Major Elbertson pulled himself to a military stance, returning his aide's salute with complete precision.
Briefly he considered gathering all his men, all the Security personnel, and storming the bridge.
No, obviously the enemy was organized--an unforeseen circumstance. Obviously the captain was not alone. Obviously his men included at least some of these slipstick boys--and he would command the loyalty of them all, since he was somewhat of their ilk himself.
No, an officer must seek the most advantageous position from which to deliver his ultimatum.
He must use Hot Rod itself to control them. If Hot Rod itself were actually sabotaged, then the plan must wait until he could have it repaired. He doubted it was hurt.
The flare had thrown off all original sequences--but perhaps that was to his advantage.
To Chauvenseer he snapped: "This is the detail of our immediate operation. Get four of our best men besides yourself. Have each of them come separately and unobtrusively to the south polar lock, where I will meet them. I will bring Smith with me.
"Have each of the others take his assigned post for Operation Ripe Peach--but order them to take no action other than to prevent anyone on board from doing anything unusual that might be an enemy operation--until I alert them that Operation Ripe Peach is operational.
"Their orders will, of course, come on our personal radios, Security Band 2Z21.
"Execute!" he ended, saluting smartly.
As the Security squad moved, with individual secrecy, towards their various posts, Captain Andersen was considering that Elbertson would probably snap out of it as soon as he had had coffee and a shave. The man had probably been severely affected by the drugs he had been given. He would make no further reference to the incident of erratic behavior, unless it continued.
Bessie, having at the moment nothing else to do, was busily plying the Sacred Cow not only for her own horoscope for the day, but also those of the several persons of whom she was most fond, while carefully keeping a shielding bunch of paper work in a place to make it appear that she was officially busy. The captain's horoscope, she recognized, didn't look much worse than the rest of them, but was definitely the worst. One of those mathematical jumbles that somehow didn't interpret clearly. None of them looked very good today.
Out on the rim, things were getting back to normal. The labs were functioning again, most of them according to their assigned, routine procedures; but in some, heads were drawn together over the absorbing diagrams supplied by Mike and Ishie.
Mike and Ishie themselves had already put in twelve hours almost without a break. Working under stress, neither of them had remembered to eat.
There was a cough at the entrance to the machine shop, and Dr. Millie Williams' soft voice said "May I come in?"
The two looked up as the slender figure of the dark-skinned biologist entered the lab, balancing "trays" with plastic bottles atop.
"If I know you, Dr. Ishie; and you, too, Mike--you haven't eaten," she said with a smile. "Now, have you?"
"Millie," said Mike, "you've just reminded me that I'm as hollow as a deserted bee-stump after the bears get through with it!"
"Little Millie," said Ishie, looking up at the figure nearly as tiny as his own, "you must be telepathic as well as beautiful. Confusion say 'Gee, I'm hungry!'"
"I'm told that the fate of the satellite depends on you two," Millie smiled. "I thought I'd just give our fate a little extra chance. Now drop what you're doing and light into this.
"After that, if you've got a job for a mere biologist, I've got my lab readied up where it can last till I get back and--I'm not bad with a soldering iron. Meantime, why don't you let Paul and Tombu go eat while you eat?"
"Good idea," said Mike. "You two. You heard the lady. We gotta give our fate the benefit of victuals. Scat."
As soon as the physicist and the engineer were settled to the plastic containers of food and coffee she had brought, wolfing them down hungrily, Millie opened up.
"While we're alone, I'm going to speak my piece," she said. "You two will do me the honor of not taking offense if I say that you have the most brains and the least consciences aboard--and I happen to share the latter characteristic."
The two looked up guiltily and waited.
"Now don't stop eating, for I'm not through talking," she said. "That magneto-ionic effect canceler you dreamed up would probably cancel the six hundred forty pound magneto-ionic effect pull you dreamed up--if such a thing existed.
"What I want to know ... don't stop eating until you've decided whether you're going to let me in on your game or not ... is what really does exist? I might be of some help, you know."
"But--" Mike and Ishie simultaneously choked over their food, looked at each other, and then Mike blurted out, "but how could she know?"
"Don't worry," said Millie. "I'm probably the only one. It takes a person with little conscience and much imagination--takes a thief to catch a thief, I mean--yes, I think I mean that quite literally. Besides, I can help with some of that glassware that disappeared out of my supplies several days ago. Oh yes, I knew it was gone and where it went--but I figured any purpose you had was a good one, Ishie.
"But for how I personally canceled the idea of your magneto-ionic effect from the flare--it just happens that last night I was curious while everybody was asleep. When Bessie first came on duty this morning, I offered to relieve her while she had a cup of coffee, and I got a half-hour all by myself with the Cow. The captain wasn't up yet. Her console's so simple anyone with a basic knowledge of computers and cybernetics could figure her out.
"Practically the first question I asked--something about our orbit--the Cow told me that the information was top secret, and to get it I must go to the proper channel and identify myself as Mike. I started to intercom you, Mike, to tell you that your machinations were showing, but Bessie came back about then. I hung around to see what would happen, and pretty soon Bessie asked the Cow about the same question--but instead of getting the same answer, the Cow told her that an external magneto-ionic field was pulling us out of line.
"So I went up to your engineering place. I rather thought you'd like to know what the Cow had told me--but Dr. Ishie was there, and so instead I went about my own business until I could figure things out.
"Now I couldn't figure things out. But I could figure there's a monkey wrench somewhere--and since the two of you have been sticking together like Siamese twins, I know it will be perfectly all right to ask you in front of Ishie.
"Now," she finished, "do I get my girlish curiosity satisfied? You don't have to tell me. I'll just keep on being puzzled quietly and without indicating the slightest magneto-ionic dubiousness, if you'd rather. But I might be helpful; and I would like to know."
"Confusion say," Ishie declared through the side of his mouth, "that he who inadvertently puts big foot in mouth is apt to get teeth kicked loose. We are very lucky, Mike, that it was Millie who asked the question of the Cow at that time. Besides, we've got to tell somebody sooner or later. We can't just run off by ourselves.
"Yes, Millie, I think you have a job," he said. "Your help here will be appreciated, of course. But what we really need is a way of bridging the gap between ourselves and the rest of the personnel before it gets too wide. How's your P.R. these days?"
"That's something I learned in a hard school, public relations," she answered nonchalantly. "De-segregation was just beginning when I was a girl back in Georgia. But maybe I'd better know what the gap is."
The two began to talk, interrupting each other, incoherently outlining the Confusor and the various forces it exerted, and the--what Mike kept calling the inertial fish hook.
Finally Mike took over. "To put it simply," he said, "our pet didn't do at all what we expected--it hooked in on inertia and it took us off. A confusing little Confusor--but Millie--it's a space drive! A real, honest-to-gosh space drive!"
Millie gulped. It was far, far more than she had expected. Perhaps this was another form of disguise like the magneto-ionic....
"Are you sure?" Then she answered her own doubts. "Of course you're telling the truth now. That's not something you two would play games about." Then in awe--"You've really got it!"
"But why, then," she said, uncomprehending, "are you hiding it?" But before they could answer, she answered her own question again. "You'd have to. Of course. Otherwise it'll be strangled in red tape. Otherwise nobody'll let you work on it any more, except as head of a research team stuck off somewhere. Otherwise, Budget Control would take it over and make a fifteen-year project out of it--and the two of you will probably have it in practical operation...."
She looked at the molds and wiring taking form all across the machine shop.
"Oh, no! You'll have it in operation--soon!"
"Yes, soon--and we hope soon enough." Ishie sighed, then grinned impudently. "There is," he said, "the little matter of the fact that--in all innocence but nevertheless quite actually--we wiped out Thule Base.
"If we don't get the big Confusor in operation very soon, it may be that we shall spend a good deal of time in Earth's courts proving our innocence while someone else botches most thoroughly the job of creating a Confusor that could take us to the stars. And that," he added mournfully, "neither of us would enjoy. We might not even be able to prove our innocence, for there would be many very anxious to prove us sufficiently guilty to keep us out of the way for many years.
"So you see," he said, "you have a very real P.R. problem. Our assistants here could work better if they knew what they were doing. The people aboard the wheel would be most excited by a space drive, and would give us every aid.
"But what the law says, it says--and the captain would have no choice but to put us in irons if he heard, though I think our captain is such that he would not want to do it.
"We must tell everyone what we have, for where the wheel takes us, they will go. But we can't tell them, for if we tell anyone, it will get back to Earth--and we murdered Thule, according to the law of Earth.
"It is a very neat problem," he said.
Major Steve Elbertson arrived first at Project Hot Rod, and trailing behind him on their scuttlebugs, the other six men.
As he slipped through the lock and out of his spacesuit, he reached down the neck of his coveralls and carefully extracted the Security key in its flat, plastiskin packet, from between his shoulder blades. At least the villainous captain had not gotten his hands on this, he thought, and whatever damage had been done to Hot Rod probably could be quickly repaired.
He had heard of the hunt for the key, and been silently amused, though he had volunteered no information to his briefing officer, Chauvenseer.
Stepping forward as briskly as a sick rag doll, he fitted the key into the Security lock and snapped open the bar that prevented Hot Rod's use.
As the others entered, he turned to them. Supporting himself against the edge of the console and managing to look perfectly erect and capable despite his weakness, he said: "I have instructed each of you to learn as much as you could of the operation of this device. It is now necessary that the civilian scientists," he pronounced the "civilian" as though it were a dirty word, "be relieved of their rule over this weapon, and that the military take its proper place, as the masters of the situation. I trust each of you has learned his lessons carefully, because it is now too late for mistakes--although we have with us assistance far superior to that of the civilians.
"Gentlemen," he said, and his voice took on power as he talked, "it is a pleasure to re-introduce to you a companion whom you have known as Lathe Smith.
"This, gentlemen," he said formally, gesturing one of the men forward, "is the Herr Doktor Heinrich Schmidt, of whom you would have heard were you familiar with the more erudite of the developments of space physics.
"Dr. Schmidt," he added, "it is a pleasure to be able to again accord you the courtesies and respect that are your due.
"Now for myself," he continued, "it may surprise you to know that I, too, have a somewhat more advanced rank than you have suspected." Deliberately he unpinned the major's insignia that he wore, and brought out a sealed packet, opened it, and pinned on four stars.
"Gentlemen," he finished, "may I introduce myself? General Steve Elbertson, commanding officer of all space forces of the United Nations Security Forces.
"Now," he said briskly to his astounded men, his voice crackling with authority, "take stations.
"Dr. Schmidt will key in the number one laser bank only. You will select as your target area that area through which the passenger spokes of the wheel pass. These will each in turn be your targets if it becomes necessary to fire.
"Dr. Schmidt has advised me that, should it become necessary to fire on the hub, the resultant explosion of the shielding water will wreck the big wheel.
"If we should miss and hit the rim, the resultant explosion would inevitably wreck both the big wheel and Project Hot Rod.
"Therefore, gentlemen, I caution the most accurate possible aim.
"And Dr. Schmidt, will you connect the storage power supply you have readied, please?"
Quickly then, he slid into the communications officer's seat, as the Security officers assumed each of the four major posts of the project, while Chauvenseer took up a stance at his general's right hand, ready to respond as directed.
On the bridge, Captain Nails had been annoyed. Too many queries from people who really didn't have authority over his satellite. Too many directives and counter-directives were flooding at him from various officials on Earth.
Some one down there even had the temerity to suggest that Security take over--not officially, just sort of take over.
If that didn't take the cake, he thought. Trying to put that crumb Security officer into command, real command, of a scientist? Over HIS people? Never!
And just because somebody had a wild idea about sabotage--after all, the whole thing must be some sort of effect or accident. Why couldn't they leave people alone long enough to find out what was really going on?
And where was Elbertson, anyhow? The man had had plenty of time to freshen up. Possibly he had caved in some place. The medic had said he was sick. But even so, I'd best check, he thought.
Reaching for the intercom switch that would give him a private line to Security quarters in the rim, his gaze happened to fall on the panel that still displayed Hot Rod on its taut cable-- --And seven figures riding the end of the cable to the air lock.
Elbertson, of course, he thought furiously. And taking his men out when the proton level was still too high to go beyond the rim shielding....
Then the captain stopped in mid-thought. This was no idle act of a man feeling the effects of drugs.
He switched the intercom quickly to the Hot Rod crew's quarters on the rim. "Dr. Koblensky!" he almost shouted into the mike.
"Just a minute, sir," came the answer, and seconds that seemed like eternities passed before the doctor's calm voice answered, "Dr. Koblensky speaking."
"Did you know that seven men were going out to Hot Rod?"
"Of course not. They mustn't...."
The captain switched off and changed to the intercom for the machine shop. "Dr. Ishie. Mr. Blackhawk. To the bridge on the double. Fast," he said.
It might not be the saboteur, he thought, but the chances looked grimly real that Earth was right--that the whole thing was sabotage, and those were the seven saboteurs. While he waited, he checked the Security quarters for Elbertson. The major was not there, nor was he in the hospital.
Elbertson, he thought. I've been blind.
He decreased the magnification of Hot Rod so that the entire project showed.
Mike arrived first, almost skidding to a stop at the captain's console, Ishie right behind him.
"The saboteur--seven men that I believe to be saboteurs--are aboard Hot Rod," the captain told him crisply. "Can they activate it?"
"Captain, there's no saboteur...." Mike began, but the captain interrupted.
"Gentlemen, I'm not asking you to be the judge of that. If they are saboteurs, is there any way that they can activate Hot Rod?"
"Oh, they could have storage batteries aboard, I suppose." Mike didn't even pretend to be excited.
"Then we will assume they have, Mr. Blackhawk." The tone of the captain's voice told Mike he'd better darned well believe in those saboteurs or tell the captain the truth--and that quickly. "Now, assuming Hot Rod can be activated, we will also assume that their first aim will be to control the wheel. They would, therefore, aim at the hub and issue an ultimatum."
"They might aim at a target on Earth, and issue an ultimatum to us." Mike would play the game.
"No. We would refuse such an ultimatum. They would aim at us. Can you prevent that?"
Mike thought hard. He'd better come up with an answer to that one, saboteurs or no.
"If they shot through the hub, they'd hit our shielding water and explode the hub-hull. That would wreck the wheel, and they'd need the wheel. The only place they could safely shoot us would be the passenger spokes, and that would take some pretty fine target shooting--with only one laser bank. They could do it though," he said thoughtfully.
"Assume, Mr. Blackhawk, that if they couldn't hit the passenger spokes, they'd be willing to destroy the wheel in order to gain control. Is there any way to prevent that?"
Mike stood completely silent for almost a minute. Then he grinned. "Sure," he said. "If we turned the rim towards Hot Rod, they couldn't fire into the rim without hitting that shielding--and that would create an explosion, even from their smallest possible shot, that would almost inevitably take Hod Rod with it. If we turn the lab so that only the rim is towards Hot Rod, it's suicide to shoot us."