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   Chapter 8 No.8

Sabotage in Space By Carey Rockwell Characters: 13597

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Tom! Tom!"

Connel knelt beside the limp form of the Space Cadet, calling frantically, praying that the boy would be miraculously unhurt, yet fearing the worst. A few moments later Tom groaned and opened his eyes.

"Did I-did I stop the truck?" he asked weakly.

"You sure did, son!" said Connel, breathing a sigh of relief. "And thank the lucky spaceman's stars that you're all right. I don't see how you got out alive."

Tom sat up. "I jumped from the jet car at the last minute," he said. "I guess I must have bumped my head." He looked down at his torn uniform. "Wow," he said. "Look at me."

"Don't worry about it." Connel laughed. He turned to Lieutenant Slick who had just rushed up.

"Lieutenant, I want a complete check on the men who were standing outside the fence when that truck ran away."

"Yes, sir." The young lieutenant patted Tom on the shoulder. "Good work, Cadet," he said and started away.

Tom grinned his thanks at the young officer and struggled to his feet. "Sir," he said to Connel, "I think I should explain something about that truck."

"The truck!" cried Connel. He turned and called, "Lieutenant, come back here." The young officer turned back. "Go ahead, Tom," said Connel.

While Tom told his story of the truck having been parked near the gate, and having started to roll by itself, Connel and Slick listened intently. Quietly Devers joined them. Finally, when Tom had finished, Connel rubbed his chin thoughtfully and stared at the truck which was being examined by a swarm of guards.

A few moments later the sergeant in command reported to Connel that they had found a worn clutch plate that could have slipped and caused the truck to roll of its own accord, especially if the motor was turning over.

Connel nodded and then ordered, "Get the driver over here."

The man that had spoken to Tom about the secret project came forward under guard. He was thoroughly frightened and Connel was aware of it. "Relax, friend," he said. "I just want to ask you one question."

"Yes, sir," gulped the truck driver.

"Was there anything wrong with your truck?" demanded Connel.

"Yes, sir," replied the driver. "I had a slipping clutch."

Connel turned abruptly to Lieutenant Slick. "All right, Slick, release this man and get that fence back up. I'm satisfied that it was an accident."

"Yes, sir," replied Slick, and left the group with the grateful driver.

Connel relaxed for the first time and turned to Carter Devers who had been standing by silently. "Well, Carter," he said, "see what I meant about the Polaris unit getting into trouble! Blast it, if they don't start it, they sure can finish it." He turned to Tom. "Son, you deserve some time off. Go back to the Spacelanes Hotel in Marsport and get yourself a room. Just forget everything and relax. And get a new uniform, too."

"And send the bill to me," Devers suddenly spoke up. "It's the least I can do."

"Thank you, sir," said Tom. "I could sure use a little sleep."

Hitching a ride on a jet sled, Tom rode over to the administration building where he managed to clean up enough to make himself presentable at the hotel. Later, as he rode along the curving canal in a jet cab into the main section of Marsport, he relaxed for the first time and enjoyed the sights.

The city of Marsport was built in a hurry-at least, the old section of the city was. Like many other planets, when first colonized by the early great conquerors of space several hundred years before, the city grew out of immediate need, with no formalized plan.

Years later, when the Solar Alliance was formed and there was uniform government all over the solar system, the citizens of Mars began to regard their ugly little capital with distaste. A major effort was made to clean up its squalid appearance and huge cargoes of Titan crystal were shipped to Mars for modern construction. Now, as Tom Corbett rode in comfort along a speedway bordering one of the ancient canals, he approached the city with a vague feeling of awe. Gleaming towers, reflecting the last rays of the setting sun, loomed just ahead of him, and the wavy lines of heat rising out of the sandy deserts seemed to make the buildings dance. It was a sunset ballet that never failed to thrill even the oldest Martian citizen.

At the magnificent Spacelanes Hotel, Tom was greeted with the greatest respect. Already his feat of stopping the runaway truck had been announced over the stereo newscasts, and when he asked the location of the nearest supply store to buy a uniform, one was immediately brought to his room by the manager.

"But how did you know?" asked Tom, astounded.

The manager showed Tom a photograph of himself in his ragged clothes, taken while he was talking to Connel. In the background was the remains of the jet car.

"Major Connel called and said you would be staying here," said the manager. "From the looks of you in this picture, we knew you would need a new uniform."

"And you've got my size!" exclaimed Tom, holding up the gleaming new blouse.

"We called the Academy." The manager smiled. "We wanted to be sure. Incidentally, there is a message for you." The manager handed Tom a typed space-o-gram and left. The cadet ripped it open and smiled as he read:

TRYING TO HOG ALL THE STEREO SPACE YOU CAN WHILE YOU LEAVE THE REAL COMPETITION AT HOME, YOU RAT! CONGRATULATIONS!

ASTRO AND ROGER

Laughing to himself, Tom left the message on the desk, stripped off his torn, dirty clothes, and stepped into a hot, refreshing shower. Half an hour later he was digging into a thick steak with French fried potatoes.

After a third helping of dessert, the cadet stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. But sleep would not come. The incidents at the spaceport that afternoon kept flashing through his mind. He tossed restlessly, something he couldn't quite remember was tugging at the back of his mind.

He retraced the events of the day, beginning with the landing of the Polaris and ending with the crash of the jet truck.

Suddenly he sat up straight. Then quickly he jumped out of bed, hurriedly threw on the new uniform, and rammed his feet into the soft space boots.

Ten minutes later, having used the service elevator to avoid the lobby, he stood on the corner of Lowell Lane and Builker Avenue. He hailed a passing jet cab, and climbing in, asked the driver, "Do you know a restaurant or a bar called Sloppy Sam's?"

"Sure," said the driver. "That where you want to go?"

"As fast as this wagon will get me there," replied Tom.

"Why?" asked the driver strangely. "You look like a nice kid. That joint's for-for-well, it ain't for a Space Cadet," he concluded lamely.

"The first thing they teach us at the Academy, buddy," said Tom impatiently, "is

how to take care of ourselves, and the second thing is to mind our own business."

"Right," said the driver, tight-lipped. He slammed the car into motion and the force hurled Tom back in his seat.

Tom grinned. He hadn't meant to sound so tough. He leaned over and apologized. "I'm looking for an old friend. Someone told me he drives a truck and he might be there."

"Forget it, kid," said the driver. "I wouldn't want you in my cab if you couldn't take care of yourself. We pay taxes to teach guys like you how to protect us. A lot of good it would do if you were scared of a taxi driver."

Tom laughed and settled back in his seat to watch the city flash past.

A half hour later the curly-haired cadet became aware of the change from the magnificent crystal buildings to the dirty and streaked buildings of the poorer section of the city. And with the change, Tom noticed a difference in the people who walked the streets. Here were men who wore their coat collars high and their caps pulled low, and who would duck into the shadows at the approach of the cab and then watch it with dark, silent eyes.

"Here ya are, Cadet," the driver announced, stopping in front of a small, dirty building. "Sloppy Sam's."

Tom looked out. The door was open and he could see inside. Sawdust covered the floor, and the tables and chairs were old and rickety. The men inside were the same as those he had seen on the street, tough-looking, hard, steely-eyed. Tom looked at the faded sign over the door. "That says Bad Sam's," he protested.

The men inside were tough-looking and steely-eyed

Note

"Used to be called Bad Sam's," replied the driver. "As a matter of fact, I think it's still officially Bad Sam's. You see, Sam used to be a real tough fella. Then one day a fella came along that was tougher than he was and beat the exhaust out of him. Sam went to pot after that. He got fat and lazy, and his place here got dirtier and dirtier. Finally everybody started calling him Sloppy Sam and it stuck."

"Quite a story." Tom laughed. "What happened to the fellow that took Sam over the hurdles?"

"He's got a joint on the other side of town called Bad Richard's. But they're friends now. Get along fine."

Tom paid the driver and stood on the sidewalk, watching the silver cab shoot away into the darkness. Then he took a deep breath and slowly moved toward the open door of Sloppy Sam's.

Inside, Tom saw that most of the customers were lined up at the bar, drinking rocket juice, a dark foul-tasting liquid that Tom had sipped once and vowed he would never try again. But as he looked around, he didn't think it was the type of place you could order anything milder, so he walked up to the bar and ordered loudly, "A bucket of juice."

Some of the men at the bar turned away from the stereo screen to look at the newcomer. They eyed the crisp, clean uniform narrowly, and then turned silently back to the play on the screen.

The husky bartender placed the small glass of dark liquid in front of Tom. "Twenty credits," he announced in a hoarse voice.

"Twenty!" exclaimed Tom. "Don't give me that rocket wash! It's five credits a shot."

"To a Space Cadet that wants to keep his reputation, Corbett," replied the burly man, "it's twenty."

Tom realized that the man had seen his picture on the stereo news that afternoon and that it would be impossible to get out of paying this blatant form of blackmail. He handed over the money and picked up the glass. He sipped it to keep up appearances but even the few drops he allowed to trickle down his throat almost made him gag. He gasped for breath. Whatever information he might be able to get here, it wasn't worth another swallow of that stuff.

He stood at the bar for nearly half an hour, watching the stereo and waiting. When the show was over, the men turned back to the serious business of drinking. Two of them drifted over close to Tom and looked him up and down. After a whispered conversation, they turned to him and pointed to his drink, the same one he had bought and had not touched since.

"Drink up, mate," said the nearest man, a tall, heavy-shouldered man with a dark beard, "then join us in another one."

"No, thanks," said Tom. "One's my limit."

The two men laughed. "Well, I'll say this for you, lad, you're honest about it," said the tall one. "Most squirts coming in here try to put on they can take the stuff and then they wind up in the gutter."

"That's right, Cag!" said the other man, laughing.

"What are you doing in here, Cadet?" asked the man called Cag.

"Looking for a guy."

"What's his name? Maybe we know him."

"Yeah, we might," chimed in the other. "We know just about everybody that comes in here."

"Maybe he don't want to tell us, Monty," said Cag.

"I don't know his name," said Tom. "I just met him today and he mentioned this place. I wanted to talk to him about something."

"Where did you see him?"

Tom paused. It was only a chance remark that the driver of the jet truck had made and it was a slim chance that these two men might know him. He decided to risk it. "He's a jet trucker. I saw him out at the spaceport today."

The two men looked at each other. "Little guy, with a sort of funny twitch in his eye?" asked Cag.

"Yes," replied Tom. "That's him. Know him?"

"He hangs out in a joint across the street," said Monty. "Come on outside. I'll show you where it is. And his name's Pistol, in case you want to know."

"Pistol," said Tom. "That's an odd name."

"Not when you consider he carries a pistol all the time," snorted Cag.

Tom and the two men walked to the door and out into the street.

"What do you want to see him about, anyway?" asked Monty, as they walked to the corner.

"Just wanted to talk to him about the jet-trucking business."

"What about it? We're truckers, me and Cag, we could probably tell you a lot more than Pistol."

"Maybe," said Tom. "But I want to talk to Pistol."

They stopped at the corner and Monty stepped off the curb into the street. "See that light down there," he said, pointing down the block, "the one just above the door?"

Tom turned to look. "Where-?"

He suddenly felt a sharp jolting pain in the back of his head and then everything went black.

"Nice work, Cag," commented Monty.

"What'll we do with him?" asked Cag.

"Throw him in the back of the truck and get outta here," said Monty, pulling Tom's limp form into the shadows of an alley. "I'll get in touch with the boss and tell him what's happened. And you better send out word to get Pistol. He must know something."

"Right," said Cag. "Gee, Corbett's getting his nice clean uniform messed up."

Dirty gutter water flowed over Tom in the dark Martian alley as the boy lay deathly still.

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