A minute later it began to brake slowly, finally coming to a dead stop at the bottom of the shaft. They were met by a Solar Guardsman who directed them into the tunnel, now illuminated by a row of flowing, self-powered emergency lights. Silently, but with rising excitement, the two cadets followed Hawks through the brightly lighted shaft, a thousand feet below the surface of the planet.
Turning the last corner in the tunnel they came upon Strong, Tom, and Captain Allison huddled near the torn side of the time capsule. They could hear Strong talking to Tom.
"There is a vault on every spaceship in the Solar Alliance, Tom," Strong was explaining. "The vault is locked before blast-off and opened after landing by a light-key operated only by a trusted spaceport security officer. This key flashes a series of light vibrations, in sequence, into the electromagnetic lock on the vault. It's really nothing more than a highly developed flashlight except that it flashes multiple combinations of lights, each containing certain electronic vibrations. The electromagnetic lock can only be opened with the proper combinations of colors and vibrations flashed by the light-key. Of course each ship has a different code of colors and vibrations, but the code itself wouldn't be hard to crack. The big thing would be to have an adjustable light-key, so that if one combination of colors and light vibrations do not work, you can try another. In that way you could open any energy lock on any vault in the system."
"And Wallace and Simms—" Tom hesitated.
"Yes, Corbett," said Strong grimly. "Wallace and Simms stole an information sound spool from the capsule. On that spool was a detailed description of the energy lock and the adjustable light-key. There were only seven keys in the system up to now. If we don't catch Wallace and Simms, there'll be eight."
"Great galaxy," Commissioner Hawks broke in. "This will ruin the exposition! The Alliance will close it after—"
Strong waved a calming hand at Hawks. "I've already spoken to Commander Walters at Space Academy, Mike," he said. "He wants this to remain a secret. No one knows about it besides us, and no one will. I'm taking your oaths, your spaceman's word, that it will remain a secret. There's no use in starting a panic. You'll keep the exposition going as if nothing had happened."
"But what can the Solar Guard do, sir?" asked Tom.
"We'll start the greatest search the system has ever seen," replied Strong calmly. "But the order for their arrest will be issued for some other violation." The Solar Guard officer suddenly noticed Roger for the first time.
"Oh, Manning!" he said, smiling. "Good to see you. How do you feel?"
"O.K., sir," replied Roger. "But I'd feel a lot better if those space crawlers didn't have the combination to every safe and vault in the universe!"
Strong nodded. "This is one of the cleverest crimes in history. And in searching for Wallace and Simms, we'll have to be twice as smart as they are!"
"Yes, sir," said Tom. "First we have to figure out what they will do, and then figure out how we're going to beat them!"
"That's right, Tom," nodded Strong. "And by the stars, if we don't beat them, the only safe place left for the credits and securities of the people in the system will be behind rows of paralo-ray guns!"
"Attention! Attention! This is Captain Maitland of the rocket cruiser Orion reporting to Captain Strong at Space Academy. Come in, Strong!"
High in the Tower of Galileo overlooking Space Academy, the Solar Guard officer, his face showing the strain of the last three-weeks' futile search for Wallace and Simms, flipped on the teleceiver and replied, "Strong here. Go ahead, Maitland."
Tom, Astro, Roger, and Commander Walters stood behind Strong and waited tensely for the last report to come in. Mainland's voice crackled through millions of miles of space.
"We've searched space quadrants A through D, sections twenty-one through one hundred thirty-eight. Constant six-way radar sweep of the area. No sign of Wallace and Simms."
Strong sighed deeply and replied, "All right, Maitland. Thank you. You may return to base. End transmission."
"End transmission!" signaled Maitland, and the crackling static died out in the quiet room.
Walters stepped forward and placed his hand on Strong's shoulder. "Don't let it get you down, Steve," he said. "I saw the zone search you set up for those two. No one could have done more."
"Maybe not, sir," said Strong, getting up, "but we didn't catch them."
"Not yet," frowned the commander grimly, "but we will! Well, there's nothing else to do here. That was the last patrol ship to report, so you might as well close up shop."
He turned to the cadets, who had been reassigned from the exposition as aides to Captain Strong in his search for Wallace and Simms. "You three come with us," said Walters. "I've got an idea and I want all of you to hear it."
Strong and the boys followed the commander out of the Academy communications center down to his luxuriously furnished office.
"Perhaps," said Walters, settling back in his chair and lighting an enormous pipe filled with red Venusian tobacco, "perhaps we have been hunting the fox with the wrong kind of dogs."
"Assuming that Wallace and Simms are the foxes in this case and the Solar Guard the hunting dogs, what would you suggest, sir?" asked Strong.
Walters puffed several times and eyed Strong. "I was going to suggest that you and the cadets become merchant spacemen for a while and take a look at some of the uglier places of the Solar Alliance. Go right into the foxes' den dressed as foxes!"
"Ummmmh," mused Strong. "It is an idea."
"Give it a try, anyway," urged Walters. "Take that old freighter we confiscated from the Titan smugglers, the Dog Star. Wander around for a few weeks and see what you can pick up. We have the advantage, since only a few of us know why we're looking for Wallace and Simms. It might make finding them a little easier."
Strong looked at the cadets and then back at the commander. "It might just work, at that, sir," he said at last.
"Work your way around to Venusport," said Walters. "Let it be known that you four are—well, willing to do just about anything for a credit."
Strong and the cadets smiled. "All right, sir," said the young captain. "We'll start right away."
"No!" replied the commander firmly. "You'll start in the morning. Right now, I'm ordering you to hit the sack and get some rest. You're not going to catch those two with speed. You'll need brains and cleverness."
"Very well, sir," said Strong as he stood up. "And I want to thank you for giving us this assignment."
"No question about it," answered the commander. "If you have a tough job to do, you put your best team to work on it, and the job will get done!"
It was difficult for the three cadets, who had been standing to one side listening, to suppress a smile. They saluted and followed Strong from the room. He left them at the slidestairs with orders to be ready to blast off at 0800 hours.
Tom was silent as he climbed into his bed in the Polaris unit's quarters on the forty-second floor. Roger and Astro fell asleep almost as soon as their heads touched their air-foam pillows, but the curly-haired cadet lay with arms under his head, staring up at the ceiling. He felt uneasy about the task that faced them. He wasn't afraid for himself, or Roger, or Astro. Something he couldn't put his finger on bothered the young spaceman.
He reviewed Wallace and Simms' entire operation. He remembered the two men had struck him as not being too bright. Their success in stealing the secret of the adjustable light-key, and their methods, plus their complete disappearance, just didn't add up. He made up his mind to speak to Captain Strong about it in the morning. As soon as the matter was settled in his mind, he was asleep.
* * * * *
At exactly 0800 hours the three cadets and Captain Strong appeared at the Academy spaceport dressed in the severe black tight-fitting trousers and jacket of merchant spacemen. Quietly eluding all friends and acquaintances, they entered the confiscated freighter that had been prepared for space flight during the night and began acquainting themselves with the ship's equipment.
When Astro reported the power deck ready and Roger cleared their course, Tom called the traffic-control tower for blast-off clearance.
"Take it easy on the first hop," said Strong. "There's no hurry and I want to be sure we get this crate off in one piece." Smiling confidently at the control-deck cadet, he turned away to his quarters. He was aware of the effect that being left alone had on the cadets. He had learned early in his associations with Tom, Roger, and Astro that they bore responsibility well, and a challenge to do a good job would assure him the job would be done efficiently.
"Stand by to raise ship!" Tom's voice crackled confidently over the ship's intercom.
Strong sat on an acceleration cushion and strapped himself in. He heard Tom's voice counting off the seconds for blast-off.
As the rockets burst into a loud roar, the freighter lurched from the ground and thundered up into the atmosphere, pushing Strong deep into his acceleration cushion. Minutes later, he felt the freedom of free-fall space. In a strange ship, the Polaris crew had begun a strange mission.
During the flight to Luna City, their first stop on the tour of the hangouts of outlawed spacemen across the solar system, Strong briefed his cadets on a plan of action.
"I think it'll be better if we split up into two teams. You work with me, Corbett, and Astro will team up with Manning. We'll operate like simple tramp spacers. Our space papers have new last names, but the same first names, so there won't be any slip-ups when we speak to each other. From now on, if we happen to meet, you'll all call me Steve and I'll call you by your first names. Is that clear?"
The cadets nodded.
"All right," continued Strong. "Now, when we arrive in a city, Tom and I will go to one section, while you two go to another. Visit the toughest-looking places you can find. Talk, talk to anyone that wants to talk. Buy people drinks. Let it slip that you're not exactly on the right side of the space code. Then, if you feel you have a sympathetic listener, mention Wallace and Simms. Say you have heard of the trouble they're in. Say you know them, that you're old friends, and hint that you have something that they need very badly. Just keep talking and pulling for information. Got that?"
Again the three cadets nodded silently.
"Wear your paralo-ray guns at all times and keep your belt communicators hidden beneath your jackets," Strong warned. "If one team gets into a tight spot, call the other right away. But don't call unless it's absolutely necessary!" Strong paused and glanced at the tele-scanner. "We're getting close to Luna City. We'll touch down at the municipal spaceport and go through the regular routine of customs search just to establish ourselves as tramp spacemen."
"How long will we stay in each city, sir?" asked Tom.
"Watch that 'sir,' Tom," snapped Strong. "Might as well begin to forget it now."
"O.K., Steve," replied Tom sheepishly.
"To answer your question, we'll stay in each city only as long as there might be something to be gained by staying. We'll live aboard the Dog Star. But stay away from the ship as much as possible. If anyone questions you, tell them you're looking for cargo. But in case they take you up on it and offer you a cargo haul, you always want more money for the job."
Roger grinned. "That could be fun."
"Be clever, but be tough. Some of the people you'll run into are the most ruthless men in the universe. They are just the ones that might know something about Wallace and Simms."
Strong cautioned them against drinking rocket juice, suggesting they drink Martian water instead. The briefing was interrupted by the automatic warning beep from the tele-scanner informing them that they had passed the outer beacon on the approach to the municipal spaceport on the Moon. The four spacemen immediately began the routine task of landing their ship safely on the satellite colony.
An hour later, as gray-clad customs men finished searching the empty ship, Roger waited for final clearance at the air lock of the freighter. When the last of the men were leaving the ship, Roger stopped two of them.
"Say, ground hogs," drawled Roger, "where's the best place to get something to eat?"
The two men stopped and turned to face the cadet, their eyes cold and unfriendly. "Why don't you space drift blast out of here?" asked one of them.
"Yeah," agreed the other, "your kind aren't welcome in Luna City."
Roger shrugged his shoulders and turned away. The two customs officers continued down the gangway. "Those young punks," muttered one, "they get themselves a berth on a crummy freighter and think they're real hot space aces when they're nothing but wet fire-crackers!"
Strong had appeared at Roger's side and heard the last remark.
"What was that about, Roger?" he asked, nodding toward the disappearing customs men.
Roger smiled. "Just seeing if I could get by."
"They certainly gave us a good going over," said Strong grimly. "I think our disguise is perfect. Those fellows don't miss much."
"I heard them talking, Steve," said Roger. "They recognized the ship and know its reputation for smuggling."
"Yes," agreed Strong. "And your remark will make them sure to watch every move we make. But that's just what we want. News of that sort has a way of getting around. And anyone interested in a ship with a reputation for smuggling is someone we're interested in."
Astro walked up, and with a brief nod Roger followed the big cadet down the gangway. As they walked across the concrete surface of the spaceport, Tom appeared at Strong's elbow.
"I'm ready to go, Steve," he said. "The ship's secure."
"Very well, Tom," said Strong. "But from now on, keep your eyes and ears open. It only takes one slip to make a dead spaceman!"
"See that fellow over there, Steve?" whispered Tom. "The one with the scar on his face?"
"Yeah," replied the disguised Solar Guard officer. "I've been watching him too. And I think he's had his eye on us."
Tom and Captain Strong were sitting in a small restaurant near the spaceport, drinking Martian water and discussing the shadowy characters that lounged around the stuffy little room.
"I'll walk over to the bar," said Strong. "Maybe he doesn't want to talk to two of us together. You go over and see if you can strike up a conversation."
"Good idea, sir—uh—Steve," said Tom.
Strong got up and with an exaggerated swagger walked to the small bar. From the mirror in back of the bar, he could see Tom rise and saunter over to the man who sat on the opposite side of the room.
For three days, Roger, Astro, Tom, and Strong had wandered through the bars, restaurants, and cheap hotels of Spaceman's Row in Luna City searching for information that would lead them to Wallace and Simms. Each night they returned to the freighter to exchange, sift, and analyze the bits of information gathered, but for three nights they had come up with a total of nothing. Finally, Strong had decided that this would be the last night they would spend in Luna City. It was after making this decision that he and Tom spotted the scar-faced man sitting alone in one corner.
Strong saw Tom stop at the table, say a few words, then sit down and order drinks. Tom and the scar-faced man continued their conversation, now leaning across the table talking in whispers, stopping only long enough for the waiter to serve the drinks. Strong noticed that the scar-faced man paid for them and smiled to himself. That was a step in the right direction. He obviously wanted something from Tom.
Suddenly the young cadet looked up and motioned for him to come over to the table. Strong merely lounged against the bar and nodded carelessly. Taking his time, he finished his glass of Martian water, then swaggered across the crowded room to the table.
Tom glanced up casually and then turned to his companion at the table. "This is my skipper," he said. "Name's Steve. You gotta job to do, Steve'll do it. Anything, anywhere, any time," he paused, and then added with a smirk, "for a price!"
The scar-faced man looked up at Steve. His eyes traced a pattern over the tall man, noting the broad shoulders, the piercing eyes, and the bulge of a paralo-ray gun in his jacket. He pushed a chair back with a foot and managed a smile in spite of the scar that twisted his features into an ugly mask. "Sit down, Steve. My name's Pete."
Strong accepted the invitation silently. At close range, he saw the man was more disfigured than he had noticed from the bar. The scar on his face reached from his left ear across his cheek and down to his neck. Pete saw him looking at the scar and smiled again. "Funny thing about scars. I got one, but I don't have to look at it. I just stay away from mirrors and I remember myself as I was before I got it. So look all you want. You're the one that's got to suffer for it."
Ignoring the man's bitter tone of voice, Strong growled, "I'm not interested in what you look like. You got something to haul; we got a ship to haul it. Name your cargo and destination, and we'll name a price."
"Ain't as simple as that," said Pete craftily. "I gotta know more about you before we talk business."
"What for instance?" asked Strong.
"For instance, who do you know on Spaceman's Row that can give you a reference?"
Tom spoke up quickly without looking at Strong. "Suppose I told you I helped pull a job a couple of weeks ago that was worth a hundred thousand credits?" He settled back, casually glancing at Strong and receiving an imperceptible nod in return.
"A hundred thousand, eh?" said Pete with interest. "Not bad, not bad. What kind of a job was it?"
"Me and two other guys held up the Credit Exchange at the Solar Exposition at Venusport."
"Oh?" Pete was becoming extremely curious. "You in on the job too, Steve?"
Before Strong could answer, Tom spoke quickly. "No, I bought a half interest in Steve's ship with my share of the take." Strong could hardly keep from smiling, so easily was the young cadet's tale growing.
"Then who was in on this job with you?" persisted the scar-faced man. "You look pretty young to pull a big job like that."
Tom glanced around the room and then leaned over the table before whispering, "Gus Wallace and Luther Simms."
"What?" exclaimed Pete. "Gus Wallace? A guy about six feet tall and two hundred pounds? Has a heavy rough voice?"
"That's the one," said Tom.
Pete's arm shot across the table like a snake and he grabbed Tom by the jacket. "Where is he?" he asked through clenched teeth.
No sooner had Pete touched Tom than Strong had his paralo-ray gun leveled at the scar-faced man. "Take your hands off him," he said coldly, "or I'll freeze you right where you are!"
Pete relaxed his grip and settled back into his chair. He glared at Tom and then at Strong.
"All right," snapped Strong. "Now you talk!"
Pete didn't say anything. Strong inched closer to the scar-faced man menacingly. "I said talk! Why do you want to know where Gus Wallace is? Maybe you're Solar Guard, eh? Trying to play a little trick on us. How do I know you haven't got a squad of MP's outside waiting to pick us up?"
Pete began to shift nervously. "You got me all wrong, Steve. I ain't Solar Guard."
"Why do you want to know where Gus Wallace is, then?" Strong persisted.
Pete hesitated and had to be prodded with the paralo-ray gun again by Strong. "Talk!" hissed Strong.
"You see this scar?" asked Pete. "Well, two years ago, on Spaceman's Row in Marsopolis, Gus slashed me in a fight. I swore I'd do the same for him when I caught him, but he's been running from me ever since."
"Marsopolis, eh?" asked Strong. "Two years ago?"
"I think you're lying! You're Solar Guard."
"Honest, Steve," whined Pete. "That's the only reason I want him. Ask anybody. It happened in the Spacelanes Bar on New Denver Avenue. I bet there are five guys here right now who heard about it!"
Strong got up, pushing the gun back in his belt.
"Come on, Tom. I don't like the way your friend Pete answers questions."
"Wait a minute!" Pete rose from his chair, protesting.
Strong whirled around and faced the scar-faced man. "If I were you, Pete," he muttered, "I'd sit still and not ask any more questions. It isn't healthy!"
Without another word Strong walked out of the dingy restaurant. Tom shrugged his shoulders in a helpless gesture and followed, leaving Pete alone and worried.
Outside in the street, his face bathed in the garish light of the vapor street lights, Strong stopped to wipe his forehead.
"Whew!" he gasped. "We certainly bulled our way through that one!"
"I felt the same way," said Tom. "But at least we have something to go on. You think he was suspicious?"
"No, Tom. He was so scared when I accused him of being tied up with the Solar Guard it threw him completely off stride."
"Well? Where do we go from here?" asked Tom.
"Back to the ship," replied Strong. "And as soon as Astro and Roger show up, we blast off for Marsopolis. Our next target is a joint called the Spacelanes!"
* * * * *
Against a backdrop of shimmering stars that studded the velvet black emptiness of space, the freighter Dog Star rocketed toward the red planet of Mars carrying the four spacemen on the next step of their search. Relaxing from the three arduous days on the Moon and able to be themselves once more, Strong and the three cadets rested and discussed every detail of their stay in Luna City. It was finally decided that their only real chance of tracing Wallace and Simms lay in the Spacelanes Bar. As they approached Mars, Strong outlined their next move.
"We'll do the same thing as we did in Luna City," he said. "Split up. Only this time, we'll all go to the same place, the Spacelanes. Tom and I will go in first and do most of the nosing around. Astro and Roger will drift in later and hang around, just in case there's trouble."
The three cadets nodded their understanding, and when Strong turned to the teleceiver to make his report to Commander Walters at Space Academy, they took their stations for touchdown at Marsopolis.
His face impassive on the teleceiver screen, Commander Walters listened to Strong's report, and when the Solar Guard officer finished, he grunted his satisfaction.
"Do you have any news on Wallace and Simms, sir?" asked Strong.
"Yes, but my news isn't as good as yours," frowned Walters. "They've already made use of their knowledge of the light-key. They held up a Solar Guard transport en route to Titan and emptied her armory. They took a couple of three-inch atomic blasters and a dozen paralo-ray guns and rifles. Opened the energy lock with their adjustable light-key as easily as if it had been a paper bag. It looks as though they're setting themselves up for a long siege."
"Do you have any idea where they might be hiding, sir?"
"Somewhere in the asteroid belt, I believe," replied the commander. "They headed for the belt after they held up the transport."
"Well, we'll do what we can from our end, sir," said Strong. "Since Mars is closer to the asteroid belt than any other planet, they might be using Marsopolis as a hangout. Or someone might have seen them recently."
"Use whatever plan you think best, Steve. I'm counting on you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Spaceman's luck! End transmission."
"End transmission," replied Strong and flipped off the screen.
Fifteen minutes later, the Dog Star settled on a blast-scorched ramp at the Marsopolis spaceport, and after a hasty review of their plans, the four spacemen left the ship. Strong had a brief argument with a customs officer over a personal search for small arms. They were forced to leave their paralo-ray guns on the ship. Disgruntled, as far as the customs agents were concerned, Strong was actually pleased with the success of their disguise as merchant spacemen.
Tom and Strong found the Spacelanes Bar in the roughest and darkest section of Marsopolis. It was large and almost empty. But Tom noted that it was just like many other such places he had been in in Luna City. The walls were scarred and dirty, the floor littered, and the tables and chairs looking as if they had been used in a hundred fights. Behind a bar that ran the length of one wall, a heavy-set man with beady black eyes watched their approach.
"What's your pleasure, spacemen?" asked the bartender in a gruff voice.
Strong hesitated a moment and decided to play all his cards at one turn. "We'll have a thousand credits worth of information."
The barman's eyes narrowed into black slits. "What kind of information would bring that kind of a price?" he asked.
"Information about a man," said Strong.
"What man?" asked the barman. He dropped his hand out of sight behind the bar. Tom's eye caught the move and he wished the customs men hadn't taken away their paralo-ray guns.
Just at that moment he heard Roger's unmistakable laugh and turned to see the blond cadet, followed by Astro, enter, cross the room, and slap the bar for service.
"Let me take care of these two," muttered the bartender and walked down to the end of the bar. Facing Roger and Astro, he snarled, "What'll it be?"
"Coupla bottles of Martian water," drawled Roger.
"Get out of here," roared the bartender. "We don't sell kids' drinks in here."
"Two bottles of Martian water!" growled Astro and leaned over the bar threateningly. Strong and Tom watched the performance with amused eyes. Without a word, the barman opened the bottles of Martian water and gave them to Roger and Astro. He turned back to Strong.
"These young rocketheads think they're so blasted tough," he sneered, "and then drink kids' soda pop."
Strong looked at Roger and Astro. "That fellow on the right," indicating Astro's size, "looks like he could be a little more than a child, if he got mad."
The barman snorted and leaned over the bar. "What about that thousand credits?" he asked.
"What about it?" countered Strong.
"That's a lot of money just for information," said the barman.
"It's my money," replied Strong coolly, "and my business!"
"What kind of information you interested in," asked the bartender.
"I told you, information about a man," said Strong. "Gus Wallace. Happen to know him?" Strong pulled a roll of crisp credit notes out of his jacket pocket. The barman looked at them greedily.
"Maybe. What'cha want with him?" he asked.
"He knifed a friend of ours in here two years ago."
"Yeah?" drawled the barman. "Who?"
"Pete," answered Strong, suddenly realizing he didn't know the scar-faced man's last name.
"Pete? Pete who?" asked the barman craftily.
"What are you trying to do?" snapped Tom suddenly. "Play space lawyer? You know Pete was knifed in here by Gus Wallace two years ago! Carved up good!" He made a slashing gesture from his ear to his throat, indicating the scar on Pete's face.
"So you want Wallace, eh?" mused the bartender.
"We want him a thousand credits' worth," said Strong.
"You didn't tell me for what, yet."
"None of your space-blasting business," roared Strong. "You want the thousand or not?"
The bartender couldn't keep his eyes off the crisp roll of credit notes Strong rippled under his nose and hesitated. "Well, to tell you the truth, I ain't seen him for a long time."
"Then do you know anyone who has?" asked Strong.
"Hard to tell," said the bartender huskily. "But I do know the guy who would know if anyone does."
"Who?" asked Tom.
"On Venusport's Spaceman's Row. There's a joint called the Cafe Cosmos. Go there and ask for a little guy named Shinny. Nicholas Shinny. If anyone knows about Wallace, he'll know."
Tom's heart almost stopped. Nicholas Shinny was a retired spaceman who had taken part in his last adventure to Alpha Centauri, and was a good friend of Strong's and the Polaris unit. Shinny had always operated on the edge of the space code. Nothing illegal, but as Shinny himself put it, 'just bending the code a little, not breaking it.'
Tom spoke up. "That's only worth a hundred credits," he said.
"Whaddya mean!" snapped the barman.
"How would Nick Shinny know Gus Wallace?" asked Strong.
"They prospected the asteroids together years ago."
Strong dropped a hundred-credit note on the bar and turned away without another word. Tom followed, and as they passed Roger and Astro, a knowing look passed between them, and Tom gestured for them to follow.
Having heard the conversation, Astro and Roger walked over to the bartender who was folding the credit note before putting it in his pocket.
"You sell your information pretty cheap, spaceman," snarled Roger. "Suppose those two were Solar Guardsmen in disguise?"
The bartender paused, then shook his head. "Couldn't be!" he said.
"Why not?" asked Roger.
"Because the Solar Guard has a guy salted away that knows exactly where Wallace is."
"That's the story, sir," said Strong to Commander Walters, after the Solar Guard captain had related the information he had wormed out of the bartender at the Spacelanes Bar and the news Roger and Astro had brought.
"All right, Steve," nodded the commander. "I'll have the man picked up right away and psychographed. Meantime, you go on to Venus and see Nicholas Shinny."
"Very well, sir," said Strong. "End transmission!"
"End transmission," acknowledged Walters. Strong flipped the switch and the teleceiver screen darkened.
Fifteen minutes later, the Dog Star blasted off from Mars, heading for Venus.
During the trip back to the young planet that was rapidly growing into a major industrial center rivaling Earth, Strong received a report from Space Academy that the bartender had been picked up. His name was Joseph Price, and after questioning him under truth serum, Solar Guard security officers found the man's mind to be so filled with criminal plots and counter-plots, it would take several weeks for the psychograph analyst to learn the name of the man he claimed would know the whereabouts of Wallace. This was disappointing news for Strong, especially since the report included news of a second, third, and fourth strike by Wallace and Simms on spaceships near the asteroid belt.
Reaching the starting place of their adventure, Venusport and the Solar Exposition, Strong and the three cadets went immediately to a small suburban section of the great city and the home of Nicholas Shinny.
Shinny lived comfortably in a small house made of Titan crystal, enjoying himself during the day catching Venusian fatfish and watching the stereos at night. Once an enlisted spaceman, he had been retired with full pension and was living in ease and comfort. When Strong and the three cadets arrived at the elderly spaceman's house, they found him busy teaching a young Venusian wolfhound puppy how to retrieve.
"Well, blast my jets!" cried the old man. "If it ain't Tommy, Roger, and the big fella, Astro! And Captain Strong!"
"Hello, Nick!" said Strong with a smile. "You're a sight for space-blind eyes!"
"Heh-heh-heh," cackled Shinny, his merry eyes twinkling against his deep space tan. "It's mighty good to see you boys. Come on in the house. I got a mess of fatfish just pulled out of the stream and some of the most delicious biscuits you ever had in your life!"
"Well, thanks, Nick," hesitated the captain. "But we're in—"
"Can't be in too much of a hurry to eat," snapped the old man with a grin. "Anything you got to say is better said when you got a bellyful of Molly's cookin'."
"Molly!" cried Tom. "But, Mr. Shinny—"
"When—" gulped Astro, "when did you—"
"Hey! Hold on!" cried the old spaceman. "Just damp your tubes there, youngsters! You're way off course. Molly ain't nothing but an electronic cook I got installed in the kitchen. She cooks better'n any space-brained woman and she never opens her mouth to give me any sass!"
The four spacemen laughed at Shinny's obvious indignation.
"Now come on!" he growled. "Let's eat. I'm hungry!"
Refusing to allow them to get near Molly, Shinny began pushing food into slots, compartments, turning on switches and punching buttons. In the cozy living room, Strong relaxed while the three cadets played with the Venusian wolfhound. Finally Shinny announced dinner and they fell to with gusto. There wasn't much talk during the course of the meal. Strong and the boys felt that Shinny would let them know when he was ready.
Finally the meal was over. Shinny sprawled in his chair, lit his pipe, then looked at his guests, his eyes twinkling. "All right, me friends, I think you've held back long enough. Let's have it."
Strong immediately told the old spaceman the entire story, from Wallace and Simms' false concession at the exposition to the present.
"You see, Nick," he concluded, "with an adjustable light-key enabling them to open any lock in the solar system, nothing is safe. Personally, I think it's only because they haven't a larger or faster ship and aren't better armed that they haven't tried more daring piracy. They'll reach that point soon, though. They've already robbed four ships for arms alone."
"I'll do anything I can to help you, Captain," said Shinny. "What is it you want to know?"
"We suspect that Wallace has a secret hide-out in the asteroid belt," said Strong. "Since you once prospected the asteroids with him I thought you might know where the hide-out is."
Shinny grew reflective and knocked the ashes out of his pipe before he answered. "That was a long time ago, Captain. More'n ten years. And Gus Wallace was a real square spaceman then. He didn't turn bad until after we split up and he met that other feller."
"What other fellow?" asked Strong.
Skinny paused. There was a hard glint in his eyes. "Bull Coxine!" He spat the name out as though it had left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Coxine!" exclaimed Strong.
"You heard me," snorted Shinny. "Bull Coxine and Gus Wallace got together after me and Wallace lost our stake hunting for uranium pitchblende in the asteroids and split up. Next thing I heard, him and Coxine was mixed up in that business up on Ganymede when the Credit Exchange was held up."
Strong's face had turned the color of chalk. "Coxine!" he repeated under his breath.
Noticing Strong's reaction to Shinny's statement, Tom asked, "Who is Coxine, Captain Strong?"
Strong was silent and Shinny turned to the cadets.
"When your skipper here was a young feller just starting out in the Solar Guard," the old man explained, "he was on a routine flight out to Titan and there was a mutiny. Coxine was the ringleader. The captain joined up with Coxine after they had put his skipper in the brig. When he had Coxine's confidence, he regained control of the ship and sent Coxine and the others to a prison asteroid. Coxine has hated the captain ever since and swore to get him."
"But how did he pull the holdup on Ganymede, then?" asked Roger.
"Coxine escaped from the prison asteroid in a jet boat, disguised as a guard," continued Shinny. "Only man ever to escape. He drifted around in the belt for a while and was picked up by a freighter going to Ganymede. The freighter had been out rocket-hopping among the asteroids, collecting the prospectors' small supplies of uranium and taking the stuff back to Ganymede for refining. Wallace happened to be dead-heading on the freighter. When they got to Ganymede, and Coxine saw all the money lying around at the Credit Exchange to pay off the prospectors, he convinced Wallace to go in with him and they robbed the Exchange. Coxine was caught red-handed, but Wallace got away. In fact, the Solar Guard didn't know Wallace had anything to do with it. So Coxine was taken back to the prison asteroid, and Wallace has been driftin' around the system ever since."
"But, Mr. Shinny," asked Astro, "if you knew Wallace was tied up with the robbery of the Credit Exchange, why didn't you tell the Solar Guard before now?"
"Sonny," sighed Shinny, "most of what I know is space dust and space gas. But even so, I don't think Commander Walters or Captain Strong, or even you boys, would think much of me if I went around like an old space crawler, blowin' my jets all over the place."
Strong had listened to Shinny fill in the background of Bull Coxine with a thoughtful look in his eyes. He remembered all too clearly the mutiny on the ship out to Titan. Coxine had been an enlisted Solar Guard petty officer aboard the ship. He had made great strides in two years and was being considered as an officer candidate on the very day he tried to take over the ship. When Strong regained control later, he talked to Coxine, trying to find out why he had started the mutiny. But the man had only cursed him, swearing vengeance. Strong hadn't seen him since.
"So you think he would know where Wallace and Simms might be hiding out?" Strong asked finally.
"If anyone does," replied Shinny, "he does. And I'll tell you this, Captain, if you go to talk to him and I figger you will, you'll find him a lot tougher."
"Well, take yourself, for instance. No reflection on you, of course, but take yourself. You're smart, you're hard, and you got a good mind. You're one of the best spacemen in the deep. Take all that and turn it bad. Real bad. Sour it with too many years on a prison asteroid and you've got a fire-eating rocket buster as tough and as rough as God and society can make him!"
The three cadets gulped and looked at Strong. They saw their skipper clench his teeth and ball his fists into tight knots.
"I know," said Strong in a hoarse whisper, "but if he knows where Wallace and Simms are, he'll tell me. You can bet your last credit, he'll tell me!"
Shinny paused reflectively. "I won't bet," he said simply.
* * * * *
The air inside the space shack was stale because of a faulty filter in the oxygen circulator that neither Wallace nor Simms bothered to clean. The two men lazed around in stocking feet and undershirts, listening to popular music coming over the audio receiver on a late pickup from one of the small Jovian satellite colonies near by.
"Pour me another cup of coffee, Simms," grunted Wallace.
The smaller man poured a cup of steaming black liquid and silently handed it over to his companion. They both listened as the music faded to an end and the voice of the announcer crackled over the loud-speaker.
"This audiocast has been beamed to space quadrants D through K, as a courtesy to the army of uranium prospectors working the asteroid belt. Hope you've enjoyed it, spacemen, and happy hunting!"
Wallace reached over and snapped off the receiver. "Thanks, pal." He laughed. "The hunting's been real good! We've got a full catch!" The giant spaceman laughed again.
"Yeah," agreed Simms. "I just went over the take. We've got enough money in that locker"—he indicated a black box on the floor—"to sit back and take it easy for the rest of our lives."
"Yeah?" snarled Wallace. "You mean sitting in the sun on a crummy lakeside, watching the birds and bees?"
"Gus," asked Simms thoughtfully, "you got any idea how much fun we can buy with the credits in that box?"
"Yeah, I have!" sneered Wallace, "and I know what a thousand times that much will buy too!"
Suddenly Simms turned and looked his partner in the eye. "What do you say we quit now, Gus? I mean it. We got plenty."
"You sound like you been exposed to too many cosmic rays!" said Wallace, tapping his head with one finger. "We've got the biggest secret in the system, the adjustable light-key plus an airtight hide-out, and you want to quit!"
"It ain't that," whined Simms. "It's the other deal. I don't mind going out and blasting a few freighters, but to try to—"
"Lissen," interrupted Wallace, "I'd rather try it and take the licking if we mess it up, than not try it and take that licking. I know which side of the space lane I'd better be on when the time comes!"
Simms hesitated and then sighed, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Come on. Let's listen to that story spool again."
"Oh, no," moaned Simms. "I know that spool by heart! We've heard it at least fifty times!"
"One slip-up," said Wallace, sticking his finger in Simms' face, "just one slip-up and we're finished! We've got to be sure!"
With a reluctant shrug of his shoulders, Simms poured another cup of coffee and sat on the side of his bunk while Wallace inserted the story spool in the audio playback.
They settled themselves and listened as a deep voice began to speak in a loud whisper.
"... The operation will take place on the night of October twenty-ninth at exactly twenty-one hundred hours. You will make your approach from section eleven, M quadrant—"
Simms jumped up abruptly and switched off the playback. Turning to Wallace, he pleaded, "I can't listen to it again! I know it by heart. Instructions on how to get to the time capsule; instructions on what to take, and how to build an adjustable light-key after we get the plans; instructions on how to hijack the first ship and what to take. Orders, information, instructions! I'm sick of listening. If you want to, go ahead, but I'm going to work on the ship!"
"O.K., O.K.," said Wallace, getting up. "Don't blow your jets. I hate the thing as much as you do. Wait a minute and I'll go with you."
The two men began climbing into space suits. In a few minutes they were dressed in black plastic suits with small round clear plastic helmets. They stepped into the air lock on one side of the room and closed a heavy door. Wallace adjusted the valve in the chamber and watched the needle drop until it showed zero.
"O.K.," said Wallace over his helmet spacephones. "All the air's out. Open the outer lock."
Simms cranked the heavy handle, and the door in the opposite wall of the chamber slowly swung open. They stepped out into the airless black void of space and onto the surface of an asteroid, drifting in the thickest part of the belt. Surrounding the asteroid were countless smaller secondary satellites circling the mother body like a wide curving blanket. The mother body was perfectly hidden from outside observation. It made a perfect base of operations for the two space pirates.
The freighter that they had used at the concession at the Solar Exposition and later to make their escape was a far different ship from the one now resting on the asteroid. Two powerful three-inch atomic blasters could be seen sticking out of the forward part of the ship. And near the stern, two gaping holes showed the emplacements for two additional guns not yet installed.
The two men walked over to the ship, and while Wallace entered the ship, Simms picked up a cutting torch and ignited it, preparing to finish the two holes in the stern.
When Wallace reappeared, he was carrying a coil of wire with a double plug to attach to the spacephones inside their helmets. He jammed the plug into Simms' helmet and then into his own. Simms' eyes lit up with surprise as he heard....
"...This is a general emergency announcement from Solar Guard headquarters. Squadrons A and B of the Marsopolis garrison will proceed to space quadrants W, sections forty-one to fifty. It is believed that Gus Wallace and Luther Simms are in that vicinity. Approach with caution, they are armed with atomic blasters and are believed to be psychologically unable to surrender. It is believed they will resist arrest...."
The voice repeated the announcement and added a general call for the men, if they were listening, to surrender. Wallace pulled out the two plugs and grinned at Simms.
"Picked it up on the teleceiver inside the ship. Thought you might like to know how safe we are here."
Simms grinned back, "And how far off the track they are. Where is that space quadrant they think we're in?"
"Out past Saturn," said Wallace with a grin. "With the Mars garrison chasing us at one end of the system, we'll hit them on the other and be gone before they know what happened!"
Simms patted the barrel of the nearest atomic blaster. "And, spaceman, we're going to hit them hard!"
"Stop your ship and be recognized!"
The rasping voice on the audioceiver was sharp. A command to be obeyed.
Tom turned away from the control board and looked at Strong who was already reaching for the ship's intercom.
"Full braking rocket thrust, Astro," he yelled into the microphone, "and make it quick or we'll all be blasted into protons!"
Tom and the captain gripped their chairs tightly as the ship bucked against the deceleration force of the powerful braking rockets. Gradually the freighter Dog Star slowed and came to a dead stop in space.
"Hey!" yelled Astro over the intercom from the power deck. "What's going on up there?"
"We've just entered the outer circle of defense on the prison asteroid, Astro," replied Strong. "We have to stop so they can sweep us with their radar and identify the ship."
"But I sent them a message in Solar Guard code that we were coming," interjected Roger who was listening from the radar bridge.
"They still have to make sure it's us," said Strong.
"Identify yourselves!" commanded the voice over the audioceiver again.
"This is space freighter Dog Star under temporary command of Captain Strong of the Solar Guard," answered Strong.
"What's your business here?" demanded the voice again.
"Interrogation of one of your prisoners. We have sent a coded message, under code Z for Zebra to your prison commandant, Major Alan Savage. If you'll check with him, you'll find everything in order," said Strong.
"Very well," replied the voice crisply, and then added, "Remain where you are. Do not move from your present position or attempt to send any messages. If you fail to comply with these conditions you will be blasted!"
"Very well," said Strong, "conditions are understood."
"Boy," chimed in Roger, as he climbed down the ladder from the radar bridge, "they sure don't want any company here."
"And for good reason," said Strong. "The most vicious criminals in the whole universe are confined here. Every one of them is capable of committing any crime in the solar code. And most of them have. The men here are the worst. They have refused psychotherapeutic readjustment to make them into new men."
"But I thought they had to go through it, sir?" said Tom.
"No," replied Strong. "Even criminals have certain rights in our society. They can either remain criminals and stay here, or be psychoadjusted and given new personalities. The ones that refuse are the ones on this Rock."
"You mean," gasped Roger, "that the men on this asteroid deliberately chose to remain criminals?"
"Yes, Manning," said Strong. "Rather than become healthy citizens of the system, they prefer to stay here and waste their lives in isolation with no hope of ever returning to society."
"Can they change their minds after they get here?" asked Tom.
"Any time. But when they get this far, they usually stay here. The men on Prison Rock didn't surrender easily. They are the toughest, most ruthless men in the universe."
"Attention! Freighter Dog Star! Attention!" the audioceiver rasped into life again. "You have been given temporary clearance. A space launch will ferry you to the asteroid. You are warned that any weapons discovered on your person, or acts that may be construed as providing aid and comfort to the inmates of this prison, will be considered treason against the Solar Alliance and you will be subject to immediate disciplinary action."
Tom and Roger glanced at each other, a worried look in their eyes. Strong just smiled. "Don't worry, boys. That little speech is read to every visitor to the asteroid."
"Just the same, sir," said Roger huskily, "I would prefer to remain aboard the Dog Star and give you, Tom, and Astro the pleasure of the visit."
Strong laughed. "They won't let you, Roger. They'll send up a crew of guards to search the ship. And the way these boys search makes a customs inspection look like a casual glance."
"Attention Dog Star!" A younger voice suddenly came in on the audioceiver. "This is Lieutenant Williams aboard the space launch. We are approaching your starboard catapult deck. Please open the air lock and take us aboard."
"They sure don't waste any time," commented Tom as he turned to the audioceiver. "Freighter Dog Star, Cadet Tom Corbett to Lieutenant Williams," he called, "the air lock is open and the catapult deck is ready to receive you." At the same time, the young cadet turned the valve that would open the outer air lock to the jet-boat deck.
Five minutes later, the ship was swarming with tight-lipped enlisted Solar Guardsmen, who spoke to Strong and the cadets with cool courtesy. These were men who signed up for two years as guards on the Rock after competing with thousands of other enlisted men. A guard on the Rock was mid triple wages for the two-year isolation. But more than anything else the right to wear the bright white patch with a paralo-ray gun in the center denoting their service as guards on the Rock was prestige envied even by commissioned officers of the Solar Guard.
After what Tom thought to be the most thorough search he had ever seen was over, Lieutenant Williams reported to the control deck where Strong and the cadets had been politely but firmly detained. He informed them that they were now ready to blast off to the Rock, adding that a more detailed search of the area between the ship's outer and inner hulls would be conducted after they had gone.
"You mean," said Tom, amazed, "that you actually search the four inches between the two hulls? What in the universe could we possibly hide in there?"
"I don't know, Corbett," replied Williams. "We've never found anything there." He turned to Strong and smiled. "But there's always a first time, isn't there, sir?"
"Yes, of course," agreed Strong. "You do a thorough job, Williams. Very good indeed!"
"Thank you, sir," said Williams. "You know, we've heard about you and the Polaris unit here on the Rock." He turned to Tom, Roger, and Astro. "We have a stereo of that mercuryball game you played at the Academy when you were Earthworms."
"What?" cried Tom. "You mean that game was recorded?"
"It sure was," said Williams. "But we've seen it at least fifty times."
"Well, blast my jets!" said Astro in amazement.
The game was one that the cadets had played when they first entered the Academy. It had done much to unify the boys into a fighting team.
An enlisted sergeant suddenly appeared, snapping to attention in front of Lieutenant Williams. "Ready to blast off, sir," he said.
"Very well," said Williams, then turned to Strong and the cadets. "Follow me, please."
In a few moments the space launch was blasting away from the freighter and heading for a tiny planetoid in the distance. As they drew near, Strong and the cadets peered out of the ports to get a view of the prison, but were disappointed when Williams ordered the ports covered.
He smiled apologetically at Strong and explained, "All approaches are secret, sir. We can't allow anyone to see where our defenses are located."
"You fellows certainly believe in keeping prisoners in and visitors out!" commented Strong.
"Anyone interested in coming to the Rock, sir," said Williams, "is under natural suspicion."
The three cadets gulped, duly impressed with the severity of the prison routine.
Soon they felt the unmistakable jar and bump of the small space vessel touching the surface of the planetoid. The jets cut out suddenly and Williams stood up.
"Please follow me. Do not speak to anyone, and do not stop walking. Keep your hands in front of you and maintain a distance of ten feet between you and the man in front of you."
He walked through the open hatch where a hard-faced enlisted guardsman stood rigidly, holding a paralo-ray gun at the ready.
With a quick nod to the cadets Strong followed Williams through the hatch. At ten-foot intervals they followed him out of the hatch, with Tom bringing up the rear and the enlisted guardsman behind him.
As Tom stepped out onto the surface of the asteroid he wasn't quite sure what he expected to see, but he certainly wasn't ready for the sight that greeted his eyes.
As far as he could see, there was grass, spotted with small one-story buildings. To the left was a single towering structure built of Titan crystal and on top of it was the largest atomic blaster he had ever seen. He turned to ask the guardsman about the gun but was motioned ahead with a curt, "No questions. Keep walking."
Tom continued to walk. He noticed that they were heading for the tower. As he drew nearer, he could see men walking around a narrow catwalk at the top. They all carried paralo-ray rifles with miniature grids mounted on the barrel. Inside the rifle was a tiny radar direction finder. It was a simple but effective control against escaping prisoners. Each of the inmates of the Rock wore small metal disks welded to a thin chain around their waists. The disk was sensitive to radar impulses, and with no more effort than snapping a thumb catch on the rifle, the guard could locate and paralyze the nearest disk-wearing inmate.
Tom was so full of questions it was necessary for the guard to warn him again, only this time in sharper tones.
Entering the tower, they were scrutinized and cleared by an electronic beam that passed through their bodies and indicated any metal they might carry. Once through this last barrier, they were escorted to a slidestairs, where Williams left them.
Throughout the entire procedure few words had passed between the cadets. Now left alone on the stairs, they couldn't contain themselves and the comments and questions tumbled out.
"Did'ja see that blaster on top of this place?" Roger blurted out.
"Those radar-controlled paralo-ray rifles are really something!" said Astro.
"The thing I want to know," said Tom, "is where are the prisoners? I haven't seen one yet."
"And you're not likely to, either, Cadet Corbett!" said a gruff voice above them. They turned to see a heavy-set man wearing the uniform of a major in the Solar Guard, standing on the floor above them. The slidestairs carried them to his level and Captain Strong hopped off and extended his hand in greeting.
"Major Savage!" he explained. "Good to see you again!"
"Same here," said Savage, returning Strong's firm handclasp. He turned and faced the cadets. "So this is the Polaris unit, eh?" He smiled. "We've really enjoyed the stereo of that game of mercuryball you played back at the Academy."
"Thank you, sir," said Tom. "Lieutenant Williams has already told us how much he liked it."
"Come into my quarters and relax. I imagine you could do with some good solid food after those synthetics on your trip."
"We certainly could, sir," said Strong.
They followed the big man through a sliding panel into a suite of comfortably furnished rooms. Five minutes later, the cadets and the officers were enjoying their first hot meal in a week. As they ate, Major Savage brought up the purpose of their visit. "So you've come to talk to Bull Coxine, eh?"
"Yes," nodded Strong. "And I don't imagine he has developed any affection for me."
"No, I wouldn't say he has," replied Savage. "In fact, I don't think Bull has any affection for anyone, not even himself. Why do you want to see him, anyway?"
Strong quickly summarized the theft of the adjustable light-key and the unsuccessful search for Wallace and Simms, concluding finally with the knowledge of Coxine's association with Wallace.
"I'm hoping Coxine will give me a lead to Wallace's whereabouts," said Strong.
"Well, you can ask him," shrugged the major. "But personally, I don't think you're going to get any further than saying hello. If he'll even let you say that. He hates you, Strong. Hates you in a way I've never seen a man hate before. When you talk to him, be careful."
"I will," said Strong grimly.
"Don't let him get near you. He's the strongest man I've ever seen. Came blasted near choking a guard to death with one hand when he escaped. He could break a man's neck with both hands."
Strong smiled. "Evidently, Major, you haven't noticed the size of Cadet Astro. I'll take him along with me for protection." He looked at Astro, who flushed in quick embarrassment.
"Very well, Strong," said Savage. "I'll have a jet car brought around. You can go right down to his hut."
"Er—may I ask a question, sir?" asked Tom.
The major smiled. "Go right ahead, Corbett."
"It's about this whole setup," explained Tom. "I was expecting fences and prisoners and—well, most anything but green grass and small white buildings!"
"The little huts you saw," replied the major, "are as much of a prison as we have. Each hut holds one prisoner. He has all the necessary furniture, in addition to audioceivers and story spools which he can change once a week. He also has basic garden equipment. All prisoners grow everything they eat. Each man is dependent on himself and is restricted to the hut and the area around it. If he comes within two miles of the tower, the guards will pick him up on radar and order him back. If he comes within one mile, they fire without further warning. Only one man has ever escaped. Coxine. And that was because we had a sick man on guard duty, or he never would have made it. He overpowered the guard, took his uniform, and stowed away on a supply ship. We caught him a year later."
"Didn't your radar pick up the disk he was wearing, sir?" asked Roger.
"That method of protection was only installed a few months ago," said the major.
"And the prisoners just sit there—in those little huts?" asked Astro.
"Yes, Astro!" said the major with a tone of finality in his voice. "They just sit. This is the end of the line."
The three cadets looked at each other and secretly vowed never to take a chance of doing anything that would send them to the Rock.
Five minutes later, Strong was driving a jet car along a narrow paved road toward one of the white huts. Astro sat beside him grimly silent, his hands balled into tight hamlike fists. They rounded a curve and Strong pulled up in front of the house. As they climbed out of the car, they could see the trim neat lanes of the little garden with carefully printed signs on each row indicating what was growing. They started for the house and then stopped short. Bull Coxine stood in the doorway, watching them.
Dressed in the snow-white coverall of the prison garb, Coxine faced them squarely, his thick trunklike legs spread wide apart. He was a giant of a man with long heavily muscled arms that dangled from a huge pair of shoulders. His jet-black hair was a tangled unkempt mass, and his face was scarred and lined. Eyes blazing with unconcealed hatred he waited for Captain Strong to make the first move.
"Hello, Bull," said Strong quietly. "I'd like to talk to you."
"Oh, you would, huh?" Coxine spat and his lips twisted in a mocking grin. "What's the matter? Afraid to talk to me alone?" he indicated Astro. "Did you have to bring one of your Space Cadets for protection?"
"Listen, Bull," urged Strong, "I was your friend once. I turned you in because you were a mutineer and I was an officer of the Solar Guard. I'd do the same to this cadet if he tried what you did."
"Yeah, I'll bet you would," snarled the criminal. "Just like a real friend!" His voice deepened into a low roar. "Don't talk to me about the old days! I'm on the Rock and you're just another Solar Guard space crawler to me. Now get out of here and leave me alone."
"I came to ask you to help me, Bull," Strong persisted. "I need information."
Coxine's eyes narrowed into slits. "What kind of information?"
"You once tried to hold up a Credit Exchange on Ganymede with a man called Gus Wallace. He had a hide-out in the asteroid belt. I'd like to know where it is," said Strong.
"I can't answer that, Bull."
"What do I get if I tell you?"
"Nothing, except my thanks and the thanks of the Solar Guard."
"And if I don't?"
"I'll turn around and leave."
"Then start turning, Strong," snarled the giant prisoner, "because I ain't got nothing to tell you except how much I hate your guts!"
Astro moved forward slightly, but Strong held him back. "O.K., Bull. If that's the way you want it, I'll leave."
"Why don't you let the young punk try something?" challenged Coxine. "I ain't had any exercise in a long time."
Strong looked at the huge man and said coldly, "I wouldn't want the death of a piece of space scum to show on his record."
Then, as if the space and sky overhead had suddenly been torn open, there was a flash of light followed by the roar of a tremendous explosion. The ground trembled. The air seemed to moan in agony. Strong and Astro wheeled around and looked toward the tower that shimmered in the light of the late afternoon sun. To their horror, they saw the unmistakable mushrooming cloud of an atomic blast rising in the synthetic atmosphere behind it.
"By the craters of Luna—" gasped Strong.
A second flash and explosion rocked the prison asteroid and suddenly the tower disappeared. Almost immediately, a spaceship appeared over the small planetoid and began systematically pounding the surface installations with atomic blasters.
"Captain Strong," cried Astro. "Tom and Roger—they were in the tower!"
"Come on," yelled Strong, "we've got to get back!"
"You ain't going nowhere, Strong," snarled Coxine behind him. "I've been waiting a long time for this!" He suddenly struck the Solar Guard officer with a heavy rock and Strong slumped to the ground unconscious. Before Astro could move, Coxine smashed him to the ground with a blow on the back of the neck. They both lay deathly still.
Then, as the atomic bombardment of the penal asteroid continued, the giant space criminal jumped into the jet car and sped away.
"Fire!" bawled Major Savage to his crew of gunners.
At the other end of the field one of the remaining two undamaged rocket destroyers blasted off to battle the invading spaceship.
Tom and Roger had been on a tour of the great central tower with Major Savage when the attack came and had been ordered to find safety in the open fields. The major knew the tower would be one of the first targets.
Sprawled on the ground behind a bunker, they saw the major, his space jacket torn from his back, standing in the middle of the field, quietly issuing orders to scarlet-clad spacemen, desperately trying to organize the penal asteroid's defenses.
The spaceship, which had somehow managed to penetrate the tight radar warning screen around the prison, had struck with merciless precision. Again and again, its atomic blasters had found the most important installations and had wiped them out. The first target, after the tower had been shattered, was the underground launching ramps for the asteroid's small fleet of rocket destroyers. But even after a direct hit, the guards were able to ready two ships to fight the attacking spaceship. The first was already diving in, her small one-inch blasters firing repeatedly.
Suddenly, Lieutenant Williams, in command of the second ship, came racing up to Major Savage, to report that his radarman had been hit and the ship couldn't blast off.
"Here's where I get into the act!" Roger jumped up immediately, and with a brief "So long, spaceman" to Tom, raced off to join Lieutenant Williams.
"Spaceman's luck," yelled Tom as the officer and the cadet ran toward the waiting ship.
Looking skyward again, Tom saw the first destroyer diving toward the attacking spaceship, trying to get in range with her lighter armament. Suddenly there was a burst of brilliant light. The lighter ship had been completely destroyed by a direct hit.
Sick with horror, Tom looked away and watched the ship Roger had joined blast off under full acceleration. It roared spaceward in a straight line, disappearing at incredible speed.
Meanwhile, the invader continued to blast relentlessly. One—two—three—four—automatic reload—one—two—three—four, reload. Over and over, firing at seemingly peaceful fields of grass, only to strike an armory, space cradle, or supply depot buried underneath the ground. Suddenly it changed its course and trained its guns skyward. Tom looked up and saw a tiny flyspeck roaring straight down at the ship. It was Lieutenant Williams' rocket destroyer, with Roger on the radar bridge, in a suicidal attempt to destroy the invader. But the larger ship was ready. The two forward blasters opened fire. A flaming ball of light exploded near the stabilizer of the destroyer and it fell off course to float helplessly in free-fall orbit around the asteroid. Still lying on the ground, Tom sighed with relief. At least Roger was all right.
Then the young cadet saw the invading spaceship move away from the area around the tower toward the horizon not too far away on the small planetoid. He followed it with his eyes and saw it suddenly land near a cluster of white prisoner huts. Tom gasped as the reason for the attack became clear.
"Major! Major! Major Savage!" he called as he raced across the field. But the major was nowhere to be seen. A guard carrying a medical kit hurried past him and Tom grabbed him by the arm.
"Major Savage! Where is he?"
The guard pointed to a near-by stretcher and Tom saw the unconscious figure of the major sprawled on the plastic frame.
"But—but the prisoners are getting away!" yelled Tom.
"I can't do anything about it. I've got wounded men to care for!" The man jerked away and disappeared in the smoky, choking dust.
The curly-haired space cadet, his face blackened from the smoke, his lungs crying for fresh air, started across the blast-pitted field, looking for help. But there was none to be had. Suddenly he wheeled in the direction of the spaceship and started to run toward it.
As soon as the young cadet had left the smoking area around the wrecked tower, he realized that it was the only section of the small satellite that had suffered attack. Ahead, he could see the prisoners in their white suits crowding around the stabilizer air lock of the invading ship.
Tom dropped to his stomach and watched the knot of men. Suddenly the air-lock portal slid open. There was a loud cheer and the prisoners began scrambling aboard.
Tom knew he would have to move fast. Taking a dangerous chance, he rose to a half-crouch and dashed to one of the small white huts only a hundred feet away. With a final glance at the thinning crowd of escaping men around the ship, he ran straight for an open window, diving headlong through it.
Inside, Tom waited breathlessly for a shout or warning that he had been seen, but none came. He glanced through the window and saw that only seven or eight men remained outside the port. He turned away quickly and began searching the hut.
He found what he was looking for rolled up on the bed where its owner had used it as an extra pillow. He shook out the prison suit of white coveralls, stripped off his own blue cadet's uniform, and hurriedly put on the distinctive prison gear. It was a little large for him and he rolled up the sleeves and trouser legs, hoping no one would notice in the excitement. Then, with a deep breath, he stepped out of the hut into full view of the prisoners still left at the air lock.
"Hey, wait for me!" he yelled, running for the ship.
The men paid no attention in their haste to get aboard the ship. When Tom reached the air lock, there were only two left. He slapped the nearest man on the back.
"Pal, I've been waiting for this a long time!"
"Yah," the man answered, "me too!" Then he looked at Tom closely. "Say, I've never seen you around here before!"
"I just got in on the supply ship last week. They kept me in the tower for a while," Tom replied.
"Oh, well," said the man, "they ain't keepin' anybody there anymore!"
"Come on you guys," snarled a heavy-set man in the air lock above them. "We ain't got all day!"
Tom looked up, and without being told, he felt he was looking into the face of Bull Coxine. And when the other prisoner spoke, he was certain.
"Yeah, Bull," said the man. "Comin', comin'!" He reached up and Bull grabbed his outstretched hand. When Bull pulled, the man literally leaped through the air into the air lock.
"All right, space crawler," roared Bull to Tom, "you're next!" The big man stuck out his hand. Tom gulped. For one desperate second he thought of turning and running away.
"Well?" growled Bull. "You coming or ain't cha?"
"You're blasted right I'm coming," said Tom. "This is one time the Solar Guard is taking it on the chin. And, crawler, am I happy to see it!"
He grabbed Bull's hand and was lifted as easily as if he had been a feather. Coxine dropped him on the deck and turned away without a word to disappear inside the ship.
As he looked around, Tom suddenly felt a cold shiver run through his body. He felt as if he had signed his own death warrant. There was no mistake about it. The ship was the same one he had watched night after night at the exposition on Venus. And the names of the two owners exploded in his brain. "Wallace and Simms!"
He turned to jump out of the air lock, but it slid closed in front of him. He was trapped.
* * * * *
Sprawled on the ground in front of one of the white houses near the tower perimeter, Captain Strong stirred, shook his head, and painfully rose to a half-crouch. With eyes still dulled by shock, he looked around to see Astro lying unconscious a few feet away. His brain still reeling from the effects of Coxine's sneak attack, he staggered over to his knees beside him.
"Astro, Astro—" Strong called. "Astro, snap out of it!"
The big Venusian moaned and opened his eyes. He sat bolt upright. "Captain Strong! What happened?"
"I'm not too sure, Astro," said Strong. "All I remember is Coxine slugging me."
As they struggled to their feet, they suddenly noticed the towering columns of smoke rising into the air.
"By the rings of Saturn!" gasped Strong. "Look, Astro!"
"Blast my jets!" cried the big cadet. "What—what could have happened?"
The two spacemen stood gaping at the shattered remains of the tower and the smoldering area around it. In the distance, scarlet-clad guardsmen moved dazedly around the wreckage and above them a rocket destroyer was blasting on one jet, coming in for a touchdown.
"Astro," said Strong grimly, "I don't know how it could have happened, but the prison asteroid has been attacked. A rocket-blasting good job of it! Come on! We've got to get over there!"
"Yes, sir," said Astro. As they started running toward the field, he searched the figures moving about in the distance for two familiar blue uniforms. "I don't see Roger or Tom, sir," he said hesitantly. "Do you think—?"
"We'll just have to wait and see," interrupted Strong grimly. "Come on, step it up!"
As the two spacemen approached the smoking ruins of the underground cradles, ammunition dumps, and repair shops, they passed groups of men digging into the rubble. In sharp contrast to the careful scrutiny they had received when they first arrived at the prison, no one noticed them now. Strong stepped up to a man in a torn and dirty sergeant's uniform.
"What happened?" he asked.
The man turned and looked at Strong and Astro. Aside from the swollen bump on the Solar Guard captain's head and the bruise on the cadet's neck there were no signs of their having been in the attack. When the guardsman finally replied, there was a sharp edge to his voice. "I thought everyone knew we were attacked, sir!" He turned back to a detail of men who were watching. But Strong pulled the man up sharply.
"Attention!" he barked. The sergeant and the crew came to stiff attention. Strong stepped forward and looked the guardsman straight in the eye. "Under any other circumstances, Sergeant," snapped Strong, "I'd have your stripes and throw you in the brig for your insolence! Now I want a clear account of what happened. And I want it blasted quick!"
"Yes, sir!" stammered the guardsman, realizing he had gone too far. He hurriedly gave a detailed description of the battle, ending with a report that Major Savage had been injured and that Lieutenant Williams was now in command of the prison.
"Where will I find Lieutenant Williams?" asked Strong.
"At the rocket destroyer, sir. It just landed."
"Very well, Sergeant!" said Strong, adding in a gentler tone, "I realize you've had a rough time of it, so we'll forget what just happened. Get back to your work."
As Astro followed the Solar Guard captain toward the rocket ship he saw a familiar figure standing near the air lock. A boy with close-cropped blond hair and wearing cadet blues.
"Roger!" yelled Astro joyfully. "Captain Strong, look! It's Roger!"
They quickened their pace and were soon beside the small space vessel that had been blasted out of commission before it could fire a shot. While Roger was telling them of having volunteered for radar operations aboard the ship and of their being disabled by a near miss, Lieutenant Williams suddenly appeared in the air lock and saluted smartly.
"Major Savage has been injured, sir," said Williams. "Since you are the highest ranking officer on the asteroid, are there any orders?"
"I'm not acquainted with your men, or your prison, Williams," replied Strong. "I'll accept the command as a formality but appoint you my chief aid. Carry on and do anything necessary to get things cleared away."
"Very well, sir," said Williams.
"Have communications been destroyed?"
"Yes, sir. Communications was located in the tower, but Cadet Manning has converted the equipment on ship for long-range audio transmission."
"Very good!" said Strong. "As soon as you get a chance, I want you to make out a full report on the attack, including your personal opinion of who attacked us and why."
"I don't know who manned that ship, sir," said Williams, "but I can tell the reason all right. Every prisoner on the asteroid has escaped!"
"Yes," mused Strong. "I thought that would be the answer. But how did that ship get through your defenses?"
"Captain Strong," said Williams grimly, "I don't think there is any question about it. Someone broke the asteroid code. The attacking ship identified itself as the regular supply ship."
"A Solar Guardsman?" asked Strong.
"No, sir," said Williams. "I'd bet anything that none of our men would do that!"
"Then who?" asked Strong.
"Only one man would be smart enough to get the code and break it, and then sneak it off to the attacking ship!
"Who?" asked Strong.
"Bull Coxine!" answered the young officer through clenched teeth.
They were interrupted by a guardsman. "Sir, we found this in prison hut twenty-four."
"What is it?" asked Strong.
Astro's eyes suddenly widened and he stepped forward. "Why, that's ... that's Tom's uniform!" he stammered.
"Tom!" gasped Strong. "But where is he?"
"We've searched the immediate area, sir," replied the guardsman. "Cadet Corbett isn't here."
"Are you sure?" demanded Strong.
"Yes, sir," said the guardsman stoutly.
Strong took the uniform and examined it carefully. Then he turned to Roger and snapped, "Prepare the audioceiver for immediate transmission to Space Academy, Manning. Astro! Get aboard our ship. Check her for damage and let me know how soon we can blast off!"
The two cadets saluted and raced for the small spaceship.
Thoughtfully holding Tom's uniform in his hand, Strong turned back to Williams. "I'm going to leave as soon as I can, Williams. I'll tell Space Academy about the attack and see that a relief ship is sent out to you right away. Meantime, I'm leaving you in command." He paused and looked at Tom's uniform again. "If Cadet Corbett isn't on the asteroid, he must be on the attacking ship with the prisoners. The only question now is, do they know it?"
"You mean he smuggled himself aboard?" asked Williams.
"I'm almost sure of it!" said Strong. "And if he is, he's going to try to get some sort of message out. I've got to be ready to pick it up."
Strong paused and looked up at the sky overhead, still thick with smoke. "And if he does ask for help, I'm going to answer him with the biggest fleet of spaceships he'll ever see in his life!"
"Stand by, you space crawlers!" roared Bull Coxine into the microphone, but the loud laughter and singing of the noisily celebrating prisoners continued unabated over the intercom's loud-speakers. "Avast there!" he bellowed again. "Stow that noise! Attention! And I want attention!"
Standing on the control deck of his ship, Coxine waited as the men gradually quieted down. No longer wearing the white prison coverall, he was dressed in a black merchant spaceman's uniform, the snug-fitting jacket and trousers stretching tightly across his huge shoulders. He wore a black spaceman's cap, and two paralo-ray pistol belts were crisscrossed over his hips.
"Now listen to me!" he roared again. "Let's get one thing straight! I'm the skipper of this ship and the first man that thinks he's smarter than me, let him speak up!"
There was a long pause and the big man added with an ominous whisper, "But I warn you, if one of you opens your mouth, you'll take a swim in space!"
There was an angry murmur among the prisoners that Coxine heard over the intercom. "Don't think I can't take care of you, the lot of you, one by one or all at once. I cut my milk teeth on mutiny. I know how to start one and I know how to finish one! I needed a crew and that's the only reason you're here! Any spaceman that doesn't like the way I run things aboard this ship, better keep it to himself, or start swimming back to the prison asteroid!" He paused. "Well? Are you all with me?"
There was a chorus of cheers on the intercom and Coxine nodded grimly.
"All right," he continued, "now that we understand each other, I'll get on with the business. Second-in-command to me will be Gus Wallace. Lieutenant Wallace!"
A roar of approval came over the loud-speaker.
"Third-in-command—Luther Simms! Lieutenant Simms!"
There was another roar of approval as the prisoners recognized the names of the men who had liberated them from the asteroid.
"Now, we'll handle this ship as if it were any other freighter. The following men will be in charge of departments!"
As Coxine read off the list of jobs and the men to handle them, there were yells of approval and disapproval for favorites and old enemies. When the list of names had been read, he turned away from the intercom and faced his lieutenants, Wallace and Simms.
"Well, skipper," boasted Wallace, "it looks like we're in business again!"
"Yeah," chimed in Simms. "In three hours we'll be on our own asteroid and we can start planning our first strike!"
Coxine's eyes narrowed into slits. "Get this, both of you!" he snapped. "What I said to those crawlers down below goes for you too. I'm the boss of this outfit and you don't even guess about what we're going to do, until I say so!"
"But, Bull—!" whined Wallace.
"Shut up!" roared Coxine. "And when you talk to me, you call me captain!"
Wallace and Simms looked at each other. "O.K., Captain," muttered Simms.
"Yes, sir!" corrected Coxine.
"Yes, sir," said Simms quickly.
"That's better," growled the giant spaceman. "Don't get the idea that just because you were able to follow orders that it makes you smart. Because it doesn't! It took me two and a half years to get the information collected onto these story spools and smuggle them out to you. Everything, from where to buy this spaceship to getting the light-key out of the time capsule, was my idea! My brains!"
"Sure, Captain," said Wallace, "but we took the chances!"
"Yeah," sneered Coxine. "You took chances! The only chance you took was in not paying attention to what I told you to do. I gave it all to you. Where to hold up the first freighter passenger, what to take, how to mount the atomic blasters, what code to use in getting through the prison defenses. The whole works! And I did it while sitting on the toughest Rock in the system. I smuggled it out right under the noses of those Solar Guard space crawlers. So forget about being smart, or you'll wind up with that scum below decks!"
"Yes, sir!" said Wallace.
"Now get me a course to the asteroid and make it quick. And have some decent grub sent up to my quarters right away!"
The big man turned lightly on the balls of his feet and disappeared through the hatch. After a moment, Wallace turned to Simms.
"That big space-crawling bum!" snorted Wallace. "I oughta blast him!"
"Go ahead!" sneered Simms. "You were the one who wanted to get him off the Rock, not me!"
"Aw shut up!" snarled Wallace. He turned to the intercom and began barking orders to his new crew.
* * * * *
Tom Corbett sat in one corner of a cargo compartment that had been converted into sleeping quarters, watching the celebrating prisoners. Someone had broken into the galley stores and mixed a concoction of fruit, alcohol, and reactor priming fluid to make a foul-tasting rocket juice. The men sat about in various stages of undress as they changed from the white prison coveralls to the black uniforms of the merchant spaceman, and drank heavily from a huge pot of the liquid.
One of the men, short and stumpy, but with shoulders like an ape, was standing on a table boasting about his strength. He was stripped to the waist and Tom could see the powerful arms and chest beneath the black hair that covered his body. As he continued to brag, the prisoners laughed and jeered, calling him Monkey. The man's face reddened and he offered to fight anyone in the room. A short, thin man with a hawk nose sitting next to Tom yelled, "Monkey," and then darted behind a bunk. The man turned and looked angrily at Tom.
"You there!" the man on the table called, looking at Tom. "You call me Monkey?"
Tom shook his head. Since the blast-off he had stayed away from the men as much as he could, certain that sooner or later someone would challenge him and discover he wasn't a prisoner. He hoped to remain aboard the ship long enough to plant a signal for the Solar Guard to follow. Tom felt almost certain they would be heading for Wallace and Simms' hide-out. And so far, the men had been so excited over their new freedom they hadn't bothered him. He had managed to sit quietly in the corner of the storage compartment and watch them.
"I'm talking to you!" shouted the hairy man, looking straight at Tom. "You called me Monkey and then lied about it! Maybe you're scared, eh?"
He slipped off the table and advanced toward Tom. The young cadet tried to figure a way out of the threatening fight. He wasn't afraid of the man, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself. And one of the surest ways of letting Wallace and Simms know he was aboard ship was to get into a fight. He couldn't risk discovery. He had to signal the Solar Guard before he was caught. But how to get around the hairy, drunken criminal now standing over him?
Tom looked up and saw that the man would not be put off. He would have to fight. He took notice of the powerful arms and shoulders, and decided his best bet would be to stay away, but glancing around quickly he saw there wasn't any room to retreat. The other prisoners were crowding around, eager to watch the fight. Suddenly his opponent let out an animal-like roar and jumped to pin him down on the deck.
The young cadet timed his move perfectly. As the man's body came down on him, he threw up both legs and caught him in the pit of his stomach. Tom could feel his feet sink deep into the man's mid-section as he kicked out hard and sent him sprawling against the bulkhead. With a bellow of rage, the hairy man picked himself up and charged back at Tom, who was now on his feet, braced to meet him.
As the prisoners began to roar, Tom side-stepped and back-pedaled frantically, trying to get out of the impossible situation. If he won, there would be questions for him to answer. Questions that would be difficult and might betray his identity. But if he allowed Monkey to win, he might die right there on the deck. The man was blind with rage and would stop at nothing.
The man rushed in again and, unable to back away, Tom felt the hairy arms close around him in the most powerful grip he had ever felt in his life. Slowly, evenly, Monkey applied pressure. Tom thought his ribs would crack. His head began to swim. The faces around him that laughed and jeered suddenly began to spin around him dizzily.
Then, with the desperation of a man facing death, Tom began to push outward, his arms under Monkey's chin. The man tried to apply more pressure but the cadet fought him, forcing his head back farther and farther. The prisoners were silent, watching the deadly battle. Then, gradually, Tom felt the hairy man's grip relaxing. With the last ounce of his strength he burst out of the encircling arms and staggered back. The ape man looked at him stupidly and then down at his arms as if they had betrayed him. With a roar, he came rushing in again. Tom set himself, left foot forward, shoulders hunched, and when Monkey came within arm's length, he swung with all the strength he had left in his body. His fist landed on the point of Monkey's chin. There was a distinct sound of crushing bone and Monkey sank to the deck, out cold. Gasping for breath, Tom stood over the sprawled man and just looked at him. The crowd around him was staring at the fallen man in disbelief. Through the roaring in his head, Tom could hear their voices, "He broke out of Monkey's grip!" "He broke the guy's jaw with one punch!"
Tom turned blindly to the corner where he had been sitting and slumped to the deck. Someone shoved a cup in his hands and he gulped its contents blindly, hardly tasting the foul rocket juice or feeling it burning his throat.
The cadet was sure now that he would be caught. Monkey had been a popular member of the crew and some of his friends were certain to even the score. But to Tom's surprise, there were no questions and a few of the men came over to pat him drunkenly on the back. A couple of them dragged the unconscious man out of the compartment and up to sick bay. The others soon forgot the fight and continued their merrymaking.
Tom sat alone and silent in the corner, his strength returning slowly. He had faced his first obstacle and had won. But he knew that what lay ahead of him made the fight insignificant by comparison. He decided his next move would be to acquaint himself with the ship and, if possible, get a paralo-ray gun.
As the men continued their drunken singing and yelling he mumbled an excuse about soaking his fist in cold water and managed to escape from the crowded compartment.
Outside in the passageway, the cadet began to figure out the plan of the ship, first locating the power deck by its roaring purr. He climbed a ladder to the next deck, walked slowly down the passageway toward what he thought to be the control room, and leaned against the hatch. He heard the soft tinkle of a radar signal and his heart skipped a beat. He had stumbled onto the astrogation and radar bridge. Wondering if he should burst into the room and attempt to overpower the men on duty, or wait for a better chance later, he was suddenly startled by a sharp voice in back of him.
"You—spaceman!" Tom turned to stare right into the face of Bull Coxine!
The big man looked at Tom with piercing eyes.
"What's your name?" demanded Coxine.
"Uh—uh—they call me the Space Kid!" he finally managed.
"Space Kid, eh?" mused Coxine. "I don't remember seeing you on the Rock."
"They held me in the tower for a month trying to make me take the psychograph rehabilitation. I got out when the blasting started."
"What were you on the Rock for?" asked Coxine. "You're pretty young to be sent to the Rock."
Tom thought desperately of a crime he could have committed that would send him to the prison asteroid. Suddenly he got an idea. He looked at Coxine and spoke in as harsh a voice as he could.
"Listen," he snarled, "I just broke Monkey's jaw for treating me like a kid. I hope you don't crowd me into fighting you by asking so many questions. Y'see I won't answer them and then you'll have to freeze me." Tom paused and tried to gauge Coxine's reaction. But he couldn't see a thing in the cold staring eyes. "And," Tom continued, "if you freeze me, you'll lose a better man than most of the scum in your crew!"
Coxine stepped forward and towered over the curly-haired cadet. When he spoke, his deep voice echoed in the deserted passageway.
"What was your rating as spaceman before you hit the Rock?" asked the big man.
Tom's heart raced. If he could get to the control deck or the radar bridge, he could send his signal easily. But he realized quickly that in either of these places he would be spotted almost immediately by Wallace or Simms. He had to stay away from them and wait for a later chance. Tom's mind raced.
"I was a gunner on a deep spacer," he drawled confidently. "I can take the space tan off a crawler's nose at a hundred thousand yards with anything from a two-inch to a six-inch blaster."
Coxine's eyes sharpened. "Where did you learn to use a six-incher? They're only on heavy cruisers of the Solar Guard!"
Tom could have bitten his tongue off. He had slipped. He thought quickly. "I was an enlisted spaceman in the Solar Guard."
"Why'd you get sent to the Rock?"
"My officer was a smart-alec lieutenant just out of Space Academy. We got in a fight—" Tom didn't finish the sentence.
"And you were kicked out, eh?"
"No, sir," said Tom. "I hit him so hard—he never woke up again. I had to blast out of there, but they caught me."
"All right," said Coxine. "Report to the gunnery chief. Tell him I said you're second-in-command." The big man turned and walked away from the cadet without another word.
Tom watched him disappear and smiled. He had faced two impossible situations, the fight with Monkey and now this meeting, and he had come out on top in each. Perhaps he had a chance, after all.
"Any report from the search squadrons yet, Steve?" asked Commander Walters.
"No, sir," replied Captain Strong. "We're concentrating on the asteroid belt, but so far we've drawn a blank."
"Well, keep trying and let me know the minute something turns up," said Walters.
"Yes, sir," said Strong, saluting his commanding officer as the elder spaceman left the room. He turned back to a large desk in the center of the room where Roger Manning was busy noting figures on a large chart, showing the areas already covered and listing the squadrons engaged in the search.
As Strong leaned over his shoulder, Roger placed a finger on the chart. "Squadron Ten has just completed a search of all asteroids in their assigned area," he said, then added laconically, "Nothing."
Strong studied the chart a moment. "Well, we'll have to keep it up," he said. "It's the only way we'll find them. A systematic search of the belt from end one to the other." He paused and then muttered, "Only one thing I'm worried about."
"What's that, sir?" asked Roger.
"That when we do find them, it'll be too late to help Tom."
"You really think he's aboard Coxine's ship, Captain Strong?"
"Couldn't be anywhere else," answered Strong. "And he'll be trying to signal us, you can bet on that. Keep me posted on all radar contacts made by the search squadrons. I want a continuous six-way radar sweep by every ship."
"Yes, sir," said Roger.
"One more thing," said Strong, "tell Astro to get the Polaris ready to blast off. And you make sure your radar bridge is in A-one condition."
"Are we blasting off, sir?" asked Roger.
"Every ship we can get into space will give us a better chance of finding Coxine and his crew. Now that we've got the search fully under way there's no need to hang around here any longer."
"Glad to hear it, sir," replied Roger. "I was getting a little itchy to hunt for those crawlers myself. And Astro can hardly keep still."
Strong smiled. "Don't worry, we'll find Tom," he said. "Wherever he is, you can bet he's taking care of himself and doing a good job for the Solar Guard."
Roger's eyes twinkled. "Oh, I wasn't so worried about Tom as I was Astro, sir. He'll be pretty mad if there isn't anything left of Coxine to pay him back for slugging him."
Strong rubbed his head and said grimly, "Astro's not the only one!"
The blond-haired cadet left the room, and Strong wearily turned back to study the chart of the search in the asteroid belt.
Immediately upon arrival at Space Academy, two days before, Strong had been placed in charge of the search by Commander Walters. The attack on the prison asteroid and the escape of the prisoners had created the biggest sensation in his life. From one end of the Solar Alliance to the other, the visunews and the stereos were full of the attack and escape details, with Strong's name appearing often in the headlines and news flashes. To search the asteroid belt had been his suggestion, and while he could offer no proof, he believed the attacking ship had been commanded by Wallace and Simms. Speaking only to Commander Walters, Strong had received permission to combine the search for Wallace and Simms, with the new hunt for Coxine. Strong was convinced that Coxine was behind the activity of Wallace and Simms, from the beginning at the Solar Exposition to the present.
Strong looked at his watch. It was past midnight. He flipped a switch and paged Lieutenant Moore on the central communicators. In a few moments the young officer appeared and saluted smartly.
"Take over here, Moore," said Strong. "I'm going to sack in for a little rest and then take the Polaris out. I'll be in constant contact with you and will direct search operations from the Polaris. You stand by here and relay all reports. We'll use code 'VISTA' for all contacts."
"Yes, sir," said Moore. "Shall I work up charts like that one?" He pointed to the chart left by Roger.
"Statistics here at the academy will handle that," replied Strong. "Just shoot the information down to them as you receive it. And you'd better get someone else up here to help you. You'll be here a long time."
Moore saluted and Strong walked wearily from the room. There wasn't any need for cleverness now, thought the Solar Guard captain. When we catch Coxine, he'll fight. And when he fights, that will be the end of him!
He went to his quarters and in thirty seconds was asleep.
* * * * *
"Radar bridge to control deck!" A voice crackled over the intercom aboard the newly named pirate ship, Avenger. "Hullo, control deck! Come in!"
"Yeah?" roared Bull Coxine. "Whaddya want?"
"Picked up a blip on the radar, Captain," replied the radar officer. "Looks to me like the jet liner from Mars to Venus."
"Relay the pickup to the control-deck scanner and let me take a look at it," ordered Coxine.
In a moment the big pirate was studying the scanner carefully. Wallace and Simms stood to one side. Coxine turned and looked at them with a hard glint in his eyes. "That's the jet liner, all right!" He rubbed the palms of his huge hands together and smiled thinly. "It looks like we're in business!"
Wallace stepped forward. "You mean, you're going to—?"
"I'll tell you what I mean," snapped Coxine, "when I want you to know it!"
He turned to the intercom and began to bawl orders into the microphone.
"All hands! Stand by your stations for attack!"
There was an answering roar of approval from the crew.
"We're making our first strike, you space crawlers! A jet liner from Mars to Venus. There'll be lots of fancy things aboard her. Things the Solar Guard wouldn't give you on the Rock!"
There was another roar over the loud-speaker.
"But the first man that takes anything but what I tell him will find himself on the wrong end of two big fists!"
"We're closing in, Captain," interrupted the voice from the radar bridge. "The angle of approach is in our favor. I don't think they've seen us yet!"
"Keep watching her, Joe," replied Coxine, and turned to his two henchmen on the control deck. "You, Wallace! Take number-one jet boat. Russell, Stephens, Attardi, and Harris. Each man will take a paralo-ray pistol and rifle. Report to your boat when I give the order."
There was a pause as the men named scurried to their stations. Coxine continued, "The following men will come with me in boat number two. Shelly, Martin, and the Space Kid. The rest of you man the forward and aft blasters. But no one fires until Lieutenant Simms gives the order!"
He turned to Simms and stared at the man coldly. "I'll be in contact with you all the time. You'll fire when I say to fire, and not before. Is that clear?"