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   Chapter 15 No.15

Sabotage in Space By Carey Rockwell Characters: 11373

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Scott!"

"Here!" bellowed a grizzled spaceman in reply to Major Connel's call.

"Augutino!"

"Here!"

"Jones!

"Present!"

"Smith!"

"Here!"

"Albert!"

"Here!"

Connel checked the last name on the clipboard and turned to Professor Hemmingwell standing beside him at the base of the ship. "All present and ready, sir."

"Fine!" said the professor. He turned and looked around. "Where is Dave?"

"Here he comes now," said Connel.

They both watched Barret stride toward them, his arms loaded with gear.

"This is the stuff I told you about, Professor," he said as Hemmingwell looked at it curiously.

"What stuff?" asked Connel.

"Portable heaters for the crew's space suits, just in case-" Barret paused meaningfully.

"In case of what?" growled Connel.

"Why, ask them!" replied Barret, gesturing toward the group of civilian crewmen who had been selected for the test flight of the spaceship.

Connel turned to look at them, then back at Barret. "Ask them what?" he barked.

"How they feel about making this flight," said Barret.

Connel scowled and turned to the men. "Is there anything to what he says?" he demanded.

The men shuffled their feet nervously but did not reply.

"Well?" exploded Connel.

"See, they're afraid of you, Connel," said Barret, deliberately omitting the courtesy of using the major's title.

Ignoring Barret's thrust, Connel continued to face the men. "Is that right, men?" he shouted. "Are you afraid of me?"

There was a mumble from the group and then the man named Scott, a thick-set individual with black flashing eyes, stepped forward.

"Speaking for myself," he said, looking straight at the major, "I'm not afraid of anything that walks. And that includes you, Major Connel. No offense meant, it's just a statement of fact." He paused and drew a deep breath. Then he added, "But I am afraid of this ship."

"Why?" demanded Connel, who could not help admiring the man for his straightforward approach.

"She's junk-jinxed," said the man, using the expression of spacemen who believed a ship with a suspicious accident record should be junked because it was jinxed.

"Junk-jinxed!" cried Connel, amazed.

"Preposterous," snorted Professor Hemmingwell. "Why, you helped build this ship, Scotty! Do you doubt the work you've put into her? Or the work of your friends?"

"That has nothing to do with it," replied Scott stubbornly. "The others feel the same way I do."

Barret stepped forward. Arrogantly and before Connel could stop him, he began addressing the men. "Listen, you men!" he shouted. "You're being childish! Why, you built this ship! How can you possibly allow yourselves to be so stupid as to believe in an idiotic thing like a jinx. Now, why don't you just get aboard and stop being so ridiculously superstitious!"

Connel could have reached out with one of his big hands and squeezed Barret's neck to shut him up. Instead of allaying their fears, which even he would admit were real enough, the man was creating further resentment with his attack on their pride as thinking, reasoning men.

"All right, all right!" he bellowed. "That's enough for now, Mister Barret!" He turned to the men and he could tell by the expressions on their faces that he had lost them. They would not take the ship aloft. But he had to try.

"Now listen," he growled. "This is a very important project and someone has been trying to get us to wash out the whole idea. If you don't come through, he'll succeed. You are the best men in your fields, and if each of you attend to your particular job, then the ship will blast off and be a success! Now, how about it?"

He was met with the stony faces of men who were afraid. Nothing he could say or offer them would get them to take the ship off the ground. He tried a new tack. "I'm offering you double wages!" he roared.

The men were silent.

"Double wages and a bonus!"

Silence.

"All right! Beat it!" he growled. "Don't ever show your faces around here again!"

Connel turned to Professor Hemmingwell. "I'll see if I can't muster a crew from the ranks of the Solar Guard," he said.

"Major," said the professor, his face worn and haggard from the long ordeal of completing the project, "I wouldn't want men ordered to man this vessel."

"They're in the Solar Guard and they take orders," said Connel.

"No," persisted Hemmingwell. "I will not let a man on that ship that does not want to go. Remember, Major, it is still my personal property."

"All right," said Connel grimly. "I'll see if I can recruit a crew from the civilian workers around the Academy."

But Major Connel encountered the same superstitious dread everywhere. The word had spread that the projectile ship was jinxed. Old tales of other ships that had gone out into space, never to be heard of again, were recalled, and the men found instances of similar prelaunching happenings on the projectile ship. Very little of it was true, of course. The stories were half-truths and legends that had been handed down through generations of spacemen, but they seemed to have special significance now.

Connel fumed and ranted, threatened and cajoled, begged and pleaded, but it was no use. There was not a man in the Academy who would set foot inside the "jinxed" ship. Finally, in a last desperate attempt, he ignored Hemmingwell's order and appealed to Commander Walters.

"No, Lou. I cannot order men to take that ship up," Commander Walters replied, "and you know it!"

"Why not?" argued Connel. "You're the commander, aren't you?"

"I most certainly am," asserted Walters, "and if I want to get other things done in the Solar Guard, I can't

order men to take a jinxed ship off the ground." He looked at Connel narrowly. "Do you remember the old freighter, the Spaceglow?" he asked.

Connel frowned but didn't reply.

"You were mate on that ship before you enlisted in the Solar Guard," persisted Walters. "And I read the log of your first trip when you wrote, and I quote, 'There seems to be some mysterious and unanswerable condition aboard this vessel that makes her behave as if she had human intelligence....'"

"That has nothing to do with this situation!" roared Connel.

"They're alike! You couldn't get a crew on that wagon in any port of call from Venus to Jupiter!"

"But we found out what was wrong with her eventually!"

"Yes, but the legend still exists that the Spaceglow had intelligence of its own!" asserted Walters.

"All right," snorted Connel. "So we have to fight superstition! But, blast it, Commander, we're faced with a saboteur. There's nothing supernatural or mysterious about a man with a bomb!"

Connel turned abruptly and walked out of the commander's office, more furious than Walters had ever seen him.

Back at the hangar, Connel faced the professor. It was a tough thing to tell the elderly man, and Connel, for all his hard exterior, could easily appreciate the professor's feelings. After many years of struggle to convince die-hard bankers of the soundness of his Space Projectile plan, followed by sabotage and costly work stoppages, it was heart-rending to have a "jinx" finally stop him.

"I'm sorry," said Connel, "but that's the way things are, Professor."

"I understand, Major," replied Hemmingwell wearily. He turned away, shoulders slumping, and walked back to his tiny office in the shadow of the mighty ship that was anchored on the ground.

"May I speak to you a moment, Major?" a voice broke the silence in the hangar.

Connel turned around slowly. "You!" he exclaimed. "If it hadn't been for you and your big mouth, this ship might be in space right now!"

"Stop blowing your jets!" snapped Dave Barret. "I want to see this ship in space as badly as you do. Perhaps even more so. But listen, I'm not afraid of the jinx. Neither are you, nor is Professor Hemmingwell. We're spacemen. And we know the operation of every piece of equipment on that ship. What's to prevent us from taking her up?"

Connel looked at the young man, immediately recognizing the value of his suggestion. He nodded his head curtly. "All right," he said. "I'll take you up on that."

Barret grinned, stuck out his hand, and after a friendly shake turned and ran to the professor's office. Connel walked back to the outside of the hangar and began bellowing orders for the giant ship to be brought out to the blast ramp and prepared for the blast-off.

But Dave Barret did not go directly to Professor Hemmingwell's office. He made one stop. Looking around quickly to make sure that he was not observed, he slipped into the teleceiver booth and made a hurried call to an Atom City number. When a gruff voice answered, he merely said three words:

"It's all set!"

* * *

Roger and Astro were some distance away from the main gang, working at the tunnel mouth overlooking the hangar area.

"Look, Astro," said Roger. "They're bringing out the ship. They must be ready to blast off!"

Astro stopped his work momentarily and stared as the huge ship was inched out of the hangar, resting on her tail fins, her nose pointing skyward.

"I'd sure like to be bucking the power deck on that baby," sighed Astro.

"Yeah, and I'd give my eyeteeth to see that radar deck," said Roger. "It must be really something with all the gear to control those projectiles when they're released."

"Do you believe any of that talk about her being jinxed?" asked Astro.

"Stop being a Venusian lunkhead!" snorted Roger. "The only thing wrong with that ship is a rocket-blasting clever saboteur."

"You know," said Astro, "I've been thinking."

"Don't strain yourself," snorted Roger. But when Astro failed to reply in kind, the blond-haired cadet realized he was serious. "What is it?" he asked.

"Why, in the name of the moons of Mars, would Barret want to do the things he did to us?"

"Simple," said Roger, beginning to sweep industriously as he saw the guard walking toward them. "He didn't like the way we manhandled him."

"You think he was just getting even with us?" asked Astro, also resuming work.

"What else?" asked Roger. "We made him look pretty silly. And that was no love tap I gave him that night we caught him in the hangar."

"That's what I mean," said Astro. "I know Major Connel said he was supposed to be there. But with that teleceiver conversation I overheard and all the rest-well, I just don't get it," he concluded lamely.

"You'll get it in the neck if you don't watch out," said Roger. "Here comes Spike and he doesn't like to see us loafing!"

The two cadets worked steadily for ten minutes, and when the guard finally walked away, they paused to watch the big ship again.

"I wonder what Tom is up to?" said Roger thoughtfully. "He said he knew who the saboteur was, but he needed help to prove it."

"I'd give a full year's leave just to get my hands on that guy for ten minutes," said Astro.

"Yeah," grunted Roger. "Well, come on, hot-shot, we still got a lot of cleaning to do."

They returned to their work, but even then, as they watched the preparations for the take-off of the big ship, they both thought about Tom. They knew his problems were as difficult as their own, and with much more at stake. If Tom failed in his efforts to catch the saboteur, it could very well mean the end of the Polaris unit.

* * *

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