"Stand to, you rocket wash!"
A harsh, bull-throated roar thundered over the platform of the monorail station at Space Academy and suddenly the lively chatter and laughter of more than a hundred boys was stilled. Tumbling out of the gleaming monorail cars, they froze to quick attention, their eyes turned to the main exit ramp.
They saw a short, squat, heavily built man, wearing the scarlet uniform of the enlisted Solar Guard, staring down at them, his fists jammed into his hips and his feet spread wide apart. He stood there a moment, his sharp eyes flicking over the silent clusters, then slowly sauntered down the ramp toward them with a strangely light, catfooted tread.
"Form up! Column of fours!"
Almost before the echoes of the thunderous voice died down, the scattered groups of boys had formed themselves into four ragged lines along the platform.
The scarlet-clad figure stood before them, his seamed and weather-beaten face set in stern lines. But there was a glint of laughter in his eyes as he noticed the grotesque and sometimes tortuous positions of some of the boys as they braced themselves in what they considered a military pose.
Every year, for the last ten years, he had met the trains at the monorail station. Every year, he had seen boys in their late teens, gathered from Earth, Mars and Venus, three planets millions of miles apart. They were dressed in many different styles of clothes; the loose flowing robes of the lads from the Martian deserts; the knee-length shorts and high stockings of the boys from the Venusian jungles; the vari-colored jacket and trouser combinations of the boys from the magnificent Earth cities. But they all had one thing in common—a dream. All had visions of becoming Space Cadets, and later, officers in the Solar Guard. Each dreamed of the day when he would command rocket ships that patrolled the space lanes from the outer edges of Pluto to the twilight zone of Mercury. They were all the same.
"All right now! Let's get squared away!" His voice was a little more friendly now. "My name's McKenny—Mike McKenny. Warrant Officer—Solar Guard. See these hash marks?"
He suddenly held out a thick arm that bulged against the tight red sleeve. From the wrists to the elbow, the lines of boys could see a solid corrugation of white V-shaped stripes.
"Each one of these marks represents four years in space," he continued. "There's ten marks here and I intend making it an even dozen! And no bunch of Earthworms is going to make me lose the chance to get those last two by trying to make a space monkey out of me!"
McKenny sauntered along the line of boys with that same strange catlike step and looked squarely into the eyes of each boy in turn.
"Just to keep the record straight, I'm your cadet supervisor. I handle you until you either wash out and go home, or you finally blast off and become spacemen. If you stub your toe or cut your finger, come to me. If you get homesick, come to me. And if you get into trouble"—he paused momentarily—"don't bother because I'll be looking for you , with a fist full of demerits!"
McKenny continued his slow inspection of the ranks, then suddenly stopped short. At the far end of the line, a tall, ruggedly built boy of about eighteen, with curly brown hair and a pleasant, open face, was stirring uncomfortably. He slowly reached down toward his right boot and held it, while he wriggled his foot into it. McKenny quickly strode over and planted himself firmly in front of the boy.
"When I say stand to, I mean stand to!" he roared.
The boy jerked himself erect and snapped to attention.
"I—I'm sorry, sir," he stammered. "But my boot—it was coming off and—"
"I don't care if your pants are falling down, an order's an order!"
The boy gulped and reddened as a nervous titter rippled through the ranks. McKenny spun around and glared. There was immediate silence.
"What's your name?" He turned back to the boy.
"Corbett, sir. Cadet Candidate Tom Corbett," answered the boy.
"Wanta be a spaceman, do ya?" asked Mike, pushing his jaw out another inch.
"Been studying long hard hours in primary school, eh? Talked your mother and father deaf in the ears to let you come to Space Academy and be a spaceman! You want to feel those rockets bucking in your back out in the stars? EH? "
"Yes, sir," replied Tom, wondering how this man he didn't even know could know so much about him.
" Well, you won't make it if I ever catch you disobeying orders again!"
McKenny turned quickly to see what effect he had created on the others. The lines of bewildered faces satisfied him that his old trick of using one of the cadets as an example was a success. He turned back to Corbett.
"The only reason I'm not logging you now is because you're not a Space Cadet yet—and won't be, until you've taken the Academy oath!"
McKenny walked down the line and across the platform to an open teleceiver booth. The ranks were quiet and motionless, and as he made his call, McKenny smiled. Finally, when the tension seemed unbearable, he roared, "At ease!" and closed the door of the booth.
The ranks melted immediately and the boys fell into chattering clusters, their voices low, and they occasionally peered over their shoulders at Corbett as if he had suddenly been stricken with a horrible plague.
Brooding over the seeming ill-fortune that had called McKenny's attention to him at the wrong time, Tom sat down on his suitcase to adjust his boot. He shook his head slowly. He had heard Space Academy was tough, tougher than any other school in the world, but he didn't expect the stern discipline to begin so soon.
"This could be the beginning of the end," drawled a lazy voice in back of Tom, "for some of the more enthusiastic cadets." Someone laughed.
Tom turned to see a boy about his own age, weight and height, with close-cropped blond hair that stood up brushlike all over his head. He was lounging idly against a pillar, luggage piled high around his feet. Tom recognized him immediately as Roger Manning, and his pleasant features twisted into a scowl.
"About what I'd expect from that character," he thought, "after the trick he pulled on Astro, that big fellow from Venus."
Tom's thoughts were of the night before, when the connecting links of transportation from all over the Solar Alliance had deposited the boys in the Central Station at Atom City where they were to board the monorail express for the final lap to Space Academy.
Manning, as Tom remembered it, had taken advantage of the huge Venusian by tricking him into carrying his luggage. Reasoning that since the gravity of Venus was considerably less than that of Earth, he convinced Astro that he needed the extra weight to maintain his balance. It had been a cheap trick, but no one had wanted to challenge the sharpness of Manning's tongue and come to Astro's rescue. Tom had wanted to, but refrained when he saw that Astro didn't mind.
Finishing his conversation on the teleceiver, McKenny stepped out of the booth and faced the boys again.
"All right," he bawled. "They're all set for you at the Academy! Pick up your gear and follow me!" With a quick light step, he hopped on the rolling slidewalk at the edge of the platform and started moving away.
"Hey, Astro!" Roger Manning stopped the huge boy about to step over. "Going to carry my bags?"
The Venusian, a full head taller, hesitated and looked doubtfully at the four suitcases at Roger's feet.
"Come on," prodded Roger in a tone of mock good nature. "The gravity around here is the same as in Atom City. It's the same all over the face of the Earth. Wouldn't want you to just fly away." He snickered and looked around, winking broadly.
Astro still hesitated, "I don't know, Manning. I—uhh—"
"By the rings of Saturn! What's going on here?" Suddenly from outside the ring of boys that had gathered around, McKenny came roaring in, bulling his way to the center of the group to face Roger and Astro.
"I have a strained wrist, sir," began Roger smoothly.
"And this cadet candidate"—he nodded casually toward Astro—"offered to carry my luggage. Now he refuses."
Mike glared at Astro. "Did you agree to carry this man's luggage?"
"Well—I—ah—" fumbled Astro.
"Well? Did you or didn't you?"
"I guess I sorta did, sir," replied Astro, his face turning a slow red.
"I don't hold with anyone doing another man's work, but if a Solar Guard officer, a Space Cadet, or even a cadet candidate gives his word he'll do something, he does it!" McKenny shook a finger in Astro's face, reaching up to do it. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," was the embarrassed reply.
McKenny turned to Manning who stood listening, a faint smile playing on his lips.
"What's your name, Mister?"
"Manning. Roger Manning," he answered easily.
"So you've got a strained wrist, have you?" asked Mike mockingly while sending a sweeping glance from top to bottom of the gaudy colored clothes.
"Can't carry your own luggage, eh?"
"Yes," answered Roger evenly. "I could carry my own luggage. I thought the candidate from Venus might give me a helping hand. Nothing more. I certainly didn't intend for him to become a marked man for a simple gesture of comradeship." He glanced past McKenny toward the other boys and added softly, "And comradeship is the spirit of Space Academy, isn't it, sir?"
His face suddenly crimson, McKenny spluttered, searching for a ready answer, then turned away abruptly.
"What are you all standing around for?" he roared. "Get your gear and yourselves over on that slidewalk! Blast!" He turned once again to the rolling platform. Manning smiled at Astro and hopped nimbly onto the slidewalk after McKenny, leaving his luggage in a heap in front of Astro.
"And be careful with that small case, Astro," he called as he drifted away.
"Here, Astro," said Tom. "I'll give you a hand."
"Never mind," replied Astro grimly. "I can carry 'em."
"No, let me help." Tom bent over—then suddenly straightened. "By the way, we haven't introduced ourselves. My name's Corbett—Tom Corbett." He stuck out his hand. Astro hesitated, sizing up the curly-headed boy in front of him, who stood smiling and offering friendship. Finally he pushed out his own hand and smiled back at Tom.
"Astro, but you know that by now."
"That sure was a dirty deal Manning gave you."
"Ah, I don't mind carrying his bags. It's just that I wanted to tell him he's going to have to send it all back. They don't allow a candidate to keep more than a toothbrush at the Academy."
"Guess he'll find out the hard way."