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The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 18166

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"There's no doubt that the success or failure of this project will influence the thinking of the Solar Alliance with regard to further expansion, Governor Hardy," said Commander Walters to the man sitting stiffly in front of him. "And my congratulations on your appointment to head the expedition."

A tall, lean man with iron-gray hair, the commander of Space Academy, sat behind his desk, back ramrod straight in his black-and-gold senior officer's uniform, and casually toyed with a paper cutter on his desk as he spoke to Christopher Hardy, a short, thin man with a balding head and sharp features.

"Thank you, Commander," replied Hardy, in a thin, reedy voice. "It's a great honor and I certainly don't foresee anything that can prevent the expedition from being a complete success. We have the best equipment and, I hope, we'll have the finest men."

The soft chime of a muted bell interrupted Walters as he was about to reply. He opened the switch to the interoffice teleceiver behind his desk, then watched the image of his aide appear on the teleceiver screen.

"What is it, Bill?" asked Walters.

"Polaris unit reporting for orders, sir," replied the enlisted guardsman. "Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro."

"Very well, send them in," said Walters. Switching off the teleceiver, he turned back to Governor Hardy. "Ever hear of the Polaris unit, sir?" he asked.

Hardy paused, rubbing his chin before answering. "No, can't say that I have." He smiled. "From the look on your face, I see I should know about them, though."

Walters smiled back. "I'll just say this about them. Of all the cadet units trained here at the Academy in the last twenty years, these three lads are just about perfection. Just the material you'll need on your initial operation."

Governor Hardy raised his hand in mock protest. "Please! No brain trusts!"

"Well, they have the brains all right." Walters laughed. "But they have something else, an instinctive ability to do the right thing at the right time and that indefinable something that makes them true men of space, rather than ordinary ground hogs simply transplanted into space."

As the commander spoke, the massive door to his office rolled back and Tom, Roger, and Astro stepped in briskly, coming to stiff attention in front of the desk.

"Polaris unit reporting for duty, sir," said Tom. "Cadets Corbett, Manning, and Astro."

"At ease," said Walters.

The three boys relaxed and glanced quickly at the governor who had watched their entrance with interest. Walters came around in front of the desk and gestured toward Hardy.

"Boys, I want you to meet Governor Hardy."

The three cadets nodded respectfully. They knew all about the governor's achievements in establishing the first colony on Ganymede, and his success with the first exploratory expedition to outer space.

"Sit down, boys," said Walters, indicating a near-by couch. "Governor Hardy will explain things from here on in. Where is Captain Strong?"

"He said he'd be along in a few moments, sir," replied Roger.

"Well," said Walters, turning to Hardy, "no sense in beginning without Steve. Only have to repeat yourself." He turned to Astro but not before he saw a grimace of annoyance cloud the governor's face. "How are you making out with your classroom studies, Astro?"

"Uh-ah-" stammered the giant Venusian, "I'm doing all right, sir," he managed finally.

Walters suppressed a smile and turned to Hardy.

"One of the most important aspects of our training methods here at the Academy, Governor," began Walters, returning to his desk, "is for the cadet to learn to depend on his unit mates. Take Astro, for instance."

The two men glanced at the big cadet who shuffled his feet in embarrassment at being the center of attention.

"Astro," continued Walters, "is rather shaky in the field of theory and abstract-scientific concepts. Yet he is capable of handling practically any situation on the power deck of a spaceship. He literally thinks with his hands."

"Most commendable," commented Hardy dryly. "But I should think it would be difficult if he ever came face to face with a situation where his hands were bound." There was the lightest touch of sarcasm in his voice.

"I assure you, Governor," said Walters, "that wouldn't stop him either. But my point is this: Since a cadet unit is assembled only after careful study of their individual psychograph personality charts and is passed and failed as a unit, even though a boy like Cadet Astro might make a failing grade, his unit mates, Cadets Manning and Corbett, can pull him through by making higher passing marks. You see, an average is taken for all three and they pass or fail as a unit."

"Then they are forced, more or less, to depend on each other?" asked Hardy.

"Yes. In the beginning of their training. Later on, the cadets learn for themselves that it is better for all of them to work together."

Once again the bell in back of Walters' desk chimed and he turned to speak on the teleceiver to his aide.

"Captain Strong is here, sir," repeated the enlisted man.

"Send him right in," said Walters. Seconds later the door slid back and Steve Strong entered and saluted.

After the introductions were completed and the Solar Guard captain had taken a seat with his cadet unit, Commander Walters immediately launched into the purpose of the meeting.

"Steve," he began, "Governor Hardy here has been appointed by the Solar Council to head one of the most important projects yet attempted by the Alliance."

The cadets edged to the front of the couch and listened intently for what the commander was about to say.

"But perhaps I had better let the governor tell you about it himself," concluded Walters abruptly and settled back in his chair.

Captain Strong and the cadets swung around to face the governor, who rose and looked at each of them steadily before speaking.

"Commander Walters stressed the fact that this was an important project," he said finally. "No one can say how important it will be for the future. It might mean the beginning of an entirely new era in the development of mankind." He paused again. "The Solar Alliance has decided to establish a new colony," he announced. "The first colony of its kind outside the solar system in deep space!"

"A star colony!" gasped Strong.

The cadets muttered excitedly among themselves.

"The decision," continued the governor, "has been made only after much debate in the Solar Council Chamber. There have been many arguments pro and con. A week ago a secret vote was taken, and the project was approved. We are going to establish a Solar Alliance colony on a newly discovered satellite in orbit around the sun star Wolf 359, a satellite that has been named Roald."

"Wolf 359!" exclaimed Roger. "That's more than thirteen light years away-" He was stopped by Tom's hand clamped across his mouth.

Governor Hardy looked at Roger and smiled. "Yes, Wolf 359 is pretty far away, especially for a colony. But preliminary expeditions have investigated and found the satellite suitable for habitation, with fertile soil and an atmosphere similar to our own. With the aid of a few atmosphere booster stations, it should be as easy for a colonist to live there as he would on Venus-or any tropical planet."

"Where are you going to get the colonists, sir?" asked Strong.

Hardy began to pace back and forth in front of Walters' desk, waving his hands as he warmed up to his subject. "Tonight, on a special combined audioceiver and teleceiver broadcast to all parts of the Solar Alliance, the president of the Solar Council will ask for volunteers-men who will take man's first step through deep space to the stars. It is a step, which, in the thousands of years ahead, will eventually lead to a civilization of Earthmen throughout all space!"

Tom, Roger, and Astro sat in silent awe as they listened to the plans for man to reach toward the stars. Spacemen by nature and adventurers in spirit, they were united in the belief that some day Earthmen would set foot on all the stars and never stop until they had seen the last sun, the last world, the last unexplored corner of the cosmos.

"The colonists," continued Hardy, "will come from all over the system. One thousand of them-the strongest and sturdiest men out of the billions that inhabit the planets around us; one thousand, to live on Roald for a period of seven years."

Tom, his eyes bright, asked, "Won't everybody want to go, sir?"

Walters and Hardy smiled. "We expect a rush, Corbett," answered Walters. "You three and Captain Strong have been selected to aid in screening the applicants."

"Will there be any special tests, sir?" asked Strong. "I have to agree with Corbett that just about everyone will want to go."

"Yes, Strong," said Hardy. "Everyone will want to go. In fact, we estimate that there will be literally millions of applicants!"

Roger emitted a long, low whistle. "It'll take years to screen all of them, sir."

Hardy smiled. "Not really, Manning. The p

sychographs will eliminate the hundreds of thousands of misfits, the men who will want to go for selfish reasons, who are running away from the past, or are dissatisfied with their lack of success in life and embittered because of failure. We can expect many criminal types. Those will be eliminated easily. We have set a specific quota from each of the satellites, planets, and asteroid colonies. I have already established the stations for the preliminary screening. We will screen the remainder until we have the required thousand."

"What will our part be, sir?" asked Tom.

"Once each applicant has been approved by the psychographs, his background will be thoroughly investigated. We may find criminal types who show the blackest of careers, but who would turn over a new leaf if given the chance and prove to be more valuable than men with the best of backgrounds who merely want to get away from it all. We don't want that kind of colonist. We want people who have faith in the project; people who are not afraid of work and hardships. Your screening job will be simple. Each of you has a special talent which Commander Walters feels is outstanding. Corbett in leadership, administration, and command; Manning in electronics; Astro in atomic power and propulsion. You will talk to the applicants and give them simple tests. An important point in any applicant's favor will be his ability to improvise and handle three, four, or five jobs, where a less imaginative person would do but one. Talk to them, sound them out, and then write your report. Captain Strong will review your opinions and make recommendations to me. I will finally approve or disapprove the applications."

"Will this cost the applicants anything, sir?" asked Roger. "For instance, will the rich applicants have a better chance than the poor?"

Hardy's face turned grim. "Only the people that fit our standards will be allowed to go, Manning. Regardless."

"Yes, sir," said Roger.

"The Solar Alliance," continued Hardy, "has established a fund for this project. Each applicant will be lent as much in material as he needs to establish himself on Roald. If he operates an exchange, for instance, selling clothes, equipment, or food, then the size of his exchange will determine the size of the loan. He will repay the Solar Alliance by returning one-fourth of his profits over a period of seven years. Each colonist will be required to remain on the satellite for that seven-year period. After that, should he leave, he would be required to sell all his rights and property on Roald."

"And the farmers, sir," asked Tom, "and all the rest. Will they all be treated the same way?"

"Exactly the same, according to their individual abilities. Of course we wouldn't take a man who had been a shoemaker and advance him the capital to become a farmer."

"Will the quota of one thousand colonists include women and children?" asked Astro.

"No, but allowances have been made for them. One thousand colonists means one thousand men who can produce. However, a man may take his family," Hardy went on, adding, "providing, of course, that he doesn't mean twenty-three children, aunts, uncles, and so forth."

The three cadets looked at each other dumfounded. The very idea of the project was staggering, and as Strong, Hardy, and Commander Walters began to discuss the details of the screening system, they turned to each other excitedly.

"This is the greatest thing that's happened since Jon Builker made his trip into deep space!" whispered Tom.

"Yeah," nodded Astro, "but I'm scared."

"About what?" asked Roger.

"Having the responsibility of saying No to a feller that wants to go."

The big cadet seemed to be worried and Tom attempted to explain what the job would really be.

"It's not a question of saying an outright No," said Tom. "You just ask the applicant about his experience with motors and reactors to see if he really knows his stuff."

Astro seemed to accept Tom's explanation, but he still seemed concerned as they all turned to Commander Walters, who had finished the discussion around the desk and was giving Captain Strong his orders.

"You and the cadets, along with Governor Hardy, will blast off tonight and go to Venusport for the first screenings." He faced the cadets. "You three boys have a tremendous responsibility. In many cases your decisions might mean the difference between success or failure in this mission. See that you make good decisions, and when you've made them, stick by them. You will be under the direct supervision of Captain Strong and Governor Hardy. This is quite different from your previous assignments, but I have faith in you. See that you handle yourselves like spacemen."

The three cadets saluted sharply, and after shaking hands with their commander, left the room.

Later that evening, their gear packed, the three members of the Polaris unit were checked out of the Academy by the dormitory officer and were soon being whisked along on a slidewalk to the Academy spaceport. As they neared the spacious concrete field, where the mighty fleet of the Solar Guard was based, they could see the rows of rocket cruisers, destroyers, scouts, and various types of merchant space craft, and in the center, on a launching platform, the silhouette of the rocket cruiser Polaris stood out boldly against the pale evening sky. Resting on her directional fins, her nose pointed skyward, her gleaming hull reflecting the last rays of the setting sun, the ship was a powerful projectile ready to blast off for distant worlds.

Her nose pointed skyward, the Polaris was ready to blast off

Reaching the Polaris, the three cadets scrambled through the air lock into the spaceship and prepared for blast-off.

On the control deck, Tom began the involved check of the control panel. One by one, he tested the dials, gauges, and indicators on the instrument panel that was the brains of the mighty ship.

On the radar bridge, above the control deck, Roger adjusted the sights of the precious astrogation prism and took a checking sight on the Pole Star to make sure the instrument was in true alignment. Then turning to the radar scanner, the all-seeing eye of the ship, he began a slow, deliberate tracking of each circuit in the maze of wiring.

And below on the power deck, Astro, stripped to the waist, a leather belt filled with the rocketman's wrenches and tools slung around his hips, tuned up the mighty atomic engines. He took longer than usual, making sure the lead baffling around the reactor units and the reaction chamber was secure, before firing the initial mass.

Finally Tom's voice crackled over the intercom, "Control deck to all stations. Check in!"

"Radar bridge, aye!" came Roger's reply. "Ready for blast-off!"

"Power deck, aye!" said Astro, his booming voice echoing through the ship. "Ready for blast-off!"

"Control deck, ready for blast-off," said Tom, and then turned to the logbook and jotted down the time in the ship's journal. The astral chronometer over the control board read exactly 1350 hours.

Fifteen minutes later Captain Strong and Governor Hardy climbed aboard and Tom received the order to raise ship.

The young curly-haired cadet turned to the control board and flipped on the teleceiver. "Rocket cruiser Polaris to spaceport control tower," he called. "Request blast-off orbit and clearance!"

The traffic-control officer in the spaceport tower answered immediately. "Control tower to Polaris. You are cleared for blast-off at 1405 hours, orbital tangent 867."

Tom repeated the instructions and turned to the intercom and began snapping out orders. "Power deck, energize the cooling pumps!"

"Power deck, aye!" replied Astro. The slow whine of the powerful pumps began to scream through the ship. Tom watched the pressure indicator and when it reached the blast-off mark called to Roger for clearance.

"All clear, forward and up!" declared Roger.

"Feed reactant at D-9 rate!" ordered Tom. And far below on the power deck, Astro began to feed the reactant energy into the firing chambers.

Hardy looked at Strong and nodded in appreciation of the cadets' smooth efficient work. They strapped themselves into acceleration cushions and watched the red second hand of the astral chronometer sweep around, and then heard Tom counting off the seconds.

"Blast off-" bawled Tom, "minus five-four-three-two-one-zeroooo!"

The giant ship lurched off the blast-off platform a few feet, the exhaust of the powerful rockets deflected against the concrete surface. Then, poised delicately on the roaring rockets, the mighty ship picked up speed and began to accelerate through the atmosphere.

Pushed deep in his acceleration chair in front of the control board, unable to move because of the tremendous pressure against his body, Tom Corbett thought about his new adventure. And as the ship hurtled into the black velvet depths of space, he wondered what the future held for him as he and his unit mates began a new adventure among the stars.

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