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THE ROBOT ROCKET

By CAREY ROCKWELL

A TOM CORBETT Space Cadet Adventure

WILLY LEY Technical Adviser

GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers New York

COPYRIGHT 1956 BY ROCKHILL RADIO

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Tom Corbett series:

STAND BY FOR MARS!, 1952

DANGER IN DEEP SPACE, 1953

ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES, 1953

THE SPACE PIONEERS, 1953

THE REVOLT ON VENUS, 1954

TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE, 1955

SABOTAGE IN SPACE, 1956

THE ROBOT ROCKET, 1956

ILLUSTRATIONS

Frontispiece

Obediently Astro hauled Roger down

Roger stepped forward to accept the medal

The jet taxi flashed along a beautiful jungle trail

They blasted off in a jet boat

Working against time, Monroe collected the valuable data

Tom jumped across the gap of space


CHAPTER 1


"Hey, Fellas!"

Space Cadet Roger Manning raced down the hall of the dormitory building at Space Academy, U.S.A., pursuing his two unit mates of the Polaris crew.

"What's up, Roger?" asked Tom Corbett, the curly-haired command cadet of the unit.

"Yeah, hot-shot," growled Astro, the giant Venusian power jockey, "what are you fusing your tubes about?"

The blond astrogator stopped beside them. "We don't have to worry about fixing up the dormitory room for Captain Strong's party," he announced proudly.

"We don't?" asked Tom, throwing a puzzled glance at Astro. "Why not?"

"Because," replied Roger idly, brushing his nails on his blue Senior Cadet tunic, "I have just made a deal with the Capella unit for their Earthworms to do it for us."

"A deal?" asked Tom. "What kind of deal?"

"I don't like this," growled Astro. "Any time Manning gets involved in a deal, I always end up on the losing end! All right, Manning, let's have it."

"It's simple, my Venusian bird-brained friend," Roger explained. "Tony Richards wanted to borrow my celestial tables-the ones I sent to New Chicago for-that cost me forty-three credits-"

"So?" asked Tom suspiciously.

"His Earthworm cadets are loaded with demerits," Roger continued. "So I lent Tony my tables and he lent me his cadets. We can sit around this afternoon while they do our work for us."

"And what is all this going to cost us?" asked the burly Venusian.

"Wait a minute, Astro." Tom stepped between the two cadets. "I don't think that's right, Roger. This is our party for Captain Strong."

"I know it. So what?" demanded Roger.

"I don't think it's right to have someone else come in and do all the work."

"I agree," Astro added. "This is a surprise party to celebrate Captain Strong's fifteenth anniversary in the Solar Guard. We're throwing it because we like him. He means something special to us. So we should be happy to set it up all by ourselves."

"Now wait a minute!" exclaimed Roger. "I like Captain Strong as much as you do-but this is work!"

Tom suppressed a smile. He knew full well his unit mate's reluctance to do anything that involved physical exertion.

"If you don't want to help," he said, winking at Astro, "you don't have to."

"I didn't say I wouldn't help," Roger protested. "I just thought you guys would appreciate what I was doing for you. After all, you reap the benefits too."

"Thanks, Roger," said Tom dryly. "But I'll just go ahead as we planned."

"But I already lent Tony the book of tables!" Roger wailed.

"That's too bad, Manning." Astro laughed. "I feel sorry for you. I really do. I could almost fall down on my little hands and knees and cry."

At that moment three boys in the green uniforms of the first-year cadets appeared at the far end of the hall and marched with precision toward Tom, Roger, and Astro.

"Here come the Earthworms now," whispered Tom. "Better send them back, Roger."

"Not before I have some fun with them," replied the blond-haired cadet. "I'm going to get something out of this deal!"

"Nothing doing, Roger," said Tom, taking him by the shoulder and turning him away. "The Capella unit gives them enough rocket wash without you putting in your two cents."

"Yeah, come on, Roger. We have work to do," said Astro, grasping his unit mate by the front of his tunic. As easily as if he were lifting a bag of feathers, he hoisted Roger into the air and swung him into their dormitory room.

The three cadets came to a stop before Tom and snapped to attention. "Earthworms Monte, Coffin, and Mooney of the Capella unit reporting to Cadet Corbett as ordered, sir."

"At ease," Tom replied. "Take off. Roger decided he wouldn't need you after all."

"You mean it, Tom?" asked Monte incredulously. "You're not kidding us, are you?"

Tom shook his head. "No, this is official. Take off with Roger's blessings."

Without another word, the three Earthworms turned and raced down the corridor. Tom grinned and slowly stepped toward the dormitory room. He was greeted by the sound of Roger's outraged protests.

"Lemme go! Put me down, you excuse for humanity!"

Tom sighed and shook his head. Separating Astro and Roger in their endless quarrels had irritated him in the beginning of their association. But through the long months of their school life, he had become resigned to it and now accepted it with a weary indifference. When he entered the room, he was not surprised to find Roger on top of the lockers, a good ten feet off the floor. Astro stood below him, legs apart, hands on hips, grinning triumphantly.

"Take him down, Astro," Tom said with a sigh. "We've got work to do."

Obediently Astro reached up and hauled Roger down, setting him on his feet easily. Roger spun around angrily, ready to resume the fight, but Tom stepped in front of him quickly.

"Save it, Roger. Put that energy into getting these bunks moved around. I'll start stringing up the colored paper."

Roger growled and Astro grinned, but both of them went to work with vigor. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom watched them working together and felt a surge of pride. It wasn't every unit in the Academy that could boast having the best power-deck cadet and the best astrogator cadet. While he himself was happy to be the pilot and command cadet of the unit, he realized that without their solid support his efforts wouldn't be nearly as successful as they had been.

Soon the room was crisscrossed with strips of gaily colored paper, and the furniture had been rearranged to make space for the table they were borrowing from the messroom. Then, while Astro was getting the table and Roger went for the ice cream, fruit juices, and a special cake brought all the way from Atom City by special messenger, Tom stripped a sheet from one of the beds for a tablecloth and dug out the forks and cups hoarded for days in anticipation of this event.

With nothing more to do until Astro returned with the table, Tom moved to the window and stared down on his favorite scene-the grassy, brilliant green quadrangle that was the hub, the center of the Academy. All around it the magnificent buildings of pure, clear Titan crystal picked up the rays of the afternoon sun and reflected them in many colors on the slidewalks that crisscrossed the campus, carrying the hundreds of cadets to all parts of the Academy. His glance wandered over to the greatest sight at Space Academy, the Tower of Galileo, and his eyes clouded with sudden emotion. To him, the magnificent tower was the symbol of this year, 2356, the age of the conquest of space. Now, after centuries of life on earth, men had broken the chains binding them to the mother planet. There were outposts of spacemen on the satellites of Alpha Centauri, and the colonies on Ganymede and Titan rivaled the largest cities of Earth, Venus, and Mars, the three planets of the Solar Alliance.

The Tower was also a personal symbol to Tom. It represented a whole new life. The day that he first saw it, he changed from a carefree boy with no responsibilities to a serious young man, destined to become one of the few who would shape men's future in space.

Tom smiled as he remembered his first days and weeks at Space Academy and the efforts to adjust to his unit mates, Roger and Astro. It had been rough. Although a brilliant boy, Roger had at first insisted on independence. He was a lone wolf and had resisted the unit system of training at the Academy. Astro, on the other hand, while the most ingenious power jockey in space, having cut his teeth on reactors of spaceships in the merchant fleet as an enlisted spaceman, was unable to grasp theoretical knowledge. More than once, Tom had seen him absolutely confounded when a problem on atomic motors was presented as a question on an examination paper. And yet Astro could take those same motors apart and put them together again blindfolded.

The greatest problem in those first weeks was learning to work together as a unit. Captain Steve Strong, their unit commander, had recognized their potentialities and had worked with them, driving them, threatening them, consoling them, until now they were considered the finest unit in the Academy. That was the reason for the celebration. Captain Strong would be passing his fifteen years as Solar Guard officer today, and he, more than any other single factor, had been responsible for the success of the Polaris unit. The party was small, but the gratitude and the deep feeling of respect behind it great.

"Take a look at this cake!" yelled Roger, entering the room laden with packages and boxes. The cake was white, with a miniature spaceship on top, and the inscription read: "Congratulations ... 15 Years . . . Tom, Roger, Astro."

Astro burst in a moment later carrying the table. "Hurry up!" he hissed. "I just saw Captain Strong coming up the slidestairs!"

They quickly spread the cloth and placed the plates, cups, and forks.

Astro's eyes bulged at the sight of the cake. "Take your eyes off that, Astro," said Roger. "It's for Captain Strong."

"But he can't eat it all!" said Astro happily.

"Shh!" said Tom. "Here he comes!"

They heard footsteps on the corridor floor outside, and the door opened. Steve Strong, resplendent in his black-and-gold Solar Guard officer's uniform, stepped into the room.

"CONGRATULATIONS!" the cadets roared in unison as Strong stopped in obvious surprise. He could hardly fight back the mist in his eyes at the sight of the table and the decorations.

"Thank you," he said quietly, with feeling. "It's the nicest surprise I've ever had."

"Let's eat!" yelled Astro, notorious for his gargantuan appetite.

Tom and Roger had been touched by the emotion displayed by Strong, but Astro's emphatic and direct approach made them laugh.

"What's so funny?" growled the young giant. "That stuff’s here to eat, not to look at."

"Just a minute," said Strong. He stepped aside and for the first time the three cadets saw that there was a fifth person in the room. "I want to introduce you to Cadet T. J. Thistle of Mars Academy. He will be attached to your unit for a while as an exchange cadet. We plan to send a cadet to Mars in his place."

The three boys stared at the new cadet. He was as small as Astro was big. Slim, and about five-two, he looked more like a prep school student than a full-fledged Senior Space Cadet.

The Polaris unit greeted him soberly. They resented having an outsider at their party, but since Captain Strong had brought him, there wasn't anything they could do about it.

"Glad to have you aboard, Thistle," said Tom, stepping forward to shake hands.

The small cadet returned the handclasp lightly and then looked around the room. "Well, a party!" he chirped in a high-pitched voice. "I can't think of a better way to get to know you guys!"

Roger and Astro shook hands and looked him over carefully.

"Thistle is a radar, astrogation, and communications wizard," said Strong. "He was the best they had at Mars."

The word wizard exploded in the air like a small atom bomb. Astro and Tom glanced at each other and winced. They knew what was coming. It was a challenge Roger Manning would not let pass without an argument. Already his eyes were dancing with delight.

"Well, a wizard, eh?" asked Roger, stepping right up to Thistle and towering over him. "I never met a wizard before," he added caustically.

"Oh, no?" replied Thistle innocently. "Well, then, let me be the first one introduced to you. T. J. Thistle, at your service!" He looked at Captain Strong. "Shall we eat, sir?"

As Manning's face suddenly reddened, Tom and Astro turned away quickly to hide their smiles. Roger Manning had apparently met his match.

CHAPTER 2
"Boy! Is Roger burned up!"

Tom laughed as he carried his space bag to the door of the dormitory room. The Polaris unit had been ordered out on a routine patrol, with T. J. Thistle along as an observer.

"Never have I seen him so dead set on showing anyone up," Tom continued. "You know what he's going to do on that patrol today?"

"What?" asked Astro as he finished packing his space bag.

Tom grinned. "He's going to ask Thistle to take over the radar bridge," Tom said. "He's going to instruct him-get that, instruct him-on the finer points of astrogation."

His bag closed, Astro turned and looked at Tom. "So?"

"Don't you get it? As soon as Thistle makes a wrong move, Roger will be all over him."

Astro nodded. "From some of the remarks Thistle made at the party yesterday, this is going to be the battle of the century," he said. "Do me a favor and leave the intercom key open so I can hear everything."

The cadets picked up their bags and strolled toward the slidestairs. "We're to meet Roger and Thistle at the spaceport," Tom announced as they stepped on the moving duraplast stairway that would take them down to the main level of the dormitory building.

"What are the orders?" asked Astro.

"I haven't picked them up yet," Tom replied. "We'll get them at traffic control, but it's just routine. Out to the asteroid belt and back," Tom added over his shoulder."

"Routine?" Astro grinned. "I can remember the day when a trip out to the asteroid belt was like a deep-space hop."

Tom nodded. "You can say that again, spaceman."

On the main level they waited in line before the sergeant-at-arms desk to sign out. Chief Warrant Officer Mike McKenny sat behind the desk like a well-fed, satisfied bulldog. But no cadet in the Academy was ever fooled by his seemingly complacent appearance. Spaceman McKenny had the reputation of being as harsh as any unit commander. When Tom and Astro stopped before him, McKenny grinned. "Well, the Polaris unit has a Martian visitor, I hear," he said in his familiar foghorn voice.

"Yes, we have, Mike," Tom replied. "And from the looks of him, he's going to give Manning a hard time on the radar bridge."

"From what I hear," drawled a voice in back of them, "Thistle is the hottest astrogator to hit the Academy in the last twenty years!"

As one, Tom and Astro spun around to challenge the attack on Roger. They came face to face with Tony Richards, the command cadet of the Capella crew, consistent rivals for Academy honors.

"I'll bet six desserts," said Astro, glancing at Richards, "that Manning can astrogate rings around that Martian monkey."

"Still sticking together, eh?" commented the Capella cadet. "You'd think that there wasn't another crew in the Academy but you."

Astro grinned and pointed to the trophy case at the other side of the huge lobby, where most of the trophies for inter-unit athletic competition bore the name Polaris. "There's your answer," the burly cadet said. "I still bet six desserts, and on top of that I'm giving two-to-one odds."

"I'll take that!" retorted Richards. "Two-to-one!"

"But that doesn't include Sunday's dessert," Astro quickly amended. "Not the ice cream and pie."

Tom laughed and tugged at Astro's arm. "Come on," he said. "We've got to hit the blue!"

With a parting wave to Tony Richards, they left the dormitory building and jumped on the slidewalk, rolling smoothly past the door. Wide belts of plastic that moved on underground rollers, the slidewalks crisscrossed the Academy, whisking cadets and officers silently and efficiently to all parts of the huge installation. The moving walks were crowded with spacemen dressed in the various colored uniforms of the Solar Guard; the red of the enlisted Solar Guard, black and gold of the Solar Guard officers, green of the Earthworm cadets, and the deep blue of the Senior Cadets. Shifting to an express walk at a junction point, Tom and Astro were being carried along toward the Academy spaceport at a fast clip, when Tom finally turned to Astro and broke the silence. "Feels good, doesn't it?" he said.

"What does?" asked Astro.

"Being a Space Cadet about to blast off."

Astro grinned. "It sure does," he said. "Better than anything I can think of."

In a few minutes the two cadets were at the Academy spaceport, the largest landing field for spaceships in the entire Solar Alliance. Set in a low valley, surrounded by rolling hills, the spaceport was not only the main base for the fleet of rocket cruisers and space scouts used by the cadets in their training hops, but had a special section devoted to commercial traffic. Tom and Astro hurried through the busy administration area to the control tower where air traffic was handled. While Astro waited outside, Tom signed the log and then went to get their orders.

The office of the traffic dispatcher was high above the field and afforded a view of the whole spaceport. Tom automatically searched out the gleaming hull of the Polaris when he entered and did not notice Captain Strong standing at the desk.

Captain Strong winked at the dispatch officer who stepped up to Tom. "Can I help you, Cadet?" he asked.

Tom came to attention and saluted. "Cadet Corbett, Polaris unit, requesting flight orders, sir," he said briskly, and then suddenly noticing Strong, flushed and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, sir," he added.

"That's all right, Corbett," Strong replied. "The sight of a spaceship is always distracting." The Solar Guard captain held out a sheaf of papers. "I already have the orders," he continued. "I'm going to make this hop with you."

"Swell, sir," said Tom. But the question in his eyes was plain.

Strong smiled. "I was just telling Captain Smathers here about the space storm that seems to be brewing between Thistle and Manning," he said. "I think I'd better come along."

"Glad to have you aboard, sir," Tom said.

"Let's go!"

Outside the control office, Tom and Captain Strong joined Astro and got into a jet car. Shooting across the concrete surface of the spaceport at a speed that made Astro turn pale, they reached the air lock of the Polaris and climbed into it.

"We blast off in ten minutes, Tom," Strong said. "Order all stations to stand by."

"Aye, aye, sir," Tom replied.

Leaving Astro on the power deck and Strong in the officer's cabin, Tom scampered up the final ladder to the control deck and immediately began preparations for blast-off. Switching on the intercom, he cried: "Control deck to radar bridge! Check in, Roger!"

"Radar bridge, aye," came an unfamiliar voice over the loud-speaker. "Manning is not here. This is Thistle."

"Where is Manning?" asked Tom, puzzled.

"He-er-"

"Yeow!" An earsplitting yell suddenly crackled over the communicator and echoed through the ship. Tom leaped to his feet and scrambled up the radar-bridge ladder. He burst through the hatch and into the astrogator's compartment barely ahead of Captain Strong and Astro, who had also come running when they heard the agonized cry. They all stood aghast at the sight before them. Thistle was standing to one side, an innocent grin on his face, watching Roger hop around the deck, scratching, wriggling, and squirming in a seemingly uncontrollable frenzy. Tom glanced at Strong, who bellowed at the top of his voice: "Stand to!"

Thistle snapped to attention immediately, but Roger was unable to stand still.

"What's the meaning of this?" demanded Strong.

"That creep!" gasped Roger, scratching his chest, then his arm, then his leg in rapid succession. "That Martian monkey. He-he . . ." Roger stopped and began stripping off his tunic. "He put ants in my astrogation chair!"

"Ants!" Strong turned to Thistle. "Is that true, Cadet Thistle?" he growled.

"Well, no, sir. Not exactly," replied the little cadet innocently.

"Then what exactly did you do?" demanded Strong.

By now, Roger had stripped down to his shorts and was picking the ants from his body and his clothes. Tom and Astro could hardly repress their laughter as they helped him.

"I've been making a study of the structure of the society of ants, sir," announced Thistle with complete composure. "When I learned we were going out to the asteroid belt, I figured I would have a lot of spare time and could do a little research. Manning accidentally overturned the jar and-" He stopped and shrugged.

"I'll turn you over, you little space grub!" Roger cried.

"Stow that gaff!" roared Strong, and then turned back to the little cadet, frowning. "Thistle, you should know better than to bring insects aboard a spaceship!"

"But, sir," protested Thistle, his face still a mask of innocence. "I thought I could-"

"I don't care what you think!" snapped Strong. "The space code says, and I quote: 'No spaceman, at any time, under any conditions whatsoever, shall bring aboard, or have brought aboard, or precipitate the bringing aboard of any animal life of any size or nature without the express permission of the commanding officer of that vessel,' unquote."

"Yes, sir. I know," Thistle replied, with a glance at Roger who was still digging the ants from the seams of his tunic. "But an insect isn't an animal, is it, sir?" he asked blandly.

"That's enough!" Strong roared.

"Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!"

By that time Tom had finished spraying the deck with a small insect bomb, and Astro was helping Roger back into his uniform.

"Don't let anything like this happen again," Strong said sharply, then he checked his watch. "All hands to stations," he announced. "Stand by to raise ship."

"Could you wait a minute until I get squared away, sir?" asked Roger, struggling into his trousers.

"No time, Roger. We have our blast-off time and orbit scheduled. Thistle will raise ship."

As Thistle whistled lightly and turned his attention to the huge astrogation panel, Roger's face clouded over and he continued dressing silently.

Tom, Astro, and Strong trooped off the bridge without another word. But when they reached the control deck, they burst into laughter.

"I won't say that Thistle let those ants loose on purpose"-Astro chuckled-"but he's way ahead so far."

Tom grinned in agreement. "I just hope this practical joking doesn't go too far," he said.

"It had better not," Strong said firmly. "Fun is fun, but out in space, where the slightest mistake can cost a man's life, it ceases to be funny. Take your stations!"

"Aye, aye, sir!" Tom replied.

As Astro hurried below to the power deck, and Strong strapped into an acceleration chair, Tom took his place at the control panel and began the routine of adjusting the dozens of dials and switches in preparation for blast-off. He flipped on the intercom and called: "Control deck to all stations, check in!"

"Power deck, aye!" Astro's voice crackled over the intercom. "Ready for blast-off."

"Radar bridge, aye!" replied Thistle. "Ready to raise ship!"

Tom turned his attention to the astral chronometer and watched the sweeping red second hand move around the face of the clock. When it touched thirty, he called again: "Energize the cooling pumps!"

On the power deck below, Astro threw the switch that started the mighty pumps and a faint whine could be heard throughout the whole ship.




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