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   Chapter 16 No.16

Sabotage in Space By Carey Rockwell Characters: 10030

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Bump-ty-bump-ty-bump-ty-"

Tom Corbett's heart beat with such rapid, heavy drumming that the young cadet felt as though it was going to tear itself right out of his chest.

For nearly six hours Tom had lain in wait in Galaxy Hall, the museum of Space Academy, on the second floor of the Tower building. He was hiding in the tail section of the Space Queen, the first rocket ship to breach space safely, blasting from Earth to Luna and back again. He had kept watch through a crack in the hull of the old ship, waiting for the lights to go out, a signal that the Academy had bedded down for the night.

Now, in the silence of the museum, surrounded by the ancient objects that traced man's progress to the stars, Tom felt like crying. For as long as he had been at the Academy, he had revered these crude, frail objects and wondered if he would ever match the bravery of the men who used them. Now, unless his plan was successful, he would be finished as a cadet and the dream of being an officer in the Solar Guard would vanish forever.

The Tower building had been quiet for over an hour. Tom had not heard any voices or movement other than the evenly paced steps of the guards patrolling their lonely beats outside.

He slipped out of the antiquated ship, and staying well in the shadows, moved out into the corridor to the head of the slidestairs. He peered over the railing to the main floor below and saw Warrant Officer Mike McKenny through the open door of a small office, seated at his desk, watching an evening stereo program. The young cadet jumped on the stairs quickly and rode the moving belt of plastic to the upper floors where the officers' quarters were located.

Tom was in great danger of discovery. No civilian was allowed on Academy grounds after taps. And he was still wearing the civilian clothes he had taken from the suitcase on the passenger ship from Mars. Silently but swiftly, he made his way from level to level toward the seventy-fifth floor.

He knew that there would be a guard stationed in the halls outside the officers' apartments and it would be impossible to elude him. He would simply have to brazen it out.

At the seventy-fifth floor the young cadet stepped off the slidestairs noisily, his heels clicking on the dark crystal floor, and strode down the hall. He was immediately seen by the guard who advanced to meet him, his ray gun at the ready. Tom was prepared.

"Guard!" he yelled.

The guard stopped in front of him, a puzzled look on his face. "Yes?" he replied.

"Sir!" snapped Tom. "Show me where Captain Strong's quarters are and be quick about it!"

"But who are-?" The guard started to protest, but Tom did not give him the chance to finish.

"Don't stand there like an idiot, man! Move!"

"Uhh-yes, sir," stammered the guard, obviously taken aback.

"Lead the way," continued Tom loudly. "I haven't much time."

"Yes, sir, but would you mind lowering your voice, sir? Some of the officers are asleep, sir."

"Well, get on then and stop jabbering!"

The guard turned quickly and started down the hall. Tom followed, hardly able to keep from smiling at the man's frustration and confusion.

They stopped at the door to Captain Strong's quarters and the guard rapped softly.

"Yes?" came a muffled voice from inside.

"Someone to see you, sir," called the guard.

"Just a moment."

The guard stepped to one side and stood at rigid attention. When the door opened and Captain Strong was revealed, Tom brushed past the guard and stepped into the room, talking quickly.

"My name is Hinkleworth, Captain," he announced. "I am here at the request of Commissioner Jessup to discuss the installation of new radar equipment on all Solar Guard rocket cruisers!"

Tom slammed the door closed behind him and turned to face the astonished Solar Guard officer.

"What in the star-blazing-?" Strong began angrily.

"It's me, Captain Strong!" Tom said quickly, pulling his hat off and lowering his collar.

"Corbett!" gasped Strong, taking an involuntary step back, his face mirroring his disbelief.

"Sh!" whispered the boy, motioning to the door. Recovering his composure, Strong swept past him, opened the door, and found the guard still standing there at attention.

"All right, Corporal," said Strong. "Resume your station."

"Yes, sir," replied the guard and walked down the hall. Strong watched him for a moment, then turned back into his room, closing and locking the door behind him. He faced the young cadet, who grinned back at him weakly.

"All right, spaceboy," said Strong, flopping in the nearest chair. "Start at the beginning and give it to me. All of it!"

Tom began his story with the incident of the runaway truck at Marsport, told of his abduction and escape from the two truckers, Cag and Monty, his efforts to reach Space Academy, and finally revealed the identity of the man he thought was responsible for the whole effort to stop the projectile operation.

At this, Strong jumped to h

is feet. "That's the most fantastic thing I've ever heard, Corbett!" he snapped. "What kind of proof do you have?"

"None, sir," replied Tom. "The only reason I came here tonight is to ask you to help me get that proof."

When Strong was silent, shaking his head, Tom tried again.

"Sir, you do believe me, don't you?" asked the boy with a sinking feeling in his heart. "What about all the things that have happened to me and to Roger and Astro?"

"I can explain them away just as easily as you can explain your theory," replied Strong. He walked over and patted the cadet on the shoulder sympathetically. "I'm sorry, Tom," he said gently. "Your story is just too fantastic and you haven't even the slightest shred of evidence. Just a few words an unreliable witness said under duress."

"I realize that, sir," replied the cadet. "But don't you see? This is the only way to clear my name."

Strong turned to the window, looked out thoughtfully for a moment, and then turned back to the boy. "How do you think I can help you?" he said, a more sympathetic note in his voice.

His eyes bright with hope again, Tom spoke quickly and eagerly. The Solar Guard captain calmly packed his pipe and lighted it, stopping the boy now and then to ask a question. Finally, when Tom was finished, Strong nodded and silently puffed at his pipe.

"Well, sir?" asked Tom eagerly.

"I don't know, Tom," replied Strong. "It's a pretty wild idea. And it leaves me way out on a limb."

"Only if we fail, sir," said Tom.

"Which is more than likely," Strong commented dryly.

"Captain Strong," said Tom, "if you really don't think it can work, then I suggest that you call the guard and turn me in. I've put you in enough trouble already." Tom moved to the door.

"Stop playing the hero, Corbett," said Strong. "I didn't say I wouldn't help you. But we have to think this thing out."

Tom sat down, eying Strong hopefully.

"Now, let me get this straight," said Strong. "First you want me to help Astro and Roger escape from the work gang. All right, that may work easily enough. But why?"

"So we can get aboard the projectile ship and go through her tests with her."

"I suppose you've heard that Connel, Professor Hemmingwell, and Dave Barret are going to take her up."

"Yes, sir," Tom replied, grinning. "That's why I want to go along. To make sure no more accidents happen."

"I could send a squad of Space Marines for that kind of job," mused Strong.

"But that would alert Barret," protested Tom. "He might not try anything. If he doesn't suspect he's being watched, we may be able to catch him in the act. And he certainly wouldn't think the three of us are aboard."

"Hum. Maybe you're right," nodded Strong. "Then after I get you three on the ship, I'm supposed to spend my time trailing your prize suspect, right?"

"Yes, sir," nodded the young cadet.

"I'll have to give it consideration, Tom," said Strong after a momentary pause. "As much as I admire your plan and as much as I want to help you, this places me in a highly untenable position. Have you stopped to think what would happen to me if it were ever known that I had sheltered you here in my quarters and aided in the escape of two convicted cadets from the work gang?"

"Yes, sir," replied Tom soberly. "And-all I can say is I'll do whatever you think is best."

"Well, get some sleep now," sighed Strong. "I've got to make a tour of the guard."

Without another word, Tom went into Captain Strong's bedroom and fell asleep thirty seconds after his head hit the pillow. His last waking thought was that if his plan had any merit Captain Strong would help him.

Steve Strong did not leave his quarters immediately. He sat in the easy chair and puffed thoughtfully on his pipe until there was nothing left in the burnt and charred bowl. Then he rose and left the room to make his rounds. He walked slowly through the hollow, empty hallways of the Tower building, riding up and down the slidestairs, speaking curtly to the guards, and finally walked out on the wide steps facing the grassy quadrangle.

Strong glanced up at the sky. He counted the stars he could see and he remembered that as a boy of eight he knew the names and positions of every one. He recalled his entrance to the Academy as a cadet and how his unit instructor had guided him and taught him the many things a spaceman must know. He thought of his long tour as a line officer in the Solar Guard fleet under Commander Walters, then a major, and he remembered his brother officers, many of whom were now dead. There was one thing they all had in common, one thing that overshadowed all personal differences. One thing that was almost like a religion. Comradeship. A feeling of belonging, a knowledge that there was always someone who would believe in you and your ideas.

One thing. Friendship.

Captain Strong spun on his heel, walked back into the Tower, and rode the slidestairs back to his quarters. He had made up his mind.

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