"Waved?" Rick asked.
"Yep. It was a real jaunty wave."
Rick shook his head in bewilderment. "My, that was friendly."
"I thought so," Scotty agreed. "Come on, boy. We've got to make tracks out of here. Time is running out."
Rick collected his shirt and jumped into the jeep. Scotty backed around and headed toward the base as fast as the road allowed. Not until they were down on relatively level ground did they try to converse.
"The rifleman must have read about David and Goliath," Rick said. "Why else would he run off?"
Scotty chuckled. "He was helpless. He was in deadly peril, as the storybooks say. Seriously, I think he was helpless."
Rick stared at his pal. Scotty could mean only one thing. "Then he had no intention of hitting us?"
"I doubt it. He was shooting at short range, and even a poor shot couldn't very well have missed as often as he did. Besides, I don't think you'd find many poor shots with rifles in this country."
"Then he must have been trying to scare us off," Rick said thoughtfully. "When you started heaving rocks at him, he knew we weren't scaring very much."
"Not much," Scotty said ruefully. "I don't know about you, but my innards turned to custard."
Rick grinned. He knew exactly what Scotty meant. "If things had happened a little more slowly, I'd have dropped dead from sheer fright. But I didn't have time. Anyway, when you started with your sling, he had a choice of shooting for keeps or getting out of there. So he got. Is that how you figure it?"
"Exactly right. What other explanation is there? Stones against rifle slugs isn't much of a contest. I only tried it because there wasn't anything else to do."
"We could have stayed under cover until Mac and Pancho arrived," Rick pointed out.
"Negative. All he had to do was shift position and he'd have had a clear shot at us."
That was true, Rick realized. "But why did he try to scare us off?"
"It beats me. He wasn't a guard, I'm sure. If he was guarding something, he wouldn't have ridden off and left us there. And there wasn't anything personal in it, because he waved at me like an old pal. It was a kind of humorous wave. You know? Real jaunty."
Rick asked the obvious question. "Was it the Earthman?"
And Scotty made the obvious answer. "I didn't have a chance to ask him. Anyway, he didn't wear armor."
Rick had been keeping his eye on the road ahead. "Pull over," he said quickly. "Let's get out and be looking at cactus or something. I think Mac and Pancho are coming."
Scotty complied quickly and shut off the jeep engine. The boys got out and walked quickly into the desert, found a barrel cactus, and began dissecting it with Rick's scout knife.
The dust cloud that marked an oncoming vehicle grew larger, and in a few minutes they saw the panel truck and the trailer with radar dish mounted on it. As the truck drew nearer they stood up, Rick holding the cactus impaled on his knife. It was a natural action; simple curiosity would require that they pause to see who might be in a passing vehicle.
The truck drew abreast and slowed. Big Mac was driving. Pancho leaned out and waved. "Hiya, kids!"
They echoed him. "Hiya, Pancho." Then the truck was past, en route to the mesa for the day's dry run.
Rick drew a deep breath. "In the clear," he said with relief. Suddenly he grinned. "This is what I call progress. We go to Careless Mesa. We find nothing. We get shot at. We add to the mystery without adding a single thing to the puzzle. One more day like this and we'll have to put our Junior G-man badges back in the cereal box where we got 'em."
"I beat you," Scotty said unhappily. "I left mine under a rock at the top of the mesa."
There was an air of anticipation everywhere at the Scarlet Lake rocket base. Rick, who was sensitive to such things, felt it keenly. He also recognized that under the anticipation, like thick, stagnant water under the bright surface of a pond, there was fear.
The anticipation was spoken; the fear was not.
By mutual agreement, Rick and Scotty parted soon after their return to the base. Each went back to his own unit, more on guard then ever before for the slightest hint of irregularity in personnel or equipment.
The electronics group of Pegasus was just about at a standstill. Dick Earle and Frank Miller had gone to the firing area, to lend the Orion group a hand. Dr. Bond remained, along with Kassick and Sherman. The three were amusing themselves with a game of three-handed bridge, while the marmoset occasionally made things lively by stealing cards.
Rick watched for a few minutes, then wandered into the empty Orion shed, abandoned now that its crew and rocket had moved to the firing pad and blockhouse. As he stood looking at the complex test equipment a sedan pulled up and Gee-Gee Gould got out. The electronics chief waved at him and trotted by into the project office. He returned in a moment with a portable tube and circuit tester under his arm and paused to ask, "What's up, boy-oh?"
Rick answered briefly, "No transistors, no work."
"Not exactly, sir. But I wish I could do something useful instead of just hanging around."
Gee-Gee stroked his magnificent mustache. "I'm with you," he said finally. "Jump in."
Rick needed no further invitation. He took the tester from the scientist and climbed into the sedan, holding the gadget on his lap. "Where are we going?" he asked.
"Pad. Work to do, and you can help. Do a good job with me and I'll give you a special reward. Check?"
"Check," Rick agreed, grinning. "What's the reward?"
"Watch Orion from the blockhouse with me. Good?"
"Plenty good," Rick said, pleased. "What's the work?"
Gee-Gee drove the way he talked, at high speed and with a flourish. Rick held his breath as the sedan skidded around a gasoline truck, then leveled off. Gee-Gee gave him a long glance and almost went off the road in consequence.
"You're fairly new, Rick. But you know about this Earthman?"
"I've heard plenty of rumors," Rick agreed, "but I can't say I know many facts about him. He's a big, noctilucent mystery to me." He thought, "Now he's got me doing it!"
"I like that," Gee-Gee said appreciatively. "High, rare, and mysterious. Like noctilucent clouds high above the cirrus belt. I can use it."
Rick chuckled. "You were talking about the Earthman," he prompted.
"Yes. You weren't here for the first two shoots, so you are not this Earthman. And I'm not. No one knows this but me, on account of everyone suspects everyone. So far, only the Earthman knows who he is. But I'm telling you, it's not me. You don't have to believe this, of course, but, young Brant, I'm going to check every electronic circuit in Orion myself. And you're not only going to help me, you're going to check what I check. Roger?"
"Roger," Rick replied grimly. "How long will it take?"
"All night. We'll live on sandwiches and coffee and get no sleep. But when we're through, we'll both be satisfied that all electronics in Orion are correct and functioning."
"But hasn't the rocket been checked already?" Rick asked.
"Twice. Every circuit in it. The critical circuits have been checked a dozen times. But is ole Gee-Gee satisfied? Negative, young Brant. Gee-Gee is not going to be satisfied until he personally rechecks and locks all access doors and ports himself."
Rick sat back in the seat, smiling to himself. He had no doubt that Dr. Gerald Gould meant every word of it. If Orion failed tomorrow, it would not be the fault of the electronics department.
The sedan pulled up at the pad and Rick got out, staring at the great rocket. Myriad cables dripped from various parts of it, and he thought of Gulliver tied down by the threads of the Lilliputians. There was something magnificent about the clean, towering shape that stirred his imagination. In the jargon of the rocketeer the great missiles were called "beasts" or "birds." The former was because they sometimes acted "beastly." The latter was a tribute to their beautiful flight when they ran true.
Rick thought, "How could anyone sabotage a thing like that?"
Gee-Gee brought him back to earth. "Ever climb a gantry?"
"Well, start flying, young Brant. We go to the top and work down."
Rick went. He was too excited to be afraid. The first stage was by elevator. Then he and Gee-Gee climbed thin steel rungs to the very tip of the great rocket. Not until he reached the shaky, wind-blown, postage-stamp-size platform at the top did he take time to look down.
The thin steel web was no barrier to vision. He was on top of the world, at the doorstep to space, looking down on fantastic activity below. The rocket curved sweetly away below him, down to the sharp lines of the great stabilizer fins. He noted the breakaway zone where the first stage and second stage were joined. He could see, as one perched on a cloud, the tiny, busy forms of men below.
For an instant, as the nose access port yawned before him, Rick had a vision of himself in pressure suit and plastic helmet, mounting the rocket as a pilot mans his plane, anticipating the signal for blast-off.
Gee-Gee brought him back to earth with a prosaic, "Let's get at it, boy-oh."
It was the beginning. The picturesque but highly competent and efficient electronics chief hadn't exaggerated. The fabulous world of rocketry narrowed to a maze of wiring, circuit after circuit, checking, testing, and calling for test signals from the blockhouse. Rick checked and rechecked, following closely on Gee-Gee's heels. He missed nothing, took nothing for granted. Once he snapped, "Wait a minute! You didn't check that circuit properly. Check for polarization as well as contact."
Gee-Gee looked at him in astonishment, then slowly grinned. He thrust out a grimy hand. "You're my boy, young Brant. Who taught you about polarization?"
Rick was about to say, truthfully, "My father." But he caught himself in time. "A boss I had at Spindrift."
"He taught you well, and you're right. I did goof on that one. I'll check, and you recheck."
They went at it again, inch by inch through the incredible maze of wiring in the rocket's innards. By very accurate analogy, they were probing the rocket's brains. The circuits, like nerves, carried messages to and from the central rocket control. One would signal "Rocket starting to yaw," and another would reply to the servomotors that activated the gimbal-mounted motor, "Compensate! Two degrees correction azimuth 350!" and the great rocket would steady on course again. There was a circuit to carry the heartbeats of the monkey caged in the nose cone, and another to carry his skin temperature, and dozens more.
Rick didn't even notice when it grew dark. Sometime during the night someone thrust ham sandwiches and a cup of steaming coffee into his hands and he ate and drank without taking his eyes from Gee-Gee.
Then, what seemed only minutes later, someone yelled, "Zero minus three hours!"
Gee-Gee looked up. He glared at Rick from red-rimmed eyes. "Quick! What's left to check?"
Rick stared at smudged, much-handled circuit diagrams through eyes that refused to focus sharply. "Only the control circuit for the pumps."
They were low on the crane now, working at the last access port. These were the electronic nerves of the great pumps that would force fuel into the rocket motor. Gee-Gee checked them, spoke into a walkie-talkie he had carried through the night, and Dick Earle's voice came back from the blockhouse. "The board is green."
Rick took over and checked again. And once more Earle's voice sounded, harsh and definite. "The board is green."
Gee-Gee slammed the access port door and locked the patented fasteners with a few turns of his screw driver. "We're done," he said flatly. "Come on down."
Rick followed, jumping to the ground from the lowest platform. He looked around, dazed. The sky was pink in the east. It was dawn. Where had the night gone? He stared amazed at grotesque figures that waited, silent, patient, like beings from another world. Then he realized it was the fueling crew dressed in protective clothing, swathed like strange cocoons in plastic that would keep their vulnerable human skins from the harm of corrosive liquid and fumes.
Gee-Gee led him to the blockhouse, and the walk across the barren plain cleared the mists from Rick's head. He knew, as clearly and finally as anyone can ever know anything, that the electronic circuits were all in order and functioning.
The massive door of the blockhouse was open. Inside were two dozen men, each with his own place and his own job. Rick knew some of them by sight, but he knew few names. This was the Orion crew. He looked at them with respect. They had made the great rocket on which he had worked all night. They had created it from sketches on paper, followed it through all the stages of construction until now it was ready.
A loud-speaker crackled, then boomed, "The time is now zero minus ninety minutes."
They were the fastest ninety minutes Rick had ever spent. He was enthralled by the activity in the blockhouse, and, careful to keep out of the way, he walked from station to station. Now and then he looked through the thick glass ports, and he saw the green mist of boron hydride as fuel throbbed slowly into the rocket's tanks.
A thin, bald scientist in a scarlet sports shirt picked up a microphone and spoke into it. "Tracking stations, report your readiness. Stand by. Lathrop Wells, report."
A loud-speaker over his head replied instantly. "Lathrop Wells ready and tracking."
Tonopah, Indian Springs, Mercury, Death Valley Junction, Shorty's Well, Chloride Cliff, Jubilee Pass: All ready and tracking. Then:
Big Mac's voice boomed forth. "Careless Mesa ready and tracking."
The time: "Zero minus thirty minutes!"
One by one red lights on the main board winked out and green lights came on in their places, showing circuits and controls in operation. Only a few red lights remained now. Rick looked through the glass ports and saw the gantry crane being wheeled away. Jeeps, trucks, and private cars were moving out of the area, haste evident in their spinning wheels and hunched drivers. The movement was like a scurry of ants. Rick watched, taking in everything. He didn't even notice when the massive door was swung shut, closing against its airtight cushion with a sibilant hiss.
"Zero minus five minutes."
At last the frenzied activity ceased, and the rocket stood alone, clean, beautiful, and awesome, only the instrument cable tying it to earth.
Rick couldn't tear his eyes from the rocket, even to watch the last of the red lights flick out, the green glow showing readiness.
Then, zero minus five ... four ... three ... two ... one ...
A steady hand threw the final switch.
Green flame stabbed from Orion's tail, grew to white intensity. The instrument cable dropped from the rocket's nose and writhed to the ground. Even through the thick walls of the blockhouse Rick heard the mighty rocket's voice, an ear-shattering roar of triumph that sent lancing pain through his head. The rocket shuddered, eager to be away. Thrust built up, and up, and up, and the exhaust light grew until it was like staring into the heart of a green sun. Then the great voice faltered, the shuddering increased.
A yell of pure horror burst from Rick's throat. High on the rocket's side, metal slowly peeled back like obscene steel lips opening, and green fire gushed forth. The shuddering ceased, and he knew the rocket was dead. The gash opened wider ... wider ...
The blockhouse door swung open and men poured out—silent, horrified men, helpless to do anything but watch, oblivious to the danger. Rick went out with them.
The desert was alive with sound now, with the roaring torch of rocket propellant and the scream of sirens. Speeding down from the base camp came the fire engines, to save what could be saved, to help still the flames so the Orion crew might find out what had gone wrong.
Behind the fire engines were jeeps, trucks, and cars, loaded with grim men who carried picks, shovels, anything to help still the holocaust.
Scotty arrived right behind the fire engines and ran to where Rick stood, still stunned by the shocking turn of events.
"What happened to it?" Scotty asked hoarsely.
Rick shook his head. He couldn't talk.
The firemen were already at work. Crews from the trucks, protected by asbestos and plastic, carried hoses to the very edge of the roaring propellant and began to smother it with mounds of foam. The men who had followed with shovels and picks were also at work, hastily digging a trench to prevent the spread of the fiery liquid.
Someone yelled, then another yelled. Rick looked up in time to see the rocket split wide open and most of the remaining tons of propellant gush out. The firemen saw it, too, saw that they would be engulfed. They turned and ran.
Horrified, Rick saw a fireman, clumsy in his protective suit, trip and fall before the oncoming flood of flaming boron hydride.
Scotty moved, instinctively, his finely trained body responding with perfect co-ordination. Straight toward the oncoming flood he ran, into the edge of the flames, leaping the rapidly widening trench. Rick ran, too, but Scotty's fast reaction had carried his pal beyond reach. He saw the husky ex-marine stoop into the flames, pick up the fallen fireman, and literally throw him across the trench to safety.
Then Rick was at his friend's side, slapping at the burning places on his clothes, rushing him away from the spreading propellant. But Scotty wasn't through. He helped the fireman to his feet and pulled at the protective suit. Rick saw instantly what had happened. The suit had been torn in the fall, and some propellant had gotten in through the rents. The fireman was burning under the protective cover!
Other hands came to help and they got the man out of his cover, out of his burning clothes. Then the first-aid squad moved in.
Not until the fireman had been cared for did Scotty say, almost apologetically, "Any of that stuff left? I've got a couple of burns."
Then Rick noticed for the first time that his own hands were scorched and in need of the soothing unguent. By the time he and Scotty were smeared with the ointment, the fire was out.
The boys watched as water was sprayed over the white-hot wreckage until at last the safety officer pronounced the torn remnants cool enough for inspection. Then John Gordon and the senior staff moved in.
It was past noon before they emerged from their inch-by-inch examination of the rocket, but no one left to eat, to change clothes, or even to sit down. No one thought of it.
John Gordon motioned to Dr. Albert Hiller, the Orion project officer. Hiller nodded. He spoke quietly, but not one of the hundreds watching missed a single word.
"Apparently a fuel-pump bearing froze at the critical moment. With an unstable fuel like boron hydride, that made the difference. Internal pressure was too much for the shell to take."
The engineer paused, and the tense, waiting silence became almost too much to bear. Hiller knew what the men were waiting for.
"We found no pictures," he said. "We'll continue the examination in the laboratory, of course. But as of this moment we cannot say whether it was the kind of accident that rocketeers always have to expect, or whether someone tampered with the pump. By someone, I mean—the Earthman."
Ghost Town Clue
Rick refused point-blank to go to bed. He wasn't tired, he insisted, and he meant it.
Scotty yielded. "Okay. I see your point. It's hard enough to sleep in the daytime anyway, but when you're all keyed up, it's impossible. Didn't lunch make you sleepy at all?"
"A little, but that shower and change of clothes woke me up again. Scotty, I'll never forget that horrible instant when I realized that Orion wasn't going to take off. Honest, it was like watching something beautiful die. It..."
Hank Leeming, their security officer roommate, came into the bunkroom in time to hear Rick's last comment. Hank was young, usually smiling. He wasn't smiling now. "I was in the blockhouse when the first one blew. I know how you feel, Rick. It makes you want to lay violent hands on the man responsible."
The security officer changed the subject abruptly. "Luis Hermosa wants to see the boy who saved his life, and the one who helped."
"You mean the fireman who fell in the propellant?" Scotty asked.
"That's the one. He's in the infirmary. Can you both go?"
Scotty shrugged. "Sure. If he wants us to. But he doesn't owe us anything. Someone else would have dragged him out if we hadn't."
"If you hadn't," Rick corrected. "I didn't move fast enough."
"Neither did anyone else," Hank pointed out. "Don't be overmodest about it, Scotty. Go and see him."
The infirmary, operated by Lomac, was only a block away. Rick and Scotty walked over and checked in at the reception desk.
The infirmary clerk directed them to one of the four rooms in the little base hospital. "Go right in."
Luis Hermosa was awake. Rick knew he must be in pain from his burns, which were extensive, but his smile gave no evidence of it. It was a warm smile that demanded a smile in return.
"This morning there was no chance to give you my thanks," he greeted them. "I asked for you to come so that you may know how I feel."
Scotty put a hand gently on one of the bandaged ones. "No thanks are necessary."
Luis shook his head. "It was a brave thing. You might also have been caught by the fuel, and you did not even have a suit such as I wore. When I and my family light candles to thank God and to ask His blessing for you, we will want to give Him your names."
They told him their names, and his lips moved as he repeated them. Then he waved them to chairs. "Please sit down and talk with me for a few minutes. This is not a place where one can extend the hospitality of his house, but I can at least offer you chairs."
Keen brown eyes surveyed them. "You are both very young, eh? What are you doing here?"
"Working," Scotty answered. "I'm in vehicle maintenance and Rick is in Pegasus electronics."
"So? It is an exciting place in which to work. Even I, a fireman, feel this excitement. Tell me, do you think this hombre de terra, this Earthman, was the cause of the tragedy this morning? I call it a tragedy, because it was so. So much work, so much love went into that rocket! Sangre de Cristo! It was a terrible thing."
"No one seems to know for sure," Rick replied. "The project officer couldn't say. But there was no Earthman picture."
The bandaged hands spread expressively. "A picture could have been burned. Now perhaps we will never know. You understand, I have thought much about this thing. Once I believed this Earthman made the rockets go bad because he must think such things are against the will of God. But when I heard of the thefts, I no longer thought so. I thought about how a thief could take his stolen wealth from this guarded place."
"We've wondered about that, too," Scotty said.
"You decided something?"
Rick leaned forward on his chair. Luis Hermosa had started him thinking again.
"The thief couldn't get his stolen goods from the base if he went through a gate in his own car, could he?"
"He would not dare," Luis replied, "because he knows the guards check the trunks of cars, and sometimes even look under seats. He might be unlucky. He would know this."
"Spot check," Scotty nodded.
Rick hadn't known about the spot check, but it made sense. He continued, "So there's only one way. The thief has to take the stolen supplies from the base in an official vehicle."
"Such vehicles are not checked," Luis agreed excitedly. "But also, such vehicles are not taken far from this camp. If a truck, say, were gone too long, would it not be noticed?"
"It certainly would," Scotty stated.
"There must be only a few places where the thief could go," Rick said thoughtfully. "When he reaches one, he must hide his stolen goods and leave them. Later, by traveling a long way to reach the spot from the main road, he could get the stolen stuff with his own car. Or, maybe someone from outside who doesn't work on the base at all could go to the hiding place and pick them up. Can you think of any other way?"
Luis and Scotty couldn't, and said so.
Rick asked, "What are the possible places?"
"What would such a place need to be like?" Luis asked, then answered his own question, "It would need to be on a road, not only leading from the base, but to the outside. Also, it would need to be a lonely place, would it not? And it would need to be a place where the things could be hidden and not be seen, but where a helper from outside could find them easily. You see, I follow your reasoning. Where is such a place?"
The boys waited. Luis knew the area. He might have a good idea.
"There is one which is perfect. It is called Steamboat."
"But that's a town," Rick objected. "People would notice a truck from the base."
Luis chuckled. "People, yes. Ghosts, no. An evil man like this Earthman would not care what a ghost saw, would he? Ah, but you are new here, and you do not know. Steamboat is a town without people. No one has lived there for forty years."
"A ghost town," Scotty said in surprise. "But don't tourists go to ghost towns?"
"They do," Luis agreed. "They go to Searchlight, and to Rhyolite, and to Calico, and other ghost towns near here. But they do not go to Steamboat. It is on bad roads, many miles from the nearest good highway. Besides, who has heard of Steamboat? No newspaper writes about it, and no one advertises it. You cannot even buy a souvenir at Steamboat. There is no one to sell them. Ghosts do not peddle souvenirs."
Luis chuckled at his own joke. "You have a good head, Mr. Brant. I will think about this. Perhaps you will think some more, too, and we will compare notes later. Will you come to visit me again?"
"We'll come," they promised.
Outside in the brilliant sunlight, Rick said to Scotty, "You bet we'll go to see him again! How did you like his idea about the ghost town?"
"It can be reached from Careless Mesa," Scotty pointed out. "I wish we'd known it was a ghost town. We could have explored it some afternoon."
Rick said what had been on his mind since Luis made his suggestion. "I think we'd better pay it a visit."
"What's the matter with right now?"
"Nothing, I guess. But why the rush?"
Rick wasn't sure himself. "Maybe there isn't any rush. But on the other hand, maybe there is. Look, we've kind of assumed Mac and Pancho are in on this, haven't we? Well, their movements must be pretty well known, at least while they're at work."
"They have to check their truck in and out. Why?"
"Let's talk about it over a coke. It's hot."
They hiked to the recreation hall and got cokes from the automatic dispenser. Rick set his thoughts in order.
"I'm not so sure about Mac and Pancho. They were at Careless Mesa this morning. At least I'm certain Mac was, because I heard his voice when he checked in by radio. And probably Pancho was, too, because it takes two men to handle a radar unit. One of them might have been able to sabotage a rocket, although I doubt it, but how could they take advantage of the confusion to steal the transistors when they're not even on the base?"
Scotty finished his coke and banged the bottle on the table for emphasis. "Okay. They couldn't. But why are you so sure they couldn't sabotage a rocket?"
"I'm not sure," Rick replied. "But now that I've seen how the base works, it seems to me that only someone who works on the rockets could sabotage one."
"Careful," Scotty said with a groan. "You're dumping the only suspects we have."
Rick grinned ruefully. "I know it. Anyway, we have to keep moving, even if it means starting all over again. So let's start at Steamboat."
"Okay. And just for the fun of it, I'll check the vehicle board. It won't hurt to know how much time Mac and Pancho have spent off the base in their truck. Suppose I gas up the jeep and meet you at the barracks?"
"I'll check out with Pegasus. Will you have any trouble?"
"No. Everything just about closes down the day of a shoot. I'll be there in ten minutes."
The boys parted at the door of the recreation hall and Rick started back to the barracks. As he passed the main administrative building, John Gordon fell in step.
"If I knew you two, I'd be mighty proud of both of you," the scientist said whimsically. "You for the job you did with Gee-Gee last night, and Scotty for pulling that fireman out this morning."
Rick smiled his thanks. "Anything new?"
"Not so far. Tom Preston is having the warehouses checked, just in case. But it's a terrific job going through an inventory item by item."
"Can you find out if the clerks leave the warehouses during a shoot?" Rick asked.
"Tom has already gone to work on that. I'll find a way to let you know. Keep in touch, Rick."
Rick continued on to the barracks, mind churning with confused thoughts. If only they had a few hard facts to work on! There wasn't a single definite clue to anyone. And, after last night, how could he suspect any of the dedicated, hard-working rocketeers? Impossible to imagine that anyone who had worked so hard on one of the projects could deliberately sabotage it. Yet, there was no other answer. No one outside the technical and scientific staff would have the opportunity or knowledge.
"At least," he concluded ruefully, "if we assume it's someone with ready access to the projects, we've cut down the size of the haystack. We're looking for one man out of only about five hundred!"
Stranded in Steamboat
The road to Steamboat led by Careless Mesa, then through a series of twists and turns down to comparatively level country again. According to the map, the ghost town was in a valley next to a dry lake bed.
Rick glanced at his watch. "It's going to be late when we get there."
"Maybe that's good," Scotty returned. "If anyone is in the town we'll see lights. This country is so wide open it would be hard to sneak up on the town in daylight."
"It would, if there was anything to sneak up for. Haven't you got the feeling this is a wild-goose chase?"
Scotty dodged a deep hole in the road. "It could be. But we can't just sit around waiting for the Earthman to hand us a calling card. Besides, Mac and Pancho were gone long enough to reach Steamboat and return to base this morning." That was what the vehicle-control board had shown.
"They might have been just waiting at Careless Mesa," Rick pointed out. "We have no evidence they went to Steamboat. Besides, if anything was stolen during the shoot this morning, they couldn't have been in on it."
"That's true. But we can't lose by looking the town over. Besides, I've never seen a real ghost town."
Rick watched the desert go by, his mind busy with the problems. As Scotty had said, if Mac and Pancho weren't in on the thefts, someone was. That someone had to get the stolen goods off the base and to a location from which it could be carried to civilization. He toyed with the idea that the stolen transistors might simply have been destroyed or hidden by the Earthman in order to hold up work at the base. That didn't seem likely.
The facts of time and distance certainly eliminated Mac and Pancho. During the shoots they were miles away. They had little or no opportunity to get close to the rockets. It was only reasonable to cross them—and all other radar-tracking teams—off the suspect list. Yet, Rick couldn't forget his initial feeling about the pair.
Scotty pointed. "Isn't that a town?"
The jeep had topped a gentle rise. Below lay a small, dry lake bed. At one edge of the dry lake, nestled in low foothills, were gray, weathered buildings. It was almost certainly Steamboat.
Scotty stopped the jeep and they surveyed the countryside with care. There was no sign of movement, no sign of a dust cloud from any other vehicle.
The sun was low in the west. In a short time it would be out of sight beyond the mountains, then darkness would close in. Rick reached into the jeep's glove compartment and found the flashlight he had stowed there. He checked it, then asked, "What are we waiting for?"
"Ideas," Scotty replied. "What say we roll right on through the town without stopping, then turn and come back through that wash at the base of the hills?"
Rick looked to where the dark-haired boy pointed. He saw the shadow of a gully that followed the foothills closely.
"Think it's necessary?" he asked.
Scotty shrugged. "Probably not. But it's better to be careful than sorry later."
"Okay with me. Let's go."
Scotty put the jeep in gear and they rolled swiftly down to the level of the dry lake bed and toward Steamboat. A few minutes later they entered the town.
Rick inspected the buildings with care. It looked like the setting for a Western motion picture, except for the lack of people and horses, and the lack of paint. He identified a pair of stores, a two-story building that could only have been a hotel, a livery stable, and several buildings without identification of any kind. There was only one street, and they were on it. Nowhere was there a sign of life. Then they were through the town, and the road climbed gently toward the foothills.
Scotty held the jeep at a steady speed for over a mile. As the road gradually curved around a rock outcropping, he said, "Look behind and tell me when the town is out of sight."
Rick turned in his seat in time to see Steamboat vanish behind the outcropping. "Now."
Scotty brought the jeep to a halt. "The road should fork pretty soon, shouldn't it?"
"That's right. Left fork to Pahrump Valley, right fork to Death Valley."
"Let's hit the ditch." Scotty reached down and put the jeep into four-wheel drive, then turned left off the road.
The bottom of the dry wash was alternately sandy and studded with boulders. Scotty picked his way with care, but it was a rough ride. Once or twice he stopped while Rick climbed the slope of the wash for a survey of the situation. Finally they pulled to a halt and both boys reconnoitered ahead, to find a good way out of the wash and onto the road. Satisfied that getting from the wash onto level ground would pose no problems, they turned off the jeep engine and settled down to wait.
Again, Rick felt the futility of what they were doing. They might wait for weeks without ever seeing another human being.
"There's going to be a moon," Scotty remarked.
Rick looked up at the slim crescent. "Yes, but not much of a moon. I'd rather depend on a flashlight."
Scotty stirred restlessly. "Maybe we should have explored the town."
"Maybe. It's too late now, except to explore by flashlight. We can always come back during daylight."
They fell silent while darkness settled in. Rick began to feel drowsy now that the excitement was at an end. He let his head droop. Presently he slept.
Suddenly he realized Scotty was shaking him. "I'm awake," he whispered. "What's up? What time is it?"
"Nearly nine. I was going to let you sleep for a while before starting back." Scotty's voice was low. "A car came along the road. Not from the base. The other way. It was traveling without lights. It stopped in town."
"Let's go," Rick whispered. He got out of the jeep, Scotty on his heels. They moved carefully up the slope of the wash and emerged on the open desert behind the town.
Scotty took his arm. "Follow me." The dark-haired boy moved into the lead.
They moved in a bent-over position, making their way from bush to bush, careful to move silently. Rick's pulse began to hammer. Why should anyone come to the ghost town, especially in a darkened vehicle? For the first time he felt hope. They might find out something of importance after all!
Scotty led the way, taking advantage of every bit of cover, and in a short time they emerged from the desert behind the row of ghostly, abandoned buildings. Rick recognized the hotel, the only two-story structure in the town. It was directly in front of them.
"Wait here a minute," Scotty whispered. He moved quickly and silently into the shadow of the livery stable. Scotty was skillful at this kind of work, and Rick knew it was best to let him reconnoiter alone.
Presently Scotty materialized from the shadows and moved to Rick's side. He whispered, "They came in a sedan. I couldn't see any lights, but I heard voices. They're in the hotel."
"Let's get closer," Rick replied softly.
Scotty plucked at his sleeve and Rick followed, moving swiftly into the shadow of the livery stable. Scotty moved slowly along the wall, then crossed the narrow alley between the stable and hotel with one long step, hesitating at the hotel corner. Rick followed silently. There was a window. Scotty crouched, so he would be below the window, and scuttled past it. Rick was right behind him.
The rear door of the hotel was next. Scotty's gesture told Rick they would stop there and try to listen. Scotty moved a few steps and stopped once more. He was in position. Rick crowded close behind him, then moved out from the wall a little so that he, too, could hear directly through the door.
From almost under his foot came a strident, warning buzz, and an icy ripple moved down his back. A snake! And he couldn't even see it! He froze where he was, muscles tense for the shock of needle-sharp fangs. He waited an eternity, not even daring to breathe. There were voices from within the hotel, but he didn't hear what they were saying. At that moment he couldn't possibly have cared less.
Then, his probing eyes saw the faint outline of the creature, half coiled, flattened head weaving. It was barely beyond striking distance. He watched it, not daring to look away, not daring to move.
Had Scotty heard the snake? But of course he must have. Rick reached with infinite caution and tugged at his pal's sleeve. Scotty would have to move first. Then Rick could move slowly to a position tight against the wall, where Scotty was now. Only by moving into the wall could he get away from the snake.
But in that moment the rattler apparently decided it had waited long enough. The evil head moved slowly toward Rick's foot.
Rick couldn't help it. He let out an involuntary yelp and jumped sideways, into Scotty. Scotty had no place to go but through the hotel door. He crashed into the rickety, partly hanging door, Rick on top of him.
Rick tried to get to his feet, sensing sudden noise and movement within the hotel, but he wasn't fast enough. A hand grabbed him by the arm and hauled him upright, and a fist glanced off his cheek-bone, snapping his head back.
Scotty, underneath, gathered his feet under him and charged like a plunging fullback, directly into the hotel. There was a grunt as the boy's head met yielding flesh, then a powerful arm circled his neck and he was lifted off his feet, fighting for breath.
A hand yanked Rick forward. His arms were twisted behind him. A pencil flashlight flicked on briefly and a voice muttered, "It's a couple of kids!"
Rick struggled, but subsided when it became clear that he could do nothing but wrench his arms out of joint.
A man muttered, "Rope in the car trunk."
Feet sounded on the boards of the hotel. Rick tried to pierce the gloom, to see his captors, but there wasn't enough light to see more than vague shapes. He had never heard the voices before. The feet came back. The voice said, "Lash 'em tight."
Rick was dumped face down on the dusty floor. Expert hands tied his wrists and ankles tight and lashed them together, with his knees bent at an acute angle and his shoulders pulled back. Next to him he sensed that Scotty was getting the same treatment.
A voice whispered, "Wonder who they are?"
"Doesn't matter," the first voice said. "We'll be out of here in fifteen minutes, if the others keep to schedule, and we won't be back. We can't use this place again."
A third voice broke in. "I didn't see a car. They must have cached it somewhere."
"You're right," the first voice agreed. "Find it, and fix it. Where'll we put these kids?"
The second voice had a suggestion. "The old jail across the street. We can lash 'em to the bunks."
Rick felt himself lifted like a sack of grain. He swayed as the man lugged him through the front of the hotel, across the porch, and into the street. His captor rounded the car that was waiting there and Rick strained to turn his head, to try to see the license plate, but couldn't catch a glimpse of it.
A creaky door was swung open and he was carried into an inner room and dropped face down. It knocked the breath out of him for a moment. When he recovered, he was tightly lashed to a rusty iron frame. His groping fingers felt the frame and the rope, but the knots were beyond his reach.
A voice asked, "Will we turn 'em loose later? We don't want 'em to die in here."
"They won't. They can get loose, but it will take a while and we'll be long gone. Come on."
The door creaked again. Rick listened to the sound of footsteps across loose boards, then there was silence.
Scotty whispered, "What do we do now? Wait for the Lone Ranger and Tonto?"
Rick had to grin, in spite of their plight. "Looks like it," he agreed. There was something ridiculous about being bundled into an antique Western jail. "Anyway, we didn't get bitten by that blasted snake."
"That worried me plenty," Scotty agreed. "Can you move at all?"
Rick's fingers hadn't stopped exploring. "Not much. How about you?"
"There's a sharp end of wire under my hands. I'm going to see if I can loosen the knots. Keep working."
"Don't worry," Rick whispered fervently. "I will."
Silence fell, except for an occasional scrape as they struggled. Rick's arms began to hurt, and his neck felt as though it would never straighten again. Gradually he worked the rope end into reach and began to move it, hoping to loosen the knot. Then there was a soft exclamation of triumph from Scotty.
"Are you free?" Rick whispered quickly.
"No. But I pulled the rope between my wrists and ankles loose enough so I can move. Just a minute."
Scotty got to his knees, balancing precariously. "I'm going to try to slide my hands down the frame to yours."
Rick strained his neck trying to see if there were any obstacles in the way, but he could see nothing. Scotty grunted. "I think I'm hung up on a bolt that's sticking through the frame." There was silence for a few moments while the boy struggled. "Made it," he muttered. "The ropes loosened a little."
Presently Rick felt Scotty's fingers and moved his own, seeking the ropes around his pal's wrists. He probed, trying to find the key to the knots. Finally, his right forefinger touched a free end, and he followed it into a twist of rope. His first two fingers could just reach the twist, and he set to work on it, moving the rope back and forth, trying to pull on it. Suddenly it gave.
"One," he said softly. There was another knot immediately under the loop he had just untied. It was tougher than the first one, but eventually he made it.
"I think you loosened it a little," Scotty said. "Maybe I can slide a knot over that bolt and pull loose."
Scotty moved away from him, sliding his hands along the rusty frame. The boys worked in silence, Rick tackling his own knots again while Scotty tried to use the rusty bolt as a lever.
Rick had to give up for a while. His hands hurt too much, and he knew that Scotty's must be hurting, too.
"Listen!" Scotty said suddenly.
A car, or a truck, was approaching the town, from the direction of Careless Mesa!
The boys tackled the knots with desperation and suddenly Scotty fell forward as his hands loosened.
Outside, the car braked to a stop. Rick wondered if Mac and Pancho had come to keep a rendezvous? He couldn't get rid of the feeling that those two were involved somehow.
"A few minutes more," Scotty gritted. "The knots are loose." Then, "I got it."
Moving swiftly, Scotty untied his ankles and knelt at Rick's side. Long minutes later Rick felt the ropes fall from his wrists. It didn't take long to get his ankles free, and he stood up, rubbing circulation back into his hands.
Scotty went to the doorway of the old jail and Rick joined him. "See anything?"
"No," Scotty whispered. "We'll have to go outside."
"We can't go out the front," Rick murmured. "They'd see us. That car stopped right in front. Let's see if there's a back entrance of some kind."
He led the way to the rear of the jail building, walking carefully in the darkness. There were windows but they were barred. He carefully felt his way past the jail's only cell, and along the back wall.
Outside, a motor spun into life.
Rick whirled. "They're going!"
Another motor started.
The boys turned and hurried to the front of the building. They were in time to see a sedan shift and speed away from the hotel, following the road toward civilization.
They hurried into the street and Scotty pointed in the opposite direction. The road back to the base was a dim, pale ribbon in the faint moonlight. Along it a dark shape was speeding.
"That does it," Rick said aloud.
Scotty turned to watch the departing sedan. "It didn't take them long to complete their business, whatever it was. I didn't hear any talk, did you?"
"Not a word. Do you suppose that was Mac and Pancho that came from the base?"
"No way of knowing, but it could have been. Come on. Let's find our jeep."
The jeep was where they had left it, but the hood was up. Scotty hurried to look, while Rick went to the glove compartment. The flashlight hadn't been touched. He got it and joined Scotty, throwing the beam under the hood.
For a moment everything looked normal, then Rick saw that the distributor cap and rotor were missing. The question was, had the men simply hidden them? Or had they taken the parts along?
Scotty put his thoughts into words. "If the parts are here, we'll find them in the morning. If they aren't ..."
Rick finished, "We'll be here until someone finds us!"
Deadrock Ogg, Mayor
At dawn's first light Rick and Scotty began the search for the distributor cap and rotor. The boys searched methodically, taking in the area far beyond throwing distance, on the assumption that whoever had taken the two essential parts might have walked a distance away from the jeep before throwing them as far as he could.
"It's not here," Rick said positively.
Now all that remained was the town itself. They walked back to the town, Rick carrying the water bag and Scotty the canteen. At least their water hadn't been dumped.
Scotty paid careful attention to the vehicle tracks in the dust of the road.
"It's pretty clear," he pointed out at last. "Here's where the sedan was parked. And here's where the other vehicle parked. See how this area is scuffed up? They made quite a few trips, carrying something from the side of the vehicle to the rear of the sedan, probably stowing the stuff in the luggage compartment. And, from the tire tracks, I'd say the vehicle from the base was a light truck."
"Like Mac's truck?" Rick asked.
"Maybe. Anyway, whoever it was had to go through the guard gate, and the run might even be chalked up on the board. Not to here, of course, but maybe to Careless Mesa or Dry Spring."
"We can check when we get back," Rick said. "Come on. We'd better take the town apart and see if the rotor and distributor cap are here."
It was midmorning before they gave up the search, and both of them were exhausted.
"Now what?" Rick asked wearily. He had never in his life felt so badly in need of sleep. Except for a few brief catnaps in the jeep, he had been awake continuously for forty-eight tense hours.
Scotty scratched his head. "There are a few buildings we haven't searched yet."
"No, but they wouldn't be in those. If the men were going to leave them here, they'd drop them nearby and not hide them in one of the distant buildings. But I suppose we'd better look, anyway."
"We'd better. I'm fresher than you are. Go stretch out in the hotel lobby and I'll look."
Rick was too tired to argue. He walked into the comparative coolness of the rickety old hotel and found a section of undamaged floor. He removed his shoes, stretched out, and was asleep almost at once. In a short time Scotty joined him after an unsuccessful search.
When Rick woke again it was dark and Scotty was stretched out beside him, sound asleep. He turned over and went to sleep again.
Both boys woke up, stiff and bleary-eyed, as dawn light flooded the hotel. They grinned at each other.
"I must have slept for two days," Rick said.
"Not quite. Just about sixteen hours. But you needed it, and there wasn't anything to do."
"We're okay so long as the water lasts, but then what?" Rick knew without even putting it into words that they could never walk to civilization. Their water would run out and heat exhaustion would get them before they were halfway to anywhere. The base was closest, and it was over thirty miles away, across desert and waterless mountains.
Scotty walked over to what had once been the hotel desk and held up a can. "Want some breakfast?"
Rick was at his side in an instant, examining a can of tomatoes. "Where did you get it?" It was shiny, the label unfaded.
"Down the street. In one of the houses. Someone comes here now and then, I guess. There are blankets, a sleeping bag, and a small supply of food."
Rick's brows knitted. "Shouldn't we have been standing guard?"
"I thought about it," Scotty admitted, "but I figured there wasn't much sense to it. We'd welcome friend or foe at this point. Anyway, I don't think whoever hangs out here is part of the gang."
"Wouldn't the gang have been at his hide-out instead of here in the hotel? Besides, this looks like a cache for just one man."
Rick had to admit that made sense. "Do you suppose he's here now?"
"I doubt it. I'd have heard a car if one came into town last night. I wasn't sleeping that soundly."
"Well, I'm grateful to him, whoever he is. Let me at that can." Rick searched in his pocket and found his scout knife. He opened the can-opener blade and got to work. In a moment they were taking turns drinking the slightly acid, refreshing juice and pouring whole tomatoes into their mouths.
An amused voice spoke from the doorway. "Looks good."
Standing on the porch was a figure in worn but clean denims and miner's boots. His face was weathered from years in the desert sun. His hair was grizzled where it could be seen under an ancient and disreputable flat-topped, broad-brimmed hat. His eyes, under shaggy brows, were a clear, twinkling blue. The man held a rifle; the muzzle pointed unwaveringly at the boys.
"That your jeep in the wash?" he asked.
"That's ours," Scotty affirmed.
"Mislay a few parts?"
"You might say so," Rick agreed. "Who are you?"
"I'm the mayor of Steamboat."
The boys started. "The mayor?" Rick echoed.
"Yep. Likewise the sheriff. As mayor, I welcome you. As sheriff, I want your names and business."
The boys gave their names, then Scotty asked, "How did you get into town? I didn't hear a car."
"Good reason. I didn't drive. Now, what are you doing here?"
"Waiting to be rescued," Rick said on impulse.
"Reckon that can be arranged. You drove in, hey? But you didn't drive into town. Instead, you parked in the wash. Now, as sheriff, I find that mighty interesting. You wouldn't have parked there unless you didn't want to be seen. Only I suspect you were seen, and whoever did the seein' walked off with your distributor cap and rotor. Unless you have 'em, which I doubt. If you had 'em you wouldn't need rescuin'. Correct?"
"You're telling it," Rick replied courteously.
"Yep. Also, you're from Scarlet Lake, and you're nosy. Day before yesterday you got nosy at Careless Mesa and nearly got pinked. Are you busybodies, or have you got a right to snoop?"
Rick stared at the man. He had a strong suspicion they were looking at the mysterious rifleman. Since the man hadn't come into Steamboat by car, he must have come by horseback. The rifleman had departed from Careless Mesa by horseback, too.
Scotty spoke up, in response to the man's question. "You might say we're busybodies. We're curious about everything."
"Uh-uh. Toss me your badges."
Rick's eyes met Scotty's. He shrugged. There was no reason for not complying. Both boys detached their badges and tossed them across the floor. The man picked them up, examined them closely, then tossed them back.
"All right. Come on with me and we'll have some breakfast." He tucked the rifle under his arm, turned, and walked out. As the boys followed, they cast puzzled looks at each other. The man led them to the cache Scotty had found. A saddled horse was standing in front of the house.
"I've seen that horse before," Scotty said. "It was nice of you to wave at me up at Careless Mesa."
The man grinned.
Rick asked bluntly, "Why did you shoot at us?"
Twinkling blue eyes surveyed him. "Didn't. If I'd shot at you I'd have scored a few hits."
"You were warning us off," Scotty said. "Were we getting too close to something?"
The man tilted his hat back and chuckled. "Mighty curious pair, I'd say. No, son. But if you stayed around, I wouldn't get close to what I wanted to get close to. What's more, I figgered you weren't just tourists. You had a purpose in being at Careless Mesa. Your actions told me that, and I didn't want you there."
"We might have reported the shooting," Rick said carefully. "You could have gotten into trouble. Why didn't you just ask us to leave?"
"That would have brought questions I didn't want to answer. Why didn't you report it?"
That stopped Rick. They might have reported it, if there had been more opportunity to go into detail with John Gordon.
Conversation lapsed. The man filled a coffeepot from a water bag, brought out a propane-powered single-burner camp stove, and started the coffee going.
In a short time a simple breakfast of fruit juice, crackers, cheese, and coffee was ready. Then, as he juggled a hot mug of coffee, Rick said, "We're mighty grateful, sir. But we can't thank you properly when we don't know your name."
The man studied them again, over the lip of his coffee mug. "When did you boys get to Scarlet Lake?"
Rick told him. There was no reason to conceal it.
"Uh-uh. I figgered you were pretty new. Now tell me exactly what happened here last night."
The boys hesitated.
Rick asked, "Are you just being curious?"
"No. I've got a reason, and it's a good one."
Instinct told Rick that the man was more than he seemed, but that he was in no way a thief or law-breaker. Briefly he sketched the events of the previous night without going into the reasons for their own actions. Scotty filled in a few details.
"All right. I'm Deadrock Ogg. Besides being the mayor and all the other city officials of Steamboat I'm a prospector. Last night I was doin' a little prospectin' and I came up with pay dirt. You saw what happened here. Well, I kind of figgered in advance what was going to happen, and I waited on the turnoff to Pahrump Valley. A sedan went by me pretty fast, but not so fast I didn't get the license number. Mostly because I was lyin' at the roadside waitin', and interested only in that."
"But the sedan traveled without lights."
"Not past the turnoff it didn't. Road's too curvy, and in too much shadow. That's why I was there. I knew they'd have to turn on lights."
It was Rick's turn to give Deadrock Ogg his own question back. "Who are you, Mr. Ogg? Are you a busybody? Or do you have a right to snoop?"
Deadrock Ogg chuckled. "The answer you gave me is good enough. Now, I'm going to lend you a distributor cap and rotor."
"Where are you going to get the parts?" Scotty asked.
"My own jeep. I've got one cached just above here. Now, when you get back to Scarlet Lake, you see Tom Preston right away. You know who he is. Tell him exactly what you told me, and what I told you. And give him the number I'm goin' to write down for you. Then you ask Tom to send a plane back to drop off my cap and rotor. And tell him to send a walkie-talkie, too.
"Now, I got a real good idea what game you boys are playin' and it's fine by me. Only don't get into my game. Stay on the base. You mean well, but you could cross me up when it would hurt most. Some day, after we have the one we want, we'll compare notes. Now let's get goin'. You kids are goin' to have a long, long drive. I'm sendin' you home by way of Pahrump Valley."
"It's shorter directly back to the base," Scotty objected.
"Sure. And you'll attract more attention that way. Go through the valley and back to Route 95, and you'll enter from the front gate. Then who'll know you didn't spend the night in Vegas?"
It took only ten minutes to get the parts from Deadrock's jeep, which was parked in a ravine, invisible to anything except a low-flying plane. They said good-by to the "prospector" at the edge of town.
"Got the map in your heads? You won't get lost?" Deadrock asked.
"We'll be fine," Rick assured him.
"All right. Get goin'. And, boys—look out for sidewinders!"
Rick and Scotty took time to shower and change, then left on their prearranged errands. Scotty headed for his own department, to check all travel to the north since the Orion firing. Rick set out to find John Gordon.
The Spindrift scientist was not in his office, nor could Rick find him around the base. Finally he took the jeep and headed for the firing area.
There was considerable activity down on the lake bed. At a pad close to the blockhouse a tower was under construction. That was the launching tower for Cetus. But of even more personal interest to Rick was the presence of a gantry crane at a third firing pad where one of the special rocket-transport trucks was just putting the first stage of Pegasus into place!
It was at the Pegasus pad that he found Gordon, in conversation with Gee-Gee Gould, Dick Earle, Frank Miller, Cliff Damon, head of the instrumentation section, and Lars Jannsson, head of the Pegasus propulsion section.
"We'll start security immediately," Gordon was saying as Rick walked up. "Tom Preston will arrange for a guard around the clock. We'll also arrange an exchange-badge system, so no one gets inside the fence without handing in his own badge and getting a special one. That way, we'll have absolute control on who comes and goes."
Gee-Gee Gould saw Rick and dropped a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Rick and I will do the final electronics check, just as we did on Orion."
Rick looked at Gordon. "Did you say something about a fence, sir?"
"I did. Look over there." Gordon pointed to a crew with a mechanical posthole digger that was just starting work, then gestured to sticks with red flags that formed a huge box around the pad. "That's where the fence will go. And there will be only one gate."
Rick took advantage of the brief exchange with Gordon to wink at the scientist. Gordon picked up the cue quickly. "Can I ride back to the base with you? I rode down with Dick, but he's not ready to leave yet."
"Glad to have you, sir," Rick replied.
On the way back to the base Rick told his story in detail, starting with Scotty's and his own first suspicions about Mac and Pancho and ending with their rescue by Deadrock Ogg.
John Gordon remained silent for long minutes after Rick had finished. Finally he said, "You've certainly stirred up something, Rick, but I don't know how it fits into the over-all pattern. You and Scotty meet me in thirty minutes in my quarters and we'll see."
Rick dropped the scientist off at his office, then went to find Scotty. His pal was just emerging from the big maintenance shed. "Anything new?" Rick greeted him.
"Mac and Pancho took their truck out last night," Scotty reported. "The timing was right. They could have been driving the second vehicle that arrived while we were getting loose in the jail."
Rick looked at him curiously. "Funny. Why would they take a truck out? I mean, what legitimate reason could they have?"
"They made one. Mac told the dispatcher they'd left an important piece of gear at Careless Mesa."
So their hunch about Mac and Pancho had been right! But Rick still couldn't figure out how they were involved.
"How did you find out?" he asked.
"Easy. I checked the board. The dispatcher was sitting right there, so I just kind of wondered aloud what a tracking team would be doing off the base at night. He's a talkative sort, anyway, so he just handed me the dope."
Exactly twenty minutes later Rick and Scotty walked through the door into the barracks in which John Gordon had his quarters. They hadn't been inside before, although they had taken the precaution of locating it in advance. It wasn't like their barracks. Instead, it was divided into a series of individual rooms, occupied by the chief executives of the base.
Gordon was waiting, and with him was Colonel Tom Preston. Preston shook hands with them.
"Apparently John was right," he greeted them. "You two do have a knack of sniffing things out."
Rick looked at the thin partition. "Is it okay to talk here?"
"It is now. I've checked. The occupants of nearby rooms are out. We'll be able to hear if anyone comes in."
Rick immediately launched into a recital of their activities since arriving in Las Vegas. Now and then Scotty elaborated. A few times Preston interrupted to ask for clarification on a point or two.
"Good," he said when they had finished. "I'll see that Deadrock gets his parts back."
"Who is Deadrock Ogg?" Scotty asked.
Preston smiled. "Quite a character, isn't he? Normally he's a Forest Ranger. At the moment he's on loan to me, serving as my outside security officer. He did a good piece of work, getting that license number. We'll hand it to the FBI bureau in Las Vegas and they'll take it from there."
"He must have had advance information, to be at the right spot to get it," Rick observed.
"No more than you had," Preston told him. "We reached the same conclusion that you and Luis Hermosa did, about how stolen goods could get off the base. We've been watching from the inside, and Deadrock has been watching at the Steamboat end."
"Then you already knew about Mac and Pancho leaving last night," Scotty stated.
"Yes. But we really don't know any more than you two have found out. We're no closer to finding out who sabotaged the rockets—or who stole the transistors and the servomotors."
"What?" the boys exclaimed in unison.
Tom Preston's eyebrows went up. "You haven't heard? But of course you haven't, because you weren't here when we finished inventory. We're missing ninety thousand dollars' worth of servomotors."
"Suffering spacefish!" Rick groaned.
Scotty asked quickly, "When did it happen?"
"During the Orion shoot. Project Cetus had drawn servos the day before, and they were on the shelves then."
"The stock clerks . . ." Rick began.
"Ran out to see Orion," Colonel Preston finished. "They've gone out to see every shoot since the first one. But all of them swear no unauthorized personnel got into the warehouses. Of course they can't be sure, because none of them kept eyes on the doors."
"Could any of the clerks be in on the thefts?" Scotty asked.
"If so, we have no evidence of it. But we have so little evidence it doesn't count for much anyway. Of course we have some ideas, and I suppose you do, too."
Rick and Scotty nodded.
Preston continued, "The thing that's clear to us is that there isn't just an Earthman. There's a gang. Someone sabotages the rockets. Someone else steals the stuff from the warehouse. Someone else—and it looks like Mac and Pancho—takes the stuff to Careless Mesa, or Steamboat, or both. And someone else—the gang that captured you—gets it at Steamboat and takes it to Vegas. Then, I suppose, still another man or group gets rid of it through trade channels."
John Gordon had been listening without comment. Now he spoke up. "The pattern seems to indicate sabotage, in order to create a diversion for thieves. I can't buy it."
The boys and Preston waited for his reason.
"The thefts are peanuts. Oh, not in terms of ordinary thefts. But it doesn't seem reasonable that anyone, no matter how greedy or crooked, would destroy ten million dollars' worth of rocket to steal goods only a tiny fraction of that in value."
Gordon's comments were an echo of what Rick had thought when the theft of transistors first came to light. He simply couldn't believe theft was the only reason. He had also rejected theft as a means of hampering operations. While loss of parts was a nuisance, it wasn't crippling.
"Then the Earthman—I mean the Earthman who sabotages the rockets—has to be a part of the technical staff," Rick said.
Gordon and Preston nodded. "Because only the project people have ready access to the rockets," Gordon agreed. "Have you found out anything suspicious about any of them, Tom?"
Preston shook his head. "I've studied their security background investigations until I'm half blind. There isn't a thing that has even a remote connection."
Gordon added, "Maybe finding the actual saboteur is the toughest part, but there are some things about the thefts that aren't clear to me. For instance, how did Deadrock Ogg know the car would be traveling without lights? He told the boys how he planted himself at the Pahrump Valley turnoff because the sedan would have to turn on lights there. How did he know?"
Rick had figured that part out. "At night, car lights can be seen for miles. The last thing in the world the thieves would want would be to attract attention to Steamboat. The only way to be sure would be to travel without lights. Turning them on during the run through the twisting roads into the valley wouldn't be too much of a risk, because the road can't be seen for long distances there."
Scotty asked, "But why did the men handle us so gently last night? They didn't rough us up, especially. And one of them said we could get loose."
"You didn't see them, did you?" Preston countered. "It was too dark. So there was no danger of your identifying them. Why add murder or mayhem to the list of charges when you gain nothing?"
John Gordon stirred restlessly. "We'd better end this meeting. If the boys are associated with us, and especially with you, Tom, it will mean an end to their usefulness."
"You're right, John." Preston looked at the boys. "The biggest value you have is as free agents. I won't try to keep you posted on all my activities. And don't bother trying to contact me, or John, about what you're doing. It's too dangerous—unless you turn up a definite lead. Meanwhile, go on as you have been. I'd say you were doing fine. Just be careful. These men may have been gentle last night when they had nothing to lose, but that doesn't mean it's a way of life with them. Now scoot. And try not to be seen leaving."
The boys shook hands and started out, but Rick paused at the door and said something that had been on his mind since the Orion disaster.
"There's one thing. Let's hope that when the Earthman finally trips up, it won't be in front of everybody, especially after a shoot that he's just sabotaged. Otherwise, we'll never get a chance to question him. He'll be dead—lynched on the spot by the rocketeers!"
Fly the Winged Horse!
Rick held a servomotor in place while Phil Sherman, one of the other technicians, bolted it securely.
"There you are," Phil said. "Anything else?"
"That does it. Thanks, Phil. I can wire it up now." Rick got to work, connecting up the newly installed servo. Like other servomotors it was tiny and powerful, translating electronic signals into mechanical actions. This particular one was no larger than a spool of thread, but it would actuate control tabs on the wings of Pegasus. Other motors ranged in size from even smaller to quite large ones about as big as a gallon can. The small ones were terrifically expensive, probably the reason they had been attractive to the Earthman and his gang.
When Rick was finished with the simple connections, he called Dr. Bond. The elderly scientist checked carefully, then nodded approval.
Phil Sherman stuck his head in the door. "Dick Earle wants everyone out front. Staff meeting."
Rick and Dr. Bond hurriedly disconnected soldering irons and went out to the main shed.
The Pegasus staff was gathering around Dr. Gordon, who was using a large packing case for a podium. Rick saw the section chiefs conversing in low tones next to Gordon's perch, and his heart pounded. Had the Earthman appeared again?
Then, as the staff finally collected and Dr. Gordon began, Rick relaxed a little. This wasn't about the Earthman, apparently.
"We are about to make a major schedule change," Gordon began. "However, until we consult with the Pegasus group, we will not know if the change is feasible.
"The Cetus group has run into a major roadblock. One essential piece of apparatus cannot be delivered on schedule, because of trouble at the factory where it's being made. In all probability Cetus will be held up about three weeks. Now, as some of you know, the Cetus staff had already begun work at the pad, and in the blockhouse. The question is, does Pegasus wish to take over the Cetus schedule?"
Gordon held up his hand as a murmur swept the Pegasus crew. "This does not mean you must shoot on their firing date. It merely means that you must be out of the way by the time they are ready to move in again. If you can, we will switch the schedule around and put you next. If you can't, it will only mean that your firing date must be delayed. It's up to you—specifically, it's up to your chiefs. However, we wanted you all to know about Cetus just to spike any wild rumors that might get started. The delay is not due to anything but a factory failure to deliver."
Dr. Gordon yielded his improvised speaker's stand to Dr. Howard Bernais, the project technical director. Dr. Bernais was administrative and technical head of the entire project. Presumably he met with the section chiefs fairly often, but he had an office near John Gordon in the main administrative building and seldom came to the project.
The technical director was a gray-haired, gaunt, bespectacled man who surveyed the staff through thick lenses. His voice filled the great shed, not that he spoke loudly, but because he had that indefinable something known as "command presence." Rick was impressed.
"We sometimes forget, we technical people, that we live in a democracy," Dr. Bernais began. "We're so used to taking orders that when someone offers us a free choice we're rather surprised. However, when John Gordon spoke to me about a change in schedule, I felt we should talk it over. If you, as the people who will make Pegasus live up to its name, are eager and willing, the change will work. If you have doubts, it may not."
The technical director peered through his thick lenses and located Lars Jannsson. "You have some difficult problems with the third-stage motor, Lars. Can you be ready?"
Jannsson turned to his crew for confirmation, then nodded. "We will be ready whenever you say, Dr. Bernais."
Robert Bialkin, head of the air-frame section, spoke up. "We're just about done anyway, Doctor. We have a few minor modifications of the airfoils, then we're finished."
"Good. Where is Cliff Damon?... What shape are you in?"
Before Damon could reply, Prince Machiavelli put in an appearance. The little spacemonk had apparently decided it was too lonely in the workshop. Now he jumped from head to head, ignoring the surprised cries of the staff, until he landed on Rick's shoulder.
Amid the laughter, Cliff Damon said, "Here's one of our chief instruments to speak for himself. I think he's ready."
Dr. Bernais peered at the marmoset, then nodded gravely. "Just one suggestion. He will undoubtedly be man- or monk-of-the-week on the cover of a news magazine. Perhaps you should give him a crew haircut, so he'll look more like one of the staff." He held up his hand and the chuckles subsided. "Then you can be ready, Cliff?... Good. Dick Earle! It's now up to you. How say you?"
Dick hesitated. Rick watched him, anxious to see what his chief would say. He cuddled the spacemonk in his arms and stroked the silky head.
"We'll have to put in plenty of overtime," Dick said finally. "I think we can make it all right, but it will put a load on the staff. What do you think, boys?"
Rick joined in the chorus of yeas! If every other section could be ready, electronics would be, too.
"There's your answer, Doctor," Dick Earle said.
"Thank you. Now I ask for a unanimous opinion. Can we fly our winged horse on this new schedule?"
The shout sent Prince Machiavelli skittering up to Rick's neck and down inside his shirt.
Pegasus was committed to flight!
The problem of the Earthman was looming larger, Rick thought. The next target for the saboteur would be his own project. The very idea made him a little ill. Pegasus was too big, too important to be sabotaged! But he recalled ruefully, Orion had also been too big and important. Of course no trace of the Earthman had been found by the Orion staff, but the servomotor theft seemed to tie the Earthman to the disaster.
"I'm going to be up to my neck in spaghetti," Rick told Scotty when they met for supper. "I don't see how there'll be much chance to look for the Earthman."
"It should be better than ever," Scotty objected. "For the first time, you'll be right on the target."
That was true, Rick agreed. He hadn't looked at it in quite that way. "What are your plans?" he asked.
"I'm going to concentrate on the warehouse. Remember what Colonel Preston said about the clerks? They swore they hadn't seen any unauthorized person entering while they were watching the shoot."
"But they couldn't have kept an eye on the warehouses," Rick objected. "Anyone could have sneaked in."
Scotty shook his head. "I don't think so. Of course they watched the shoots, but you can also bet they were turning pretty often to look at the warehouses. They must have seen some activity. Otherwise, why would they say unauthorized persons?"
"I can't imagine," Rick admitted. "What's your idea?"
"The only people who could go in and out without being noticed particularly, or challenged, would be members of the service staff."
"Like the postman?"
"Yes. Or telephone repairmen, or power men, or janitors, or plumbers. There must be a dozen different kinds of people who have the run of the base because of their duties. I'm going to keep an eye open to see who goes in and out regularly—and Luis Hermosa is going to help."
"Luis? How can he help?"
"The fire station has a good view of the warehouses. You know how firemen are. When they're not cleaning or making repairs, they like to sit out front. Luis is out of the infirmary and back on limited duty, and another pair of eyes will help. Once we establish who has free run of the warehouses, I'll try to see which of them have any connection with Mac or Pancho. Okay?"
"Sounds good," Rick agreed. "And I'll keep my red-rimmed eyes wide open down at the pad, too. We'll get something on this Earthman yet!"
Rick had joined in the enthusiasm for moving up the date of the Pegasus shoot, but as he gazed around the project he began to wonder if they hadn't all been carried away. There were parts and pieces everywhere. He couldn't begin to make heads or tails out of all the confusion.
Fortunately, he didn't have to. Now that zero hour was closer, the confusion turned into order like a miracle.
Rick continued to work on the drone section. The drone mechanism was actually in two parts. The part on which Rick worked was to be installed in the rocket. The other part would be installed in the blockhouse where it would be operated by the drone pilot.
Dick Earle maintained a constant check on the work, and Frank Miller was always on hand. Miller had designed the drone system, based on principles developed by Dr. Bond and other pioneers. As Rick worked, he learned how the system operated. The drone pilot in the blockhouse sat at a panel on which normal plane controls were duplicated in miniature. In front of him were elaborate radar screens. The drone pilot watched the radar screens and "flew" the rocket. As he moved the controls, code signals were transmitted and picked up by the unit inside the rocket where they were translated into mechanical movements of the rocket's control surfaces by the number of servomotors.
Rick had to consult with Frank Miller several times, and he began to grow apprehensive about the design engineer's health. Miller's face was gray with pain most of the time, and he often held both hands on his stomach when he thought no one was watching. Rick mentioned it to Dick Earle.
"I know," Earle said. "I've tried to get him out of here, at least to see the doctor, but he won't go. He says there'll be plenty of time when the shoot is over."
Then, in the coolness of a Scarlet Lake dawn, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Lipton, one of the Air Force's crack pilots, arrived in one of the latest jet trainers. The staff of Pegasus greeted him and got to work at once. The jet trainer would take the place of the rocket for testing purposes.
This was the field test of the drone system—the only time it would be checked in actual flight until the day of use. While Rick, Dr. Bond, and Dick Earle installed the flying portion of the system in the plane, Gee-Gee Gould, Phil Sherman, and Charlie Kassick installed the control section in the blockhouse.
The installation took all day. The sun was dropping behind the blockhouse when final checks were made.
A guard arrived at Dick Earle's summons and mounted watch on the plane. Another guard was always on duty at the blockhouse, and still another at the now fenced-in pad where the sections of Pegasus were being assembled.
The staff secured for the night. Test flight was scheduled for midmorning. Rick had asked, and been given permission, to see the test from the blockhouse. Jerry Lipton would run the blockhouse controls. Another test pilot, who was driving up from the big test station at Muroc Dry Lake, was due in the morning to serve as check pilot in the drone-controlled jet trainer.
Rick went back to his barracks filled with excitement. The flying horse was about to try his brains, if not his wings. Zero hour was getting close.
When Scotty asked how things were coming, Rick described their activities in enthusiastic detail. But Scotty only grinned. "I didn't want a connection-by-connection description of each circuit in the rocket. What I meant was, is there anything new on the Earthman?"
Rick shook his head. "I've kept my eyes open, but everything's normal as Sunday at home."
Scotty got serious. "Better be alert every second. Don't forget, boy. You're now sitting on the target."
"You're dead right," Rick agreed, somewhat subdued. "How are you doing?"
"Not bad. I have a list of eight people who go in and out of the warehouses regularly. They go in and out so often none of them would even be noticed. Also, I think I know how the transistors and servos were taken out."
Rick stared. "Honest?"
"I think so. Ever notice how the cleaning men work? They have carts. Big ones, made of metal. At one end is a kind of well, for brooms, mops, and the vacuum cleaner wand and tubes. But most of the cart is just a metal box. The sides open. They carry rags, soap, that sawdust stuff for the floor, and so on. Get the picture? The warehouse janitor could have had empty boxes all ready inside his cart. Then, in about two minutes flat, he could have changed them for full boxes."
"You've got something there," Rick said with excitement. "Any idea which janitor?"
Scotty nodded. "The one who gets the warehouses to clean most often is a character named Dusty Rhoads. He's in and out a dozen times a day, pushing his wagon. He empties the waste cans and sweeps up and generally puts things in order. No one even notices him."
"Have you reported this to Preston or John Gordon?"
"No. It's only an idea so far. No evidence at all. There's nothing to connect him with Mac or Pancho."
"Well," Rick said, "you're sure making faster progress than I am. There's absolutely nothing suspicious at the project, and, believe me, I'm watching closely."
Morning brought trouble, but not of the suspicious kind. Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Lipton walked into the project shed with a note in his hand.
"Test is off," the pilot said. "For today at least."
Dick Earle motioned to Rick. "Get Dr. Bernais."
Rick rushed to the phone and called the project technical director. Dr. Bernais promised to come over at once. He wasted no time, arriving almost before Rick had a chance to report back to Dick Earle. With him was John Gordon.
Jerry Lipton greeted them. "I'm sorry, gentlemen. The other pilot cracked up in his car last night on Route 66 just west of Barstow. He's not in bad shape, but he won't be flying for a week or two. We can get another pilot, but it will take a day."
"We can't spare a day," Bernais said forcefully. "Surely there must be something we can do!"
John Gordon rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You've controlled drones many times, Colonel. Is there anything unusual about this job?"
"There is nothing unusual about the test we're going to run. There will be plenty unusual about the actual rocket flight," Lipton replied.
"Then the pilot who sits in the plane doesn't necessarily have to be what you might call a 'hot shot'?"
Lipton shrugged. "Not particularly. He only takes over if the drone control goes out."
"Then any pilot would do?"
"Any pilot who could handle the jet."
Rick wondered what Gordon was leading up to.
"Then why can't we find a check pilot here on the base?"
Rick now understood what Gordon was leading up to!
"We could do that," Lipton agreed. "Do you have any pilots on hand?"
Gordon turned suddenly and looked straight at Rick. "Don't I recall that you were flying your own plane when you worked on that job at Spindrift?"
Rick gulped. "Yes, sir. I fly my own plane. But it isn't a jet, sir!"
"What is it?" Lipton asked.
Rick named it.
"Ever fly a jet?"
Rick had, and for the moment he was sorry. Thanks to his friends at JANIG, he had been given an opportunity to try out a Navy jet trainer after the case of The Wailing Octopus in the Virgin Islands. Steve Ames had made special arrangements at the Naval Air Station when Rick wistfully said he would like to fly a jet just once.
Lipton studied him. "Hmmm. This jet is hotter than those trainers by a factor of three, except in landing. Since landing is the critical factor, I'll buy it. First, though, we'll take a little ride."
Rick was filled with mixed excitement and apprehension.
"I'll be glad to try, sir," he said, with more confidence than he felt.
The test pilot rode to the lake bed with Rick in the jeep. On the way he inspected the boy critically. "You're pretty young," he said at last.
"Yes, sir," Rick said, thinking that Lipton wasn't very old himself, especially for his rank.
"Remember the first rule of flying?"
"Yes, sir. Keep your nerve and your flying speed."
"Correct. Remember that, and follow it, and you'll have no trouble."
Lipton followed with a rapid-fire description of instruments, controls, and procedures that left Rick's mind reeling. Finally the test pilot produced a check list. "Think you can follow it?"
Rick swallowed hard. "Can I sit in the plane for a few minutes and study, sir?"
Lipton smiled. "Sure. Call me when you're ready."
Rick climbed into the pilot's seat and took the stick, put his feet in the stirrups, and started getting acquainted with the feel of the controls while eyes and brain concentrated on the incredible clutter of instruments that every pilot has to know better than the working of his own hand.
More study wouldn't help. It was now or never. He called to the pilot. "Ready, sir."
Lipton climbed up on the wing and motioned to Rick to put on the helmet and plug in his phones. There was a spare helmet-and-phone set in the rear seat for the Air Force officer. Rick switched the radio on and heard the soft hum of dynamotors. He cleared his throat and asked, "Do you read me?"
"All right, Rick. Follow your check list and start the blowtorch going."
Rick mopped sweat from his face and went through the starting procedure. The jet flared into sudden life with a roar.
"Ready to taxi," he said.
"Roger. Proceed when ready."
Cautiously Rick fed throttle, aware of the tremendous power under his hand—power that could be deadly if misused. Using the brakes he turned the jet and then let it roll forward to the edge of the black strip that marked the runway.
"Ready to take off, sir," he said.
"Roger. Fire away."
He made a quick survey of the sky to be sure no other aircraft were in the vicinity. There was no control tower with which to check out. Now! He made himself relax a little and pushed the throttle to take-off position.
Fast acceleration snapped him back against the seat. The jet began to wander a little and he corrected automatically, and almost overcorrected! With infinite care he straightened out again, just as the plane was air-borne. Eyes riveted on the horizon, he felt for the switch that pulled up the landing gear and felt the plane spurt ahead as the drag of wheels and struts was removed.
Lipton's voice came through the phones, relaxed and a little amused. "No need to treat this bucket of bolts like a baby, Rick. You've got power to burn. Go, man! Make like a bird!"
Rick had to grin. He was flying automatically, as he flew his own Sky Wagon. But Lipton was right. This was a jet, not a low-powered sports plane. Suddenly exuberant he cracked the throttle and stood the jet on its tail. It climbed vertically, an amazing sensation for Rick. Power to burn!
The altimeter read ten thousand feet. He asked, "Can I sort of toss it around a little?"
Lipton chuckled. "You're flying, and I have a strong stomach."
Rick kicked the plane over and let it drop, saw the Nevada mountains rushing up to meet him. He leveled off and pulled into a tight turn, much as he might turn the Sky Wagon. G forces slammed him into the bucket seat and the world went gray as blood drained from his head.
"Let up," Lipton snapped.
Rick corrected groggily. Wow! He had forgotten that power had its limitations, too. A tight turn meant pulling too many G's—too many times the force of gravity—for safety. "Sorry," he said huskily.
"It's all right. Feel your way."
Rick did so, for an ecstatic ten minutes, then, realizing that time was moving and he was burning fuel at a terrific rate, he asked reluctantly, "What now, sir?"
"Let's go home," Lipton said calmly.
Landing was the tricky part. He hurriedly read through the landing checkoff list, then started in. Flaps, throttle setting. Then, wheels down and locked. Air speed correct.
"Better keep flying speed," he thought grimly. "This bucket has the gliding angle of a brick."
For a moment habit almost fouled him up again, as he waited for the plane to "sell out," then he remembered that he had to fly it in. With an anxious eye on his air-speed indicator he gave it a little more throttle, then felt the struts compress as the wheels hit. He chopped the throttle and tried out the brakes with tender care. He didn't intend to flip them over through carelessness now. Gradually he brought the jet to a halt, reset flaps, and then rolled the plane back to their starting point. After he had killed the engine he just sat there, too limp to move. Then, slowly, and with vast relief, he started to get up.
Jerry Lipton, who had climbed out on the wing, reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Where are you going?"
Rick looked up in surprise. "I was getting out, sir."
"Stay put. I'm getting out. You're going for another ride."
He asked weakly, "Right now, sir?"
"No time like the present," Lipton said. He grinned. "How did you like it?"
Rick returned the grin. "I guess you know the answer to that."
"I guess I do. It was a good flight, Rick. You only let your normal habits get in the way twice, and you corrected fast both times. Keep your helmet on now. I'll be talking to you from the blockhouse in five minutes."
It was less than that. Apparently Dick Earle and the staff had the control circuits warmed and ready.
Lipton's voice came through the phones. "Visual take-off, Rick. The radar will pick you up at five hundred feet. I may overcontrol a little until I'm used to the equipment, but don't let it bother you. Do not take control yourself unless I give the word. There is one exception. If we lose communication in anyway, take over at once and bring it in. Now, repeat back."
"I will not take over controls, except on order from you. If communications fail, I will assume control at once and land the plane."
"Correct. Now, switch on. Start 'er up."
Rick did so.
"Release all controls and sit back. I am now controlling."
"Roger. Controls are all yours."
Servomotors held the brakes and advanced the throttle. The plane turned and taxied to the end of the runway. Rick sat there, trying not to feel uneasy. Just the same, it was weird to realize that Jerry was handling the plane from within the blockhouse.
"Take off. Here goes."
The roar increased and the plane picked up speed. Rick marveled as it lifted smoothly and the wheels retracted. Then, almost before he realized it, the plane had climbed and the earphones emitted, "I have lost visual contact. You are now under control by radarscope."
The jet climbed rapidly, then started through a series of maneuvers. Rick began to enjoy it. But the flight was almost over. "I'm bringing you in," the pilot said.
The plane turned, leveled, and the throttle was retarded. The nose dropped, in perfect alignment with the runway.
"You're off the scope and I have you on visual contact. Have faith, boy. You're almost home."
Rick braced himself and waited for the shock of landing. There was none. The jet skimmed along the runway, touched wheels, and settled so smoothly he couldn't have said exactly when the plane touched down.
Lipton, Earle, and the staff came hurrying from the blockhouse. Rick climbed down, pulling the helmet off hair that was swimming-wet with perspiration.
Now the brains for winged horse had been tried and proved. Rick looked at the great rocket, almost hidden by the crane and its equipment. Soon, he thought. Soon Pegasus would make the payoff flight!
The Open Hatchway
Pegasus was ready.
The dry run was over and only the final checkout remained.
At zero minus sixteen hours Rick stood at the base of the huge rocket and looked up, studying every inch of it. He knew he would never have the opportunity again.
About fifty feet up he could make out the smooth, stainless-steel connecting ring where the second stage joined the first. Explosive bolts, set off by one of the electronic circuits, would blow the stages apart. The second stage, still carrying the final stage, would accelerate away on its own motors until they, too, had consumed all available fuel. Again, explosive bolts would destroy the connection and the final stage would be on its own. The motors would flare briefly, providing less than a minute's acceleration, then the final stage would coast on its momentum to maximum altitude nearly three hundred miles above the earth.
Not until the final stage started its downward plunge would Jerry Lipton take over. His job, then, would be to control the plunging flight, to use up the excess of energy by maneuvering the rocket into the atmosphere and out, to prevent its burning up like a meteor. In slow, careful stages, he would let it come lower and lower, until most of its energy was used up. Then he would try to land it. The landing speed would be terrific—nearly a thousand miles an hour.
Gee-Gee Gould came up and stood beside him. "It's a beautiful thing, Rick. And it's ours. Yours, mine, Dick's, Frank's, Charlie's—it belongs to every one of the crew."
Rick knew. It was his rocket. If it worked, it would be because of the care and devotion with which he had done his job. He knew others felt the same, and they were equally right. All of them had built part of themselves into Pegasus.
If it worked . . . Of course it would work! He sought reassurance from Gee-Gee.
"It's going to be okay, isn't it?"
"Yes." Gee-Gee had no doubt. "Every piece of it has been checked and double-checked. Even the inner workings of the critical parts have been run and rerun. This is one rocket the Earthman never had a chance to sabotage."