"Range-fifty thousand yards to liner, Captain!" reported the radar bridge. "I think she's sighted us!"
"Forward turret!" roared Coxine. "Put a blast across her bow just to show how friendly we are!"
"Aye, aye, sir," acknowledged a voice from the gun turret.
In the turret Tom listened to the orders to attack the helpless spaceship with mounting anxiety. If he could only plant the signal on the Avenger before going to the liner, he might be able to remain aboard the passenger ship and escape. He was interrupted in his thoughts by a rough voice in back of him.
"Hey, Kid! Space Kid!" yelled Gaillard, the commander of the gun turret. "Come on! You heard the orders, didn't you? Get me the range."
"Right away," answered Tom. He stepped to the range finder, quickly figured the speed of the jet liner, their own speed and the angle of approach. Racking them up on the electronic tracker, he turned back to Gaillard, "Let her go!"
There was a thunderous noise and the Avenger rocked gently in recoil from the heavy blast. Tom quickly sighted on the range finder and saw a ball of light flash brilliantly in front of the passenger ship. He breathed a sigh of relief. He had to keep up his avowed reputation of being a crack marksman and at the same time could not damage the unarmed passenger ship. The shot had been perfect.
"Good shooting, Kid," roared Coxine from the control deck.
"Thanks, skipper," said Tom, aware that he had not called Coxine captain, but knowing that his earner speech to the giant pirate had earned him a certain amount of respect.
Coxine quickly made contact with the captain of the liner on the teleceiver and the outraged captain's face sharpened into focus on the screen aboard the Avenger.
"By the craters of Luna," exploded the skipper of the passenger ship, "what's the meaning of this? There are women and children aboard this vessel."
Coxine smiled thinly. "My name's Bull Coxine, master of the vessel Avenger. One funny move out of you and I'll blast your ship into protons! Stand by for a boarding party!"
"Captain! Captain!" the radar operator's voice screamed over the control-deck loud-speaker, "they're trying to send out a signal to the Solar Guard!"
"They are, huh?" roared Coxine. "Forward turret, check in!"
"Turret, aye!" reported Tom. He had been left alone while Gaillard issued small arms to the boarding parties.
"Listen, Kid!" roared Coxine. "You said you're a good shot. Right now is the time to prove it. Blast away her audio antenna!"
Tom gulped. At a range of fifty thousand yards, the antenna, a thick piece of steel cable, might as well have been a needle to hit.
"Right, skipper," he finally replied. "I'll show you some of the fanciest shooting you'll ever see in your life!"
He turned back to the range finder, his mind racing like a calculating machine. He figured the angles of the two ships, considering that the jet liner was a dead ship in space and the Avenger still under way, but slowing down at a specific rate of deceleration. He rechecked his figure a third and fourth time, correcting his calculations each time with the forward movement of the Avenger. If he misjudged a fraction of a degree, he might kill or injure hundreds of people aboard the passenger vessel.
"Well?" roared Coxine. "Are you going to fire or not?"
"Coming right up, skipper!" shouted Tom. "Watch this!"
Steeling himself, lest he should hit the ill-fated ship, he fired. For a brief moment he felt sick and then heard the roar of the pirate captain from the control deck.
"By the rings of Saturn," roared Coxine, "that was the best shot I've ever seen! Well done, Kid! All right, boarding crews! Man your boats and stand by to blast off!"
While Coxine vocally lashed the members of the murderous crew into action, Tom tried to figure out some way to get to the radar deck unseen. Being assigned to the jet boat with Coxine, instead of Wallace, had been a lucky break and Tom wished for a little more of the same. Lining up with his boarding crew, he received his paralo-ray pistol and rifle from Gaillard, deftly stealing a second pistol while the gunnery officer's back was turned.
After hurriedly hiding the stolen gun, he slipped stealthily topside to the radar bridge. Reaching the hatch, he was about to open it, when he heard footsteps. He turned and saw a man walking toward him. It was Simms!
"Where in the blasted universe is the jet-boat deck?" snarled Tom. He dropped his rifle on the deck and bent over to pick it up, hiding his face.
"You're on the wrong deck," said Simms. "Two decks below. Get moving!"
The pirate lieutenant hardly gave the cadet a glance as he brushed past and entered the radar bridge. Tom caught a fleeting glimpse of the interior. His heart jumped. The bridge was exactly like the one on the Polaris! Though annoyed that his chance had slipped past, Tom was thankful to learn that the communications equipment was thoroughly familiar.
"Space Kid! Report to the jet-boat deck on the double!" Coxine's voice rumbled through the empty passageway. Tom dashed down the nearest ladder and hurried to the jet-boat deck where the pirate captain waited impatiently.
"I was checking the range and setting up to blast the liner in case they try anything funny," explained Tom. "I don't trust anyone on that range finder but me!"
Coxine chuckled. "Good work, Kid. I like a man that thinks ahead. Maybe I made the wrong man gunnery chief." He climbed into the jet boat. "All right, take the controls, Kid. Shelly and Martin, get in the stern." The men climbed in and Tom slid under the controls and waited for the order to blast off.
Wallace and his crew were on the opposite side of the ship, so Tom had no fear of being recognized until they were all on the passenger ship. At his side, Coxine spoke to Wallace in the other jet boat over the audioceiver.
"We'll split up. I'll handle the control deck and you go aft to the supply lockers. Dump everything out in space and we can pick it up later. Search the passengers, but no rough stuff. The first man that puts his hands on anyone will never know what hit him!"
Tom listened to the pirate captain's orders and was forced to give the man credit for his tight control over his murderous crew. However rebellious he might be against the Solar Guard, and whatever it was that made the man become the system's most notorious criminal, his orders spoke for themselves.
"All right, Kid," roared Coxine, "blast off!"
Tom pressed the control pedal at his foot and the small ship shot out into the black void of space. Ahead of them, thousands of yards away, he could see the gleaming passenger ship.
In a few moments the two jet boats were braking their jets and drifting to a stop inside the catapult deck of the luxurious liner.
Almost before Tom had stopped the small craft, Coxine was out of the boat waving his paralo-ray pistols at a cluster of frightened merchant spacemen.
"Back inside!" he snarled. "Kid! Shelly! Cover me! We're going to the control deck. Martin, you stay here with the jet boat."
Coxine marched straight through the ship, head up, eyes straight ahead, while behind him, Tom and Shelly swept the luxurious lounges with their ray rifles, ready to fire on any who dared resist. They marched past the frightened passengers, climbed a flight of carpeted stairs to the next deck, and entered the control room.
The liner's captain, a tall, thin man with graying hair, stood waiting beside the control panel, his eyes flashing angrily. A half-dozen junior officers stood stiffly in back of him.
Coxine stepped up to the elderly officer and laughed good-naturedly. "No one will be hurt, skipper. I just want a few things for my men"—he paused and glanced at the ship's vault—"and whatever you have in there!"
"I'll live to see the day when you're caught and sent to the prison asteroid for this," snorted the captain.
"Don't make me laugh, skipper," said Coxine lightly. "The Solar Guard will have to build a new one for me. Don't think there's much left of the old one!"
"Then it was you! You're responsible for the attack on the asteroid!"
Coxine just smiled and turned to Tom and Shelly. "Watch these crawlers closely, now. I'm going to open the vault."
Tom stared at the ship's officers, hoping to catch the eye of one of them, but they were all watching Coxine.
The pirate captain pulled a thin rod about two feet long, with a switch on one end, from his jacket. He walked to the solid titanium door of the vault and inserted the rod into a small hole, pressing the switch at the end of the rod carefully several times. He stepped back and inserted it in another hole in the face of the door and repeated the procedure. Putting the key back in his jacket he grabbed the handle of the massive door. It swung open at his touch. The captain of the liner and officers gasped in amazement.
Working quickly, Coxine crammed the thick bundles of credit notes and passenger's valuables into a bag. At last he straightened up, and facing the unbelieving officer again, he tossed them a mocking salute. He nodded to Tom and Shelly and walked out of the control room without another word.
Shelly and Tom quickly followed the giant spaceman back to the jet-boat deck, where Wallace was just returning from his own operations. Wallace made a circle out of his fingers to Coxine and the giant pirate nodded.
"Let's get out of here!" he ordered.
"Aren't you afraid they'll try to stop you, skipper?" asked Tom.
Coxine laughed. "Just let them try. I never met a man yet that had the nerve to pull the trigger of a paralo-ray gun while my back was turned."
Tom gulped and wondered if he would have the nerve to fire on the spaceman. He thought about it a moment and decided that he would take any chance that came along, if he could outwit the criminal. When the time came, he would risk his life to stop Coxine!
"All right, line up, you space crawlers!" bawled Coxine. "When I call your name step up to get your share of the haul!"
The pirate captain was seated at the head of a long mess table, an open ledger in front of him. There were stacks of crisp new credit notes at his elbow. He took out his paralo-ray pistols and placed them within easy reach. On either side of him, Wallace and Simms sat, staring at the money with greedy eyes.
Coxine looked at the first name on the ledger.
"Joe Brooks!" he called. "One thousand credits for spotting the liner!"
Brooks grinned and amid cheers walked to the table. Coxine handed him a small stack of notes carelessly and turned back to the ledger.
"Gil Attardi!" he roared. "One thousand credits for working on the boarding crew."
Attardi, a sly, scar-faced man, stepped forward to accept his share. He carried a long, thin knife with an edge so deadly keen that he could and often did shave with it.
Coxine continued his roll call. "Sam Bates! Five hundred credits. Straight share."
Bates stepped forward and glared at Coxine.
"How come I only get five hundred and the others get a thousand?" he snarled. "It ain't my fault I'm stuck on the power deck while you grab all the glory jobs!"
The laughing, excited crowd of men grew silent as the rebellious spaceman faced Coxine.
"You get five hundred credits," snarled Coxine. "Take it or leave it!"
"I want the same as Brooks and Attardi," demanded Bates.
Quicker than the eye could follow, Coxine rose and smashed the man in the face with a giant fist. Bates dropped to the deck like a stone. Coxine glared at the rest of the crew.
"The next crawler that thinks he's not getting his fair share," he snarled, "will get a trip in space for his share!" He glanced down at the unconscious man and jerked his thumb toward the hatch. "Get him out of here!"
Two men dragged the unconscious man away and threw a bucket of cold water on him. He woke up, snatched at his share of the credits, and disappeared from the room.
The pirate captain continued reading the list of names, arbitrarily, handing out various amounts of the stolen money as he saw fit.
Standing in the rear of the messroom, hidden by the other members of the crew, Tom realized that to step in plain sight of Wallace and Simms for his share would mean instant betrayal. He had to make his move now, and with most of the crew mustered together in the messroom, it was his one chance for success.
Gripping the stolen paralo-ray gun in his jacket pocket, he slipped out of the messroom unnoticed and headed for the radar bridge.
As he raced up the companionway he could hear the laughter of the men below decks as one by one they received their shares. His name would be called soon. Heart pounding, he stopped outside the radar hatch, pulled the paralo-ray gun from his jacket, and taking a deep breath opened the hatch.
Joe Brooks was seated in front of the scanner counting his share greedily and glancing occasionally at the finger of light that swept across the green globe. When Tom opened the hatch, he looked up and smiled.
"Hiya, Kid," he said. "Coxine's all right. I got a thousand just for picking up that ship on the radar. How much did you collect?"
"This," said Tom. He shoved the paralo-ray gun into Brooks' stomach. The man gulped and finally found his voice.
"Say, what is this? A gag? Where did you get that paralo-ray?" Then suddenly he shoved the bundle of notes in his pocket. "Oh, no, you don't! You're not going to steal my share!"
"I don't want your money!" said Tom coldly. "Get into that locker and keep your mouth shut, or I'll blast you!"
"Locker? Say, what's the matter with you? You gone space happy?"
"Get in there," growled Tom. At the look on the cadet's face, Brooks rose quickly and stepped into the locker. Tom slammed the door and locked it. Then, locking the passageway hatch, he turned to the radar scanner. Working quickly with deft hands, he opened the casing around the delicate instrument and began disconnecting the major terminals. Studying the complicated tangle of connections, he wished that he had as much knowledge of radar as Roger.
He finally found the wires he wanted and separated them from the other connections. He began replacing them, altering the terminals. After checking his work, to make sure it would not short-circuit, he grabbed the intercom and began taking it apart. Sweat beaded his forehead. Time was short. Soon Coxine would miss him and come looking for him. He had to complete his job before that happened.
After moments that seemed like hours he was ready. Using one of the intercom relays he began tapping out a message in Morse code on an exposed wire from the scanner. He looked at the radar scanner and watched it flash white static lines each time he touched the wires. Carefully he tapped out a message.
" ... emergency ... attention ... Corbett ... Space Cadet ... aboard ... Coxine ... pirate ... ship ... space quadrant ... B ... section ... twenty ... three ..."
Over and over he repeated the desperate message, hoping against hope that someone would be scanning space and the interference would show up on their radar.
" ... emergency ... attention ... Corbett ... Space Cadet—"
* * * * *
"Captain Strong!" Roger's voice came shrieking over the ship's intercom. "Captain! Quick! I'm picking up a message from Tom!"
"What?" cried the Solar Guard officer. "Nail it! I'm coming up!"
Scrambling up the ladder to the radar bridge from the control deck, Captain Strong rushed over to the scanner and watched eagerly as blinking flashes washed out the background of the screen.
Slowly, at times unevenly, the message flashed and the two spacemen read it with gladdening hearts. Strong made a careful note of the position while Roger continued to read the flashes. Turning to the astrogation panel, the Solar Guard captain quickly plotted a course that would bring them to Tom's position.
Endlessly, during the past few days, Strong, Roger, and Astro had swept space in a wide arc around the asteroid belt, hoping to pick up just such a signal. Now, with the position of the Avenger in his hands, Strong grabbed for the intercom.
"Attention, power deck!" yelled Strong. "We've just picked up a message from Tom. He's given us his position, so stand by for a course change."
"Yeee-eooow!" roared Astro. "I knew he'd do it."
"He's not in the clear yet. We've only got his position. We don't know how we're going to get him away from Coxine yet."
"Ready to change course, sir," said Astro.
"Three degrees on the down-plane of the ecliptic, and fifty-four degrees to starboard. Full space speed, Astro! Pile it on!"
"Aye, aye, sir!" replied Astro. "I'll make this wagon's tail so hot it'll blast at double speed!"
"You'd better, you Venusian ape!" cried Roger. "It's the least you can do for Tom!"
"Stow it, Manning," growled Astro good-naturedly, "or I'll stick some of your hot air in the jets for extra power!"
"Cut the chatter, both of you!" snapped Strong. "Astro, execute course change!"
Astro's reply was a blast on the steering rockets. On the control deck, Strong watched the needle of the astral compass swing around and stop dead on the course he had ordered.
"All set, Astro!" shouted Strong. "Right on course. Now pile on the neutrons!"
"Aye, aye, sir."
On the power deck, the big cadet turned to his control panel, took a deep breath, and opened the reactant feeders wide. The ship leaped through the airless void under the sudden burst of power and Astro watched the acceleration indicator climb to the danger line. He gulped as the needle passed the danger point and was about to cut down speed when the needle stopped. Astro breathed easily and settled back satisfied. If it was up to him, they would reach Tom in record time.
Up on the radar deck, Roger continued to read the flashing signals on the radar scanner. Over and over, he read the same message.
"I guess that's all he can say, sir," said Roger, turning to Strong.
"Yes, I guess so, Roger," agreed Strong. "He's probably sending it out blind, on an open circuit, hoping that anyone near enough would pick it up. Wonder how he did it?"
Roger thought a moment. "I'm not sure, sir, but I think he's crossed the impulse on the scanner from positive to negative."
"How do you mean?" asked Strong. The young captain was well acquainted with the principle of radar but, admittedly, could not match Roger's natural ability.
"By making the impulse negative, sir," said Roger, "he could create interference on the scanner. Instead of bouncing against something and returning an image to a scanner, the impulse hits itself and creates static which shows up in the form of those white flashes."
"Well, in any case," said Strong with a sober nod toward the scanner, "he's done something the whole Solar Guard couldn't do. He's quite a boy!"
Roger smiled. "I'll say he is, skipper!"
Strong turned away and climbed down to the control deck. He sat in front of the great control panel and watched the countless dials and needles. But his mind wasn't on the delicate handling of the great ship. He was thinking about Tom, alone aboard a ship with a crew of desperate criminals.
Tom had taken his life in his hands to send out the message, that much Strong was sure of! And the young skipper noted with pride that there was no appeal for help in the desperate call.
He shook his head wearily and flipped the teleceiver switch to report to Commander Walters.
* * * * *
"Emergency ... attention...." Tom continued to tap out the message slowly and carefully. Behind him, he could hear Brooks hammering against the locker door. Tom felt like opening the door and freezing the pirate with his paralo-ray gun to keep him quiet, but he didn't dare to stop sending.
Finally Tom decided it was time to go. "If anyone's going to pick up the message," he thought, "they've picked it up by now. I may still have time to get away in a jet boat."
He tied the wires together, causing a continuous interference to be sent out, and secured the radar casing. "If I'm lucky enough to get away in a jet boat," thought Tom, "at least they won't be able to pick me up on that!"
Without a glance at the locker where Brooks continued to pound and yell, Tom turned to the hatch leading to the passageway. He gripped the paralo-ray gun and opened the hatch. Peering into the passageway and finding it deserted, he slipped out and closed the hatch behind him. From below, he could hear the roar of the crew as the last of them received his share of the stolen credits.
Tom raced down the companionway toward the jet-boat deck. He made the first deck safely and was about to climb down to the next when he was spotted by Attardi, the scar-faced spaceman, who stood at the bottom of the ladder.
"Hey, Kid!" Attardi shouted. "The skipper's been looking for ya. You got the biggest cut. Three thousand credits for that fancy shooting you did!"
Tom noticed the gleam of the knife at the man's side. The young cadet could imagine the criminal sinking the knife in his back without hesitation, if he suspected anything.
"Well," demanded Attardi, "are you going to collect or not? The skipper sent me to look for you."
Tom smiled, and while still smiling, whipped the paralo-ray gun into sight and fired. His aim was true. Attardi froze, every nerve in his body paralyzed. He could still breathe and his heart continued to beat, but otherwise, he was a living statue, unable to even blink his eyes.
Tom jumped past the spaceman and dashed for the jet-boat deck. He had to hurry now. Attardi would be discovered any moment and be neutralized. When neutralized, the victim returned to normal, with only violent muscle soreness remaining.
Tom reached the jet-boat deck, opened the hatch, and raced for the nearest small craft. Suddenly from behind he could hear the buzz of a paralo-ray on neutralizing charge. Attardi had been discovered.
Tom jumped into the nearest jet boat, closed the hatch, and pressed the button releasing the sliding side of the ship's hull. Slowly, the great wall of metal slid back exposing the cold black velvet of deep space. As soon as the opening was wide enough, Tom pressed the acceleration lever and the small ship shot out, its jets roaring.
Tom quickly glanced around to locate his position by the stars and saw that he was close to the asteroid belt. He opened up to full acceleration, and since there was nothing else to do but wait for time to pass and hope for escape, he began to examine the contents of the small ship. He opened the emergency food locker and was relieved to see it fully stocked with synthetics and water. Every second carried him farther away from the Avenger, and when he looked back, Tom saw no evidence of pursuit. The cadet smiled. They would depend on the radar to find him, instead of sending out the other jet boats. Tom almost laughed out loud. With the radar jammed, he was safe. He would make it. Once inside the asteroids, they would never find him.
Glancing around the few indicators on the control board of the small vessel, Tom's smile changed to a grimace of sudden terror. The jet boat had not been refueled after their raid on the jet liner. There was less than three days' oxygen remaining in the tanks. In three days the jet boat would become an airless shell. A vacuum no different than the cold silent void of space!
"What's our position, Roger?" Captain Strong called into the intercom.
"Space quadrant B, section twenty-three, sir," replied Roger from the radar bridge. "But I can't see a thing on the radar. That static flash Tom sent out is scrambling everything."
"But you're sure this is our position?"
"Yes, sir. I checked it three times."
"All right, then," said Strong grimly. "There's only one thing to do. We're too near the asteroid belt to use the Polaris without radar, so we'll search in jet boats. Astro! We're parking right here! Give me full braking rockets and secure the power deck. Then prepare the jet boats for flight."
"Aye, aye, sir," came the reply from the Venusian.
The ship bucked under the tremendous power of the braking rockets and came to a dead stop in space. Strong dashed up the ladder to the radar bridge where Roger was still hunched before the radar scanner.
"Any chance of switching the scanner to another frequency and offsetting the effects of the static, Roger?" asked the Solar Guard captain.
Roger shook his head. "I don't think so, sir. The interference would have to be eliminated at its source."
"Well," sighed Strong, "to go looking for Tom without the help of radar would be like looking for an air bubble in the ammonia clouds of Jupiter. And we don't even know if he's still aboard the Avenger or not!"
"You know, sir," said Roger speculatively, "I've been thinking. I might be able to get a fix on this interference."
"A fix? How?"
"By blanking out the radar range, so that it would only work at one point of the compass at one time, then testing each heading separately until the flash appears. When it does, we'd at least know in which direction to blast off and trail Coxine.
"If you can do that, Roger," exclaimed Strong, "it would take us right into Coxine's lap! Do you think you can work it?"
"I can try, sir."
"All right, then," decided Strong. "Astro and I will take the jet boats and go looking around. Meantime, you stay aboard and try to pin point the heading on that flash."
"Very well, sir," replied Roger, and turned to the radar to begin the complicated task of rewiring the instrument.
Strong went directly to the jet-boat deck where Astro was busily preparing the jet boats for flight. He looked up when Strong entered the hatch.
"All ready, sir," he said.
"Very well," said Strong. "I'll take number one, you take number two. We're in section twenty-three of quadrant B. You take section twenty-two and I'll take twenty-four."
"Yes, sir," replied Astro. "Do you think there's any chance of finding Tom?"
"I don't even know if he's out here, Astro. But we can't be sure he isn't. So we'll search and hope for the best."
"Very well, sir."
"Keep your jet-boat audioceiver open all the time and maintain contact with me."
"Why not contact Roger here on the Polaris, sir?" asked Astro.
"He's busy trying to find out where the flashing static on the radar is coming from," explained Strong. "We'll make wide circles, starting outside and working in. Blast in a continuous circle inward, like a spiral. If there's anything around here, we'll find it that way."
"Yes, sir," said Astro. "I sure hope Tom is O.K."
"Best answer I can give you. Astro, is to blast off and find out."
The two spacemen climbed into the small craft, and while Strong opened the outer lock, exposing them to the emptiness of space, Astro started the jets in his boat. With a wave of his hand to Strong, he roared away from the sleek rocket cruiser. Strong followed right on his tail. They circled the Polaris twice, establishing their positions, and then roared away from each other to begin their search.
Astro turned his midget space vessel toward the asteroid belt, ahead and below him. Choosing a large asteroid that he estimated to be on the outer edge of section twenty-two, he roared full power toward it. The tiny space bodies that made up the dangerous path around the sun, between Mars and Jupiter, loomed ahead ominously. Moving toward them under full rocket thrust, the Venusian cadet remembered fleetingly stories of survivors of space wrecks, reaching the airless little planetoids, only to die when help failed to arrive. He shuddered at the thought of Tom, a helpless castaway on one of the asteroids, waiting to be saved. Astro clenched his teeth and concentrated on the search, determined to investigate every stone large enough to support an Earthman.
Miles away, no longer visible to Astro and out of sight of the giant rocket cruiser, Captain Strong felt the same helplessness as he approached the asteroid belt from a different angle. He realized any number of things could have happened on the pirate-ship. Tom could have been captured, or if not yet discovered, unable to escape from the ship. Strong's throat choked up with fierce pride over the gallant effort Tom had made to warn the Solar Guard of the Avenger's position.
As he neared the outer edges of the belt, he concentrated on guiding his small ship in and around the drifting asteroids, his eyes constantly sweeping the area around him for some sign of a drifting space-suited figure. What Strong really hoped for was the sight of a jet boat, since in a jet boat, Tom would have a better chance of survival.
The young captain reached the outer edge of his search perimeter, turned the small ship into a long-sweeping curve, and flipped on the audioceiver.
"Attention! Attention! Jet boat one to jet boat two! Come in, Astro!"
Across the wide abyss of space that separated the two men, Astro heard his skipper's voice crackle in his headphones.
"Astro here, sir," he replied.
"I'm beginning my sweep, Astro. Any luck?"
"Not a thing, sir."
"All right. Let's go, and keep a sharp eye out."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Astro. He could not keep the worry out of his voice, and Strong, many miles away, nodded in silent agreement with Astro's feelings.
* * * * *
The Avenger had long since disappeared and Tom was left alone in space in the tiny jet boat. To conserve his oxygen supply, the curly-haired cadet had set the controls of his boat on a steady orbit around one of the larger asteroids and lay down quietly on the deck. One of the first lessons he had learned at Space Academy was, during an emergency in space when oxygen was low, to lie down and breath as slowly as possible. And, if possible, to go to sleep. Sleep, under such conditions, served two purposes. While relaxed in sleep, the body used less oxygen and should help fail to arrive, the victim would slip into a suffocating unconsciousness, not knowing if and when death took the place of life.
Tom lay on the deck of the small vessel and stared at the distant stars through the clear crystal roof of his jet boat. He breathed as lightly as he could, taking short, slight breaths, holding them as long as he could and then exhaling only when his lungs felt as if they would burst. He could see Regulus overhead, and Sirius, the two great stars shining brilliantly in the absolute blackness of space. He raised himself slowly on one elbow and looked at the oxygen indicator. He saw that the needle had dropped past the empty mark. He knew it wouldn't be long now. And he knew what he had to do. He took a last long look at the two giant stars, and then closed his eyes.
Tom no longer tried to control his breathing, but took deep satisfying lungfuls of oxygen and in a few moments slipped into a sound sleep.
The jet boat roared on, carrying its sleeping occupant in an endless spiral around the nameless asteroid.
Not too many miles away, alone on the radar bridge of the giant rocket cruiser, Roger Manning, sweat popping out on his forehead, was trying the radar scanner on the three-hundred-and-tenth point on the compass. He connected the wires, glanced at the scanner, and shook his head disgustedly. The scanner screen was still dark. Having adjusted the delicate mechanism to eliminate the white flashes of static, he couldn't find them again. He sat back in his chair for a moment, mopping his brow and watching the white hairline in its continuous swing around the face of the scope. As the line swept to the top of the screen, he saw the blip outline of a jet boat and recognized it as one belonging to the Polaris. Then, slowly, the line swept down and Roger suddenly saw the blip outline of a second craft. With the experienced eye of a radar veteran, Roger was able not only to distinguish the jet boats from the asteroids, but from each other. He gripped the edge of the instrument and shouted at the top of his voice. The second boat was a different model!
He reached for the audioceiver and switched it on.
"Attention! Attention! Captain Strong! Astro! Come in! This is Manning aboard the Polaris! Come in!"
Strong and Astro replied almost together.
"I've spotted a jet boat!" Roger shouted. "You think it might be—"
"Where?" bawled Astro before Roger could finish. "Where is it, you rockethead?"
"As close as I can figure it, he's circling an asteroid, a big one, at the intersection of sections twenty-one and twenty-two!"
"Twenty-one and twenty-two! Got it!" yelled Astro.
"I'll meet you there, Astro!" said Strong.
Astro and Strong turned their small ships in the direction of the intersecting space sections. Astro was the first to spot the asteroid, but for a moment he couldn't see the jet boat on the opposite side of the small celestial body. Meanwhile, Strong, coming from the other direction, saw the boat and relayed the position to Astro. In a few moments the two space craft had regulated their speeds to that of Tom's ship and were hastily donning space suits. A quick look inside had shown them Tom's sleeping body. As Astro started to open the crystal hatch of his ship to cross over to the other, Strong yelled over the audioceiver.
Astro looked across at the captain's ship questioningly.
"Tom isn't in a space suit. If we open the hatch it would kill him. We've got to tow him back to the Polaris and get his boat inside the air lock before we can open the hatch!"
Without a word, Astro nodded, ducked inside his ship, and climbed out again with a length of rope. Working quickly, he tied one end securely to the bow of Tom's jet boat and made the other end fast to the stern of his. Then returning to his cockpit, he sent the jet boat hurtling back toward the Polaris.
But he was still faced with the problem of getting Tom's jet boat inside the air lock. It was still under acceleration and there was no way to get inside to stop its jet motors. Astro called to Strong and explained the situation to him.
"Looks like the only thing we can do, sir, is keep going until it runs out of fuel."
"That might take too long, Astro," replied Strong. "No telling how much oxygen Tom has left."
"There's nothing else we can do, sir," replied Astro. "We can't brake her to land inside the Polaris and we can't open the hatch to turn off the motor. We'll have to take a chance on Tom lasting until it runs out of fuel!"
Inside the roaring craft, Tom suddenly opened his eyes. He began to cough. There was a roaring in his ears. The stars overhead swam dizzily. And then, as though through a billowing mist, he saw the jet boat ahead of him and the rope tied to his ship. He realized he had been rescued. He tried to signal them. He had to let them know he needed oxygen. He tried to reach the communicator near the control panel but could not lift his arm. He fell back to the deck gasping for air; his lungs screaming for oxygen. Something, thought Tom through the haze that fogged his brain, something to signal them. Then, with the last of his strength, he raised up on one elbow and reached for the acceleration lever. His fingers trembled a few inches away from their goal. His face began to turn violent red. He strained a little more. The lever was an inch away. Finally, with the very last ounce of his strength, he touched the lever and pulled it back by the weight of his falling body.
Even before the black cloud swept over him, Tom could hear the jets become silent. He had signaled them. He had stopped the jet boat. They would know, now, how to save him.
"... and you never picked up that static flash again, eh?" mused Strong, looking at Roger. "Well, the only reason I can think of is that someone aboard the Avenger must have discovered what was happening."
"That's the way I figure it, sir," replied Roger.
The Solar Guard captain studied the scanner that was now working in perfect order. "It's a tough break that we couldn't get that fix on Coxine's position. I was counting on it. But at least we found Tom. That's plenty to be thankful for."
"How is he, sir?" asked Roger.
"He'll be all right," replied the Solar Guard captain, his face showing the strain of the past weeks. "We gave him pure oxygen and he came to long enough to tell us what happened aboard the Avenger. Get me teleceiver contact with Space Academy as soon as possible. I've got to send a report to Commander Walters."
"You've done a good job, Manning. Your work here on the radar bridge did as much toward saving Tom's life as anything."
"Thank you, sir. After what Tom did on the Avenger, though, I don't feel like I've done very much. It took real courage to go aboard that ship with Coxine."
Strong smiled wearily. "Well, the boy is safe now and we have a good idea what part of the belt Coxine is operating in. With a little luck and a thorough fleet patrol, we might be able to get him before he can do any more harm."
Strong went below to the cadet's quarters where Astro was sitting quietly, watching Tom. The cadet was sound asleep. When Strong entered, Astro held a finger to his lips and met the captain at the door.
"How is he?" whispered Strong.
"He's been sleeping since he spoke to you, sir," said Astro. "He's pretty weak, but I don't think there's anything seriously wrong with him. After a good rest, he'll be as good as new."
"Thank the universe for that," breathed Strong. He glanced at the sleeping cadet and then turned back to Astro. "Better take your station. He'll be all right now. I want to get back to the Academy as soon as I can."
"Attention, Captain Strong," Roger's voice crackled over the intercom loud-speaker. "I've made contact with Commander Walters at Space Academy, sir. He's standing by for your report."
Strong returned to the control deck where he saw the sharp image of the Space Academy commander waiting on the teleceiver screen.
He told the grim-faced senior officer of discovering the static Morse code flashes sent out by Tom from the Avenger and the race to save Tom's life. When he finished, the commander's face seemed to relax.
"When Corbett wakes up, give him my personal congratulations, Steve. That goes for Astro, Roger, and yourself, as well."
"Thank you, sir," said Strong. "Since Coxine seems to be operating exclusively out of the asteroid belt, I think it would be a good idea to concentrate the entire fleet of patrol ships in that area."
"Good idea! I'll set it up. But get back here as soon as possible, Steve. Coxine and that crew on the Avenger aren't sitting still."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"In the last three days we've had reports from seven ships. Jet liners, passenger freighters, and supply ships. All were attacked by the Avenger and stripped of everything those criminals could load on their murderous backs. Blasters, paralo-ray guns, whole and synthetic foodstuffs, clothes, money, jewels, equipment. Everything under the stars that they could use. Any ship that even comes close to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, unless escorted, is a dead space bird. And if we did provide an escort, we wouldn't have enough ships left to carry on the search."
Strong listened to the news with rising anger.
"I'll blast back to the Academy as soon as I can, sir," said Strong.
"Fine!" said the commander. "End transmission!"
Strong turned off the teleceiver and called Roger onto the radar bridge.
"Have you got a course back to the Academy, Roger?"
"All right, give it to Astro and let's get moving. Every minute wasted now is the difference between a ship looted and the future safety of the space lanes. I have a feeling that Coxine is not just playing for the hauls he makes on those helpless jet liners."
"I don't get you, sir."
"Look at it this way, Roger," replied Strong with a grim smile. "A man smart enough to do what he did while he was confined to a prison asteroid might have bigger ideas now that he's free. Ideas about himself and the whole Solar Alliance!"
During the weeks following, the activity of Bull Coxine and his pirate crew justified Captain Strong's fears. Repeatedly, ships were attacked on the fringe of the asteroid belt and stripped of armor, food supplies, and valuables. With the secret of the light-key, the vaults of the ships were opened as easily as though there had been no lock at all. The totals had reached staggering amounts and the daring of the Avenger was more pronounced, as Coxine struck repeatedly, farther and farther away from the protection of the asteroid belt. It seemed as though he were taunting the Solar Guard with his exploits.
All defense measures seemed to be futile. When the space freighters and jet liners were armed and tried to resist attack, Coxine blasted them into helpless space junk at a frightful cost of life. When the ships were escorted by powerful rocket cruisers, the pirate refused to attack, but the search squadrons were correspondingly depleted. The combinations of the energy locks were changed every day, but with the adjustable light-key, Coxine met every change easily. The entire Solar Alliance was in an uproar, and the citizens of the planets were clamoring for action.
Finally, the commanding officers of the Solar Guard noticed a change in Coxine's operations. Instead of merely attacking spaceships and hijacking their cargoes, he now took over the vessel completely, sending the passengers and crews drifting helplessly in space in jet boats. Three large, fast space freighters of the same class as the Avenger were now in the pirates' hands.
Then, one morning, in his headquarters at Space Academy, Captain Strong received an electrifying report. Coxine had attacked a freighter escorted by a Solar Guard rocket scout. Outgunned, the scout had been destroyed, but it had inflicted damage on the Avenger. The last report from a dying communications officer on the scout was that the pirate ship was drifting helplessly in space!
Strong, his face showing hope for the first time in weeks, burned the teleceivers, flashing orders to the various elements of the search fleet to converge on the disabled Avenger.
"Attention! All ships in quadrants C through M and Q through B-l! Proceed full thrust to quadrant A-2, section fifty-nine. On approaching target you will signal standard surrender message, and if not obeyed, you will open fire!"
Behind him, the three cadets of the Polaris unit listened to the decisive words of their commander and then let out an earsplitting yell.
"No time for celebrating," barked Strong. "We haven't caught him yet. He's the slickest thing to hit this system since the reptiles climbed out of the Venusian mud! It's going to be a case of our getting him before he can disappear into the asteroid belt, so let's hit the high, wide, and deep!"
Five minutes later, Strong and the boys were aboard their ship.
"Ready to blast off, sir," reported Tom. The curly-haired cadet's face was still pale and drawn, showing the effects of his ordeal in space.
"Get me direct teleceiver contact with Captain Randolph on the rocket cruiser Sirius," ordered Strong.
"Yes, sir," replied Tom. He turned to flip on the teleceiver, and a moment later the captain's face appeared on the screen.
"Randolph here. What's up, Steve?"
"I've got Squadron Nineteen of the Martian reserve fleet heading for the last reported position of the Avenger now, Randy. I'll take the point position of your squadron and direct operations. I'll relay course to you as soon as we're in space."
"O.K., Steve," replied Randolph. "I'm ready to raise ship."
"I'll go up first. Form up around me at about five thousand miles. End transmission!"
"All right, Tom," ordered Strong, "let's get out of here!"
The young cadet strapped himself into his acceleration chair, then picked up the control panel intercom and began calling out orders crisply.
"Stand by to raise ship! All stations check in!"
"Power deck standing by!" replied Astro from below.
"Radar bridge standing by!" acknowledged Roger over the intercom.
"Energize the cooling pumps!"
The whine of the mighty pumps began to fill the ship almost as quickly as Astro acknowledged the order.
"Feed reactant!" snapped Strong, strapping himself in beside Tom.
A low-muted hiss joined the sound of the whining pumps as Tom opened the valves. "Reactant feeding at D-9 rate, sir," he reported.
"Roger," called Strong into the intercom, "do we have a clear trajectory?"
"Clear as space, skipper!" was Roger's breezy answer.
"All right, Tom," said Strong, "cut in take-off gyros."
The cadet closed the master switch on the control panel and the noise from the power deck below began to build to an unbearable crescendo!
Watching the sweeping second hand of the chronometer, Tom called out, "Blast off minus five—four—three—two—one—zero!"
With a mighty roar, all main rockets of the spaceship exploded into life. Shuddering under the sudden surge of power, the ship rose from the ground, accelerated at the rate of seven miles per second, and arrowed into the sky, space-borne!
On the Academy spaceport, ships of Squadron L began to blast off one by one behind the Polaris at ten-second intervals. Three rocket cruisers, six destroyers, and twelve rocket scouts. The explosive blast of one hardly rolling away across the surrounding hills before another deafening blast lifted the next space vessel away from Earth.
Aboard the Polaris, Roger was busy over the chart table plotting the course when Strong appeared at his side.
"Have that course for you in a minute, sir," said Roger. He turned to the astrogation prism and made careful observations of Regulus, the fixed star always used in astrogation. He jotted several numbers down on a piece of paper, rechecked them against a table of relative values and handed the papers to Strong.
The captain immediately opened the teleceiver and relayed the information to other ships of the squadron. After the Polaris had made the course change, the ships followed, taking positions all around the lead vessel.
Like fingers of a giant hand, the Solar Guard squadrons converged on the reported position of the disabled Avenger. From every ship, radar scanners probed the space ahead with invisible electronic fingers for contact with the target. On the Polaris, Strong, his nimble brain figuring Coxine's possibilities of escape, hunched over the chart table and worked at plotting alternate courses on which he could send pursuit squadrons on a moment's notice. One thing worried Strong, and that was if Coxine should repair his ship and make the security of the asteroid belt before they could reach him, it would be almost impossible to track him through that tortuous maze of space junk.
Squadron Ten was the first to sight the enemy spaceship, though it was too far away to attack. The commander reported his finding to Strong immediately.
"We still have quite a way to go before we reach him, Strong. But if our luck holds out, we might be able to pin him down in a wide circle."
Strong studied the chart and marked the position of the Avenger just reported. He compared the position to that of the other fleet ships and decided that they were still too far away to tighten a ring of armor around the pirate. Strong was well aware that if the Solar Guard could spot Coxine, he in turn could spot them. Luck, mused Strong to himself, was what they needed now. A little luck to keep the pirate from repairing his ship and disappearing into the asteroid belt. He grabbed the intercom and bawled orders.
"Power deck, emergency space speed. Control deck, relay that order to every ship converging on the Avenger's position!"
"What's up, sir?" asked Tom from below.
"One of the ships has spotted Coxine. He's apparently still out of commission, but we're too far away to hail him."
Strong began to pace the deck of the radar bridge, and with each turn, he glanced at the radar scanner where Roger was waiting anxiously for the telltale blip of the Avenger to appear.
Suddenly the blond-haired cadet stiffened. He peered at the scanner screen, then cried, "There he is, sir!" His finger pointed to a white outline on the scanner.
Strong took a quick look at the pirate's position and compared it to the positions of the converging fleet. He turned to the teleceiver and signaled for the immediate attention of all ships.
"This is Strong aboard the flagship Polaris! All ships will proceed according to attack plan seventeen—code nine. Use full power! Emergency thrust!"
As the minutes passed and the Solar Guard fleet plunged forward, the ships forged a solid wall of guns around the drifting pirate vessel. From above, below, and almost every compass point on the plan of the ecliptic, they closed in, deadly blasters aimed, gunners ready to fire.
"We've got him, sir!" breathed Roger. "He can't escape now! Not in a million light years!"
Captain Strong didn't reply. Eyes were glued to the scanner, watching the target and the Solar Guard squadrons, searching for every possible loophole in the trap. Suddenly he spoke into the teleceiver.
"Attention all ships! Maintain present range, reduce speed, and take englobement formation!"
In reply, the elements of the fleet smoothly reformed until they formed a giant wheel in space with the pirate ship as the hub. Around and around they flew, all inboard guns trained on the enemy.
As the command ship, the Polaris flew high over the formation. Strong checked the formation carefully on the scanner and nodded his satisfaction.
"I think we've done it now, Manning," he sighed. "Coxine doesn't have a chance of breaking through."
Roger looked unhappy. "Ah, it was too easy, sir," he grumbled. "I was counting on having some fun."
"After all these weeks of heartache, I'll skip the fun if you don't mind," said Strong wryly and turned to the intercom. "Tom, check in!"
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"Head for the Avenger. Close in!"
"You mean we're going to lead the attack, sir?" Tom shouted in a sudden burst of enthusiasm.
"From the looks of things, I don't believe an attack will be necessary," replied Strong. "We're going alongside to accept Coxine's surrender. Start blasting!"
"Aye, aye, sir!"
As Tom's voice was heard over the intercom speaker, issuing orders to Astro for change of course, Strong turned back to Roger.
"Open up the audioceiver to all-wave transmission!"
"You going to talk to Coxine, sir?"
"Yes. And I hope he'll listen. If he doesn't, I'll do my talking with six-inch blasters!"
Roger quickly adjusted the settings on the audioceiver and then turned to his skipper.
"She's all yours, sir. Give it to him good!"
Strong smiled thinly and picked up the microphone.
"Attention, Bull Coxine! Attention, Bull Coxine!" Strong's voice was cold and hard. "This is Captain Strong of the Solar Guard! You're surrounded. You haven't a chance of escape. I demand your unconditional surrender! Acknowledge immediately!"
Strong flipped the key to open the receiver and waited for the reply. Roger moved closer, his eyes glued to the image of the pirate ship looming larger and larger on the scanner.
Fifteen seconds passed. Thirty. There was no sound over the receiver. Sweat began to bead Strong's forehead and he opened the transmitter key again.
"Listen, Coxine! I know you can hear me! I'll only talk to you once more! Surrender or you'll be blasted into protons! I'll give you exactly thirty seconds to make up your mind!"
Again Strong opened the receiver key and waited, but as the seconds ticked by, there was no answer.
"Sir, do you think he's sucking us into a trap?" Roger whispered.
"Maybe," replied Strong grimly. "But he knows what would happen to him if he opened fire."
"Captain Strong! Captain Strong!" Tom's voice suddenly blared over the ship's intercom.
"Don't bother me now, Corbett," replied Strong irritably.
"But, sir," Tom persisted, "that isn't the Avenger!"
"What!" Strong was thunderstruck.
"No, sir," continued the young cadet. "I'm looking at her right now on my control-deck scanner. It's the same model ship as the Avenger, but it isn't Coxine's!"
"Are you sure?"
"Positive, sir. I was on her long enough to know."
"Blast it! Then what—?"
Roger suddenly interrupted Strong. "Sir, look at her over the magnascope! She's been abandoned!"
The Solar Guard captain quickly turned to the magnascope screen. There he saw a close-up view of the target. It was a helpless derelict. All emergency ports were open and the jet-boat locks were empty.
Strong's face grew pale and he slumped back in his chair.
"What—what do you suppose happened, sir?" asked Roger hesitantly.
"It's easy enough to figure," Strong replied, his voice dull and lifeless. "Coxine is using more than one ship now. And when this one was damaged, he simply transferred to another one. He's outfoxed us again!"
Slowly, with wooden legs, he walked over to the teleceiver.
"Attention all ships! Resume former search stations. All we've caught here is a red herring!"
And as the powerful engines of the Polaris picked up speed, Strong imagined he could hear Gargantuan laughter echoing in space around him.
"Spaceman's luck, sir," said Tom, shaking Captain Strong's hand.
Silently the other two cadets in turn gripped their skipper's hand tightly.
"Thanks, boys," said Strong. "If we're going to get that space crawler, we have to trap him. And the best bait I know is a twenty-million-credit pay roll."
"But won't you take at least one man with you, sir?" pleaded Tom. "Sitting up there in space in a decoy ship waiting for Coxine is like—" Tom paused. "Well, you won't have much of a chance, sir, if Coxine opens fire before asking questions."
"That's the risk I've got to take, Tom," said Strong. "It took a lot of talking to get Commander Walters' permission to try this. But we've got to force Coxine to come out far enough from the asteroid belt to catch him before he can run back in and lose himself again." The young captain smiled wanly and added, "Don't think that your job is unimportant!"
Tom, Roger, and Astro nodded. On their return from the unsuccessful attempt to capture Coxine, they had been suddenly faced with the routine duty of transporting a twenty-million-credit pay roll from Atom City to the satellite of Titan for the crystal miners.
Thinking one sure way to catch any rat was to use a lure, Tom suggested that the Titan armored freighter be used as a decoy to capture the pirate, and the cadets could carry the pay roll in the Polaris.
Commander Walters had considered the plan, and then realizing that Coxine might fire on the freighter before seizing it, disapproved of placing a full crew aboard the lightly armed ship. Instead, he would send only one man. Strong had volunteered for the assignment and had persuaded the commander to allow him to man the decoy ship.
Now, the two ships, the Polaris and the armed freighter stood side by side at the Academy spaceport, and the three cadets and their commanding officer waited for the signal to blast off.
"You have your course for your trip out to Titan, Tom?" asked Strong.
"Yes, sir," replied Tom. "We're to blast off later to-night and take a course through the asteroid belt, traveling on the plane of the ecliptic. As soon as we get through, we are to proceed under full emergency thrust to our destination."
Strong nodded his head, satisfied.
"Do you think Coxine will come out after you, sir?" asked Roger.
"We've tried to make sure that he will, Roger," replied Strong. "It's pretty common knowledge that the Titan pay-roll ship leaves every month, and that it travels a different route each time. Sometimes it goes through the asteroid belt on the plane of the ecliptic and sometimes it goes over. We believe Coxine knows this, and with the thinly guised messages we've sent to Titan, we're hoping he'll try for it."
"But how will you get him, sir?" asked Astro, puzzled. "I mean, with no armor on the freighter to speak of, and no crew aboard, how can you nail him before he gets you?"
"Hyperdrive," replied the captain laconically.
"Hyperdrive?" echoed Tom quizzically.
"I'm going to take the decoy ship through the asteroid belt too, but through a different area, closer to the part we think Coxine is operating in. Seven full squadrons have blasted off ahead of me and taken up positions in that area. When and if Coxine attacks, I'll alert the waiting ships, who'll come in on hyperdrive. By the time Coxine spots them on his radar, they'll be on top of him."
"Then," ventured Tom, "you're staking your life on the ships arriving before Coxine can attack."
"That's right, Tom," said Strong. "If our plan works, we catch Coxine. If it doesn't, at least we know that the Titan pay roll is safe. That's why your job is as important as mine."
They were interrupted by the ground-crew chief who reported the decoy ship ready to blast off.
Strong nodded and the three cadets gripped their captain's hand again. Turning, he climbed into the freighter and five minutes later the Solar Guard officer blasted off from the Academy spaceport while Tom, Roger, and Astro watched from the traffic-control tower.
"Come on," said Tom. "It'll be two hours before we can blast off. We might as well get some sleep. We'll need it."
Reluctantly, Roger and Astro followed their unit-mate from the traffic tower, their eyes full of concern for their skipper. Each was grimly aware that they might never see their skipper alive again.
* * * * *
"Now shut your traps!" roared Bull Coxine. "The next crawler that opens his mouth gets taken apart!" He stood on top of a table and faced his crew of pirates who were sitting about swilling large cups of rocket juice.
The room in which the giant pirate spaceman had gathered his men was one of many in a building constructed since their arrival from the prison asteroid. Hidden from even the closest inspection by the smaller bodies circling around the main asteroid, Coxine had expanded the small hut used by Wallace and Simms into a huge rambling building containing armories, machine shops, and storage rooms packed with everything he and his murderous crew might need.
Now with a string of successful raids behind them and their personal pocketbooks bulging with stolen credits and valuables, the crew of pirates waited attentively while their cruel but brilliant leader outlined the most daring plan of all.
"Now listen," roared Coxine. "There's a few things I want to say before we start on the plans of the next strike!"
The big spaceman paused and glared at the men in front of him. "Ever since that space-crawling cadet pulled a fast one on me there's been talk about voting for another leader!" He spat the word as if it had left a foul taste in his mouth. "Well, get this. There'll be no voting! I'm the boss of this outfit! Any man who thinks he can take over my job," Coxine's voice dropped to a deadly whisper, "just let him try!"
Stony silence greeted the huge spaceman, a silence inspired by fear.
"Now!" roared Coxine, his coarse features changing from a scowl to a broad grin. "The strike!"
This was greeted with a roar of approval. The men demanded action after a week of idleness on the asteroid.
"Wallace!" yelled Coxine.
"Yes, sir," answered the spaceman, stepping up to the table and facing Coxine.
"We'll take up a position in the asteroid belt, here!" He placed a finger on a map of the belt. "Simms!" roared the giant spaceman.
"Yes, sir!" the wizened space pirate stepped forward.
"You remember that rocket scout we blasted? The one that got our other ship?"
"I sure do, sir."
"It's drifting around in orbit near asteroid seventeen. Take a crew of men and a few jet boats and go get her. Bring her back here and fix her up. Strip every pound of excess weight off her. I want a ship that'll fly faster than anything in the system and I want it in twenty-four hours."
"Yes, sir," gulped Simms. "But then what'll I do with her?"
"After you've done what I've already told you to do," snapped Coxine, "I'll tell you more!"
Simms' face turned red, and he nodded curtly.
"Now as for the rest of you crawlers," said Coxine, facing the room full of men. "Repair crews have been assigned for work on the rocket scout and the rest of you will work on the Avenger and prepare her for a long flight. I want the three-inch blasters, every paralo-ray gun and rifle, the fuel tanks, food supplies, oxygen circulators, in fact everything checked, rechecked, and double-checked!"
Joe Brooks, who had become a favorite of Coxine's, rose and faced the pirate captain. "Where are we going to strike next, skipper?"
Coxine looked at the man with a half-smile playing on his lips. "This operation will have two parts, Joe. The first—well—" his smiled broadened—"the Titan pay-roll ship just blasted off from Space Academy. For the last ten years, the Titan pay-roll ship has been blasting off from Atom City. Now why do you think it would suddenly leave from Space Academy, the home of the Solar Guard?"
The crowd of men murmured their bewilderment.
"I'll tell you why!" bawled Coxine. "Either they have that ship so packed with blasters it would take a fleet to stop it, or it's a trap!"
"But if you think it's a trap," exclaimed Wallace, "you're not going to hit it, are you?"
"I said it might be a trap!" snapped Coxine. "But it might not and with twenty million credits to be had for the taking, I'm not going to let her breeze through. I'm going to make sure it's a trap before I try something else!"
"But how?" persisted Wallace.
Coxine looked at his lieutenant coldly. He had indulged the man too long. "I'll tell you when I get good and ready! Now all of you, get out of here and make sure everything, and I mean everything, is ready to raise ship at a moment's notice!"
The men got up and shuffled from the room. Coxine turned to his two lieutenants. "All right, Wallace, see that those crawlers do what I told them to do. And you, Simms, get after that rocket scout."
The two spacemen saluted their captain and turned away. Coxine watched them leave the room, already planning his next move, a move calculated to be so surprising that the Solar Guard would be absolutely helpless.
Bull Coxine smiled and turned to study the charts of the asteroid belt.
* * * * *
Alone aboard the armored decoy ship, Captain Strong blasted steadily on his course through the asteroid belt. The young Solar Guard officer was aware that at any moment after reaching the celestial jungle of small planetoids he could be fired on without warning. And though the Solar Guard patrol ships, well hidden in the belt, would blast Coxine out of existence, it would still be too late for him.
Grim-faced, his hands gripping the controls, he rocketed through space, determined to put an end, once and for all, to the marauding pirate and old enemy, Bull Coxine.
* * * * *
When night fell over the Academy spaceport, Tom, Roger, and Astro climbed silently into the giant rocket cruiser Polaris and raised ship for Titan. Their departure from Earth was routine, with no one but Commander Walters and Captain Strong knowing that stowed in the storage compartment of the spaceship was twenty million credits, the pay roll for the miners of Titan.
Once in space, the rocket ship was put on course and held there by automatic pilot. The three cadets gathered in the messroom and sipped hot tea, staring moodily into their cups. Unable to break audio silence, lest they should betray their position, their first chance of hearing any news lay far ahead of them at Titan. They could only hope that the decoy trap would succeed and that their skipper and friend would return safely. The only comment was Astro's grim prediction.
"If anything happens to Captain Strong," he paused and finished his sentence in a tense whisper, "I'll search the universe until I find Coxine. And when I do, I'll break him in two!"
"Have you got everything straight?" asked Coxine. Simms nodded his head.
"All right, blast off," ordered the pirate. "We'll follow you and keep you spotted on radar. If it's a trap, head for asteroid fourteen, bail out in a jet boat, and let the scout keep going. We'll pick you up later."
Simms nodded again and turned to his old partner, Wallace. "So long, Gus." He smiled. "This is one time the Solar Guard gets it right where it hurts!"
"Yeah," agreed Wallace. "See you later. Take it easy on that asteroid and don't get in trouble with the girls!"
The two men laughed and Simms turned to climb into the waiting rocket scout. The sleek ship had been stripped down until it was hardly more than a power deck and control panel. She was now capable of more than twice her original speed. As the little spaceman disappeared into the air lock, Coxine turned to Wallace.
"We'll give him an hour's head start and then blast off after him. And remember, the first man that breaks audio silence will get blasted!"
All eyes were on the tiny rocket scout as its jets, roaring into life, lifted free of the pirate planetoid. When the speedy little ship had disappeared into space, Coxine turned to his crew and ordered an immediate alert. While the criminals readied the armed privateer for blast-off, Coxine and Wallace climbed directly to the radar bridge.
Joe Brooks was hunched in front of the scanner, staring intently. He looked up when the two pirate officers entered.
"Just following Lieutenant Simms on the radar, skipper," said Brooks. "He's blasting through the asteroid belt faster than I thought he could."
"Lemme see!" growled Coxine. The giant pirate stared at the scanner and his mouth twisted into a grin. He turned away and barked several orders. "Wallace, stand by to blast off in two minutes! Brooks, get me a bearing on that ship."
"You mean Simms?" asked the radarman.
"No! I mean that ship, right there," snapped Coxine. He pointed to a white blip on the scanner. "And after you get the bearing I want a course that'll intersect it in"—Coxine paused and glanced at the astral chronometer—"ten minutes!"
Quickly calculating the bearing and working up the course as ordered, Brooks handed Coxine a slip of paper. The pirate glanced at it briefly.
"What would you say Simms' speed would be if he kept his ship on full thrust, Brooks?" asked Coxine.
Brooks thought a moment. "I'd say it would be about half of what he's making now!"
"Exactly!" roared Coxine. "That's why the ship on your scanner isn't Simms' at all, but another ship!"
The radarman studied the scanner, where, with each sweep of the thin white line, the blip of the ship appeared. "You mean it might be the Titan pay roll?" he breathed hopefully.
"Yeah," breathed Coxine. "I mean it might be the Titan pay roll, and then again it might not!" Coxine turned away, leaving the radarman utterly confused.
Within the two-minute deadline that Coxine had ordered, the members of his crew were locking the last air lock and securing ship for blast-off. Coxine sat in front of the control panel, ready to give the final order that would send the vessel hurtling into space. In a little while, the evil mind, the twisted brain of Bull Coxine would be pitted against the might of the Solar Guard.
* * * * *
Captain Strong sat on the control deck of the decoy ship, watching the radar scanner and waiting for the appearance of Bull Coxine and his crew. Again and again, the young Solar Guard officer, too restless to remain in one spot, got up and paced the deck.
He flipped on a chart screen and studied the positions of the surrounding asteroids, which he knew hid the Solar Guard fleet, ready to pounce on any attacking ship. Schooled for years in facing the tedium of space travel and patrolling the space lanes, Strong nevertheless was anxious for something to happen, as minute after minute slipped past and no attack came.
Once he thought he saw something move on the scanner and gripped the sides of the instrument tightly as a blip appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared. Finally Strong was able to distinguish what it was and he turned away in disgust. It had been a maverick asteroid, one which, because of its positive gravity, never became a captive of other bodies in space. It wandered aimlessly through the belt, a danger spacemen feared more than any other, since it could not be depended upon to remain in one position.
Unable to break audio silence and communicate with the hidden Solar Guard fleet around him, lest he give away their positions, Strong found the loneliness driving him into a case of jitters and nerves.
Suddenly he jumped up and stared unbelievingly at the scanner. There in front of him was a blip, traveling at amazing speed, straight for his ship. From its size and shape, Strong could tell it was a rocket scout. He watched it for a moment dumfounded at the speed of the small ship. When he was certain that it was heading for him, he grabbed the audioceiver microphone and began calling hurriedly.
"Attention all ships! This is Captain Strong. Spaceship approaching me, starboard quarter, one-one-five degrees. Estimated speed—" Strong paused and watched the moving blip. "Speed unknown. All ships close in immediately!"
On the scanner, Strong could see the flashes of blips as the squadrons roared out of concealment and closed in on the approaching rocket scout. Over the audioceiver he could hear the squadron commanders snapping orders to their ships as the small ship still headed, unheedingly, for his decoy vessel.
Suddenly the attacking ship slowed and Strong could see the blip turn in a wide-sweeping curve. But it was too late. The Solar Guard ships had it surrounded from every possible angle. The little scout made a desperate dash straight for Strong's ship. In a flash, he saw the plan of the ship's pilot. He was heading for Strong, hoping to use him as a shield from the mighty six-inch blasters trained on him.
Strong grabbed for the control and fired full thrust on his starboard jets, sending the decoy vessel into a screaming dive. The attacking ship tried to follow, but seeing it couldn't make it, turned and tried to escape from the surrounding ships. Instinctively Strong shouted a warning to the pilot to surrender, but even as he spoke, he saw the firing flashes sparkle on the hulls of a dozen fleet vessels as they sent their deadly atomic missiles converging like lightning arrows on the speedy rocket scout.
There was a burst of pure white fire on the scanner and then the young captain gulped as the attacking ship was blasted into a hulk of twisted metal.
Strong grabbed the audioceiver microphone and shouted orders to the fleet squadron leaders.
" ... Squadron L! Put out immediate rescue jet boats and begin salvage operations. All remaining ships will return to Solar Guard base, Space Academy. End transmission!"
Strong hurried to the air lock, hastily put on a space suit, and in a few moments was blasting in a jet boat toward the remains of the attacking scout.
Immediately the communications of the departing fleet were filled with talk of their victory over the pirate band. Strong alone felt uneasy about their success. For Coxine to attack in a light rocket scout, which Strong felt sure had been stripped down to gain more speed, did not follow the pattern which the hardened pirate had established in previous raids.
When he arrived at the wreckage of the rocket scout, Strong found that his fears were justified.
A crew chief from one of the rescue squads approached Strong; his body weightless in space, the man grappled for a handhold on a jutting piece of the twisted wreck, and then spoke to Strong over the helmet spacephones.
"We found only one person aboard, sir," he reported. "And the ship appears to have been stripped of everything but engines and control panel."
Behind the protective glass of his helmet, Strong grimaced. He turned to Captain Randolph. "We've been tricked again, Randy," said Strong bitterly. "We used a decoy and so did Coxine!"
* * * * *
"They're closing in!" Roger's voice crackled through the intercom from the radar bridge. "Do we fight or do we let those space crawlers take over?"
"Fight!" bellowed Astro from the power deck.
"No! Wait!" cried Tom. "We haven't a chance! If we don't heave to, Coxine'll blast us into space junk!"
Rocketing through the asteroid belt with the Titan pay roll, the three space cadets, under strict orders to maintain communications silence, were unaware that Bull Coxine had outsmarted Captain Strong. Sending in the rocket scout, he had sprung the Solar Guard trap and had cagily scanned the belt for another ship. Finding the Polaris easily, the pirate captain was blasting in for the attack.
On the control deck of the Solar Guard cruiser, Tom Corbett desperately tried to think of a plan to outwit Coxine, while his unit-mates urged him to fight back.
"What's the matter, Junior?" Roger called over the intercom sarcastically. "Scared to fight?"
"You know I'm not," snapped Tom in reply.
"By the rings of Saturn," growled Astro, "I never thought you'd surrender to anybody, Tom!"
"Listen, both of you!" shouted Tom. "It's no use! We've got to play this smart!"
"Well, start making with the brains," sneered Roger. "Coxine's in range now."
"Attention—" A harsh unmistakable voice rumbled over the audioceiver. "This is Bull Coxine! Heave to or you'll be blasted!"
"All right, Junior," said Roger bitterly, "company's coming. What now?"
"Cut all power, Astro—fast!" ordered Tom.
"What's the matter?" growled Astro. "Afraid they'll shoot if you don't stop fast enough?"
"Keep your big trap shut and do as I tell you!" snapped Tom.
"Listen, Junior!" snarled Roger. "As far as I'm concerned—"
Tom interrupted him. "You listen, you idiot! Don't you see what's happened? Coxine must have found out about the decoy ship, and when we showed up on his scanner, he figured right away that we might have the Titan pay roll."
"So what?" demanded Roger. "That still doesn't let you off for not belting that crawler with our six-inchers!"
"Use your head!" snapped Tom. "With the Solar Guard squadrons on the other side of the belt and with no gun crews on our ship, how far do you think we'd have gotten?"
"You didn't have to surrender, Tom," said Astro. "I could have outrun Coxine in nothing flat. Why, I haven't got half the speed out of this old girl I think she's got."
"A great idea, bird brain! Run away from the very guy the Solar Guard's going crazy trying to find!"
The intercom was suddenly silent as Astro and Roger began to understand Tom's decision and waited for him to elaborate on his idea.
"Now, listen, Roger," said Tom patiently, "we've got about five minutes before those crawlers will be aboard. How long will it take you to make a signal beacon that'll send out a constant automatic SOS?"
"A what?" asked Roger.
"Beacon. One that will transmit on the Solar Guard special frequency and be small enough to hide here on the Polaris."
"Why hide it on the Polaris?" asked Astro. "Why not try to get it on their ship?" His tone was almost apologetic now that he realized Tom was not planning a cowardly surrender.
"It's a cinch they'll take the Polaris over," explained Tom. "She's fast and she's got six-inch blasters."
"I get it!" yelped Astro. "We plant the beacon on the Polaris, and when they take her over, the signal will be going out all the time." Astro paused. "But wait a minute. They'll be sure to search the ship first!"
"First things first, Astro," answered Tom. "Roger, can you make the beacon?"
"Yeah," said Roger, "but it'll take me at least a half hour!"
"You've got to finish it faster than that!" Tom insisted.
"I can't, Tom. I just can't."
"All right, then we'll have to stall as best we can. Get to work. Meantime, Astro and I will find a place to hide it. How big do you think it'll be?"
There was a momentary pause and then Roger replied, "No smaller than six inches. About like a shoe box."
"Could you make it three inches thick, and longer, instead of box-shaped?"
Roger hesitated again. "Yeah, I guess so. Why?"
"Because I just thought of a good place to hide it. They'd have to tear the ship apart to find it, if they even hear the signal!"
"Attention! Attention! This is Coxine—" The pirate's voice bawled over the audioceiver again. "You are under my guns. Stand by to receive a boarding party. If you make any attempt to escape, you will be blasted!"
Tom grabbed the microphone to the audioceiver and replied, "Orders understood, but you'll have to wait until we can build up air pressure in the air lock."
"Very well," said Coxine. "We'll give you fifteen minutes."
Tom thought desperately. "You'll have to wait at least a half hour. We broke a valve and have to replace it!"
Coxine's voice became suspicious. "Hey, what're you trying to pull?"
"Honest, Mister Coxine," whined Tom, "we're not doing anything."
"Fifteen minutes," roared Coxine, "or I blast a hole in your ship!"
"Yes, sir!" answered Tom, fully aware that the pirate captain would carry out his threat.
Dropping the audioceiver microphone, the young cadet hurried to the power deck, where Astro waited impatiently.
"Grab a couple of cutting torches, Astro," he said, "and get me a lead-lined suit. I'm going into the reactant chamber."
"What?" demanded Astro.
"You heard me! I'm going to hide that beacon where they'll never find it."
"In the reactant chamber?" asked Astro. "Impossible!"
"Remember when we first arrived at the prison asteroid? How thoroughly we were searched?"
"Remember, they even searched the space between the inner and outer hulls? There's three inches of clearance in there. If I cut into that space through the reactant chamber and put the beacon inside, the noise of the jets will keep Coxine from hearing it, and the radioactivity in the chamber will keep them from picking it up on their detectors!"
Astro's face spread into a wide grin, and without another word, he began preparing the cutting torches. Ten minutes later Tom emerged from the chamber and nodded triumphantly. "All set, Astro! Now all we need is the beacon."
Suddenly the Polaris was rocked by a heavy explosion.
"They're firing!" yelled Astro.
"Roger! Have you finished the beacon?" demanded Tom over the intercom.
"I need another five minutes!" answered Roger. "I have to set the signal to send out the SOS."
"Will it send out anything?" asked Tom.
The Polaris rocked again from a second explosion.
"I don't know, Tom," yelled Roger. "I haven't even tested it!"
A third explosion jarred the rocket cruiser and the curly-haired cadet knew that the air lock must have been demolished by now.
"Bring down what you've got, Roger!" he yelled. "We'll just have to take a chance that it'll work. And grab yourself a space suit on the way down. When they blast through the inner portal of the lock, we'll need 'em!"
"Right!" replied Roger. "Be down there in a second."
Astro and Tom hurriedly donned space suits and waited for Roger to bring the beacon. In a moment the blond-haired cadet appeared with the hurriedly contrived beacon. Tom quickly placed it between the two hulls and sealed the hole in the inner hull.
A fourth explosion rocked the ship and the three cadets knew that by now the air lock had been blasted away. They put on their space helmets and climbed the ladder to the upper deck.
Coxine met them near the air lock, two paralo-ray guns clutched in his gloved hands. Behind him, his crew swarmed in and fanned out all over the ship.
But the space pirate stood on the control deck, glaring at Tom. "Whaddya know! The Space Kid himself!"
"That's right, Coxine," said Tom quietly, "only the real name is Corbett."
Suddenly there was a triumphant shout from one of the pirates. "Skipper! The credits! All twenty million! We found 'em!"
Over their spacephones the three cadets could hear the pirates yelling and cheering. Coxine bellowed for silence and the cheering quickly subsided.
Paying no further attention to the three cadets, the pirate captain ordered his men to repair the hole in the air lock and prepare for immediate acceleration. There was a triumphant gleam in his eyes as he announced their destination.
"With the Solar Guard on the other side of the belt, we're going to hit the richest prize in the universe! The colony on Ganymede!"
He then turned and smiled at his three prisoners, adding menacingly, "And we've got three passes to get us through the defenses!"
Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter, was an important way station of the Solar Alliance for all spaceships traveling between the outer planets of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and the inner planets of Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury. The colony on Ganymede was more of a supply depot than a permanent settlement, with one large uranium refinery to convert the pitchblende brought in by the prospectors of the asteroids. Refueling ships, replenishing supplies, and having a small tourist trade, it was a quiet colony, one of many spread throughout the system.
With the Solar Guard search squadrons hopelessly out of range on the other side of the asteroid belt, the cadets' only hope of saving the tiny colony lay in the beacon hidden inside the hull of the Polaris.
Leaving Wallace and half of his crew aboard the Polaris, Bull Coxine had transferred the three cadets to the Avenger and thrown them into the brig. As the ship accelerated toward the colony, Tom stared out of the small, barred viewport while Roger and Astro sprawled glumly on the hard bunks.
Roger finally broke the heavy silence. "What do you suppose Coxine meant when he said he had three passes into Ganymede?"
"Give you one guess, pal," snorted Astro.
"He obviously expects us to give him the recognition signal," said Tom.
Roger sighed. "That's what I figured. But I was hoping I was wrong."
"At least we're all immune to truth drugs," said Astro hopefully. "He won't get the recognition code out of us that way."
"That dirty space crawler wouldn't even bother with drugs," muttered Roger. "They aren't enough fun. He likes to get what he wants the hard way."
"Yes," agreed Tom. "We're in for a rough time, guys."
They all looked at each other, fully aware of what lay in score for them. Finally Astro growled, "I don't care what he does to me. I won't tell him a thing!"
"Same here!" exclaimed Roger.
Tom merely nodded, his face a grim, expressionless mask.
Suddenly three men led by Brooks, the radar operator, appeared in the passageway outside the brig. Brooks stepped forward, opened the door, and gestured with the paralo-ray gun in his hand.
"All right, you punks! Outside!"
Astro started to lunge for the pirate, but Tom grabbed him by the arm. "Take it easy, Astro. That won't get us any place."
"You can say that again," sneered Brooks. "One crazy move like that, kid, and I'll freeze you solid as a cake of ice! Now come on! Move!"
Tom, followed by Astro and Roger, walked slowly out of the brig, and guarded closely by the three pirate crewmen they were taken to the main air lock.
"All right," said Brooks. "The big ox and blondie, get in there!"
One of the crewmen opened the air-lock portal while the other two jabbed Astro and Roger with ray guns. The two cadets stumbled into the chamber and the door was slammed behind them.
"Lock it!" snarled Brooks.
When the men had secured the portal, Brooks turned and pushed Tom roughly along the passageway. A moment later they reached the control deck where Bull Coxine was hunched over his charts.
"Here he is, Captain," said Brooks. "The other two are sealed up in the air lock like sardines!"
Coxine nodded and faced Tom, a thin smile on his face. "I told you I would get the recognition signal, Corbett," he said. "And I will!" Coxine walked over to a large valve on the after bulkhead and tapped the needle indicator right beside it. Satisfied, he turned back to the cadet.
"In two hours," began Coxine, "we'll be within range of the Ganymede garrison and its radar. It takes exactly eight turns on this valve to bleed the air out of the air lock where your two buddies are. So, every fifteen minutes I'm going to ask you for the recognition signal, and every time you say no, I'll turn the valve once. By the time we get close enough to Ganymede to be picked up on their radar, you'll either have given me the signal or your buddies will be dead!"
Tom stood listening to Coxine, his blood boiling at the giant spaceman's cruelty. Suddenly he tore across the control deck and made a dive for Coxine's neck. But the big man met him coming on and with a powerful slap of his hand sent the boy sprawling back across the deck.
"You're a good man, Corbett," said Coxine, standing over the fallen cadet, "but you're a little man, and a good big man can lick a good little man any time!"
Brooks and the crewmen laughed loudly as Tom dragged himself to his feet.
"Well, do I get the signal?" demanded Coxine. "Or do your buddies get a little less air?"
Standing unsteadily on his feet, with four paralo-ray guns trained on his body, Tom thought quickly of Roger and Astro, alone in the darkness of the air lock, soon to be clawing their throats for air; of the merciless attack on the prison asteroid; of the helpless ships Coxine had looted. All these things and more flashed through the curly-haired cadet's mind as he weighed his life and the lives of his unit-mates against an attack that would devastate the small satellite of Jupiter. Tom could see through the pirate's demand for the recognition signal. Once inside the Ganymede radar screen, he could attack the Solar Guard garrison and wipe it out before it could raise a ship in defense.
"Well?" demanded Coxine, placing his huge hand on the valve.
Tom knew that if he could stall long enough, the signal aboard the Polaris might be picked up by the Solar Guard. Roger and Astro were in good physical condition. They could conserve their energy as soon as they discovered the trap. He had to stall and hope the signal would be picked up in time.
"The only thing I'll ever give you, Coxine," said Tom through clenched teeth, "is a blast of a paralo-ray!"
Coxine snarled in anger and turned the valve, shouting, "One more thing, Mister Hero! The minute the air lock is empty, you take a swim in space too!"
Tom was prepared for that. He knew the pirate would not take defeat at the hands of a Space Cadet easily. Tom was resigned to his fate. He was ready to accept anything if it would serve the purpose of ridding the solar system of Bull Coxine.
"Tie him to that chair," snarled the giant pirate captain. "And make sure he's secure, or you'll go swimming in space with him!"
Tom was shoved roughly into the copilot's chair in front of the control board and tied down with a thick rope. He winced as the heavy line dug into his arms. After inspecting the job, Coxine dismissed Brooks and the men with a curt nod and returned to his charts.
Tom sat in front of the control panel, his eyes sweeping the gauges and dials and at last fixing on the master acceleration lever. Two feet away was the lever that controlled all the power on the ship. If he could only reach it, he could stop the Avenger dead, and possibly even put the ship completely out of commission. But try as he might, he could not get his hands free.
Coxine looked up at the astral chronometer and walked over to the valve. "Well, Corbett," demanded the burly spaceman, "what's the recognition signal?"
Tom only shook his head.
"Must be pretty bad, sitting down there in the dark, hearing the oxygen feed in slower and slower. You sure you won't change your mind?"
Tom looked squarely at Coxine, hatred in his eyes, and he watched the pirate captain shrug his shoulders, turn the valve again, and return to his charts.
The young cadet watched the astral chronometer, seeing the red hand sweep the seconds away, and the black minute hand inch around the dial. Over and over, the curly-haired Space Cadet refused Coxine's demand for the recognition signal and then watched helplessly as the pirate gave the air-lock valve another twist.
Nearly two hours had passed and Tom knew that they would soon be in radar range of the Ganymede garrison. The pressure in the air lock must now be within ten units of zero. Suddenly, overhead, the audioceiver loud-speaker crackled into life.
"Attention! This is Ganymede traffic control. Identify yourself immediately with authorized code!"
Coxine glared at Tom and put his hand on the air-lock valve. "Last time, Corbett. Either you give me the Solar Guard recognition signal, or your buddies are finished!"
Tom gulped. He had no assurance that Coxine would release Roger and Astro, even if he did give him the signal. But he knew there was no choice. He looked up at Coxine.
"Do I have your word as an Earthman that nothing will happen to them?" he asked quietly.
Coxine laughed. "Sure. I'll give you my word. I'll even bring them up here so they can see the show and then let you go afterward. But by the time I'm finished with the Ganymede colony the Solar Guard will have your hides for handing out their secrets."
Tom knew what the pirate said was true. He was taking a gamble now. A gamble that by this time his signal on the Polaris had been picked up and a fleet of ships would be on their trail.
"Attention! Attention! Identify yourselves immediately!" The voice from the Ganymede traffic-control tower came over the audioceiver again. Coxine's face twisted into a half-smile.
"Well, Corbett, do I get the signal or don't I?"
"Tell them you're a Solar Guard armed freighter." Tom's voice was low. "You're assigned to operation 'Vista.'"
"Vista?" said Coxine excitedly. "Is that the code word? Vista?"
"Yes," said Tom. "Now open the valve!"
Coxine gave the valve a number of turns in the opposite direction and jumped to the teleceiver. He flipped the key open and called Wallace aboard the Polaris. "When they ask you for identification, tell them you're working on operation Vista. That's the key word. Vista!"
"Right!" answered Wallace.
Coxine then turned to the audioceiver and spoke in confident, assured tones. "Attention, Ganymede traffic control! This is armed freighter Samson, assigned on project Vista. Request clearance for approach and touchdown on Ganymede spaceport!"
"You are properly identified, Samson," replied Ganymede. "Proceed on your present course. End transmission."
"End transmission!" roared Coxine triumphantly.
The giant pirate turned back to Tom, bellowing, "Thanks, Corbett. You've just given me the key to everything I ever wanted."
"What do you mean?" asked Tom, suddenly frightened by the strange wild gleam in Coxine's eyes.
"By the time I've finished with Ganymede, I'll have every ship on their spaceport. A fleet big enough to hit any part of the Solar Alliance I want! Solar Guard or no Solar Guard!"
"No! You can't!" gasped Tom.
"Can't I?" snarled Coxine. "I'll show the Solar Guard something they never saw before. Their own ships blasting them right out of space!"
Coxine turned to the intercom, ordered Astro and Roger brought up to the control deck, and then contacted Wallace aboard the Polaris.
"Yeah?" answered the spaceman from the control deck of the rocket cruiser.
"We're going in according to plan! Train all your guns on the Solar Guard defense installations and stand by!"
"Ready any time you say the word," replied Wallace.
Jumping back to the intercom, Coxine gave orders to the power deck for full thrust, then ordered the radar bridge to relay the scanner image of Ganymede to the control deck.
As the rocket ship surged ahead under the added thrust, Tom strained against his ropes to watch the scanner and saw the clear image of the colony. He could make out the outline of the uranium plant, the atmosphere booster stations and small buildings clustered around the spaceport. As they drew closer to the tiny colony, Coxine grabbed the intercom and the teleceiver microphones and barked crisp orders to both the Avengers and the Polaris' power decks. "Full braking rockets!" roared Coxine.
Tom braced himself against the sudden reverse pressure of the powerful nose rockets, and then, in a moment, felt the Avenger come to a dead stop. Watching the scanner again, he saw that they were directly over the Solar Guard garrison. Coxine switched the teleceiver to the colony frequency and spoke sharply and confidently.
"Attention! All citizens of Ganymede colony! This is Bull Coxine. Your entire settlement is under my guns. Any attempt to raise ship and oppose me will be met with instant destruction! Every citizen is hereby ordered to assemble at the municipal spaceport within five minutes. All Solar Guard officers and men will do the same. You have five minutes to comply, or I will open fire!"
The giant spaceman flipped off the teleceiver before anyone on Ganymede could answer. Pressing with all his might, Tom managed to see more of the scanner which suddenly showed the people of Ganymede scurrying out to the spaceport in panic. Coxine watched the activity on the scanner for a second and then grunted his satisfaction.
Suddenly the hatch was thrown open and Astro and Roger were pushed into the room by two crewmen.
Coxine turned to them, smiling thinly. "You owe your lives to your buddy here. One more minute and you would've been walking with the angels. Now," he added to the crewmen, "tie them up so they can see the scanner. I want them to see how easy it is to knock off a Solar Guard garrison!"
"Why you—" Astro lunged toward the pirate but was stopped in his tracks by a blast from a paralo-ray gun behind him. The big cadet stood rigid, motionless, every nerve and muscle in his body paralyzed. Coxine sneered and turned back to the intercom while his men tied up the two cadets.
Tom and Roger looked at each other and, without speaking, knew what the other was thinking. Their only hope was the beacon signal aboard the Polaris.
After the men had tied Astro, they released him from the effects of the ray charge and threw him down beside Roger.
"How do you feel?" asked Tom.
"Like I've been run through a set of gears," mumbled Astro. "How about yourself?"
"O.K.," replied Tom. "Was it"—he paused—"was it tough in the air lock?"
Roger smiled. "Not as tough as it must have been on you up here. We realized what was going on as soon as we found out we were losing air."
The blond-haired cadet shook his head and Tom noticed that both Roger and Astro were weak from their ordeal in the chamber.
At the control panel, Coxine was bawling orders to his crew. "Jet boats one, two, three, four, and five! Stand by to blast off!"
The three cadets looked at each other helplessly.
"Russell, check in," continued the burly spaceman.
"Russell here!" replied a voice on the intercom.
"You're in charge of the party. I want you to do one thing, and one thing only! Take the largest ships on the spaceport and blast off. Don't touch anything else! Just the ships. Those you can't get off the ground, leave. We'll blast them later!"
"Aye, aye, sir."
Coxine strode over to the teleceiver. Immediately the image of a man in the uniform of a Solar Guard major appeared on the screen. His voice echoed in the control room.