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   Chapter 12 No.12

Sabotage in Space By Carey Rockwell Characters: 15091

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Aw, shut your big Venusian mouth!"

As Roger's voice roared over the intercom loud-speaker of the speedy rocket scout, down on the power deck Astro's face turned red.

"Manning," he growled into the intercom microphone, "if I didn't need you to get me back to Mother Earth, I'd come up there and take you apart!"

For four days the two cadets had been aboard the rocket scout, circling in an orbit between Mars and Earth, conducting equipment tests for Dave Barret. They had become bored with the routine work and spent most of their time needling each other, but as Roger said, at least they were in space.

"O.K., let's knock off the space gas!" called Roger over the intercom. "It's time to run another test. Want to come up topside and take a hand?"

"Be right there, Roger!" said Astro. He set the power-deck controls on automatic, and then, with a quick look around to make sure everything was shipshape, he climbed the ladder to the control deck.

Roger was standing at the chart table, audiophones on his ears, listening for the automatic astral chronometer time-check broadcast on a suprahigh-frequency audio channel from the giant electronic clock in the Tower of Galileo. All spaceship chronometers were checked against this huge clock regularly, in order to maintain constant uniform time so necessary for the delicate art of astrogation between celestial bodies.

Astro started to speak to the blond-haired cadet, but Roger waved him off, listening for the signal. Suddenly he looked up at their own chronometer above the control board and took off the audiophones, smiling his satisfaction.

"Right on the split second, Astro," he said.

"O.K.," replied the big Venusian. "Then let's run that test and get it over with."

"Right," said Roger, turning back to the control panel. "Do you want to go outside this time?"

"I might as well," replied Astro. "Give me a change of scenery."

The big Venusian turned to a locker, pulled out a bulky space suit, and climbed into it quickly. Adjusting the space helmet, he nodded at Roger and stepped into the air-lock chamber, pulling the hatch closed behind him. While waiting for the oxygen in the small chamber to be pumped back into the ship and the pressure to be equalized with the vacuum of space outside, he checked his helmet intercom to insure a clear line of communication with Roger.

The red hand closed on the zero of the gauge over the door and Astro moved to the outer hatch. He unlocked it, swung the door open, and slowly climbed out into the fantastic beauty of endless space. No sooner was he outside than the synthetic gravity generators lost their pull on his body and he started into space. Tightly grasping two metal handles in the hull, the big cadet performed a quick somersault and planted his feet firmly on the hull. His magnetic-soled space boots held him fast and he called Roger over his helmet intercom.

"I'm outside, Roger," he reported. "On my way down to the exhaust."

"Right," came Roger's voice over the intercom. "Let me know when you're ready."

Without replying, Astro made his way slowly and carefully down the length of the rocket scout toward the main drive rocket assembly. Stopping at the trailing edge of the hull, where it enclosed the four rockets, the big Venusian squatted on his heels, making certain the soles of his space boots stayed in contact with the metal of the hull. He peered over the edge and braced himself in a position where he could observe the individual rocket exhausts.

"O.K., Roger!" he called into his intercom. "Open up number one."

"Number one, aye," replied Roger. "And watch yourself, you big baboon. Don't burn your nose!"

"Go ahead, go ahead!" growled Astro in reply.

A long tongue of flame shot out of the exhaust of the number one tube and, after drawing back momentarily, Astro watched the tube keenly.

"You know," he commented idly as he kept his eyes fixed on the tube, "I still can't figure out what's so different about these tubes. They're exactly the same as any others I've ever seen."

"That's how much you know, Astro," snorted Roger. "Dave Barret said they were using a new duralumin alloy in the tubes."

"Still doesn't look any different to me," persisted Astro. "And for us to spend four whole days out here testing them"-he paused and shook his head-"seems like an awful waste of time," he concluded.

"What do you care? We're out in space, aren't we? Or would you rather be back on guard duty?"

"No, of course not," replied Astro. "But even space gets dull after a while with nothing to do. Barret sure gave us an old crate. Not even a long-range receiver aboard."

"What do you want to listen to?" snorted Roger. "Flight orders and all the rest of that rocket wash?"

"Be a relief to listen to somebody else beside you for a change," snapped Astro. "Anyhow, suppose something important happened. Suppose our orders were changed. How would we know about it?"

"What difference does it make?" replied Roger. "We've got our orders-straight from Barret. As long as we follow them, we won't get into trouble."

"For a change," murmured Astro.

"Now cut the griping and finish up out there!"

"O.K.," sighed Astro. "That's enough on number one. Give me number two."

The ship bucked slightly as one rocket tube was cut out and another flared at full power, but Astro clung to the hull tightly, continuing his observations. With troubled eyes he watched all four rocket tubes in operation, unable to understand the difference between these tubes and the standard makes. Finally he shrugged his shoulders, and rising to his feet, called Roger again.

"That's enough, pal," he said. "I'm coming in."

"O.K.," replied Roger from the control deck. "And don't fall all over your big feet."

In five minutes the Venusian cadet was inside the air lock again, and as the pressure was boosted to equalize with the interior of the ship, he removed his space suit and helmet. He opened the inner hatch and stepped into the control deck to see Roger staring at the teleceiver in openmouthed astonishment. A harsh voice was coming over the loud-speaker.

"... Order you to cut all power and stand by for a boarding party, or I'll open fire immediately!"

With an exclamation of startled surprise, Astro rushed to the teleceiver screen and saw a man in the uniform of the Solar Guard, his face grim and purposeful. Just as Astro was about to speak, the officer spoke again.

"Did you hear me? This is Captain Newton aboard the cruiser Regulus! I order you to cut all power and stand by or I'll open fire! Acknowledge!"

"Roger," gasped Astro, "what's this all about?"

"I-I don't know," stammered the blond-haired cadet. He grabbed the teleceiver microphone and called into it rapidly.

"Rocket scout 4J9 to Regulus. This is Space Cadet Roger Manning. There must be some mistake, sir. Cadet Astro and I are out here on special assignment for the Space Projectile project."

"I know who you are!" shouted Newton. "If you don't stand by, I'll open fire! This is your last warning!"

Astro grabbed the mike from Roger's hand.

"All right!" he bellowed. "We don't know what it's all about, but for the love of Saturn's rings, don't start shooting."

Captain Newton nodded grimly. "Very well," he said. "Bring your ship to a dead stop in space and open your starboard air lock. I will send a jet boat over to you."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Astro.

When the Solar Guard captain signed off and his image faded from the tel

eceiver screen, Astro and Roger numbly complied with Newton's abrupt orders, bringing the ship to a dead stop in space and opening the starboard air lock. Then the two cadets sat in the main deck of the small scout and waited, their faces showing their concern. Neither felt like talking. They were so confused that they didn't know what to say. Finally Roger got up and in a daze walked to the chart table to note the time of the tests in the log. Then he automatically logged the time of Newton's order.

Suddenly he threw the pencil down and turned to Astro.

"Blast it!" he shouted. "What's this all about?"

Astro merely grunted, shrugged his shoulders, and slumped further down in his chair. The big cadet was worried. Anything that threatened his career at the Space Academy made him literally tremble with fear. In his whole life there was never anything that he wanted more than to be an officer in the Solar Guard. And the only way that could be accomplished was by being a Space Cadet. Now he was under arrest. He didn't stop to reason why. All he knew was that it was a direct threat to his future as a power-deck officer in the Solar Guard.

The two boys felt the metallic thump of something hitting the hull of their rocket scout. They realized immediately that it was the sound of the jet boat coupling on their ship and they turned to face the air-lock hatch.

Captain Newton was the first to step through the air-lock hatch and he was followed by six Space Marines, holding their ray guns leveled.

"I am Captain Newton of the Solar Guard, in command of the rocket cruiser Regulus," he announced. "I arrest you in the name of the Solar Alliance." The officer handed over the standard warrant that was used by the Solar Guard.

Roger read it slowly. It was a simple warrant for their arrest, on the grounds of desertion, taking a Solar Guard vessel without permission, and being absent without leave from Space Academy. Stunned, the cadet handed it to Astro who had been reading it over his shoulder, his face white with shock.

"And I warn you, Cadet Manning," continued Newton, "that anything you say from now on may be used against you."

"I understand, sir," said Roger, dazed.

"Then do I have your word," said Newton, "on your honor as Space Cadets, that you will not make any attempt to escape or in any way jeopardize my authority over you?"

"Yes, sir," nodded Roger.

"On my honor, sir," said Astro, gulping, "as a Space Cadet."

"All right," said Newton. "Then I'll let you take the scout back to the Academy yourselves. I'll escort you in the Regulus."

He turned to the squad of Space Marines and nodded. They filed into the air lock and Newton followed slowly. He paused in the hatch and looked back at the two cadets, a momentary gleam of sympathy in his eyes.

"You'd better be prepared for a rough time, boys," he said. "Major Connel is going to haul you in front of a court-martial as soon as you land."

"But what've we done?" Astro suddenly exploded.

"The charges are listed in the warrant, Cadet Astro!"

"But that's all wrong!" protested Astro. "We were ordered to-"

"Hold it, Astro," Roger interrupted. "Let's stop and figure this out first. We can tell our side at the court-martial!"

Captain Newton looked at the two boys piercingly for a second, then turned and entered the air lock, slamming the hatch closed behind him. Slowly and thoughtfully, Astro and Roger prepared to get their ship under way. They were still stunned by the sudden turn of events.

They had no idea what had happened. But they knew Dave Barret was at the heart of their troubles. They vowed silently that he wouldn't get away with it!

* * *

This time it was not a cadet court that Roger and Astro faced. It was a five-man board of Solar Guard officers, consisting of four captains and one major, who conducted the court-martial in closed session. Only the defendants and the complaining witnesses were allowed to be present. The evidence the board heard was as damaging to the boys as it was bewildering. Major Connel testified to their being absent without leave and taking a Solar Guard space vessel without permission. Firehouse Tim Rush stated that they had deserted their stations. When Roger was called to the stand, he entered the only defense he could, stating that he and Astro had been operating under Dave Barret's orders. The board immediately called Barret in to testify and his words blasted the cadets' case to smithereens.

"... I have no idea what they were doing out in that rocket scout," he stated calmly. "I certainly didn't send them up on any such ridiculous tests. If you will examine the exhaust tubes of that ship, you'll see that they're made of standard materials used in all Solar Guard ships." He turned to the board, casually. "No, gentlemen," he continued, "I don't know what these boys are talking about. You can call Professor Hemmingwell in, if you like. I'm sure he'll vouch for what I've said."

As Barret stepped down from the stand, Astro lunged toward him, blind with anger and shouting his fury. It took six Space Marines to force him back to his chair. Roger merely sat, staring blankly into space, a wry smile curling his lips. He clearly saw the trap into which he and his unit mate had fallen, and there was no way out.

The board didn't deliberate very long after the last testimony was taken. When they returned to the chamber, the presiding officer addressed Roger and Astro directly, asking formally whether they had anything to say before sentence was passed. Roger stepped forward.

"I have something to say, sir," he said in a quiet but firm voice.

"Very well," nodded the major.

"Sir," began Roger, with a glance at Astro, "this is not a plea for mercy but understanding. We are, it is true, nothing but boys in training to become officers of the Solar Guard. One of the most important parts of our training is how to take orders without question. Now at this trial, we have been accused of three specific instances of misconduct. We can offer no other defense than what we have already claimed. Major Connel and Warrant Officer Rush have stated that we should have cleared Barret's orders with them first, since Barret is only a civilian and has no right to give us orders. That may very well be true. But I submit this for your consideration, gentlemen-" Roger paused and looked up and down the line of stony-faced officers. "What would have been your judgment," he resumed, "if Dave Barret had asked us to do these things and we had refused? Would you have been less hard on us? That's all, sir."

Roger stepped back abruptly and the officers stirred uncomfortably. They recognized the merit in Roger's statement, and had not the decision been made, there was more than one who might have reconsidered, remembering their own difficulties as Space Cadets. However, the presiding officer picked up a sheet of paper and addressed the boys coldly.

"While I must compliment Cadet Manning for his admirable statement," he said, "it does not change the decision of this board. Normally, these offenses would be punished by immediate dismissal from the Cadet Corps. However, in view of their past record at the Academy, it is the decision of this board to exercise some lenience. Cadet Roger Manning, Cadet Astro, you are sentenced to serve on the enlisted man's work gangs here at Space Academy for a period of exactly six months. All pay and privileges to be denied during that time. Case is closed!"

* * *

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