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Title: Teen-age Super Science Stories
Author: Elam, Richard M.
Language: English
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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.

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                         _The Teen-Age Library_


                       Teen-Age Stories of Action
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                       Teen-Age Adventure Stories
                          By Charles I. Coombs

                       Teen-Age Aviation Stories
                          Edited by Don Samson

                       Teen-Age Baseball Stories
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                       Teen-Age Boy Scout Stories
                            By Irving Crump

                           Teen-Age Companion
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                       Teen-Age Football Stories
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                      Teen-Age Historical Stories
                        By Russell Gordon Carter

                        Teen-Age Mystery Stories
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                        Teen-Age Victory Parade
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                    Teen-Age Champion Sports Stories
                          By Charles I. Coombs

                     Teen-Age Super Science Stories
                        By Richard M. Elam, Jr.

                    Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories
                        By Richard M. Elam, Jr.

                          Teen-Age Sea Stories
                         Edited by David Thomas

                        Teen-Age Sports Stories
                          Edited by Frank Owen

                      Teen-Age Stories of the West
                            By Stephen Payne

                        Teen-Age Animal Stories
                        By Russell Gordon Carter

                        Teen-Age Cowboy Stories
                            By Stephen Payne

                      Teen-Age Basketball Stories
                             By Josh Furman

                          Teen-Age Dog Stories
                         Edited by David Thomas

                         Teen-Age Sports Parade
                             By B. J. Chute

                         Teen-Age Horse Stories
                         Edited by David Thomas

                       Teen-Age Gridiron Stories
                         Edited by Josh Furman

                    Teen-Age Stories of the Diamond
                         Edited by David Thomas

                       Teen-Age Humorous Stories
                            By A. L. Furman

                       Teen-Age Frontier Stories
                         Edited by A. L. Furman

               Teen-Age Treasure Chest of Sports Stories
                          By Charles I. Coombs

                  Teen-Age Baseball Jokes and Legends
                              By Mac Davis

                         Teen-Age Treasure Hunt
                           By Richard M. Elam

                         Teen-Age Nurse Stories
                         Edited by A. L. Furman

                        Teen-Age Nature Stories
                         Edited by A. L. Furman

                         _The Teen-Age Library_



                               _TEEN-AGE_
                             SUPER SCIENCE
                                STORIES


                        By RICHARD M. ELAM, Jr.

                    _Illustrated by_ Frank E. Vaughn

                     Grosset & Dunlap _Publishers_
                                NEW YORK

                Copyright © 1957 by Lantern Press, Inc.

                BY ARRANGEMENT WITH LANTERN PRESS, INC.
            LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER: 57-8908
                 PUBLISHED SIMULTANEOUSLY IN CANADA BY
                   GEORGE J. MCLEOD, LIMITED, TORONTO

              MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA



                                CONTENTS


  _The First Man Into Space_                                           9
  _Mystery Eyes Over Earth_                                           33
  _Race Around the Sun_                                               43
  _Flight of the Centaurus_                                           58
  _Expedition Pluto_                                                  73
  _Mercy Flight to Luna_                                              95
  _The Peril from Outer Space_                                       106
  _The Ghost Ship of Space_                                          149
  _Space Steward_                                                    227



                             ILLUSTRATIONS


  _Cold, bulging eyes peered into his own_                            70
  _That pledge of secrecy for you begins at this instant_            110
  _Clay’s hand guided the burning instrument to within inches of
          the top of the bomb_                                       143
  _Almost exhausted, he pulled the ladder across and out of their
          reach_                                                     209
  _The unicorn rushed up the slope, his head lowered and his
          frightening ivory horn poised for attack_                  245



                        THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE


Cadet Marshall Farnsworth woke from a nightmare of exploding novae and
fouling rockets. After recovering from his fright, he laughed
contemptuously at himself. “Here I was picked as the most stable of a
group of two hundred cadets,” he thought, “and chosen to make man’s
first trip into space, yet I’m shaking like a leaf.”

He got out of bed and went over to the window. From his father’s
temporary apartment, he could see distant Skyharbor, the scene of the
plunge into space tomorrow night. He had been awarded the frightening
honor of making that trip.

As he watched teardrop cars whip along Phoenix, Arizona’s, double-decked
streets, elevated over one another to avoid dangerous intersections and
delaying stop lights, he thought back over the years; to the 1950’s,
when mice and monkeys were sent up in Vikings to launch mankind’s first
probing of the mysterious space beyond Earth, and the first satellites
were launched; to the 1960’s, when huger, multiple-stage rockets finally
conquered the problem of escape velocity; to 1975—today—when man was
finally ready to send one of his own kind into the uninhabited deeps.

Marsh climbed back into bed, but sleep would not come.

In the adjoining room, he could hear the footsteps of mother and father.
By their sound he knew they were the footsteps of worried people. This
hurt Marsh more than his own uneasiness.

The anxiety had begun for them, he knew, when he had first signed up for
space-cadet training. They had known there was an extremely high
percentage of washouts, and after each test he passed, they had
pretended to be glad. But Marsh knew that inwardly they had hoped he
would fail, for they were aware of the ultimate goal that the space
scientists were working for—the goal that had just now been reached.

Marsh finally fell into a troubled sleep that lasted until morning.

He woke early, before the alarm rang. He got up, showered, pulled on his
blue-corded cadet uniform, and tugged on the polished gray boots. He
took one final look around his room as though in farewell, then went out
to the kitchen.

His folks were up ahead of time too, trying to act as though it were
just another day. Dad was pretending to enjoy his morning paper, nodding
only casually to Marsh as he came in. Mom was stirring scrambled eggs in
the skillet, but she wasn’t a very good actor, Marsh noticed, for she
furtively wiped her eyes with her free hand.

The eggs were cooked too hard and the toast had to be scraped, but no
one seemed to care. The three of them sat down at the table, still
speaking in monosyllables and of unimportant things. They made a
pretense of eating.

“Well, Mom,” Dad suddenly said with a forced jollity that was intended
to break the tension, “the Farnsworth family has finally got a celebrity
in it.”

“I don’t see why they don’t send an older man!” Mom burst out, as though
she had been holding it in as long as she could. “Sending a boy who
isn’t even twenty-two—”

“Things are different nowadays, Mom,” Dad explained, still with the
assumed calmness that masked his real feelings. “These days, men grow up
faster and mature quicker. They’re stronger and more alert than older
men—” His voice trailed off as if he were unable to convince himself.

“_Some_body has to go,” Marsh said. “Why not a younger man without
family and responsibility? That’s why they’re giving younger men more
opportunities today than they used to.”

“It’s not younger men I’m talking about!” Mom blurted. “It’s you,
Marsh!”

Dad leaned over and patted Mom on the shoulder. “Now, Ruth, we promised
not to get excited this morning.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said weakly. “But Marsh is too young to—” She caught
herself and put her hand over her mouth.

“Stop talking like that!” Dad said. “Marsh is coming back. There’ve been
thousands of rockets sent aloft. The space engineers have made sure that
every bug has been ironed out before risking a man’s life. Why, that
rocket which Marsh is going up in is as safe as our auto in the garage,
isn’t it, Marsh?”

“I hope so, Dad,” Marsh murmured.


Later, as Dad drove Marsh to the field, each brooded silently. Every
scene along the way seemed to take on a new look for Marsh. He saw
things that he had never noticed before. It was an uncomfortable
feeling, almost as if he were seeing these things for the last as well
as the first time.

Finally the airport came into view. The guards at the gate recognized
Marsh and ushered the Farnsworth car through ahead of scores of others
that crowded the entrance. Some eager news photographers slipped up
close and shot off flash bulbs in Marsh’s eyes.

Skyharbor, once a small commercial field, had been taken over by the Air
Force in recent years and converted into the largest rocket experimental
center in the United States.

Dad drove up to the building that would be the scene of Marsh’s first
exhaustive tests and briefings. He stopped the car, and Marsh jumped
out. Their good-by was brief. Marsh saw his father’s mouth quiver. There
was a tightness in his own throat. He had gone through any number of
grueling tests to prove that he could take the rigors of space, but not
one of them had prepared him for the hardest moments of parting.

When Dad had driven off, Marsh reported first to the psychiatrist who
checked his condition.

“Pulse fast, a rise in blood pressure,” he said. “You’re excited, aren’t
you, son?”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh admitted. “Maybe they’ve got the wrong man, sir. I
might fail them.”

The doctor grinned. “They don’t have the wrong man,” he said. “They
might have, with a so-called iron-nerved fellow. He could contain his
tension and fears until later, until maybe the moment of blast-off. Then
he’d let go, and when he needed his calmest judgment he wouldn’t have
it. No, Marshall, there isn’t a man alive who could make this
history-making flight without some anxiety. Forget it. You’ll feel
better as the day goes on. I’ll see you once more before the blast-off.”

Marsh felt more at ease already. He went on to the space surgeon, was
given a complete physical examination, and was pronounced in perfect
condition. Then began his review briefing on everything he would
encounter during the flight.

Blast-off time was for 2230, an hour and a half before midnight. Since
at night, in the Western Hemisphere, Earth was masking the sun, the
complications of excessive temperatures in the outer reaches were
avoided during the time Marsh would be outside the ship. Marsh would
occupy the small upper third section of a three-stage rocket. The first
two parts would be jettisoned after reaching their peak velocities. Top
speed of the third stage would carry Marsh into a perpetual-flight orbit
around Earth, along the route that a permanent space station was to be
built after the results of the flight were studied. After spending a
little while in this orbit, Marsh would begin the precarious journey
back to Earth, in gliding flight.

He got a few hours of sleep after sunset. When an officer shook him, he
rose from the cot he had been lying on in a private room of General
Forsythe, Chief of Space Operations.

“It’s almost time, son,” the officer said. “Your CO wants to see you in
the outside office.”

Marsh went into the adjoining room and found his cadet chief awaiting
him. The youth detected an unusual warmth about the severe gentleman who
previously had shown only a firm, uncompromising attitude. Colonel
Tregasker was past middle age, and his white, sparse hair was smoothed
down close to his head in regulation neatness.

“Well, this is it, Marshall,” the colonel said. “How I envy you this
honor of being the first human to enter space. However, I do feel that a
part of me is going along too, since I had a small share in preparing
you for the trip. If the training was harsh at times, I believe that
shortly you will understand the reason for it.”

“I didn’t feel that the Colonel was either too soft or strict, sir,”
Marsh said diplomatically.

A speaker out on the brilliantly lit field blared loudly in the cool
desert night: “X minus forty minutes.”

“We can’t talk all night, Marshall,” the colonel said briskly. “You’ve
got a job to do. But first, a few of your friends want to wish you
luck.” He called into the anteroom, “You may come in, gentlemen!”

There filed smartly into the room ten youths who had survived the hard
prespace course with Marsh and would be his successors in case he failed
tonight. They formed a line and shook hands with Marsh. The first was
Armen Norton who had gotten sick in the rugged centrifuge at a force of
9 G’s, then had rallied to pass the test.

“Good luck, Marsh,” he said.

Next was lanky Lawrence Egan who had been certain he would wash out
during navigation phase in the planetarium. “All the luck in the world,
Marsh,” he added.

Each cadet brought back a special memory of his training as they passed
before him, wishing him success.

When they had gone and the speaker outside had announced: “X minus
thirty minutes,” the colonel said that he and Marsh had better be
leaving. Colonel Tregasker was to be Marsh’s escort to the ship.

Photographers and newspapermen swarmed about them as they climbed into
the jeep that was to take them to the launching site farther out on the
field. Questions were flung at the two from all sides, but the colonel
deftly maneuvered the jeep through the mob and sped off over the
asphalt.

At the blast-off site, Marsh could see that the police had their hands
full keeping out thousands of spectators who were trying to get into the
closed-off area. The field was choked with a tide of humanity milling
about in wild confusion. Giant searchlights, both at the airport and in
other parts of Phoenix, directed spears of light on the towering rocket
that held the interest of all the world tonight. There was one light,
far larger than the rest, with powerful condensing lenses and connected
to a giant radar screen, which would guide Marsh home from his trip
among the stars.

A high wire fence surrounded the launching ramp and blockhouses.
International scientists and dignitaries with priorities formed a ring
around the fence, but even they were not allowed inside the small circle
of important activity. The guards waved the colonel and Marsh through
the gate.

Marsh had spent many weeks in a mock-up of the tiny third stage in which
he was to spend his time aloft, but he had never been close to the
completely assembled ship until this moment. The three stages had been
nicknamed, “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry.” Marsh swallowed as his eyes roved
up the side of the great vessel, part of a project that had cost
millions to perfect and was as high as a four-story building.

The gigantic base, “Big Tom,” was the section that would have the
hardest job to do, that of thrusting the rocket through the densest part
of the atmosphere, and this was a great deal larger than the other
sections. Marsh knew that most of the ship’s bulk was made up of the
propellant fuel of hydrazine hydrate and its oxidizer, nitric acid.

“We’re going into that blockhouse over there,” Colonel Tregasker said.
“You’ll don your space gear in there.”

First a multitude of gadgets with wires were fastened to the cadet’s
wrists, ankles, nose, and head. Marsh knew this to be one of the most
important phases of the flight—to find out a man’s reaction to space
flight under actual rocketing conditions. Each wire would telemeter
certain information by radio back to the airport. After a tight inner G
suit had been put on to prevent blackout, the plastic and rubber outer
garment was zipped up around Marsh, and then he was ready except for his
helmet, which would not be donned until later.

Marsh and the colonel went back outside. The open-cage elevator was
lowered from the top of the big latticed platform that surrounded the
rocket. The two got into the cage, and it rose with them. Marsh had lost
most of his anxiety and tension during the activities of the day, but
his knees felt rubbery in these final moments as the elevator carried
him high above the noisy confusion of the airport. _This was it._

As they stepped from the cage onto the platform of the third stage,
Marsh heard the speaker below call out: “X minus twenty minutes.”

There were eleven engineers and workmen on the platform readying the
compartment that Marsh would occupy. Marsh suddenly felt helpless and
alone as he faced the small chamber that might very well be his death
cell. Its intricate dials and wires were staggering in their complexity.

Marsh turned and shook hands with Colonel Tregasker. “Good-by, sir,” he
said in a quavering voice. “I hope I remember everything the Corps
taught me.” He tried to smile, but his facial muscles twitched
uncontrollably.

“Good luck, son—lots of it,” the officer said huskily. Suddenly he
leaned forward and embraced the youth with a firm, fatherly hug. “This
is not regulations,” he mumbled gruffly, “but hang regulations!” He
turned quickly and asked to be carried down to the ground.

A man brought Marsh’s helmet and placed it over his head, then clamped
it to the suit. Knobs on the suit were twisted, and Marsh felt a warm,
pressurized helium-oxygen mixture fill his suit and headpiece.

Marsh stepped through the hatch into the small compartment. He reclined
in the soft contour chair, and the straps were fastened by one of the
engineers over his chest, waist, and legs. The wires connected to
various parts of his body had been brought together into a single unit
in the helmet. A wire cable leading from the panel was plugged into the
outside of the helmet to complete the circuit.

Final tests were run off to make sure everything was in proper working
order, including the two-way short-wave radio that would have to
penetrate the electrical ocean of the ionosphere. Then the double-hatch
air lock was closed. Through his helmet receiver, Marsh could hear the
final minutes and seconds being called off from inside the blockhouse.

“Everything O.K.?” Marsh was asked by someone on the platform.

“Yes, sir,” Marsh replied.

“Then you’re on your own,” were the final ominous words.

“X minus five minutes,” called the speaker.

It was the longest five minutes that Marsh could remember. He was
painfully aware of his cramped quarters. He thought of the tons of
explosive beneath him that presently would literally blow him sky-high.
And he thought of the millions of people the world over who, at this
moment, were hovering at radios and TV’s anxiously awaiting the dawn of
the space age. Finally he thought of Dad and Mom, lost in that multitude
of night watchers, and among the few who were not primarily concerned
with the scientific aspect of the experiment. He wondered if he would
ever see them again.

“X minus sixty seconds!”

Marsh knew that a warning flare was being sent up, to be followed by a
whistle and a cloud of smoke from one of the blockhouses. As he felt
fear trying to master him, he began reviewing all the things he must
remember and, above all, what to do in an emergency.

“X minus ten seconds—five—four—three—two—one—FIRE!”

There was a mighty explosion at Skyharbor.

The initial jolt which Marsh felt was much fiercer than the gradually
built up speed of the whirling centrifuge in training. He was crushed
deeply into his contour chair. It felt as though someone were pressing
on his eyeballs; indeed, as if every organ in his body were clinging to
his backbone. But these first moments would be the worst. A gauge showed
a force of 7 G’s on him—equal to half a ton.

He watched the Mach numbers rise on the dial in front of his eyes on an
overhead panel. Each Mach number represented that much times the speed
of sound, 1,090 feet per second, 740 miles an hour.

Marsh knew “Big Tom” would blast for about a minute and a half under
control of the automatic pilot, at which time it would drop free at an
altitude of twenty-five miles and sink Earthward in a metal mesh ’chute.

Marsh’s hurting eyes flicked to the outside temperature gauge. It was on
a steady 67 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and would be until he reached
twenty miles. A reflecting prism gave him a square of view of the sky
outside. The clear deep blue of the cloud-free stratosphere met his
eyes.

Mach 5, Mach 6, Mach 7 passed very quickly. He heard a rumble and felt a
jerk. “Big Tom” was breaking free. The first hurdle had been
successfully overcome, and the ship had already begun tilting into its
trajectory.

There was a new surge of agony on his body as the second stage picked up
the acceleration at a force of 7 G’s again. Marsh clamped his jaws as
the force pulled his lips back from his teeth and dragged his cheek
muscles down. The Mach numbers continued to rise—11, 12, 13—to altitude
200 miles, the outer fringe of the earth’s atmosphere. There was a
slight lifting of the pressure on his body. The rocket was still in the
stratosphere, but the sky was getting purple.

Mach 14—10,000 miles an hour.

“Dick” would jettison any moment. Marsh had been aloft only about four
minutes, but it had seemed an age, every tortured second of it.

There was another rumble as the second stage broke free. Marsh felt a
new surge directly beneath him as his own occupied section, “Harry,”
began blasting. It was comforting to realize he had successfully
weathered those tons of exploding hydrazine and acid that could have
reduced him to nothing if something had gone wrong. Although his speed
was still building up, the weight on him began to ease steadily as his
body’s inertia finally yielded to the sickeningly swift acceleration.

The speedometer needle climbed to Mach 21, the peak velocity of the
rocket, 16,000 miles per hour. His altitude was 350 miles—man’s highest
ascent. Slowly then, the speedometer began to drop back. Marsh heard the
turbo pumps and jets go silent as the “lift” fuel was spent and rocket
“Harry” began its free-flight orbit around Earth.

The ship had reached a speed which exactly counterbalanced the pull of
gravity, and it could, theoretically, travel this way forever, provided
no other outside force acted upon it. The effect on Marsh now was as if
he had stopped moving. Relieved of the viselike pressure, his stomach
and chest for a few seconds felt like inflated balloons.

“Cadet Farnsworth,” the voice of General Forsythe spoke into his helmet
receiver, “are you all right?”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh replied. “That is, I think so.”

It was good to hear a human voice again, something to hold onto in this
crazy unreal world into which he had been hurtled.

“We’re getting the electronic readings from your gauges O.K.,” the voice
went on. “The doctor says your pulse is satisfactory under the
circumstances.”

It was queer having your pulse read from 350 miles up in the air.

Marsh realized, of course, that he was not truly in the “air.” A glance
at his air-pressure gauge confirmed this. He was virtually in a vacuum.
The temperature and wind velocity outside might have astounded him if he
were not prepared for the readings. The heat was over 2000 degrees
Fahrenheit, and the wind velocity was of hurricane force! But these
figures meant nothing because of the sparseness of air molecules.
Temperature and wind applied only to the individual particles, which
were thousands of feet apart.

“How is your cosmic-ray count?” asked the general.

Marsh checked the C-ray counter on the panel from which clicking sounds
were coming. “It’s low, sir. Nothing to worry about.”

Cosmic rays, the most powerful emanations known, were the only radiation
in space that could not be protected against. But in small doses they
had been found not to be dangerous.

“As soon as our recorders get more of the figures your telemeter is
giving us,” the operations chief said, “you can leave the rocket.”

When Marsh got the O.K. a few minutes later, he eagerly unstrapped the
belts around his body. He could hardly contain his excitement at being
the first person to view the globe of Earth from space. As he struggled
to his feet, the lightness of zero gravity made him momentarily giddy,
and it took some minutes for him to adjust to the terribly strange
sensation.

He had disconnected the cable leading from his helmet to the ship’s
transmitter and switched on the ship’s fast-lens movie camera that would
photograph the area covered by “Harry.” Then he was ready to go outside.
He pressed a button on the wall, and the first air-lock hatch opened. He
floated into the narrow alcove and closed the door in the cramped
chamber behind him. He watched a gauge, and when it showed normal
pressure and temperature again, he opened the outside hatch, closing it
behind him. Had Marsh permitted the vacuum of space to contact the
interior of the ship’s quarters, delicate instruments would have been
ruined by the sudden decompression and loss of heat. Marsh fastened his
safety line to the ship so that there was no chance of his becoming
separated from it.

Then he looked “downward,” to experience the thrill of his life. Like a
gigantic relief map, the panorama of Earth stretched across his vision.
A downy blanket of gray atmosphere spread over the whole of it, and
patches of clouds were seen floating like phantom shapes beneath the
clear vastness of the stratosphere. It was a stunning sight for Marsh,
seeing the pinpoint lights of the night cities extending from horizon to
horizon. It gave him an exhilarating feeling of being a king over it
all.

Earth appeared to be rotating, but Marsh knew it was largely his own and
the rocket’s fast speed that was responsible for the illusion. As he
hung in this region of the exosphere, he was thankful for his cadet
training in zero gravity. A special machine, developed only in recent
years, simulated the weightlessness of space and trained the cadets for
endurance in such artificial conditions.

“Describe some of the things you see, Marshall,” General Forsythe said
over Marsh’s helmet receiver. “I’ve just cut in a recorder.”

“It’s a scene almost beyond description, sir,” Marsh said into the
helmet mike. “The sky is thickly powdered with stars. The Milky Way is
very distinct, and I can make out lots of fuzzy spots that must be star
clusters and nebulae and comets. Mars is like an extremely bright
taillight, and the moon is so strong it hurts my eyes as much as the
direct sun does on earth.”

Marsh saw a faintly luminous blur pass beyond the ship. It had been
almost too sudden to catch. He believed it to be a meteor diving
Earthward at a speed around forty-five miles a second. He reported this
to the general.

As he brought his eyes down from the more distant fixtures of space to
those closer by on Earth, a strange thing happened. He was suddenly
seized with a fear of falling, although his zero-gravity training had
been intended to prepare him against this very thing. A cold sweat come
out over his body, and an uncontrollable panic threatened to take hold
of him.

He made a sudden movement as though to catch himself. Forgetting the
magnification of motion in frictionless space and his own
weightlessness, he was shot quickly to the end of his safety line like a
cracked whip. His body jerked at the taut end and then sped swiftly back
in reaction toward the ship, head foremost. A collision could crack his
helmet, exposing his body to decompression, causing him to swell like a
balloon and finally explode.

In the grip of numbing fear, only at the last moment did he have the
presence of mind to flip his body in a half-cartwheel and bring his
boots up in front of him for protection. His feet bumped against the
rocket’s side, and the motion sent him hurtling back out to the end of
the safety line again. This back-and-forth action occurred several times
before he could stop completely.

“I’ve got to be careful,” he panted to himself, as he thought of how
close his space career had come to being ended scarcely before it had
begun.

General Forsythe cut in with great concern, wondering what had happened.
When Marsh had explained and the general seemed satisfied that Marsh had
recovered himself, he had Marsh go on with his description.

His senseless fear having gone now, Marsh looked down calmly, entranced
as the features of the United States passed below his gaze. He named the
cities he could identify, also the mountain ranges, lakes, and rivers,
explaining just how they looked from 350 miles up. In only a fraction of
an hour’s time, the rocket had traversed the entire country and was
approaching the twinkling phosphorescence of the Atlantic.

Marsh asked if “Tom” and “Dick” had landed safely.

“‘Tom’ landed near Roswell, New Mexico,” General Forsythe told him, “and
the ’chute of the second section has been reported seen north of Dallas.
I think you’d better start back now, Marshall. It’ll take us many months
to analyze all the information we’ve gotten. We can’t contact you very
well on the other side of the world either, and thirdly, I don’t want
you exposed to the sun’s rays outside the atmosphere in the Eastern
Hemisphere any longer than can be helped.”

Marsh tugged carefully on his safety line and floated slowly back toward
the ship. He entered the air lock. Then, inside, he raised the angle of
his contour chair to upright position, facing the console of the ship’s
manual controls for the glide Earthward. He plugged in his telemeter
helmet cable and buckled one of the straps across his waist.

Since he was still moving at many thousands of miles an hour, it would
be suicide to plunge straight downward. He and the glider would be
turned into a meteoric torch. Rather, he would have to spend
considerable time soaring in and out of the atmosphere in braking
ellipses until he reached much lower speed. Then the Earth’s
gravitational pull would do the rest.

This was going to be the trickiest part of the operation, and the most
dangerous. Where before, Marsh had depended on automatic controls to
guide him, now much of the responsibility was on his own judgment. He
remembered the many hours he had sweated through to log his flying time.
Now he could look back on that period in his training and thank his
lucky stars for it.

He took the manual controls and angled into the atmosphere. He carefully
watched the AHF dial—the atmospheric heat friction gauge. When he had
neared the dangerous incendiary point, with the ship having literally
become red-hot, he soared into the frictionless vacuum again. He had to
keep this up a long time in order to reduce his devastating speed.

It was something of a shock to him to leave the black midnight of
Earth’s slumbering side for the brilliant hemisphere where the people of
Europe and Asia were going about their daytime tasks. He would have
liked to study this other half of the world which he had glimpsed only a
few times before in his supersonic test flights, but he knew this would
have to wait for future flights.

Finally, after a long time, his velocity was slowed enough so that the
tug of gravity was stronger than the rocket’s ability to pull up out of
the atmosphere. At this point, Marsh cut in “Harry’s” forward braking
jets to check his falling speed.

“There’s something else to worry about,” he thought to himself. “Will
old Harry hold together or will he fly apart in the crushing
atmosphere?”

The directional radio signals from the powerful Skyharbor transmitter
were growing stronger as Marsh neared the shores of California. He could
see the winking lights of San Diego and Los Angeles, and farther inland
the swinging thread that was the beacon at Skyharbor. All planes in his
path of flight had been grounded for the past few hours because of the
space flight. The only ground light scanning the skies was the gigantic
space beacon in Phoenix.

When Marsh reached Arizona, he began spiraling downward over the state
to kill the rest of his altitude and air speed. Even now the plane was a
hurtling supersonic metal sliver streaking through the night skies like
a comet. He topped the snow-capped summits of the towering San Francisco
Peaks on the drive southward, and he recognized the sprawling serpent of
the Grand Canyon. Then he was in the lower desert regions of
moon-splashed sand and cactus. Although the fire-hot temperature of the
outer skin had subsided, there had been damage done to the walls and
instruments, and possibly to other parts, too. Marsh was worried lest
his outside controls might be too warped to give him a good touchdown,
if indeed he could get down safely at all.

A few thousand feet up, Marsh lowered his landing gear. Now the only
problem left was to land himself and the valuable ship safely inside the
narrow parallels of the airstrip. He circled the airport several times
as his altitude continued to plummet.

The meter fell rapidly. His braking rocket fuel was gone now. From here
on in, he would be on gliding power alone.

“Easy does it, Marshall,” the general said quietly into his ear. “You’re
lining up fine. Level it out a little and keep straight with the
approach lights. That’s fine. You’re just about in.”

The lights of the airport seeming to rush up at him, Marsh felt a jolt
as the wheels touched ground on the west end of the runway. He kept the
ship steady as it scurried along the smooth asphalt, losing the last of
its once tremendous velocity. The plane hit the restraining wire across
the strip and came to a sudden stop, shoving Marsh hard against the
single safety belt he wore. Finally, incredibly, the ship was still and
he was safe.

He unfastened his strap and removed his space helmet. The heat of the
compartment brought the sweat out on his face. He rose on wobbly legs
and pressed the buttons to the hatches. The last door flew open to admit
the cool, bracing air of Earth which he had wondered if he would ever
inhale again.

His aloneness was over then, suddenly and boisterously, as men swarmed
over him with congratulations, eager questions, and looks of respect.
Reporters’ flash bulbs popped, and he felt like a new Lindbergh as he
was pulled down to the ground and mobbed. Finally the police came to his
rescue and pushed back the curiosity seekers and newspapermen. Then only
three men were allowed through the cordon.

The first to reach him was General Forsythe, who almost seemed to have
ridden with him the whole way. He grabbed Marsh’s hand and clapped him
on the shoulder. He said briefly, “You’ve launched the age of space
travel, Marshall. Congratulations, son. Now go home with your father and
get a good night’s rest. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir,” Marsh replied.

Colonel Tregasker came forward, and there was moisture visible in the
eyes of the cadet officer. “Now that one of my boys has made the first
trip into space and fulfilled a career-long dream, I can retire in
peace,” he murmured. “I’m proud to have been associated with you,
Marshall Farnsworth. Congratulations, my boy.”

Then Dad had his turn. He stood for a moment in front of his son as
though undecided what to do, hat in hand, the night breeze ruffling his
hair. Mr. Farnsworth seemed embarrassed by the grandeur of the moment
and reluctant to accept a part in one of the greatest accomplishments of
modern times.

Marsh moved forward and clasped his shoulders. “I did it, Dad,” he said.

“Thank God for bringing you back safely,” his father murmured huskily.
“Are you ready to go home, son?”

Suddenly Marsh was terribly weary, and he felt as if he could sleep for
days. “I am kind of tired,” he said. “Let’s go home and see Mom.”

The people around seemed to realize that this was not their moment. They
parted ranks quietly as the father and his son walked through them and
got into their car. As they drove off, even the stars and planets seemed
to be standing silent and watchful, in respect for the dawn of space
travel on the tiny pebble that was Earth.



                        MYSTERY EYES OVER EARTH


Dr. Myron Lowenthal, gaunt, keen-eyed, and sixty, shuffled over to the
receptionist’s desk in an office in the Pentagon. Clutched tightly
beneath one spidery arm was a worn brief case.

“May I see Mr. Goodnight, miss?” Dr. Lowenthal asked.

“Who shall I say is calling, sir?” the young woman asked mechanically,
not looking up.

“Lowenthal.”

The young woman’s eyes lighted alertly as if the name were of great
significance to her. “Of course, Dr. Lowenthal. Mr. Goodnight is
expecting you. Go right in.”

At the sight of Dr. Lowenthal and his brief case, Mr. Goodnight rose
slowly to his feet, his face reflecting deep interest not unmixed with
apprehension.

“You—you have finished the translation?” he asked.

Dr. Lowenthal placed the brief case on the desk, and Goodnight’s fingers
were far from steady as he opened the case and pulled out top-secret
manuscripts.

First he laid aside the sheaf of strange, charred papers, each protected
by a cellophane envelope. The sheets were of very thin, amazingly tough
material of unknown substance, and they were covered with tiny, neat
hieroglyphics. The papers had been found by a farm boy twelve months
before in Wickenburg, Arizona, and Dr. Lowenthal, archaeologist and
cryptographer, had been all this time trying to decipher the hidden
message.

Before reading the translation, Goodnight asked, “Is it your belief that
this sheaf of papers was dropped from a flying saucer, as we first
thought?”

“Undoubtedly,” Lowenthal replied.

“Is it good—or bad?” Goodnight asked tremulously.

“Perhaps you had better read it, sir, and judge for yourself.”

Mr. Goodnight began reading the manuscript translation:


FROM: Kal-Pota-Tekkala, Observer 13-J07, Group 507.

TO: Grand Council, Federation of the Triple Suns, Planet Ykaa, Takarala
Sector GZ-5000-7076, Milky Way Galaxy.

SUBJECT: Planets of Sun 00836-Y, Specifically, Third Takarala Sector
GZ-5000-7070.

Planet Called Earth, Charaan Year 37,811.

It is now my tenth year of observation in the planetary group called the
solar system. In this brief report I shall review somewhat randomly a
few of the things I have witnessed on Earth, only planet of intelligent
life in this system and therefore the only world of interest to us in
the Federation.

I arrived in the Earth year 1947. (What a youthful civilization this is,
but about average in their development as compared to some 28,000 other
worlds the Federation has so far observed.) I pride myself on being
among the first of us (Group 507) to be detected by Earthmen in recent
times. This was, of course, the sighting by one Kenneth Arnold near Mt.
Rainier in America, the most advanced country of Earth. Our receivers
picked up the newscast of the sighting and translated. Arnold’s
description of having seen what looked like “saucers” led to our craft
being thereafter named “flying saucers.”

Soon after this sighting, our receivers told us that nearly all the
nations of Earth had taken up the cry of “Saucers! Saucers!” Indeed, the
men of Earth must truly have been overwhelmed by the abundance of our
craft in the sky at this time when our greatest concentration of
observers viewed the planet.

It is hard to realize that many Earth inhabitants still doubt that there
are other planets of habitation beside their own in the universe. (This
is an opinion formed from reports of news commentators.) Yet how they
can close their minds to such a fact, when they know that there are many
billions of suns and planets, is beyond my comprehension. Of course,
Earth has been an island to itself since the beginning of its
civilization, and since they have not even yet ventured into space, I
can understand their skepticism somewhat.

Incidentally, this skepticism of Earthmen is remarkable. Yes, even after
the evidence of our heavy concentration of craft in their skies for ten
years (at our latest visit), many even now doubt our reality. This is in
spite of our near collisions with Earth craft reported by reputable
witnesses (especially the Chiles-Whitted episode near Montgomery,
Alabama, United States of America). Yet those who do believe in us are
very stanch supporters, and I have heard newscasters say there have been
some convincing books written on the subject. Some day—when we make
contact—all must surely believe.

Earth is a planet of many races and different political groups. Although
an effort is being made for co-operation through an organization called
United Nations (not to be confused with United States), there is no
real, enforceable unity among the countries of Earth. The planet has not
even advanced to the point of a common tongue! Without being able to
speak the same language, there is too much opportunity for
misunderstanding, and this must be one of the causes of the deplorable
bloodshed this planet has gone through in its history.

It is good to know that democracy presently seems to hold the balance of
power on Earth. The world leader, America, has been a champion of
democracy since its colonization by Europeans, and perhaps it has saved
Earth from total disaster by intervention on two occasions in recent
years.

There is one major threat to the democratic life of Earth. This is the
nation of Russia, located in the Eurasian area. Its leaders have taken
to the archaic system of totalitarianism. But at the present time the
democracies are so strong that Russia appears hesitant to take the path
of conquest. Besides this, I believe all realize that Earth cannot stand
another world war because of the frightful nuclear weapons that would be
used. In such a war there would be no victor, only losers and world
destruction.

If Earth avoids the pitfall of major warfare, I believe she is on the
threshold of great things. Even now she is launching satellites into
space in the first step toward space travel. The aircraft of Earth are
attaining greater speed, height, and maneuverability. They are still
slow and awkward, of course, compared to the craft we have, but the
engineers are learning, even as we had to do thousands of years ago.

Since Earthmen have still not gone into space, there has been no
experimentation on craft utilizing force fields, but after observing our
craft for the past ten years, I am sure the scientists have come up with
some theories as to how we get about. They are baffled by our motions
that seem to defy the laws of physics. They report that no living person
can withstand the abrupt turns and acceleration of which we are capable.
When they have utilized the cosmic rays of space and understand that a
force field will permit a flyer to spin and soar with his craft, without
distress of any kind, then they will have unlocked the key to what they
believe to be a dark mystery.

Their attempts to overtake us in their jet craft have been laughable. I
often wonder what they would do if we should suddenly stop and dare them
to approach closer. Should they fire on us, it would undoubtedly fill
them with fear and dismay to see their shots bounce harmlessly off our
force field.

It is my opinion that the more prosperous races of the planet are not
the leaders that they could be. There is much frivolity and lack of
emotional discipline about them, and few seem to employ their fullest
mental capabilities. Their radio and picture-radio are entirely in the
realm of entertainment, and formal education seems to be largely
abandoned after an Earthman has passed his school years. Our receivers
constantly pick up, day in and day out, music of definite rhythms which
seem to be enjoying current popularity. These melodies survive for only
a few weeks, then new ones take their place and are, in turn, played to
their deaths. There is a noble class of music that is heard less
frequently and usually at late hours. This never seems to lose
popularity, for some of our recorded pickups of these long compositions
have been compared with recordings made some two hundred years ago by
our prior observers, and they are identical.

Regarding the subject of frivolity, there is a deadly “game” being
played unceasingly across the pathways of Earth, particularly in
prosperous America. Although not really a game, of course, I am reminded
of one as I see it going on. Each player is in control of a free vehicle
(or “guided missile” as I think of it), and he attempts to survive by
avoiding collision with another player. Some are indifferent to the game
and drive their cars unexcitedly and with caution. Other players—and
there are many of them—appear to enjoy the game very much and drive
their “weapons” with reckless haste and seeming indifference to their
own safety and the safety of others. Many of these players lose the
game, and their remains are carried away systematically. It is very
disturbing to see this bloody game going on without end, and I should
feel better if America would abandon it in favor of travel of a less
dangerous nature. But they seem years away from a truly safe, fully
automatic car of our type with the electronic protection shield.

While on the subject of fatality, it is with regret that I heard of the
disintegration of Paltaa-Vezek and his craft some days ago. Paltaa and I
were boys together barely three hundred (Earth) years ago on the
Symphony Lake plantation. We went through sleep-absorption education
together for twenty years, and he was my dear friend. Paltaa’s force
field collapsed when he was escaping a fleet of Earth craft which were
rising into the sky in pursuit. At an acceleration of some 5,000 miles
an hour, his craft collided with air in inertia, and he and his “saucer”
were vaporized in a blinding flash and thunderous roar. The radio
commentators calmly informed the world that it was merely a large meteor
burning itself up in the atmosphere. (The stubborn refusal of Earthmen
to accept our existence continually baffles me.)

From what I have heard these radio spokesmen say, Earthmen who believe
in us seem to regard us with a sort of awe. They rightly consider us
much farther advanced than themselves, but you should hear the
outlandish descriptions some have given us. And after the weird
appearance they present to us, too!

I have judged the people of Earth to be excitable and unpredictable.
Therefore I can understand the Federation’s reluctance to have us make
contact. Earthmen undoubtedly regard us as invaders and would treat us
as such, although they must realize we have shown no acts of aggression.
Nevertheless, there have been a few unfortunate instances that might
tend to make them think we are belligerent (namely, the Mantell case in
1948). Kaal-taa-ar, pilot of the involved craft, I understand, has been
recalled to Ykaa because of his mistake in permitting an Earth craft to
venture into his force field, thereby destroying the alien craft and
violating our strict orders to avoid any incidents with Earth craft.

In spite of the obvious risk, it is my greatest anticipation to meet
these Earth folk face to face. Our observations have been from afar and
therefore lacking much that we could really know about these people. I’m
sure there are things they could teach us, and of course there is much
that we could do to make happier their own existence. Some day, I know,
the Federation will give the word to land on Earth soil. Should I be one
of those fortunate ones, I am ready, and if it costs me my life I shall
be satisfied to have first enjoyed making contact with other men who
live so many light-years from our own Ykaa.

When will this contact be, my friends?

Today?

Tomorrow?

_When?_


As he concluded his reading of the report, Mr. Goodnight’s eyes
reflected the relief he felt.

“It is reassuring, Doctor, isn’t it?” he asked, huskily.

“I think so,” Dr. Lowenthal replied. “Even with my liberal translation,
the nonaggressive attitude comes through continually.”

“This is the final proof we needed as to the authenticity of the
saucers,” Goodnight remarked. “This couldn’t possibly be a hoax, could
it?”

“Not a chance. The substance of the original paper is completely alien
in its composition and manufacture, and the language is undoubtedly the
creation of minds farther advanced than our own.”

Mr. Goodnight sighed as if a great burden had been lifted from him.
“Well, our part in this is closed, Dr. Lowenthal,” he said. “It is out
of our hands.”

“And now?” Lowenthal prompted.

“It is the job of others to determine if the manuscript is to be made
public. This thing could be revolutionary in impact, Dr. Lowenthal. It
could change the thinking and living of every person on Earth.”

The scientist nodded in agreement. “You know, Mr. Goodnight,” he said
after a meditative pause, “I believe that Kal-Pota-Tekkala would be a
rather nice fellow to know. I should really like to meet him.”

“So would I,” Goodnight replied, then added significantly with a sparkle
of anticipation in his eyes, “Who knows? Perhaps some day, Doctor, not
too distant, we _shall_.”



                          RACE AROUND THE SUN


Steve Gordon stared out of the forward port of the _Condon Comet_, which
was streaking toward the sun. A dense filter protected his eyes from the
searing brilliance of the star, looming ever larger by the day and hour
as the rocket devoured the miles at a speed never before equaled by a
space flyer.

“We’ll whip Dennis easily if we can keep up this pace!” exclaimed
Steve’s older brother, Bart, in his clipped way.

Steve saw a gloating, almost fanatical, expression on Bart’s face.
Bart’s one passion in life was to beat a Dennis ship with a Condon
craft. The rivalry extended back eighteen years to 2003, when the
youths’ fathers had first started their competing light-space-craft
companies.

“Take a look out back, Steve, and see if we’re still gaining,” Bart
said.

Steve left his seat and at the rear of the compartment searched the TV
screen, which showed the star-filled darkness behind the ship. A small
silvery mote, the _Dennis Meteor_, moved against the immobile stars.

“We’re well ahead,” Steve reported, turning back. “Why don’t you let up,
Bart? We’ll burn out our jets at this speed!”

Bart’s expression was grimly set. “This is the moment Dad wished for all
his life, Steve. A Condon ship has always played second best to a
Dennis. Now that we seem to have broken through, do you think I’m going
to let up?”

Steve realized that an eventual victory for Bart would not settle
anything, for then Jim Dennis would strike back with an even better ship
next year, and the fight would continue. On and on it would go until one
of them took a foolhardy chance. Then disaster would be the final victor
in the feud.

“We’re going a hundred miles a second!” Steve protested. “We’re already
ahead of Jim’s last year’s record!”

“I’m going to set a record around the sun that no Dennis ship will ever
top!” Bart asserted stubbornly.

Steve had come along as Bart’s assistant mainly in the hope of somehow
calming his brother’s hotly competitive spirit and restraining him from
over-stepping the bounds of common caution in this race that held the
interest of the entire world.

Steve looked over the strain dials on the control panel. The needle was
wavering toward the danger point.

“Bart, slow down!” Steve burst out. “We’ll shake ourselves to pieces!
This refrigerator gauge has been acting funny too!”

Bart checked the panel dials. “I guess we can afford to coast a little,”
he admitted.

They pushed levers, and Steve felt the little ship bucking gently as her
forward jets braked to slower speed.

“Why do you and Jim have to keep going on like this year after year?”
Steve asked. “A Dennis-Condon merger would make for a terrific space
ship.”

Bart grinned tolerantly. “Still trying, aren’t you, Steve?” Then he
frowned. “If Jim Dennis wants peace, let him come to us. Then we’ll
incorporate his best points in our machines and call them Condons.”

“It would have to be a fifty-fifty proposition, Bart,” Steve reminded
him. “Jim has as much pride as we do.”

The younger man studied the slowly enlarging yolk of Sol in front of
them. In spite of the heavy filter over the port, it seemed as though
the terrific light and heat were burning through his eyes.

This was Steve’s first trip, but he had been told by Bart that the
celestial furnace had an aura about it that seemed to penetrate clear to
one’s bones. Their refrigerating unit and heat-repulsing hull would be
taxed hard to keep them from bursting into flame.

“Better check on Jim again,” Bart said impatiently.

“He’s holding back; I know he is. He won’t try to overtake us yet,”
Steve replied. Nevertheless, he got up to take another look at the
screen. He was glad to see that his assumption was correct.

He returned to his seat at the panel and carefully kept tab on the
readings, covering first one dial and then another. Some minutes later
the refrigerator-gauge needle unexpectedly soared above the subzero
mark. Almost at the same moment, Steve felt encroaching heat pressing in
on him from all sides. The sweat popped out. The heat filled his
nostrils, burned his lungs.

“The refrigerator has broken down!” Steve gasped.

His gaze shifted to Bart, who was rubbing a moist hand over his
crimsoning face. Bart’s fingers jerked instinctively from the levers
that had quickly grown too hot to handle. In the motion, Bart’s arm
carelessly brushed against one of the side jet levers. The ship veered
on its gyroscopic balance and plunged out of control.

Steve bumped against the far corner of the compartment, feeling bruises
all over him, but he was not really hurt, although it seemed as though
he were breathing fire. Bart’s head had struck the fire drill, a big
welding machine for repairing breaks in the hull, stupefying him.

Steve shook his head to clear it and scrambled to his seat, righting the
ship again and putting it on automatic pilot. Then he got up and hurried
down the corridor to the garb room. His magnetic shoes clacked along the
metal floor. Hurriedly, Steve donned space suit, oxygen tank, and
helmet.

The insulated gear momentarily cut out the oppressive heat. But in
another few minutes he and Bart would be sizzling like steaks on a
griddle, for even the insulation of their suits could not withstand raw
heat for long. The only way out, as Steve saw it, was to call on Jim
Dennis.

Steve carried another set of gear down the corridor and shook Bart. “Put
this on, Bart,” he said. “It’ll protect you from the heat.”

Bart was gasping in the hot air of the compartment, his face scarlet and
shining, but he took the gear. Next, Steve went outside onto the skin of
the _Condon Comet_. The vault of starlight closed in all about him, and
the deep web of midnight space seemed to extend endlessly. There was the
sweeping veil of the Milky Way galaxy and here closer the pulsing,
blinding sphere of Sol. There was another startling light, a driving
streak of firestreams and silvery glow—the _Dennis Meteor_.

Jim and his co-pilot, Pete Rogers, could hardly miss seeing them.
Quickly the _Dennis Meteor_ drew abreast of the _Condon Comet_, but then
it swept on past overhead!

Steve felt bitterness and disappointment well up in him. He had always
thought Jim to be a “right guy.” Could it be that the winning of the
race was more important to him than two persons’ lives?

The only hope now was a hasty repair of the refrigerator unit. Steve
hustled back into the ship and made his way to the rear where the
cooling machinery was located. He found Bart working there, his helmet
off. Steve removed his own helmet, for apparently Bart had repaired the
trouble. The customary blandness of the atmosphere had been restored.

“What happened to it?” Steve asked.

“The dynamo burned out,” Bart answered. “I just coupled in the spare
one. Where have you been?”

“Out on the skin,” Steve said. “I was trying to signal Jim Dennis.”

Bart’s face went red again, and he muttered to himself.

“I didn’t think there was any chance of repairing the trouble,” Steve
went on.

“I’d rather burn than take help from Jim Dennis!” Bart snapped. “Did
Dennis see you?”

“He must have. He went right overhead.”

“Obviously he didn’t stop, though.”

“No, he didn’t,” Steve said frankly.

“I wouldn’t have believed that of Dennis,” Bart murmured. “I thought he
was a better man than that.”

“He may not have seen me, Bart. Let’s give him the benefit of the
doubt.”

“I’ll give him nothing!” Bart rapped. “If Jim Dennis wants a fight to
the finish, we’ll give it to him!”

Bart began immediately to battle to regain their lead. It was a
frenzied, closely fought contest for many hours, the lead seesawing back
and forth. It took the top speed Bart’s craft was capable of to gain the
lead he was finally able to maintain.

Only when Jim Dennis appeared content to linger behind again did Bart
cut their driving velocity. Once more Steve felt he could breathe
easier—for a while at least.

In the days that followed, there were no changes in position. Steve and
Bart took turns at the controls during the sleeping periods. They could
see the planet Venus at a distance. Their flight had been planned to
avoid close proximity with Earth’s twin because of the retarding effect
of her gravity.

The sun steadily dominated the sky, an enormous cottony ball of atomic
fury with a surface temperature of 6000 degrees centigrade and an
interior heat around 20,000,000 degrees. The red leaping flames of the
chromosphere were like the mountainous waves of a gigantic cosmic ocean
as they lapped millions of miles out into surrounding space. Magnetic
storms—sunspots—all of them large enough to swallow the Earth, were seen
as whirling dark cyclones in the sea of gas.

As the _Condon Comet_ moved around and behind the star, it began to
close in on the planet Mercury. The ship was actually overtaking the
miniature world even though it was circling the sun at a rapid thirty
miles a second.

On the fifth day away from Earth, the _Condon Comet_ reached its apogee,
the farthest point of its orbit from the mother planet. It was “behind”
the sun now, the dominant ball eclipsing the Earth. By now Mercury had
grown hugely, a big pebbly world that literally shimmered with the
frightening heat that poured down upon it. It was a startling sight,
halved into hemispheres of darkness and extreme brilliance. The closer
side was so hot that streams of molten tin and lead flowed, while that
side away from the sun approached the arctic cold of absolute zero.

“I hope we don’t have to land there, Bart,” Steve spoke uncomfortably,
looking out the port.

They began to feel the gravitational attraction of the miniature world,
and they had to bolster rocket fire to combat it. Unlike Venus, Mercury
could not be avoided in this flight.

Steve watched the gauges, especially the refrigerator dial. The latter
was holding up well under this maximum barrage of heat from Sol, but
there was still an oppressive hotness that reached through the laboring
artificial coolness and penetrated Steve’s pores like insidious rays.

“If the _Comet_ isn’t superior to Dennis’s in any other way, it’s made
of better heat-resistant alloy,” Bart had said with self-assurance
before leaving Earth. Steve wondered now if the proof of this assertion
would be settled before both ships were beyond the sun’s reach.

Hours later, when the _Condon Comet_ had passed Mercury, Steve was
impelled to check on their rivals behind. For a moment he couldn’t find
the ship on the TV screen. When he spotted it at last, by changing the
direction of the movable screen, he was amazed to find the craft far
below, hovering over the planet.

“Bart!” Steve called. “It looks as if Jim and Pete are in trouble!
They’re diving for Mercury and seem to be heading for the terminator
line between the dark half and the light!”

Steve wished there were some kind of radio communication between the
ships, but electrical interference from the sun made radio impossible on
these round-the-sun races.

“We’ve got to go down there, Bart,” Steve said.

“We haven’t won yet, Steve. There’s still the record to beat.”

“Will you stop thinking about records!” Steve retorted. “There are a
couple of men down there in trouble!”

“Did they stop for us?” Bart bit out. “It’s probably only a trick to
lure us down so that Dennis can make a quick getaway!”

But Steve knew that his brother was not as cold-hearted as he pretended
to be. Bart proved it in the next few minutes when he reluctantly turned
the _Comet’s_ nose downward with a savage thrust of the upper tail jets.

“You’ll never regret this,” Steve said.

“I wonder,” Bart grunted, without satisfaction.

As the ship moved strongly into Mercury’s gravitation field, Bart lined
the automatic pilot up with the tiny speck on the rocky world below that
was the _Dennis Meteor_. Then he and Steve strapped down on their
protective couches for the grueling landing.

Steve felt as though his chest were crushed under the rapid
deceleration. It was the effect of a swiftly dropping elevator
multiplied hundreds of times as the _Comet’s_ forward jets thrust
against Mercury’s crust to brake the hurtling speed. Steve finally
blacked out; he always did. When he came to, they had landed, and
through blurry eyes Steve saw his brother struggling to release himself
from his straps.

They went to the port. The _Dennis Meteor_ was in bad shape, its prow
crumpled into a huge face of rock. Its occupants could have been killed
by the concussion, although there was a good chance that they were still
alive if they had had time to strap down.

Steve noted their rugged surroundings, where strange rock pillars thrust
into the black sky from a shimmering, white-hot plain. Snaky rifts of
incalculable depth split the torrid landscape.

“The ship landed on its side,” Bart observed, speaking over his
short-range helmet radio. “The escape port is underneath!”

There was no point of exit from the ship for the trapped occupants if
they were still alive, Steve observed. Even the rocket tubes had been
crushed flat. Actually the _Dennis Meteor_ was a complete ruin, its
entire glossy surface warped and corrugated.

“You can see the ship broke down under the heat,” Bart said. “That’s why
they had to crash-land.”

“Look here on the other side!” Steve’s voice suddenly crackled in alarm
over his helmet radio.

Bart joined him. Only now did they see that the craft had nearly rolled
down a precipitous incline into a canyon stream of molten lead far
below. The ship was balanced precariously on the ledge. It seemed as if
the slightest jar would send it hurtling down the slope.

“We’ve got to get them out of there before the ship falls!” Steve said.
“The precipice looks so crumbly it may give way at any minute!”

“I don’t see how we can get them out,” Bart commented.

Steve thought a moment. “The fire drill! We can cut a hole in the top of
the ship!”

Bart frowned. “The force of the drill or even our weight on top of it
may cause the ship to go. But if you’re game, I am.”

They brought the fire drill out of the _Condon Comet_, and as they
climbed up onto the warped hull of the other ship with it, Bart smiled
wryly. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d risk my neck for a
Dennis,” he remarked.

A moment later, when Bart was about to start the drill, he asked, “Ever
try swimming through molten metal, Steve? You’d better think about it.
We may be doing it in a second.”

Steve felt weak in the knees as he looked down into the plunging gulf
where the metallic river tossed against blackened rocks. A person flung
into that stream would be a cinder in scant moments.

Steve gritted his teeth. “Start it up, Bart.”

The machine whined into action, pouring a thin stream of blue-hot biting
energy against the heat-resistant alloy. The rocket shuddered under the
drill’s action, and Steve felt waves of fear course through him. The
drill moved in an arc that was to be a circle barely large enough for
the two men inside to squeeze through in their space suits.

When the job was halfway done, the ship ground forward several feet.
Steve saw Bart’s face drain whitely. Steve could almost feel the
scorching bite of liquid metal against his body. Yet the ship somehow
clung stubbornly to its precarious support.

They renewed their efforts, and the arc grew. Finally the circle was
full round. Bart stood up and jammed a foot against the isolated ring,
and it dropped inside. Steve held his breath as he looked in, afraid of
what he might see. He felt immeasurable relief as Jim and Pete came up
to the opening attired in space gear. They shoved a ladder into place
and started up. Steve gave Pete a hand, for he seemed to be shaken up.
Suddenly the ship rumbled a foot or two. It was going any instant. The
four of them carefully walked the length of the craft and made their way
down the flattened rocket tubes.

Bart was the last to jump to the ground. His movement affected the
delicate balance of the ship, and it slid forward, its stern arching
straight up as it dipped over the gulf. The ground shook, and a moment
later the _Dennis Meteor_ had thundered to oblivion into the river of
lead.

After Jim and Pete had expressed gratitude for their rescue, the four
fell into silence as they trooped back to the _Condon Comet_. Although
no one spoke, Steve felt that the others, like himself, must be thinking
many things. Would this mark the end of the long feud, or would it be
only a temporary truce?

Jim Dennis walking with a limp, studied the Condon ship. He circled the
rocket completely and closely examined the smooth hull, still undamaged
by the abnormal heat bombardment it was taking.

When they were inside, Jim was the first to speak. “This ship is
terrific,” he said simply.

“You admit that?” Bart asked incredulously.

“I’ve never seen a craft stand up so perfectly under extreme heat,” Jim
continued. “I think you’ve done it, Bart. It’s the finest light space
ship ever built.”

“An engineer who started out with Dad made this alloy,” Bart declared.
“He told me he thought he had finally come up with the ideal metal.”

“The _Meteor_ rattled like an old freighter the whole way!” Jim
complained. “We spent a lot of time in the rear checking on the rocket
tubes. We were afraid they’d shake loose. I guess we must have been back
there when we passed you, for the last time I looked out you were ahead
of us.”

That explained why they hadn’t seen his wave, Steve thought.

“It sure was a lucky break for us that you brought your drill along,”
Jim went on. “I had so much confidence in the _Meteor_ I was sure we
wouldn’t need it.”

“I felt the same way,” Bart admitted, “but Steve insisted we bring it.
That kid brother of mine always did have more practical sense than I.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we crash-landed, Bart,” Jim
said. “I’ve been thinking that maybe this feud has gone on long enough
and that you must be as sick of it as I am. Together, we could turn out
ships that would be just about perfect. What do you say, Bart?”

Bart’s face grew stern and thoughtful. Finally he answered, “I’ll have
to think it over first, Dennis.”

“While you’re thinking, we may as well have a look-see,” Jim said. He
went over to the panel and checked the readings. “You seem to be way
ahead of my old record, Bart. You’re still going to try to beat it,
aren’t you?”

Steve knew this remark had broken down the last of Bart’s stubborn pride
and reserve. His brother smiled and thrust out his hand to Jim Dennis.
“You’re a good loser, Jim,” he said.

“I’m no loser,” Jim answered, grinning. “I’m a winner—we both are.”

Young Steve Condon sighed contentedly. He glanced at Pete Rogers, who
winked at him. Jim and Bart sat down side by side at the control panel
of the _Condon Comet_. Steve didn’t doubt for a moment that the long
feud was finally at an end. He was satisfied that his father would have
liked it this way.



                        FLIGHT OF THE CENTAURUS


Spacemaster Brigger came into the navigation compartment of the
_Centaurus_, which was thrusting into the starry night of space far
beyond Saturn. Rob Allison, junior officer, looked up from the desk
where he sat, wondering at the frown on the skipper’s face.

“It’s just as I feared, Allison,” Mr. Brigger said gravely. “The men are
sorry they signed on for Titania and are grumbling already. They think
they’ll be ridiculed when they get back.”

“Because of Dr. Franz’s being discredited by all the scientists, I
suppose?”

The skipper nodded. “They’re sure they’re on a wild-goose chase. I’m
afraid I’m inclined to agree with them.”

“I guess you and the crew, sir, are only reflecting the opinion of
almost everyone else on Earth,” Rob mused bitterly.

The spacemaster of the _Centaurus_ dropped onto a plastic bench beside a
port that overlooked the star fields of the outer solar system. “Exactly
why did your brother Grant authorize this expedition, Allison? Does he
really believe we’ll find animal life on Uranus’ satellite or is it
something else?”

Grant Allison, an illustrious front-rank explorer of several years
before, was now president of Interplanet Exploration, which controlled
research space travel.

Rob relaxed as he prepared to answer. “You probably didn’t know, sir,
that Dr. Franz put my brother through space school when our father
couldn’t afford it. He was Grant’s teacher in space mechanics in high
school and thought he showed unusual promise.”

“That would explain President Allison’s interest in Dr. Franz,” Mr.
Brigger agreed, “but I can’t understand an intelligent man like your
brother falling for a harebrained story such as Dr. Franz told.”

The facts of Dr. Franz’s amazing discovery were known to the whole
world. While studying the planet Uranus a distance of two and a half
years before, the research ship blew a rocket tube and was forced down
on Titania, Uranus’ largest moon. While the crewmen repaired the craft,
Dr. Franz went prospecting. After he returned, he reported that he saw
fish life swimming beneath Titania’s solid ice sheet, where the
temperature was 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The crewmen were too
interested in their work and, not having a scientific curiosity anyhow,
did not bother to verify the scientist’s claim.

Upon returning to Earth, Dr. Franz, who was in the early stage of a
fatal illness, told the scientific world of his remarkable discovery. He
was totally unprepared for the rebuff he received from all quarters. No
scientist on Earth would admit that Dr. Franz’s preposterous tale could
possibly be true. Those people who would not go as far as calling Dr.
Franz a dishonest publicity seeker (as some did) were nevertheless
agreed that the ordeal he had gone through must have been too much for
him. Dr. Franz died six months later of his illness—a brokenhearted man.

“Grant truly believed Dr. Franz found life on Titania,” Rob said to the
skipper of the _Centaurus_. “He’s so sure of it that he has risked his
own career on this expedition. If this fails, he says public sentiment
will force him out of office.”

“Your brother must have a lot of confidence in you, Allison,” Mr.
Brigger said, “making you head of this research trip which is so
important to him. But from what I hear of your exploits on other
planets, he has reason to trust you.”

“Thank you,” Rob murmured. “I couldn’t do a good job, though, if I
didn’t believe as whole-heartedly in this as Grant does. I believe, as
Grant does, that Dr. Franz spoke the truth.”

“It will certainly be a revolutionary discovery for science if you find
and bring back evidence of that,” the skipper admitted.

Before leaving the compartment, Mr. Brigger added, “Let’s hope we don’t
have a mutiny on our hands before this thing is over.”

Alone, Rob got up and stared out of the port into the perpetual black
deeps where the star points glowed like polished gems.

Some minutes later a young spaceman with sandy, disordered hair that
even space regulations could do nothing with, came into the compartment.
Jim Hawley was Rob’s best friend and had flighted a number of
expeditions with him. There was a sober look on Jim’s customarily jovial
face.

“The men are complaining like babies, Rob,” Jim said. “Do you think
they’ll be any good to us?”

“They’ll have to be, Jim,” Rob answered grimly. “They’re all we have.”

Jim looked at his stalwart young friend in admiration. “You and Grant
are all right, Rob. Not many men would risk their careers on an old
man’s whims. Aren’t you scared—just a little bit?”

“I’m plenty scared,” Rob told him, with a nervous smile. “I’m only a
subofficer of five months, and here I am in charge of an expedition.
Don’t think that isn’t frightening. In a sense, the lives of all men
aboard the ship will be in my hands after we land.”

“If you need me,” Jim assured him, “here’s one buddy you can count on.”

Two days later the Centaurus had intercepted the orbit of Titania and
was beginning to barrel surfaceward. Rob, looking outside from the
officer’s platform up forward, saw a huge rocky world filling the port,
its mantle of ice shimmering in the reflected light of the unseen
primary body.

The _Centaurus_ dropped lower over a plateau that Rob had pointed out to
Mr. Brigger as the spot where Dr. Franz had visited. The underjets threw
out pencils of braking power to check the plunge of the space ship.

Finally the _Centaurus_ touched down on its tail fins and then
Spacemaster Brigger said to Rob, “It’s all yours now, Allison.”

Looking out over the hoary wilderness, completely airless because of the
little world’s inability to retain an atmosphere, Rob felt suddenly
incompetent. Only now did he realize fully his youthful inexperience. It
was one thing to be an idle witness on a journey; it was another to be
in charge of a crew of men.

Rob heard footsteps on the platform and turned to see Jim Hawley walking
up. Jim grinned in his engaging fashion, and it was like a tonic to
Rob’s spirits.

“What do you say we get started, Rob?” he said. “We’ve got a lot to do.”

Rob had the skipper round up the crew in the orientation compartment as
soon as he had made his own plans. Then he laid before them the order of
procedure. On a flannel board he tacked an enlarged map he had copied
from one owned by Dr. Franz.

“Here’s a sketch of this area,” Rob explained. “Dr. Franz neglected to
mark where he had seen the fishlike animal swimming beneath the ice. He
did report that he was only able to find one after days of searching.
They must be very scarce.”

“So scarce there probably aren’t any at all,” retorted one of the
subofficers in a low voice.

Rob ignored the remark and went on with his explanation. “We’ll scatter
out over the area and begin searching. It won’t be an easy job because
the ice isn’t completely clear but is streaked through with ammonia and
other opaque solubles.”

“Just how long will we have to keep up this search?” another crewman
demanded. “I don’t want to spend Christmas in this forsaken place.”

Spacemaster Brigger spoke up then. “We can spend seven days on searching
and still have enough supplies and fuel to get us home again. If we
don’t find anything in that time, we start back just the same. Is that
clear, Mr. Allison?”

“Yes, sir,” Rob said. Seven days sounded like ample time, but the area
they had to cover was several square miles. From Dr. Franz’s description
of the place, the liquid medium beneath the ice was wide and deep, a
veritable ocean. Beneath this solution the ice began again and extended
into the core of the small planet.

Explanations over, the majority of the crew, about twenty spacemen,
climbed into their space gear, Rob and Jim with them. Mr. Brigger and a
few key personnel would remain aboard to attend the operational
facilities of the ship. The suits were triple-reinforced against the
exceeding cold and were electrically heated. The helmets, with inside
radio sets, were frost-free types, and the shoes were doubly weighted
and spike-soled for navigating over the icy, low-gravity surface.

The men descended to the ground on an escalator dropped from the side of
the _Centaurus_. Rob had the men spread out, two by two, as safety
buddies. He concentrated on the farther corners of the ice field to
begin with, intending to bring the searchers closer and closer to the
ship each day.

As the men began hiking over the glacier, Rob and Jim talked together
through their helmet radio sets.

“I don’t understand how the water under the ice flows without freezing
in this superlow temperature,” Jim remarked.

“It can’t be water,” Rob answered. “It’s something else, probably a
liquefied gas with an extremely low freezing point. Wherever it is, it
must contain all the elements needed to support its strange life forms.”

“Let’s start looking too, Jim,” Rob suggested.

The first “day” passed without success. Then the second. Night was only
a relative term, for Uranus, Titania’s main source of light, was never
out of the sky. On the third day, some of the men complained about
having to spend ten hours at a time in biting cold weather searching for
something they were sure did not even exist. Despite the men’s heavily
insulated suits, the ultralow temperature that frosted the suits like
mold could not be entirely kept out. Rob sympathized with the men, but
there was no other way to do the job.

It was on the fifth day that one of the searchers spotted a small
thick-bodied shape several feet beneath the ice. The cordon of searchers
had closed in more than halfway to the ship by now.

“Jim, will you supervise operation of the ice saw?” Rob asked, when they
had joined the men who had made the discovery.

Jim nodded and left.

“Has it moved yet?” Rob asked one of the crewmen, trying to curb the
almost overpowering excitement he felt.

“No,” one of them replied. “It seems to be dead and embedded in the
ice.”

Presently the ice saw came trundling up on its ski runners, being pushed
along by Jim and two others. It was a boxlike machine, heavily insulated
against the cold. Jim dropped the blade and turned on the machine,
guiding it along an invisible outline around the imprisoned thing. He
went over the cuts several times, lowering the blade each time until a
depth of several feet was reached. Then he gave the saw a side-to-side
motion, and there was a sharp crack as the block of ice was snapped off
beneath the surface.

By now all the searchers had come over. Jim worked the lifters on the
machine and the block of ice, containing its inanimate prisoner, was
raised and set down. The men crowded close and looked. Then Rob looked,
and Jim. Rob felt a sickening disappointment as he realized their
failure. There was no creature inside the ice at all. It was nothing but
a slab of rock.

One of the men snorted contemptuously. Another laughed openly in scorn.

Rob bit his lips and regretfully ordered the ice saw back to the ship.
Then he sent the men back to their positions of search.

The young officer felt little hope. The ring was closing in toward the
_Centaurus_. There wasn’t much more area that hadn’t already been
examined. Rob, realizing the attitude of the men, knew they hadn’t
probed as diligently as they were supposed to have. Very likely large
areas had been only carelessly examined. But that couldn’t be helped.

Rob went through the last day with the slow resignation of defeat
settling within him. In only a few hours the searchers would have
covered the entire area, and their own moment of victory would be at
hand.

When the search was finally over and still no one had found anything
moving beneath the ice, Rob knew how it felt to taste defeat.

Jim clapped Rob sympathetically on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Rob,” he
said. “Perhaps later on there will be another expedition.”

“There won’t be any more to this place, you can be sure of that!” Rob
blurted. “After this failure, the Space Command certainly won’t send any
more good money after bad!”

Later, as all on board the _Centaurus_ slept, Rob tossed restlessly on
his cot. He heard the quiet breathing of the crewmen in the adjoining
compartments. They were happy; their reluctant job was done and they
were going home. The blast-off was scheduled for 0600 the next morning.

Rob could not stand his plaguing thoughts. He got out of bed and pulled
on his clothes. He looked across the room at Jim Hawley, breathing
deeply in sound slumber. Rob walked down the corridor to the garb room
and began tugging on space gear. He realized only then how bone-weary he
was, how his head ached from the tension of the past weeks, how heavily
his heart throbbed in his breast. He couldn’t relax any place now, he
knew, but it would be easier outside, continuing the search to the very
end.

Rob tucked an electron gun in the holster of his suit, then left the
_Centaurus_. He struck out over the glacier pack, his head lowered. It
came to him then how difficult it would have been for the men to detect
any moving object in the murky maze below.

Hours passed and Rob found himself far from the ship. He was shivering
from the stubborn cold. He turned the heat in his suit to full strength
and pushed his aching legs faster to speed up the circulation. His eyes
never left the ground, searching, searching....

If he were the only one involved in the failure, it wouldn’t matter so
much, but it was his brother’s problem too. Grant hadn’t made many
mistakes on research expeditions—that was why he held the highest office
in the organization. After this, though, it would go hard with him. Then
there was the misunderstood Dr. Franz, who deserved a better fate than
being labeled an old man who in his final days seemed to have lost his
clear, scientific outlook.

“Maybe, though, the public was right,” Rob thought. “Maybe it was a hoax
Dr. Franz pulled in order to gain public recognition he had never quite
made.” But even now, in the blackest moment, Rob couldn’t really believe
this of the dear friend who had launched his brother’s career.

Rob’s legs were beginning to feel like stumps as the time dragged on. He
stumbled often on burls of ice that cluttered the wasteland. Finally he
tripped and fell heavily, and it seemed that he did not even have the
strength to rise again. His helmet was flat on the ice and his eyes,
misted over with sleeplessness, were still looking downward.

_Then he caught a sign of movement in the depths._ He blinked his eyes
to clear the glaze out of them.

“There it is again!” he said aloud. “It’s no hallucination either!” It
was a long dark shape threading its way sluggishly down below. Now the
thing was rising to the surface. Cold, bulging eyes peered into his own.

With numb fingers Rob uncached his electron gun and pressed the barrel
against the ice. A moment later the creature was hanging buoyant and
lifeless under the submerged edge of the ice layer. Rob struggled to his
feet, astounded at the renewed energy he now had. He memorized the spot
as best his dazed faculties would allow. Then he laid the pistol on the
ice for an additional marker. He began running toward the ship.

From that moment on, Rob’s mind seemed to be in a dream world. He
vaguely remembered the long way back to the space ship and then nearly
collapsing before reaching it. He dimly remembered Jim, who had missed
him, coming outside and assisting him into the warmth of the vessel. And
he barely recalled pouring out the story of his find.

Now, much later, he was fully awake and the nightmare was over. He found
himself on his cot, fully dressed. Jim Hawley was looking down on him.
Rob was aware that the ship was moving. He knew the _Centaurus_ had
already blasted off for home.

“Did you find—!” he exclaimed.

Jim soothed him with a smile. “Yeah, we dug out your monster and we’ve
got him aboard. If you’re through being a sleepyhead, I’ll take you to
see him.”

[Illustration: _Cold, bulging eyes peered into his own._]

“How long have I been under?”

“Twelve hours.”

“Wow!”

“Feel rested?”

“Good as new,” Rob answered.

They went down the corridor to one of the cold-storage compartments.
Several of the crew were inside, as well as the skipper. But Rob wasn’t
noticing the men. He was looking at a dark alien form lying on the
floor. Rob went over closer and knelt down. The creature was fishlike,
and the strangest thing about it was the glistening dark skin, similar
to metal. Rob touched it and it was like stroking cold steel.

“No wonder it can live in such frigid temperatures,” Rob murmured, “with
a metallic covering like that! Won’t the scientists back home have a
picnic dissecting him?”

He stood up and found his gaze level with Mr. Brigger’s.

“I never believed in your fantastic theory,” the chief officer said,
“and I still doubt it after I’ve seen it. But I admired your spirit from
the first, Allison. I believe you would have been as good a loser as a
winner and I’m proud to have flighted with you.”

He smiled and offered his hand to Rob, who shook it. Then the others
came forward, and they too offered congratulations. But Rob’s thoughts
weren’t for his own success this day. They were reaching ahead to when
Grant Allison would be even more of a fabulous figure in the field of
space science, and Dr. Franz would at last have claimed his
well-deserved victory.



                            EXPEDITION PLUTO


“The lieutenant doesn’t think you’ve got your mind on navigation, Rob,”
Duff Ford was saying, as he and Rob Allison stood before a port of the
rocket ship _Rigel_ looking out over the sea of space.

“Does it show that much?” the lean young spaceman answered.

“We’ll find him, Rob,” the redhead answered. “Stop eating your heart
out.”

“You never knew Jim Hawley, did you, Duff?” Rob asked.

“No, but from what I’ve heard of him, he’s quite a guy. Always smiling
and bursting with friendliness.”

“That’s Jim,” Rob said, a tightness in his throat. “I sure would like to
know what happened to him and the others on Pluto.”

“How come you didn’t get to go along on the first Pluto expedition?”
Duff asked. “I thought you and Jim Hawley always went together.”

“I’ve been working with my brother in the States,” Rob replied. “As the
new president of Interplanet Exploration, he’s been awfully busy.”

“There’s a real guy,” Duff said with admiration, “your brother Grant. I
guess he’s the greatest spaceman who’s been born. And judging by your
own record around the solar system, Rob, you’re not far behind him.”

“Thanks for the flattery,” Rob said, grinning.

It felt good to smile again. He hadn’t smiled since he’d learned about
the break in communication from the Pluto expedition ship _Capella_. The
breakoff had come suddenly after landing, and the source of the trouble
was unknown. As soon as Rob had heard that the _Rigel_ was going in
search of the missing explorers, he had signed up for the trip as
assistant to the navigator. He’d been grateful for the companionship of
young Duff Ford, a likeable fellow he’d met in space school. Duff was a
regular crewman, an air purifier, on the _Rigel_.

Duff was speaking again. “Think we’ll get by the big boy there with the
halo?”

Rob looked at the giant, glowing pearl of Saturn, which had been growing
before their eyes for the past couple of days. Though placid and
beautiful against the velvet sky, the ringed planet was a real menace to
the _Rigel_.

“Lieutenant Stone said it’s going to be a tight squeeze,” Rob answered.
“We hope we’ve got enough rocket power to fight off the terrific gravity
pull of Saturn and his moons.”

“I can’t understand why we couldn’t go on a beeline to Pluto without
even coming close to the other planets,” Duff said. “Pluto is a long
ways off the plane of the outer planets, isn’t it?”

“We could,” Rob answered, “if it weren’t for floating clouds of
explosive hydrogen which have been found to exist outside of the plane
of the ecliptic. That’s why we have to stay in close until we’re past
Neptune.”

“Won’t Uranus and Neptune give us trouble?” Duff asked. “They’re pretty
big too.”

“Uranus is far around on his orbit, and Neptune is heading away from us.
However, we’ll see Neptune at a distance.”

Hours later Rob was in the navigation compartment with Lieutenant Stone,
his immediate superior. They were leaning over a level ground-glass
screen upon which were a projected television image and a panel of
dials. In the middle of the scene was poised the oblate sphere of Saturn
and its spinning necklace of millions of meteoric particles. Scattered
about were globes of varying sizes, which were Saturn’s moons. The
screen surface was roughened to take pencil marks. A tiny dot
represented the _Rigel_, and arcs were drawn to show the motions of all
the objects.

“Our closest approach to the planet will be here at point ‘X’,” spoke
the navigator. Glancing at his watch, he added, “We’ve got about five
minutes to go.”

As they waited, Rob went over to the side port where he could watch the
luminous planet directly. He thought he had never seen a sight so
beautiful. Saturn was banded with color layers something in the manner
of Jupiter, only in softer tints. Riotous masses seethed and tossed in
the cauldron of fury beneath the apparently paper-thin girdle of shaded
bands.

“It’s gorgeous—but deadly too,” Lieutenant Stone commented.

“Yes, sir,” Rob murmured, “and I’m in no mood for a bath of methane and
ammonia. We’ve got to get to Pluto; that’s the only thing that’s
important!”

At zero hour, all rockets were blowing at full capacity. Rob could feel
the _Rigel_ bending to the implacable will of the big world. As the
ship’s nose was pulled inward, the young spaceman could see the anxiety
on his superior’s face.

“I hope we’ve calculated this thing correctly, Rob,” the lieutenant said
tightly. “The ship should begin to turn tail on Saturn in a little
while.”

But the _Rigel_ still had not turned after twenty, nor even forty,
minutes.

“We’re losing ground!” Lieutenant Stone said, checking a dial on the
screen. “Something’s wrong! But that can’t be!”

Rob went over to the screen, where the spectroscope dial showed that the
globe was growing closer, although it was not visibly so. If the _Rigel_
were not checked within a short time, the space ship would plunge into
Saturn’s poisonous atmosphere! Rob picked up a clipboard of papers and
began studying it.

“I’d give anything if we were on the _Procyon_ which took you and your
brother to Jupiter!” Lieutenant Stone complained. “The _Rigel_’s built
primarily for distance and hasn’t a fraction of the _Procyon_’s rocket
thrust!”

“There seems to be something wrong in the figures for Titan!” Rob
suddenly spoke.

Lieutenant Stone looked over his shoulder. Silently the two went through
the figures, inspecting every equation where the numbers appeared
relating to Saturn’s largest satellite.

“The figures are wrong in two places!” the officer exclaimed. “No wonder
we miscalculated the total gravity pull! Whoever prepared these notes
back at the base will surely catch it! I guess we can’t blame him too
much, though. These figures were worked up on extra short notice for
us.”

“What’re we going to do, lieutenant?” Rob asked. “The ship’s on top
power drive now!”

Lieutenant Stone explained the new development over the intercom phone
to Spacemaster O’Leary. The skipper verified the fact that the _Rigel_
was on full thrust. He said that there was no other alternative but to
abandon ship and make for the moon Japetus in the two space boats and
hope to be picked up later from there.

“We can’t abandon the ship!” Rob burst out uncontrollably.

“And why not, Allison?” came the skipper’s retort over the intercom.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but I was thinking of the _Capella_ and her
crew!” Rob said. “What will happen to them?”

“That can’t be helped I’m afraid,” the skipper replied. “My first duty
is to my ship and men. Both of you prepare to abandon ship.”

When Spacemaster O’Leary had cut off, Lieutenant Stone said, “I’m sorry,
Rob. I know how much you thought of Spaceman Hawley, but there’s nothing
more to be done. Better get together what stuff you want to take along.”

However, as the officer began getting up his things, Rob remained at the
screen, poring over it and a little mathematical machine called an
electronic computer.

“Ready to go, Rob?” Lieutenant Stone asked sometime later.

“I think I’ve found something, sir!” Rob said, holding a place on the
screen with his finger.

“A die-hard, if I ever saw one,” murmured his superior, with an admiring
grin. He came over to see.

“Scylla is known to have a slightly unpredictable orbit,” Rob said.
“During the past few minutes I’ve traced it cutting inward toward the
planet. I’ve checked the moon’s gravity-and-distance ratio on the
computer, and I believe if we delay the abandon-ship for several more
minutes we can pull free of Saturn and its family!”

“Let me see,” the lieutenant said. They checked the slight movement of
Saturn’s tenth satellite, which had been discovered in 1963. Scylla was
tiny, a dense ball of rock only three miles in diameter. But its
diminishing gravity pull as it moved away could be enough to swing the
balance in favor of the _Rigel_.

Lieutenant Stone agreed with Rob’s finding in general, although in the
brief time available there was no opportunity to make a positive
measurement. He phoned the skipper, who was ready to send out the first
space boat. Lieutenant Stone reported to him Rob’s find.

“If you agree it’s worth a chance, lieutenant, I’ll play ball,” the
skipper replied.

As Rob stared apprehensively at the big planet from the side port, he
tormented himself about whether he had done the right thing in
suggesting what he did. Had the _Rigel_ been abandoned, as was planned,
all hands would have been saved. As things stood now, however, the
entire crew might perish. Still, Rob could not really regret taking the
responsibility. Times before, when there had been lives at stake, he had
stuck by his convictions and had never failed to accept danger when that
seemed the best move for all concerned.

Rob and Lieutenant Stone kept their eyes glued on the TV screen,
particularly the speck that was Scylla and the slight motion it was
describing. Rob felt shudders rock the space ship as great powers locked
in combat.

Some minutes later, Lieutenant Stone checked the dials and said with a
deep sigh of relief, “I think we’ve done it! Thanks, Rob!”

They had done it. The balance was swung in favor of the _Rigel_ as
Saturn’s tiny companion continued to move away, giving up the fight.
From now on the planet would appear to diminish in size, but it would be
many hours before its commanding sphere would be lost among the other
millions of lights in the heavens.

For days and days, nothing seemed to change in the endless depths of
black space as the _Rigel_ sped toward Pluto. There were the same
monotonous patterns of stardust and the eternally broad sweep of the
Milky Way and other remote galaxies. Only the distant planets grew and
shrank in size. As the space ship neared Neptune, the big green world
enlarged importantly. Rob and Duff, in an off-duty hour, watched the
frigid, lonely planet.

“Neptune reminds me a little of Earth,” Rob said.

Duff’s brows raised questioningly. “I can’t see _any_ similarity. Why,
Neptune is four times Earth’s diameter!”

“But Neptune’s mean surface gravity is the same as Earth’s because of
its low density,” Rob replied. “Like Saturn, another big puffball,
Neptune has a small rocky core surrounded by huge layers of ice and
atmosphere. Both Neptune and Earth have a greenish cast, and each has a
satellite of about the same size and at about the same distance away.”

“There’s one big difference, though, Rob,” Duff said. “Neptune’s a
zillion times colder.”

“It’s still not as cold as we’re going to find Pluto,” Rob reminded him,
“near absolute zero!”

The redhead made a wry face. “Why did you have to say that? It’s so warm
and comfortable in here!”

As the _Rigel_ drove onward, thousands of miles a minute, day upon day,
Rob grew impatient to reach Pluto. He was thinking of Jim Hawley and the
_Capella_ crew undergoing unknown hardship and peril. The radio circuit
with the ill-fated space ship had been left open in case she was able to
get a message through. But none had come during all this time, and Rob
was beginning to doubt that he would ever see his fun-loving friend
again.

The day finally came when the _Rigel_ hovered over the little planet,
which was not quite as large a world as Mars. Rob and Duff, with some of
the other crewmen in the pilots’ compartment, stared down upon trackless
wastes of incredible frozen beauty. Ever since the ship had dropped low
enough to reveal the dazzling surface features of the solar system’s
most distant planet, no one had spoken. The bizarre landscape seemed to
have awed everyone into a state of silent fascination.

Suddenly Duff broke the quiet. “Look, what a pretty blue lake!”

Rob saw the small body of water partly surrounded by a canyon of
towering ice cliffs. In the twilight glow of stars and the weak sun, the
lake and peaks sparkled with a clarity that reminded Rob of great
jewels.

“It’s a lake rightly enough,” Spacemaster O’Leary said. “You can see the
ripples, but that’s no water.” He checked the thermocouple. “It’s 348
degrees below zero Fahrenheit down there! That’s a lake of _liquid
oxygen_. I’ve seen them on the dark side of Mercury.”

Rob gasped in astonishment. He had visited most of the planets, but
there was nothing to compare with a wonder such as this.

Lieutenant Stone then spoke. “Those ice cliffs don’t look to be frozen
water. Do you think they might be chunks of dry ice, sir?”

“That’s my opinion,” the spacemaster replied, “—solid carbon dioxide.
Notice those other crystal peaks off to the right. They are probably
ammonia. I’ve seen them on Mercury, too.”

There was a scant, dense atmosphere close to the ground—that had been
known. It was a strange-looking substance, Rob thought. It lay like a
blanket of gray-blue mist between the space ship, which was several
thousands of feet up, and the ground below. The compressed atmosphere
was filled with small clouds of icelike particles which floated lazily
near the surface like tiny fish in a cosmic ocean. Everything about the
scene suggested a terrible coldness almost beyond human realization.

“Our bearings indicate this is approximately the area where the
_Capella_ was last heard from,” the skipper declared. “But I see nothing
of the ship. Do any of you?”

With the others, Rob strained his eyes to pick out a shiny cigar shape
in the bleak stretches below. It seemed an impossible task, and he was
reminded of an old analogy of the elusive needle in the haystack. There
were broad areas of dark rock between the icebergs, filmed over lightly
with rime. Such dark expanses could account for Pluto’s weak solar
reflection, Rob decided.

The _Rigel_ cut its power to a low cruising speed and began making a
detailed search. Scanning scopes were used to magnify the view, but the
job promised to be a long and painstaking one.

Perhaps it would even take too long to be of any service to the
_Capella_, Rob thought gloomily, as his scope swept the ground. His
speculations then took an even grimmer turn. Perhaps the lake of oxygen
had swallowed up the space ship! Or maybe the craft lay buried under
layers of frost.

The hours of search, many of them, dragged by. At last the skipper
called his crewmen together and make a pronouncement that shocked Rob.

“There’s no purpose in keeping up the search any longer,” he said
decisively. “Even if we should find the ship now, we don’t have enough
fuel to land and blast off again. I’m afraid the elements have claimed
the _Capella_ and that the first expedition to Pluto will have to be
written off the books.”

“But, sir,...!” Rob burst out.

The spacemaster looked at him levelly.

“I’m sorry, Rob. I realize you’ve got a more personal interest in the
_Capella_ than the rest of us. But we’re simply licked.”

Rob turned away from him in abject despair and stared unseeingly out of
the port. Filling his inner eye, to the oblivion of all else, was the
sight of a grinning young spaceman, with a perpetually rumpled shock of
blond hair. _He’d never see Jim Hawley again._ Knowing this, it was as
though a part of himself had suddenly died.

As the Rigel headed away from the area over which it had cruised
unsuccessfully for so long a time, a burst of static came over the
long-silent, open circuit of the space ship’s radio. Rob’s heart
thrilled with hope. Could it really be the _Capella_ trying to make
contact?

More static followed, then a muffled voice, barely audible, saying:
“_Capella_ to space ship. Can you hear?”

Spacemaster O’Leary scooped up the radio mike, eager as a child. “Yes!
Yes! Give your location!”

The communication came over badly, but O’Leary found out that he was
speaking to the _Capella_’s skipper, Spacemaster Nielson. Port
telescopes were pointed to the spot given as the location of the downed
rocket. Rob focused his on the upright craft, which was buried in
hoarfrost and situated on the top of a slope leading down into the blue
oxygen lake. Rob realized that only the luckiest of glances could have
picked up the camouflaged ship.

On the mike again, Spacemaster O’Leary asked, “Are all aboard the ship
well?”

“We’re all suffering from the cold,” was the reply. “Remember we’ve been
here for weeks, although it seems like years! We had to draw from the
atomic reactor to make a heater, but that isn’t adequate. Some of the
men have frostbite. The ship is under a foot of frozen matter as you can
see. The truth of the matter is we came woefully unprepared to tackle
such an icebox!”

“How did you get marooned?” asked O’Leary.

“As soon as we landed, the frost began piling up,” Nielson replied. “It
clogged our jets and our aerial, which is the reason we lost contact
with Earth. The hull defrosters were a complete failure. We just now got
the antenna partially repaired after all these weeks. One of the
crewmen, Jim Hawley, had to work outside on it. He’s taken an especially
rough beating from the cold.”

“I hate to tell you this,” O’Leary said somberly, “but I don’t know how
we can save you.” He explained about the lowered fuel supply. Then he
reminded Spacemaster Nielson of the fact that even should the _Rigel_
enter Pluto’s atmosphere, she would most certainly be overcome by the
same fate that had been the _Capella_’s.

Rob, hearing this, made a suggestion to Spacemaster O’Leary. “The two
space boats may be able to go down there and back before the frost gets
them, sir.”

The _Rigel_’s commander looked at him gravely, “I can’t ask a crewman to
take a chance like that.”

Rob looked at him steadily. “I’ll pilot one of the boats myself, sir.”

“You Allisons have more courage than sense,” O’Leary retorted gruffly.
“But you can try it.”

Lieutenant Stone spoke up. “I’ll take the other boat down, sir.
Lieutenant Myers can fill in as navigator if I fail to get back.”

Shortly later, as Rob climbed into one of the rescue craft, Duff Ford
followed him, similarly clothed in a cumbersome space suit. “You may
need some help, Rob,” he said.

Rob smiled at him. “Thanks, Duff. I guess I would like some company.”

Both youths carried heat guns, as did Lieutenant Stone, for blasting
ice. The escape locks of the _Rigel_ opened, and the boats slipped out
into the vacuum of space. The life crafts were propelled by jets of
compressed air and could seat nine men comfortably. Both boats would
thus easily accommodate the sixteen crew members of the _Capella_. The
suits worn by Rob and Duff were like those carried by the _Capella_’s
crew on the expedition. They were heavily insulated, electrically
heated, and contained air spaces for additional prevention of heat loss.

Rob dove quickly toward the planet’s surface. Time was the important
element in this venture. He saw the capsule shape of Lieutenant Stone’s
boat, which had gotten a head start, just below. Rob felt a steady
battering against the hull as he neared the ground. This was caused by
the suspended frozen particles in the atmosphere.

Rob opened the forward braking jets, which poured against the big flat
area of dry ice beneath. A dense cloud enveloped the craft as the
surface of the carbon dioxide was warmed and evaporated into gas.

The landing, therefore, had to be made more through judgment than
through vision. When Rob felt a gentle bump under him, he felt
immeasurably better.

“That was close!” Duff remarked over his helmet radio.

“I see the lieutenant landed safely too,” Rob said. “He’s getting out.”

“He left his jets idling,” Duff said. “Maybe we ought to do the same.”

“Right,” Rob agreed. Cutting down the engine power, he then jumped out
with his heat gun, followed by Duff.

The _Capella_ stood about forty feet away. The flat of dry ice was free
of the cloud now, and visibility was good under the glow of the stars
and the sun, which resembled a bright arc light. As Lieutenant Stone
came over with his gun in hand, Rob was shocked to see a coating of
frost growing over the officer’s suit just like a fur covering! The same
thing was happening to him and Duff, of course. Rob was grateful for the
antifreeze compound which had been rubbed onto the facepiece of his
helmet to keep vision clear.

“Let’s get over there,” the lieutenant said over his helmet radio.

Rob could already feel the insidious cold getting in to him, seemingly
to the very marrow of his bones. The grimness of the situation was
relieved to some extent as he saw Lieutenant Stone crunching along in
front of him, clouds of vaporizing dry ice swirling comically upward
with every step he took. It looked as though his boots were smoking!

The _Capella_ was an awesome, frigid sight. Its prow jutted upward into
the twilight sky like a gigantic icicle. It seemed unbelievable that
anyone could still be alive inside such a desolate, arctic tomb. Rob and
his companions made a quick search about the ship to see which place had
the thinnest coating of ice on it.

“I believe the jet chambers are the easiest escape openings,” Rob
suggested. “There’s less ice on them than anywhere else.”

Lieutenant Stone nodded. “Let’s start blasting.”

Dense white vapors poured over them from the generated heat as they
fired upward into the jet cylinders. There were small, rocking
explosions, and balls of fire burst before their eyes. Duff was knocked
off his feet, and Rob and the officer were shaken. Duff rose again and
valiantly went back to work with his companions.

“We must have ignited small amounts of explosive gases in the
atmosphere,” Lieutenant Stone said.

The explosions began to be fewer, but the white vapors persisted. At
last holes were opened in three of the large cylinders. Rob looked up,
and presently space-suited figures appeared overhead in the opening he
had blasted out. The men quickly hooked ladders, used for cleaning the
jet chambers, over the side and started down—clumsily after the bitter
ordeal they had gone through.

Some were so overcome by the raw cold they could scarcely walk when they
were outside. One of the research scientists complained mournfully about
having to leave his equipment behind. Each man was assisted across the
ice to the waiting space boats. Spacemaster Nielson, who appeared in
somewhat better shape than most of his men, helped in this.

“The engines have gone dead!” Duff noticed.

“I sure hope we can get them started up again,” the lieutenant groaned,
helping the last crewman he was to take into his rocket.

Rob told Lieutenant Stone to go on, that he had only one more crewman to
help out of the _Capella_. Lieutenant Stone got in, closed the door, and
started up the stalled jets. They sputtered reluctantly, then began
firing evenly. Rob was grateful to see the capsule shape lift safely
into the sky a moment later.

Rob and Duff returned to the doomed ship and motioned for the last
crewman at the top of the rocket shaft to come down. The space-suited
figure was about to start when he suddenly collapsed and fell over on
the floor up above!

“Give me a boost into the chamber,” Rob asked Duff.

Duff assisted him, and he caught hold of the lower rung of the ladder
and pulled himself inside. It was an exhausting climb up the ladder in
his bulky suit, and for a moment or two he thought he could not make it
except for the man’s pressing need.

Finally he reached the floor level and leaned over the crewman who had
collapsed. It was Jim Hawley, his face ashy gray with cold! Rob hastily
propped him over his shoulders. In Pluto’s light gravity pull it was not
too much of a load.

Carefully Rob started down the ladder. The icy glaze that encrusted the
metal rungs was treacherous. A fall might easily be fatal, for a torn
suit would bring quick death from the temperature.

Rob found Duff jumping up and down to keep warm. He looked like a
frolicking polar bear in his frost-whitened suit. Gently Rob handed the
limp body of Jim Hawley down to Duff. Then Rob leaped to the ground.
Together they started off, supporting Jim between them. Suddenly Duff
halted, jerking Rob backward. Rob turned and saw Duff pointing upward at
the _Capella_, which was tottering on its base fins! The fire blasts had
obviously upset the ship’s balance.

Rob motioned for them to hurry. Just as they reached the space boat they
felt the ground tremble. They turned and saw the space ship topple over
with a ground-shaking crash and begin to roll down the slope toward the
lake of liquid oxygen.

Rob gave a cry of fear.

“What’s the matter?” Duff asked.

His voice came muffled over Rob’s helmet. It seemed that the freeze was
going to destroy their means of communication too. “When the ship
reaches that lake, there’s going to be a fierce explosion!” Rob replied.

“Why?” Duff inquired.

“Our heat guns warmed up the ship and when it hits the lake,” Rob told
him, “the liquid oxygen will reach its boiling point and vaporize with
terrific force!”

Duff’s steps quickened at this, and finally the two, with their burden,
were at the craft. They blasted at the frozen seams of the door with
their guns. Even in the few minutes’ time, layers of frost covered the
small rocket. White clouds and small explosions accompanied his and
Duff’s efforts.

The door had had to be closed in order to keep the crewmen inside from
suffering even more from the bone-chilling temperature. Through the
frosted window Rob could see the men pushing against the door with their
feeble strength, trying to help.

Rob felt panicky. It appeared that the few minutes’ delay in rescuing
Jim might cost them their lives. He glanced down at the huddle on the
ground that was Jim Hawley. If Jim didn’t get out of this biting freeze
in another minute, he would probably never survive it.

Suddenly remembering the terrible danger from the _Capella_, Rob glanced
in its direction through an opening in the clouds. “There’s a break!” he
said hopefully over his radio. “An ice boulder has blocked the ship
temporarily!”

In reply, Rob heard only a muffled squawk over his receiver. Their
radios had succumbed to the freeze.

When it appeared that the door seams were free enough, Rob and Duff
dropped their guns and began tugging on the door. Those inside pushed at
the same time. With a tearing sound the door swung open. Rob and Duff
helped Jim in swiftly.

“Keep him on his feet and moving!” Rob told them, forgetting for a
moment that his radio was dead. He then made motions to show what he
wanted them to do.

He jerked the door partially closed, took his pilot’s seat, and started
the jets. They choked and gave fitful bursts. Then they died. Rob
grabbed up his heat gun and hopped outside. He crunched over dry ice to
the rear of the space boat and began blasting into the jet tubes.

The numbing glacial cold seeped through his insulated boots and space
dress. He stamped his feet as he worked. Now and then he cast a glance
at the _Capella_, which was working free of the ice boulder and slipping
downhill again. The instantaneous freezing nature of the climate was
causing friction and helping to delay the huge craft to some extent.

A moment later, when Rob decided that the jet tubes were opened, a
strange feeling came over him. It was a mixture of giddiness and sleepy
lethargy.

“You’re freezing to death!” his subconscious warned. “Get moving! Get
moving!” He shook himself and staggered back on numb legs to the door of
the space boat. His head cleared as he forced open the door with the
help of Duff from inside. He crawled in and slumped into his seat,
panting heavily and drinking in gulps of sweet oxygen.

He dared not even think what would happen if the jets should not fire
this time. He switched on the power and slammed his foot against the
choking pedal. The jets sputtered, then quickened, then purred with
regularity! Rob heaved a mighty sigh and opened the throttle. The space
boat lifted into the sky with a jolt that caused the weary passengers to
tumble against each other.

When they were well above the ground, Rob motioned for Duff to keep his
eyes on the _Capella_, which was nearing its destruction. A moment later
they saw it plunge into the oxygen lake, and Rob flinched. There
followed a ghastly flash and roar, a detonation that was as fierce as
Rob had predicted. The two young spacemen felt some of the shock
currents even at their height. But they were safely above the danger,
and that was all that really mattered.

Some hours later the _Rigel_ was heading earthward again. As soon as he
was permitted, Rob paid a visit to the infirmary where most of the crew
of the _Capella_ lay for treatment. In one of the beds Rob saw a
familiar smiling face and touseled sandy head that warmed his heart.

“Hi, hero!” Jim Hawley greeted. He had a comical appearance with his
cold-reddened ears and nose.

“How are you doing, Jim?” Rob asked, pressing his shoulder gently.

“Fine. I’ve got some frostbitten appendages, but the doc says I won’t
lose any of them, thanks to you.”

“Thanks to you, your whole crew was saved,” Rob countered. “If you
hadn’t fixed that antenna....”

Jim looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess it’s thanks to everybody on
this trip, Rob.”

Thinking of the heroic work of Lieutenant Stone and Duff on Pluto and
the other crewmen who had trusted their lives to his doubtful theory in
the Saturn crisis, Rob had to agree with him. “You’re right, Jim,” he
murmured. “This trip it’s ‘thanks to everybody.’ And I can’t say it too
much.”



                          MERCY FLIGHT TO LUNA


Toby Workman stared out of the window of his room on the rim of the
space station, wondering what he should do. As the countless stars of
black space trooped slowly past in an endless caravan, the boy was still
haunted by the nightmare of last week. That nightmare could yet end
forever his dreams of a space pilot’s career. Toby was looking in the
direction of the mist-covered globe, five thousand miles away, which was
Earth. The space station was a celestial lookout, a scientific
laboratory, and a harbor for space-going rockets.

“What’re you thinking, Toby?” asked Lou Penner, his roommate.

“I’m wondering if I should take Dr. Shepard and Deb to Luna,” Toby
answered.

“Are you crazy?” Lou blurted. “Do you think they’d ride with you after
all that mess that happened last week? Remember, too, you never did get
along with Deb’s dad very well.”

Toby turned from the window, his sturdy shoulders slumped in defeat, a
brooding unhappiness on his sensitive face. “You sound just like the
others, Lou,” he said bitterly.

“I’m not saying I believe you were responsible for the accident,” Lou
said carefully. “I’m just giving you the cold facts.”

Just then over the wall speaker of their room came another appeal for a
pilot to carry the doctor and his daughter, who was a nurse trainee, on
the desperate mission to Luna to administer antitoxin in the sudden
outbreak of contagious fever.

“There’s no one else, Lou,” Toby said. “I’m the only licensed pilot on
the space station right now. You’ve got fifty hours to go yet on yours,
and the express bringing other pilots from Mars won’t be in for a long
time. A delay may let the fever grow into an epidemic.” Toby opened his
locker and began pulling out flying gear. “I’m going to try it, Lou.”

“How are you going to get the doctor to ride with you?” Lou wanted to
know.

“Just keep out of his sight until we’ve blasted off and are on our way,”
Toby said. “Then he’ll have to go along.”

Lou grinned at him. “I should have guessed you’d try this, knowing how
daring you are and your mania for helping people.”

The event which had been ruinous for Toby had occurred when he had been
piloting a sight-seeing rocket for vacationists from Earth. It was his
first big job. While they were coming into dock on the giant revolving
wheel which was the space station, something had happened to the braking
rockets, and the ship had collided with the hangar, injuring several
people. When it was discovered that nothing was wrong with the rockets,
Toby was unofficially accused of negligence pending further
investigation, although his license hadn’t been taken away. If no
mechanical defect should be found, Toby knew he would be suspended from
space flying indefinitely, possible for life.

Toby had Lou inform the operations officer of his offer to make the
flight to Luna. Then he dressed and made his way toward the inner hub of
the wheel where the vast hangar was located. He walked along the narrow
corridors in a jerky movement, not yet having gotten used to the
artificial gravity which was created by the continual rotation of the
space station. He and Lou had been on the station only a month. Many
high-school students came here every summer in order to build up a
flying record, thereby hastening the day when they would be full-fledged
rocket pilots.

As he looked for his ship, Toby saw the investigating crew still
examining the big craft in which he’d had the accident. Their
significant report might come at any time. Toby had the small rocket
flyer, which Lou and he were renting together, towed to the air lock.
Toby wished he had time to have the ship checked, but if he waited for
that, they’d lose their precious time advantage.

Toby waited, with pounding heart and idling rocket motors, for his
passengers. Presently, through the side port of his pilot’s compartment,
he could see the brisk strides of Dr. Shepard and his young daughter. A
steward helped the two inside with their medical equipment, then waved a
farewell to Toby.

“All set, sir?” Toby called to the doctor.

“Yes,” Dr. Shepard returned.

Toby clamped shut the airtight door. He revved the motors to launching
thrust, and their roar drowned out the quiet hissing of the oxygen
out-putter. He fastened his safety belt, told the others to do so, and
then was off.

When the painful effects of blast-off were over and the ship was on a
smooth trajectory, Toby heard a click of metallic soles along the
magnetic floor and braced himself for the unpleasantness he knew was
coming.

When Dr. Shepard recognized him, he exclaimed angrily, “You!”

“Yes, it’s I, sir,” Toby admitted. “I knew you and Deb had to get to
Luna as quickly as possible.”

The doctor’s lean, angular face reddened. “But you’re incompetent! I
thought your license had been revoked! If you believe you’re doing
something heroic, Toby, consider also that you’re risking the lives of
us who could be of service to those stricken people on Luna!” He paused
a moment for breath, then went on. “A person your age has no business
flying rocket ships in the first place. It’s a job for older men with
mature judgment!”

With that, Dr. Shepard clattered back to his seat in the back, leaving
Toby with a feeling of being as incompetent as the doctor had said. He
stared glumly out the forward port at the wrinkled witch-face of Luna.
Her gaping craters were like taunting eyes, and her jagged mountains
appeared to wear the twisted grin of a mocking giant. Even nature
herself seemed allied against him.

Suddenly he had company again. It was Deb this time. He studied her
pretty face closely, wondering if the inscrutable look on it meant that
she was one of that majority of disbelievers or whether perhaps....

“Tell me, Deb,” he said to her, “do you believe that accident was my
fault?”

She smiled sympathetically, tossing her titian curls. Her large clear
eyes were sincere and direct. “Would it make any difference to the
examining board if I did believe in you?” she asked.

“No, they’d still lift my license if they wanted to,” he answered, “but
it would make a lot of difference to me.”

“You said it wasn’t your fault,” she said softly, “and I believe you,
Toby.”

Suddenly Toby didn’t feel quite so lonely. “It helps a lot to know that
one person, at least, believes in me,” Toby said gratefully. “Thanks,
Deb.”

Dr. Shepard called his daughter back. Toby had half expected Deb to say
what she had. She was a swell person. Even since she had been
transferred to his school class, he had known her as a quiet girl who
couldn’t believe the worst in anybody. Like Lou and himself, she was
doing extra summer work in order to earn her space nurse’s rating
sooner. Her father was considered one of the best space surgeons. Toby
had never been one of his favorites among the fellows who came to see
Deb. Toby had heard from Deb that her father regarded him as reckless
and too ambitious for his age. The doctor’s own education had been a
plodding one, hence his inability to accept the idea of young people
still in high school piloting rockets.

The flight continued to be a tense one for Toby as the dragging hours
passed. Dr. Shepard kept Deb in the back, leaving Toby with only the
cold remote stars for companionship. When Toby slept, he put the rocket
on automatic pilot, but he could not completely relax.

On the last leg of the journey, Toby heard a buzz on his radio set and
tuned it in. It was Lieutenant Cameron, operations officer at the space
station, and Toby’s heart froze with dread as his sobering message came
through:

“I’ve been instructed to tell you that this is your last trip as a
pilot, Workman, at least for a long time. The investigation of the craft
in which you had the accident is nearly completed, and there seems to be
no mechanical defect upon which the disaster can be blamed. I’m afraid
it boils down simply to a serious error of judgment, Workman. I’m sorry,
but the chief says your license will be revoked upon your return to the
space station.”

“Yes, sir,” Toby murmured, and signed off numbly.

Although the message was not exactly a surprise, Toby hadn’t known it
was going to be so hard to take. It made him feel all empty and hopeless
inside. He had a strong urge to get up and walk right out of the ship
into the black deeps, there to drift in the weightless vacuum forever.
But the fact that he was responsible for his passengers kept him in his
seat, told him to stick to his job and see it through, to dare hope even
in this grimmest hour.

At last the forward port revealed the bleak wilderness of Luna down
below. Toby lined up the tiny space harbor in his landing sights. He
placed the rocket flyer on automatic pilot and went back to the rear.

“We’re about to land,” he told his passengers. “Fasten your belts
securely.”

He returned to his seat and began sliding shiny floor levers. There was
a rumble of smooth gyroscope bearings as the rocket’s outer
torpedo-shaped casing did a complete half turn. This brought the rear
jets facing the moon so that they were in position to act as brakes as
the rocket plunged groundward. The passengers were unaware of this, for
the inner shell in which they sat remained in its original position, but
they could feel the drag of deceleration as the ship began losing its
blazing speed. Toby steeled himself for the agonizing pressure that
would come when the ship reached full deceleration.

Suddenly something prompted him to look at the speedometer. What he saw
nearly caused his heart to stop beating. The ship was not losing enough
speed. The jets were jammed!

He thought how ironical it was for the very same thing to happen to him
twice—two cases of jet braking failure—but he might never live to bear
the disgrace of this one. Nor would the Shepards, with their precious
knowledge and serum. Thinking of them brought Toby up out of his seat.

Toby’s fumbling hand found the lift stick. As the rocket angled up from
the frost-bitten ground, he saw a racing blur of Lunar landscape, pumice
drifts, and buildings so near he could almost have reached out and
touched them. It was such a close call that it left Toby shaking. The
rocket scurried off over the barren land like a frightened bird.

Toby heard a clatter down the aisle. He turned and saw Dr. Shepard being
flung about like a chip on an ocean. Toby staggered down the passageway
after him. Necessarily rough, he shoved the doctor back into the seat
from which he had unbuckled himself, and strapped him tightly. Deb was a
pale ghost still buckled down beside him, her eyes wide in terror, her
body tense as a coiled spring.

“Make him stay put!” Toby ordered and slipped and slid back to the
front. As the rugged moonscape swept dazzlingly across the port, Toby
headed the rocket’s nose upward again. A nauseating giddiness was
threatening to overcome him. Toby shook his head vigorously and hung on.

When the rocket had lifted high over the planet, he began “purging” the
jet chambers, a procedure sometimes effective in pulling them out of a
state of jamming. The action consisted of alternately giving the tubes a
sudden full thrust, followed by a few moments of total inactivity. At
each burst, Toby felt as if his head would be snapped off his neck. At
last he sensed that the jets were working freely. This was confirmed by
a glance at the instrument panel.

Once again he headed the ship in for a landing. He felt the rhythmic
jerks of the firestreams in normal braking thrust, and he sighed in
relief. Some minutes later the rocket touched down gently on the soil of
the moon. They were safe.

Toby helped the bruised and shaken Shepards into space suits and got
them outside. He felt pretty badly mauled himself and thought he’d keel
over at any moment as he saw the eternal stars of the Lunar sky grow dim
before his eyes. Then someone gave him a supporting arm into the waiting
room of the spaceport.

It was some time before Toby felt like himself. He found that he and the
Shepards, coming to full consciousness themselves, were surrounded by
people.

“I’ve been in the space service a long time,” Toby heard someone say,
“but that was the slickest landing I’ve ever seen! That young fellow
must have superman nerves to do what he did!”

Toby never saw so many grinning faces watching him or so many hands
clapping him on the shoulder.

“It was certainly a show of calm judgment and expertness, Workman,” a
man in uniform said and stuck out a big palm to him. Toby took it,
blinking incredulously, for he faced none other than Commander Jameson,
the chief on Luna.

“I thought you’d like to know,” the commander went on, “that I just now
got a message from Lieutenant Cameron reporting that, upon
re-examination, they found a defective valve that could conceivably have
caused your accident last week. After your showing on this landing, I’m
sure they’ll agree it wasn’t a case of incompetence.”

“Thank you, sir,” Toby mumbled, bewildered by this sudden reversal of
fortune.

“You’ve convinced another person, Toby,” the boy heard beside him and
saw a haggard, rarely smiling Dr. Shepard. “I guess I’ve misjudged you
young people. It seems you can handle ships with the best of them!”

Toby looked past the doctor and saw Deb regarding him with quiet
admiration. Her wordless compliment was the most appreciated of them
all. Who could say but that her lone faith had kept him going in that
dark moment when he had been ready to give up?



                       THE PERIL FROM OUTER SPACE


Young Lieutenant Rob Allison rode the escalator down the side of the
space ship to the ground. His heartbeat had increased its tempo since he
had been ordered from Earth to report to Space Command headquarters on
Luna. There had been palpable unrest throughout Earth for several weeks
now. No one seemed to know just what it was, but it was frightfully
real—that, everyone would admit. And Rob had an uneasy feeling that his
trip to Luna was somehow connected with the mystery.

“Have a good ride, sir?” a steward at ground level asked the youth.

“Well enough,” Rob said.

Rob had not yet gotten used to being called “Sir.” It made him feel
older—an experienced spaceman—not his mere nineteen years of age. More
than that, it gave him a false sense of importance.

The steward saw before him a tall, husky fellow who filled his space
suit well. He saw a young man who carried himself confidently, yet in no
way pretentiously, despite his unofficial nickname of “the Space
Command’s youngest hero.”

Rob’s eyes roved about looking for the jeep which General Forester had
said would be here to meet him. He glimpsed the distant Lunar panorama
which was the scene of his first interplanetary adventure some years
before. He had visited all the planets or their moons since then. There
had been perils, defeats, triumphs. It amazed him that he was still
alive after it all. Beyond the gaunt stone buildings of the colony, the
serrated tops of the Lunary Appenines pricked the black sky where stars
almost too many to comprehend lay scattered like self-luminous gems.

“Lieutenant Allison!” came a voice from across the drifts of pumice.
“Over here!”

Rob approached the jeep, jogging along with the ease of an elf’s tread
in Luna’s light gravity. Rob recognized a circlet of rockets on the
driver’s plastic helmet and was both surprised and flattered.

“General Forester!” he said over his suit radio. He saw the officer’s
grin within the shadows of his headgear.

“You’re just about the most important person in the world now, Rob,”
General Forester said, “and so I thought I’d come for you personally.”
His narrow brown mustache thinned to a pencil line as he continued to
smile welcomingly.

Rob felt a disturbing jolt within him as he heard the general’s words.
What significance lay behind this remark?

“I’m flattered, sir,” Rob said.

“You shouldn’t be,” the general said brusquely, in a strange reversal of
manner. It was odd how quickly his sunny expression became grim. “I’m
afraid we’re more interested in you for what you can do for us—and
Earth—than in your personality.”

Rob felt the uneasy tightening of the noose of suspense. He felt
suddenly naked and alone, his confidence shaky. He wanted to ask why he
had been chosen to take on an apparently enormous task. The general
anticipated him.

“We picked you, Rob, for this biggest of all jobs because you’ve been
through all the terror and suspense that the project might entail. Your
reputation for courage has caught up with you, Rob, and we’re going to
use it for all it’s worth!”

Rob felt his pulse throbbing in his temples as the jeep scurried over
the sand dunes toward Space Command headquarters. While his heart could
scarcely contain his excitement, his mind was equally frantic for facts.
“What is the job, sir?” he asked quietly.

“You’ve noticed, of course, the suppressed terror of the people back
home in the past weeks,” the general said. “They know something big is
wrong, that their very lives are being menaced. How they found out I
don’t know, because the strictest censorship has been held. Maybe it’s a
sort of telepathic hysteria that can’t be censored. At any rate it’s
there, and there’s already been trouble from it. The Command at home has
been getting crank letters demanding that we tell the people what is
wrong. This kind of thing can lead to something bad.”

“Then something is wrong?” Rob ventured, watching the officer expertly
avoid a treacherous crack in the frost-riven ground.

The general’s face became haggard, and there was a trace of terror in
his own eyes. “There is. Something even worse than the people must
suspect.”

Rob shuddered. All of a sudden the minus-200-degree temperature outside
his space suit seemed to have penetrated inside. He checked the heater
and found that it was all right. No, this was a mental chill.

Next came the inevitable question, “What is this—thing?”

“You and your crew will be sworn to strictest secrecy before you blast
off from Luna,” General Forester said. “That pledge of secrecy for you
begins at this instant. If the people back home got even an inkling of
what the trouble is, there would be widespread panic.”

“You have my word, sir,” Rob said.

[Illustration: _That pledge of secrecy for you begins at this instant._]

There followed an electric silence for several moments. It was as if the
general himself were rallying courage. “There is a giant radioactive
cloud approaching the solar system from outer space at a terrific speed.
The cloud covers an area roughly as big as Jupiter. Scientists have been
plotting its trajectory with electronic instruments for a long time, and
there is no doubt but that it will collide with the system if nothing is
done about it. Life, of course, would be wiped out completely.”

Rob felt the horror of the statement clear to the marrow of his bones.
It left him shaking and numb. The general noticed the effect on him.

“That’s the way it left me when I first heard about it,” he admitted.
“If it affects us two, who are reasonably adjusted to the terrors of
space, how do you think it would affect ordinary persons?”

After the shock had lessened somewhat, Rob was able to speak. “But you
do have a weapon against this cloud?” he said hopefully.

“We hope we have,” General Forester replied. “It’s called Operation Big
Boy.”

There was no more time for discussion. The jeep topped a rise, just
below which lay the hub of buildings making up the Space Command. Rob
suffered further agony of suspense as they parked and glided over the
sands to the general’s office in the main building. Rob was glad to get
out of his space suit, for he had been in a cold sweat ever since he had
heard the first sobering words about the cosmic terror. Rob and the
general locked themselves in the privacy of the latter’s quarters.

“The appearance of the R-cloud, as we call it, has necessitated using
our topmost military weapon,” General Forester resumed. “You and no one
else except the World Security Commission has known that the Space
Command has had for some time a stockpile of cosmic-ray bombs which
could literally blow Earth apart. You and your crew will carry a set of
these bombs and try to scatter the mass so that it won’t penetrate the
solar system. But of course there’s no assurance that the bombs can do
this.”

Rob heaved a deep sigh. He knew at last what was in store for him, but
this knowledge held little satisfaction. The things spoken between him
and the general in the few minutes they had been together had been
staggering in concept. It was hard for him to realize that he was part
of such a colossal scheme. It was more like a dream.

“Naturally you and your crew will run considerable risk,” General
Forester said. “I’ve been told to give you the refusal of the job if you
feel that you cannot go through with it. But I pray that you’ll give it
considerable thought before you turn it down. I don’t know of a better
man in the service to trust with the future of humanity.”

_The future of humanity._ Dependent upon him, an insignificant one of
several billions who populated Earth! The idea nearly bowled Rob over.
Yet he found himself agreeing to take on the task. He spoke quickly lest
he wait too long and find himself withdrawing.

General Forester led him out of the building through a connecting tunnel
to a plastic-domed hangar. Here Rob saw a little hundred-foot X-500
Cetus fighter rocket crawling with a ground crew that was obviously
readying it for flight. It was quickly evident to Rob that the Cetus was
a specially adapted make, for it was unusually deep-bodied.

“This is your ship,” the general explained. “It’s a model that was built
especially to carry the C-bomb. There’s one room for a crew of six. The
rest of the bulk is for shielding against radiation from the bomb.”

Rob could readily appreciate this latter fact, knowing that cosmic-ray
energy was many times more powerful than nuclear fission.

“Is the crew on Luna now, sir?” Rob asked.

“They’ll arrive on the ferry from the space station later today,” the
other replied. “Let’s go back.”

As they retraced their way through the tunnel, the general filled in
more facts. “We had hoped to let the R-cloud approach closer before
launching an attack, but the pressure of public suspicion makes it
necessary to get on the job right away. You’ll carry the X-500 to Titan
where you’ll pick up the bombs from our Command unit there and get your
final instructions. After that, you’re on your own.”

Six men battling the greatest pack of energy ever faced by mankind! It
was almost like tempting fate, Rob thought; like facing a mechanized
army with only a club for a weapon. But Rob had confidence in the
scientists of this day and their devastating brain child, the cosmic ray
bomb.

Rob met his crew in the general’s office. He silently studied the young
men, selected as the best in their field, who would be entrusted with
the lives of three billion people.

General Forester introduced them: Mort Haines, the chubby, burr-headed
mechanic; tall, thin-faced Lieutenant Fox, chief pilot;
navigator-radiation officer Lieutenant Swenson—big, blond and Swedish;
small, prematurely balding Goode, the medic; and lastly the youngest of
them all, the one who made the greatest impression on Rob. His name was
Clay Gerard, a “sputter” or graduated space cadet without a rating, who
would fill in on odd jobs which did not fall under the province of his
more experienced companions.

Clay extended a big palm to Rob. His grip crushed Rob’s hand. Rob looked
into his expressive blue eyes and thought he detected some amusement in
them. Rob marveled at the boy’s muscle-padded shoulders, thinking how
well he would fit into somebody’s football backfield. Then it came to
him suddenly that Clay had done just that, and exceptionally well.

“Aren’t you last season’s triple-threat star at Space Academy?” Rob
asked.

“That’s me,” Clay answered.

“I hear you ran your opponents ragged, Clay,” Rob said. “I hope you help
us take care of our present enemy the same way.”

“I’ll do my part,” Clay said. “I don’t like to blow my own horn, but I
was champ in every sport I entered. That ought to qualify me for this
team, shouldn’t it?” His lips twisted in a bantering grin.

General Forester broke in. “Please observe service courtesy, Cadet
Gerard, and address Lieutenant Allison as ‘sir.’”

“Yes, sir,” Clay replied. He looked at Rob. “You and I must be about the
same age—sir.”

The subtly prolonged final word did not escape Rob. Something warned him
that he might have a mildly rebellious spirit in his crew.

“I believe so,” Rob returned, “and I’m sure both of us will act our ages
on this project. The future of our planet depends on it.”

“I know, sir,” Clay answered with unexpected soberness that made Rob
hope he had misjudged him.

The crew was briefed in detail on the facts of Operation Big Boy from
the moment they would depart from Luna to the final act of guiding the
last cosmic missile into their antagonist. After this, the crew was
dismissed to attend to their final affairs and get some hours of rest.

Later, Rob heard that a girl by the name of Gerard was working in the
communications office, and he went over to see if she were any kin to
Clay. Clay had left before he had heard her name spoken, so he couldn’t
find out from him.

He found auburn-topped Dulcie Gerard at the transspace radio switchboard
handling a communication between a lonely doctor on Mars and his wife
back on Earth. When it was over, she switched off and turned to Rob with
tears in her brown eyes. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“You’re crying,” Rob said.

She smiled prettily. “It was that conversation I had on the board. It
touched me, the way they talked.”

Suddenly the girl stared at him so intently that he found himself
blushing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but aren’t you Lieutenant Allison?”

“Guilty,” he said.

“I’ve heard of all the wonderful things you’ve done,” Dulcie went on,
“but I never thought I’d meet you in person.”

Rob shuffled his feet in embarrassment and decided to get down to
business. “The information clerk down the hall told me you’re Dulcie
Gerard,” he said, “and I wondered if Clay Gerard is your brother?”

At the mention of the name, her face took on a softened, somewhat tragic
expression. “I don’t know whether he’s my brother or son, the way I’ve
been looking after him since our folks died a few years ago.” She smiled
wryly. “We’re close to the same age, but Clay seems to have a strong
feeling for family ties. He’s not home much, but he likes to have a home
to come to when he’s tired or just wants to and I’ve tried to provide it
for him.”

“I just met your brother today, but somehow he didn’t impress me as
being that way,” Rob said. “He gives me the impression of being,
well—completely independent.”

“Don’t be so polite, lieutenant. Clay’s attitude is painfully superior,
but of course I love him in spite of his faults. He’s such a sweet guy
otherwise.” Her eyes then began to glow with a deep fear. “Just the
same, I’m scared to death about him. Clay is like a powder keg, and some
day somebody’s going to light his fuse. He’s going to blow right up and
he’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

Rob couldn’t answer because he feared she spoke the truth. Clay Gerard
was heading for a fall. Even in this short time, he had detected it.

“What am I going to do, lieutenant?” she asked helplessly.

Rob wished he had an answer for her, because already he had begun to
admire this valiant young person. But once again he had no answer, and
he told her so.

“Of course you wouldn’t know,” Dulcie said with a sympathetic smile. “He
told me he was on your crew that’s leaving on a special mission today.
Maybe since you’ve talked to me you’ll be able to understand him on the
trip a little better anyway, lieutenant.”

“I’ll try to do that, Miss Gerard,” Rob promised, “but I’m afraid it’ll
be mostly up to Clay himself. I wish you’d talk to him and tell him how
important it is that he make himself a part of the team on this voyage
and not just a triple-threat star. I can’t tell you how vital it is for
him to do this.”

“It must be a terribly important flight,” the girl said. “The Space
Command has been using its priority wave length more than ever in the
past few days.”

“Sorry, but I can’t give out any information,” Rob told her. “All Space
Command flights are top secret, you know.”

“I know. But a person can’t help wondering. I mean after all that panic
that’s going on back on Earth—”

It would never do for her to find out about Operation Big Boy, Rob
thought worriedly, so he decided to end the conversation completely.

He looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got to get back to my quarters
now. I’m grateful for what you told me about your brother. If he
co-operates with us, we’ll go halfway with him. Just remind him of
that.”

Dulcie looked at him intently. “Clay and I are the last of the Gerards,
Lieutenant Allison. Our heritage has been a great one, and I guess
that’s what’s helped to make Clay like he is. It’s because Clay is the
last of our family to carry the name that I want so hard for him to make
good.”

“With a sister like you encouraging him, Miss Gerard, I don’t see how he
can miss,” Rob told her gallantly and with an engaging smile.

Her thoughtful gaze followed his figure until it disappeared around the
far corner of the hall.

A few hours afterward, the six-man crew of the Cetus X-500 was in the
Space Command planetarium receiving final briefing from General
Forester. The spacious dark room gleamed with thousands of lights, each
one of them accurately depicting a prominent star in the heavens.
General Forester pointed to a pulsing hazy spot against the starlight.

“This is the R-cloud,” he said. “It’s really invisible, of course, but
it’s made visible in here to show you its location. Its apparent
direction is a few degrees south of the bright star Procyon in the
constellation Canis Minor, almost on the plane of the ecliptic. Some of
our scientists believe the cloud was an eruption from Procyon about
fifteen years ago. Starting eleven light years away and traveling nearly
at the speed of light, it’s just getting here.”

“Am I right, sir,” Lieutenant Swenson said, “in assuming that there will
be a colossal explosion when our bombs contact it?”

“Undoubtedly,” the general assured him. “For that reason you will
release the guided missiles when you reach the edge of the solar system.
Unless the cloud changes course, which we have no reason to believe that
it will do, the point of contact will be ten billion miles distant from
the sun. Our scientists believe that is a safe enough distance from us.
The flash will probably be of novalike proportions.”

The general turned over to Rob and Lieutenant Swenson, the navigator,
stacks of charts and tables that had been prepared showing the exact
location of their ship and the cloud every minute of the way. It was a
project requiring infinitely careful calculation, and Rob marveled at
the mathematical ingenuity that had gone into the prodigious task. A
miniature of the much larger electrometer which had first detected the
menacing cloud had been installed in the rocket fighter so that Rob
could continually keep it in his electronic sights, so to speak, at all
times.

“You will blast off at 1835, seventeen minutes from now,” the general
concluded, “and cross planetary orbits under full atomic thrust to
Titan. You will land at our base there, have a final mechanical check,
and load your bombs. General Carmichael, the chief there, will advise
you of any conditions that might have changed since you left here. After
that you will blast off to your rendezvous with the R-cloud. Any
questions?”

There were none. Like himself, Rob noted that his companions seemed to
be rather numbed by the enormity of their task. It seemed almost
ridiculous that six persons could be expected to accomplish the
incredible job plotted for them.


“My sister said she talked to you,” Clay Gerard said to Rob when the
Cetus X-500 had blasted off and her crew had unbuckled from acceleration
couches.

“That’s right, Clay,” Rob answered. “I’m afraid she was a little
suspicious about our mission. Did she try to get any information out of
you?”

Rob knew he had touched off a spark as Clay’s handsome face colored.
“Sis isn’t one to go prying into official business, lieutenant! That’s
why she holds such a confidential job. Besides, I know enough about
regulations to know what I can say and what I can’t!”

“Don’t get out of line, Clay,” Rob reminded him. “I wasn’t implying that
either one of you were violating rules.”

“Sis is a swell guy, lieutenant. She’s one in a million.”

“I’ve met her, Clay. I know she is.”

Rob felt Clay’s eyes appraising him from head to foot.

“You must’ve been quite a star yourself when you were in cadet school,
lieutenant,” he said. “I mean, since you’ve been such a hero on
different space expeditions.”

“As a matter of fact, I couldn’t seem to do anything extra well, Clay,”
Rob admitted.

Rob thought Clay looked somewhat pleased to hear this. He wondered then
if Clay had not set him up as his own personal rival who must be
overcome as he had overcome all others he had vied with.

Rob noticed Mort Haines, the stocky mechanic, watching them both closely
from the other side of the compartment. Was that an expression of
contempt he was directing at the strapping young “sputter”? He had
observed such an expression once before when Clay had spoken of his
accomplishments.

Rob hoped desperately that there would be no personal conflicts. A clash
of temperaments, even a trivial one, could endanger the operation. Rob
resolved that if he did notice anyone getting out of line he would
replace the offender on Titan with a new crew member. He could not
afford to take any chances.

Rob was first aware of trouble when he heard a commotion down the
corridor. He sprang from the electroscope, where he had been checking on
the movement of the R-cloud, and clicked rapidly down the aisle. He
caught the scene in a graphic instant. Harry Goode’s small form was
wedged courageously between the scrambling figures of Clay and Mort
Haines. There had obviously been some blows thrown, for there was a cut
on Mort’s face.

“Let them go, Harry,” Rob said.

He stepped back and the combatants cooled down.

“What happened?” Rob asked.

Mort sponged his cut with a handkerchief. “The big guy was bragging
about the records he had set, sir. I was busy checking a rocket chamber
that was heating up, and I told him to lose himself. He said he had as
much right in here as I did and that I’d have to throw him out. I was
starting to oblige him, sir, when you came in.”

“Better get back to that rocket trouble, Mort,” Rob said.

“Yes, sir,” Mort said and went back into the cramped quarters of the
engine compartment.

“Thanks, Harry,” Rob said to the medic, whose sparse fringe of hair had
been disordered in the struggle.

Rob took Clay into the corridor where they were alone.

“Was Mort’s story true?” Rob asked.

“I don’t like his use of the word ‘bragging,’” Clay protested. “We just
happened to get to talking about sports and I told him about the track
meet in 2002 when I set new records in the running broad jump and mile
run. Then suddenly he springs up all red-faced, accusing me of bragging
ever since he has known me. That got me hot then, and I guess one thing
led to another.”

Rob looked at him squarely. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to replace you
on Titan, Clay,” he said quietly.

The color drained out of the big fellow’s face. He was shocked.
“Why—why?” he blurted.

“Because I’m afraid your attitude is a danger to the success of the
project,” Rob said.

“My attitude?” Clay asked in surprise. “What attitude?”

“Think about it awhile and I believe you’ll understand if you’re honest
with yourself. If you can’t figure it out, my explaining won’t do much
good.”

As this sank in, Clay’s initial pallidness gave way to a red suffusion
of anger. “I know what it is! You can’t stand the competition! You’re
afraid the name of Gerard will steal the glory from the Allison
reputation on this flight!”

Just then there was an unexpected witness on the scene. Lieutenant
Swenson was striding rapidly up the corridor.

“I couldn’t help listening,” he said, “and I can’t help putting in my
two cents!”

He planted his stalwart body in front of Clay Gerard. “Lieutenant
Allison is too much of a gentleman to give you the lesson you deserve,
Gerard, so I’ll do it myself verbally—and physically too if you prefer.”

“The idea of your name competing with his in reputation is laughable.
He’s set records for unselfish service you’ll never touch. You’ve set
your records for personal glory, but his were an outcome of risking his
life to save his friends. And what Lieutenant Allison meant by your
attitude was a polite way of saying you’re a troublemaker and an
unmitigated braggart. Every word you speak is a challenge to someone.
Tell me, have you ever lost a race?”

“No, sir,” Clay returned meekly, under the shock of the officer’s blast.

“Well, you’re losing this one. You’re not good enough for this team,
Gerard, and you’re going to be put ashore on Titan. I can’t imagine a
person who calls himself a spaceman and takes the oath of allegiance to
duty letting petty interests take first place in an operation as
important as this. I don’t believe you have realized yet that the future
of life itself on Earth depends on the success of this flight.”

For a moment Lieutenant Swenson seemed to have run out of steam as his
big chest gasped for breath. Clay was so overcome he stood with lips
trembling and eyes smarting. Rob suspected this was perhaps the first
real dressing-down he had had in his life, something that probably his
own father had never done.

Clay Gerard said nothing in defense.

Lieutenant Swenson turned to Rob. “I’m sorry Rob, but I couldn’t help
it. When I heard him blast out at you—”

Rob remained silent and Lieutenant Swenson walked off with some
embarrassment.

Just then the rocket fighter angled up and sent Rob and Clay rolling
over against the wall of the corridor. Clay’s head thumped against the
metal, and the blow appeared to daze him. Rob helped him up as the ship
continued to rock.

“Are you hurt?” Rob asked him.

Clay shook his head vigorously. “I—I don’t think so.”

Rob hastened to the engine room, some impulse telling him that the
misbehaving rocket chamber might be behind the trouble. He found Mort in
front of an opening in the floor, a frantic look on his face.

“The rocket cylinder that was heating up has blown a leak!” he shouted
above a deafening swooshing sound from below.

“Can you repair it?” Rob asked. “The ship is practically out of
control!”

“Tell Lieutenant Fox to cut all jets and keep her even,” the mechanic
said. “I’ll have to go down into the hold to plug the break-through so
it’ll last until we reach Titan.”

Rob leaned over the hold and felt hot air rushing up at him. It was dark
and crowded with machinery down there. “I don’t see how you can work
down there in all that heat.”

Mort shrugged. “I’ll have to, or we may never land. If I’d checked it
when I had that tangle with Cadet Gerard I might have saved the
blowout.”

Rob sensed someone behind him and turned to see Clay, who had followed
him into the engine room. Rob saw a stark look on the cadet’s face as
though the grave significance of his clash with Mort were suddenly made
startlingly real to him.

“Can I help?” Clay asked.

“If you can, we’ll let you know,” Rob told him as he hurried from the
room toward the pilot’s nest forward.

After instructing Lieutenant Fox, Rob returned to the engine room. As
though anxious to make himself useful, Clay was leaning over the hold
into which Mort had disappeared, pointing a flashlight for him. The
other crewmen, except for the pilot, were gathered around in a tense
knot. By now, the ship had leveled off somewhat and the unevenness was
less severe.

“How is Mort coming?” Rob asked them.

“He’s complaining of the heat, sir,” Harry said. “He’s liable to
collapse down there.”

Rob leaned over the hold. “How are you, Mort?”

“I’m nearly through!” came a feeble reply.

“He sounds weak,” Lieutenant Swenson said.

“I wish one of us knew how to repair the damage,” Rob said. “We could
give him relief.” He turned to Clay. “Let me have the light.”

Rob shone the flashlight around the confining interior of the rocket
hold. He could see the squatting figure of Mort in the far corner
pressed against the huge glittering curve of the jet chamber.

Minutes later, Mort had just announced that the job was completed when
there was a burst of radiant light that filled the entire hold. An
acrid, burning smell swirled into the room above.

“Hand me that fire extinguisher!” Rob cried and began lowering himself.
Someone thrust the CO₂ extinguisher from its wall rack into his hand,
and he disappeared into the smoky hold. Through the gray veil that
choked the basement room, Rob could see growing lurid flames. He pointed
the extinguisher full into the fire and saw white clouds of carbon
dioxide suffocating the blaze. When he could see no more redness, Rob
moved forward and tumbled along the floor for Mort. He retched and
coughed from the smoke. He’d be needing help soon.

His probing hands finally located Mort’s inert body and he began
dragging it back toward the opening in the ceiling. A few steps away and
under the hole he found Lieutenant Swenson waiting there to help. The
navigator took the heavy weight from his arms and handed it up through
the circular opening to the others. Then he turned to give help to Rob.

When Rob had recovered sufficiently several minutes later, with no more
than a tight chest and raw throat, he checked with Harry Goode, who had
put Mort to bed as soon as he came out of the hold.

“How is he, Harry?” Rob asked.

The medic shook his head gravely. “He doesn’t look too good to me, sir,”
he replied. “He’s got a lot of burns and he swallowed plenty of smoke.
He’ll be a lucky guy if he pulls through.”

“He knew this might happen when he took that welding torch down there,”
Rob murmured. “But he knew the job had to be done.” He coughed.

“Better let me check you over too, lieutenant,” Harry said. “You
swallowed some smoke yourself.”

“I’ll be all right,” Rob said. “I’ll have the space surgeon look at me
on Titan, though.”

Rob went back to join the others. When he told them the unfavorable news
about Mort, a gloomy silence settled over the compartment. Mort had been
well liked, having quickly become a friend to all except Clay Gerard.

“I checked the hold when the smoke lifted,” Lieutenant Swenson said,
breaking the oppressive stillness. “Mort’s torch must have touched off
latent gases in the chamber. There’s some charred machinery down there
but no real damage from the explosion. Fox said the ship’s moving all
right again.”

Clay seemed ashamed to gather here with the others. He was lingering in
the corridor looking out the port. Rob had begun to feel sorry for the
young fellow whose quarrel with Mort had led to such tragic results. Rob
went out to join him.

“Nearly time to take to landing couches,” Rob remarked as he saw the
curved, mistbound world that was Titan.

“Yes, sir,” Clay answered, without spirit.

“Did you hear me tell the others about Mort’s condition?” Rob asked.

Clay barely nodded. “If he dies, I will be the one who killed him.”

“It’s not your fault that he was hurt,” Rob soothed. “He knew what he
was getting into when he went down into the hold with the torch.”

“But if we hadn’t fought he could have prevented the blowout,” Clay
argued. “I heard him say it.”

“If there’s to be any blame for the accident, it’ll rest with the
inspection team back on Luna which should have found the weakened temper
of the chamber. They have stress gauges to detect such things, and they
should have found it, particularly on a ship whose mission is so
important.”

Clay smiled wanly. “I know you’re just trying to make me feel better,
lieutenant. The truth of the matter is that I’m everything Lieutenant
Swenson said I am. I know now what sort of unselfish records he said
you’d made. It was just like the one Mort made when he went down into
the hold, knowing the risk he was taking.”

“I think, given time, you’ll make a good spaceman,” Rob said.

Clay’s unhappy face studied the approaching world outside for several
moments in silence until there came the pilot’s report of altitude and
Rob knew it was time to strap down. Lieutenant Fox switched in the robot
pilot that would make the landing and joined his companions on the row
of degravity couches in another compartment. All buckled the plastic
belts across their bodies and yielded themselves to the discomfort of
swiftly cutting speed.

As soon as the ship landed, Rob unbuckled and, with Harry Goode, hurried
to the compartment where Mort had been placed. Harry took the injured
man’s pulse and told Rob that it was weak.

“We’ll get him to the infirmary immediately,” Rob said and went to the
radio nook just off the pilot’s nest. He put through a call to the Space
Command headquarters.

“General Carmichael speaking,” came a firm, booming voice over the
amplifier. “Come in, X-500.”

“This is Lieutenant Allison, sir,” Rob spoke. “We’ve had an accident
aboard and a man has been badly hurt. Will you send out a stretcher for
him?”

“Certainly,” came the reply. “What was the man’s duty?”

“Mechanic 101, sir,” Rob answered.

“We’ve got a replacement for him,” the general said. “While we’re on the
subject of bad news, Allison, I’ll give you mine.”

“What’s that, sir?” Rob asked anxiously.

“Just that the people of Earth are closer than ever to panic stage,”
said General Carmichael. “A switchboard operator on Luna half guessed
our secret and when she telephoned someone on Earth the operators back
there picked up the message. You won’t have much time for layover here,
Allison. You’ll have to be off almost immediately so that we can report
success of Operation Big Boy as soon as possible.”

Rob suddenly went cold with dread and disappointment. Dulcie Gerard,
whom he had considered one of the squarest persons he had ever met, had
suddenly destroyed his faith in her completely. It made Rob wonder if
making themselves unpopular wasn’t a confirmed Gerard trait.

Some minutes later, Rob and his crewmates solemnly followed the
stretcher bearers out of the ship. Through the plastic airtight case Rob
could see the still-as-death figure of the burr-headed mechanic who had
risked his life for his friends. The party trooped across the ice slick
that lay between the X-500 and Space Command headquarters on Titan.

General Carmichael met the group inside the air lock of the
headquarters. His small, sharp eyes looked out from under thick gray
brows at the identically dressed men before him, streams of condensed
vapor rolling off their glossy suits.

Rob pulled off his helmet and advanced. “I’m Allison, sir,” he said,
offering his hand.

The wiry general shook hands briskly. “Glad to meet you, Allison.” He
frowned. “We’ve got a lot to do, so we may as well get started.”

General Carmichael led them into his private office.

“Your mechanic replacement will be over shortly,” the officer told them
when they were seated. “His name is Olney. A good man. You’re lucky he
was available. We’re kind of shorthanded here and really can’t spare
anyone. None of us on the project thought your crew would have to be
replaced at this final stage, but of course accidents can’t be avoided.”

Rob glanced over at Clay Gerard. Rob thought he detected a flicker of
hope in the youth’s eyes. Rob pondered deeply, wondering if he should go
ahead with the replacement of Clay as he had said he would do. But it
wouldn’t be easy to explain Clay to General Carmichael. Giving the
appearance to Rob of being a strict old-timer, the chief officer did not
look to be too understanding a person on a matter such as this. Then
too, he had said he simply had no other men to spare.

And yet Rob knew he must consider his other crewmen. If Clay were
unreliable, what right had he to risk their lives just to give a
mixed-up young fellow another chance? Rob didn’t know what to do, so he
looked to his friends for advice. He resolved to act on their judgment,
since they were older men. Rob caught Lieutenant Swenson’s eye. To his
wordless inquiry, the navigator-radiation officer nodded. Lieutenant Fox
did the same. The silent vote had given the impetuous Clay Gerard
another chance, and for some reason Rob was glad that it had come out
this way. Clay, who had been watching the other raptly, knew he had been
reinstated, and he smiled his gratitude.

General Carmichael handed each of them pencil-like tubes which he told
them they would wear in their upper blouse pockets at all times during
the flight.

“These instruments record cosmic-ray radiation,” the general said. “As
you know, a concentration of these rays will cause agonizing death. You
will be the first crew ever to carry C-bombs on a mission because
fortunately we’ve never had to use them before.”

Less than an hour and a half later, the Cetus X-500 was ready to go.
General Carmichael replaced the charts given Rob by General Forester
with ones carrying figures for the accelerated moment of departure.

Rob considered Bruce Olney a capable fill-in for the valiant Mort
Haines, if looks were any criterion. He was a slender, straw blond, with
intelligent eyes. He wore a miniature good-luck horse-shoe charm around
his neck.

A report from the infirmary showed that Mort Haines was still in serious
condition. Rob saw Clay Gerard wince as he heard the news. Clay had been
an exceedingly quiet individual since the accident to the mechanic, a
different person entirely. His blatant self-confidence had been whittled
down strikingly to a brooding reserve.

When the crew of the X-500 was already in the ship and about to blast
off, General Carmichael spoke his final disturbing speech over their
radio, “I’ve just had another report from General Forester. The people
are mobbing the White House demanding to know what it is that threatens
their lives. The President doesn’t believe he can hold them off much
longer.” The general’s tone became grimmer and more emotional as he
concluded. “Operation Big Boy has got to be a success, Allison. There’s
no two ways about it. I want the next message you send to give the good
news that we will immediately broadcast throughout the system. Good luck
and God be with you.”

The six of them stared at one another soberly as the final words were
spoken. The full enormity of their duty seemed to have struck them just
now for the first time. Rob choked down the lump that pressed up into
his throat. He took a full breath, readying himself, then gave his first
command.

“Blast-off couches,” he spoke quietly. “Prepare for launching.”

When the roaring thunder of the blast-off was behind them and the rocket
ship was grasping for the stars, Clay unbuckled his straps and turned to
Rob.

“I don’t believe Dulcie spread that report about our project,
lieutenant,” he said. “She wouldn’t lose her head. Not her. She’s the
calmest one in the family. Besides, she’s a—a—”

“A Gerard?” Rob supplied, smiling faintly.

Clay flushed. “I guess I haven’t really changed, have I?” he said
bleakly.

Rob’s brows furrowed. “I’d like to believe she didn’t do it too. But
she’s the switchboard operator on Luna. She was on when we left. Who
else could it have been?”

“There still must have been someone else,” Clay persisted. “I know my
sister too well. She would have known what would happen if she had
spoken openly.”

After setting the ship on course and under full rocket thrust, Rob and
Lieutenant Swenson took time to study the elaborate firing mechanism in
the navigator’s compartment that would send the bombs on their way a few
hours from now. The electroscope which gave the reading on the R-cloud
was located nearby. The gauge had shown consistent increase ever since
the blast-off from Titan, indicating that they were drawing closer to
the cosmic menace all the time.

Within the next half hour tension had grown nearly to fever pitch, and
yet there was still some time before the crucial zero hour. Rob found
himself pacing restlessly about the navigation compartment. Lieutenant
Swenson was rattling keys in his pocket, and Rob guessed that the others
must also be similarly tightened up.

Clay’s grinning face appeared at the door of the navigator’s cabin. The
young cadet looked as calm as if he were on nothing more than a
sight-seeing tour. He carried a tray on which sealed containers filled
with lavender drinks were held by magnetism.

“How about some palm-berry tea, gentlemen?” he said, setting the tray
down on a magnetic table.

Lieutenant Swenson smiled at the youth whom he had tongue-lashed on the
previous flight. “You’re a lifesaver, Clay,” he said, picking up a
container and beginning to suck on the connected straw.

Palm-berry tea was a tasty beverage made from a dwarf Venusian swamp
plant. It was a splendid sedative for “space nerves” and was always
carried on long voyages. Under the harried circumstances of their
blast-off, Rob had forgotten to have a supply of the tea put aboard.

“Where did you get this?” Rob asked, taking a glass.

“I knew it would come in handy, sir, when our stomachs got to knotting
up,” Clay replied, “and so I got a box from the commissary just before
coming aboard. Every crew has to have a cook, so I elected myself.”

What a change from the self-centered young fellow he had first met, Rob
thought. It was amazing that Clay Gerard, who before must be first in
everything, was now satisfied at being what he called a “cook.”

Clay distributed drinks to the rest of the crew. In a little while the
epidemic of jitters had subsided almost completely.

The minutes dragged on as the Cetus X-500 sped toward the bright star
Procyon and the malignancy it was believed to have cast into space. When
the crew spotted little Pluto plodding his lonely way through the empty
deeps, they knew they were at the edge of the solar system.

Another hour slipped by, and Lieutenant Swenson began lining up the
target on the ground glass of his visi-screen table. The electroscope
showed a high count, and the meters Rob and the radiation officer wore
were also showing the mounting ray penetration from the “hot” weapons
below the insulated flooring.

“Only a few minutes to go, Rob,” Lieutenant Swenson said, studying his
screen. “Better check your bomb release.”

Rob checked and found it ready to go. His fingers itched to pull the
lever. Sensing the approach of zero moment, the others drifted into the
compartment. The robot pilot was driving the ship, and even Lieutenant
Fox had come in. A dozen eyes pored silently over the screen table.

Rob could count every tick of his watch. As the final minutes slipped
away, he withdrew from the circle and went over to the bomb release. His
hand was clammy as it palmed the smooth metal lever.

“Steady, Rob,” Lieutenant Swenson spoke in a dramatic whisper. “A few
minutes more—twelve—nine—”

The compartment was silent as a tomb except for the soft throb of the
ship’s power plant. Rob’s eyes drifted out the side port, and the stars
out there dazzled him.

“Three—two—one—_fire_!”

Rob’s hand shoved forward. A muted rumble came from the floor. The noise
swelled to a full-bodied roar. Then there was a banshee-like scream, and
Rob knew the first bomb had flung itself into space.

Lieutenant Swenson counted off five more seconds, and then Rob sent the
second bomb on its way. This happened four more times, and each time Rob
heard the final shriek as the missile cast itself into the vacuum. Rob
didn’t hear the last bomb scream. His ears were ringing too much from
the clamor of the previous ones.

When it was all over, the purr of the power plant began dissipating the
throbbing ring in Rob’s ears. He felt a tremendous relief now that the
job was done.

“How long before we’ll see the bursts?” he asked Lieutenant Swenson.

“Not for hours,” was the reply. “Don’t forget, the missiles have a long
way to go even though they’re speeding fast as blazes.”

“Then we won’t know until then whether we’re successful?” Harry asked.

“That’s right,” the navigator said.

Rob checked the compartment cosmic-ray counter and his own pencil meter.
“The radiation ought to start diminishing now that the load is gone,” he
said.

He was mistaken, he discovered later, when the ship had been swung about
on its gyros and was heading homeward. The radiation had begun
increasing, in fact.

“I don’t understand it,” Rob said worriedly. “There’s nothing down below
to make the radiation concentration rise. If this keeps up, we won’t
last out the trip back.”

Minutes later, as the concentration continued to build up, Rob knew
there had to be something down there that was giving off the dangerous
emanations. There was no other explanation that he could think of.

“Bruce,” Rob said to the new mechanic, “can you check the bomb chamber
without direct exposure?”

The mechanic nodded. “There’s an antiradiation compartment up forward
with an insulated window where I can take a look at it.”

As Bruce left the room to check, Rob thought of something. “Did any of
you hear the scream of that last bomb leaving the chamber?” he asked.

When no one said anything, he continued, “I think I’ve got the answer.
That last bomb must have jammed and didn’t come out.”

His guess proved substantially correct. When Bruce returned, he reported
that the heat of the bomb racing along its launching track had fused
with part of the track so that both hung out of the bomb hatch and were
being carried along with the ship.

“We’re lucky those bombs were made to go off only on contact with the
powerful omega rays in the R-cloud,” Rob spoke grimly, “or we’d be
somewhere up in the Milky Way by now! We’ve got to get that bomb away
from the ship before its radiation kills us.”

“Dropping that bomb off isn’t going to be any sweet job,” Bruce
commented. “But being the mechanic, it ought to fall to me.”

“Hold on,” Rob cut in. “It’s a job any of us can do. It’ll take more
courage than skill to cut the track off with an oxygen torch. By
fastening the torch on the end of one of our emergency insulated rods,
the operator can work at a distance with less chance of radiation
exposure.”

Lieutenant Swenson volunteered for the job, then Clay. Rob knew they had
no time to wrangle over who was going to do it. Lieutenant Fox suggested
drawing straws, and everyone agreed this was the fair method of
deciding. Rob got six matches and broke one off shorter than the rest.
Then he held them out for drawing. Bruce drew first and revealed a long
one. Clay drew the next one and said simply, “You can stop drawing.”

Rob was confident Clay could handle the job all right, for use of the
acetylene torch was emphasized in cadet training.

The youth was assisted into space gear, and the cutting torch was
fastened to the end of the insulated rod. A crude shield was also
fashioned from some of the insulation of the ship so as to further
protect Clay from the bomb’s radiation. Even with all this, however,
there was no small amount of risk. But Clay seemed happy to have drawn
the job and went about his preparations lightheartedly.

“Whatever you do,” was Rob’s final warning, “don’t get the fire from
your torch onto the bomb or none of us will live to tell about it.”

Clay left the ship through a side air lock, carrying his odd equipment
and secured to the ship by a length of space chain so that he could not
drift off into space. The eyes of the crew followed him through the port
near the door as he crawled along the hull and downward toward the bomb
rack. Then they lost sight of him.

As they turned from the port, Harry Goode stooped and picked up a match
from the floor. “This is Clay’s match,” he said, holding it up. “I saw
him drop it.”

It was a _long_ match.

“That tricky guy!” Rob muttered, with a wry grin. But what he really
said in his mind was, “That _great_ guy!”

“He sure is anxious to make good,” Lieutenant Swenson said with
admiration.

Bruce led them toward the bow of the ship where they could see Clay work
on the damaged bomb hatch. They moved along a narrow aisle lined with
throbbing turbines and finally down an aluminum catwalk, at the bottom
of which was the doubly insulated inspection chamber containing a large
observation window that looked out onto the skin of the craft.

The men crowded around the quartz port and watched Clay make his
circuitous approach to the bomb hatch. Rob admired his skill in staying
at the full taut length of his space chain so as to keep the maximum
distance between himself and the “hot” chamber. Clay drifted like a
feather in the weightless void, handling his equally light equipment
with ease as he brought it into position.

Rob imagined the vacuum out there to be fairly crackling with
radioactivity and potential death rays. Clay had known they were there
too. Yet he had gone out willingly, risking his life.

[Illustration: _Clay’s hand guided the burning instrument to within
inches of the top of the bomb._]

Keeping his shield deftly in front of him, Clay lit his torch with his
free hand, and the brilliant arc light burst like a nova on the eyes of
the watchers. Clay next shoved the insulated rod, to which the torch was
attached, toward the hatch. Slowly, cautiously, he moved the tool in
closer. Only a short way below hung the gray cartridge that was the
C-bomb, and the warped track that dipped out of the hatch and downward.

Without a tremor, Clay’s hand guided the burning instrument to within
inches of the top of the bomb. Rob shuddered to think what fury could be
unleashed should the torch drift too close to the bomb.

“That boy’s got what it takes,” Lieutenant Swenson murmured, his subdued
voice sounding strangely loud in the deathly quiet. “He knows what’s at
stake, but he’s not excited.”

Clay got the flame against the track which was the only thing holding
the C-bomb to the ship. Then he began the slow, labored process of
severing the tough titanium alloy. The intense heat of the oxygen-fed
torch turned the metal red hot. Then another danger came into the
picture.

“Can the heat from the track set off the bomb?” Harry put the danger
into words.

“It could,” Rob replied grimly. “It probably won’t, but it could.”

During the suspenseful minutes that followed, Rob heard one sucking
sound after another as those around him breathed irregularly. The hot
touch of the men’s bodies against him betrayed their tension, their
prayerful hopes.

“Easy does it, Clay,” Rob thought. “Just a little more, and the track
will be cut through.”

The scarlet track and the blazing spot of the torch seemed to sear a
hole right into Rob’s eyeballs. “How can Clay stand it this long
himself?” he wondered. “His nerves must be of steel wire, his pupils of
quartz lenses.”

“The track is cut through!” someone finally exclaimed exultantly.

Yet even with the worst part behind him, Clay didn’t get overconfident.
As the bomb hung there weightless in space, Clay carefully withdrew the
rod and the torch from its dangerous proximity to the bomb. Then he
shook off the torch until it began drifting away from him, whence it
would travel unchecked until it passed into the gravitation field of
some celestial body. Next Clay gently brought the rod end against the
bomb and shoved ever so lightly against it. Then it too began creeping
away slowly into the black deeps, never to be seen again.

“Whew!” Bruce gasped, and Rob could sense the relief of tension in those
around him.

Clay discarded the rod then but kept his shield in position as he made
his way around the radioactive bomb hatch and back toward the air lock
where he had left the ship.

“He has discarded his hot equipment,” Lieutenant Swenson said as Clay
moved out of their field of vision. “Just like a natural-born
spaceman—he didn’t forget a thing.”

When Clay had been helped into the ship with unnecessary care, each of
his shipmates gave him an exuberant slap on the back and covered him
with words of praise that fairly inundated him. Rob could see a grin a
light year wide on the boy’s face and the trace of tears too as he
realized he had been accepted as one of them again.

Lieutenant Swenson summed it all up when he said, “You’re an all right
guy, Clay.”

Harry tore off Clay’s space suit, which was discarded, and began giving
him all sorts of tests for radiation exposure. But Clay had protected
himself well and was “clean.”

The invisible peril within the ship began slacking off steadily, and
later Lieutenant Swenson announced that the moment of the first bomb’s
strike was at hand. The six gathered about the lookout refractor
telescope in the ship’s stern which had carefully been directed upon the
determined spot of impact at their rear.

Rob was the first to see it through the prism eyepiece. Against the
unchanging star patterns there was suddenly a brilliant flare like a ton
of magnesium bursting into flame before his eyes. It blinded him for a
moment with its radiance, even though there was a filter over the field
lens.

“We hit it!” he breathed thankfully and turned away so that the others
might see the succeeding strikes.

To make sure the destruction was complete, Lieutenant Swenson pored over
the electroscope for a long time afterward and finally made a
significant announcement. “Operation Big Boy is a success,” he said
softly. “Not only has the cloud been broken up, but its remnants will
pass far out of range of the solar system. Rob, you can radio the folk
back home and give them the good news.”

Rob lost no time in getting to the set and pouring out the happy tidings
to General Forester on Luna.


Later Rob learned of the repercussions: “The people in most quarters are
stunned to know what could have happened to them,” the Space Command
officer told him. “But all danger of panic is over. People are leaving
the streets and going back to their homes and loved ones—and to church.
It’s a grand victory, Rob, your greatest of all!”

“It’s not my victory, general,” Rob replied. “It belongs equally to the
men with me—Fox, Swenson, Olney, Goode, and Gerard. They’re great guys,
sir, all of them.” Rob had started to mention Mort among the names and
inquired how he was.

“General Carmichael radioed that he has passed his crisis and is
conscious,” was the gratifying answer. “The doctor says he’ll make it
all right. Rob, Miss Gerard is anxious to talk to you and her brother.”

Rob couldn’t understand how Dulcie could still be on the job if she had
committed the serious indiscretion of exposing the secret flight. This
prompted Rob to ask the general about it. The chief officer replied that
it hadn’t been Dulcie Gerard but a temporary substitute who had taken
over for her. As a matter of fact, Dulcie had been very angry at her
friend for what she had done.

Dulcie was allowed to talk to Rob, and the first thing she said was,
“Can I speak to Clay?”

“He’s coming down the hall,” Rob told her.

“Tell me,” she said, “how did Clay do on his first assignment?”

Rob paused a moment, then replied, “Somebody lit the fuse under him like
you said, Dulcie. He didn’t blow into little pieces, though. The
explosion knocked the worst out of him but left behind something fine
and unselfish.”

“I’m so glad I could cry!” the girl blurted.

“Here he is now,” Rob said. “I’ll let him tell you himself.”

Clay took the mike from Rob. Rob watched in admiration as Clay modestly
told her the whole story, minimizing his own glory. Clay might be the
last of the male Gerards, he thought, but he would certainly not be
forgotten. As long as men had breath to speak, they would talk about the
real hero of Operation Big Boy—and how he almost came to miss the trip
altogether.



                        THE GHOST SHIP OF SPACE


Rock Merrill looked interestedly at the man who had introduced himself
as Tony Kalmus. He had told the young former cadet that he had come all
the way from Earth to see him.

“You flatter me,” Rock said.

“There’s more to it than that,” the man assured him. He was still fairly
young, although his blond hair was balding on top. He shifted his
heavyweight frame, that filled the chair snugly, but with deliberate
slowness dug through the inner pockets of his blue jacket and brought
out a folded piece of paper.

At that moment Shep Dubois came into the dormitory aboard the space
service station that was 25,000 miles above Earth. Centrifugal force,
provided by the rotation of the station, gave an artificial gravity so
that its occupants could walk about normally.

“What’s up, Rock?” Shep asked.

“I don’t know,” Rock answered. “I just got a message over the wall
speaker that this Mr. Kalmus had come to the station to see me.”

Rock introduced the two formally. Then Kalmus gave Rock the piece of
folded paper. Rock opened it up. It was a photostatic copy of a torn
blank scrap of paper. Rock studied it for a moment, his heart gradually
increasing its beat as he unconsciously felt that he was on the verge of
a big discovery. The ragged edges of the photographed scraps looked
strangely familiar. Then suddenly the answer came to him in a rush that
sent his blood throbbing hard through his temples.

“I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “It’s the missing scrap from the
_Sagittarius_!”

“You mean that after twenty years it’s turned up?” Shep said in
amazement. “Now you may be able to find the _Northern Cross_, Rock!”

“That’s the reason I’m here,” Kalmus said. “I’ll leave you the photostat
to compare with your own scraps, Merrill, and then you’ll know I have
the missing piece for certain.”

“If you do have it, Mr. Kalmus, I’ll be indebted to you forever,” Rock
said enthusiastically. “Ever since I first wanted to be a spaceman it’s
been my ambition to look for my dad’s lost ship. But how did you know
where to find me?”

“I asked around. Your mother told me over the phone back on Earth that
she was pretty sure you had the scraps with you and that you treasured
them as if they were gold.”

“I do,” Rock admitted, staring out one of the oblong ports of the dorm
at the salt-and-pepper background of interstellar space. “They’re the
last link I have with my father. I never saw him.”

Kalmus got up. “When you’re convinced I’ve got what you want and you’re
ready to listen to a proposition about locating your dad’s lost ship,
just let me know. I’m in Room 38, Deck B, overhead.”

When Kalmus had gone, Rock went to his dresser and began searching a
drawer. “The box with the scraps is in one of these.”

“I still find all this hard to believe!” Shep said. “And I don’t see how
Kalmus could have gotten hold of the missing scraps. They were supposed
to have been destroyed with the _Sagittarius_ except for the ones they
salvaged for you.”

“I’m not worried about that now, Shep!” Rock told him. “The main thing
is to fit the puzzle together and find the answer that I’ve wanted to
know all my life—the location of the _Northern Cross_ and its treasure
ore.”

Rock’s father, Victor Merrill, had been a space surgeon accompanying a
research expedition to Venus before Rock was born. Mineralogy was Dr.
Merrill’s hobby, and while on the planet he had come across a curious
mineral in a cave. Returning to Earth, he’d had the sample analyzed. The
mineral was alconite, a very scarce and valuable component of an alloy
used in the construction of radioactivity shields. Told that a
space-ship load of the light mineral could bring him a fortune, Dr.
Merrill set out again for Venus with his own expedition, financed from
his life savings, planning to build a satellite hospital with the
proceeds of the venture.

Dr. Merrill’s ship, the _Northern Cross_, had landed on Venus, and a
load of the mineral was stocked aboard the ship. But then disaster
overtook the party, the first of many tragic events that were to follow.
A landslide sealed off the mine, burying most of Dr. Merrill’s crew. The
four remaining, including Dr. Merrill himself, blasted off for Earth,
but not having enough experienced men to adequately run the vessel, the
ship was wrecked by an explosion. An SOS was radioed to a freighter
bound for Venus, the _Sagittarius_. The radio operator made a note of
the _Northern Cross_’s position, but shortly afterward, the
_Sagittarius_ itself, in a hurry to reach the stricken _Northern Cross_
and with a faulty radar set, collided with an emergency fuel buoy
floating in space.

When later ships salvaged the wreck of the _Sagittarius_, scraps of the
radio operator’s note were found, but not enough of it to establish the
“fix” of the still missing _Northern Cross_. These scraps had later been
turned over to Rock and held by him ever since. He had stubbornly clung
to the fragments in the wild hope that some day he might obtain some
other clue to the location of his father’s ship.

The last message from the radio operator of the _Northern Cross_ had
reported that the ship had lost its power of navigation after falling
into a perpetual orbit about Venus. Therefore Rock and his mother had
known for years that Victor Merrill’s ghost ship had become a satellite
of the planet Venus.

“Here it is, Shep!” Rock exclaimed, pulling a flat tin box out of his
dresser drawer.

They eagerly took the box and the photostat over to a table. Rock
unlocked the container and gently removed the scorched and yellowed
fragment that had been pieced together with transparent tape. He fitted
the section against the ragged edges of the full-size pattern.

“It fits!” Rock said.

Swiftly the coming events passed hopefully before his mind’s eye. He
visualized a search for the _Northern Cross_, a search that might yet
bring a fulfillment of Dr. Merrill’s unselfish dream.

“I wonder what Mr. Kalmus wants out of this?” Rock mused.

“A share of the treasure, I’d guess,” Shep replied.

“Of course we can’t be absolutely sure of finding the _Northern Cross_,
even with the exact ‘fix,’” Rock said. “If it changed its flight path
after sending the SOS, there’s not much hope. But if it held its same
orbit, as Dad’s radio operator reported, we should be able to locate
it.”

“What do you say we listen to Kalmus’ proposition?” Shep suggested.

“The sooner the better!” Rock agreed.

As they went down the corridor, they met Johnny Colfax.

“One of these days I’m going to tell those guys what they can do with
their old job, especially that little worm, Mugger!” Johnny complained.
“I’m tired of all this backbreaking stuff and his fussing at us all the
time!”

“I think we’re all tired of it, Johnny,” Rock sympathized.

Johnny was one of seven of them who had accepted work on the servicing
station after their washout from school. Since they knew they could
never go into space in the smart livery of the Space Command, this
seemed to be the next best thing. But the boys had soon tired of the
glamour of being out in the deeps and the hard work, and most of them
were ready to go meekly back home to Earth.

“Maybe before long,” Rock told his discouraged friend, “all of us will
be able to tell the big boys where to head in.”

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked.

“Come along and see,” Shep invited.

Johnny made a wry face. “I’m not in the mood to see anything now. It’s
the sack for me and ten solid hours of sleep!”

Rock and Shep looked for Kalmus’ room on Deck B. As they passed a long
corridor port, they saw the busy outside activity of the servicing
station. They saw big clumsy-looking astroliners and streamlined,
needle-prowed “atmosphere” ships approaching and leaving the docks of
the octagon satellite after repairs or refueling. Smaller ferry craft
darted back and forth between the vessels like pilot fish in the company
of great sharks.

The boys located Kalmus’ room and found him waiting for them as though
he had known they would be along. There was another man present. He
looked like a walking skeleton, with thick black brows and hands like
hairy tarantulas. Kalmus said his name was Jack Judas and that he was a
close friend.

“My scraps match your photostat, Mr. Kalmus,” Rock said. “What is your
proposition?”

“I’ll get right to the point. We go on an expedition to look for the
_Northern Cross_ and split the value of the cargo if we find it.”

Rock nodded. “That’s reasonable enough.”

“I can rent an old ship cheaply,” Kalmus went on. “Got a friend in the
business over on Satellite 7, a space supply moon. He showed me just the
thing for us, atomic drive and all, equipped to carry eleven men. I can
dig up a crew too. How much money can you get to pay for your share?”

“That will take some figuring,” Rock said, “and I’ll have to talk over
the proposition with the other fellows.”

“I told you I’d furnish the crew,” Kalmus said, with a trace of
annoyance. “However, if you want to bring some of your buddies along, I
guess that’s your business.”

“We’ve been together all through Academy training,” Rock told him, “and
that’s too long a time to split up now.”

Rock was able to get all his six friends together to talk over the plan,
even rousing a complaining Johnny Colfax out of his brief sleep. All
were in favor of making the voyage.

“I’ll split my share equally among us,” Rock said.

“Nix on that, Rock,” tall, wiry Hugh Blankenship objected. “It’s your
dad’s ship and we know about his dream to build a satellite hospital.
Besides, you’re the one who’s been holding the clue to its location all
these years.”

All of them nodded.

“We can talk that over later,” Rock answered. “Now we’ve got to decide
how we’re going to split expenses with Kalmus.”

The boys had accumulated tidy sums while working at the space station.
Even Rock had a fair amount of savings despite the fact that he sent
much of his monthly check home to his mother. Space pay was high, and
the boys had had no place to spend their money. But of course it cost a
lot of money to take a ship out into space. The boys figured that the
best they could do would not be quite enough. Rock told them that he had
an idea Kalmus would advance them some on their share. It was likely
that he wouldn’t have come this far without being sure the trip could be
financed.

Rock next told them about Kalmus wanting to furnish most of the crew.

“If all of us go,” said little Sparky Finn, with the bristly hair, “then
Kalmus will have to limit the men he wants to take. It’s a simple matter
of arithmetic—seven of us and four of them.”

“I’ll tell him that,” Rock agreed. “We all go or none of us goes. I’ll
insist on it.”

“Do you reckon we can trust Kalmus?” Ed Somerton asked.

“He looks all right to me,” Shep said, “although of course you can’t
trust first impressions sometimes.”

“He looks all right to me too,” Rock agreed. “But just the same, while
we’re waiting to get the ship outfitted, I think I’ll check his
references at central identification headquarters on Earth.”

Just as they were going to break up, there came a sharp rap on the
dormitory door. Before the visitor could be invited in, he flung the
door open and strode inside.

Rock flared at this invasion of their privacy, especially when the
newcomer proved to be a person disliked by all of them. He was Carl
Mugger, their immediate supervisor. Behind his back he was known as
“Yap” because of his shrewish tongue.

“What have we got here—a tea party?” he blurted.

“No, a private discussion,” Rock answered evenly, trying to control his
temper.

“Three of you are supposed to be on duty,” Mugger went on. “You fellows
think you’re on a vacation or something?”

“We were only doing routine work in the solar mirror relay.” Hugh spoke
for Ed, Leo Avery, and himself, who were the three Mugger had been
talking about. “We’ve only been here a few minutes.”

“What do you think would happen to the station if I took off any time I
wanted to?” he demanded, drawing his short body up to its full height.

Getting no reply, Mugger ranted on. “I’ve stood just about all I’m going
to from you guys! The next time one of you goofs off I’m going to have
you sent back so fast Earthward your heads will buzz!”

He glared at each of them in turn.

Shep stepped forward, a full half head taller than the little man, his
face reddening from the fury mounting in him. “I don’t know about the
others, Mr. Mugger, but I’m fed up with this station and you too!”

Mugger’s jaw muscles twitched and his eyes flashed. “Do all of you feel
this way?” he snapped.

The others hesitated. It wouldn’t be the smartest thing to cut oneself
off from his job 25,000 miles above Earth and with no other work in
sight, but neither could a fellow let his buddy stand alone in something
on which all of them were in sympathy. Rock made the first move.

“I feel that way,” he said boldly, and the others backed him up.

“You fellows are through!” Mugger said coldly. “You may as well get your
things together and be ready to take the next ferry ship going
Earthward!” He turned and went out.

Shep’s natural color was beginning to return. A look of penitence came
over his thoughtful face. “I’m sorry, fellows. I—I just couldn’t help
it.”

“It was bound to happen, Shep,” Rock consoled him. “But it does sort of
throw us in with Kalmus in a hurry, and it means we can’t afford to talk
up to him quite as strongly as we might have otherwise.”

“He doesn’t have to know we’ve been fired,” Leo said.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t,” Rock answered with some concern. “Otherwise
he’ll set his own terms, and we’ll just have to take them. Remember, we
don’t even have enough money to pay our share of the expenses, either.”

Rock and Shep went to see Kalmus immediately. Jack Judas was present, as
well as another man. He was squatty and sturdily built, with hair as
black as the Coalsack. Kalmus introduced him as Ben Spooner.

Rock outlined the terms he and his friends had drawn up. Kalmus listened
to them thoughtfully and impassively.

“I could bring some experienced men if you’d let me have my way,” Kalmus
said when Rock was through. “You fellows are pretty young, and on top of
that you are washouts.”

“We didn’t wash out until the finals,” Ed told him. “We still learned a
lot about piloting and navigation in our training.”

“Yeah,” Leo agreed, “you don’t have to worry about us getting the ship
there and back.”

When Kalmus saw how determined all the fellows were to go, he shrugged.
“I guess you know what you can do,” he said. “You’ll have to take care
of most of the running of the ship. I’ll have with me Ben, Jack, and
Mumbly. That will make a crew of eleven, the ship’s capacity.”

“Then we’re agreed on that,” Rock said.

“Judas knows a little about piloting and can help out if necessary,”
Kalmus went on. “He’s got a brother who’s first mate on a space
freighter and has flighted with him a few times. Pegg and Spooner and I
were steward’s helpers on a few space flights some years back. When can
you fellows be ready to go?”

“The sooner the better,” Rock answered.

“In a few hours?”

Rock straightened in surprise. They could hardly make their plans in
that short time.

“I’m in a hurry to get started,” Kalmus said. “You fellows turn over to
me all the money you can get together, and we can settle for the rest
when we get back. I wouldn’t even hold you up for this but the dock fee
and license have to be paid in cash before we leave.”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Rock protested, with a laugh. “I think you’re
underestimating the work we’ve got to do. We’ll have to make a trip back
to Earth and get the ship and supplies lined up first. That alone will
take much more than a few hours! It’s twenty-five million miles to Venus
at the closest approach.”

“I’ve checked on Venus with the chief astronomer on the observatory
satellite,” Kalmus declared, “and we’re in the best position if we start
as soon as possible. I’ve also taken care of everything else, and I’m
still ready to leave in a few hours.”

Rock shook his head as if he still could not believe this. “You realize
there’s a chance we might not find the _Northern Cross_, don’t you?”
Rock warned.

Kalmus’ face grew taut. “I guess that’s the chance that all of us will
have to take.”

He headed for the door. “Come with me, please.”

He led them down the long companionways to Hangar 7 on the outer rim of
the station. Supplies were being loaded here through the station air
lock into a globular nonatmospheric ship that was anchored by its
magnetic grapples to the side of the station.

Tony Kalmus waved his hand at the activity and smiled at the surprised
faces of Rock and Shep. “There’s our ship,” he told them. “Meet the _Dog
Star_, fellows. She’s all ready to go treasure hunting!”


The little space ship _Dog Star_ was on its way into deep space with its
crew of eleven. The ex-cadets had sent messages home telling of their
departure. But Kalmus had been in such a hurry to leave that they did
not even have time to wait for replies. Nor had Rock had time to check
on Kalmus’ references back on Earth.

Rock could appreciate the need for haste, however. Unless they left when
they did, Venus would have moved out of its most favorable position, and
it would have required much more expenditure of fuel to overtake her
later.

It would be several weeks before the _Dog Star_ approached the misty
planet and—it was hoped—the twenty-year orbit of the ghost ship
_Northern Cross_.

“Well, we’re on our way, fellows,” Rock remarked to his young friends
who were gathered with him in the navigation room looking out one of the
ports. “I wonder what the stars have in store for us?”

“Maybe we should have brought along an astrologer,” Hugh said with a
chuckle.

“I have more faith in our own abilities, Hugh,” Rock said. “The Cadet
Board doesn’t think we’ve got what it takes to be spacemen. We can prove
them either right or wrong. It’s strictly up to us.”

Now that the detailed task of getting the ship underway was over, the
time seemed ripe for the pooling of information that would give the
travelers the exact location of the _Northern Cross_.

Kalmus and his three companions joined Rock’s party in the navigation
room, Kalmus having brought along his own precious scrap from the record
of the _Sagittarius_.

With the ship on autopilot, its course having been computed on the
electronic brain, the eleven gathered around the navigator’s table on
which were laid out sky charts and the important bits of paper.

The men and youths were able to stand about in this manner because of
magnetically charged shoes which clung to the floor. Without them, the
travelers would have hung weightless in the zero-gravity. The atomic
power rockets had already cut their thrust after reaching required
velocity, and the ship was now in free flight.

Rock fitted the torn fragments together on a white sheet of paper as
Kalmus, breathing hard, leaned over his shoulder. Rock tore off some
transparent tape and carefully stuck the whole together.

The radio operator’s record listed certain numbers and letters that had
their counterpart on the sky map. Rock traced the “fix” on a large
detailed map of Venus and its environs, his finger finally stopping on
one significant spot.

“This is where the _Sagittarius_ had last contact with the _Northern
Cross_,” Rock said with suppressed excitement. “The radio man said the
_N.C._ was already in free fall around Venus.” He traced an imaginary
path around the planet with his finger. “This orbit is our destination.”

“The ship will be somewhere along there, providing it didn’t slow down
afterward and fall into Venus,” Shep pointed out.

“True enough,” Rock agreed. “We’ll know the answer in a few weeks.”

Kalmus told the boys how he had come into possession of his scrap with
the priceless information. He said that his friend in the space salvage
business who had rented them the _Dog Star_ had had on hand some of the
things from the destroyed _Sagittarius_. One day he had found the
yellowed bits in with some bulkhead parts. He mentioned this to Kalmus,
who looked up the old newspaper accounts of the double disaster and
prevailed upon his friend to give him the valuable scraps. Then he had
made his plans for recovering the _Northern Cross_.

Rock was elected chief navigator and leader of his group. Kalmus, of
course, was already head of his own group.

The _Dog Star_’s direction known now, Rock sat at the keyboard of the
electronic brain and “typed” out the corrected ship’s path. The
complicated math problem was solved quickly, and the answer tape was
then fed into the automatic pilot. Only minor corrections of the
controls for direction would have to be made by hand until the ship
reached its destination.

In the space days that followed, the two groups kept pretty much to
themselves. Even eating and sleeping were carried on in separate
quarters. Since this was a voyage for mutual gain only, all preferred
such an arrangement. Kalmus and his friends prepared their meals in the
galley at a set time, and the boys took a later meal hour.

One day when the boys were reading and playing quiet games in the lounge
to pass the long hours, they heard a commotion from Kalmus’ part of the
ship. Rock got up from the game of chess he was playing with Shep and
went to the door. Kalmus was approaching briskly down the corridor, his
big frame making his hard-soled shoes thump loudly against the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Rock asked him.

“A meteor tore through the ship just a few feet from Mumbly,” Kalmus
replied. “Mumbly was so scared when he heard it that he nearly jumped
out of his skin! He left the floor and floated clear up to the ceiling!
We had to pull him down!”

Rock and some of the other fellows went to investigate.

The room pressure was still up, but Mumbly Pegg, the near-victim, was
pale clear up to his disordered shock of red hair. Kalmus’
stoop-shouldered friend kept mumbling how close he had come to being
killed, a mannerism that had gained him his nickname. He talked
incessantly to himself, neither getting a reply from anyone nor
expecting any.

Rock found holes in opposite sides of the room where the meteorite had
hurtled through. The holes were only about pea-sized and were scorched
around the edges. The automatic sealing compound would keep the air in
the ship from leaking out temporarily, but a permanent repair would have
to be made.

“The hull’s got to be soldered from the outside,” Rock told Kalmus.
“Some of the boys and I will go outside and take care of it.”

Shep and Johnny offered to go with Rock, and the three put on pressure
suits. Then they took up their firing equipment and prepared to enter
the air-lock tunnel leading outside.

Before unscrewing the hatch, Rock took in hand one of the safety mooring
lines that was fastened to the edge of the hatch.

“These safety lines aren’t the best I’ve ever seen,” Rock commented, as
he observed some worn places in the nylon. “Kalmus must have had these
given to him.”

“Maybe he wants to get rid of us,” Shep said, half-seriously.

The boys hooked the safety lines to their suits, then climbed out the
circular hatch into raw space itself. They still wore magnetic shoes to
counteract their weightlessness and enable them to walk.

The boys took one moment to feast their eyes on the brilliant fields of
star dust that surrounded them like a great dome.

Spellbound by all the vastness, Rock was comforted by the solid feel of
the big round globe beneath their feet. He looked at the long narrow
stem that jutted out the back of the sphere and held the smaller
shielded ball of the screened-off atomic power plant. The engines were
still idle; they would be until it was time to spin the ship around and
blast away forward to slow the ship down a few weeks from now.

“Look at Earth over there at ‘7 o’clock,’” Shep said. “It’s just like a
fuzzy, unripe peach!”

“Kind of makes you homesick, doesn’t it?” Rock said a little wistfully.

They went over to one of the meteorite holes and knelt down.

The bright fire leaped like a hot bar from Rock’s cutting torch,
reddening the metal of the hull almost immediately.

“How long is this going to take?” Johnny asked worriedly. “I want to get
back inside. I don’t trust these dilapidated safety lines!”

“I’m beginning to regret I brought you fellows along on this thing,”
Rock said thoughtfully. “Kalmus got me so excited about the expedition
that I guess I didn’t really consider the risk we were taking by
venturing into space on our own. There are so many things that could go
wrong.”

“We didn’t have to come,” Shep encouraged him. “Frankly, I’d have gone
anywhere just to get away from the station. I’ve been miserable ever
since we flunked out. Just a few trick questions and—WHAM—there were
three years gone to waste!”

“Maybe they won’t be wasted if our reward is the finding of the
_Northern Cross_,” Rock pointed out.

He found that he could work better by taking his feet off the hull and
“hanging” face down over it, with Shep holding on to his safety line to
prevent the blast of the torch from driving him outward. Johnny was busy
holding the flux in position.

Suddenly the force of the blast caused Rock’s worn safety line to snap
and sent him hurtling outward from the hull of the _Dog Star_!

Rock heard his own name blasting into his ears as the anguished voice of
Shep called to him. Then he saw his friend leap upward with clutching
futile hands. Shep’s body jerked to the end of his own line, and then
the reaction sent him slamming back onto the hull.

As Rock, still numb with shock, sped farther outward, he heard the
frantic calls of Shep and Johnny trail off as their radio power faded.
Finally no sound reached his ears, and the oppressive silence of lonely
space closed in on him. It had all happened with such suddenness that he
could scarcely realize it had happened at all.

Hopelessness had already begun to get a hold on him before he began to
think of how he might save himself. Perhaps it was something he had
learned in cadet training that made him calm himself and think
reasonably.

His stiff fingers still clutched the cutting torch that had rocketed him
from the _Dog Star_. Why not use it the same way to get back? Although
still streaking out laterally from the ship, he was under influence of
the ship’s motion and was traveling just as fast beside it.

Rock carefully judged his direction and blasted with the tool in the
opposite direction. He felt the deceleration of his outbound speed as
the firestream braked him. Presently the rocket reaction stopped him and
he began going back toward the ship.

Rock used the cutting torch for a brake to slow his return onto the skin
of the hull. Shep and Johnny clattered over to him and pulled him in to
safety. Rock could see relief spreading over their faces.

“Thank goodness you’re safe, Rock!” Shep said. “You nearly gave us heart
failure! You sure kept your head!”

If he hadn’t, Rock told himself grimly, he would not be here this
minute. A spaceman had to keep his head at all times. His cadet training
had impressed that on him.


The days and weeks that followed passed uneventfully, if not exactly
excitingly. There was so little to do, such a monotony of scene.

A few thousand miles from the Venus orbit, Rock fed directions for a
gyroscope turn into the automatic pilot, and the rockets began spouting
bursts of flame to check the _Dog Star_’s headlong rush. All aboard were
forced to take to shock couches for the first time to lessen the pain on
their bodies.

Had time not been a factor, Rock could have decelerated slowly with no
strain. This had been the manner of their acceleration from the station.
But Rock had realized that Kalmus would become impatient later and so
had figured the flight for rapid deceleration and consequently much
saving of time.

Kalmus and his men took the deceleration shock in different ways. Since
all the couches were in the same room, Rock could study their reactions.
Jack Judas and Kalmus made no outward signs of discomfort, but Spooner
and Pegg groaned continually.

Although not exactly enjoying himself either, Rock, like his young
friends, had been taught to take this, and through a certain pride would
give no outcries. The lessening speed constricted the blood vessels in
his eyes, blurring his vision, but Rock kept studying the reflecting
prism over his cot to take his mind off the strain. And his hand did not
drift far from the emergency controls should something go wrong.

The prism brought the outside view right into the ship. Venus dominated
the scene, like a giant snowball glittering with a light of its own.
Rock could see the impenetrable clouds, chiefly of carbon dioxide,
swirling and crawling over the surface of the planet like a tide. The
invisible lands below were a hothouse of wind-swept desert and barren
stretches. There were only a few isolated research settlements down
there where brave scientists probed the hot soil for strange new things.

When the _Dog Star_ slowed, the travelers were able to leave their
couches.

Rock consulted the charts and got a reading of their position from Ed,
who was at the navigation instruments.

“Here we are,” Rock said, indicating a spot on one of the maps. “At
Point X we’ll match orbits with the _Northern Cross_, then we’ll
accelerate a little so that we’re bound to overtake her eventually—that
is, if she’s still in her original flight orbit.”

“She’s _got_ to be there!” Kalmus cried a little frantically. “I’ve
poured a fortune into this thing.”

“I’ve got as much interest in this as you have, Tony,” Rock told him
evenly. “We’re no expert Spacemen, but I’m pretty sure we’re going right
so far.”

The travelers began watching the radarscope for first signs of the ghost
ship. But no “blips” showed on the screen. Later, every crewman was
assigned a watch at the ’scope. This was intended to keep a man
continually on duty.

When the ship moved in exposure to the sun, the ports had to be shielded
with filter screens. An outside movable reflector blind, highly polished
and operated automatically by a thermostat, reflected away much of the
heat and light.

Despite its dangerous aspects, the sun was a magnificent object. Its
white-hot surface was eye-searing bright and showed dark islands of
sunspot activity, any one of which could swallow Earth. Its edges threw
out mountainous red tides that lapped outward many thousands of miles
into the black deeps. It was a sight that brought a lump of awe into
one’s throat.

When he was on duty at the ’scope, Rock used the ship’s small refracting
telescope to see the little yellow disc of Mercury, dwarfed like a
pinhead beside a grapefruit, against the sun. It reminded Rock of a
small dog taunting a larger one, daring it to attack, yet forever
skipping nimbly out of the way with its agile speed.

The hours of search drew into a full space day, then another, with no
sign of the ghost ship. Even if the _Dog Star_ had been off course a few
hundred miles, a ship as large as the _Northern Cross_ could not have
slipped by unnoticed.

Finally Rock had to make a gloomy announcement. “In another hour we’ll
have made a complete revolution of Venus,” he told all ten of them who
were gathered around. “If we don’t come across the _Northern Cross_ by
then, it means she’s not in her orbit. She’s either crashed on Venus or
has gone out into space. We’ve been accelerating faster than an object
in free fall around Venus. She couldn’t have outrun us.”

Kalmus’ big palm slapped the table. “I won’t stand for being licked,
Rock! I’ve built my hopes so high on this thing!” His pale eyes glared
restlessly and there was a red suffusion over his face.

Rock reminded him, “The matter isn’t in our hands. We’ve done all we can
do.”

Kalmus lapsed into nervous silence as the minutes ticked off. He haunted
the radarscope most of the time and even tried to look for the ship with
the refractor, a tedious job. He was in a constant fidget, alternately
pacing and putting his eye to the instrument.

Now only fifteen minutes remained. There was still no sign of the ghost
ship. Rock also was beginning to feel a growing despondency. Up until
now he had not considered the consequences of failure. Now it shocked
him to do so. He and his friends would be indebted to Kalmus for years
to come for their share in the venture. They would either have to slave
at the space station again, and eat humble crow, or try to find other
jobs back on Earth.

But this wasn’t all of the story. A failure would close off for all time
the hope that had lived in him ever since he had known of his father’s
disappearance. He would have to resign himself to the thought that his
father and his ship would speed along with its lifeless cargo to the
ends of the universe seemingly, never to be recovered. And worse,
Merrill Memorial Hospital would remain only a shattered dream that might
have been.

Then there was the reaction of the unpredictable Kalmus to be
considered. Would he turn on them?

Five minutes to go. No ship in sight. Nothing but star dust and more
star dust and the smoldering light of Sol, like a mocking beacon.

Finally Rock had to say bitterly, “Time’s up. I’m afraid we’re licked.
There’s no sign of the _Northern Cross_.”

“We’ve got to find that ship!” Kalmus cried. “I’ll search for it if it
takes a hundred years!”

“It won’t do any good to search without knowing where to look,” Rock
reminded him.

“It won’t hurt to try anyhow,” Kalmus proposed. “We might be lucky. I’ve
sunk too much in this expedition to turn back now!”

“We still intend to pay up our share of the costs, Tony,” Rock assured
him. “You needn’t worry about that part of it.”

“Finding the ship means as much to you as it does to me—or so you said,
Rock,” Kalmus went on stubbornly. “Why are you giving up so easily?”

“Of course it means a lot to me, but I’m not going against terrific
odds. It would be crazy.” Suddenly Rock thought of something and turned
to Sparky Finn. “Sparky, are you absolutely certain you figured out that
navigational problem correctly? Yours was the trickiest of all.”

“I went over it twice, Rock,” Sparky replied solemnly.

“Better look at it again,” Rock proposed. “There’s a possibility we
might have botched up our figures somehow. If your calculation is right,
we’ll all recheck ours.”

Sparky’s math proved to be correct. Then each of the boys went over his
own figures again. Halfway through his, Hugh caught an error in his
work.

“Take me for a numbskull!” he burst out. “Look what I did! No wonder I
flunked out in cadet school!”

“We are too far out from Venus,” Rock told Kalmus. “We’ve got to go in
closer to the planet.”

The _Dog Star_ swung into its new orbit. Kalmus became enthusiastic
again, and Rock felt that they would meet with success this time, but if
they didn’t, there was nothing more to do but admit defeat.

It was Johnny Colfax who first spotted an interesting “blip” on the
radarscope screen two space days later. Half the eleven-man crew was
asleep, but Johnny’s shouts brought everyone running into the main
control room.

“Look, Rock, I think I’ve found it!”

Rock set the telescope in synchronization with the radar set. Then he
put his eye to the telescope eyepiece and turned the hairline focus
adjustment. Yes, it was really a cigar-shaped craft, man-made, just
about the general shape the _Northern Cross_ was supposed to be. It was
a streamlined ship built to slide through the atmosphere of Venus.

Rock judged it to be a few hundred miles away. “It seems to be the
_Northern Cross_,” he announced.

“Let me see that thing!” Kalmus blurted and pushed up to the telescope.
“There’s our dream ship!” he purred, like a miser over his gold sacks.
“I can almost see a dollar sign on that baby!”

A few gentle manual corrections later brought the _Dog Star_ alongside
the ghost ship. The smaller ship’s crew clustered at the broad port.
Only a few thousand yards away, the ship was a giant thing, gray and
meteor-scarred from the years that it had wheeled about in space,
alternately feeling the torrid heat of the naked sun and the bitter cold
when the sun was eclipsed behind the big planet.

As Rock stared, his heart beat faster. Here was the graveyard of his
valiant father and his crew who had battled nature for a share of her
wealth and had lost. Rock felt a mixture of feelings—of repulsion and of
being drawn to the scene. He was attracted by thoughts of the treasure
ore that might fulfill his father’s dream of a satellite hospital, but
he was repelled by thoughts of what he might find in that space tomb.

Although circling the planet Venus at high velocity, both ships were as
if stationary in space and in relation to each other. Rock, Shep, Hugh,
Kalmus, and Judas suited up in preparation to going outside and across
to the other ship.

With an extended safety line securing himself to the exit door of the
_Dog Star_, Rock was the first to launch himself into the gulf between
the ships. He carried a length of electrical cable which he would attach
by magnetic force to the side of the _Northern Cross_. Then his
companions could hook onto the cable with their own safety lines and
cross the gulf without risk of drifting off. They had done some repair
work on the unsafe lines that had given them trouble before. They felt
more secure with them now.

After the cable was set up, Shep pushed off from the doorstep of the
_Dog Star_, and his momentum carried him through the vacuum toward Rock
on the other side, his safety line slipping along the cable for
security. Behind Shep, the others followed.

Shep had brought two cutting torches for opening the door seams of the
_Northern Cross_. He handed one to Rock and they both set to work, the
brilliant flare of their tools lighting the blackness like twin novae.
The sun was on the other side of the space ship, leaving this shadow
side in absolute darkness.

Finally the door was cut all around. All that it appeared to need now
was a good strong push. Rock and Shep tried it together, a little
gingerly perhaps as they realized their weightlessness, and hence,
helplessness. The door hung stubbornly in place. When Kalmus saw their
ineffective efforts, he lifted his big booted feet and boldly slammed
them hard against the door. The door section caved inward, but the
reaction sent Kalmus scooting backward.

Kalmus gave a terrified yell as he went drifting all the way back to the
other ship. Not knowing how to navigate in weightlessness, he barged
into the wall of the _Dog Star_ with such force that it caused him to
bounce back across the gulf again. His safety line kept him from being
in any danger of caroming off into space.

Hugh, holding on to the ship, caught Kalmus’ body as it came back to
them. The big fellow was moaning from fright, and the boys got secret
enjoyment out of Kalmus’ comical and harmless experience.

Then Rock sobered quickly as he faced the grim task that was to follow.
He sighed heavily and stepped through the opening into the air-lock
tunnel of the ghost ship, followed by the others. His shoes clung to the
floor, indicating that the magnetic floor current was still going after
twenty years. Leaving the air lock, Rock and his companions found
themselves in a lounge. Everything was in neat order, just as if it had
been set to rights only today.

“It’s in excellent preservation!” Rock marveled. “The reflector blinds
must have kept the temperature in here pretty even through all the
years.”

They found other parts of the ship also in neat order. Rock had been
told by his mother that his father had been a very orderly man. As yet
there was no sign of what had made the vessel a ghost ship.

Rock dreaded every new room they entered. Which one would reveal to him
the skeletons of the ghost crew—one of them his father’s, a father he
had never seen?

The searchers carried Geiger counters as a check on stray radioactivity
from the atomic engines. But so far the only clicks the meters gave off
were apparently from the ever-present cosmic rays out in space.

Since no bodies had yet been found, it was supposed that the four
crewmen were together in one place. The searchers had entered the
_Northern Cross_ near the rear and had been working their way forward.
Rock guessed that the bodies must be in the main control room.

In the galley, remains of a meal were still inside sealed plates. The
bits were rock hard. An examination of wall pressure gauges showed that
the entire ship was open to the vacuum of space.

“Where is the ore?” Kalmus growled. “I don’t like the looks of this!”

The search party moved down ghostly corridors that hadn’t felt the thump
of space boots for two decades. Just before reaching the main control
room, Rock came to a door-marked, “Stores.”

“This may be it!” he said hopefully and opened the door.

No one needed to tell anyone else that this was the goal they had been
looking for. It was a vast, oblong cell, its metal bins piled nearly to
the ceiling with gray lumps of rock. The rest of the room was crowded
with mining equipment. However, the bigger stuff had evidently been left
on Venus.

Kalmus gave a shout and flung himself into one of the bins. He fondled
the stones, bathing himself in the wealth. “I’m rich! I’m rich!” he kept
saying.

Rock turned away disgustedly, his young friends following. For some
reason he almost wished their mission had been a failure. Sharing this
treasure that his father had died to accumulate for unselfish motives
made Rock feel sick for a moment.

“Want to go into the pilot’s room, Rock,” Shep asked in gentle
consideration, “or shall we just pass it up?”

“No, Shep, I’ve got to see if Dad is in there,” Rock answered.

Leaving Kalmus and Judas to play in their wealth, the three youths left
the room and moved farther down the corridor to the main control room,
the door to which bulged outward. It took considerable ramming to force
it open.

The disorder of the compartment was in shocking contrast to the neatness
of the rest of the _Northern Cross_. Plastic seats were warped, and it
looked as if a giant with a padded sledge hammer had gone about
recklessly putting dents in the lightweight metal of the walls. An
emergency air lock stood wide open, revealing the stars, its door
hanging by one hinge. It was on the side away from the _Dog Star_. The
huge console that housed the instruments and gauges also showed great
depressions, and nearly all the glass dial covers were shattered.

“What do you think happened in here, Rock?” Shep asked.

“It looks like a high-pressure build-up of gas,” Rock answered.
“Probably in the ventilating system. When the pressure got too high,
either the air lock was the first to give way or somebody opened it in
desperation. I imagine all the men were trapped in here and couldn’t get
the door open.”

There were no bodies in the room. All four had evidently been swept
through the air lock by the rapidly escaping gas. Rock’s companions
could read the truth as easily as he had done himself, and they were
considerate enough to remain silent. Rock stared about him for several
moments. This was so unexpected, not finding his father. He didn’t quite
know how to take it.

The boys went out to join the others. Kalmus and Judas were chattering
over their success, already making plans for the future.

Kalmus was not concerned whether Rock had found his father or not.
“Let’s hurry up and get this stuff loaded on the _Dog Star_,” was the
first thing he said.

“Sure,” Rock said absently.

As they went aft again, Rock’s mind was full of what they had seen. He
was rather disappointed in the way he felt. He had thought he would be
jumping in elation when they found the alconite ore. Instead, he was
almost sorry. It seemed like a violation of his father’s honor to share
his property with these men of greed.

The shock of not finding his father’s body continued to disturb him. He
had hoped to take it back and give it a decent burial. Yet, as he
thought further, perhaps this was the way his dad would have wanted it,
because he was first and last a spaceman. Also, his widow would not have
to relive the pain of his loss again. Yes, it probably was best this
way.

The five of them crossed over on the cable again and made preparations
for transferring the ore to the _Dog Star_. They would carry it over in
regular space transfer crates secured to the cable. An empty crate would
be shoved across the gulf, filled up in the _Northern Cross_, and then
sent back over to be emptied of its contents.

The crew was split into two parties, five remaining aboard the _Dog
Star_ to unload and the other six going over to the _Northern Cross_ to
load the treasure aboard the crates.

The work began and moved along smoothly, but it was going to be a
drawn-out operation, if not a rigorous one. Carrying the containers of
ore down the corridors of the _Northern Cross_ was a simple matter since
they were perfectly weightless and so had only to be guided along by the
touch of a hand.

The hours dragged along slowly as load after load was drifted down the
corridors of the ghost ship and pushed across the vacuum to the _Dog
Star_. The storage bins of the smaller ship bulged higher and higher
with the valuable mineral.

As the transference neared completion, Rock took Shep aside, near one of
the ports of the _Northern Cross_. Then he began speaking very softly so
that none of Kalmus’ men working in the ship could pick up the
conversation by helmet radio.

“We’re nearly through, Shep,” he whispered, “and you know what that
means for Kalmus.”

“It means he’s got what he came for and that he should be satisfied,”
Shep finished.

“To me it’s more than that,” Rock continued. “It means that he doesn’t
need any ex-cadets anymore. You heard him say that Judas could run the
ship.”

Rock could barely see the frown on Shep’s face through the filtered
facepiece of his helmet. “What are you getting at, Rock?”

“The fewer men who return to port with the treasure ore, the fewer there
will be to share the profits,” Rock said, his radio-altered voice
carrying a sinister inflection.

“You mean you think that Kalmus is going to ditch us?” Shep asked in a
fierce whisper. “Right out here in the middle of space?”

“I’m not saying I believe that definitely,” Rock corrected, “but I do
think we should start being on our guard for any funny moves Kalmus
might make. You’ve seen yourself how greedy he is.”

“What, exactly, do you think we should do?” Shep asked.

“I think that you, Johnny, Hugh, and myself should go on over to the
_Dog Star_ right now and tell Kalmus that we believe the ship has got as
much ore as she should carry. That will prevent his stranding us over
here. If he wants to, let him come over and get the rest of the ore
himself.”

“Since we’re making wild guesses,” Shep said, “maybe Kalmus has other
plans for dealing with us, such as making us prisoners on the _Dog Star_
as we head back.”

“That’s possible too,” Rock agreed, “but he would need weapons for that,
since we outnumber them. I took a quick look through their things before
we left port to make sure he and his men had no weapons, and I don’t
think they brought any along.”

“Maybe we’re being unfair with the guy, suspecting him at all,” Shep
said.

As the words left his lips, he happened to glance out the port and saw
Ben Spooner, who had been working on the _Northern Cross_, thrust out
across the gulf empty-handed.

“Hey, look!” Shep cried. “Ben’s in a big hurry and he’s not carrying a
crate across!” He seized Rock’s space suit. “Now there goes Judas right
behind him and he’s empty-handed too!”

Rock felt his heart take a dive. “Shep, they must be going to do exactly
what I feared!” He sprang into action. “Come on, we’ve got to get Hugh
and Johnny!”

“They can’t maroon us in space!” Shep said, furious, as he tagged along
behind Rock down the corridor. “It’s the same as murder!”

“They’re not even waiting to carry the rest of the ore across!” Rock
said. “As soon as we find the fellows, we’ll get over to the _Dog Star_
right away!”

Sparky, Ed, and Leo were already in the other ship. Rock and Shep
quickly rounded up Johnny and Hugh and the four of them hustled toward
the air lock, bumping into crates in their hurry. As they reached it,
Johnny pointed out the open doorway.

“Look, Sparky’s coming over!” he said.

“Maybe he’s found out what’s going on,” Hugh spoke.

They gave Sparky a hand into the ship.

“What’s up, Sparky?” Rock asked.

“Jack Judas told me you wanted help in finishing up over here and for me
to come over,” Sparky replied.

“We didn’t send for you,” Rock told Sparky. “It must be a trick to get
the most of us over here. Come on, you guys! We’ll go over and have a
show-down with Kalmus right away!”

But before they could launch themselves, Kalmus had already begun his
act of treachery.

“Look what those crooks are doing!” Shep exclaimed.

The boys could hardly believe what they saw. It was more like a bad
dream. The cable had jerked away from the side of the _Northern Cross_
as its magnetic attraction was broken. Then the five saw Kalmus lean out
and pull it into the _Dog Star_.

“We’re too late!” Rock groaned.

The ex-cadets shouted in frustration and anger at the cold-blooded act.
Over their suit radios, they warned their former partners of the
consequences of abandoning men in space. But even as they yelled
themselves hoarse, Rock knew it wasn’t going to do any good. Kalmus had
simply gotten the jump on them, something that had probably been planned
at the very beginning of the voyage.

The outer door of the _Dog Star_ closed. A feeling of utter desperation
took possession of Rock. Here they were, five of them, marooned on a
ghost ship in space, without any foreseeable chance of returning alive
to Earth.


An hour had passed since the five ex-cadets had been cut off from the
mother ship. The _Dog Star_ had blasted off and was now out of sight.
Rock guessed that Kalmus and his rebel crew had compelled Leo and Ed to
assist Jack Judas in running the ship.

During this time, the castaways had been taking stock of their
situation. Any hopes of sending an SOS were virtually gone. The radio
antenna had been badly damaged at its base when loosened by the bulging
wall. The radio’s present range could not be over a few thousand miles.

However, things did not look nearly so dark now as they had earlier. The
boys found air tanks that would sustain them for quite a while, if not
indefinitely. Upon refilling their suits with the aged gas, they found
it breathable but carrying a metallic odor.

There was a fair abundance of irradiated food such as all space craft
carried. By receiving special treatment in an electronic oven, such food
could be preserved for years. Although hard and rather tasteless, the
present supply would at least keep them alive. The water-making machine
was still in good order, and a drink from it was as fresh as if just
drawn from a spring.

However satisfactory these three main essentials were, though, they
would all run out some day. That meant that the _Northern Cross_ would
have to move out of her stagnant orbit if there was any chance for
survival.

Rock was hopefully expectant that the ship would run again. Save for
temperature changes, there had been no weather erosion to damage the
craft and its fittings. Since the ship’s electrical power came from
sunlight and the big solar mirror had continued to gather light over all
these years, the electric system worked, and the batteries were still
charged. A long-range inspection of the atomic-engine unit showed no
radiation leakage. The unit had been shut down ever since the accident
to the _Northern Cross_; the boys found the hafnium safety rods plunged
well home into the atomic pile to prevent chain reaction. The automatic
oil and grease feeds in the ship’s motors had given out by now, and many
bearings were squeaky dry, so they replenished these.

The boys were now in the pilot’s room ready to try out the ship under
its own power. The console had pretty well resisted the crush of air
pressure that had caused the explosion, for the gauges were working. But
of course working gauges did not necessarily mean working jets. The boys
had made minor repairs in the main control room. They had reconciled
themselves to living inside space suits for the rest of the way home
since the _Northern Cross_ was open to the vacuum of space, and the air
lock was too badly damaged to close again.

When everything was in readiness for a test blast, Rock sat at the
console with the others crowding around him to keep their eyes on the
many dials. The electronic brain and autopilot were in satisfactory
order and would be called upon later if the ship were able to move under
its own thrust.

Rock pressed colored buttons and shoved knife switches and floor levers.

“Jet chamber pressures are up!” Johnny said happily.

“The fuel flow gauge is right!” Sparky called.

“The coolant is circulating!” Hugh reported.

The boys felt a vibration and heard a muted hum. Then they felt a slight
tug. They had already been traveling at substantial speed under orbital
velocity, but the slight increase was unmistakable. A check of the
dynamometer, that recorded thrust, indicated that the jets were
operating properly. Rock cut off so that they could make plans.

“We could reduce speed and try for landing on Venus,” Rock proposed,
looking out the port at the big planet that was buried within its dense
veil, “but we’d have to be awfully lucky to land within radio range of
any of the research settlements. Besides our radio being weak, there’s a
lot of static on Venus from sunspots.”

“I’m in favor of trying to get back home,” Shep declared. “Even if we
get off course we may be close enough to radio Luna or some of the space
stations for help.”

“As a matter of fact, Luna will be right in our path on the way back,”
Rock said.

Shep’s suggestion seemed to be the best idea and was voted for
unanimously. After all had helped in figuring out the mathematics of
their course, Rock fed the tape into the autopilot. Next everyone took
to shock couches.

The _Northern Cross_ was in the fortunate position of being headed
Earthward, meaning that its orbital speed could be added to their
required velocity. In a manner of speaking, it was as if Venus were a
slingshot hurling the pebble of the _Northern Cross_ into space.

Under the crushing pressure of their mounting acceleration, Rock watched
the rising space speed in his overhead prism with concern. Would the
engines of the ship, inactive for so long, respond at maximum
efficiency? If they did, would the old vessel hold together under the
strain?

The jets responded, at any rate. Rock’s body seemed to be squeezed flat,
his eyeballs pressed deeply into their sockets, his vision blurred.

Then the ship began leveling off, and the pressure lifted from Rock’s
body. Before long it was gone entirely, and he knew they could unstrap.
The first thing the boys did when they were up was to check the dials on
the console. Everything appeared to be satisfactory enough; the
_Northern Cross_ should be able to carry them all the way. The radio was
set on automatic SOS. Although extremely remote, there was the distant
possibility that some ship might be within range.

Later the same day, when Rock had a moment of relaxation, he located his
father’s private cabin. Being among his father’s things was almost like
being in his presence and seeing him for the first time. There were the
few neat clothes still hanging in the closet and the polished black
boots in an orderly row.

On a wall desk he saw a picture of his mother and a fountain pen lying
with the cap off. On the floor he found a sheet of radiogram paper on
which his father had evidently been writing before the disaster.

Rock read the letter that his father had intended to radio to his wife
on Earth. The boy’s eyes grew misty and there was a thickening in his
throat.

The twenty-year-old message carried a tone of foreboding. It was as
though Dr. Merrill felt that the four remaining less-experienced men of
his original crew of nineteen could not successfully bring the ship back
to port. “So close to my dream of a satellite hospital and yet so far,”
were his unhappy words. “And yet we shall try with all our might, my
dear, to come home. This treasure of ours _must_ not go to waste. There
is so much good that it can do.”

The letter ended abruptly as Dr. Merrill wrote, “Fox has just called me
forward. I think they may be having trouble. I’ll tell you all about it
when I get back.”

But of course neither Dr. Merrill nor anyone else ever told what had
happened.

Rock tenderly folded the brittle paper and tucked it away safely. His
mother would cherish this last word from her husband.

Rock knew now why his mother had scrimped and saved, working at the
algae canning plant, to make him eligible for cadet school. But he
didn’t know how hurt she must have been when he washed out. She hadn’t
told him that.

The days dragged by slowly. With only a backdrop of star smudges to look
at and unpalatable meals of hard, ancient food to eat, it was not
exactly an enjoyable trip. Added to this of course were the youths’
additional worries about the welfare of their two buddies and whether
the _Northern Cross_ would hold together until the beloved sphere of
Earth swam into view.

When the ship moved into the environs of Luna, the weary five knew that
Earth could not be far off. Ninety-nine per cent of their journey was
already over.

Rock studied the enlarging globe of Earth’s satellite. Its wrinkled,
gray face shone dazzlingly bright under the full glare of the sun. The
filtering glass was lowered over the forward port to cut down the
brilliance.

It was on the space day following that there occurred an incident that
filled the boys with exuberant hope. They were almost at their closest
approach to Luna. The gray desolate lands were right “below.”

A crackling was heard over the automatically set radio.

“Somebody must have picked up our signal and is trying to make contact!”
Shep cried out.

Rock moved to the console to begin cutting speed. Then all gathered
around the radio.

Hugh was the radio expert. He scooped up the mike and slid into the
chair in front of the bank of knobs.

“_SS Northern Cross_,” he said eagerly. “_SS Northern Cross._ Come in,
whoever you are! Please come in!”

The crackling continued. Then there was a fragment of voice that was
quickly lost in a babble of sound.

Hugh kept talking into the mike.

“It’s that faulty antenna!” Rock groaned.

The crackling continued. Just as Hugh was about to give up, a voice came
in weakly again. It was a voice the boys had to strain to hear, but they
caught the vital message: “Hugh—Rock!” it said. “We picked up your SOS.
We’ve had to make an emergency landing on Luna.”

“Leo!” Shep said. “It’s Leo!”

“Ask him quickly if Ed is all right and what their position is,” Rock
said to Hugh.

“Yeah, we’re both all right,” came Leo’s reply. “Our position—”

A rattle of static cut him off. The boys groaned. It would be impossible
to search the moon for a space ship. They had to get the exact location
from Leo.

They listened hopefully. Hugh kept talking, saying that they weren’t
getting clear reception.

Then Leo’s distorted voice came through again briefly. This time he got
out the latitude and longitude of the _Dog Star_. Rock eagerly wrote it
down.

“Here comes Kalmus!” they heard Leo say next in a frenzied voice.

That was the last they heard. There followed a garbled sound and then
complete silence.

“Kalmus must have destroyed the set,” Rock said gravely.

“We know where to find them now, though,” Shep said with satisfaction.

Rock went to the chart files and dug through the celestial maps for one
of Luna. He checked the position as given them by Leo.

“The place is near Archimedes in Mare Nubium,” Rock pointed out. “Get
out your pencils and take a seat at the calculators, boys; we’ve got
some navigation figuring to do!”

The velocity and orbital figures were worked out. Then the directions
were computed in the mechanical brain and fed into the autopilot. The
chemical braking rockets were switched in after the ship had turned
about-face. No terrestrial landing was ever made with atomic rockets
because of radioactive contamination of the ground.

The boys strapped down and braced for the agony of deceleration. It was
a cumbersome job, clad as they were in space gear.

As the ship decelerated, Rock focused his hurting eyes on the prism
overhead. The filter cut out the over-all glare of reflected sunlight
from Luna’s boiling-hot surface, but the harsh blacks of dead shadow and
the whites of naked sunlight were still painfully vivid. He watched the
shimmering heat vapors, the miles and miles of gray pumice, heaped in
waves in some places so that it resembled a gigantic sea whose motion
has been suddenly stilled. Finally the great curving mouth of Archimedes
began to enlarge and grow in prominence. The crater’s high, rugged walls
filled the square of Rock’s prism.

Later he felt that easy, reassuring bump of the tripod fins that told
him they had landed safely.

“Everybody O.K.?” Rock asked, looking around.

Johnny was pale and the others were a little groggy (they’d had to hit a
deceleration of 7 G’s in order to stop the ship in time), but all
attested to being alive, if shaky. Rock went over to the port to study
their surroundings.

“We didn’t get off course very much,” he announced. “I can make out the
_Dog Star_ about a quarter of a mile away.”

In their elevated position, the boys had an extensive view of the
landscape. For miles around, the ground was dead black. Only in the
distance did the razor-sharp line of sunlight begin. The _Northern
Cross_ was in the broad shadow of Archimedes and the distant _Dog Star_
was also. Between the ships lay irregular rock shapes and uneven ground.
A rift sliced across the area, appearing to make contact between the
ships impossible.

“I wonder if Kalmus knows we’ve landed?” Shep said.

“Even if they don’t know we’re here,” Johnny put in, “they are protected
by that big ditch. Not to mention being safely inside the ship.”

“I’ll admit we’ve got our job cut out for us,” Rock said, “but I don’t
think we should try going back to Earth for help and count on the _Dog
Star_ remaining here to be captured. We might never see Ed and Leo
again.”

“Rock is right,” Hugh said. “We’ll have to figure out how to get over to
the _Dog Star_ and free the boys from those crooks as soon as possible.”

Rock got out the pair of binoculars he had found among the things
belonging to the ill-fated crewmen before them. Then he looked through
them at the distant globe of the _Dog Star_. The ship had barely missed
a high wall of dark-colored lunabase rock. The wall was jagged and
spongy, like most formations on Luna, which had so little atmospheric
erosion to wear them down. As he examined the wall, a sudden idea came
to him.

“Why don’t a couple of us try to get over to that rock wall next to the
_Dog Star_?” he proposed. “We can climb it and look through some of the
ports. That way we may be able to see what the others are up to and make
our plans accordingly.”

“Why just two?” Sparky wanted to know.

“Less chance of being seen by Kalmus,” Rock answered. “Also, if the two
get caught, that still leaves three to think of something to do.”

“We haven’t yet figured how to cross that big ditch,” Hugh pointed out.

“I’ve thought of that too,” Rock said. “We can carry along a bunk ladder
out of one of the dorms. From here it looks as if the ladder will span
the ditch.”

“It sounds risky,” Johnny remarked.

“We’ve got to do something,” Shep countered. “I agree with Rock. How
about you and me trying it, Rock?”

The matter was settled. But before anyone could go outside, the area had
to be given time to clear of residual radioactivity around the atomic
rocket nozzles. After waiting an hour, Rock and Shep got the ladder and
carried it downstairs several flights to the air lock.

The ladder was tossed through the air lock to the ground. It floated
feather-light. The former cadets descended by way of the ship’s ladder.
They carried a Geiger counter for checking contamination. Besides the
portable ladder, they had with them binoculars, a safety rope, and a
walkie-talkie radio for communicating with the _Northern Cross_.

The area was free of contamination. The boys found walking quite awkward
at first and laughed at their own clumsy efforts as they fairly danced
along through the volcanic and meteoric dust. There was quite a
difference between being absolutely weightless in magnetic-soled shoes
and being of one-sixth Earth weight without such shoes. They finally got
the hang of it and found they could take gliding steps of about five
feet at a time.

They kept behind rocks and ground rises to minimize the chance of their
being seen. They still could not be certain Kalmus had not seen the
_Northern Cross_ come down.

The rocks and ground were covered with a down of hoarfrost. This was due
to Luna’s scant moisture content condensing in the exceedingly rare
atmosphere which was made up principally of carbon dioxide. As they
moved along, Rock saw that Shep was beginning to grow a whitish fuzz of
dry ice on his suit.

It was hard for Rock to realize that the temperature around them was
several hundred degrees below zero, while only a scant mile or two
farther out it was hotter than boiling water under the full rays of the
sun. This was only one of Luna’s many strange features that fascinated
him. He wished this had been a trip of exploration and fun instead of
the grim battle that it was.

As they approached the great rift in the ground, Rock began to get a
queasy feeling.

“Wide, isn’t it?” he asked Shep over his suit radio.

“And deep,” Shep replied, after a look over the brink that had showed no
bottom.

They brought the ladder over to the edge and carefully spanned the gulf
with it.

“It just does make it!” Rock gasped. “There’s only about a foot to spare
on each end.”

They found a wedge of rock like a dinosaur’s tooth deeply embedded in
the ground not far from the crack. Around this they tied one end of
their safety rope. Then Rock tied the other end around his waist.

“Hold on to the ladder to make sure it doesn’t slip,” Rock told his
friend, and slowly he started out over the plunging abyss.

Rock looked down through the rungs at the black emptiness below.
Although he wore the safety line, a fall could be dangerous. He looked
ahead as he kept moving forward. The other end of the ladder was
wobbling back and forth. When he reached the opposite side of the brink
and climbed onto firm ground, he was aware only of the perspiration
trickling down his face. It made him turn down his suit heat a couple of
degrees.

He untied the safety line and threw it back to Shep. Then his friend
started over the perilous bridge, with Rock holding his side of the
ladder as firm as he was able. Shep made it safely too, so they were
both vastly relieved.

“We’ll just leave the ladder in place,” Rock suggested, then added
gravely, “That’s in case we have to cross it in a hurry.”

Without the ladder to hamper them they could be more furtive in their
movements. They dodged lithely around towering chunks of light-colored
lunarite and darker lunabase. The rock formations looked like petrified
sponges jutting up out of a dried-up sea bottom. When the two had to go
out in the open, they sprinted toward the next place of cover. Since
hoarfrost continued to gather on their suits, they constantly brushed it
off. A moving white figure even in the deep shadows might be noticed by
anyone in the _Dog Star_.

Now only a few hundred feet separated Rock and Shep from the space ship.
They began swinging inward nearer the _glacis_ or outer slope of the
crater, heading toward the wall of lunabase.

“If they’ve seen us, they haven’t given any sign,” Rock said with some
measure of satisfaction when they had reached the foot of the wall and
were watching the dumbbell shape of the _Dog Star_ just a short distance
away. Standing on its tripod base, it looked like a huge kettle.

Rock and Shep started up the rugged slope. Although precipitous and
craggy, it did not look to be too difficult to climb since there were
natural footholds at almost every step. Nevertheless a slip would be
perilous, if not fatal. The boys had been well drilled in the dire
effects of having one’s space suit ripped open. In such case the suit
collapsed like a burst balloon, admitting the killing cold or heat,
whichever it might be, causing death.

When Rock and Shep were at a height level with the ports of the _Dog
Star_, they began crawling laterally toward the ship. Rime covered the
corallike edges, making them slippery as the comparative warmth of their
space suits melted the ice particles. They were about fifty feet from
the ship at this point. Rock checked the counter. There was no gamma-ray
contamination from the _Dog Star_. It was safe to approach closer.

They got as close as they dared to the port that looked in on the main
control room. They could see Leo and Ed working intently on an opened
gear-box beside the instrument console. Across the room sat Jack Judas,
a grim look on his beetle-browed face. And in his hand the boys could
see a blaster.

“They did smuggle weapons aboard, Rock!” Shep said. “They must have
hidden them carefully.”

“That proves they planned the scheme from the very beginning,” Rock
said.

“And it’s going to make it harder for us, because we’re unarmed,” Shep
remarked.

“I believe the boys are stalling them,” Rock said. “They probably
doctored the controls and brought the ship down just to give us time to
catch up with them.”

“I wish there were some way to let them know we’ve landed,” Shep said.
“That is, if Kalmus hasn’t found out already.”

Shep started to move into a better position to see when suddenly his
foothold gave away beneath him. His cry blasted loudly over Rock’s
receiver. Rock made an instinctive grab for his friend. He barely caught
hold of an anchor ring on the other’s space belt in time to keep him
from tumbling all the way to the ground. Rock steadied him as Shep
thrust about with his feet for a new foothold.

“I thought I was a goner!” Shep said tremulously.

During the boys’ struggles they had evidently released loose material,
for they saw a quantity of the porous stone cascade down the wall and
strike the side of the ship.

“We’ve got to scram!” Rock said urgently. “They’re bound to have heard
that inside! Now they’ll know we’re on Luna!”

They scrambled downward as fast as possible, without being reckless. It
seemed as if the lunabase were more slippery than ever. Twice the boys’
feet slipped, and only timely bracing by the other prevented disaster.

When they were about halfway down, Shep’s foot wedged into a crevice.

“Look what I had to do with my big feet!” Shep groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Rock said. “It’ll take them a few minutes to get space
suits on if they have decided to come out and investigate.”

Rock gently but firmly began working on his friend’s imprisoned foot. He
moved it back and forth, tugging and pushing. But it held fast. Even
after several minutes, Shep was still a prisoner.

Then suddenly the thing that the boys had feared happened. The air lock
of the _Dog Star_ opened and a ladder was thrust out until it reached
the ground. Kalmus and two of his companions began descending. They all
carried blasters.

“Now we’re done—” Shep blurted, only to be shushed abruptly by his
friend. Shep had forgotten that all the suit radios were on the same
wave length.

“I think we’re barking up the wrong tree!” the boys heard Ben Spooner
say when they were on the ground. “That wasn’t anything but some loose
rock that fell off that hill up there.”

“Rocks don’t just fall on Luna!” Kalmus retorted. “Something has to move
them! I still believe those guys have traced us here! Leo must have been
able to contact them by radio before I could break up the set!”

“I don’t see anybody around,” Mumbly Pegg remarked.

“’Course you don’t see ’em!” Kalmus growled. “You dead brain! You don’t
think they’re standing around waiting to be caught, do you? Start
climbing up that hill, both of you!”

Rock eased down as flat as he could get and motioned Shep to do the
same. Through his helmet, Rock could see the grimace of pain on Shep’s
face as his movement put pressure on the trapped foot. Rock cautioned
him not to groan or speak a word.

Over his radio Rock heard Spooner and Pegg breathing hard as they began
scrambling up the formation, followed by Kalmus. Rock kept perfectly
still, hoping with all his might that the men would not discover them.

“I still think we’re barking up the wrong tree!” stocky Ben Spooner
repeated as his breathing grew harder at every upward step.

“Shut up and keep climbing!” came Kalmus’ voice. “They’re bound to be up
there!”

Shep was trying manfully to be silent, but every now and then an
involuntary sob of pain escaped his lips. They could hear Mumbly Pegg
murmuring to himself, in his own peculiar incessant manner.

Now Spooner was getting closer. He was only about fifteen feet away,
and, as if following some telepathic message, he continued approaching
the youths.

“We’re done for,” Rock thought, with despair. “There’s nothing to keep
him from finding us.”

Rock lowered himself still flatter, until the sharp edges of lunar stone
pressed dangerously into his inflated suit. Spooner still climbed.
Another couple of feet and he would be looking right down on them. They
heard the sucking of his tired breath and choking wheezes as if he
couldn’t take another step.

“Tony!” Rock heard him call weakly. “I can’t go any higher! Besides, I
can see the top and nobody’s up here! I’ve got to come down!”

“Come on down then, you weakling!” Kalmus grated. “What a bunch of saps
I brought along with me!”

“I can see the top too,” came Pegg’s voice from another part of the
formation. “There’s nobody up here, Tony.”

“I guess you guys were right after all,” Kalmus finally conceded.

It seemed a terribly long time before the men got to the ground and
disappeared into the ship. Rock gave them time to remove their space
gear before daring to speak over his radio.

“Boy, that’s the closest call we’ll ever have!” Shep said.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” Rock reminded him. “We’ve got to get
you free.”

He went after the trapped foot with a more determined vengeance. Shep
howled, but Rock finally jerked it free of the stubborn crevice.

When they reached the bottom, Shep was limping and said his ankle hurt.
Rock supported him and they headed back toward the _Northern Cross_.
They continued with caution, keeping out of the open as much as
possible.

“I don’t see that we accomplished much,” Shep said wearily.

“It’s given me another plan, at least,” Rock replied, brushing at a new
growth of ice crystals.

“Oh, oh, here we go again!” Shep sighed, then winced as his ankle hurt
him again.

“All of us,” Rock began, “except you—if you’re not up to it—will come
back over here. We’ve already proved that the trip can be made without
their seeing us. We’ll station ourselves around the air lock, except for
one who will climb the formation and kick rocks down again on the ship.
This time Kalmus will be sure it’s us, and they’ll come out to
investigate again. When they come out, our bunch will slip inside. If
Judas has been left to watch Leo and Ed, he shouldn’t give us much
trouble by himself if we slip up on him and catch him unawares. Once
we’ve locked out the other three they’ll give in willingly just to get
back inside.”

“That’s pretty daring,” Shep said doubtfully, “but I guess we’ve got to
be daring if we’re going to save the boys.”

As they walked, Rock radioed the _Northern Cross_ with the walkie-talkie
he’d been carrying on his back, telling the boys of their close call.

When the two reached the ladder bridge across the rift, Shep had
difficulty crossing with his injured foot. He went first, and as Rock
steadied the frail bridge, he held his breath tensely for fear Shep
would slip. They had used the safety rope again, but, if one of them
should fall, he could easily rip open his suit as he thudded against the
jagged side of the chasm.

Once more, however, they got across without mishap and were soon back at
the ship. The boys helped them in eagerly.

“Are you fellows ready to go back with me?” Rock asked them.

They looked at him in amazement. He explained his new plan to them. All
considered it taking a big chance, but, not being able to think of
anything better, they agreed that they might as well try it.

“Kalmus is getting mean and nasty,” Shep told them. “This thing seems to
be getting on his nerves. There’s no telling what he’ll do to the boys
before this is all over. He and his men have blasters, and they mean
business.”

The boys prepared a snack for themselves, then began to dress, trying to
choose the best of the antiquated suits.

Shep did not suit up. He said that he wouldn’t be able to help any
because of his ankle, which was noticeably swollen now. He wouldn’t let
any of the others stay behind with him, however.

When all were dressed and ready to go, they said good-by to their
crippled buddy.

“What’ll I do if you don’t come back?” Shep asked Rock.

“I guess you’ll just have to come over and join us,” Rock replied,
half-jokingly. “Two could possibly get the ship back to port in a pinch
but not one man alone.”

“I think I’ll prefer your coming back,” Shep said, with a broad grin.
“Good luck, you guys.”

The four of them started out. Rock showed his friends the route he and
Shep had taken before, one that appeared safe from possible inquiring
eyes aboard the _Dog Star_. It took them some time to cross the chasm,
since each fellow had to tie on the safety rope as he went over.

“I’ll climb the lunabase formation,” Rock told them, “because I was up
there before and know the way. The rest of you keep away from the ports
and sneak up to the air lock over there. When I see that you’re ready,
I’ll kick some stone down onto the ship. That should bring them outside
in a few minutes. We’ve already made our plans from then on.”

Rock watched Hugh, Sparky, and Johnny slip agilely into the open and
bound like gazelles over to the air lock. Then he started to climb the
wall as he and Shep had done before.

It was then that the shocking collapse of Rock’s bold plan came about.

Kalmus and all three of his men darted swiftly from behind the ship, two
on each side. They leveled their blasters at the boys, warning them to
stay in their tracks.

“Keep them covered, Ben,” Kalmus ordered. “Come on, Jack and Mumbly.
There’s another one around here somewhere. I saw four of them.”

The shocking suddenness of the countermove had left Rock numb and
immobile for a few seconds. But he quickly regained his composure and
sprang into action. He leaped to the ground and scrambled madly to
safety behind the lunabase formation.

He had barely ducked behind a monolith before two helmeted heads loomed
some twenty feet away. A glance in the other direction showed him the
third. He had to get out of there quickly.

He dashed into the open and with great leaps tried to put as much
distance between himself and his pursuers as he could. He got a good
start on them before they caught sight of him and gave chase.

“Stop!” Kalmus roared. “We’ll shoot if you don’t!”

Rock kept running, heading for the chasm. If the three were shooting at
him, he had no way of telling in the near airlessness of the planet. He
wouldn’t know unless he felt the hot stab of a heat ray and the
explosive loss of air from his suit.

Reaching the rift, he cast a hurried glance behind and saw the three
still following. Not having time to tie on the safety rope, Rock started
across the chasm.

Over his radio he continued to hear Kalmus’ threats. The voice grew
louder as the pursuers drew close. Being able to move ten feet or so at
a jump, it wouldn’t take them many seconds to reach the chasm.

Rock clutched at the far bank and hauled himself onto safe ground. As he
exhaustedly pulled the ladder across out of reach of the others, he
looked up to see them almost at the edge. But without the ladder, they
were helpless to advance any farther.

Fearing a well-placed shot, Rock scrambled for cover behind a protective
clump of boulders not far off. Only then did he feel that he could dare
take a deep breath since the terrible ordeal had begun. Kalmus and his
two companions seemed reluctant to attempt a jump of the chasm and
headed back to the _Dog Star_.

[Illustration: _Almost exhausted, he pulled the ladder across and out of
their reach._]

Rock continued on to the _Northern Cross_.

When Shep admitted him into the ship, Rock related the unhappy story
with bitter tears in his eyes.

“You guys should have set me adrift long ago!” Rock burst out. “I’ve
been giving orders ever since we started, and every plan has backfired!
Now there are only the two of us left!”

“We had to have a leader,” Shep said more calmly. “We chose you because
we thought you were the best. We still do. Now quit feeling sorry for
yourself!”

“I don’t know what could have happened!” Rock sighed, shaking his head.

“_I_ know,” Shep said. “Kalmus just happened to see you fellows coming,
that’s all.”

Rock sat down wearily. “You take over from here, Shep. I’m licked.”

Shep could see that his friend was genuinely distressed. He concealed
the harrowing pain he felt in his ankle and tried to think of their next
move. Minutes passed without Rock speaking. He merely stared out the
port at the star-jeweled sky and the shimmering ball of Earth that could
look so close to a person in space and yet be so far away.

“You said that two could run this ship in a pinch,” Shep spoke to break
the silence. “We’ll just have to take the _Northern Cross_ back to port
ourselves and get help from the Space Guard. The boys will probably try
to stall longer and keep the _Dog Star_ on the ground.”

“I guess that is the only way,” Rock admitted, then added dismally, “If
the ship isn’t here when the Guard comes back, we probably won’t see the
fellows anymore, that’s all.”

“What you need is a good rest, Rock,” Shep told him. “None of us has had
one since we came here. Let’s get a few hours of sleep, one at a time,
and then get back to the problem when we’re more refreshed. I’ll stand
first watch to see if the _Dog Star_ takes off.”

“I am pretty tired,” Rock said. “This time we’ll do what you say, Shep,”
he smiled feebly. “You be sure to wake me to relieve you.”

Rock stretched out in a chair and fell asleep almost immediately.

The next thing he remembered was his friend shaking him. Rock stirred
sleepily.

“I guess I’ll be shot for going to sleep on guard duty,” Shep confessed.
“I just couldn’t help it, though.”

Rock had no reason to doubt that the _Dog Star_ would not still be in
its same spot, but some impulse prompted him to look out the port just
the same. His heart suddenly seemed to go dead inside of him.

“The ship is gone, Shep!”

“Oh, no!”

The glasses revealed indisputably that the ship had blasted off. There
was only a blackened ring and a depression where the _Dog Star_ had been
before.

“They’ve gotten the jump on us again!” Rock said brokenly.

“Kalmus must have threatened the boys, or else Judas got the ship off,”
Shep said.

“Whatever it was, they’re gone now,” Rock said hopelessly. “They can be
heading for almost any place in the solar system.”

“What do you think we should do now?” Shep asked.

“Go ahead with our same plan to notify the Guard, I guess,” Rock replied
tonelessly. “They’ll probably send out some cruisers to look for the
_Dog Star_.”

Rock stared solemnly out the port. “It’s my fault all this has happened.
My fault that we ever started out on this crazy treasure hunt and my
fault that the boys are in the hands of these space pirates!”

“Don’t blame yourself, Rock. The fellows knew very well what they were
getting into. It’s not your fault that things haven’t worked out.”

Rock tried to shake off the pall of despair that had dogged him for the
past few hours and got busily to work. “Well, no use just sitting here
on Luna talking about it,” he murmured. “Let’s get that ankle of yours
bandaged and then we’ll start up the engines.”

It was going to be a tricky undertaking to manage all the complicated
controls between the two of them. Shep was further hindered by his ankle
that had stiffened while he had slept. Rock had remembered seeing a
first-aid kit and he went for it. He wrapped the ankle tightly so that
Shep would be able to get about with a minimum of pain. They had to cut
the sides of Shep’s magnetic-soled shoe so that there would be as little
discomfort as possible. Shep could have done without magnetic shoes
altogether, being content to float about weightlessly in the ship when
they were beyond Luna’s gravity pull, but this would have interfered
with running the ship, which required a certain amount of body leverage.

The two got their individual duties synchronized so that there would be
no hitch, Rock taking the bulk of the work.

They calculated their figures and prepared the tape for the autopilot.
Then they strapped down in the couch room for the take-off. Rock still
did not trust the _Northern Cross_ too far, and at this moment he was
concerned lest the old ship might not respond to the lift of her jets.
The next few moments would tell the story.

Rock felt the vibration of the ship as the fuel pumps went to work. The
overhead prism showed the flow meter registering properly, but the big
question was still whether the ship would be able to lift itself into
the heights. Then a sudden movement seemed to cut Rock’s breath off in
his throat. His body pressed deeply into his couch, aching, but Rock was
glad. The ship was rising from the soil of Luna.

They pushed the _Northern Cross_ along at the top speed they believed
was reasonably safe. The ship creaked and groaned under the burden of
maximum thrust. As yet she had given no indication of suffering worse
than this, but it was clear that the space vessel had seen her best
days.

When the _Northern Cross_ was about two-thirds of the way home, a
suspicious dot was seen on the radarscope, moving too slowly for a
meteor.

“Shep!” Rock called. “Take a look at this, will you?”

Shep limped over as Rock got out his binoculars.

“I can’t believe it!” Rock blurted. “It’s the _Dog Star_!”

“What!” Shep cried, and grabbed the binoculars from Rock. “It _is_ the
_Dog Star_!”

“Kalmus has got more nerve than I thought he had!” Rock said. “I didn’t
think he’d risk heading straight for Earth!”

“Whatever the reason, we’ve got him in our sights,” Shep said. “What’ll
we do?”

“Follow him in, I guess,” Rock answered. “Whatever station he heads for,
we’ll put the Guard right on him and his cronies.”

“I’d advise our keeping our distance so we won’t scare him off,” Shep
suggested.

Rock nodded. “When we get closer in, we may be able to radio a warning
to the stations to be on the lookout for him.”

They followed the _Dog Star_ for an entire space day, keeping the same
distance between the ships. The craft was undoubtedly still heading for
Earth and its company of artificial satellites. If her occupants had
spotted the other ship, they did not seem alarmed. Kalmus appeared to be
walking right into capture at a time when victory seemed to be
completely his. It didn’t make sense.

Hours later, Rock was interrupted from study of a sky chart when Shep
cried out in an anguished voice. Rock dashed over to the port where his
friend was looking out.

“There’s been an explosion aboard the _Dog Star_!” Shep blurted. “A big
burst of flame poured out of it!”

“We’ve got to get to her right away!” Rock said hoarsely.

It took some time to change course and swing around in pursuit of the
_Dog Star_’s new glide path. Rock fretted impatiently. He had nightmare
visions of what might have happened or might now be happening to his
buddies aboard the stricken vessel.

As soon as the _Northern Cross_ had matched flight paths with the other
craft, Rock reduced their velocity so they could creep up on the _Dog
Star_ “overhead.” The maneuver was accomplished as quickly as possible.
The _Northern Cross_ now lay “above” the _Dog Star_, with a space of
about a hundred feet between.

Rock set the controls on hold positions as Shep procured a long towline.
The boys dressed hurriedly in space gear, then opened the air lock
closest to the ragged topside hole they had seen in the other ship. They
secured the safety line to an outside anchor ring, then Rock fastened
the line to his own suit.

“Maybe you’d better stay out of this with that bad ankle of yours,” Rock
told Shep.

“And let you go across on your own?” Shep retorted. “No, I’m sticking
with you this time.”

Rock shoved off briskly from the ship’s hull and floated across the gulf
of vacuum toward the _Dog Star_. He landed on the hull not far from the
explosion hole that was amidships near a rocket-tube cluster. Shep
pulled in the line and then launched himself across the emptiness. Rock
steadied him as he landed.

The two scrambled immediately down through the gaping cavity, careful
not to snag their suits on the sharp edges. The boys climbed down along
the bulkheads of the corridor where smoke swirled like fog.

Reaching the floor, they were met by four running figures in space
suits. The boys recognized Kalmus and his three companions in a
desperate hurry.

Rock lashed out boldly at Kalmus who was rushing at him. He heard the
big fellow groan over his suit radio as the blow landed. But then Rock
was charged by Jack Judas. He was lifted off the floor and, because of
his helplessness when not in contact with it, was sent crashing heavily
against the wall of the corridor.

Rock scrambled down off the wall to resume the battle. Shep was
courageously taking on all four of their attackers. Rock leaped into the
middle of it all, swinging fiercely. Another blow sent him careening
into the wall. Shep was flat on the floor now.

Expecting no mercy from the victors, Rock was amazed to see the four
withdraw from the fight and run off down the corridor in the direction
they had been heading in before. Rock and Shep tiredly climbed to their
feet.

“They weren’t after us!” Shep gasped. “They were just trying to get
away!”

“They’re heading for the lifeboat rockets, I guess,” Rock panted. “They
looked scared to death!”

“Let’s get to the fellows!” Shep said.

They hurried along to the main control room. It was empty, so they moved
farther along to the navigation room. The door was locked and from
inside there came the sound of beating fists. With their heavy space
boots Rock and Shep began kicking the light metal door with passionate
vigor. Finally they tore the lock loose and the twisted door swung
inward.

Sparky, Ed, and Johnny were sagging against the far wall, their eyelids
half-closed. Leo was giggling strangely and chattering as if enjoying
himself. Sparky kept crying out, “I can’t hear!”

Only Hugh appeared normal. It was he who had been beating on the door.
His face was red with fright and shiny with sweat.

“The air pressure is down!” Hugh gasped to Rock and Shep. “Give us air!”

Rock and Shep slammed the door to save as much remaining air as possible
and hurried to the supply room. They gathered up all the oxygen bottles
that they could carry and rushed back with them. They opened the
petcocks on all, and the life-giving precious gas began flooding the
room.

But the gauge on the wall still showed a subnormal air pressure. Shep
and Rock found space suits in the supply room and began helping their
companions into them. The victims could help a little, but, except for
Hugh, they were still in such a state of anoxia that their rescuers had
to do most of the work.

Finally the five were safely encased in suits, with clean pressurized
air filling their lungs.

When the others felt like it, they began to talk.

“Kalmus had us locked up in the navigation room while they went to eat,”
Hugh explained. “Then when the explosion came, Kalmus and his men must
have been in such a hurry that they forgot all about us.”

“You might know that the only thing that would have made Kalmus abandon
the treasure would be the saving of his own neck,” Rock said
contemptuously. “You fellows had better get a physical as soon as we get
to port.”

Shep asked the fellows what had happened since their capture.

“Kalmus made us blast off soon after he caught us,” Hugh was the first
to reply.

“Whatever made Kalmus head for Earth?” Rock asked. “We thought that
would be the last place he’d want to carry all of you since you’d be
able to incriminate him.”

“Kalmus didn’t intend to land at a space station!” Ed cut in. “He was
going straight for Earth and touch down in the Arizona desert where he
could unload the ore without being noticed. Then he and the others were
going to sell it a little at a time over a long period.”

“Carry the _Dog Star_ directly to Earth!” Shep exclaimed. “This ship
isn’t made for atmospheric travel! It would have been turned into a
meteor by skin friction!”

“That’s what we tried to tell that crazy man!” Sparky said. “But he
thought we were trying to fool him and get him to dock at one of the
space stations. Judas knew the danger too, but Kalmus wouldn’t listen to
him either.”

“How did you keep the _Dog Star_ at such slow velocity?” Rock asked.

“We shorted out the circuit to a couple of jets,” Johnny replied. “Told
Kalmus it was an accident. We had Judas fooled too. We were trying to
stall reaching Earth as long as possible.”

“We hoped we’d get a chance to jump the fellows,” Hugh put in. “We even
had an outside hope that you might catch up with us.”

Rock went back to the earlier capture of Leo and Ed. Kalmus wanted only
two of the boys to run the ship, Leo explained, so that they could be
easily watched by the four. That was why they had sent Sparky back over
after the transfer of the ore.

Ed said that he and Leo had made such an unsatisfactory job
(intentionally) of running the ship that Kalmus had made Judas take
over. But Judas was so rusty with his piloting that he botched up the
controls, making a forced landing on Luna necessary. The boys then got
the idea of trying to contact the _Northern Cross_ by radio, which they
had done in one of Kalmus’ unguarded moments. Kalmus had been so
infuriated to discover this that he had destroyed the radio. He
mistakenly thought he had done it before a message had been sent.

“Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of that Kalmus bunch,” Shep declared.
“If everything turns out all right for us, I don’t care whether they are
ever caught or not.”

“Do you suppose they got off in the lifeboats?” Hugh suddenly asked.

During their discussion of past events, they had almost forgotten about
the present whereabouts of Kalmus and his men. They went to check the
escape hatches and found one of four lifeboat rockets gone.

“I don’t see how they expect to reach any of the space stations with
their limited knowledge of navigation,” Sparky said.

“Even Judas can find his way home from here,” Rock told him. “We’re only
a few thousand miles from the outer radio relay satellite. The lifeboats
have simple instructions printed on the walls that practically anybody
can follow.”

Shep changed the subject. “Anybody know what caused the explosion?”

“Probably a valve lock somewhere in the chemical fuel system,” Hugh
answered. “That’s what all of us think, judging from the sound of the
blast. Our tinkering with the jets might have caused it.”

“The thing to do now,” Rock said, “is to get these ships back to port,
that is, if the _Dog Star_ has still got its power. I suggest we split
into two groups, four on the _Northern Cross_ and three on the _Dog
Star_.”

It was discovered that the damage from the explosion would prevent the
_Dog Star_ from traveling at its best speed because one entire rocket
section was out of order. But it would run.

They drew lots to see who would ride in which vessel. Rock, Hugh, Ed,
and Shep drew the _Northern Cross_ and Leo, Sparky, and Johnny the _Dog
Star_.

Rock and his three companions who would return to the _Northern Cross_
went back to the ship by way of the towline. The ghost ship still
hovered overhead in the same position it had occupied before, even
though the two craft were traveling at a good pace through the deeps.

The space ships were brought back into their original Earthward paths,
and in a few hours’ time the braking rockets were ready to cut in.

Several futile attempts had been made to contact a space station by
radio, and it wasn’t until this point that the _Northern Cross_ was able
to establish its first contact over the crippled set. This was by way of
a continuous signal beamed out through space by a rotating antenna atop
the outermost artificial satellite, the radio relay station, 50,000
miles from Earth.

Hugh signaled for an operator and when he came in, Hugh gave the name of
the ship and its position.

“Who did you say you were?” Rock heard the operator ask in amazement.

“The _Northern Cross_,” Hugh answered, “serial number A45-J, World
Spacecraft, manufacturer.”

There was silence on the other end for several moments. Hugh winked at
Rock. “We’ll have some fun with them,” he said.

“When did the ship go out?” the operator asked.

“Twenty years ago,” Hugh replied.

“Is this a joke?” the other retorted.

“Not at all,” Hugh assured him.

The radioman chose not to argue any further. “I’ll give you approach
instructions,” he said.

“There are two ships,” Hugh told him. “We’re together.”

The operator sputtered again when Hugh told him that the _Dog Star’s_
radio was completely out. “How do you expect me to bring a ship in
without a radio?” he complained.

“If you give us both instructions,” Hugh answered, “we’ll relay those
for the other ship to them by suit radio. We’re close enough for that.”

“I guess you know this is highly irregular,” the operator replied. “I
still think you’re pulling my leg!”

As the approach instructions were given, Rock relayed them to the _Dog
Star_. The connection was rather feeble because of the low power of
Rock’s suit radio transmitter, but by hooking up his own suit radio to
the ship’s antenna, damaged though it was, Leo, acting as radioman,
could hear well enough.

As the ships moved in parallel to the spinning station, a final
adjustment by the forward jets synchronized the ships’ motion with that
of the rotating station.

“Pretty good approach,” the operator admitted grudgingly. “You two will
come into adjoining Docks 5 and 6. Stand by.”

Presently two sets of long, flexible metal arms reached out from the
space station like the arms of an octopus and attached themselves
magnetically to the sides of the ships. Then slowly the _Northern Cross_
and _Dog Star_ were pulled into their docks.

Word of arrival of the derelict space ship had been spreading all over
the station apparently, for Rock and his friends found the entire high
brass there to meet them as they crossed through the coupling tubes into
the satellite.

The boys were conducted to the official quarters of the commanding
officer where he was gathered with the other members of his staff. There
Rock related the entire story of their trip. At first mention of Kalmus’
name, Colonel George had spoken to one of his officers and sent him out.

When Rock was through with his story, Colonel George shook his balding
gray head, although it was a gesture not without humor.

“It sounds like a fiction piece, Merrill,” the officer said, his eyes
glowing with an excitement that suggested he might have enjoyed sharing
such an adventure himself.

“Not that I disbelieve you! I don’t mean that. It’s just so incredible
what a group of young fellows have done!” He looked at his spellbound
officers and they nodded approvingly.

“I’ve sent one of my men to see if Kalmus had docked here,” Colonel
George went on. “He’s probably a scoundrel with a bad record. That must
have been why he was in such a hurry to get started from the servicing
station, before his references could be checked at central
identification on Earth. You mentioned, Merrill, that he appeared very
generous in extending credit to you. I suppose you realize now that he
must have planned to take over the ship from the very beginning and
therefore his original so-called credit would be only a fraction of the
wealth he expected to bring back.”

“Yes, we finally guessed that, sir,” Rock said.

There was a wait until the officer returned with the facts on Kalmus. He
handed a yellow sheet to the commanding officer who read it with a show
of regret.

“Kalmus and his men docked here about two hours ago,” Colonel George
said. “As soon as they docked, they immediately jumped on a ferry going
Earthward. The ferry landed some time ago and they can be anywhere on
Earth. I’m afraid Kalmus and party have given us the slip. We’ve already
notified the authorities to initiate a search for them. Too bad you men
were unable to get in touch with us by radio so that we could have been
ready for them.”

“He may have escaped, sir,” Rock reminded him, “but not with the ore
treasure, not even his own half.”

Colonel George chuckled. “That’s right. And if he should turn up to
claim it, we’ll charge him with a crime that is quite serious.”

“If he and his men are ever captured, sir,” Rock said, “we’ll make a
settlement with him then. He may need the money for some good lawyers.”

The colonel smiled. “I see you fellows want to do the right thing even
if he hasn’t. Let me say here that I consider what you men have done,
bringing into port two crippled ships, the most remarkable space
performance I have ever heard about in my career. I’d have given
anything to be thirty years younger and one of you!” He sighed
regretfully. “In view of all this, I believe it would be embarrassing to
the Space Academy not to reconsider you seven for cadet school. I’ll
personally make a strong recommendation for you.”

The boys, except for their leader, were profuse in their thanks. Rock
was quietly grateful and filled with a heart-warming satisfaction. For
all these long weeks since their blast-off, he had suffered remorse for
having brought his friends into such perils as they faced. Now it had
all worked out for a purpose. Where they might never have come back, now
they had not only returned without harm, but they would reclaim the
opportunity for a space career that had appeared to end for them with
their washout from the Space Academy.

As Rock happily thought over these things, an officer wearing the
insigne of a metallurgist came into the room.

“I’ve made an assay of the ore cargo on the _Northern Cross_, Colonel,”
the man said. “It’s good alconite ore and is worth a fortune, and of
course the ship is quite valuable too. It’ll tell us a lot about
long-period effects of space conditions.”

“Now my success is complete,” Rock thought. “Dad did not lose his life
for nothing. The satellite hospital will be a living memorial to his
unselfish ambition. Even with all the things that happened to us, I’m
glad we took the chance.”

He was sure his friends felt the same way.



                             SPACE STEWARD


“Carry your bags, sir?” The gentleman tourist in the space harbor looked
at the youth who had stepped out of the night. Although the boy’s
clothes weren’t as fine, perhaps, as those of the other baggage
carriers, there was something about him which appealed to the man. The
boy had a wiry, athletic build, and his gray, sincere eyes shone with
spirit and good nature.

“Sure, son,” the big, white-thatched man said, smiling. “Suite 8, ‘B’
Deck.”

“‘B’ Deck!” Jim Vance echoed. “Thank you, sir!”

He hoisted the bags easily in his strong arms. Then, handing his patron
one half of a baggage check, he headed briskly for the concrete pit
where the throbbing space ship rested on torpedolike tail fins.

Jim was in a tingle of excitement. This was his first customer on ‘B’
Deck. He’d get a first-rate view of the _Hercules’_ luxury quarters! Jim
always swallowed hard when he neared the astronaut. She was so
incredibly big, so very much like the massiveness of the space which was
her real home. Though the _Hercules_ was carrying some space freight
this trip, she was mainly a tourist vessel; and her destination was
Venus.

“I’d give anything if I could make one trip into deep space,” he thought
fervently as he stepped into the outside elevator and was carried far
above the brightly lighted Miami spaceport. For an instant he seemed to
share a kinship with the silent stars that encircled him like a speckled
bowl.

Getting off on B Deck, Jim walked slowly along the polished corridor
toward Suite 8. The finery of the deck fairly numbed his senses. While
studying the turquoise carpet underfoot, his eyes shifted to his worn
shoes, and then he felt out of place.

It took money to go into space. If not that, it at least took extensive
training to be a crewman. He had neither money nor training, not even a
family. Not that Jim Vance was ready to cry about it, though. He had
long ago accepted his lot without complaint.

A senior-grade lieutenant stopped him outside of Suite 8. He wore a
square red mustache, and he neatly filled a uniform of gray flannel with
gold piping.

“We’re blasting off at 0800 sharp, son,” he said. “Better remind your
patron to get aboard.”

“I will, sir,” Jim returned. For a moment he felt like a full-fledged
crewman taking orders. He liked the feel of it, and he wished
desperately that it were so.

He went into the suite and set down the bags. His eyes roved over the
rich trimmings, the deep honeycomb rubber cushions. An oval port looked
out on the winking night lights of the coast city. There were two other
rooms to the luxury quarters.

The hideaway degravity cot in the main compartment had already been
pulled down out of the wall by a steward, but its front clamps were not
yet snapped to the floor. Jim closed the light beryllium door of the
compartment and tried out the cot. He sank down into its cloudlike
softness. As he lay there dreaming of worlds beyond Earth, suddenly the
front end of the cot swung upward. In trying to scramble out before he
was closed up in the wall, he was sent spinning into the air by the
powerful spring action of the cot. His head cracked solidly against the
metal wall, and he saw more stars than there were in the night.

He lay in a daze for some time, stupefied, not realizing the passing of
time. What finally roused him was the sensation of vibrating like a milk
shake in a mixer. The floor beneath him throbbed like the surface of the
Atlantic Ocean just beyond. Jim didn’t have to be a spaceman to know
that the _Hercules_ was about to blast off.

Cold sweat flowed over him as he realized he could not leave the ship in
time. The only thing he could do was prepare himself for the shock of
the blast-off. He yanked down the degravity cot again, making certain
this time that it was clamped to the floor. He guessed that all he had
to do was recline on the cot as he had before and strap himself down
with the black leather bands and plastic buckles.

He had scarcely done this before the pit of his stomach seemed to dive
into his shoes, and he felt that exhilarating “first minute of
acceleration” he had read so much about. When this was over, he knew the
_Hercules_ had climbed above the bulk of Earth’s atmosphere and was
leveling off on a horizontal curve from the planet’s surface. The
rotation of the Earth would give the spaceship a final boost into the
deeps.

When Jim’s stomach quieted, he unbuckled and attempted to get to his
feet. The motion sent him flying up into the air! It then struck him
that he had forgotten about the weightlessness of space. Some ships had
artificial gravity in them; but because the _Hercules_ was chiefly a
pleasure ship, the tourists preferred to “rough it.”

Jim became almost panicky in his efforts to right himself. His forehead
grew hot although the cool atmosphere of the compartment was
comfortable. He guessed that it wasn’t entirely the shock of no gravity
that was making him sweat. He was thinking about his unpaid passage on
the _Hercules_.

“I’m a stowaway,” he thought. “I’ll be sent to jail for this.” He had
read about the severe penalty for trying to hitch a ride on a space
vessel. This was because weight was critical, and the addition of just a
few extra pounds could prevent the rocket fuel from pushing the ship to
its distant port, could even cause disaster.

Jim felt his head where he had taken the near knockout blow. There was
only a small bump. Who would ever believe his story of what had really
happened? Besides, he’d had no business trying out the degravity cot.

While he was pondering what he should do, there was a rap on the door of
the suite. Jim slunk against the far wall, dreading to be found out.

“Are you all right, Mr. Bowers?” came a deep voice.

Jim opened his mouth to reply but only a wordless croak came out. The
door swung open, and a husky steward with a young face “swam” in. At
sight of Jim a surprised look crossed his features.

“What are you doing here?” he blurted. “Where’s Mr. Bowers?”

Jim felt as though he were in a crazy dream. The steward was floating
toward him like a phantom in a nightmare, while he himself was like a
desperate fish without fins in this strange sea of weightlessness.

“I don’t know Mr. Bowers,” Jim managed to reply, then went on to explain
what had happened.

The steward looked at him skeptically, his round face attempting to
judge him. “Is this the truth?” he asked.

Jim nodded and showed the bump on his head. Then he waited tensely for
the verdict.

“Somehow I believe you,” the steward said sympathetically.

“Thanks,” Jim returned. He quickly decided that he liked the young
steward with the surprisingly deep voice.

The steward looked thoughtful. “We’ve got to figure out a way to keep
you from being discovered until we return to Earth. That way, you’ll
have had time to help out and pay your way. It’ll go easier with you
when you turn yourself in.” Then he frowned. “What about your family,
though? They’ll surely be worried about you.”

“I don’t have a family,” Jim told him. “I’m an orphan, and I’ve been on
my own for two years. Don’t you think I ought to make a clean breast of
everything to the captain now and hope he’ll believe me?”

The steward shook his head emphatically. “Not _this_ captain. Not
Captain Coppard. He’s a stickler for regulations. He’d never believe
your story. If he does find out, you’ll be on prison rations for the
rest of the trip!”

“What’ll I do, then?” Jim asked, suddenly feeling very dependent on the
young man he faced.

The steward’s forehead creased in a frown. “The captain doesn’t know the
steward crew too well because there were some last-minute substitutions.
I think you’d do best to become a steward and work out your passage that
way.”

A steward on a space ship! The idea of it thrilled Jim so much that he
almost forgot the seriousness of his situation. He wondered how he’d
look in the neat starched white that the steward in front of him wore.

“First, I think we ought to get acquainted,” his new friend said. He
extended a workingman’s strong grip, and Jim took it. “My name is Al
Hogan. Everybody calls me ‘Babe’ because of my face.” He grinned
boyishly.

“I’m Jim Vance,” Jim said.

“You’ll make a good steward, Jim,” Babe declared. “My job depends on
being able to spot good men.”

“How’s that?” Jim asked.

“I’m chief steward in charge of personnel aboard the _Hercules_,” the
other replied. “It’s lucky for you that I saw you first. I can hire you
without your having to see anyone else.”

“That’s one thing in my favor,” Jim said with relief.

“I’m afraid there’s one more strike against you, though, Jim,” Babe
said.

“What’s that?”

“You’ve ‘bumped’ the most important man in the space tourist business,
and that isn’t good.”

“What do you mean?” Jim asked.

“I mean this suite was Mr. Bowers’, the owner of Venus Space Tours,
Incorporated.”

“Why didn’t he come aboard in time for the blast-off?” Jim wanted to
know.

“Mr. Bowers depends on the stewards to let him know just ahead of time
because he usually has a lot of last-minute things to do.”

“I didn’t even know who he was!” Jim said. “Wow, what a mistake to
make!”

“Lucky for the _Hercules_, though,” Babe remarked, “your weight has
canceled out his. There’s another rub, though. Mr. Bowers may have the
Miami port radio us that you’re aboard. That would expose you for sure.”

Jim had an idea that his career as a spaceman was going to be extremely
brief.

Babe showed him how to navigate in the state of no gravity. By kicking
out rearward, he could shoot himself along almost as smoothly as a fish
in water.

“Come with me,” Babe said, “and let’s get you started as a steward. You
can bunk in my extra cot. There was an odd number of men this trip,
leaving the spare bed.”

Babe locked the door of Mr. Bowers’ suite so that no one would be
curious about him. He told Jim that Mr. Bowers very rarely mixed with
the passengers or crew. For this reason he would not likely be missed.

Babe kept Jim out of sight of the other crewmen and hurriedly got him
fitted into a steward’s white uniform.

“Your job will be to show the tourists how to get along in the space
ship,” Babe told him.

Jim went around with Babe to learn the ropes. Some of the steward’s
friends looked at Jim curiously and asked about him. Babe satisfied them
by saying that Jim was a last-minute addition.

The first jobs Jim and Babe had to take care of were several cases of
space sickness. Lack of gravity did funny things to the balancing
mechanism in the ear and often made amateur space travelers feel as
though they were coming apart. A dose of medicine usually fixed them up.
Jim was glad that he himself did not suffer from this affliction.

Jim watched Babe instruct a gentleman how to take a nap without using a
couch. The only thing the man needed was a short cord secured to his
ankle and to a ring on the compartment wall to make sure that his
breathing did not cause him to float off. For night sleeping, Jim was
told, most people preferred using the standard sleeping-bag-type cots.

“How about some lunch?” Babe asked Jim when they had left the passenger
relaxing in mid-air. “We’ll have to get ours before the tourists come
in.”

“I’m all for it,” Jim replied.

As they “swam” toward the crewmen’s mess, Babe said, “This is your
crucial meal, Jim. If you get by this one without anyone getting curious
about you, I don’t believe you’ll have to worry about them anymore.”

“I have my fingers crossed.”

He was going to need all the luck he could get, he realized, as they
navigated into the mess compartment. Across the room from them was the
officer with the square red mustache who had spoken to him as he carried
Mr. Bowers’ bags into Suite 8!

Jim whispered to Babe about the officer. Babe told him that there was a
good chance of avoiding him, since the officers sat at one table and the
stewards at another.

Jim was fascinated by his first meal in space. Everyone strapped himself
to his seat so that he would stay put. Then the cooks brought in
individual plates which adhered to the metallic table top by magnetism.
Each bite of food was impaled on a toothpick stuck into a sponge-rubber
mat which was fastened to the plate.

As Jim ate with tongs and sucked his drink from a closed container, he
was careful to avoid the roving eyes of the officer with the red
mustache. Jim was glad that the other stewards weren’t inquisitive about
him. They appeared hungry and weren’t talkative.

Having survived the crucial first day without discovery, Jim found the
others that followed were much easier. When three weeks had passed and
he still had not been discovered, he started believing that the tourist
company owner he had “bumped” was not going to complain.

But one day late in the voyage Jim and Babe happened to run into a very
important person in the corridor on the way to mess. Jim recognized the
insigne of four platinum rockets that showed he was Captain Coppard. It
was Jim’s first face-to-face meeting with the officer.

After the stewards’ salute Captain Coppard suddenly pulled up short, and
Jim felt the trim, hawk-nosed man’s steely gaze on him. It was a stare
that appeared to look clear through him. Why was the officer suddenly so
interested in him? It brought an anxious lump up into Jim’s throat.

“Steward,” the chief officer said, “just a minute.”

Jim faced the officer in gray and gold, his heart pounding. Had Mr.
Bowers radioed the ship about him? Or had Captain Coppard found out
about him in some other way?

“Yes, sir?” Jim said.

Captain Coppard touched Jim’s blouse. “You’ve got a button undone on
your uniform. Don’t let me see that again.”

“Yes, sir,” Jim replied in relief, and lost no time tidying himself. The
captain “swam” off down the corridor.

“That scared the life out of me!” Jim blurted to Babe. “I thought he had
found me out for sure! I know now why you didn’t want me to turn myself
in yet.”

“The captain’s an expert spaceman, but he’s as strict as they come, just
as I told you,” Babe replied.

After lunch Jim and Babe had a little time on their hands and “hung” by
the port in their compartment looking out into space. By now Earth had
dwindled to an arc light, and the endless star patterns and dusty
nebulae challenged his imagination tremendously. The planet they were
heading for was an enlarging brilliant disk that stood out prominently
among the sparkling diamonds of black space.

“How long have you been out of the orphanage, Jim?” Babe asked suddenly.

“Over two years,” Jim said. “I’ve been working as an assistant athletic
coach at Oceanside Boys’ Home outside Miami since then.”

“How come you were doing redcap service at the space harbor?”

Jim grinned broadly. “Just because I loved it. I loved to go aboard
space ships and pretend I was a real passenger. I’ve wanted to go into
space ever since I knew there was such a thing. It seems now as though
I’m in a wonderful dream and that all this is not really true at all!”

A pause followed, as Jim looked at Babe. “You’ve never told me anything
about yourself.”

Babe shrugged. “There’s not much to tell. I’m thirty-two, unmarried.
Been going into space since I was seventeen. Like you, I have space in
my blood, and I hope I’ll be rocketing until I’m eighty.”

Jim had a multitude of services to do for his patrons before the end of
the trip. He had a half dozen mild cases of “collision,” resulting from
tourists’ carelessly bumping into the walls of their compartments, not
realizing their increased powers in “free fall.” On another occasion a
traveler had failed to hitch onto a wall ring during a nap and had
floated down the corridor half the length of the ship. A child had a
minor case of radiation burn when he wandered into a restricted
compartment next to the atomic reactor.

The trip was nearly over in a few weeks’ time, for the _Hercules_ was
traveling the way of the straight line and crossing the orbits of the
other planets. The day of landing, Jim and Babe looked out of the port
in their compartment at a pearly mist. The sensation of weight had
returned with the cutting in of the rocket motors.

“How long before we touch down?” Jim asked.

“Several hours yet,” Babe replied. “We’ve got to circle the planet
several times to brake our speed. If we were to go straight down through
this pea soup, the friction would turn us red hot.”

Jim was glad when they were dropping at respectable speed directly down.
The landing, moments later, in the colony space harbor was made safely.

After Jim and Babe had made their rounds readying the passengers for
debarkation, a voice came over the wall microphone:

“Steward Al Hogan, report to Captain Coppard’s suite right away.”

Jim and Babe exchanged anxious glances but did not speak as Babe left
the compartment. Jim wondered if his secret had been discovered at this
last moment. His concern was more for Babe than for himself. It would be
an awful thing for Babe to have to pay the penalty for helping him.

To take his mind off his concern, Jim went to the side port for his
first sight of Venus. Although the upper layers of the atmosphere were
impenetrably dense, the air at ground level was clear except for
occasional wisps of vapor floating by. The intense rising heat gave a
shimmering effect to the canyon landscape. When Babe returned, he eased
Jim’s mind with a grin.

“How’d you like to make the cable-car tour with me, Jim?” he asked.

“I’m all for it!” Jim said, greatly relieved that Babe had nothing bad
to report.

“One of the regular cable-car drivers is sick and can’t make the trip,”
Babe went on. “Captain Coppard knew I’d had experience driving the car a
few times before and asked me if I wanted to make some overtime pay.”

“When do we start?” Jim asked eagerly.

“In a few hours—after the tourists have had time to rest up from the
landing.”

Five hours later, Jim and Babe were helping tourists into breathing
outfits. There wasn’t enough oxygen in Venus’ atmosphere to support life
from Earth, although the planet had animal life of its own. The
apparatus was a light helmet with an attachment covering the nose of the
wearer. The gadget contained two slender tubes which fitted into the
nostrils and supplied them with oxygen from shoulder tanks. Also
attached to the helmet were dark lenses for protecting the eyes from the
extreme brilliance.

As they left the ship, Jim saw that almost all of the many buildings of
the settlement were clustered about the rim of the space harbor. Venus
was still in the pioneer stage of development; the only persons living
permanently on the planet were scientists, engineers, and tourist
workers. The harbor lay on a broad, high plateau. On three sides of it,
precipices dropped away sharply into deep canyons.

It took Jim a while to get used to the oppressive hotness of the
atmosphere. It was like breathing fire each time he took a breath
through his mouth. Babe instructed him and the others to breathe only
through their noses in order to avoid the discomfort.

Babe led the party toward one of the edges of the plateau where the
cable car rested, a hundred feet or so from the cliff. Its overhead
cable extended out as far as Jim could see into the deep country.

When all were aboard, one of the tourists, weighted down with camera
equipment, asked, “When are we leaving, Chief? Right away? I can’t wait
to get this terrific scenery down on film! Isn’t this a fabulous place!”

The man was Mr. Benjamin, one of the more enthusiastic travelers.

“We’re leaving just as soon as we get the rear jet firing,” Babe told
him. He led Jim into the foremost of two Plexiglas-enclosed drivers’
quarters that were located at each end of the car.

Jim saw that only a single lever was used to control the cable car.
There was a radio set for contact with the space harbor if this were
necessary.

Babe turned on the ignition and shoved the lever. The car began gliding
over the ground toward the edge of the precipice. “A child can run
this,” he said. “One jet behind to push us forward, one in front to slow
us down.”

Jim felt his knees go weak in tingling anticipation as the car swung out
into empty space, with only its slender overhead cable as a support for
forty people. Babe presently let Jim try the control lever. Jim could
hear the hollow _swoosh_ of the rear jet as it shot the car along, and
he could hear the singing of the cable as the car rolled smoothly on its
fine overhead bearings.

“We seem to be going uphill,” Jim commented.

“We are,” Babe said. “We’re heading for Point Luna, which is a thousand
feet higher than where we started.”

“I don’t see how they ever got this cable in place,” Jim said.

“I’ve heard that it wasn’t too much of a job, using helicopters,” Babe
explained. “It was worth the trouble because the tourist revenue from it
has helped the building projects here.”

Reaching Point Luna, the car was stopped and the tourists got out to
look over the view. The space harbor was only a miniature tongue of land
beyond the vast spread of canyon behind them. Babe pointed out the Great
Crimson Desert in the distance, which looked to Jim like a sea of fire
as the heat waves rose from it up into the white sky. Jim thought it
odd, not seeing a sun up there. He knew the planet was forever shut off
from any view of the outer magnificent solar system because of its dense
atmosphere.

The car moved on again, and presently a flock of snow-white birds began
circling about. Jim knew these to be the Venus albatrosses, which often
accompanied the cable car. The next peak reached was Point Hastings,
named for the man who had first set foot on Venus. The spot was a rugged
mesa jutting up from the canyon floor. The excited party left the car
and trooped down a slope which was thick with salmon-pink umbrella fern.

“Get ready to see Venus’ most interesting and bad-tempered animals,”
Babe had told them just before.

Babe led them down to the bottom of the slope and through a dense
thicket of gorgeous orange-colored blossoms. At this point the black
rock slope dropped away to a sandy plain covered with a herd of giant
unicorns. The animals were about the size of elephants, with glossy tan
hides and slender antelope legs. Their huge heads carried swordlike
horns just above the nose. The unicorns were browsing on patches of blue
spider grass.

Mr. Benjamin piped excitedly, “I’ve got to get a picture of one of those
babies!” He scrambled recklessly down the slope and took up a position
behind a large rock.

“Better be careful, sir!” Babe warned. “It doesn’t take much to rile
them.”

“It’s funny how the animals on Venus can get along without breathing
oxygen,” Jim commented to Babe.

“They have a huge lung capacity,” Babe explained, “and also take in what
little oxygen Venus has while they sleep. They store it up in a special
air sac inside their bodies.”

Mr. Benjamin waved his hand to attract the attention of the beasts.
Several in the herd raised their heads and peered at the man. One of
them decided to investigate. He trotted over toward the rock where Mr.
Benjamin was clicking away with his camera, an ugly frown on its
wrinkled features. The rock shifted unexpectedly, and the tourist slid
around the edge of it. He lost his balance and tumbled down the slope,
shouting wildly for help.

Jim’s blood chilled, but he acted promptly, darting forward and
scrambling down the incline after the helpless man. The unicorn rushed
up the slope, his head lowered and his frightening ivory horn poised for
attack.

Mr. Benjamin cried out and barely squirmed out of the way of the
charging animal. The force of the unicorn’s thrust caused him to bury
his sharp horn to the ground. He withdrew it with a grunt of fury and
shook black earth from the glossy white tip. Then he retreated for
another charge.

[Illustration: _The unicorn rushed up the slope, his head lowered and
his frightening ivory horn poised for attack._]

“Help me!” Mr. Benjamin cried desperately, scrambling madly to get a
foothold in the slipping gravel.

By now Jim was within arm’s reach of the tourist. He braced himself
against the boulder that had settled into a hollow and strained forward
to grasp Mr. Benjamin’s hand. Just as the man was pulled to his feet,
the unicorn struck again, burying his horn in the ground barely inches
below the tourist’s boots. Jim shuddered as he hurried Mr. Benjamin up
the slope to safety.

“My poor camera!” the tourist groaned. “It’s down there with that
animal!”

“You’re lucky not to be down there with him yourself, Mr. Benjamin,”
Babe said grimly and led the party back toward the car.

Next the car passed over the fascinating Lake of Steam. A mist, like the
sheerest of veils, rose in a solid sheet from the depths to a height of
half a mile, shot through with every imaginable color. Jim thought it an
incredibly beautiful sight.

Jim took over running the car while Babe went back with the passengers
to point out more of the picturesque wonders. Jim was surprised when
suddenly the car began roller-coasting down a steep slope toward a
forbidding dark opening in the cliff face. Quickly he realized that this
was the famous Haunted Tunnel of Venus.

Jim switched on the headlights Babe had told him about and slowed the
car with a burst of the forward jet. Slowly the car entered the
enchanted cavern. The darkness seemed to make Jim’s ears keener.
Presently there came to him the mysterious sighs and groans that had
given the tunnel its name. Although he knew this was caused by wind
whistling through the opening and the shifting of rock strata, it
nevertheless caused chills to run up his spine.

All at once an unexpected loud buzz from the radio set shocked him into
an involuntary cry. As his nerves calmed, he switched on the radio and
spoke into the mike, “Yes?”

“Let me speak to Steward Hogan,” came a brisk voice that Jim knew could
belong only to Captain Coppard.

“Yes, sir,” Jim replied.

He opened the door of the cabin and called Babe. Jim saw a flashlight
advance toward him down the dark aisle.

“It’s Captain Coppard,” Jim whispered.

“Hogan speaking,” Babe said into the mike.

“Steward,” the chief officer of the _Hercules_ said, “who is the young
man with you?”

Jim’s heart seemed to give a final quiver and go dead inside of him.

“Jim Vance, sir,” Babe answered.

“I don’t find him on my roster of personnel,” snapped the officer.

“He isn’t on it, sir,” Babe admitted manfully.

“Then he’s a stowaway?”

“Yes, sir,” Babe said reluctantly.

“You realize the consequences of stowing away on a space ship, don’t
you, Hogan?”

“Yes, sir,” Babe said.

“Remind your young friend of it, then, so that he will be prepared for
what happens when the cable car gets back. The two of you will return
immediately to the colony. That is all.”

There was a pall of silence for several seconds after the captain’s
stern order. Jim could hear Babe’s tense breathing in the darkness.

“They finally caught us,” Jim murmured, “and you’ll have to pay for
helping me.”

“I’d do it all over again, Jim,” Babe said firmly.

“You’re a real friend, Babe,” Jim told him.

Babe went out and explained to the tourists that they had to return at
once to the space harbor. The stewards went back to the duplicate
drivers’ quarters at the other end of the car, and Babe started the car
out of the Haunted Tunnel.

As they drove back, both he and Babe gloomily silent, Jim was thinking
that he had satisfied his lifelong ambition for a short while anyway. It
had been great while it lasted.

After they passed Point Luna, a flock of albatrosses gathered around the
car again. The birds’ curiosity made them bolder than usual, and some of
them flew directly in front of the car. Jim heard sickening thumps as
some of the careless birds were battered by the speeding car. Both he
and Babe shook their heads regretfully.

Jim looked ahead where the space harbor was rapidly growing closer as
they swept downhill. “Guess we’d better slow down, or we’ll go crashing
into everything down there,” Babe said.

He shoved the lever to brake the car, but nothing happened.

“Something’s wrong!” Babe shouted hoarsely. “I can’t stop this thing!”

In his imagination Jim could see them tearing loose from the cable when
they reached land and hurtling down into the space port. The destruction
would be staggering.

“Something’s plugged up the forward rocket tube!” Babe exclaimed.

“One of the albatrosses must have been caught in it!” Jim burst out.

“It must be that!” Babe agreed. “There’s only one thing to do—get the
bird out of there double quick!”

“How’re you going to do it?”

“Climb out the front of the car through the window!” Babe said, flinging
up the pane in front of them. The hot air swept them back as though they
had suddenly opened the door of a blast furnace.

“I can do it easier than you can,” Jim said. “I’m lighter and
slenderer.” He was also thinking of the debt he owed Babe for helping
him all this time.

“Nothing doing,” Babe retorted. “I’m the responsible one on this tour.”

Jim heard a battering at the door and saw some of their passengers
trying to force themselves into the cabin. Babe opened the door a crack
and pleaded with them for calmness. In those few seconds, Jim acted
quickly.

First he shut off the forward jet completely. Then he began scrambling
through the window out onto the front of the car. The wind cut him
unmercifully. Projections across the front of the cable car gave him
handholds, enabling him to crawl downward.

Suddenly the driving wind ripped Jim’s nose-piece away and left it
dangling from his helmet. He automatically gulped in a mouthful of
searing, oxygenless air. It tore at his lungs and gagged him
suffocatingly. He held his breath, grateful for the underwater swimming
he had done at the Oceanside Boys’ Home.

Jim stretched downward and reached the nozzle of the jet tube. He shoved
his hand into it. The heat of the tube caused him to cry out in agony.
Just as he was about to give up, his burned fingers felt something soft.
Feathers. His hands plunged forward still deeper into the tube and
closed around the mangled fowl. He tugged with all his might and finally
withdrew the broken mass. His arm was beet red and paining fiercely.

He began the tortured climb back up into the car. His lungs were
bursting for air. Every touch of his seared hand caused him to groan in
pain. Just as he climbed free of the tube, a burst of red flame poured
from the nozzle. With a shuddering jerk the car began slackening speed.
Jim knew Babe had thrown on the jet’s full power as soon as Jim had
cleared the tube.

When Jim reached the window, Babe leaned out and pulled him into the
car. Jim sagged in the extra seat, staring dumbly at the nearing
spaceport plateau.

“Will we make it?” he gasped, feeling the sharp braking force of the
forward rocket.

“We’ll make it all right—thanks to you,” Jim heard Babe say. Then
everything whirled before his eyes and he blacked out from lack of air
and the strain of his grueling experience.

When Jim recovered consciousness, he was in the colony clinic. The arm
he had thrust into the jet tube was bandaged stiffly, and there was
cooling salve on his wind-burned face.

Babe was standing by the bedside. “You’ll be all right,” he said. “The
doc said you’d be uncomfortable for a while, but your arm burn isn’t too
serious.”

Jim saw the tall erect figure of Captain Coppard come over. “So you’re
the stowaway who so cleverly avoided me during the voyage?” he said.

Jim swallowed, his throat raw. “Yes, sir.”

The officer’s gaze still held that characteristic penetrating stare.
“Steward Hogan told me how you came to be aboard,” he said. “I was ready
to toss both of you into the brig when I first found out about you. Then
since I talked to you in the cable car, I’ve been reviewing your record
while aboard the _Hercules_. The other stewards tell me you did an extra
fine job as a beginner without training. And of course there were these
last things you did—risking your life to save one of the tourists from
the unicorn and then preventing what could have been a terrible accident
on the cable car. In a measure it changes things.”

“Yes, sir,” Jim murmured hopefully.

“Not that I condone breaking regulations!” the officer continued
gruffly.

“Of course not, sir,” Jim said.

“You and Hogan had better thank your rockets that I’m in an expansive
mood today,” the officer concluded. “Charges dismissed.” He then left
the room. Babe and Jim were alone.

“You hear that, Babe?” Jim burst out. “He’s let us off!”

“Yeah, it sure surprised me!” Babe said. “I guess I misjudged the
captain.”

“Mr. Bowers must have radioed the captain about me,” Jim mused. “That’s
how he found out.”

Babe shook his head. “The captain found out on his own. He told me that
Mr. Bowers wired him soon after blast-off that some urgent business had
kept him from leaving on the _Hercules_. He didn’t even have time to get
his bags off.”

“And to think that was the main thing we were afraid of!” Jim said
wryly. He looked up at his friend anxiously. “Babe, do you think the
captain will let me go back to Earth as a steward?”

“I think the captain knows a good spaceman when he sees one,” Babe
replied earnestly. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,
Jim—not from now on.”



                    _Teen-Age Super Science Stories_


                       _by_ Richard M. Elam, Jr.
              _Author of Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories_
                    _Illustrated by Frank E. Vaughn_

Following along the lines of his very successful Teen-Age Science
Fiction Stories, this popular author has prepared a new book of exciting
stories embodying the very latest theories in interplanetary
communications and space travel.

These thrilling tales recount the experiences of wide-awake, modern boys
and girls who have the exceptional opportunity to venture into outer
space.

Such stories as “The First Man Into Space,” “The Peril From Outer
Space,” and “Mystery Eyes Over Earth” will take you into a new world,
where the exciting adventures are based on sound predictions from
present scientific knowledge.

Traveling in pressurized ships, dressed in special space suits, using
oxygen tanks, the young travelers explore some of the heavenly bodies in
super thrilling adventures requiring the utmost courage, fidelity and
devotion to duty and to country.

                     GROSSET & DUNLAP _Publishers_
                           New York 10, N. Y.



                   _Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories_


                       _by_ Richard M. Elam, Jr.
                    _Illustrated by Charles H. Geer_

The introduction by Captain Burr Leyson sets the pace for this exciting
book of stories dealing with the newest theories of inter-planetary
communication and the scientific advances that might make possible some
of the adventures here described.

The author of these stories, Richard M. Elam, Jr. has been interested in
science fiction since he was a boy and, although he has written hundreds
of stories and articles, those included in this volume have never before
appeared in book form. The author builds his science stories around a
framework of established scientific fact and likely possibilities. In
that way, the reader is stimulated beyond the limits of his scientific
education by the thrilling entertainment of this exciting volume and is
encouraged to probe further the mystery of the universe in his studies,
experiments and imagination.

While some of these stories, such as, “What Time Is It,” are pure
fantasy, most of them are based on actual scientific possibilities.


                    Grosset & Dunlap    _Publishers_
                           New York 10, N. Y.



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public
  domain in the country of publication.

--Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and
  dialect unchanged.

--In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the
  HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)





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