Tom. Roger was
crying! Standing in front of the _Space Queen_ and crying!

He kept watching as Roger put away the handkerchief, saluted sharply and
turned toward the slidestairs. Ducking behind a glass case that held the
first space suit ever used, Tom held his breath as Roger passed him. He
could hear Roger mumble.

"They got you--but they won't get me with any of that glory stuff!"

Tom waited, heart racing, trying to figure out what Roger meant, and why
he was here alone in Galaxy Hall. Finally the blond cadet disappeared up
the moving stair.

Tom didn't go to see Captain Strong. Instead, he returned to his room.

"So quick?" asked Astro.

Tom shook his head. "Where's Roger?" he asked.

"In the shower." Astro gestured to the bathroom, where Tom could hear
the sound of running water. "What made you change your mind about seeing
Captain Strong?" asked Astro.

"I think we've misjudged Roger, Astro," said Tom slowly. And then
related what he had seen and heard.

"Well, blast my jets!" exclaimed Astro, when Tom had finished. "What's
behind it, do you think?"

"I don't know, Astro. But I'm convinced that any guy that'll visit
Galaxy Hall by himself late at night--and _cry_--well, he couldn't be
entirely off base, regardless of what he does."

Astro studied his work-hardened palms.

"You wanta keep it this way for a while?" he asked. "I mean, forget
about talking to Captain Strong?"

"Roger's the best astrogator and radar man in the Academy, Astro.
There's something bothering him. But I'm willing to bet that whatever it
is, Roger will work it out. And if we're really unit-mates, then we
won't sell him out now, when he may need us most."

"That's it, then," said Astro. "I'll kill him with kindness. Come on.
Let's turn in. We've got a big day ahead of us tomorrow!"

The two boys began to prepare for bed. Roger came out of the shower
wearing pajamas.

"All excited, spacemen?" he drawled, leaning against the wall, brushing
his short hair.

"About as excited as we can get, Roger," smiled Tom.

"Yeah, you space-blasting jerk!" growled Astro good-naturedly. "Turn
out the lights before I introduce you to my space boot."

Roger eyed the two cadets quizzically, puzzled by the strange good humor
of both boys. He shrugged his shoulders, flipped out the light and
crawled into bed.

But if he could have seen the satisfied smile of Tom Corbett, Roger
would have been even more puzzled.

"We'll just kill him with kindness," thought Tom, and fell fast asleep.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 9


The three members of the _Polaris_ unit stepped off the slidewalk at the
Academy spaceport and stood before Warrant Officer McKenny.

"There she is," said the stubby spaceman, pointing to the gleaming
spaceship resting not two hundred feet away. "Rocket cruiser _Polaris_.
The newest and fastest ship in space."

He faced the three boys with a smile. "And she's all yours. You earned
her!"

Mouths open, Tom, Roger and Astro stood gaping in fascination at the
mighty spaceship resting on the concrete ramp. Her long two-hundred-foot
polished beryllium steel hull mirrored the spaceport scene around them.
The tall buildings of the Academy, the "ready" line of space destroyers
and scouts, and the hundreds of maintenance noncoms of the enlisted
Solar Guard, their scarlet uniforms spotted with grime, were all
reflected back to the _Polaris_ unit as they eyed the sleek ship from
the needlelike nose of her bow to the stubby opening of her rocket
exhausts. Not a seam or rivet could be seen in her hull. At the top of
the ship, near her nose, a large blister made of six-inch clear crystal
indicated the radar bridge. Twelve feet below it, six round window ports
showed the position of the control deck. Surrounding the base of the
ship was an aluminum scaffold with a ladder over a hundred feet high
anchored to it. The top rung of the ladder just reached the power-deck
emergency hatch which was swung open, like a giant plug, revealing the
thickness of the hull, nearly a foot.

"Well," roared the red-clad spaceman, "don't you want to climb aboard
and see what your ship looks like inside?"

"Do we!" cried Tom, and made a headlong dash for the scaffold. Astro let
out one of his famous yells and followed right at his heels. Roger
watched them running ahead and started off at a slow walk, but suddenly,
no longer able to resist, he broke into a dead run. Those around the
_Polaris_ stopped their work to watch the three cadets scramble up the
ladder. Most of the ground crew were ex-spacemen like McKenny, no longer
able to blast off because of acceleration reaction. And they smiled
knowingly, remembering their reactions to their first spaceship.

Inside the massive cruiser, the boys roamed over every deck, examining
the ship excitedly.

"Say look at this!" cried Tom. He stood in front of the control board
and ran his hands over the buttons and switches. "This board makes the
manual we worked on at the Academy look like it's ready for Galaxy
Hall!"

"Yeeeooooooww!" Three decks below, Astro had discovered the rocket
motors. Four of the most powerful ever installed on a spaceship,
enabling the _Polaris_ to outrace any ship in space.

Roger stuck his head through the radar-bridge hatch and gazed in awe at
the array of electronic communicators, detection radar and astrogation
gear. With lips pulled into a thin line, he mumbled to himself: "Too bad
they didn't give _you_ this kind of equipment."

"What'd you say, Roger?" asked Astro, climbing alongside to peer into
the radar bridge.

Startled, Roger turned and stammered, "Ah--nothing--nothing."

Looking around, Astro commented, "This place looks almost as good as
that power deck."

"Of course," said Roger, "they could have placed that astrogation prism
a little closer to the chart table. Now I'll have to get up every time I
want to take sights on stars!"

"Don't you ever get tired of complaining?" asked Astro.

"Ah--rocket off," snarled Roger.

"Hey, you guys," yelled Tom from below, "better get down here! Captain
Strong's coming aboard."

Climbing back down the ladder to the control deck, Astro leaned over his
shoulder and asked Roger, "Do you really think he'll let us take this
baby up for a hop, Manning?"

"Get your head out of that cloud, Astro. You'll pull about three weeks
of dry runs before this baby gets five inches off the ground."

"I wouldn't be too sure of that, Manning!" Strong's voice boomed out as
he climbed up through the control-deck hatch. The three boys immediately
snapped to attention.

Strong walked around the control deck, fingering the controls lightly.

"This is a fine ship," he mused aloud. "One of the finest that
scientific brains can build. She's yours. The day you graduate from the
Academy, _IF_ you graduate, and I can think of about a thousand reasons
why you won't, you'll command an armed rocket cruiser similar to this.
As a matter of fact, the only difference between this ship and those
that patrol the space lanes now is in the armament."

"Don't we have any arms aboard at all, sir?" asked Tom.

"Small arms, like paralo-ray pistols and paralo-ray rifles. Plus four
atomic war heads for emergency use," replied Strong.

Seeing a puzzled expression cross Astro's face, the Solar Guard officer
continued, "You haven't studied armament yet, Astro, but paralo rays are
the only weapons used by law-enforcement agencies in the Solar Alliance.
They work on a principle of controlled energy, sending out a ray with an
effective range of fifty yards that can paralyze the nervous system of
any beast or human."

"And it doesn't kill, sir?" inquired Astro.

"No, Astro," replied Strong. "Paralyzing a man is just as effective as
killing him. The Solar Alliance doesn't believe you have to kill anyone,
not even the most vicious criminal. Freeze him and capture him, and you
still have the opportunity of making him a useful citizen."

"But if you can't?" inquired Roger dryly.

"Then he's kept on the prison asteroid where he can't harm anyone."
Strong turned away abruptly. "But this isn't the time for a general
discussion. We've got work to do!"

He walked over to the master control panel and switched the teleceiver
screen. There was a slight buzz, and a view of the spaceport outside the
ship suddenly came into focus, filling the screen. Strong flipped a
switch and a view aft on the _Polaris_ filled the glowing square. The
aluminum scaffolding was being hauled away by a jet truck. Again the
view changed as Strong twisted the dials in front of him.

"Just scanning the outside, boys," he commented. "Have to make sure
there isn't anyone near the ship when we blast off. The rocket exhaust
is powerful enough to blow a man two hundred feet, to say nothing of
burning him to death."

"You mean, sir--" began Tom, not daring to hope.

"Of course, Corbett," smiled Strong. "Take your stations for blast-off.
We raise ship as soon as we get orbital clearance from spaceport
control!"

Without waiting for further orders, the three boys scurried to their
stations.

Soon the muffled whine of the energizing pumps on the power deck began
to ring through the ship, along with the steady beep of the radar
scanner on the radar bridge. Tom checked the maze of gauges and dials on
the control board. Air locks, hatches, oxygen supply, circulating
system, circuits, and feeds. In five minutes the two-hundred-foot
shining steel hull was a living thing as her rocket motors purred,
warming up for the initial thrust.

Tom made a last sweeping check of the complicated board and turned to
Captain Strong who stood to one side watching.

"Ship ready to blast off, sir," he announced. "Shall I check stations
and proceed to raise ship?"

"Carry on, Cadet Corbett," Strong replied. "Log yourself in as skipper
with me along as supercargo. I'll ride in the second pilot's chair."

Tom snapped a sharp salute and added vocally, "Aye, aye, sir!"

He turned back to the control board, strapped himself into the command
pilot's seat and opened the circuit to the spaceport control tower.

"Rocket cruiser _Polaris_ to spaceport control," he droned into the
microphone. "Check in!"

"Spaceport control to _Polaris_," the voice of the tower operator
replied. "You are cleared for blast-off in two minutes. Take out--orbit
75 ... repeat ... 75...."

"_Polaris_ to spaceport control. Orders received and understood. End
transmission!"

Tom then turned his attention to the station check.

"Control deck to radar deck. Check in."

"Radar deck, aye! Ready to raise ship." Roger's voice was relaxed, easy.

Tom turned to the board to adjust the teleceiver screen for a clear
picture of the stern of the ship. Gradually it came up in as sharp
detail as if he had been standing on the ground.

He checked the electric timing device in front of him that ticked off
the seconds, as a red hand crawled around to _zero_, and when it swept
down to the thirty-second mark, Tom pulled the microphone to his lips
again. "Control deck to power deck. Check in!"

"Power deck, aye?"

"Energize the cooling pumps!"

"Cooling pumps, aye!" repeated Astro.

"Feed reactant!"

"Reactant at D-9 rate."

From seventy feet below them, Strong and Tom heard the hiss of the
reactant mass feeding into the rocket motors, and the screeching whine
of the mighty pumps that kept the mass from building too rapidly and
exploding.

The second hand swept up to the twenty-second mark.

"Control deck to radar deck," called Tom. "Do we have a clear trajectory
forward?"

"All clear forward and overhead," replied Roger.

Tom placed his hand on the master switch that would throw the combined
circuits, instruments and gauges into the single act of blasting the
mighty ship into space. His eyes glued to the sweeping hand, he counted
past the twelve-second mark--eleven--ten--nine--

"Stand by to raise ship," he bawled into the microphone.
"Minus--five--four--three--two--one--_zero_!"

Tom threw the master switch.

There was a split-second pause and then the great ship roared into life.
Slowly at first, she lifted her tail full of roaring jets free of the
ground. Ten feet--twenty--fifty--a hundred--five hundred--a
thousand--picking up speed at an incredible rate.

Tom felt himself being pushed deeper and deeper into the softness of the
acceleration cushions. He had been worried about not being able to keep
his eyes open to see the dwindling Earth in the teleceiver over his
head, but the tremendous force of the rockets pushing him against
gravity to tear the two hundred tons of steel away from the Earth's grip
held his eyelids open for him. As the powerful rockets tore deeper into
the gap that separated the ship from Earth, he saw the spaceport
gradually grow smaller. The rolling hills around the Academy closed in,
and then the Academy itself, with the Tower of Galileo shrinking to a
white stick, was lost in the brown and green that was Earth. The rockets
pushed harder and harder and he saw the needle of the acceleration gauge
creep slowly up. Four--five--six--seven--eight--nine--ten miles a
second!

When the awful crushing weight on his body seemed unbearable, when he
felt as though he would never be able to draw another breath, suddenly
the pressure lifted and Tom felt amazingly and wonderfully buoyant. He
seemed to be floating in mid-air, his body rising against the webbed
straps of his chair! With a start and a momentary wave of panic, he
realized that he _was_ floating! Only the straps kept him from rising to
the ceiling of the control room!

Recovering quickly, he realized that he was in free fall. The ship had
cleared the pull of earth's gravity and was out in space where
everything was weightless. Reaching toward the control panel, he flipped
the switch for the synthetic-gravity generator and, seconds later, felt
the familiar and reassuring sensation of the chair under him as the
generator supplied an artificial-gravity field to the ship.

As he loosened the straps in his chair, he noticed Captain Strong rising
from his position beside him and he grinned sheepishly in answer to the
twinkle in Strong's eye.

"It's all right, Tom," reassured Strong. "Happens to everyone the first
time. Carry on."

"Aye, aye, sir," replied Tom and he turned to the microphone. "Control
deck to all stations! We are in space! Observe standard cruise
procedure!"

"Power deck, aye!" was Astro's blasting answer over the loud-speaker.
"Yeeeoooww! Out where we belong at last."

"Radar bridge here," Roger's voice chimed in softly on the speaker.
"Everything under control. And, Astro, you belong in a zoo if you're
going to bellow like that!"

"Ahhh--rocket off, bubblehead!" The big Venusian's reply was
good-natured. He was too happy to let Roger get under his skin.

"All right, you two," interrupted Tom. "Knock it off. We're on a ship
now. Let's cut the kindergarten stuff!"

"Aye, aye, skipper!" Astro was irrepressible.

"Yes, _sir_!" Roger's voice was soft but Tom recognized the biting edge
to the last word.

Turning away from the controls, he faced Captain Strong who had been
watching quietly.

"_Polaris_ space-borne at nine hundred thirty-three hours, Captain
Strong. All stations operating efficiently."

"Very competent job, Corbett," nodded Strong in approval. "You handled
the ship as if you'd been doing it for years."

"Thank you, sir."

"We'll just cruise for a while on this orbit so you boys can get the
feel of the ship and of space." The Solar Guard officer took Tom's place
in the command pilot's chair. "You knock off for a while. Go up to the
radar bridge and have a look around. I'll take over here."

"Yes, sir." Tom turned and had to restrain himself from racing up the
ladder to the radar bridge. When he climbed through the hatch to Roger's
station, he found his unit-mate tilted back in his chair, staring
through the crystal blister over his head.

"Hiya, spaceboy," smiled Roger. He indicated the blister. "Take a look
at the wide, deep and high."

Tom looked up and saw the deep blackness that was space.

"It's like looking into a mirror, Roger," he breathed in awe. "Only
there isn't any other side--no reflection. It just doesn't stop, does
it?"

"Nope," commented Roger, "it just goes on and on and on. And no one
knows where it stops. And no one can even guess."

"Ah--you've got a touch of space fever," laughed Astro. "You'd better
take it easy, pal."

Tom suppressed a smile. Now, for the first time, he felt that there was
a chance to achieve unity among them. Kill him with kindness, he
thought, that's the way to do it.

"All right, boys!" Captain Strong's voice crackled over the speaker.
"Time to pull in your eyeballs and get to work again. We're heading back
to the spaceport! Take your stations for landing!"

Tom and Astro immediately jumped toward the open hatch and started
scrambling down the ladder toward their respective stations while Roger
strapped himself into his chair in front of the astrogation panel.

Within sixty seconds the ship was ready for landing procedure and at a
nod from Captain Strong, who again strapped himself into the second
pilot's chair, Tom began the delicate operation.

Entering Earth's atmosphere, Tom gave a series of rapid orders for
course changes and power adjustments, and then, depressing the master
turn control, spun the ship around so that she would settle stern first
toward her ramp at the Academy spaceport.

"Radar deck to control deck," called Roger over the intercom. "One
thousand feet to touchdown!"

"Control deck, aye," answered Tom. "Control deck to power deck. Check
in."

"Power deck, aye," replied Astro.

"Stand by to adjust thrust to maximum drive at my command," ordered Tom.

"Power deck, aye."

The great ship, balanced perfectly on the hot exhaust, slowly slipped
toward the ground.

"Five hundred feet to touchdown," warned Roger.

"Main rockets full blast," ordered Tom.

The sudden blast of the powerful jets slowed the descent of the ship,
and finally, fifty feet above the ground, Tom snapped out another order.

"Cut main rockets! Hold auxiliary!"

A moment later there was a gentle bump and the _Polaris_ rested on the
ramp, her nose pointed to the heavens.

"_Touchdown!_" yelled Tom. "Cut everything, fellas, and come up and sign
the log. We made it--our first hop into space! We're spacemen!"



CHAPTER 10


"The next event will be," Warrant Officer McKenny's voice boomed over
the loud-speaker and echoed over the Academy stadium, "the last
semifinal round of mercuryball. _Polaris_ unit versus _Arcturus_ unit."

As two thousand space cadets, crowded in the grandstands watching the
annual academy tournament, rose to their feet and cheered lustily, Tom
Corbett turned to his unit-mates Astro and Roger and called
enthusiastically, "O.K., fellas. Let's go out there and show them how to
play this game!"

During the two days of the tournament, Tom, Roger and Astro, competing
as a unit against all the other academy units, had piled up a tremendous
amount of points in all the events. But so had Unit 77-K, now known as
the _Capella_ unit. Now with the _Capella_ unit already in the finals,
the _Polaris_ crew had to win their semifinal round against the
_Arcturus_, in order to meet the _Capella_ in the final round for
Academy honors.

"This is going to be a cinch," boasted Astro. "I'm going to burn 'em
up!"

"Save it for the field," said Tom with a smile.

"Yeah, you big Venusian ape," added Roger. "Make points instead of space
gas."

Stripped to the waist, wearing shorts and soft, three-quarter-length
space boots, the three boys walked onto the sun-baked field amid the
rousing cheers from the stands. Across the field, the cadets of the
_Arcturus_ unit walked out to meet them, stopping beside McKenny at the
mid-field line. Mike waited for the six boys to form a circle around
him, while he held the mercuryball, a twelve-inch plastic sphere, filled
with air and the tricky tube of mercury.

"You all know the rules," announced McKenny abruptly. "Head, shoulders,
feet, knees, or any part of your body except your hands, can touch the
ball. _Polaris_ unit will defend the north goal," he said, pointing to a
white chalk line fifty yards away, "_Arcturus_ the south," and he
pointed to a line equally distant in the opposite direction.
"Five-minute periods, with one-minute rest between. All clear?"

As captain of the _Polaris_ unit, Tom nodded, while smiling at the
captain of the _Arcturus_ team, a tow-headed boy with short chunky legs
named Schohari.

"All clear, Mike," said Tom.

"All clear here, Mike," responded Schohari.

"All right, shake hands and take your places."

The six boys shook hands and jogged toward respective opposite lines.
Mike waited for them to reach their goal lines, and then placed the ball
in the middle of a chalk-drawn circle.

Toeing the line, Tom, Roger and Astro eyed the _Arcturus_ crew and
prepared for the dash to the ball.

"All right, fellas," urged Tom, "let's show them something!"

"Yeah," breathed Astro, "just let me get my size thirteens on that
pumpkin before it starts twisting around!"

Astro wanted the advantage of the first kick at the ball while the
mercury tube inside was still quiet. Once the mercury was agitated, the
ball would be as easy to kick as a well-greased eel.

"We'll block for you, Astro," said Tom, "and you put every ounce of
beef you've got into that first kick. If we're lucky, we might be able
to get the jump on them!"

"Cut the chatter," snapped Roger nervously. "Baldy's ready to give us
the go ahead!"

Standing on the side lines, Warrant Officer McKenny slowly raised his
hand, and the crowd in the grandstand hushed in eager anticipation. A
second passed and then there was a tremendous roar as he brought his
hand down and blew heavily on the whistle.

Running as if their lives depended on it, the six cadets of the two
units raced headlong toward the ball. Tom, just a little faster than
Roger or Astro, flashed down the field and veered off to block the
advancing Schohari. Roger, following him, charged into Swift, the second
member of the _Arcturus_ crew. Astro, a few feet in back of them,
running with surprising speed for his size, saw that it was going to be
a close race between himself and Allen, the third member of the
_Arcturus_ unit. He bowed his head and drove himself harder, the roar of
the crowd filling his ears.

" ... Go Astro!... Go Astro!..."

Pounding down for the kick, Astro gauged his stride perfectly and with
one last, mighty leap swung his right foot at the ball.

There was a loud thud drowned by a roar from the crowd as the ball
sailed off the ground with terrific force. And then almost immediately
there was another thud as Allen rose in a desperate leap to block the
ball with his shoulder. It caromed off at a crazy angle, wobbling in its
flight as the mercury within rolled from side to side. Swift, of the
_Arcturus_ crew, reached the ball first and sent it sailing at an angle
over Tom's head to bounce thirty feet away. Seeing Astro charge the
ball, Tom threw a block on Allen to knock him out of the play. The big
Venusian, judging his stride to be a little off, shortened his steps to
move in for the kick. But just as he brought his foot forward to make
contact, the ball spun away to the left. Astro's foot continued in a
perfect arc over his head, throwing him in a heap on the ground.

Two thousand voices from the stands roared in one peal of laughter.

While Astro lay on the ground with the wind knocked out of him, Schohari
and Swift converged on the ball. With Astro down and Tom out of
position, the _Arcturus_ unit seemed certain of scoring. But again the
ball rolled crazily, this time straight to Roger, the last defender. He
nudged it between his opponents toward Tom, who, in turn, kicked it
obliquely past Allen back to Roger again. Running with the grace and
speed of an antelope, the blond cadet met the ball in mid-field, and
when it dropped to the ground in front of him, sent it soaring across
the goal with one powerful kick!

As the cadets in the stands sent up a tumultuous cheer for the perfectly
executed play, the whistle blew, ending the period and the _Polaris_
unit led, one to nothing.

Breathing deeply, Astro and Roger flopped down near Tom and stretched
full length on the grass.

"That was a beautiful shot, Roger," said Tom. "Perfectly timed!"

"Yeah, hot-shot," agreed Astro, "I'm glad to see that big head of yours
is good for something!"

"Listen, fellas," said Roger eagerly, ignoring Astro, "to go into the
finals against Richards and the _Capella_ unit, we've got to beat the
_Arcturus_ crew, right?"

"Yeah," agreed Tom, "and it won't be easy. We just happened to get the
breaks."

"Then why don't we put the game on ice?" said Roger. "Freeze the ball!
We got 'em one to nothing, that's enough to beat them. When the whistle
blows and it's over, we win!"

Astro looked at Tom, who frowned and replied, "But we've still got three
periods left, Roger. It isn't fair to freeze this early in the game. If
it was the last minute or so, sure. But not so early. It just isn't
fair."

"What do you want to do?" snarled Roger. "Win, or play fair?"

"Win, of course, but I want to win the right way," said Tom.

"How about you, Astro?" asked Roger.

"I feel the same way that Tom does," said the big cadet. "We can beat
these guys easily--and on the square."

"You guys make it sound like I was cheating," snapped Roger.

"Well," said Tom, "it sure isn't giving the _Arcturus_ guys a break."

The whistle blew for them to return to the goal line.

"Well," asked Roger, "do we freeze or don't we?"

"I don't want to. But majority always rules in this unit, Roger." Tom
glanced at Astro. "How about it, Astro?"

"We can beat 'em fair and square. We play all out!" answered Astro.

Roger didn't say anything. He moved to one side and took his position
for the dash down field.

The whistle blew again and the crowd roared as the two teams charged
toward the ball. The cadets were eager to see if the _Arcturus_ crew
could tie the score or if the crew of the _Polaris_ would increase its
lead. But after a few moments of play, their cries of encouragement
subsided into rumbles of discontent. In its eagerness to score, the
_Arcturus_ unit kept making errors and lost the ball constantly but the
crew of the _Polaris_ failed to capitalize. The second period ended with
the score unchanged.

As he slumped to the ground for the rest period, Astro turned on Roger
bitterly. "What's the idea, Manning? You're dogging it!"

"You play your game, Astro," replied Roger calmly, "I'll play mine."

"We're playing this game as a team, Roger," chimed in Tom heatedly.
"You're kicking the ball all over the lot!"

"Yeah," added Astro. "In every direction except the goal!"

"I was never clear," defended Roger. "I didn't want to lose possession
of the ball!"

"You sure didn't," said Tom. "You acted as if it was your best friend
and you never wanted to be separated from it!"

[Illustration]

"We said we didn't want to freeze this game, Roger, and we meant it!"
Astro glowered at his unit-mate. "Next period you show us some action!
If you don't want to score, feed it to us and we'll save you the
trouble!"

But the third period was the same. While Tom and Astro dashed up and
down the field, blocking out the members of the _Arcturus_ crew to give
Roger a clear shot, he simply nudged the ball back and forth between the
side lines, ignoring his teammates' pleas to drive forward. As the
whistle sounded for the end of the period, boos and catcalls from the
grandstand filled the air.

Tom's face was an angry red as he faced Roger again on the side lines
during the rest period.

"You hear that, Roger?" he growled, nodding his head toward the stands.
"That's what they think of your smart playing!"

"What do I care?" replied the blond cadet arrogantly. "They're not
playing this game! I am!"

"And we are too!" Astro's voice was a low rumble as he came up behind
Manning. "If you don't give us a chance, so help me, I'll use your head
for a ball!"

[Illustration]


"If you're so interested in scoring, why don't you go after the ball
yourselves then?" said Roger.

"Because we're too busy trying to be a team!" snapped Tom. "We're trying
to clear shots for you!"

"Don't be so generous," sneered Roger.

"I'm warning you, Roger"--Astro glared at the arrogant cadet--"if you
don't straighten out and fly right--"

McKenny's whistle from the far side lines suddenly sounded, interrupting
the big cadet, and the three boys trooped back out on the field again.
Again the air was filled with boos and shouts of derision and Tom's face
flushed with shame.

This time, when McKenny's hand flashed downward, Tom streaked for the
ball, instead of Schohari, his usual opponent. He measured his stride
carefully and reached the ball in perfect kicking position.

He felt the satisfying thud against his foot, and saw the ball shoot out
high in front of him and head for the goal line. It was a beautiful
kick. But then, the ball suddenly sank, its flight altered by the action
of the mercury. Running down field, Tom saw Swift and Allen meet the
ball together. Allen blocked it with his chest and caromed it over to
Swift. Swift let the ball drop to the ground, drawing his foot back to
kick. But again, the mercury changed the ball's action, twisting it to
one side and Swift's kick caught it on the side. Instead of the ball
going down field, it veered to the left, in the path of Astro. Quickly
getting his head under it, he shifted it to Roger, who streaked in and
stopped it with his hip. But then, instead of passing ahead to Tom, who
by now was down field and in the open, Roger prepared to kick for the
goal himself.

Tom shouted a warning but it was too late. Schohari came rushing in
behind him, and at running stride, met the ball squarely with his right
foot. It sailed high in the air and over the _Polaris_ goal line just
as the whistle blew. The game was tied.

"That was some play, Manning," said Astro, when they were lined up
waiting for the next period to begin.

"You asked for it," snapped Roger, "you were yapping at me to play, and
now look what's happened!"

"Listen, you loudmouthed punk!" said Astro, advancing toward the smaller
cadet, but just then the whistle blew and the three boys ran out onto
the field.

The _Arcturus_ crew swept down the field quickly, heading for the ball
and seemingly ignoring the _Polaris_ unit. But Schohari slipped and fell
on the grass which gave Tom a clear shot at the ball. He caught it with
the side of his boot and passed it toward Roger. But Allen, at full
speed, came in and intercepted, sending the ball in a crazy succession
of twists, turns and bounces. The crowd came to its feet as all six
cadets made desperate attempts to clear the skittering ball with none of
them so much as touching it. This was the part of mercuryball that
pleased the spectator. Finally, Schohari managed to get a toe on it and
he sent it down field, but Astro had moved out to play defense. He
stopped the ball on his shoulder and dropped it to the ground. Steadying
it there, he waited until Tom was in the clear and kicked it forty yards
to the mid-field stripe.

The crowd came to its feet, sensing this final drive might mean victory
for the _Polaris_ crew. The boys of the _Arcturus_ swarmed in--trying to
keep Tom from scoring. With a tremendous burst of speed, Tom reached the
ball ahead of Schohari, and with the strength of desperation, he slammed
his foot against it. The whistle blew ending the game as the ball rose
in an arc down the field and fell short of the goal by ten feet. There
was a groan from the crowd.

But suddenly the ball, still reacting to the mercury inside, spun like
a top, rolled sideways, and as if it were being blown by a breeze,
rolled toward the goal line and stopped six inches inside the white
chalk line.

There was a moment's pause as the crowd and the players, stunned by the
play, grasped what had happened. Then swelling into a roar, there was
one word chanted over and over--"_Polaris--Polaris--Polaris_...."

The _Polaris_ unit had reached the finals of the Academy tournament.

       *       *       *       *       *

During the intermission Charlie Wolcheck, unit commander of the
_Capella_ crew, walked over to the refreshment unit behind the
grandstand where Steve Strong, Dr. Dale and Commander Walters were
drinking Martian water and eating spaceburgers.

"Afternoon, Commander," saluted Wolcheck. "Hello, Joan, Steve. Looks as
though your boys on the _Polaris_ are going to meet their match this
afternoon. I've got to admit they're good, but with Tony Richards
feeding passes to Al Davison and with the blocking of Scott McAvoy--"
The young officer broke off with a grin.

"I don't know, Charlie," Commander Walters said with a wink to Dr. Dale.
"From the looks of Cadet Astro, if he ever gets his foot on the ball,
your _Capella_ unit will have to go after it with a jet boat."

"Why, Commander," replied Wolcheck, laughing good-naturedly, "Tony
Richards is one of the finest booters I've ever seen. Saw him make a
goal from the sixty-yard line from a standstill."

Steve Strong waved a Martian water pop bottle at young Wolcheck in a
gesture of friendly derision.

"Did you happen to see the play in the first period?" he boasted.
"Manning took a perfect pass from Astro and scored. You're finished,
Wolcheck, you and your _Capella_ unit won't even come close."

"From what I hear and see, Manning seems to be a little sore that he
can't make all the scores himself," grinned Wolcheck slyly. "He wants to
be the whole show!"

Strong reddened and turned to put the empty bottle on the counter, using
it as an excuse to hide his feelings from the commander and Joan. So
Wolcheck had observed Manning's attitude and play on the field too.

Before Strong could reply, a bugle sounded from the field and the group
of Solar Guard officers returned to their seats for the final game of
the tournament between the _Capella_ and the _Polaris_ units.

Out on the field Mike made his usual speech about playing fair and gave
the cadets the routine instructions of the game, reminding them that
they were spacemen first, unit-members second, and individuals third and
last. The six boys shook hands and jogged down the field to take up
their positions.

"How about concentrating on the passes Richards is going to feed to
Davison," Tom asked his unit-mates. "Never mind blocking out Richards
and McAvoy."

"Yeah," agreed Astro, "play for the ball. Sounds good to me."

"How about it, Roger?" asked Tom.

"Just play the game," said Roger. And then added sarcastically, "And
don't forget to give them every chance to score. Let's play fair and
square, the way we did with the _Arcturus_ unit."

"If you feel that way, Manning," answered Astro coldly, "you can quit
right now! We'll handle the _Capella_ guys ourselves!"

Before Roger could answer, McKenny blew the ready whistle and the three
boys lined up along the white chalk line preparing for the dash to the
waiting ball.

The cadets in the stands were hushed. McKenny's hand swept up and then
quickly down as he blew the whistle. The crowd came to its feet,
roaring, as Tom, five steps from his own goal line, tripped and fell
headlong to the grass, putting him out of the first play. Astro and
Roger charged down the field, with Astro reaching the ball first. He
managed a good kick, but Richards, three feet away, took the ball
squarely on his chest. The mercuryball fell to the ground, spun in a
dizzy circle and with a gentle tap by Richards, rolled to Davison, who
took it in stride and sent it soaring for a forty-five-yard goal.

The _Capella_ unit had drawn first blood.

"Well, hot-shot," snarled Roger back on the starting line, "what
happened to the big pass-stealing idea?"

"I tripped, Manning," said Tom through clenched teeth.

"Yeah! Tripped!" sneered Roger.

The whistle blew for the next goal.

Tom, with an amazing burst of speed, swept down the field, broke stride
to bring him in perfect line with the ball and with a kick that seemed
almost lazy, sent the ball from a dead standstill, fifty yards over the
_Capella_ goal before any of the remaining players were within five feet
of it, and the score was tied.

The crowd sprang to its feet again and roared his name.

"That was terrific!" said Astro, slapping Tom on the back as they lined
up again. "It looked as though you hardly kicked that ball at all."

"Yeah," muttered Roger, "you really made yourself the grandstand's
delight!"

"What's that supposed to mean, Manning?" asked Astro.

"Superman Corbett probably burned himself out! Let's see him keep up
that speed for the next ten minutes!"

The whistle blew for the next goal, and again the three boys moved
forward to meet the onrushing _Capella_ unit.

Richards blocked Astro with a twist of his body, and without stopping
his forward motion, kicked the ball squarely toward the goal. It stopped
ten feet short, took a dizzying spin and rolled away from the goal line.
In a flash, the six boys were around the ball, blocking, shoving, and
yelling instructions to each other while at the same time kicking at the
unsteady ball. With each grazing kick, the ball went into even more
maddening spins and gyrations.

At last Richards caught it with the side of his foot, flipped it to
McAvoy who dropped back, and with twenty feet between him and the
nearest _Polaris_ member, calmly booted it over the goal. The whistle
blew ending the first period, and the _Capella_ unit led two to one.

During the next three periods, the _Capella_ unit worked like a
well-oiled machine. Richards passed to Davison or McAvoy, and when they
were too well guarded, played brilliantly alone. The _Polaris_ unit, on
the other hand, appeared to be hopelessly outclassed. Tom and Astro
fought like demons but Roger's lack of interest gave the _Capella_ unit
the edge in play. At the end of the fourth period, the _Capella_ team
led by three points, seven to four.

While the boys rested before the fifth and final period, Captain Strong,
having watched the play with keen interest, realized that Roger was not
playing up to his fullest capabilities. Suddenly he summoned a near-by
Earthworm cadet, scribbled a message on a slip of paper and instructed
the cadet to take it directly to Roger.

"Orders from the coach on the side lines?" asked Wolcheck as he noticed
Strong's action.

"You might call it that, Charlie," answered Steve blandly.

On the field, the cadet messenger handed Roger the slip of paper, not
mentioning that it was from Strong, and hurried back to the stands.

"Getting fan mail already?" asked Astro.

Roger ignored the comment and opened the slip of paper to read:

" ... It might interest you to know that the winning team of the
mercuryball finals is to be awarded a first prize of three days' liberty
in Atom City...." There was no signature.

Roger stared up into the stands and searched vainly for some indication
of the person who might have sent him the note. The crowd hushed as
McKenny stepped forward for the starting of the last period.

"What was in the note, Roger?" asked Tom.

"The winning combination," smiled Roger lazily. "Get set for the fastest
game of mercuryball you've ever played, Corbett! We've got to pull this
mess out of the fire!"

Bewildered, Tom looked at Astro who merely shrugged his shoulders and
took his place ready for the whistle. Roger tucked the note into his
shorts and stepped up to the line.

"Listen, Corbett," said Roger, "every time Richards gets the ball, he
kicks it to his left, and then McAvoy feints as if to get it, leaving
Davison in the open. When you go to block Davison, you leave Richards in
the clear. He just keeps the ball. He's scored three times that way!"

"Yeah," said Tom, "I noticed that, but there was nothing I could do
about it, the way you've been playing."

"Kinda late in the game for any new ideas, Manning," growled Astro.
"Just get the ball and pass it to me."

"That's my whole idea! Play back, Astro. Move like you're very tired,
see? Then they'll forget about you and play three on two. You just be
ready to kick and kick hard!"

"What's happened to you, Roger?" asked Tom. "What was in that note?"

Before Roger could answer, the whistle and the roar from the crowd
signaled the beginning of the last period. The cadets raced down the
field, Roger swerving to the left and making a feint at blocking
Richards. He missed intentionally and allowed Richards to get the ball,
who immediately passed to the left. McAvoy raced in on the ball, Tom
made a move as if to block him, reversed, and startled the onrushing
Richards with a perfect block. The ball was in the clear. Roger gave it
a half kick and the ball landed two feet in front of Astro. The big
cadet caught it perfectly on the first bounce and kicked it on a line
across the goal, seventy yards away.

Up in the stands, Steve Strong smiled as he watched the score change on
the board: "_Capella_ seven--_Polaris_ five!"

In rapid succession, the _Polaris_ unit succeeded in intercepting the
play of the _Capella_ unit and rolling up two goals to an even score.
Now, there were only fifty-five seconds left to play.

The cadets in the stands roared their approval of the gallant effort
made by the three members of the _Polaris_ crew. It had been a long time
since mercuryball had been played with such deadly accuracy at Space
Academy and everyone who attended the game was to remember for years to
come the last play of the game.

McKenny blew the whistle again and the boys charged forward, but by
now, aware of the sudden flash of unity on the part of the opposing
team, the _Capella_ unit fought desperately to salvage at least a tie.

Tom managed to block a kick by Richards, and the ball took a dizzy hop
to the left, landing in front of Astro. He was in the clear. The stands
were in an uproar as the cadets saw that the game was nearly over. Astro
paused a split second, judged the ball and stepped forward to kick. But
the ball spun away, just as Astro swung his leg. And at that instant,
McAvoy came charging in from the left, only to be blocked by Roger. But
the force of McAvoy's charge knocked Roger back into Astro. Instead of
kicking the ball, Astro caught Roger on the side of the head. Roger fell
to the ground and lay still. He was knocked cold. Astro lost his
balance, twisted on one leg unsteadily, and then fell to the ground.
When he tried to get up, he couldn't walk. He had twisted his ankle.

The _Capella_ unit members stood still, confused and momentarily unable
to take advantage of their opportunity. Without a moment's hesitation,
Tom swept in and kicked the ball before his opponents realized what had
happened. The ball drifted up in a high arc and landed with several
bounces, stopping five feet from the goal.

Suddenly Richards, McAvoy and Davison came alive and charged after Tom,
who was running for the ball as fast as his weary legs would carry him.
He saw Richards pull up alongside of him, then pass him. Then Davison
and McAvoy closed in on either side to block and give Richards a clear
shot back down the field and a certain score.

Richards reached the ball, stopped and carefully lined up his kick,
certain that his teammates could block out Tom. But the young cadet, in
a last desperate spurt, outraced both McAvoy and Davison. Then, as
Richards cocked his foot to kick, Tom jumped. With a mighty leaping
dive, he sent his body hurtling headlong toward Richards just as he
kicked. Tom's body crashed into the ball and Richards. The two boys went
down in a heap but the ball caromed off his chest and rolled over the
goal line.

The whistle blew ending the game.

In an instant, two thousand officers, cadets and enlisted men went wild
as the ball rolled across the goal line.

The _Polaris_ crew had won eight goals to seven!

From every corner of the field, the crowd cheered the cadets who had
finished the game, had won it in the final seconds with two of them
sprawled on the field unconscious and a third unable to stand on his
feet.

Up in the stands, Captain Strong turned to Commander Walters. He found
it hard to keep his eyes from filling up as he saluted briskly.

"Captain Strong reporting, sir, on the success of the _Polaris_ unit to
overcome their differences and become a fighting unit! And I mean
_fight_!"

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 11


"Atom City Express now arriving on track two!" The voice boomed over the
loud-speaker system; and as the long, gleaming line of monorail cars
eased to a stop with a soft hissing of brakes, the three cadets of the
_Polaris_ unit moved eagerly in that direction.

"Atom City, here we come," cried Astro.

"We and a lot of others with the same idea," said Tom. And, in fact,
there were only a few civilians in the crowd pressing toward the car
doors. Uniforms predominated--the blue of the cadets, enlisted men in
scarlet, even a few in the black and gold uniforms which identified the
officers of the Solar Guard.

"Personally," whispered Tom to his friends, "the first thing I want to
do at Atom City is take a long walk--somewhere where I won't see a
single uniform."

"As for me," drawled Roger, "I'm going to find a stereo studio where
they're showing a Liddy Tamal feature. I'll sit down in a front-row seat
and just watch that girl act for about six hours."

He turned to Astro. "And how about you?"

"Why ... why ... I'll string along with you, Roger," said the cadet from
Venus. "It's been a long time since I've seen a--a--"

Tom and Roger laughed.

"A what?" teased Tom.

"A--a--girl," sputtered Astro, blushing.

"I don't believe it," said Roger in mock surprise. "I never--"

"Come on," interrupted Tom. "Time to get aboard."

They hurried across the platform and entered the sleek car. Inside they
found seats together and sank into the luxurious chairs.

Astro sighed gently, stretched out his long legs and closed his eyes
blissfully for a few moments.

"Don't wake me till we get started," he said.

"We already have," returned Tom. "Take a look."

Astro's eyes popped open. He glanced through the clear crystal glass at
the rapidly moving landscape.

"These express jobs move on supercushioned ball bearings," explained
Tom. "You can't even feel it when you pull out of the station."

"Blast my jets!" marveled Astro. "I'd sure like to take a look at the
power unit on this baby."

"Even on a vacation, all this guy can think about is power!" grumbled
Roger.

"How about building up our own power," suggested Tom. "It's a long haul
to Atom City. Let's get a bite to eat."

"O.K. with me, spaceboy!" Astro grinned. "I could swallow a whole
steer!"

"That's a great idea, cadet," said a voice from behind them.

It came from a gray-haired man, neatly dressed in the black one-piece
stylon suit currently in fashion, and with a wide red sash around his
waist.

"Beg pardon, sir," said Tom, "were you speaking to us?"

"I certainly was," replied the stranger. "I'm asking you to be my guests
at dinner. And while I may not be able to buy your friend a whole steer,
I'll gladly get him a piece of one."

"Hey," said Astro, "do you think he means it?"

"He seems to," replied Tom. He turned to the stranger. "Thanks very
much, sir, but don't think Astro was just kidding about his appetite."

"I'm sure he wasn't." The gray-haired man smiled, and came over and
stretched out his hand. "Then it's a deal," he said. "My name's Joe
Bernard."

"Bernard!" exclaimed Roger. He paled and glanced quickly at his two
friends, but they were too busy looking over their new friend to notice.

"Glad to know you, sir," said Tom. "I'm Tom Corbett. This is Astro, from
Venus. And over here is--"

"Roger's my name," the third cadet said quickly. "Won't you sit down,
sir?"

"No use wasting time," said Bernard. "Let's go right into the dining
car." The cadets were in no mood to argue with him. They picked up the
small microphones beside their chairs and sent food orders to the
kitchen; and by the time they were seated in the dining car, their
orders were ready on the table.

Mr. Bernard, with a twinkle in his eye, watched them enjoy their food.
In particular, he watched Astro.

"I warned you, sir," whispered Tom, as the Venusian went to work on his
second steak.

"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," said Bernard. He smiled, lit
a cigar of fine Mercurian leaf tobacco and settled back comfortably.

"And now," he said, "let me explain why I was so anxious to have dinner
with you. I'm in the import-export business. Ship to Mars, mostly. But
all my life I've wanted to be a spaceman."

"Well, what was the trouble, Mr. Bernard?" asked Roger.

The man in black sighed. "Couldn't take the acceleration, boys. Bad
heart. I send out more than five hundred cargoes a year, to all parts of
the solar system; but myself, I've never been more than a mile off the
surface of the earth."

"It sure must be disappointing--to want to blast off, and know that you
can't," said Tom.

"I tried, once," said Bernard, with a rueful smile. "Yup! I tried." He
gazed thoughtfully out the window.

"When I was your age, about twenty, I wanted to get into Space Academy
worse than anybody I'd ever met." He paused. "Except for one person. A
boyhood buddy of mine--named Kenneth--"

"Excuse me, sir," cut in Roger quickly, "but I think we'd better get
back to our car. With this big liberty in front of us, we need a lot of
rest."

"But, Roger!" exclaimed Tom.

Bernard smiled. "I understand, Roger. Sometimes I forget that I'm an old
man. And when you've already tasted the excitement of space travel, talk
like mine must seem rather dull." He stood up and faced the three
cadets. "It's been very pleasant, Corbett, Astro, Roger. Now run along
and get your rest. I'll just sit here for a while and watch the
scenery."

"Thank you, sir," said Tom, "for the dinner--your company--and
everything," he finished lamely.

There was a chorus of good-byes and the boys returned to their car. But
there was little conversation now. Gradually, the lights in the cars
dimmed to permit sleep. But Tom kept listening to the subdued click of
the monorail--and kept wondering. Finally Roger, sleeping next to him,
wakened for a moment.

"Roger," said Tom, "I want to ask you something."

"Wait'll the mornin'," mumbled Roger. "Wanta sleep."

"The way you acted with Bernard," Tom persisted. "You ate his dinner and
then acted like he was poison. Why was that, Roger?"

The other sat bolt upright. "Listen," he said. "Listen!" Then he
slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Lemme sleep, Corbett.
Lemme sleep, I tell you." He turned his back and in a moment was making
sounds of deep slumber, but Tom felt sure that Roger was not
asleep--that he was wide awake, with something seriously bothering him.

Tom leaned back and gazed out over the passing plains and up into the
deep black of space. The Moon was full, large and round. He could
distinguish _Mare Imbrium_, the largest of Luna's flat plains visible
from Earth, where men had built the great metropolis of Luna City.
Farther out in the deep blackness, he could see Mars, glowing like a
pale ruby. Before long he would be up there again. Before long he would
be blasting off in the _Polaris_ with Astro and with Roger--

Roger! Why had he acted so strangely at dinner?

Tom remembered the night he saw Roger in Galaxy Hall alone at night, and
the sudden flash on the field a few days before when they had won the
mercuryball game. Was there some reason behind his companion's strange
actions? In vain, Tom racked his brain to find the answer. There had to
be some explanation. Yet what could it possibly be? He tossed and turned
and worried and finally--comfortable as the monorail car was--he fell
asleep from sheer exhaustion.

       *       *       *       *       *

Atom City! Built of the clear crystal mined so cheaply on Titan, moon of
Saturn, Atom City had risen from a barren North American wasteland to
become a show place of the universe. Here was the center of all space
communications--a proud city of giant crystal buildings. Here had been
developed the first slidewalks, air cars, three-dimensional stereos and
hundreds of other ideas for better living.

And here at Atom City was the seat of the great Solar Alliance, housed
in a structure which covered a quarter of a mile at its base and which
towered three thousand noble feet into the sky.

The three cadets stepped out of the monorail and walked across the
platform to a waiting air car--jet-powered, shaped like a teardrop and
with a clear crystal top.

"We want the best hotel in town," said Astro grandly to the driver.

"And get this speed bug outa here in a hurry," Roger told him. "There's
a lot we want to do."

The driver couldn't help smiling at the three cadets so obviously
enjoying their first leave.

"We've got three top hotels," he said. "One's as good as the other.
They're the Earth, the Mars and the Venus."

"The Earth," voted Tom.

"The Mars," shouted Roger.

"The _Venus_!" roared Astro.

"All right," said the driver with a laugh, "make up your minds."

"Which of 'em is nearest the center of the city?" Tom asked.

"The Mars."

"Then blast off for Mars!" ordered Tom, and the air car shot away from
the station and moved up into the stream of expressway traffic fifty
feet above the ground.

As the little car sped along the broad avenue, Tom remembered how often,
as a boy, he'd envied the Space Cadets who'd come to his home town of
New Chicago on leave. Now here _he_ was--in uniform, with a three-day
pass, and all of Atom City to enjoy it in.

A few minutes later the air car stopped in front of the Mars Hotel. The
cadets saw the entrance loom before them--a huge opening, with ornate
glass and crystal in many different colors.

They walked across the high-ceilinged lobby toward the desk. All around
them, the columns that supported the ceiling were made of the clearest
crystal. Their feet sank into soft, lustrous deep-pile rugs made of
Venusian jungle grass.

The boys advanced toward the huge circular reception desk where a pretty
girl with red hair waited to greet them.

"May I help you?" she asked. She flashed a dazzling smile.

"You're a lucky girl," said Roger. "It just so happens you _can_ help
me. We'll have dinner together--just the two of us--and then we'll go to
the stereos. After which we'll--"

The girl shook her head sadly. "I can see your friend's got a bad case
of rocket shock," she said to Tom.

"That's right," Tom admitted. "But if you'll give us a triple room,
we'll make sure he doesn't disturb anybody."

"Ah," said Roger, "go blow your jets!"

"I have a nice selection of rooms here on photo-slides if you'd care to
look at them," the girl suggested.

"How many rooms in this hotel, Beautiful?" asked Roger.

"Nearly two thousand," answered the girl.

"And you have photo-slides of all two thousand?"

"Why, yes," answered the girl. "Why do you ask?"

"You and Astro go take a walk, Corbett," said Roger with a grin. "I'll
select our quarters!"

"You mean," asked the girl, a little flustered, "you want to look at all
the slides?"

"Sure thing, Lovely!" said Roger with a lazy smile.

"But--but that would take three hours!"

"Exactly my idea!" said Roger.

"Just give us a nice room, Miss," said Tom, cutting in. "And please
excuse Manning. He's so smart, he gets a little dizzy now and then.
Have to take him over to a corner and revive him." He glanced at Astro,
who picked Roger up in his arms and walked away with him as though he
were a baby.

"Come on, you space Romeo!" said Astro.

"Hey--ouch--hey--lemme go, ya big ape. You're killing your best friend!"
Roger twisted around in Astro's viselike grasp, to no avail.

"Space fever," explained Tom. "He'll be O.K. soon."

"I think I understand," said the girl with a nervous smile.

She handed Tom a small flashlight. "Here's your photoelectric light key
for room 2305 F. That's on the two hundred thirtieth floor."

Tom took the light key and turned toward the slidestairs where Astro was
holding Roger firmly, despite his frantic squirming.

"Hey, Tom," cried Roger, "tell this Venusian ape to let me go!"

"Promise to behave yourself?" asked Tom.

"We came here to have fun, didn't we?" demanded Roger.

"That doesn't mean getting thrown out of the hotel because you've got to
make passes at every beautiful girl."

"What's the matter with beautiful girls?" growled Roger. "They're
official equipment, like a radar scanner. You can't get along without
them!"

Tom and Astro looked at each other and burst out laughing.

"Come on, you jerk," said Astro, "let's get washed up. I wanta take a
walk and get something to eat. I'm hungry again!"

An hour later, showered and dressed in fresh uniforms, the _Polaris_
crew began a tour of the city. They went to the zoo and saw dinosaurs, a
tyrannosaurus, and many other monsters extinct on Earth millions of
years ago, but still breeding in the jungles of Tara. They visited the
council chamber of the Solar Alliance where delegates from the major
planets and from the larger satellites, such as Titan of Saturn,
Ganymede of Jupiter, and Luna of Earth made the laws for the
tri-planetary league. The boys walked through the long halls of the
Alliance building, looking at the great documents which had unified the
solar system.

They reverently inspected original documents of the Universal Bill of
Rights and the Solar Constitution, which guaranteed basic freedoms of
speech, press, religion, peaceful assembly and representative
government. And even brash, irrepressible Roger Manning was awestruck as
they tiptoed into the great Chamber of the Galactic Court, where the
supreme judicial body of the entire universe sat in solemn dignity.

Later, the boys visited the Plaza de Olympia--a huge fountain, filled
with water taken from the Martian Canals, the lakes of Venus and the
oceans of Earth, and ringed by a hundred large statues, each one
symbolizing a step in mankind's march through space.

But then, for the Space Cadets, came the greatest thrill of all--a trip
through the mighty Hall of Science, at once a museum of past progress
and a laboratory for the development of future wonders.

Thousands of experiments were being conducted within this crystal
palace, and as Space Cadets, the boys were allowed to witness a few of
them. They watched a project which sought to harness the solar rays more
effectively; another which aimed to create a new type of fertilizer for
Mars, so people of that planet would be able to grow their own food in
their arid deserts instead of importing it all from other worlds. Other
scientists were trying to adapt Venusian jungle plants to grow on other
planets with a low oxygen supply; while still others, in the medical
field, sought for a universal antibody to combat all diseases.

Evening finally came and with it time for fun and entertainment. Tired
and leg weary, the cadets stepped on a slidewalk and allowed themselves
to be carried to a huge restaurant in the heart of Atom City.

"Food," exulted Astro as the crystal doors swung open before them.
"Smell it! Real, honest-to-gosh food!" He rushed for a table.

"Hold it, Astro," shouted Tom. "Take it easy."

"Yeah," added Roger. "It's been five hours since your last meal--not
five weeks!"

"Meal!" snorted the Venusian cadet. "Call four spaceburgers a meal? And
anyway, it's been six hours, not five."

Laughing, Tom and Roger followed their friend inside. Luckily, they
found a table not far from the door, where Astro grabbed the microphone
and ordered his usual tremendous dinner.

The three boys ate hungrily as course after course appeared on the
middle of the table, via the direct shaft from the kitchen. So absorbed
was Manning that he did not notice the approach of a tall dark young man
of about his own age, dressed in the red-brown uniform of the Passenger
Space Service. But the young man, who wore a captain's high-billed hat,
suddenly caught sight of Roger.

"Manning," he called, "what brings you here?"

"Al James!" cried Roger and quickly got up to shake hands. "Of all the
guys in the universe to show up! Sit down and have a bite with us."

The space skipper sat down. Roger introduced him to Tom and Astro. There
was a round of small talk.

"Whatever made you become a Space Cadet, Roger?" asked James finally.

"Oh, you know how it is," said Roger. "You can get used to anything."

Astro almost choked on a mouthful of food. He shot a glance at Tom, who
shook his head as though warning him not to speak.

James grinned broadly. "I remember how you used to talk back home. The
Space Cadets were a bunch of tin soldiers trying to feel important. The
Academy was a lot of space gas. I guess, now, you've changed your mind."

"Maybe I have," said Roger. He glanced uneasily at his two friends, but
they pretended to be busy eating. "Maybe I have." Roger's eyes narrowed,
his voice became a lazy drawl. "At that it's better'n being a man in a
monkey suit, with nothing to do but impress the passengers and order
around the crew."

"Wait a minute," said James. "What kind of a crack is that?"

"No crack at all. Just the way I feel about you passenger gents who
don't know a rocket tube from a ray-gun nozzle."

"Look, Manning," returned James. "No need to get sore, just because you
couldn't do any better than the Space Cadets."

"Blast off," shouted Roger, "before I fuse your jets."

Tom spoke up. "I think you'd better go, Captain."

"I've got six men outside," sneered the other. "I'll go when I'm ready."

"You're ready now," spoke up Astro. He stood up to his full height. "We
don't want any trouble," the cadet from Venus said, "but we're not
braking our jets to get away from it, either."

James took a good look at Astro's powerful frame. Without another word
he walked away.

Tom shook his head. "That pal of yours is a real Space Cadet fan, isn't
he, Roger?"

"Yeah," said Astro. "Just like Manning is himself."

"Look," said Roger. "Look, you guys--" He hesitated, as though intending
to say something more, but then he turned back to his dinner. "Go
on--finish your food," he growled. He bent over his plate and ate
without lifting his eyes. And not another word was spoken at the table
until a young man approached, carrying a portable teleceiver screen.

"Pardon me," he said. "Is one of you Cadet Tom Corbett?"

"Why--I am," acknowledged Tom.

"There's a call for you. Seems they've been trying to reach you all over
Atom City." He placed the teleceiver screen on the table, plugged it
into a floor socket and set the dials.

"Hope's there's nothing wrong at home," said Tom to his friends. "My
last letter from Mom said Billy was messing around with a portable atom
reactor and she was afraid he might blow himself up."

A picture began to take shape on the screen. "Migosh," said Astro. "It's
Captain Strong."

"It certainly is," said the captain's image. "Having dinner, eh, boys?
Ummmm--those baked shrimps look good."

"They're terrific," said Astro. "Wish you were here."

"Wish you could stay there," said Captain Strong.

"Oh, no!" moaned Astro. "Don't tell me!"

"Sorry, boys," came the voice from the teleceiver. "But that's it.
You've got to return to the Academy immediately. The whole cadet corps
has been ordered into space for special maneuvers. We blast off tomorrow
morning at six hundred."

"But, sir," objected Tom, "we can't get a monorail until morning!"

"This is an official order, Corbett. So you have priority over all
civilian transportation." The Solar Guard captain smiled. "I've tied up
a whole bank of teleceivers in Atom City searching for you. Get back to
Space Academy fast--commandeer an air car if you must, but be here by
six hundred hours!" The captain waved a cheery good-bye and the screen
went dark.

"Space maneuvers," breathed Astro. "The real thing."

"Yeah," agreed Tom. "Here we go!"

"Our first hop into deep space!" said Roger. "Let's get out of here!"

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 12


"The following ships in Squadron A will blast off immediately," roared
Commander Walters over the teleceiver. He looked up alertly from a chart
before him in the Academy spaceport control tower. He began to name the
ships. "_Capella_, orbital tangent--09834, _Arcturus_, orbital
tangent--09835, _Centauri_, orbital tangent--09836, _Polaris_, orbital
tangent--09837!"

Aboard the space cruiser _Polaris_, Tom Corbett turned away from the
control board. "That's us, sir," he said to Captain Strong.

"Very well, Corbett." The Solar Guard captain walked to the ship's
intercom and flipped on the switch.

"Astro, Roger, stand by!"

Astro and Roger reported in. Strong began to speak. "The cadet corps has
been divided into squadrons of four ships each. We are command ship of
Squadron A. When we reach free-fall space, we are to proceed as a group
until eight hundred hours, when we are to open sealed orders. Each of
the other seven squadrons will open their orders at the same time. Two
of the squadrons will then act as invaders while the remaining six will
be the defending fleet. It will be the invaders' job to reach their
objective and the defenders' job to stop them."

"Spaceport control to rocket cruiser _Polaris_, your orbit has been
cleared for blast-off...." The voice of Commander Walters interrupted
Strong in his instructions and he turned back to Tom.

"Take over, Corbett."

Tom turned to the teleceiver. "Rocket cruiser _Polaris_ to spaceport
control."

" ... Blast off minus two--six hundred forty-eight...."

"I read you clear," said Tom. He clicked off the teleceiver and turned
back to the intercom. "Stand by to raise ship! Control deck to radar
deck. Do we have clear trajectory forward and up, Roger?"

"All clear forward and up," replied Roger.

"Control deck to power deck ... energize the cooling pumps!"

"Cooling pumps, aye," came from Astro.

The giant ship began to shudder as the mighty pumps on the power deck
started their build.

Tom strapped himself into the pilot's seat and began checking the dials
in front of him. Satisfied, he fastened his eyes on the sweep hand of
the time clock. Above his head, the teleceiver screen brought him a
clear picture of the Academy spaceport. He watched the giant cruisers
take to the air one by one and rocket into the vastness of space.

The clock hand reached the ten-second mark.

"Stand by to raise ship!" Tom called into the intercom. The red hand
moved steadily, inexorably. Tom reached for the master switch.

"Blast off minus--five--four--three--two--one--_zero_!"

Tom threw the switch.

The great ship hovered above the ground for a few moments. Then it
heaved itself skyward, faster and ever faster, pushing the Earthmen deep
into their acceleration cushions.

Reaching free-fall space, Tom flipped on the artificial-gravity
generator. He felt its pull on his body, quickly checked all the
instruments and turned to Captain Strong.

"Ship space-borne at six hundred fifty-three, sir."

"Very well, Corbett," replied Strong. "Check in with the _Arcturus_,
_Capella_ and the _Centauri_, form up on one another and assume a course
that will bring you back over Academy spaceport at eight hundred hours,
when we will open orders."

"Yes, sir," said Tom, turning back eagerly to the control board.

For nearly two hours the four rocket ships of Squadron A moved through
space in a perfect arc, shaping up for the 0800 deadline. Strong made
use of the time to check a new astrogation prism perfected by Dr. Dale
for use at hyperspace speeds. Tom rechecked his instruments, then
prepared hot tea and sandwiches in the galley for his shipmates.

"This is what I call service," said Astro. He stood stripped to the
waist, a wide leather belt studded with assorted wrenches of various
shapes and sizes strapped around his hips. In one hand he carried a wad
of waste cotton with which he continually polished the surfaces of the
atomic motors, while his eyes constantly searched the many gauges in
front of him for the slightest sign of engine failure.

"Never mind bringing anything up to Manning. I'll eat his share."

Astro had deliberately turned the intercom on so Roger on the radar deck
might hear. The response from that corner was immediate and emphatic.

"Listen, you rocket-headed grease monkey," yelled Roger. "If you so much
as smell that grub, I'll come down and feed you into the reactant
chamber!"

Tom smiled at Astro and turned to the ladder leading up from the power
deck. Passing through the control deck on the way to the radar bridge,
he glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes to eight.

"Only one thing I'm worried about, Corbett," said Roger through a
mouthful of sandwich.

"What's that?" asked Tom.

"Collision!" said Roger. "Some of these space-happy cadets might get
excited, and I for one don't want to wind up as a flash in Earth's
atmosphere!"

"Why, you have radar, to see anything that goes on."

"Oh, sure," said Roger, "I can keep this wagon outa their way, but will
they stay outa mine? Why my father told me once--" Roger choked on his
food and turned away to the radar screen.

"Well," said Tom after a moment, "what _did_ your father tell you?"

"Ah--nothing--not important. But I've got to get a cross-fix on Regulus
before we start our little games."

Tom looked puzzled. Here was another of Roger's quick changes of
attitude. What was it all about? But there was work to do, so Tom
shrugged his shoulders and returned to the control deck. He couldn't
forget what Roger had said about a collision, though.

"Excuse me, Captain," said Tom, "but have there been any serious
collisions in space between ships?"

"Sure have, Tom," replied Strong. "About twenty years ago, maybe less,
there was a whole wave of them. That was before we developed
superrebound pulse radar. The ships were faster than the radar at close
range."

Strong paused. "Why do you ask?"

Before Tom could answer, there was a sharp warning from the captain.

"Eight o'clock, Corbett!"

Tom ripped open the envelope containing the sealed orders.
"Congratulations," he read. "You are in command of the defenders. You
have under your command, Squadrons A--B--C--D--E--F. Squadrons G and H
are your enemies, and at this moment are on their way to attack Luna
City. It is your job to protect it and destroy the enemy fleet.
Spaceman's luck! Walters, Commander Space Academy, Senior Officer Solar
Guard."

"Roger," yelled Tom, "we've been selected as flagship for the defenders!
Get me a course to Luna City!"

"Good for us, spaceboy. I'll give you that course in a jiffy!"

" ... _Capella_ to _Polaris_--am standing by for your orders...." Tony
Richards' voice crackled over the teleceiver. One by one the
twenty-three ships that made up the defender's fleet checked in for
orders.

"Astro," shouted Tom, "stand by for maneuver--and be prepared to give me
every ounce of thrust you can get!"

"Ready, willing and able, Tom," replied Astro. "Just be sure those other
space jockeys can keep up with me, that's all!"

Tom turned to Captain Strong.

"What do you think of approaching--"

Strong cut him off. "Corbett, you are in complete command. Take
over--you're losing time talking to me!"

"Yes, sir!" said Tom. He turned back to the control board, his face
flushed with excitement. Twenty-four ships to maneuver and the
responsibility all his own. Via a chart projected on a screen, he
studied various approaches to the Moon and Luna City. What would he do
if he were in command of the invading fleet? He noticed the Moon was
nearing a point where it would be in eclipse on Luna City itself. He
studied the chart further, made several notations and turned to the
teleceiver.

"Attention--attention--flagship _Polaris_ to Squadrons B and C--proceed
to chart seven--sectors eight and nine. You will patrol those sectors.
Attention Squadrons D and F--proceed to Luna City at emergency space
speed, hover at one hundred thousand feet above Luna City spaceport and
wait for further orders. Attention, ships three and four of Squadron
F--you will proceed to chart six--sectors sixty-eight through
seventy-five. Cut all rockets and remain there until further orders.
The remainder of Squadron F--ships one and two--will join Squadron A.
Squadron A will stand by for further orders." Tom glanced at the clock
and punched the intercom button.

[Illustration: _"Attention Squadrons D and F--proceed to Luna City"_]

"Have you got that course, Roger?"

"Three degrees on the starboard rockets, seventy-eight degrees on the
up-plane of the ecliptic will put you at the corner of Luna Drive and
Moonset Land in the heart of Luna City, spaceboy!" answered Roger.

"Get that, Astro?" asked Tom on the intercom.

"All set," replied Astro.

"Attention all ships in Squadron A--this is flagship--code name
Starlight--am changing course. Stand by to form up on me!"

Tom turned back to the intercom.

"Power deck, execute!"

At more than five thousand miles an hour, the _Polaris_ hurtled toward
its destination. One by one the remaining ships moved alongside until
all six had their needlelike noses pointed toward the pale satellite of
the Moon.

"I'd like to know what your plans are, Tom," said Strong, when the long
haul toward the Moon had settled down to a routine. "Just idle
curiosity, nothing more. You don't have to tell me if you don't want
to."

"Golly, yes," said Tom, "I'd be very grateful for your opinion."

"Well, let's have it," said the captain. "But as for my opinion--I'll
listen, but I won't say anything."

Tom grinned sheepishly.

"Well," he began, "if I were in command of the invading fleet, I would
strike in force--I'd have to, to do damage with only eight ships. There
are three possible approaches to Luna City. One is from the Earth side,
using the eclipse corridor of darkness as protection. To meet that,
I've stationed two ships at different levels and distances in that
corridor so that it would be impossible for an invasion to pass
unnoticed."

"You mean, you'd be willing to give up two ships to the invader to have
him betray his position. Is that right?"

"Yes, sir. But I've also sent Squadrons B and C to sectors eight and
nine on chart seven. So I have a roving squadron to go to their aid,
should the invader strike there. And on the other hand, should he manage
to get through my outer defense, I have Squadrons D and E over Luna City
itself as an inner defense. As for Squadron A, we'll try to engage the
enemy first and maybe weaken him; at least reduce the full force of his
attack. And then have Squadrons B, C, D and E finish him off, by attack
from three different points."

Strong nodded silently. The young cadet was shaping up a defensive
strategy with great skill. If he could only follow through on his plans,
the invaders of Luna City wouldn't have much chance of success--even if
willing to take heavy losses.

Roger's voice came on. "Got a report for you, Tom. From command ship,
Squadron B. They've sighted the invaders and are advancing to meet
them."

Tom checked his charts and turned to the intercom.

"Send them this message, Roger," he said. "From Starlight, to command
ship, Squadrons B and C--approach enemy ships from position of chart
nineteen, sections one through ten."

"Right!" said Roger.

Strong smiled. Tom was driving his heaviest force between the invading
fleet and its objective--forcing the aggressors into a trap.

Tom gave more crisp orders to his squadrons. He asked Roger for an
estimated range, and then, rechecking his position, turned again to the
intercom.

"Astro, how much could you get out of this baby by opening the by-pass
between the cooling pumps and the reactant chamber? That'd mean feeding
the stuff into the motors only half cooled."

Strong turned, started to speak, then clamped his lips together.

"Another quarter space speed, roughly," replied Astro, "about fifteen
hundred miles more an hour. Do you want me to do that?"

"No, not now," replied Tom. "Just wanted to know what I could depend on,
if I get stuck."

"O.K.," said Astro. "Let me know!"

"Why use emergency speed, Corbett?" asked Strong. "You seem to have your
enemy right where you want him now."

"Yes, sir," replied Tom. "And the enemy knows I have him. He can't
possibly attack Luna City now. But he can still run away. He can make
his escape by this one route."

Tom walked to the chart and ran his finger on a line away from the
invader's position into the asteroid belt.

"I don't want him to get away," Tom explained. "And with the extra
speed, we can cut him off, force him to turn into a position where the
remainder of my fleet would finish him off."

"You'll do this with just the _Polaris_?"

"Oh, no, sir," said Tom. "I'd use the _Arcturus_, _Capella_ and the
_Centauri_, as well."

"Are you sure those other ships can equal your speed?"

"They've got exactly the same type engines as we have here on the
_Polaris_, sir. I'm sure they could--and with perfect safety."

Strong hesitated a moment, started to ask a question, then stopped and
walked to the chart screen. He checked the figures. He checked them four
times, then turned to Tom with a grin and an outstretched hand.

"I've got to offer my congratulations, Tom. This maneuver would wipe
them out. And I've got a notion that you'd come off without the loss of
a single ship, plus, and it is a big plus, keeping the invaders more
than fifty thousand miles away from their objective!"

The captain turned to the teleceiver. "Rocket cruiser _Polaris_ to
control tower at Space Academy--"

There was a crackle of static and then the deep voice of Commander
Walters boomed from the speaker.

"Spaceport control to _Polaris_. Come in, Steve."

In a few brief sentences, Strong outlined Tom's plan of action to the
Academy commander. The commander's face on the teleceiver widened into a
grin, then broke out in a hearty laugh.

"What's that, sir?" asked Captain Strong.

"Very simple, Steve. All of us--all the Academy top brass--develop a
foolproof test for cadet maneuvers. And then your young Corbett makes us
look like amateurs."

"But didn't you expect one side or the other to win?" asked Strong.

"Of course, but not like this. We've been expecting a couple of days of
maneuver, with both sides making plenty of mistakes that we could call
them on. But here Corbett wraps the whole thing up before we can get our
pencils sharpened."

"Better stuff cotton in Corbett's ears before he hears all this," rasped
Roger Manning over the intercom. "Or his head'll be too big to go
through the hatch."

"Quiet, Manning," came Astro's voice from the power deck. "Your mouth
alone is bigger than Tom's head'll ever be."

"Look, you Venusian ape--" began Roger, but Commander Walters' voice
boomed out again. His face on the teleceiver screen was serious now.

"Attention! Attention all units! The battle has been fought and won on
the chart screen of the rocket cruiser _Polaris_. The Luna City attack
has been repelled and the invading fleet wiped out. All units and ships
will return to Space Academy at once. Congratulations to all and end
transmission."

The commander's face faded from the screen. Captain Strong turned to Tom.
"Good work," he said.

He was interrupted by a crackle of static from the teleceiver. A face
suddenly appeared on the screen--a man's face, frightened and tense.

"S O S." The voice rang out through the control deck.

"This is an S O S. Space passenger ship _Lady Venus_ requests assistance
immediately. Position is sector two, chart one hundred three. Emergency.
We must have--"

The screen went blank, the voice stopped as though cut off by a knife.
Strong frantically worked the teleceiver dials to re-establish contact.

"_Polaris_ to _Lady Venus_," he called. "Come in _Lady Venus_. Rocket
cruiser _Polaris_ calling _Lady Venus_. Come in! Come in!"

There was no answer. The passenger ship's instruments had gone dead.



CHAPTER 13


"_Polaris_ to Commander Walters at Space Academy--Come in, Commander
Walters!" Captain Strong's voice was urgent in the teleceiver.

"Just worked up an assumed position on the _Lady Venus_," said Roger
over the intercom. "I think she's bearing about seventeen degrees to
port of us, and about one-twenty-eight on the down-plane of the
ecliptic."

"O.K., Roger," said Tom. "Captain Strong's trying to reach Commander
Walters now." He made a quick mental calculation. "Golly, Roger--if
you've figured it right, we're closer to the _Lady Venus_ than anyone
else!"

The teleceiver audio crackled.

"Commander Walters at Space Academy to Captain Strong on the _Polaris_.
Come in, Steve!"

"Commander!" Strong's voice sounded relieved. "Did you get that
emergency from the _Lady Venus_--the S O S?"

"Yes, we did, Steve," said the commander. "How far away from her are
you?"

Without a word, Tom handed Strong the position that Roger had computed.
Strong relayed the information to the commander.

"If you're that close, go to her aid in the _Polaris_. You're nearer
than any Solar Guard patrol ship and you can do just as much."

"Right, sir," replied Steve. "I'll report as soon as I get any news. End
transmission!"

"Spaceman's luck, end transmission!" said the commander.

"Have you got a course for us, Roger?" asked Strong.

"Yes, sir!"

"Then let's get out of here. I have a feeling there's something more
than just the usual emergency attached to that S O S from the _Lady
Venus_."

In twenty seconds the mighty cruiser was blasting through space to the
aid of the stricken passenger ship.

"Better get the emergency equipment ready, Tom," said Strong. "Space
suits for the four of us and every spare space suit you have on the
ship. Never can tell what we might run into. Also the first-aid surgical
kit and every spare oxygen bottle. Oh, yeah, and have Astro get both jet
boats ready to blast off immediately. I'll keep trying to pick them up
again on the teleceiver."

"Yes, sir," replied Tom sharply.

"What's going on up there?" asked Astro, when Tom had relayed the orders
from Captain Strong. Tom quickly told him of the emergency signal from
the _Lady Venus_.

"_Lady--Venus--_" said the big cadet, rolling the name on his tongue, "I
know her. She's one of the Martian City--Venusport jobs--an old-timer.
Converted from a chemical burner to atomic reaction about three years
ago!"

"Any ideas what the trouble might be?" asked Tom.

"I don't know," replied Astro. "There are a hundred and fifty things
that could go wrong--even on this wagon and she's brand new. But I
wouldn't be surprised if it was on the power deck!"

"And what makes you think so?" asked Tom.

"I knew a spaceman once that was on a converted tub just like the _Lady
Venus_ and he had trouble with the reaction chamber."

"Wow!" exclaimed Tom. "Let's hope it isn't that now!"

"You can say that again," said Astro grimly. "When this stuff gets out
of control, there's very little you can do with it, except leave it
alone and pile out!"

The _Polaris_, rocketing through space at full space speed, plunged like
a silver bullet through the vastness of the black void, heading for what
Strong hoped to be the _Lady Venus_. Tom prepared the emergency
equipment, doubling all the reserves on the oxygen bottles by refilling
the empties he found on the ship and making sure that all space suits
were in perfect working order. Then he opened the emergency surgical kit
and began the laborious task of examining every vial and drug in the kit
to acquaint himself with what there was to work with just in case. He
brought all the stores of jelly out for radiation burns and finally
opened a bottle of special sterilization liquid with which to wipe all
the instruments and vials clean. He checked the contents of the kit once
more, and, satisfied that everything was as ready as he could make it,
he went up to the control deck.

"Any other message from them yet, sir?" asked Tom.

"Nothing yet," answered Strong. "If I could pick them up on the
teleceiver, maybe they could tell us what the trouble is and then we
could more or less be prepared to help them." He bent over the
teleceiver screen and added grimly, "If there is anything left to help!"

"Radar deck to control deck!" Roger's voice was tense. "I think I've
picked them up on the radar scanner, Captain Strong!"

"Relay it down here to control-deck scanner, Manning," ordered Strong.

"Ummmh!" murmured the captain when the screen began to glow. "I'm pretty
sure that's her. Here's that assumed position Roger worked up, Tom.
Check it against this one here on the scanner."

Tom quickly computed the position of the object on the scanner and
compared it to the position Roger had given them previously.

"If Roger's positioning was correct, sir," said Tom, "then that's the
_Lady Venus_. They both check out perfectly!"

Strong, bent over the radar scanner, didn't answer. Finally he turned
around and flipped off the scanner. "That's her," he announced.
"Congratulations, Roger. You hit it right on the nose!"

"How shall we approach her, sir?" asked Tom.

"We'd better wait until she sends up her flares."

"You mean the identification flares for safety factors?"

"That's right," replied Strong. "A white flare means it's all right to
come alongside and couple air locks. A red one means to stand off and
wait for instructions." Strong turned to the intercom.

"Control deck to power deck. Reduce thrust to one quarter space speed!"

"Power deck, aye," answered Astro.

"We'll wait until we're about two miles away from her and then use our
braking jets in the bow of the ship to bring us within a few thousand
feet of her," commented Strong.

"Yes, sir," said Tom.

"Work up an estimated range, Roger," said Strong, "and give me a
distance on our approach."

"Aye, aye, sir," Roger replied. "Objective four miles away now, sir."

"When we hit three miles," said Strong to Tom, "have Astro stand by the
forward braking jets."

"Aye, sir," said Tom.

"Three-and-a-half miles," said Roger a few moments later. "Closing in
fast. _Lady Venus_ looks like a dead ship."

"That could only mean one thing," said Strong bitterly. "There has been
a power-deck failure of some sort."

"Three miles to objective, sir," reported Roger. "I think I can pick her
up on the teleceiver now, but only one way, from us to her."

"All right," said Strong, "see what you can do."

In a few moments the teleceiver screen glowed and then the silver
outline of the _Lady Venus_ appeared on the screen.

"I don't see any damage to her hull," said Strong half to himself. "So
if it was an explosion, it wasn't a bad one."

"Yes, sir," said Tom. "Shall I stand by with the flares?"

"Better send up a yellow identification flare, identifying us as the
Solar Guard. Let them know who we are!"

Tom turned to the yellow button on his left and pressed it. Immediately
a white flash resembling a meteor appeared on the teleceiver screen.

"There should be an answer soon," said Strong.

"Three thousand yards to objective," reported Roger.

"Fire braking rockets one half," ordered Strong.

Tom relayed the order to Astro and made the necessary adjustments on the
control panel.

"Stern drive rockets out," ordered Strong.

Once again Tom relayed the message to Astro and turned to the control
board.

"Cut all rockets!" ordered Strong sharply.

The great ship, slowed by the force of the braking rockets, became
motionless in space a bare five hundred yards from the _Lady Venus_.

"They should be sending up their safety-factor flare soon," said Strong.
"Keep trying to raise them on the teleceiver, Roger."

Strong was peering through a crystal port directly at the ship hanging
dead in space opposite them. There wasn't any sign of life. Tom stepped
to the side of Steve Strong and looked out at the crippled passenger
ship.

"Why don't we go aboard, sir?" asked Tom.

"We'll wait a little longer for the flare. If we don't get it soon--"

"There it is, sir!" shouted Tom at Strong's side.

From the flare port near the nose of the commercial ship, a ball of fire
streaked out.

"Red!" said Strong grimly, "That means we can't go alongside. We'll have
to use jet boats."

"Captain Strong," shouted Roger from the radar deck, "they're signaling
us with a small light from the upper port on the starboard side!"

"Can you read it?" asked Strong quickly.

"I think so, sir. They're using standard space code, but the light is
very dim."

"What do they say?"

" ... reaction ... chamber--" said Roger slowly as he read the blinking
light, " ... radiation ... leaking around ... baffle ... all ...
safe...." Roger stopped. "That's all, sir. I couldn't get the rest of
it."

Strong turned to the intercom. "Astro, get the jet boats ready to blast
off immediately. Roger, send this message. 'Am coming aboard. Stand by
to receive me on your number-one starboard jet-boat catapult deck,
signed, Strong, Captain, Solar Guard.'"

"Yes, sir!" replied Roger.

"Get into your space suit, Tom, and give Astro a hand with the jet
boats. I have to get a message back to Space Academy and tell them to
send out help right away."

"Aye, sir," said Tom.

"Roger," said Strong, "stand by to record this message for the
teleceiver in case Space Academy should call our circuit while we're off
the ship."

"All set, sir," came the reply from the radar deck.

"O.K.--here goes--Captain Steve Strong--Solar Guard--am boarding
passenger ship _Lady Venus_. Secondary communications signal message
received indicates it is power-deck failure. Am taking cadets Corbett,
Manning and Astro and boarding same at"--he paused and glanced at the
clock--"thirteen hundred fifty one hours!"

"That all, sir?" asked Roger.

"That's it. Get that set on the open circuit for any one calling us,
then climb into your space suit!"

In a matter of minutes, the four spacemen of the _Polaris_ crew were
making last-minute adjustments on their space suits. Astro picked up his
heavy belt of tools and strapped them around his waist.

"What's that for, Astro?" asked Strong. "They'll have tools aboard the
ship if we need them."

"If that lead baffle in the reaction chamber has worked loose, sir, the
odds are ten to one that the control chamber is flooded with radiation.
And if it is, the tools are probably so hot you couldn't use them."

"That's good thinking, Astro," complimented Strong. He turned to Tom and
Roger and checked their suits and the oxygen supply and feeder valves on
their backs. He then turned his back while Tom checked his, and Roger
adjusted Astro's.

"All right, turn on your communicators and test them," ordered Strong.

One by one the boys flipped on the switch of the portable spacephones in
their fish-bowl helmets and spoke to each other. Strong indicated that
he was satisfied and turned toward the jet-boat catapult deck, the three
boys following him in single file.

"Astro, you and Roger take number-one boat," said Strong. "Tom and I
will take number two." His voice had a harsh metallic tone through the
headset spacephones.

Roger hurried along with Astro to the number-one boat and climbed
inside.

"Jet boat has its own oxygen system," said Astro to Roger. "Better make
use of it while we're in here and save our suits' supplies."

"Good idea," said Roger. He locked the clear plastic airtight covering
of the jet boat and began flicking at the control buttons.

"Strap in, you Venusian hick. Here we go!" Roger shoved a lever at his
side, making the jet-boat deck airtight from the rest of the _Polaris_,
and then, by pressing a button on the simple control board, a section of
the _Polaris_' hull slipped back, exposing them to empty space.

The controls of a jet boat were simplicity itself. A half-moon wheel for
guiding, up, down and either side, and two pedals on the floor, one for
going and one for stopping. Roger stepped on the "Go" pedal and the
small ship flashed out into the darkness of space.

Almost immediately on the opposite side of the _Polaris_, Captain Strong
and Tom in the second boat shot away from the rocket cruiser and both
boats headed for the stricken spaceship.



CHAPTER 14


The hatch clanked shut behind them. Inside the huge air lock of the
_Lady Venus_, Tom, Roger, Astro and Captain Strong waited for the oxygen
to equal the pressure in their space suits before removing their
fish-bowl space helmets.

"O.K., sir," said Tom, "pressure's equal."

Strong stepped to the hatch leading to the inside of the ship and pushed
hard. It slid to one side.

"How many jet boats do you have?" was the first thing Strong heard as he
stepped through the door to the interior of the passenger ship.

"Al James!" cried Manning. "So this is your tub?"

The startled young skipper, whom Tom, Roger and Astro had met in Atom
City, turned to face the blond-headed cadet.

"Manning!" he gasped.

"What's your trouble, skipper?" asked Strong of the young spaceship
captain.

Before James could answer there was a sudden clamor from beyond the next
hatch leading to the main passenger cabin. Suddenly the hatch was jerked
open and a group of frightened men and women poured through. The first
to reach Strong, a short fat man with a moonface and wearing glasses,
began to jabber hysterically, while clinging to Strong's arm.

"Sir, this ship is going to blow up any moment. You've got to save us!"
He turned to face Al James. "And he refused to allow us to escape in the
jet boats!" He pointed an accusing finger at the young skipper as the
other passengers loudly backed him up.

"Just a moment," snapped Strong. "There's a Solar Guard rocket cruiser
only five hundred yards away, so take it easy and don't get hysterical.
No one is going to get hurt if you keep calm and obey orders!" He turned
to James. "What's the trouble, skipper?"

"It's the reaction chamber. The lead baffle around the chamber worked
loose and flooded everything with radiation. Now the mass in
number-three rocket is building and wildcatting itself. If it gets any
higher, it'll explode."

"Why didn't your power-deck man dump the mass?" asked Strong.

"We didn't know it was wildcatting until after he had tried to repair
it. And he didn't tighten the bolts enough to keep it from leaking
radiation." The young skipper paused. "He lived long enough to warn us,
though."

"What's the Geiger count on the radiation?" asked Strong.

"Up to twelve thirty-two--about ten minutes ago," answered James. "I
pulled everybody out of the power deck and cut all energy circuits,
including the energizing pumps. We didn't have any power so I had to use
the combined juice of the three jet boats to send out the emergency
signal that you picked up." He turned to face the little man with the
glasses. "I had a choice of either saving about fifteen passengers on
the jet boats, and leaving the others, or take a chance on saving
everybody by using the power to send out a message."

"Ummmmh," said Strong to himself. He felt confidence in a young spaceman
who would take a decision like that on himself. "What was that Geiger
count again?" he asked.

"Must be better than fourteen hundred by now," answered James.

Strong made a quick decision.

"All right," he said, tight-lipped, "abandon ship! How many passengers?"

"Seventeen women and twenty-three men including the crew," replied
James.

"Does that include yourself?" asked Strong.

"No," came the reply.

Strong felt better. Any man who would not count himself on a list to
survive could be counted on in any emergency.

"We'll take four women at a time in each jet boat first," said Strong.
"James, you and I will operate the jet boats and ferry the passengers to
the _Polaris_. Tom, you and Roger and Astro get everybody aboard the
ship ready to leave."

"Yes, sir," said Tom.

"We haven't much time. The reaction mass is building fast. Come on,
James, we have to rip out the seats in the jet boats to get five people
in them." Strong turned back into the jet-boat launching well.

"May I have the passenger lists, Captain?" asked Tom, turning to James.
The young skipper handed him a clip board with the names of the
passengers and crew and followed Strong.

"We will abandon ship in alphabetical order," announced Tom. "Miss Nancy
Anderson?"

A young girl about sixteen stepped forward.

"Just stand there by the hatch, Miss," said Tom. He glanced at the next
name. "Miss Elizabeth Anderson?" Another girl, looking very much like
the first, stepped forward and stood beside her sister.

"Mrs. John Bailey?" called Tom.

A gray-haired woman of about sixty stepped forward.

"Pardon me, sir, but I would rather remain with my husband, and go later
with him."

"No--no, Mary," pleaded an elderly man, holding his arm around her
shoulder. "Go now. I'll be all right. Won't I, sir?" He looked at Tom
anxiously.

"I can't be sure, sir," said Tom. He found it difficult to control his
voice as he looked down at the old couple, who couldn't weigh more than
two hundred pounds between them.

"I'm going to stay," said the woman firmly.

"As you wish, Madam," said Tom. He looked at the list again. "Mrs. Helen
Carson?"

A woman about thirty-five, carrying a young boy about four years old,
stepped out and took her place beside the two sisters.

In a moment, the first eight passengers were assembled into two groups,
helped into space suits, with a special portable suit for the little
boy, and loaded in the jet boats. The red light over the hatch glowed,
then went out. The first load of passengers had left the _Lady Venus_.

"They're pretty jumpy," Roger whispered, nodding toward the remaining
passengers.

"Yeah," answered Tom. "Say, where's Astro?"

"I don't know. Probably went to take a look at the jet boats to see if
one could be repaired so we'd have a third ferry running."

"Good idea," said Tom. "See if you can't cheer these people up, Roger.
Tell them stories or sing songs--or better yet, get them to sing. Try to
make them forget they're sitting on an atom bomb!"

"I can't forget it myself," said Roger. "How can I make them forget it?"

"Try anything. I'll go see if I can't give Astro a hand!"

Roger turned to face the assembled passengers and smiled. All around
him in the main passenger lounge, the frightened men and women sat
huddled together in small groups, staring at him, terror in their eyes.

"Ladieeees and Gentlemen," began Roger. "You are now going to be
entertained by the loudest, corniest and most miserable voice in the
universe. I'm going to _sing_!"

He waited for a laugh, but there was only a slight stir as the
passengers shifted nervously in their seats.

Shrugging his shoulders, Roger took a deep breath and began to sing. He
only knew one song and he sang it with gusto.

    "From the rocket fields of the Academy
    To the far-flung stars of outer space,
    We're Space Cadets training to be...."

On the lower deck of the passenger ship, Tom smiled as he faintly heard
his unit-mate's voice. He made his way to the jet-boat deck of the _Lady
Venus_ and opened the hatch.

"Hey, Astro," he called. There wasn't any answer.

He stepped inside and looked around the empty deck. Walking over to one
of the jet boats, he saw evidence of Al James's attempts to send out
emergency signal messages. He called again. "Hey, Astro--where are you?"
Still no answer. He noticed that one of the jet boats was missing. There
were three still on the deck, but an empty catapult for the fourth made
Tom think that Astro might have repaired the fourth and taken it out in
space for a test. The light over the escape hatch indicated that someone
had gone out. It was odd, thought Tom, for Astro to go out alone. But
then he shrugged, remembering how Astro could lose himself in his work
and forget everything but the job at hand. He climbed back to the
passenger deck.

When Tom opened the hatch to the main lounge, the sight that filled his
eyes was so funny that, even in the face of danger, he had to laugh.
Roger, with his hands clasped behind his back, was down on his knees
trying to push a food pellet across the deck with his nose. The whole
passenger lounge echoed with hysterical laughter.

Suddenly the laughter was stopped by the sound of the bell over the
air-lock hatch. Strong and James had returned to ferry more passengers
to the _Polaris_. Immediately the fun was forgotten and the passengers
crowded around for the roll call.

"Where's Astro?" asked Strong, as he reappeared in the lounge.

"He's down on the jet-boat deck, sir, trying to fix another one,"
replied Tom. "I think he's out testing one now."

"Good," said Strong. "How're they taking it?" He indicated the
passengers.

"Roger's been keeping them amused with games and songs, sir," said Tom
proudly.

"They'll need it. I don't mind telling you, Corbett," said Strong, "it's
a wonder to me this tub hasn't blown up already."

In less than a half hour, the forty passengers and crewmen of the _Lady
Venus_ were transferred in alphabetical order to the waiting _Polaris_.
Roger kept up a continual line of patter and jokes and stories, making a
fool of himself, but keeping the remaining passengers amused and their
minds off the dangers of the rapidly building reaction mass.

"Just one passenger left," said Strong, "with myself and you three. I
think we can squeeze five in that jet boat and get off here."

"That's for me," said Roger. "I'm the only man in the whole universe
that's ever played to a packed house sitting on top of an atomic bomb!"

"All right, Barrymore," said Strong, "get aboard!"

"Say," asked Tom, "where's Astro?"

"I don't know," replied Roger. "I thought you went to find him half an
hour ago!"

"I did," said Tom, "but when I went to the jet-boat deck, one was
missing. So I figured he had fixed one and taken it out for a test."

"Then he's probably outside in space now!" said Strong. Suddenly the
Solar Guard captain caught himself. "Wait a minute! How many jet boats
were on the deck, Corbett?"

"Three, sir."

"Then Astro is still aboard the ship," said Strong. "He couldn't have
taken a boat. James told me he couldn't repeat the message he sent out
because he only had the power of _three_ jet boats. One was damaged and
left behind at Atom City!"

"By the rings of Saturn," said Roger, "a coupla million miles from home,
sitting on an atomic bomb and that big Venusian hick decides to play
hide-and-seek!"

"Never mind the cracks," said Strong. "We've got to find him!"

"Captain," said the little man with the round face and glasses who had
first spoken to Strong when he came aboard, "just because my name
happens to be Zewbriski, and I have to be the very last to get on a jet
boat, I don't see why I have to wait any longer. I demand to be taken
off this ship immediately! I refuse to risk my life waiting around for
some foolish cadet!"

"That foolish cadet, Mr. Zewbriski," said Strong coldly, "is a human
being like you and we don't budge until we find him!"

At that moment the bell began to ring, indicating that the outer hatch
to the air lock was opening.

"By the craters of Luna," said Tom, "that must be Astro now!"

"But if it is," said Roger, "how did he get out there?"

From behind them, the hatch to the inner air lock opened and Al James
stepped through.

"Captain Strong," he said excitedly, "you've got to come quickly. Some
of the crewmen have broken into your arms locker and taken paralo-ray
guns. They threaten to leave you here if you don't return to the ship
within five minutes. They're afraid the _Venus_ might blow up and damage
the _Polaris_ at this close range." The young skipper, his red-brown
uniform torn and dirty, looked at the Solar Guard captain with wild-eyed
desperation.

"They can't leave us here," whimpered Zewbriski. "We'll all be blown to
bits!"

"Shut up!" barked Strong. He turned to Tom and Roger. "I can do one of
two things," he said. "I can order you to return to the _Polaris_ now,
with James and myself, or you can volunteer to stay behind and search
for Astro."

Without looking at Roger, Tom answered, "We'll stay, sir. And we won't
have to search for him. I think I know where he is."

"Now that I think about it," replied Strong, "I guess there is only one
place he could be."

"Yes, sir," said Tom, "down on the power deck trying to save this wagon!
Come on, Roger! Let's get him!"



CHAPTER 15


"What's the reading on the Geiger counter now?" asked Tom.

Roger looked down at the face of the radioactive measuring device and
answered, "She's been dropping for the last five minutes, Tom. Looks
like the mass in number three is cooling off. Fourteen hundred and ten
now."

"That's not fast enough," said Astro, straightening up from tightening a
nut on the lead baffle. "She's still plenty hot. That mass should have
been dumped out of the rocket exhaust right away. Now the whole tube
control box is so hot with radiation, it'd burn you to a crisp if you
opened the hatch."

"Good thing you brought along those tools from the _Polaris_," said Tom.

"Yeah, greaseball," said Roger, "you used your head for once. Now let's
see you use it again and pile out of this hunk of junk!"

"Fifteen hundred on the counter is the danger mark, Roger, and as long
as we keep it under that, I'm going to try and save this wagon!" replied
Astro.

"Why? To get yourself a Solar Medal?" asked Roger sarcastically.

"What do you think made this tub act up like this, Astro?" asked Tom,
ignoring Roger's remark.

"Using special reactant feed, Tom," replied Astro. "This is a converted
chemical burner--with an old-type cooling pump. It's touchy stuff."

"Well, couldn't we drive boron rods into the mass and slow down the
reaction?" asked Tom.

"No, Tom," answered Astro, "the control for the rods are inside the tube
control box. We can't reach it."

There was a sudden loud ticking from the Geiger counter.

"Astro!" cried Roger. "The mass is building!"

"Here, lemme see!" shouted Astro. He took the instrument in his big hand
and watched the clocklike face intently.

" ... fourteen hundred thirty--fourteen hundred fifty--fourteen hundred
seventy--" He faced his unit-mates. "Well, that does it. The mass is
maintaining a steady reaction without the energizing pumps. It's
sustaining itself!"

"But how is that possible?" asked Tom.

"It's one of those freaks, Tom. It's been known to happen before. The
fuel is just hot enough to sustain a steady reaction because of its high
intensity. Once that baffle worked loose, the mass started wildcatting
itself."

"And if it doesn't stop?" asked Roger tensely.

"It'll reach a point where the reaction comes so fast it'll explode!"

"Let's pile out of here!" said Roger.

The three boys made a dash for their space suits and the jet boat.
Inside the air lock, they adjusted their oxygen valves and waited for
pressure to equalize so they could blast off.

"Blast it," said Astro, "there must be some way to get to that rocket
tube and dump that stuff!"

"Impossible, Astro," said Roger. "The release controls are in the
control box, and with all that radiation loose, you wouldn't last half a
minute!"

Tom walked over to the valve that would open the outside hatch.

"Wonder how Captain Strong is making out with those tough babies on the
_Polaris_?" asked Tom.

"I don't know," replied Roger, "but anything would be better than
sitting around waiting for this thing to blow up!"

"Ah--stop griping," said Astro, "or I'll shove you up a rocket tube and
blast you from here all the way back to Atom City!"

"Hey, wait a minute!" shouted Tom. "Astro, remember the time we were on
the ground crew as extra duty and we had to overhaul the _Polaris_?"

"Yeah, why?"

"There was one place you couldn't go. You were too big, so I went in,
remember?"

"Yeah, the space between the rocket tubes and the hull of the ship. It
was when we were putting in the new tube. So what?"

"So this!" said Tom. "When they converted this tub, they had standard
exhausts, so it must have the same layout as the _Polaris_. Suppose I
climb in the main exhaust, between the tube and the outer hull, and cut
away the cleats that hold the tube to the ship?"

"Why, then everything would come out in one piece!" Astro's face lit up.
"Reactant mass, tube, control box--the works!"

"Say, what are you two guys talking about?" asked Roger.

"Saving a ship, Roger," said Tom. "Dumping the whole assembly of the
number-three rocket!"

"Ah--you're space happy!"

"Maybe," said Tom, "but I think it's worth trying. How about it, Astro?"

"O.K. by me, Tom," replied Astro.

"Good. You get the cutting torches rigged, Astro. Roger, you give him a
hand and keep your eye on the counter. Then feed the torches to me when
I get inside the tube. I'm going outside to get rid of a bad rocket and
save a five-million-credit spaceship!"

Before Astro or Roger could protest, Tom opened the hatch and began to
climb out on the steel hull toward the rocket tubes, main exhaust.

His magnetic-soled shoes gripping the smooth steel hull, the cadet made
his way aft to the stern of the ship and began the climb down around the
huge firing tubes and into the tubes themselves.

"Hey, Astro," he yelled into the spacephone, "I'm inside the tubes. How
about those torches?" The cadets had adjusted the wave length so that
all could hear what was said.

"Take it easy, spaceboy," said Roger, "I'm leaving the hatch now. You
and your fatheaded friend from Venus are so hopped up for getting a
Solar Medal--"

"Knock it off, Manning!" said Astro from inside the ship. "And for your
information, I don't want a medal. I don't want anything except for you
to stop griping!"

Roger reached the end of the ship and began to climb down inside the
tube where Tom was waiting for him.

"O.K., spaceboy," said Roger, "here're your cutting torches." He started
moving back. "I'll see you around. I don't mind being a little hero for
saving people and all that stuff. But not for any ship. And the odds
against a big hero staying alive are too big!"

"Roger, wait," shouted Tom. "I'll need...." And then the curly-headed
cadet clamped his teeth together and turned back to the task at hand.

He made adjustments on the nozzle of the cutting torch, and then,
focusing his chest light, called to Astro.

"O.K., Astro," he said, "shoot me the juice!"

"Coming up, Tom!" answered Astro. "And wait till I get my hands on that
Manning! I'm going to smear that yellow space crawler from one corner of
the universe to another!"

"Never mind the talk," snarled Roger, who at the moment was re-entering
the tube. "Just get that juice down to this torch and make it fast!"

Tom turned to see Roger crawling back into the tube and adjusting a
cutting torch.

"Glad to have you aboard, Roger," said Tom with a smile that Roger could
not see in the darkness of the tube. The two boys went to work.

Suddenly the torches came to life. And immediately Tom and Roger began
to cut away at the cleats that held the tube lining to the skin of the
ship. Steadily, the cadets worked their way up toward the center of the
ship, cutting anything that looked as though it might hold the giant
tube to the ship.

"Boy," said Tom, "it's getting hot in here!"

From inside the ship, Astro's reassuring voice came back in answer.
"You're getting close to the reactant-mass chamber. The last cleat is up
by one of the exhaust gratings. Think you can last it?"

"Well, if he can't," snarled Roger, "he's sure to get that medal
anyway!" He inched up a little. "Move over, Corbett, I'm skinnier than
you are, and I can reach that cleat easier than you can."

Roger slipped past Tom and inched his way toward the last cleat. He
pulled his torch up alongside and pulled the trigger. The flame shot out
and began eating the steel. In a moment the last cleat was cut and the
two boys started their long haul down the tube to the outside of the
ship.

As they walked across the steel surface, back to the air lock, Tom stuck
out his hand.

"I'm glad you came back, Roger."

"Save it for the boys that fall for that stuff, Corbett," said Roger
sarcastically. "I came back because I didn't want you and that Venusian
hick to think you're the only ones with guts around here!"

"No one has ever accused you of not having guts, Roger."

"Ah--go blast your jets," snarled Roger.

They went directly to the power deck where Astro was waiting for them,
the Geiger counter in his hand.

"All set to get rid of the rotten apple?" he asked with a smile.

"All set, Astro," said Tom. "What's the count?"

"She seems to have steadied around fourteen hundred ninety--and believe
me, the ten points to the official danger mark of fifteen hundred is so
small that we could find out where the angels live any moment now!"

"Then what're we waiting for," said Tom. "Let's dump that thing!"

"How?" snarled Roger.

Tom and Astro looked at him bewilderedly. "What do you mean 'how'?"
asked Astro.

"I mean how are you going to get the tube out of the ship?"

"Why," started Tom, "there's nothing holding that tube assembly to the
ship now. We cut all the cleats, remember? We can jettison the whole
unit!"

"It seems to me," drawled Roger lazily, "that the two great heroes in
their mad rush for the Solar Medal have forgotten an unwritten law of
space. There's no gravity out here--no natural force to pull or push the
tube. The only way it could be moved is by the power of thrust, either
forward or backward!"

"O.K. Then let's push it out, just that way," said Astro.

"How?" asked Roger cynically.

"Simple, Roger," said Tom, "Newton's Laws of motion. Everything in
motion tends to keep going at the same speed unless influenced by an
outside force. So if we blasted our nose rockets and started going
backward, everything on the ship would go backward too, then if we
reversed--"

Astro cut in, "Yeah--if we blasted the stern rockets, the ship would go
forward, but the tube, being loose, would keep going the other way!"

"There's only one thing wrong," said Roger. "That mass is so hot now, if
any booster energy hit it, it would be like a trigger on a bomb. It'd
blow us from here to the next galaxy!"

"I'm willing to try it," said Tom. "How about you, Astro?"

"I've gone this far, and I'm not quitting now."

They turned to face Roger.

"Well, how about it, Roger?" asked Tom. "No one will think you're yellow
if you take the jet boat and leave now."

"Ah--talk again!" grumbled Roger. "We always have to talk. Let's be
original for a change and just do our jobs!"

"All right," said Tom. "Take an emergency light and signal Captain
Strong. Tell him what we're going to do. Warn him to stay away--about
two hundred miles off. He'll know if we're successful or not within a
half hour!"

"Yeah," said Roger, "then we'll send him one big flash to mean we
failed! _Bon voyage!_"

Fifteen minutes later, as the _Lady Venus_ drifted in her silent but
deadly orbit, Tom, Roger and Astro still worked feverishly as the Geiger
counter ticked off the increasing radioactivity of the wildcatting
reaction mass in number-three rocket tube.

"Reading on the counter still's going up, Astro," warned Roger.
"Fifteen-O-five."

"Hurry it up, Astro," urged Tom.

"Hand me that wrench, Tom," ordered Astro. The big cadet, stripped to
the waist, his thick arms and chest splattered with grease and sweat,
fitted the wrench to the nut and applied pressure. Tom and Roger watched
the muscles ripple along his back, as the big Venusian pitted all of his
great strength against the metal.

"Give it all you've got," said Tom. "If we do manage to jettison that
tube, we've got to keep this part of the power deck airtight!"

Astro pulled harder. The veins standing out on his neck. At last, easing
off, he stood up and looked down at the nut.

"That's as tight as I can get it," he said, breathing heavily.

"Or anyone else," said Tom.

"All the valve connections broken?" asked Astro.

"Yep," replied Roger. "We're sealed tight."

"That's it, then," said Tom. "Let's get to the control deck and start
blasting!"

Astro turned to the power-deck control board and checked the gauges for
the last time. From above his head, he heard Tom's voice over the
intercom.

"All your relays to the power deck working, Astro?"

"Ready, Tom," answered Astro.

"Then stand by," said Tom on the control deck. He had made a hasty check
of the controls and found them to be similar enough to those on the
_Polaris_ so that he could handle the ship. He flipped the switch to the
radar deck and spoke into the intercom.

"Do we have a clear trajectory fore and aft, Roger?"

"All clear," replied Roger. "I sent Captain Strong the message."

"What'd he say?"

"The rebellion wasn't anything more than a bunch of badly scared old
men. Al James just got hysterical, that's all."

[Illustration: _A low muted roar pulsed through the ship_]

"What did he have to say about this operation?"

"I can't repeat it for your young ears," said Roger.

"So bad, huh?"

"Yeah, but not because we're trying to save the ship."

"Then why?" asked Tom.

"He's afraid of losing a good unit!"

Tom smiled and turned to the control board. "Energize the cooling
pumps!" he bawled to Astro over the intercom.

The slow whine of the pumps began to build to a shrieking pitch.

"Pumps in operation, Tom," said Astro.

"Cut in nose braking rockets," ordered Tom.

A low muted roar pulsed through the ship.

"Rockets on--we're moving backward, Tom," reported Astro.

And then suddenly Astro let out a roar. "Tom, the Geiger counter is
going wild!"

"Never mind that now," answered Tom. "Sound off, Roger!" he yelled.

"Ship moving astern--one thousand feet a second--two thousand--four
thousand--"

"I'm going to let her build to ten, Roger," yelled Tom. "We've only got
one chance and we might as well make it a good one!"

"Six thousand!" yelled Roger. "Seven thousand!"

"Astro," bellowed Tom, "stand by to fire stern rockets!"

"Ready, Tom," was Astro's reply.

"Eight thousand," warned Roger. "Spaceman's luck, fellas!"

The silver ship moved through space away from the _Polaris_.

"Nine thousand," reported Roger. "And, Astro, I really love ya!"

"Cut nose braking rockets!" ordered Tom.

There was a sudden hush that seemed to be as loud as the noise of the
rockets. The huge passenger ship, _Lady Venus_, was traveling through
space as silent as a ghost.

"Nine thousand five hundred feet a second," yelled Roger.

"Stand by, Astro, Roger! Hang on tight, and spaceman's luck!"

"Ten thousand feet a second!" Roger's voice was a hoarse scream.

"_Fire stern rockets!_" bawled Tom.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 16


Under the tremendous drive of the stern rockets, the silver ship
suddenly hurtled forward as if shot out of a cannon. The dangerous tube
slid out of the stern of the ship and was quickly left behind as the
_Lady Venus_ sped in the opposite direction.

"That's it," yelled Tom, "hold full space speed! We dumped the tube, but
we're still close enough for it to blow us from here to Pluto!"

"I tracked it on the radar, Tom," yelled Roger. "I think we're far
enough away to miss--"

At that moment a tremendous flash of light filled the radar scanner as
the mass exploded miles to the rear of the _Lady Venus_.

"There it goes!" shouted Roger.

"Great jumping Jupiter," yelled Tom, "and we're still in one piece! We
did it!"

From the power deck, Astro's bull-like roar could be heard through the
whole ship.

"Gimme an open circuit, Tom," said Astro. "I want to operate the air
blowers down here and try to get rid of some of that radiation. I have
to get into the control chamber and see what's going on."

Tom flipped a switch on the board and set the ship on automatic flight.
Then, turning to the teleceiver, he switched the set on.

"_Lady Venus_ to _Polaris_--" said Tom, "come in, _Polaris_--come in!"

" ... Strong here on the _Polaris_!" the officer's voice crackled over
the speaker. "By the rings of Saturn, I should log you three
space-brained idiots for everything in the book!" Strong's face
gradually focused on the teleceiver screen and he stared at Tom coldly.
"That was the most foolish bit of heroics I've ever seen and if I had my
way I'd--I'll--well--" The captain's glare melted into a smile. "I'll
spend the rest of my life being known as the skipper of the three
heroes! Well done, Corbett, it was foolish and dangerous, but well
done!"

Tom, his face changing visibly with each change in Strong's attitude,
finally broke out into a grin.

"Thank you, sir," said Tom, "but Astro and Roger did as much as I did."

"I'm sure they did," replied Strong. "Tell them I think it was one of
the--the--" he thought a moment and then added, "darndest, most foolish
things--most--"

"Yes, sir," said Tom, trying hard to control his face. He knew the
moment for disciplining had passed, and that Captain Strong was just
overwhelmed with concern for their safety.

"Stand by the air locks, Corbett, we're coming aboard again. We're
pretty cramped for space here on the _Polaris_."

Just then Astro yelled up from the power deck.

"Hey, Tom!" he called. "If Captain Strong is thinking about putting
those passengers back aboard, I think you'd better tell him about the
radiation. I haven't been able to flush it all out yet. And since we
only have three lead-lined suits...." He left the statement unfinished.

"I get you, Astro," replied Tom. He turned back to the teleceiver and
faced Strong. "Astro says the ship is still hot from radiation, sir. And
that he hasn't been able to flush it out with the blowers."

"Ummmmh," mused Strong thoughtfully. "Well, in that case, stand by,
Corbett. I'll get in touch with Commander Walters right away."

"Very well, sir," replied Tom. He turned from the teleceiver and climbed
up to the radar deck.

"Well, hot-shot," said Roger, "looks like you've made yourself a hero
this trip."

"What do you mean by that, Roger?"

"First, you run off with top honors on the space maneuvers, and now you
save the ship and have Strong eating out of your hand!"

"That's not very funny, Roger," said Tom.

"I think it is," drawled Roger.

Tom studied the blond cadet for a moment.

"What's eating you, Roger? Since the day you came into the Academy,
you've acted like you hated every minute of it. And yet, on the other
hand, I've seen you act like it was the most important thing in your
life. Why?"

"I told you once, Corbett," said Roger with the sneering air which Tom
knew he used when he was on the defensive, "that I had my own special
reasons for being here. I'm _not_ a hero, Corbett! Never was and never
will be. You're strictly the hero type. Tried and true, a thousand just
like you all through the Academy and the Solar Guard. Strong is a hero
type!"

"Then what about Al James?" asked Tom. "What about that time in Atom
City when you defended the Academy?"

"Uh-uh," grunted Roger, "I wasn't defending the Academy. I was just
avoiding a fight." He paused and eyed Tom between half-closed lids.
"You'll never do anything I can't, or won't do, just as well, Tom. The
difference between us is simple. I'm in the Academy for a reason, a
special reason. You're here, like most of the other cadets, because you
believe in it. That's the difference between you, me and Astro. You
believe in it. I don't--I don't believe in anything but Roger Manning!"

Tom faced him squarely. "I'm not going to buy that, Roger! I don't think
that's true. And the reasons I don't believe it are many. You have a
chip on your shoulder, yes. But I don't think you're selfish or that you
only believe in Manning. If you did, you wouldn't be here on the _Lady
Venus_. You had your chance to escape back in the rocket tube, but you
_came back_, Roger, and you made a liar out of yourself!"

"Hey, you guys!" yelled Astro, coming up behind them. "I thought we left
that stuff back at the Academy?"

Tom turned to face the power-deck cadet. "What's cooking below, Astro?
Were you able to get rid of the radiation?"

"Naw!" replied the cadet from Venus. "Too hot! Couldn't even open the
hatch. It'll take a special job with the big equipment at the space
shipyards. We need their big blowers and antiradiation flushers to clean
this baby up."

"Then I'd better tell Captain Strong right away. He's going to get in
touch with Commander Walters at the Academy for orders."

"Yeah, you're right," said Astro. "There isn't a chance of getting those
people back aboard here now. Once we opened up that outer control deck
to dump that tube, the whole joint started buzzing with radioactive
electrons."

Tom turned to the ladder leading to the control deck and disappeared
through the hatch, leaving Astro and Roger alone.

"What was that little bit of space gas about, Roger?"

"Ah--nothing," replied Roger. "Just a little argument on who was the
biggest hero." Roger smiled and waved a hand in a friendly gesture. "Tom
won, two to one!"

"He sure handled that control deck like he had been born here, all
right," said Astro. "Well, I've got to take a look at those motors.
We'll be doing something soon, and whatever it is, we'll need those
power boxes to get us where we want to go."

"Yeah," said Roger, "and I've got to get a course and a position." He
turned to the chart screen and began plotting rapidly. Down on the
control deck, Strong was listening to Tom.

" ... and Astro said we'd need the special equipment at the space
shipyards to clean out the radiation, sir. If we took passengers aboard
and it suddenly shot up--well, we only have the three lead-lined suits
to protect us."

"Very well, Corbett," replied Strong. "I've just received orders from
Commander Walters to proceed to Mars with both ships. I'll blast off now
and you three follow along on the _Lady Venus_. Any questions?"

"I don't have any, sir," Tom said, "but I'll check with Roger and Astro
to see if they have any."

Tom turned to the intercom and informed the radar and power-deck cadets
of their orders, and asked if there were any questions. Both replied
that everything on the ship was ready to blast off immediately. Tom
turned back to the teleceiver.

"No questions, sir," reported Tom. "We're all set to blast off."

"Very well, Corbett," said Strong. "I'm going to make as much speed as
possible to get these people on Mars. The crew of the _Lady Venus_ will
take over the radar and power decks."

"O.K., sir, and spaceman's luck!" said Tom. "We'll see you on Mars!"

Tom stood beside the crystal port on the control deck and watched the
rocket cruiser _Polaris_' stern glow red from her jets, and then quickly
disappear into the vastness of space, visible only as a white blip on
the radar scanner.

"Get me a course to Mars, Roger," said Tom. "Astro, stand by to blast
off with as much speed as you can safely get out of this old wagon, and
stand by for Mars!"

The two cadets quickly reported their departments ready, and following
the course Roger plotted, Astro soon had the _Lady Venus_ blasting
through space, heading for Mars!

Mars, fourth planet in order from the Sun, loomed like a giant red gem
against a perfect backdrop of deep-black space. The _Lady Venus_,
rocketing through the inky blackness, a dull red glow from her three
remaining rockets, blasted steadily ahead to the planet that was
crisscrossed with wide spacious canals.

"Last time I was on Mars," said Astro to Tom and Roger over a cup of
tea, "was about two years ago. I was bucking rockets on an old tub
called the _Space Plunger_. It was on a shuttle run from the Martian
south pole to Venusport, hauling vegetables. What a life! Burning up on
Venus and then freezing half to death at the south pole on Mars." Astro
shook his head as the vivid memory took him back for a moment.

"From what I hear," said Tom, "there isn't much to see but the few
cities, the mountains, the deserts and the canals."

"Yeah," commented Roger, "big deal! Rocket into the wild depths of space
and see the greatest hunk of wasteland in the universe!"

The three boys were silent, listening to the steady hum of the rockets,
driving them forward toward Mars. For four days they had traveled on the
_Lady Venus_, enjoying the many luxuries found on the passenger ship.
Now, with their destination only a few hours away, they were having a
light snack before making a touchdown on Mars.

"You know," said Tom quietly, "I've been thinking. As far back as the
twentieth century, Earthmen have wanted to get to Mars. And finally they
did. And what have they found? Nothing but a planet full of dry sand, a
few canals and dwarf mountains."

"That's exactly what I've been saying!" said Roger. "The only man who
ever got anything out of all this was the first man to make it to Mars
and return. He got the name, the glory, and a paragraph in a history
book! And after that, nothing!" He got up and climbed the ladder to the
radar deck, leaving Astro and Tom alone.

Suddenly the ship lurched to one side.

"What's that?" cried Tom.

A bell began to ring. Then another--and then three more. Finally the
entire ship was vibrating with the clanging of emergency bells.

Astro made a diving leap for the ladder leading down to the power deck,
with Tom lunging for the control board.

Quickly Tom glanced about the huge board with its many different gauges
and dials, searching for the one that would indicate the trouble. His
eye spotted a huge gauge. A small light beside it flashed off and on.
"By the moons of Jupiter, we've run out of reactant fuel!"

"Tom!--Tom!" shouted Astro from the power deck. "We're smack out of
reactant feed!"

"Isn't there any left at all?" asked Tom. "Not even enough to get us
into Marsopolis?"

"We haven't enough left to keep the generator going!" said Astro.
"Everything, including the lights and the teleceiver, will go any
minute!"

"Then we can't change course!"

"Right," drawled Roger. "And if we can't change course, the one we're on
now will take us straight into Mars's gravity and we crash!"

"Send out an emergency call right away, Roger," said Tom.

"Can't, spaceboy," replied Roger in his lazy drawl. "Not enough juice to
call for help. Or haven't you noticed you're standing in the dark?"

"But how--how could this happen?" asked Tom, puzzled. "We were only
going at half speed and using just three rockets!"

"When we got rid of that hot tube back in space," explained Astro
grimly, "we dumped the main reactant mass. There isn't a thing we can
do!"

"We've got one choice," said Tom hollowly. "We can either pile out now,
in space suits and use the jet boat, and hope for someone to pick us up
before the oxygen gives out, or we can ride this space wagon right on
in. Make up your minds quick, we're already inside Mars's gravity pull!"

There was a pause, then Astro's voice filled the control deck. "I'll
ride this baby right to the bottom. If I'm going to splash in, I'll take
it on solid ground, even if it is Mars and not Venus. I don't want to
wash out in space!"

"That goes for me, too," said Roger.

"O.K.," said Tom. "Here we go. Just keep your fingers crossed that we
hit the desert instead of the mountains, or we'll be smeared across
those rocks like applesauce. Spaceman's luck, fellas!"

"Spaceman's luck, both of you," said Astro.

"Just plain ordinary luck," commented Roger, "and plenty of it!"

The three boys quickly strapped themselves into acceleration seats, with
Tom hooking up an emergency relay switch that he could hold in his hand.
He hoped he would remain conscious long enough to throw the switch and
start the water sprinkler in case the ship caught fire.

The _Lady Venus_ flashed into the thin atmosphere from the void of space
and the three cadets imagined that they could hear the shriek of the
ship as it cut through the thin air. Tom figured his speed rapidly, and
counting on the thinness of the atmosphere, he estimated that it would
take eleven seconds for the ship to crash. He began to count.

" ... One--two--three--four--five--" he thought briefly of his family
and how nice they had been to him " ... six--seven--eight--nine--ten--"

The ship crashed.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 17


"Astro! Roger!" yelled Tom. He opened his eyes and then felt the weight
on his chest. A section of the control board had fallen across him
pinning his left arm to his side. He reached for the railing around the
acceleration chair with his right and discovered he still held the
switch for the water sprinkler. He started to flip it on, then sniffed
the air, and smelling no trace of smoke, dropped the switch. He
unstrapped himself from the acceleration chair with his right hand and
then slowly, with great effort, pushed the section of the control board
off him. He stood up rubbing his left arm.

"Astro? Roger?!" he called again, and scrambled over the broken
equipment that was strewn over the deck. He stumbled over more rubble
that was once a precision instrument panel and climbed the ladder
leading to the radar deck.

"Roger!" he yelled. "Roger, are you all right?" He pushed several
shattered instruments out of the way and looked around the shambles that
once had been a room. He didn't see Roger.

He began to scramble through the litter on the deck, kicking aside
instruments that were nearly priceless, so delicately were they made.
Suddenly a wave of cold fear gripped him and he began tearing through
the rubble desperately. From beneath a heavy tube casing, he could see
the outstretched arm of Roger.

He squatted down, bending his legs and keeping his back straight. Then
gripping the heavy casing on one side, he tried to stand up. It was too
much for him. He lifted it three inches and then had to let go.

"Tom! Roger!" Tom heard the bull-like roar of Astro below him and
stumbled over to the head of the ladder.

"Up here, Astro," he yelled, "on the radar deck. Roger's pinned under
the radar scanner casing!"

Tom turned back to the casing, and looking around the littered deck
desperately, grabbed an eight-foot length of steel pipe that had been
snapped off like a twig by the force of the crash.

Barely able to lift it, he shoved it with all his strength to get the
end of the pipe beneath the casing.

"Here, let me get at that thing," growled Astro from behind. Tom stepped
back, half falling out of the Venusian's way, and watched as Astro got
down on his hands and knees, putting his shoulder against the case. He
lifted it about three inches, then slowly, still balancing the weight on
his shoulder, shifted his position, braced it with his hands and began
to straighten up. The casing came up from the floor as the huge cadet
strained against it.

"All--right--Tom--" he gasped, "see if you can get a hold on Roger and
pull him out!"

Tom scrambled back and grabbed Roger's uniform. He pulled, and slowly
the cadet's form slid from beneath the casing.

"All right, Astro," said Tom, "I've got 'im."

Astro began to lower the casing in the same manner in which he had
lifted it. He eased it back down to the floor on his knees and dropped
it the last few inches. He sat on the floor beside it and hung his head
between his knees.

"Are you all right, Astro?" asked Tom.

"Never mind me," panted Astro between deep gasps for breath, "just see
if hot-shot is O.K."

Tom quickly ran his hands up and down Roger's arms and legs, his chest,
collarbone and at last, with gently probing fingers, his head.

"No broken bones," he said, still looking at Roger, "but I don't know
about internal injuries."

"He wasn't pinned under that thing," said Astro at last. "It was resting
on a beam. No weight was on him."

"Uh--huh--ahhh--uhhhh," moaned Roger.

"Roger," said Tom gently, "Roger, are you all right?"

"Uh--huh?--Ohhhh! My head!"

"Take it easy, hot-shot," said Astro, "that head of yours is O.K.
Nothing--but _nothing_ could hurt it!"

"Ooohhhh!" groaned Roger, sitting up. "I don't know which is worse,
feeling the way I do, or waking up and listening to you again!"

Tom sat back with a smile. Roger's remark clinched it. No one was hurt.

"Well," said Astro at last, "where do we go from here?"

"First thing I suggest we do is take a survey and see what's left," said
Tom.

"I came up from the power deck," said Astro, "all the way through the
ship. You see this radar deck?" He made a sweeping gesture around the
room that looked like a junk heap. "Well, it's in good shape, compared
to the rest of the ship. The power deck has the rocket motors where the
master panel should be and the panel is ready to go into what's left of
the reactant chamber. The jet boat is nothing but a worthless piece of
junk!"

The three boys considered the fate of the jet boat soberly. Finally
Astro broke the silence with a question. "Where do you think we are?"

"Somewhere in the New Sahara desert," answered Tom. "I had the chart
projector on just before we splashed in, but I can't tell you any more
than that."

"Well, at least we have plenty of water," sighed Roger.

"You _had_ plenty of water. The tanks were smashed when we came in. Not
even a puddle left in a corner."

"Of course it might rain," said Roger.

Tom gave a short laugh. "The last time it rained in this place dinosaurs
were roaming around on Earth!"

"How about food?" asked Roger.

"Plenty of that," answered Astro. "This is a passenger ship, remember!
They have everything you could ask for, including smoked Venusian
fatfish!"

"Then let's get out of here and take a look," said Tom.

The three bruised but otherwise healthy cadets climbed slowly down to
the control deck and headed for the galley, where Tom found six plastic
containers of Martian water.

"Spaceman, this is the biggest hunk of luck we've had in the last two
hours," said Roger, taking one of the containers.

"Why two hours, Roger?" asked Astro, puzzled.

"Two hours ago we were still in space expecting to splash in," said Tom.
He opened one of the containers and offered it to Astro. "Take it easy,
Astro," said Tom. "Unless we find something else to drink, this might
have to last a long time."

"Yeah," said Roger, "a _long_ time. I've been thinking about our chances
of getting out of this mess."

"Well," asked Astro, "what has the great Manning brain figured out?"

"There's no chance at all," said Roger slowly. "You're wrong, Corbett,
about this being midday. It's early morning!" He pointed to a
chronometer on the bulkhead behind Astro. "It's still running. I made a
mental note before we splashed in, it was eight-O-seven. That clock
says nine-O-three. It doesn't begin to get hot here until three o'clock
in the afternoon."

"I think you're wrong two ways," said Tom. "In the first place, Captain
Strong probably has a unit out looking for us right now. And in the
second place, as long as we stay with the ship, we've got shade. That
sun is only bad because the atmosphere is thinner here on Mars, and
easier to burn through. But if we stay out of the sun, we're O.K. Just
sit back and wait for Strong!"

Roger shrugged his shoulders.

"Well," commented Astro with a grin, "I'm not going to sit around
waiting for Strong without eating!" He tore open a plastic package of
roast-beef sandwiches and began eating. Tom measured out three small
cups of Martian water.

"After we eat," suggested Roger, "I think we ought to take a look around
outside and try to set up an identification signal."

"That's a good idea," said Tom, "but don't you think the ship itself is
big enough for that?"

"Yeah," answered Roger, "I guess you're right."

"Boy!" said Astro. "We sure are lucky to still be able to argue."

"That's about all you can call it. Luck! Spaceman's luck!" said Tom.
"The only reason I can figure why we didn't wind up as permanent part of
the scenery around here is because of the course we were on."

"How do you figure that?" asked Astro.

"Luckily--and I _mean_ luckily, we were on a course that took us smack
onto the surface of Mars. And our speed was great enough to resist the
gravity pull of the planet, keeping us horizontal with the surface of
the desert. We skidded in like a kid does on a sled, instead of coming
in on our nose!"

"Well, blast my jets!" said Astro softly.

"In that case," said Roger, "we must have left a pretty long skid mark
in back of us!"

"That should be easy to see when the jet scouts come looking for us,"
commented Astro.

"I wonder if we could rig up some sort of emergency signal so we could
send out a relative position?"

"How are you going to get the position?" asked Astro.

"I can give you some sort of position as soon as I get outside and take
a sight on the sun," replied Roger.

"Can you do it without your astrogation prism?" asked Astro.

"Navigation, not astrogation, Astro," said Roger. "Like the ancient
sailors used on the oceans back on Earth hundreds of years ago. Only
thing is, I'll have to work up the logarithms by hand, instead of using
the computer. Might be a little rough, but it'll be close enough for
what we want."

The three cadets finished the remaining sandwiches and then picked their
way back through the ship to the control deck. There, they rummaged
through the pile of broken and shattered instruments.

"If we could find just one tube that hasn't been damaged, I think I
might be able to rig up some sort of one-lung communications set," said
Roger. "It might have enough range to get a message to the nearest
atmosphere booster station."

"Nothing but a pile of junk here, Roger," said Tom. "We might find
something on the radar deck."

The three members of the _Polaris_ unit climbed over the rubble and made
their way to the radar deck, and started their search for an undamaged
tube. After forty-five minutes of searching, Roger stood up in disgust.

"Nothing!" he said sourly.

"That kills any hope of getting a message out," said Tom.

"By the craters of Luna," said Astro, wiping his forehead. "I didn't
notice it before, but it's getting hotter here than on the power deck on
a trip to Mercury!"

"Do we have any flares?" asked Roger.

"Naw. Al James used them all," answered Tom.

"That does it," said Roger. "In another couple of hours, when and if
anyone shows up, all they'll find is three space cadets fried on the
half shell of a spaceship!"

"Listen, Roger," said Tom, "as soon as we fail to check in, the whole
Mars Solar Guard fleet will be out looking for us. Our last report will
show them we were heading in this direction. It won't take Captain
Strong long to figure out that we might have run out of fuel, and, with
that skid mark in the sand trailing back for twenty miles, all we have
to do is stick with the ship and wait for them to show up!"

"What's that?" asked Astro sharply.

From a distance, the three cadets could hear a low moaning and wailing.
They rushed to the crystal port and looked out on the endless miles of
brown sand, stretching as far as the horizon and meeting the cloudless
blue sky. Shimmering in the heat, the New Sahara desert of Mars was just
beginning to warm up for the day under the bleaching sun. The thin
atmosphere offered little protection against the blazing heat rays.

"Nothing but sand," said Tom. "Maybe something is still hot on the power
deck." He looked at Astro.

"I checked it before I came topside," said Astro. "I've heard that noise
before. It can only mean one thing."

"What's that?" asked Roger.

Astro turned quickly and walked to the opposite side of the littered
control deck. He pushed a pile of junk out of the way for a clear view
of the outside.

"There's your answer," said Astro, pointing at the port.

"By the rings of Saturn, look at that!" cried Tom.

"Yeah," said Roger, "black as the fingernails of a Titan miner!"

"That's a sandstorm," Astro said finally. "It blows as long as a week
and can pile up sand for two hundred feet. Sometimes the velocity
reaches as much as a hundred and sixty miles an hour. Once, in the
south, we got caught in one, and it was so bad we had to blast off. And
it took all the power we had to do it!"

The three cadets stood transfixed as they gazed through the crystal port
at the oncoming storm. The tremendous black cloud rolled toward the
spaceship in huge folds that billowed upward and back in
three-thousand-foot waves. The roar and wail of the wind grew louder,
rising in pitch until it was a shrill scream.

"We'd better get down to the power deck," said Tom, "and take some
oxygen bottles along with us, just in case. Astro, bring the rest of the
Martian water and you grab several of those containers of food, Roger.
We might be holed in for a long time."

"Why go down to the power deck?" asked Roger.

"There's a huge hole in the upper part of the ship's hull. That sand
will come in here by the ton and there's nothing to stop it," Tom
answered Roger, but kept his eyes on the churning black cloud. Already,
the first gusts of wind were lashing at the stricken _Lady Venus_.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 18


"You think it'll last much longer?" asked Astro.

"I don't know, old fellow," replied Tom.

"You know, sometimes you can hear the wind even through the skin of the
ship," commented Roger.

For two days the cadets of the _Polaris_ unit had been held prisoner in
the power deck while the violence of the New Sahara sandstorm raged
around them outside the ship. For a thousand square miles the desert was
a black cloud of churning sand, sweeping across the surface of Mars like
a giant shroud.

After many attempts to repair a small generator, Astro finally
succeeded, only to discover that he had no means of running the unit.
His plan was to relieve the rapidly weakening emergency batteries with a
more steady source of power.

While Astro occupied himself repairing the generator, Tom and Roger had
slept, but after the first day, when sleep would no longer come, they
resorted to playing checkers with washers and nuts on a board scratched
on the deck.

"Think it's going to let up soon?" asked Roger.

"They've been known to last for a week or more," said Astro.

"Wonder if Strong has discovered we're missing?" mused Roger.

"Sure he has," replied Tom. "He's a real spaceman. Can smell out trouble
like a telemetered alarm system."

Astro got up and stretched. "I'll bet we're out of this five hours after
the sand settles down."

The big Venusian walked to the side of the power deck and pressed his
ear against the hull, listening for the sound of the wind.

After a few seconds he turned back. "I can't hear a thing, fellas. I
have a feeling it's about played itself out."

"Of course," reasoned Tom, "we have no real way of knowing when it's
stopped and when it hasn't."

"Want to open the hatch and take a look?" asked Astro.

Tom looked questioningly at Roger, who nodded his head in agreement.

Tom walked over to the hatch and began undogging the heavy door. As the
last of the heavy metal bars were raised, sand began to trickle inside
around the edges. Astro bent down and sifted a handful through his
fingers. "It's so fine, it's like powder," he said as it fell to the
deck in a fine cloud.

"Come on," said Tom, "give me a hand with this hatch. It's probably
jammed up against sand on the other side."

Tom, Roger and Astro braced their shoulders against the door, but when
they tried to push, they lost their footing and slipped down. Astro
dragged over a section of lead baffle, jammed it between the rocket
motors and placed his feet up against it. Tom and Roger got on either
side of him and pressed their shoulders against the door.

"All right," said Tom. "When I give the word, let's all push together.
Ready?"

"All set," said Astro.

"Let's go," said Roger.

"O.K.--then--one--two--three--_push_!"

Together, the three cadets strained against the heavy steel hatch. The
muscles in Astro's legs bulged into knots as he applied his great weight
and strength against the door. Roger, his face twisted into a grimace
from the effort, finally slumped to the floor, gasping for breath.

"Roger," asked Tom quickly, "are you all right?"

Roger nodded his head but stayed where he was, breathing deeply. Finally
recovering his strength, he rose and stood up against the hatch with his
two unit-mates.

"You and Roger just give a steady pressure, Tom," said Astro. "Don't try
to push it all at once. Slow and steady does it! That way you get more
out of your effort."

"O.K.," said Tom. Roger nodded. Again they braced themselves against the
hatch.

"One--two--three--_push_!" counted Tom.

Slowly, applying the pressure evenly, they heaved against the steel
hatch. Tom's head swam dizzily, as the blood raced through his veins.

"Keep going," gasped Astro. "I think it's giving a little!"

Tom and Roger pushed with the last ounce of strength in their bodies,
and after a final desperate effort, slumped to the floor breathless.
Astro continued to push, but a moment later, relaxed and slipped down
beside Tom and Roger.

They sat on the deck for nearly five minutes gasping for air.

"Like--" began Roger, "like father--like son!" He blurted the words out
bitterly.

"Like who?" asked Astro.

"Like my father," said Roger in a hard voice. He got up and walked
unsteadily over to the oxygen bottle and kicked it. "Empty!" he said
with a harsh laugh. "Empty and we only have one more bottle. Empty as my
head the day I got into this space-happy outfit!"

"You going to start that again!" growled Astro. "I thought you had grown
out of your childish bellyaching about the Academy." Astro eyed the
blond cadet with a cold eye. "And now, just because you're in a tough
spot, you start whining again!"

"Knock it off, Astro," snapped Tom. "Come on. Let's give this hatch
another try. I think it gave a little on that last push."

"Never-say-die Corbett!" snarled Roger. "Let's give it the old try for
dear old Space Academy!"

Tom whirled around and stood face to face with Manning.

"I think maybe Astro's right, Roger," he said coldly. "I think you're a
foul ball, a space-gassing hot-shot that can't take it when the chips
are down!"

"That's right," said Roger coldly. "I'm just what you say! Go ahead,
push against that hatch until your insides drop out and see if you can
open it!" He paused and looked directly at Tom. "If that sand has
penetrated inside the ship far enough and heavily enough to jam that
hatch, you can imagine what is on top, outside! A mountain of sand! And
we're buried under it with about eight hours of oxygen left!"

Tom and Astro were silent, thinking about the truth in Roger's words.
Roger walked slowly across the deck and stood in front of them
defiantly.

"You were counting on the ship being spotted by Captain Strong or part
of a supposed searching party! Ha! What makes you think three cadets are
so important that the Solar Guard will take time out to look for us? And
if they _do_ come looking for us, the only thing left up there now"--he
pointed his finger over his head--"is a pile of sand like any other sand
dune on this crummy planet. We're stuck, Corbett, so lay off that last
chance, do-or-die routine. I've been eating glory all my life. If I do
have to splash in now, I want it to be on my own terms. And that's to
just sit here and wait for it to come. And if they pin the Medal--the
Solar Medal--on me, I'm going to be up there where all good spacemen go,
having the last laugh, when they put my name alongside my father's!"

"Your father's?" asked Tom bewilderedly.

"Yeah, my father. Kenneth Rogers Manning, Captain in the Solar Guard.
Graduate of Space Academy, class of 2329, killed while on duty in space,
June 2335. Awarded the Solar Medal _posthumously_. Leaving a widow and
one son, _me_!"

Astro and Tom looked at each other dumfounded.

"Surprised, huh?" Roger's voice grew bitter. "Maybe that clears up a few
things for you. Like why I never missed on an exam. I never missed
because I've lived with Academy textbooks since I was old enough to
read. Or why I wanted the radar deck instead of the control deck. I
didn't want to have to make a decision! My father had to make a decision
once. As skipper and pilot of the ship he decided to save a crewman's
life. He died saving a bum, a no good space-crawling rat!"

Tom and Astro sat stupefied at Roger's bitter tirade. He turned away
from them and gave a short laugh.

"I've lived with only one idea in my head since I was big enough to know
why other kids had fathers to play ball with them and I didn't. To get
into the Academy, get the training and then get out and cash in! Other
kids had fathers. All I had was a lousy hunk of gold, worth exactly five
hundred credits! A Solar Medal. And my mother! Trying to scrape by on a
lousy pension that was only enough to keep us going, but not enough to
get me the extra things other kids had. It couldn't bring back my
father!"

"That night--in Galaxy Hall, when you were crying--?" asked Tom.

"So eavesdropping is one of your talents too, eh, Corbett?" asked Roger
sarcastically.

"Now, wait a minute, Roger," said Astro, getting up.

"Stay out of this, Astro!" snapped Roger. He paused and looked back at
Tom. "Remember that night on the monorail going into Atom City? That man
Bernard who bought dinner for us? He was a boyhood friend of my
father's. He didn't recognize me, and I didn't tell him who I was
because I didn't want you space creeps to know that much about me. And
remember, when I gave Al James the brush in that restaurant in Atom
City? He was talking about the old days, and he might have spilled the
beans too. It all adds up, doesn't it? I had a reason I told you and
it's just this! To make Space Academy pay me back! To train me to be one
of the best astrogators in the universe so I could go into commercial
ships and pile up credits! Plenty of credits and have a good life, and
be sure my mother had a good life--what's left of it. And the whole
thing goes right back to when my father made the decision to let a space
rat live, and die in his place! So leave me alone with your last big
efforts--and grandstand play for glory. From now on, keep your big fat
mouth shut!"

"I--I don't know what to say, Roger," began Tom.

"Don't try to say anything, Tom," said Astro. There was a coldness in
his voice that made Tom turn around and stare questioningly at the big
Venusian.

"You can't answer him because you came from a good home. With a mom and
pop and brother and sister. You had it good. You were lucky, but I don't
hold it against you because you had a nice life and I didn't." Astro
continued softly, "You can't answer Mr. Hot-shot Manning, but I can!"

"What do you mean?" asked Tom.

"I mean that Manning doesn't know what it is to really have it tough!"

"You got a _real_ hard luck story, eh, big boy?" snarled Roger.

"Yeah, I have!" growled Astro. "I got one that'll make your life look
like a spaceman's dream. At least you _know_ about your father. And you
lived with your mother. I didn't have _anything--nothing_! Did you hear
that, Manning? I didn't even have a pair of shoes, until I found a kid
at the Venusport spaceport one day and figured his shoes would fit me. I
beat the space gas out of him and took his shoes. And then they were so
tight, they hurt my feet. I don't know who my father was, nothing about
him, except that he was a spaceman. A rocket buster, like me. And my
mother? She died when I was born. Since I can remember, I've been on my
own. When I was twelve, I was hanging around the spaceport day and
night. I learned to buck rockets by going aboard when the ships were
cradled for repairs, running dry runs, going through the motions, I
talked to spacemen--all who would listen to me. I lied about my age, and
because I was a big kid, I was blasting off when I was fifteen. What
little education I've got, I picked up listening to the crew talk on
long hops and listening to every audioslide I could get my hands on.
I've had it tough. And because I _have_ had it tough, I want to forget
about it. I don't want to be reminded what it's like to be so hungry
that I'd go out into jungles and trap small animals and take a chance on
meeting a tyrannosaurus. So lay off that stuff about feeling sorry for
yourself. And about Tom being a hero, because with all your space gas
you still can't take it! And if you don't want to fight to live, then go
lie down in the corner and just keep your big mouth shut!"

Tom stood staring at the big cadet. His head jutted forward from his
shoulders, the veins in his neck standing out like thick cords. He knew
Astro had been an orphan, but he had never suspected the big cadet's
life had been anything like that which he had just described.

Roger had stood perfectly still while Astro spoke. Now, as the big cadet
walked back to the hatch and nervously began to examine the edges with
his finger tips, Roger walked over and stood behind him.

"Well, you knuckle-headed orphan," said Roger, "are you going to get us
out of here, or not?"

Astro whirled around, his face grim, his hands balled into fists, ready
to fight. "What's that, Mann--?" He stopped. Roger was smiling and
holding out his hand.

"Whether you like it or not, you poor little waif, you've just made
yourself a friend."

Tom came up to them and leaned against the door casually. "When you two
stop gawking at each other like long-lost brothers," he said lazily,
"suppose we try to figure a way out of this dungeon."

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 19


"Tom--Roger!" shouted Astro. "I think I've got it!"

Astro, on his knees, pulled a long file blade away from the hatch and
jumped to his feet.

"Did you cut all the way through?" asked Tom.

"I don't know--at least I'm not sure," Astro replied, looking down at
the hole he had made in the hatch. "But let's give it a try!"

"Think we can force it back enough to get a good hold on it?" asked
Roger.

"We'll know in a minute, Roger," said Astro. "Get that steel bar over
there and I'll try to slip it in between the hatch and the bulkhead."

Roger rummaged around in the jumble of broken parts and tools on the
opposite side of the power deck and found the steel bar Astro wanted.
After several attempts to force the hatch open had proven futile, Tom
suggested that they try to file the hinges off the hatch, and then
attempt to slide it sideways. After much effort, and working in shifts,
they had filed through the three hinges, and now were ready to make a
last desperate attempt to escape. Astro took the steel bar from Roger
and jammed it between the bulkhead wall and the hatch.

"No telling what we'll find on the other side," said Astro. "If the
sand has covered up the ship all the way down to here, then we'll never
get out!"

"Couldn't we tunnel through it to the top, if it has filled the ship
down as far as here?" asked Roger.

"Not through this stuff," said Tom. "It's just like powder."

"Tom's right," said Astro. "As soon as you dig into it, it'll fall right
back in on you." He paused and looked at the hatch thoughtfully. "No.
The only way we can get out of here is if the sand was only blown into
the deck outside and hasn't filled the rest of the ship."

"Only one way to find out," said Tom.

"Yeah," agreed Roger. "Let's get that hatch shoved aside and take a
look."

Astro jammed the heavy steel bar farther into the space between the
hatch and the bulkhead, and then turned back to his unit-mates.

"Get that piece of pipe over there," he said. "We'll slip it over the
end of the bar and that'll give us more leverage."

Tom and Roger scrambled after the length of pipe, slipped it over the
end of the bar, and then, holding it at either end, began to apply even
pressure against the hatch.

Gradually, a half inch at a time, the heavy steel hatch began to move
sideways, sliding out and behind the bulkhead. And as the opening grew
larger the fine powderlike sand began to fall into the power deck.

"Let's move it back about a foot and a half," said Tom. "That'll give us
plenty of room to get through and see what's on the other side."

Astro and Roger nodded in agreement.

Once more the three boys exerted their strength against the pipe and
applied pressure to the hatch. Slowly, grudgingly it moved back, until
there was an eighteen-inch opening, exposing a solid wall of the desert
sand. Suddenly, as if released by a hidden switch, the sand began to
pour into the power deck.

"Watch out!" shouted Tom. The three boys jumped back and looked on in
dismay as the sand came rushing through the opening. Gradually it slowed
to a stop and the pile in front of the opening rose as high as the hatch
itself.

"That does it," said Tom. "Now we've got to dig through and find out how
deep that stuff is. And spacemen, between you and me, I hope it doesn't
prove too deep!"

"I've been thinking, Tom," said Roger, "suppose it's as high as the
upper decks outside? All we have to do is keep digging it out and
spreading it around the power deck here until we can get through."

"Only one thing wrong with that idea, Roger," said Tom. "If the whole
upper part of the ship is flooded with that stuff, we won't have enough
room to spread it around."

"We could always open the reaction chamber and fill that," suggested
Astro, indicating the hatch in the floor of the power deck that lead to
the reactant chamber.

"I'd just as soon take my chances with sand," said Roger, "as risk
opening that hatch. The chamber is still hot from the wildcatting
reaction mass we had to dump back in space."

"Well, then, let's start digging," said Tom. He picked up an empty
grease bucket and began filling it with sand.

"You two get busy loading them, and I'll dump," said Astro.

"O.K.," replied Tom and continued digging into the sand with his hands.

"Here, use this, Tom," said Roger, offering an empty Martian water
container.

Slowly, the three cadets worked their way through the pile on the deck
in front of the hatch opening and then started on the main pile in the
opening itself. But as soon as they made a little progress on the main
pile, the sand would fall right in again from the open hatch, and after
two hours of steady work, the sand in front of the hatch still filled
the entire opening. Their work had been all for nothing. They sat down
for a rest.

"Let's try it a little higher up, Tom," suggested Roger. "Maybe this
stuff isn't as deep as we think."

Tom nodded and stepped up, feeling around the top of the opening. He
began clawing at the sand overhead. The sand still came pouring through
the opening.

"See anything?" asked Astro.

"I--don't--know--" spluttered Tom as the sand slid down burying him to
his waist.

"Better back up, Tom," warned Roger. "Might be a cave-in and you'll get
buried."

"Wait a minute!" shouted Tom. "I think I see something!"

"A light?" asked Astro eagerly.

"Careful, Tom," warned Roger again.

Tom clawed at the top of the pile, ignoring the sand that was heaped
around him.

"I've got it," shouted Tom, struggling back into the power deck just in
time to avoid being buried under a sudden avalanche. "There's another
hatch up there, just behind the ladder that leads into the passenger
lounge. That's the side facing the storm! And as soon as we dig a
little, the sand falls from that pile. But the opposite side, leading to
the jet-boat deck, is free and clear!"

"Then all we have to do is force our way through to the top," said
Astro.

"That's all," said Tom. "We'd be here until doomsday digging our way
clear."

"I get it!" said Roger. "The storm filled up the side of the ship facing
that way, and that is where the passenger lounge is. I remember now. I
left the hatch open when we came down here to the power deck, so the
sand just kept pouring in." He smiled sheepishly. "I guess it's all my
fault."

"Never mind that now!" said Tom. "Take this hose and stick it in your
mouth, Astro. Breath through your mouth and plug up your nose so you
won't get it all stopped up with sand while you pull your way through."

"I'll take this rope with me too," said Astro. "That way I can help pull
you guys up after me."

"Good idea," said Roger.

"As soon as you get outside the hatch here," said Tom, "turn back this
way. Keep your face up against the bulkhead until you get to the top.
Right above you is the ladder. You can grab it to pull yourself up."

[Illustration]

"O.K.," said Astro and took the length of hose and put it in his mouth.
Then, taking a piece of waste cotton, he stopped up his nose and tested
the hose.

"Can you breathe O.K.?" asked Tom.

Astro signaled that he could and stepped through the hatch. He turned,
and facing backward, began clawing his way upward.

"Keep that hose clear, Roger!" ordered Tom. "There's about five feet of
sand that he has to dig through and if any of it gets into the
hose--well--"

"Don't worry, Tom," interrupted Roger. "I've got the end of the hose
right next to the oxygen bottle. He's getting pure stuff!"

Soon the big cadet was lost to view. Only the slow movement of the hose
and rope indicated that Astro was all right. Finally the hose and rope
stopped moving.

Tom and Roger looked at each other, worried.

"You think something might be wrong?" asked Tom.

"I don't know--" Roger caught himself. "Say, look--the rope! It's
jerking--Astro's signaling!"

[Illustration]

"He made it!" cried Tom.

"I wonder if--" Roger suddenly picked up the end of the hose and spoke
into it. "Astro? Hey, Astro, can you hear me?"

"Sure I can." Astro's voice came back through the hose. "Don't shout so
loud! I'm not on Earth, you know. I'm just ten feet above you!"

Roger and Tom clapped each other on the shoulders in glee.

"All set down there?" called Astro, through the hose.

"O.K." replied Tom.

"Listen," said Astro, "when you get outside the hatch, you'll find a
pipe running along the bulkhead right over your head. Grab that and pull
yourself up. Tie the rope around your shoulder, but leave enough of it
so the next guy can come up. We don't have any way of getting it back
down there!" he warned. "Who's coming up first?"

Tom looked at Roger.

"You're stronger, Tom," said Roger. "You go up now and then you can give
Astro a hand pulling me through."

"All right," agreed Tom. He began pulling the hose back through the
sand. He took the end, cleared it out with a few blasts from the oxygen
bottle and put it in his mouth. Then, after Roger had helped him tie the
rope around his shoulders, he stuffed his nose with the waste cotton. He
stepped to the opening. Roger gave three quick jerks on the rope and
Astro started hauling in.

With Astro's help, Tom was soon free and clear, standing beside Astro on
the jet-boat deck.

"Phoooeeeey!" said Tom, spitting out the sand that had filtered into his
mouth. "I never want to do that again!" He dusted himself off and
flashed his emergency light around the deck. "Look at that!" he said in
amazement. "If we'd kept on digging, we'd have been trapped down there
for--" he paused and looked at Astro who was grinning--"a long, long
time!" He held the light on the sand that was flowing out of the open
hatch of the passenger lounge.

"Come on," urged Astro. "Let's get Roger out of there!"

They called to Roger through the hose and told him to bring two more
emergency lights and the remainder of the Martian water. Three minutes
later the _Polaris_ unit was together again.

Standing on the deck beside his two unit-mates, Roger brushed himself
off and smiled. "Well," he said, "looks like we made it!"

"Yeah," said Tom, "but take a look at this!" He walked across the
jet-boat deck to the nearest window port. What should have been a clear
view of the desert was a mass of solidly packed sand.

"Oh, no!" cried Roger. "Don't tell me we have to go through that again?"

"I don't think it'll be so bad this time," said Astro.

"Why not?" asked Tom.

"The sand is banked the heaviest on the port side of the ship. And the
window ports on the starboard side of the control deck were pretty high
off the ground."

"Well, let's not just stand here and talk about it," said Roger. "Let's
take a look!" He turned and walked through the jet-boat deck.

Tom and Astro followed the blond cadet through the darkened passages of
the dead ship, and after digging a small pile of sand away from the
control-deck hatch, found themselves once more amid the jumble of the
wrecked instruments.

For the first time in three days, the boys saw sunlight streaking
through the crystal port.

"I told you," cried Astro triumphantly.

"But there still isn't any way out of this place!" said Roger. "We can't
break that port. It's six inches thick!"

"Find me a wrench," said Astro. "I can take the whole window port apart
from inside. How do you think they replace these things when they get
cracked?"

Hurriedly searching through the rubble, Tom finally produced a wrench
and handed it to Astro. In a half hour Astro had taken the whole section
down and had pushed the crystal outward. The air of the desert rushed
into the control room in a hot blast.

"Whew!" cried Roger. "It must be at least a hundred and twenty-five
degrees out there!"

"Come on. Let's take a look," said Tom. "And keep your fingers crossed!"

"Why?" asked Roger.

"That we can dig enough of the sand away from the ship to make it
recognizable from the air."

Following Tom's lead, Roger and Astro climbed through the open port and
out onto the sand.

"Well, blast my jets!" said Astro. "You can't even tell there was a
storm."

"You can't if you don't look at the ship," said Tom bitterly. "That was
the only thing around here of any size that would offer resistance to
the sand and make it pile up. And, spaceman, look at that pile!"

Astro and Roger turned to look at the spaceship. Instead of seeing the
ship, they saw a small mountain of sand, well over a hundred feet high.
They walked around it and soon discovered that the window port in the
control deck had been the only possible way out.

"Call it what you want," said Roger, "but I think it's just plain dumb
luck that we were able to get out!" He eyed the mound of sand. Unless
one knew there was a spaceship beneath it, it would have been impossible
to distinguish it from the rest of the desert.

"We're not in the clear yet!" commented Astro grimly. "It would take a
hundred men at least a week to clear away enough of that sand so search
parties could recognize it." He glanced toward the horizon. "There isn't
anything but sand here, fellows, sand that stretches for a thousand
miles in every direction."

"And we've got to walk it," said Tom.

"Either that or sit here and die of thirst," said Roger.

"Any canals around here, Tom?" asked Astro softly.

"There better be," replied Tom thoughtfully. He turned to Roger. "If you
can estimate our position, Roger, I'll go back inside and see if I can
find a chart to plot it on. That way, we might get a direction to start
on at least."

Astro glanced up at the pale-blue sky. "It's going to be a hot day," he
said softly, looking out over the flat plain of the desert, "an awful
hot day!"

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 20


"Got everything we need?" asked Tom.

"Everything we'll need--and about all we can safely carry without
weighing ourselves down too much," answered Roger. "Enough food for a
week, the rest of the Martian water, space goggles to protect our eyes
from the sun and emergency lights for each of us."

"Not much to walk a hundred and fifty miles on," offered Astro. "Too bad
the sand got in the galley and messed up the rest of that good food."

"We'll have plenty to get us by--if my calculations are right," said
Tom. "One hundred and fifty-four miles to be exact."

"_Exact_ only as far as my sun sight told me," said Roger.

"Do you think it's right?" asked Tom.

"I'll answer you this way," Roger replied. "I took that sight six times
in a half hour and got a mean average on all of them that came out
within a few miles of each other. If I'm wrong, I'm very wrong, but if
I'm right, we're within three to five miles of the position I gave you."

"That's good enough for me," said Astro. "If we're going out there"--he
pointed toward the desert--"instead of sitting around here waiting for
Strong or someone to show up, then I'd just as soon go now!"

"Wait a minute, fellas. Let's get this straight," said Tom. "We're all
agreed that the odds on Captain Strong's showing up here before our
water runs out are too great to risk it, and that we'll try to reach the
nearest canal. The most important thing in this place is water. If we
stay and the water we have runs out, we're done for. If we go, we might
not reach the canal--and the chance of being spotted in the desert is
even smaller than if we wait here at the ship." He paused. "So we move
on?" He looked at the others. Astro nodded and looked at Roger, who
bobbed his head in agreement.

"O.K., then," said Tom, "it's settled. We'll move at night when it's
cool, and try to rest during the day when it's the hottest."

Roger looked up at the blazing white sphere in the pale-blue sky that
burned down relentlessly. "I figure we have about six hours before she
drops for the day," he said.

"Then let's go back inside the ship and get some rest," he said.

Without another word, the three cadets climbed back inside the ship and
made places for themselves amid the littered deck of the control room. A
hot wind blew out of the New Sahara through the open port like a breath
of fire. Stripped to their shorts, the three boys lay around the deck
unable to sleep, each thinking quietly about the task ahead, each
remembering stories of the early pioneers who first reached Mars. In the
mad rush for the uranium-yielding pitchblende, they had swarmed over the
deserts toward the dwarf mountains by the thousands. Greedy, thinking
only of the fortunes that could be torn from the rugged little
mountains, they had come unprepared for the heat of the Martian deserts
and nine out of ten had never returned.

Each boy thought, too, of the dangers they had just faced. This new
danger was different. This was something that couldn't be defeated with
an idea or a sudden lucky break. This danger was ever present--a fight
against nature, man against the elements on an alien planet. It was a
battle of endurance that would wring the last drop of moisture
mercilessly from the body, until it became a dry, brittle husk.

"Getting pretty close to sundown," said Tom finally. He stood beside the
open port and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun, now slowly
sinking below the Martian horizon.

"I guess we'd better get going," said Roger. "All set, Astro?"

"Ready, Roger," answered the Venusian.

The three boys dressed and arranged the food packs on their backs. Tom
carried the remainder of the Martian water, two quart plastic
containers, and a six-yard square of space cloth, an extremely durable
flyweight fabric that would serve as protection from the sun during the
rest stop of the day. Roger and Astro carried the food in compact packs
on their backs. Each boy wore a makeshift hat of space cloth, along with
space goggles, a clear sheet of colored plastic that fitted snugly
across the face. All three carried emergency lights salvaged from the
wrecked ship.

Tom walked out away from the ship several hundred yards and studied his
pocket compass. He held it steady for a moment, watching the needle
swing around. He turned and walked slowly still watching the needle of
the compass. He waited for it to steady again, then turned back to Roger
and Astro who stood watching from the window port.

"This is the way." Tom pointed away from the ship. "Three degrees south
of east, one hundred and fifty-four miles away, if everything is
correct, should bring us smack on top of a major canal."

"So long, _Lady Venus_," said Astro, as he left the ship.

"Don't think it hasn't been fun," added Roger, "because it hasn't!"

Astro fell in behind Roger, who in turn followed Tom who walked some ten
feet ahead. A light breeze sprang up and blew across the surface of the
powdery sand. Ten minutes later, when they stopped to adjust their
shoulder packs, they looked back. The breeze had obliterated their
tracks and the mountain of sand covering the spaceship appeared to be no
different from any of the other small dunes on the desert. The New
Sahara desert of Mars had claimed another Earth-ship victim.

"If we can't see the _Lady Venus_ standing still, and knowing where to
look," said Astro, "how could a man in a rocket scout ever find it?"

"He wouldn't," said Roger flatly. "And when the water ran out, we'd just
be sitting there."

"We're losing time," said Tom. "Let's move." He lengthened his stride
through the soft sand that sucked at his high space boots and faced the
already dimming horizon. The light breeze felt good on his face.

       *       *       *       *       *

The three cadets had no fear of running into anything in their march
through the darkness across the shifting sands. And only an occasional
flash of the emergency light to check the compass was necessary to keep
them moving in the right direction.

There wasn't much talk. There wasn't much to talk about. About nine
o'clock the boys stopped and opened one of the containers of food and
ate a quick meal of sandwiches. This was followed by a carefully
measured ounce of water, and fifteen minutes later they resumed their
march across the New Sahara.

About ten o'clock, Deimos, one of the small twin moons of Mars, swung up
overhead, washing the desert with a pale cold light. By morning, when
the cherry-red sun broke the line of the horizon, Tom estimated that
they had walked about twenty miles.

"Think we ought to camp here?" asked Astro.

"If you can show me a better spot," said Roger with a laugh, "I'll be
happy to use it!" He swung his arm in a wide circle, indicating a
wasteland of sand that spread as far as the eyes could see.

"I could go for another hour or so," said Astro, "before it gets too
hot."

"And wait for the heat to reach the top of the thermometer? Uh-huh, not
me," said Roger. "I'll take as much sleep as I can get now--while it's
still a little cool."

"Roger's right," said Tom. "We'd better take it easy now. We won't be
able to get much sleep after noon."

"What do we do from noon until evening?" asked Astro.

"Aside from just sitting under this hunk of space cloth, I guess we'll
come as close to being roasted alive as a human can get."

"You want to eat now?" asked Astro.

Tom and Roger laughed. "I'm not hungry, but you go ahead," said Tom. "I
know that appetite of yours won't wait."

"I'm not too hungry either," said Roger. "Go ahead, you clobber-headed
juice jockey."

Astro grinned sheepishly, and opening one of the containers of food,
quickly wolfed down a breakfast of smoked Venusian fatfish.

Tom and Roger began spreading the space cloth on the sand that was
already hot to the touch. Anchoring the four corners in the sand with
the emergency lights and one of Tom's boots, they propped up the center
with the food packs, one on top of the other. A crude tent was the
result and both boys crawled in under, sprawling on the sand. Astro
finished eating, lay down beside his two unit-mates, and in a moment the
three cadets were sound asleep.

The sun climbed steadily over the desert while the _Polaris_ unit slept.
With each hour, the heat of the desert rose, climbing past the hundred
mark, reaching one hundred and twenty, then one hundred and thirty-five
degrees.

Tom woke up with a start. He felt as if he were inside a blazing
furnace. He rolled over and saw Astro and Roger still asleep, sweat
pouring off them in small rivulets. He started to wake them, but decided
against it and just lay still under the thin sheet of space cloth that
protected him from the sun. As light as the fabric square was, weighing
no more than a pound, under the intense heat of the sun it felt like a
woolen blanket where it touched him. Astro rolled over and opened his
eyes.

"What time is it, Tom?"

"Must be about noon. How do you feel?"

"I'm not sure yet. I had a dream." The big cadet rubbed his eyes and
wiped the sweat from his forehead. "I dreamed I was being shoved into an
oven--like Hansel and Gretel in that old fairy tale."

"Personally," mumbled Roger, without opening his eyes, "I'll take Hansel
and Gretel. They might be a little more tender."

"I could do with a drink," said Astro, looking at Tom.

Tom hesitated. He felt that as hot as it was, it would get still hotter
and there had to be strict control of the remainder of the water.

"Try to hold out a little longer, Astro," said Tom. "This heat hasn't
really begun yet. You could drink the whole thing and still want more."

"That's right, Astro," said Roger, sitting up. "Best thing to do is just
wet your tongue and lips a little. Drinking won't do much good now."

"O.K. by me," said Astro. "Well, what do we do now?"

"We sit here and we wait," answered Tom. He sat up and held the space
cloth up on his side.

"You get in the middle, Astro," suggested Roger. "Your head is up higher
than mine and Tom's. You can be the tent pole under this big top."

Astro grunted and changed places with the smaller cadet.

"Think there might be a breeze if we opened up one side of this thing?"
asked Roger.

"If there was a breeze," answered Tom, "it'd be so hot, it'd be worse
than what we've got inside."

"It sure is going to be a hot day," said Astro softly.

The thin fabric of the space cloth was enough to protect them from the
direct rays of the sun, but offered very little protection against the
heat. Soon the inside of the tent was boiling under the relentless sun.

They sat far apart, their knees pulled up, heads bowed. Once when the
heat seemed unbearable, Tom opened one side of the cloth in a desperate
hope that it might be a little cooler outside. A blast of hot air
entered the makeshift tent and he quickly closed the opening.

About three o'clock Roger suddenly slipped backward and lay sprawled on
the sand.

Tom opened one of the containers of water and dipped his shirttail into
it. Astro watched him moisten Roger's lips and wipe his temples. In a
few moments the cadet stirred and opened his eyes.

"I--I--don't know what happened," he said slowly. "Everything started
swimming and then went black."

"You fainted," said Tom simply.

"What time is it?" asked Astro.

"Sun should be dropping soon now, in another couple of hours."

They were silent again. The sun continued its journey across the sky and
at last began to slip behind the horizon. When the last red rays
stretched across the sandy desert, the three cadets folded back the
space-cloth covering and stood up. A soft evening breeze sprang up,
refreshing them a little, and though none of them was hungry, each boy
ate a light meal.

Tom opened the container of water again and measured out about an ounce
apiece.

"Moisten your tongue, and sip it slowly," ordered Tom.

Roger and Astro took their share of the water and dipped fingers in it,
wiping their lips and eyelids. They continued to do this until finally,
no longer able to resist, they took the precious water and swished it
around in their mouths before swallowing it.

They folded the space cloth, shouldered their packs, and after Tom had
checked the compass, started their long march toward their plotted
destination.

They had survived their first twenty-four hours in the barren wastes of
the New Sahara, with each boy acutely aware that there was at least a
week more of the same in front of them. The sky blackened, and soon
after Deimos rose and started climbing across the dark sky.



CHAPTER 21


"How much water left?" asked Astro thickly.

"Enough for one more drink apiece," Tom replied.

"And then what happens?" mumbled Roger through his cracked lips.

"You know what will happen, Roger--you know and I know and Tom knows,"
muttered Astro grimly.

For eight days they had been struggling across the blistering shifting
sands, walking by night, sweltering under the thin space cloth during
the day. Their tongues were swollen. Scraggly beards covered their chins
and jaws. Roger's lips were cracked. The back of Tom's neck had suffered
ten minutes of direct sun and turned into a large swollen blister. Only
Astro appeared to be bearing up under the ordeal. There was no sign of
their being close to the canal.

"Wanta try marching during the day?" asked Astro. They had broken camp
on the evening of the eighth day and were preparing to move on into the
never-changing desert.

"If we don't hit the canal sometime during the night, there might be a
chance it's close enough to reach in a couple of hours," replied Tom.
"Either that, or we've miscalculated altogether."

"How about you, Roger?" asked Astro.

"Whatever you guys decide, I'll be right in back of you." Roger had
grown steadily weaker during the last three days and found it difficult
to sleep during the hours of rest.

"Then we'll keep marching tomorrow," said Astro.

"Let's move out," said Tom. Roger and Astro shouldered the remaining
slender food packs, with Tom carrying the water and space cloth, and
they started out into the rapidly darkening desert.

Once again, as on the previous eight nights, the little moon, Deimos,
swung across the sky, casting dim shadows ahead of the three marching
boys. Tom found it necessary to look at the compass more often. He
couldn't trust his sense of direction as much as he had earlier. Once,
he had gone for two hours in a direction that was fifty degrees off
course. The rest stops also were more frequent now, with each boy
throwing his pack to the ground and lying flat on his back, to enjoy the
cool breeze that never failed to soothe their scorched faces.

When the sun rose out of the desert on the morning of the ninth day,
they stopped, ate a light breakfast of preserved figs, divided the juice
evenly among them, and, ripping the space cloth into three sections,
wrapped it around themselves like Arabs and continued to walk.

By noon, with the sun directly overhead, they were staggering. At
two-thirty the sun and the heat were so overpowering that they stopped
involuntarily and tried to sit on the hot sand only to find that they
couldn't and so they stumbled on.

Neither Roger nor Astro asked for water. Finally Tom stopped and faced
his two unit-mates wobbling on unsteady legs.

"I've gone as far as I can without water. I--I don't think I can go
another step. So come on, we'll finish what we've got."

Astro and Roger nodded in quiet agreement. They watched with dull eyes
as Tom carefully opened the plastic container of water. He gave each a
cup and slowly, cautiously, measured out the remaining water into three
equal parts. He held the container up for a full minute allowing the
last drop to run out before tossing the empty bottle to one side.

"Here goes," said Tom. He wet his lips, placed a wet finger on his
temples and sipped the liquid slowly, allowing it to trickle down his
parched throat.

Roger and Astro did the same. After he had wet his lips, Astro took the
full amount in his mouth and washed it around, before swallowing it.
Roger brought the cup up slowly to his mouth with trembling hands,
tipped it shakily, and then before Astro or Tom could catch him, fell to
the ground. The precious water spilled into the sand.

Tom and Astro watched dumfounded as the dry sand sucked away the water
until nothing remained but a damp spot six inches wide.

"I guess--" began Tom, "I guess that about does it!"

"We'll have to carry him," said Astro simply.

Tom looked up into the eyes of his unit-mate. There he saw a
determination that would not be defeated. He nodded his head and stooped
over to grapple with Roger's legs. He got one leg under each arm and
then tried to straighten up. He fell to the sand and rolled to one side.
Astro watched him get up slowly, wearily, his space-cloth covering
remaining on the ground, and then, with gritted teeth, try once more to
pick Roger's legs up.

Astro put out his hand and touched Tom on the shoulder. His voice was
low, hardly above a whisper. "You lead the way, Tom. I'll carry him."

[Illustration: "_You lead the way, Tom. I'll carry him._"]

Tom looked up at the big Venusian. Their eyes locked for a moment and
then he nodded his head and turned away. He pulled out the pocket
compass and through blurred vision read the course beneath its wavering
needle. He waved an arm in a direction to the right of them and
staggered off.

Astro stooped down, picked Roger up in his arms and slowly got him
across his shoulders. Then steadying himself, he walked after Tom.

Suddenly a blast of wind, hot as fire, swept across the sandy plains,
whipping the sand up and around the two walking figures, biting into
exposed hands and faces. Tom tried to adjust his goggles when the sand
began to penetrate around the edges but his fingers shook and he dropped
them. In a flash, the sand drove into his eyes, blinding him.

"I can't see, Astro," said Tom in a hoarse whisper when Astro staggered
up. "You'll have to guide."

Astro took the compass out of Tom's hand and then placed his unit-mate's
hand on his back. Tom gripped the loose folds of the space cloth and
uniform beneath and struggled blindly after the big cadet.

The hot sun bore down. The wind kept blowing and Astro, with Roger slung
across his back like a sack of potatoes and Tom clinging blindly to his
uniform, walked steadily on.

He felt each step would be his last, but with each step he told himself
through gritted teeth that he could do ten more--and then ten more--ten
more.

He walked, he staggered, and once he fell to the ground, Tom slumping
behind him and Roger being tossed limply to the scorching sand. Slowly
Astro recovered, helped Tom to his feet, then with the last of his great
strength, picked up Roger again. This time, he was unable to get him to
his shoulder so he carried him like a baby in his arms.

At last the sun began to drop in the red sky. Astro felt Roger's limp
body slipping from his grip. By now, Tom had lost all but the very last
ounce of his strength and was simply being pulled along.

"Tom--" gasped Astro with great effort, "I'm going to count to a
thousand and then--I'm going to stop."

Tom didn't answer.

Astro began to count. "One--two--three--four--five--six--" He tried to
make each number become a step forward. He closed his eyes. It wasn't
important which way he went. It was only important that he walk those
thousand steps, "five hundred eleven--five hundred twelve--five hundred
thirteen--"

Involuntarily he opened his eyes when he felt himself climbing up a
small rise in the sand. He opened his eyes and ten feet away was the
flat blue surface of the canal they had been searching for.

"You can let go now, Tom," said Astro in a voice hardly above a whisper.
"We made it. We're on the bank of the canal."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Hey, Roger," yelled Astro from the middle of the canal, "ever see a guy
make like a submarine?"

Tom and Roger sat on the top of the low bank of the canal drying off
from a swim, while Astro still splashed around luxuriating in the cool
water.

"Go on," yelled Roger, "let's see you drown yourself!"

"Not me, hot-shot," yelled Astro. "After that walk, all I'd have to do
is open my mouth and start drinking."

Finally tiring of his sport, the big Venusian pulled himself up onto the
bank of the canal and quickly dressed. Pulling on his space boots, he
turned to Tom and Roger, who were breaking out the last two containers
of food.

"You know, Astro," said Roger quietly, "I'll never be able to repay you
for carrying me."

Tom was quiet for a moment, and then added, "Same here, Astro."

Astro grinned from ear to ear. "Answer me this one question, both of
you. Would you have done it for me?"

The two boys nodded.

"Then you paid me. As long as I know I'm backed up by two guys like you,
then I'm paid. Carrying you, Roger, was just something I could do for
you at that particular time. One of these days, when we get out of this
oven, there'll come a time when you or Tom will do something for me--and
that's the way it should be."

"Thanks, Astro," said Roger. He reached over and put his hand on top of
Astro's, and then Tom placed his hand on top of theirs. The three boys
were quiet for a moment. There was an understanding in each of them that
they had accomplished more than just survival in a desert. They had
learned to respect each other. They were a unit at last.

"What do we do next?" asked Roger.

"Start walking that way," said Tom, pointing to his left along the bank
of the canal that stretched off in a straight line to the very horizon.
"If we're lucky, we might be able to find something to use as a raft and
then we can ride."

"Think there are any fish in this canal?" asked Astro, gazing out over
the cool blue water.

"Doubt it. At least I've never heard of there being any," replied Tom.

"Well," said Roger, standing up, "you can go a lot farther without food
than you can without water. And we still have that big container of ham
left."

"Yeah, as soon as it gets hot, we just swim instead of walk," said
Astro. "And, believe me, there's going to be a lot of swimming done!"

"Think we might strike anything down that way," asked Roger. He looked
down the canal in the direction Tom had indicated.

"That's the direction of the nearest atmosphere booster station. At
least that was the way it looked on the chart. All of them were built
near the canals."

"How far away do you think it is?" asked Astro.

"Must be at least three hundred miles."

"Let's start moving," said Roger, "and hope we can find something
that'll float us on the canal."

Single file, wearing the space cloths once more as protection against
the sun, they walked along the bank of the canal. When the heat became
unbearable, they dipped the squares of space cloths into the water and
wrapped themselves in them. When they began to dry out, they would
repeat the process. At noon, when the sun dried the fabric nearly as
fast as they could wet it, they stopped and slipped over the edge of the
bank into the cool water. Covering their heads with the cloths they
remained partly submerged until the late afternoon. When the sun had
lost some of its power, again they climbed out and continued walking.

Marching late into the night, they made camp beside the canal, finished
the last container of food, and, for the first time since leaving the
ship, slept during the night. By the time Deimos had risen in the sky,
they were sound asleep.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER 22


"Eeeeeeoooooooow!" Astro's bull-like roar shattered the silence of the
desert. "There--up ahead, Tom--Roger--a building!"

Tom and Roger stopped and strained their eyes in the bright sunshine.

"I think you're right," said Tom at last. "But I doubt if anyone's
there. Looks like an abandoned mining shack to me."

"Who wants to stand here and debate the question?" asked Roger, and
started off down the side of the canal at a lope, with Astro and Tom
right behind him.

During the last three days the boys had been living off the contents of
the last remaining food container and the few lichens they found growing
along the canal. Their strength was weakening, but with an abundant
supply of water near at hand and able to combat the sun's heat with
frequent swims, they were still in fair condition.

Tom was the first to reach the building, a one-story structure made of
dried mud from the canal. The shutters and the door had long since been
torn away by countless sandstorms.

The three boys entered the one-room building cautiously. The floor was
covered with sand, and sand was piled in heaping drifts in front of the
open windows and door.

"Nothing--not a thing," said Roger disgustedly. "This place must be at
least a hundred and fifty years old."

"Probably built by a miner," commented Tom.

"What do you mean 'nothing'?" said Astro. "Look!"

They followed Astro's pointing finger to the ceiling. Crisscrossed, from
wall to wall, were heavy wooden beams.

"Raft!" Tom cried.

"That's right, spaceman," said Astro, "a raft. There's enough wood up
there to float the _Polaris_. Come on!"

Astro hurried outside, with Tom and Roger following at his heels. They
quickly climbed to the roof of the old building and soon were ripping
the beams from the crumbling mud. Fortunately the beams had been joined
by notching the ends of the crosspieces. Astro explained that this was
necessary because of the premium on nails when the house was built.
Everything at that time had to be hauled from Earth, and no one wanted
to pay the price heavy nails and bolts demanded.

One by one, they removed the heavy beams, until they had eight of them
lined up alongside the edge of the canal.

"How do we keep them together?" asked Roger.

"With this!" said Tom. He began ripping his space cloth into long
strips. Astro and Roger tugged at the first beam. At last they had it in
the water.

"It floats," cried Astro. Tom and Roger couldn't help but shout for joy.
They quickly hauled the remaining beams into the water and lashed them
together. Without hesitation, they shoved the raft into the canal,
climbing aboard and standing like conquering heroes, as the raft moved
out into the main flow of the canal and began to drift forward.

"I dub thee--_Polaris the Second_," said Tom in formal tones and gave
the nearest beam a kick.

Astro and Roger gave a lusty cheer.

Steadily, silently, the raft bore them through the never-changing scene
of the canal's muddy banks and the endlessness of the desert beyond.

Protecting themselves from the sun during the day by repeated dunkings
in the water, they traveled day and night in a straight course down the
center of the canal. At night, the tiny moon, Deimos, climbed across the
desert and reflected light upon the satin-smooth water.

The third day on the raft they began to feel the pangs of hunger. And
where during their march through the desert, their thoughts were of
water, now visions of endless tables of food occupied their thoughts. At
first, they talked of their hunger, dreaming up wild combinations of
dishes and giving even wilder estimates of how much each could consume.
Finally, discovering that talking about it only intensified their
desire, they kept a stolid silence. When the heat became unbearable,
they simply took to the water. Once Tom's grip on the raft slipped and
Roger plunged in after him without a moment's hesitation, only to have
Astro go in to save both of them.

On and on--down the canal, the three boys floated. Days turned into
nights, and nights, cooling and refreshing, gave way to the blazing sun
of the next day. The silent desert swept past them.

One night, when Astro, unable to sleep, was staring ahead into the
darkness, he heard a rustling in the water alongside the raft. He moved
slowly to the edge of the raft and peered down into the clear water.

He saw a fish!

The big cadet watched it dart around the raft. He waited, his body
tense. Once the fish came to the edge of the raft, but before Astro
could move his arm, it darted off in another direction.

At last the fish disappeared and Astro sank back on the timbers. He
trailed one hand over the side in the water, and suddenly, felt the
rough scales of the fish brush his fingers. In a flash, Astro closed his
hand and snatched the wriggling creature out of the water.

"Tom--Roger--" he shouted. "Look--look--a fish--I caught a fish with my
bare hands!"

Tom rolled over and opened his eyes. Roger sat in bewilderment.

"I watched him--I was watching him and then he went away. And then I
held my hand over the side of the raft and he came snooping around
and--well, I just grabbed him!"

He held the fish in the viselike grip of his right hand until it stopped
moving.

"You know," said Tom weakly, "I just remembered. When we were in the
Science Building in Atom City, one of their projects was to breed both
Earth and Venus fish in the canals."

"I am going to shake, personally, the hand of the man who started this
project when we get back to Atom City," said Astro.

Suddenly Roger gripped Tom's arms. He was staring in the direction the
raft was going. "Tom--" he breathed, "Astro--look!"

They turned and peered into the dusk. In the distance, not a mile away,
was the huge crystal-clear dome of the atmosphere booster station, its
roaring atomic motors sending a steady purring sound out across the
desert.

"We made it," said Tom, choking back the tears. "We made it!"

"Well, blast my jets," said Astro. "We sure did!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"And you mean to tell me, you _walked_ across that desert?" asked
Captain Strong.

Tom glanced over at Astro and Roger. "We sure did, sir."

"With Astro doing the last stretch to the canal carrying me and dragging
Tom," said Roger as he sipped his hot broth.

The room in the chief engineer's quarters at the atmosphere station was
crowded with workers, enlisted Solar Guardsmen and officers of the Solar
Guard. They stood around staring in disbelief at the three disheveled
cadets.

"But how did you ever survive?" asked Strong. "By the craters of Luna,
that blasted desert was hotter this past month than it has ever been
since Mars was first colonized by Earthmen. Why--why--you were walking
through temperatures that reached a hundred and fifty degrees!"

"You don't have to convince us, sir," said Roger with a smile. "We'll
never forget it as long as we live."

Later, when Tom, Roger and Astro had taken a shower and dressed in fresh
uniforms, Strong came in with an audioscriber and the three cadets gave
the full version of their adventure for the official report back to the
Academy. When they had finished, Strong told them of his efforts to find
them.

"We knew you were in trouble right away," said Strong, "and we tracked
you on radar. But that blasted storm fouled us all up. We figured that
the sand would have covered up the ship, and that the chances of finding
you in a scout were very small, so I got permission from Commander
Walters to organize this ground search for you." He paused. "Frankly we
had just about given up hope. Took us three weeks finally to locate the
section of desert you landed in."

"We knew you would come, sir," said Tom, "but we didn't have enough
water to wait for you--and we had to leave."

"Boys," said Strong slowly, "I've had a lot of wonderful things happen
to me in the Solar Guard. But I have to confess that seeing you three
space-brained idiots clinging to that raft, ready to eat a raw
fish--well, that was just about the happiest moment of my life."

"Thank you, sir," said Roger, "and I think I can speak for Tom and Astro
when I say that seeing you here with over a hundred men, and all this
equipment, ready to start searching for us in that desert--well, it
makes us feel pretty proud to be members of an outfit where the skipper
feels that way about his crew!"

"What happens now, sir?" asked Tom.

"Aside from getting a well-deserved liberty, it's back to the old grind
at the Academy. The _Polaris_ is at the spaceport at Marsopolis, waiting
for us." He paused and eyed the three cadets with a smile. "I guess the
routine at Space Academy will seem a little dull now, after what you've
been through."

"Captain Strong," said Astro formally, "I _know_ I speak for Tom and
Roger when I say that _routine_ is all we want for a long time to come!"

"Amen!" added Tom and Roger in unison.

"Very well," said Strong. "_Polaris_ unit--Staaaaand _TO_!"

The three boys snapped to attention.

"You are hereby ordered to report aboard the _Polaris_ at fifteen
hundred hours and stand by to raise ship!"

He returned their salutes, turned sharply and walked from the room.

Outside, Steve Strong leaned against the wall and stared through the
crystal shell of the atmosphere station into the endless desert.

"Thank you, Mars," he said softly, "for making spacemen out of the
_Polaris_ crew!" He saluted sharply and walked away.

Tom suddenly burst from the room with Roger and Astro yelling after him.

"Hey, Tom, where you going?" yelled Roger.

"I've got to get a bottle of that water out of the canal for my kid
brother Billy!" shouted Tom and disappeared down a slidestairs.

Roger turned to Astro and said, "That's what I call a real spaceman."

"What do you mean?" asked Astro.

"After what we've been through, he still remembers that his kid brother
wants a bottle of water from a canal as a souvenir!"

"Yeah," breathed Astro, "Tom Corbett is--is--a real spaceman!"

[Illustration]

[Illustration]





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