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   Chapter 3 No.3

Sabotage in Space By Carey Rockwell Characters: 14233

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Where is Captain Strong?"

Startled, Commander Walters glanced up to see Major Connel enter his office, accompanied by Professor Hemmingwell. The thin little man scowled with irritation as he walked right up to the commander's desk.

"I wanted Captain Strong here for this meeting," the professor continued.

"Of course," replied Walters. "Captain Strong should be here." He turned to Connel. "Have you seen him, Connel?"

As Connel lowered his bulk into a soft chair, he sighed. "Steve is with his unit, chewing them out over that fight with the Capella unit."

Walters grinned. "You heard about our trial, Professor?"

"Yes," replied Hemmingwell stiffly. "Frankly, I cannot see how Captain Strong can ignore this meeting to hold hands with those infantile cadets."

Connel's face turned red and he glanced quickly at Walters, whose face was approaching the same color. Neither expected such a comment from a scientist.

"Professor," said Connel heavily, leaning forward in his chair, "I assure you Steve Strong is not holding their hands. In fact, I would hate to be in those cadets' shoes right now."

Hemmingwell grunted and drew back from Connel's burning glare. "Be that as it may," he said. "I cannot see that the staff of this institution has done anything constructive for the last three days. So far as I'm concerned, this childish talk about a common fight has been a complete waste of time."

"Professor Hemmingwell," said Commander Walters, rising from his chair, "if there had to be a choice between your project, as valuable as it may be, and the valuable lesson learned today by my cadets, I'll tell you right now that the lesson would come first. This was a very important issue. The cadets had their real taste of democracy in action today, down on a level where they could understand it. And, I dare say, there are quite a few boys who heard that childish talk, as you put it, and will remember it some time in the future when they are called on to act as officers of the Solar Alliance."

Connel cleared his throat noisily. "I think we'd better get on with the meeting," he said. "Do you have the plans and specifications, Hemmingwell?"

But the wiry professor refused to be dissuaded. He faced Commander Walters and wagged his finger under the spaceman's nose.

"You have a perfect right to your own ideas concerning the education of your cadets!" he shouted. "But I have a right to my ideas regarding my space projectile operations. I've devoted a good part of my life to this plan, and I will not allow anything, or anyone, to stand in my way."

Before Walters could reply, Connel jumped up and growled.

"All right! Now that we've got the speeches out of the way, let's get down to work."

Walters and the professor suddenly stopped short and grinned at the brusque line officer, who, for all his bullying tactics, knew how to take the edge off a touchy situation. Walters sat down again and Hemmingwell spread out several large maps on Walters' desk. He pointed to a location on the chart of the area surrounding Space Academy.

"This is the area here," he said, placing his finger on the map. "I think it is best suited for our purpose. Dave Barret and Carter Devers concur-"

"Someone mention my name?"

The sliding door to the commander's office opened and a tall, distinguished man with iron-gray hair entered, followed by a handsome, younger man.

"Devers!" exclaimed Hemmingwell in obvious delight. "I didn't expect you until this evening."

"Got away earlier than I figured," replied the elder man, who then turned to the two Solar Guard officers. "Hello, Commander Walters, Major Connel. Meet Dave Barret, my assistant." He gestured toward the young man beside him and they shook hands in turn.

"Well," said Devers, "have we missed anything?"

"Just starting," replied Walters.

"Fine," said Devers. "Oh, by the way, I want it understood, Commander, that while I am lending Dave to you to work on the operation with the professor, I'm not even going to let you pay him. He remains on my payroll, so you can't take him away from me. The Jilolo Spaceways would be lost without him."

Walters smiled. "All right with me," he said.

"I don't care who pays him, as long as he's with me on this, Commander," said Hemmingwell, wiping his glasses carefully. "That young man has a mind equipped with a built-in calculator."

Dave Barret grinned in obvious embarrassment. "If Mr. Devers can devote his time to you for one credit a year as salary, I have no objections to working on this project," he said. "In fact, I told Mr. Devers that if he didn't let me come down here, I'd quit and come, anyway."

Hemmingwell beamed. "Well, now, if Captain Strong were only here, we could get along with the business at hand."

Devers frowned. "Why is he so important?" he asked.

"Steve has been placed in charge of procurement for the construction of the hangar and getting the spur line in from the monorail station," replied Connel. "And that reminds me, Professor," he continued. "Where is your hangar going to be? And where is that spur coming in from? Are we going to have a lot of building to do to get that blasted thing snaked over those hills?" Connel pointed to the protective ring of high rugged peaks that surrounded the Academy.

"That's why Dave Barret here is so important," replied Hemmingwell. "He figured out a way of tunneling through this section here"-he pointed to a particularly rugged section of the hills-"at half the cost of bringing it straight in on that plain there."

Connel and Walters studied the map closely. "Very good," said Walters.

"You think you can do it, Dave?" asked Connel.

"I'm sure I can, sir," replied the young man.

"And save time?" growled Connel.

"I'll have that line through, and in operation, bringing in the first haul of hangar material in three weeks."

Impressed by the young man's confidence, Connel turned to Commander Walters and nodded.

"Well, if you can do that, Barret," said Walters, "Professor Hemmingwell will have to begin his operations now, won't you, Professor?"

"That's right," said the wiry old man. "Right now, this very minute."

Devers suddenly spoke up. "I would like to have one thing explained, Commander, unless, of course, it's a breach of security, but-" He hesitated.

"What is it?" asked Connel.

"I've been going along with you for some time now," explained Devers. "But I still don't know the exact nature of the projectile you propose to build. What's the purpose of it?"

"You certainly deserve an answer to that question," said Commander Walters warmly. "You've contributed your services to this operation absolutely blindly. Now you should know everything." He paused and looked at Hemmingwell and Connel, who nodded in return. "Carter," he resumed, "we are going to create a spaceship that can launch a large projectile filled with cargo and send it to any small area."

Carter Devers' face lighted up. "You mean, you are going to fire payloads from space freighters instead of landing with them?"

"Exactly," said W

alters. "These freighters will deliver mail and supplies to out-of-the-way settlements that do not have a spaceport large enough to handle the giant freighters and have to depend on surface transport from the larger cities."

Carter Devers shook his head slowly. "This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard of in my life."

"I thought you'd be surprised, Carter," said Walters, his face glowing with pleasure. "The big item, of course, is to lick the problem of standardizing the receivers for the projectiles. They must be lightweight, easily assembled, and precision made, since it's going to have an electronic gismo inside for the projectile to 'home' on."

Professor Hemmingwell grunted. "That electronic gismo, as you call it, is the real idea behind the whole operation."

"How is that, Professor?" asked Devers.

"Well, it works on this principle," began Hemmingwell. "The receiver will send out a distinctive radar beam. In the spaceship, the projectile designated for that receiver will be tuned in to the frequency of that beam and fired from the ship. A homing device, built into the projectile will take over, guiding it right down the beam to its destination."

"And how does that radar beam work?" asked Devers.

"That," said Connel stiffly, "is a military secret."

"Of course," nodded Devers, smiling. "I was just curious."

"Well, now that we're agreed on a site for the operation," said Professor Hemmingwell, "is there anything else you want to discuss, Commander?"

"Not for the moment, Professor," replied the commandant of Space Academy. "You have any more questions, Major Connel?"

When Connel shook his head, Devers spoke up again.

"There is something else I would like to know, if it isn't a breach of military secrecy," he said with a smile at Connel. "I don't remember seeing anything about this project in the bills sent before the Solar Council. When was it authorized?"

"It wasn't," snapped Hemmingwell. "It was blocked before it came to a vote. So I ran around the whole Solar Alliance, begging and borrowing the money to finance the project myself."

"And the Solar Guard is just lending technical assistance and facilities," supplied Walters. "Of course, should the project succeed, we will go before the Solar Council with an emergency request to incorporate the idea into the defense of all Solar Guard outposts."

"Private capital, eh?" said Devers, turning to look at the professor admiringly. "You are a very brave man, Professor Hemmingwell, to risk so much. And, I might add, you must be an excellent salesman to sell Solar Alliance bankers your ideas."

"Common sense," snorted the professor. "Plain horse sense."

"Still," insisted Devers, "most of the bankers with whom I've ever tried to talk common sense were horses." As everyone laughed, he turned to Walters. "Now, just what do you want me to do, Commander?"

"Carter, you've done so much for this project already that I'm going to give you a rest," said Walters.

"I don't understand."

"From now on," Major Connel broke in, "the project will be in the hands of the professor. If he needs anything, he'll tell Steve Strong. If Strong can't fulfill the request, he'll pass it on to Commander Walters, and if the commander feels it necessary to have your help, he will contact you."

"You understand, of course," said Walters, trying to soften the major's flat statement.

"Of course," replied Devers easily. "Still, if you need my help on this thing at all, don't fail to call me."

"Thank you, Carter," said Walters. "You've been a great help already."

Shaking hands all around and wishing them well, Devers left the office. Dave Barret, Commander Walters, and Professor Hemmingwell turned to their study of the map, but Major Connel remained where he was, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He shook his head as if to brush an impossible idea out of his mind and then turned to the map.

* * *

Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro stood at rigid attention in their dormitory room, backs ramrod straight, eyes front, hands stiffly at their sides. Captain Steve Strong, his face red and voice hoarse, strode up and down in front of them.

"And another thing!" he roared. "This court reprimand goes on your official records, and you're going to spend your time on guard duty like any common Earthworm that doesn't know its rocket from its pocket!" For nearly half an hour the cadets had listened to their unit instructor bawl them out. "When I think," he continued, "when I think of how close you three space brats came to getting kicked out of the Academy-" Words seemed to fail the young captain momentarily and he slumped on one of the bunks and looked at the row of cadets, shaking his head. "Why, in the name of Saturn, I ever accepted the responsibility of making you three bird brains into cadets is beyond me. And to think that when you first came here, I thought you had that special something to make you an outstanding unit. I even went out on a limb for you. And now you pull a stunt like this."

Behind them, the door opened and a short man, no more than five feet tall, but with the bulging muscles of a tiny giant stretching his bright-red enlisted man's uniform, stepped inside. He saluted Strong smartly.

"Chief Petty Officer Rush here to assign the Polaris unit to guard duty, sir," he announced.

"All right, Firehouse," said Strong, using the man's nickname. "Give it to them. Show them no mercy. By the rings of Saturn, they've got to be made to realize their responsibilities!"

"Yes, sir," said the thick little man.

Strong walked out of the room without another word, nor even a backward glance at the cadets.

As soon as the door closed, Timothy "Firehouse" Rush faced the three cadets, his beaten and battered face glowing with anticipation.

"Get this!" he growled. "When you're assigned to guard duty with the E.M.'s of the Solar Guard, you leave your immunity as cadets here in the Academy. From now on, you belong to me. And I'll tell you right now, there isn't anything in space that I hate more, or think less of, than Space Cadets. You get special privileges you don't deserve because you wear that uniform. You get a chance to learn to be a spaceman and most of you muff it. I've got E.M.'s in my outfit that could blast circles around either of you-guys that deserve the chance you've got, and fouled out because they can't spell or don't know how to hold a cup of tea with their fingers the right way. When you come to me, it means you've done something bad. You're on your way out. And I'm going to try my best to see that you make it-out." He took a step forward and glared at them. "Report to me at 1800 hours and"-his voice dropped to a gravelly roar-"you better not be late-and you better not be early."

He spun on his heels in a perfect about-face and left the room.

"There is only one consolation," sighed Tom. "The Capella unit is getting the same thing we're getting."

"Here we go!" breathed Roger slowly.

"I've been thinking about quitting the Academy, anyway," growled Astro.

* * *

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