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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 16198

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Control deck to power deck, check in!" Tom's voice crackled over the power-deck loud-speaker and Astro snapped to quick attention.

"Power deck, aye!" replied the giant Venusian into the intercom microphone. "What's up?"

"Stand by for course change," said Tom. "Roger's picked up a meteor on the radar scanner and-"

"Here's the course change," Roger's voice broke in over the intercom. "Three degrees up on the plane of the ecliptic and five degrees starboard!"

"Get that, Astro?" snapped Tom. "Stand by for one-quarter burst on steering rockets!"

"One-quarter-right!" acknowledged the power-deck cadet and turned to the massive panel that controlled the rockets.

On the control deck Tom Corbett continued talking to Roger. "Relay the pickup to the control-deck scanner, Roger," he ordered. "Let me take a look at that thing."

In a moment the thin sweeping white line on the control-deck scanner swept around the green surface of the screen, picking out the blip that marked the meteor. Tom watched it for a moment and then barked into the intercom, "Stand by to execute change course!"

He watched the meteor a few more seconds, making sure the course change would take them out of its path, and then gave the command. "Fire!"

Before he could draw another breath, Tom felt himself pressed into his seat as the Polaris quickly accelerated and curved up and away from the onrushing meteor in a long, smooth arc.

Captain Strong suddenly stepped through the hatch into the control deck. Glancing quickly at the scanner screen, he saw the white blip that was the meteor flashing away from the Polaris and he smiled.

"That was nice work, Corbett!" said Strong. "Get us back on course as soon as you can. Governor Hardy wants to get to Venusport as quickly as possible."

"Shall I tell Astro to pour on extra thrust, sir?" asked Tom.

"No, just maintain standard full space speed. No need to use emergency power unless it's really an emergency."

"Yes, sir," said Tom.

Strong walked around on the control deck, making a casual check of the ship's operation. But he knew he wouldn't find anything to complain about. Past experience had taught him that the three cadets kept a tight ship. At the sound of the hatch opening, he turned to see Governor Hardy standing just inside the hatch.

"I have to compliment you, Captain," Hardy said as he watched Tom operate the great control panel. "Your cadets really know their business. You've trained them well."

"Thank you, sir," replied Strong, "but they did it themselves. One thing I've learned since I've become an instructor at the Academy and that is you can't make a spaceman. He's born with the feeling and the instinct, or he isn't a spaceman."

Hardy nodded. "I've got some important messages to send out, Captain. I'd like to use the teleceiver for a while."

"Of course, sir," said Strong. "Right up that ladder there." The Solar Guard captain pointed to the ladder leading to the radar deck. "Manning's on duty now and will take care of you, sir."

"Thank you," said the governor, turning to the ladder.

A moment later, as Captain Strong and Tom were idly discussing the forthcoming screening operations on Venusport, they were surprised to see Roger climb down the ladder from the radar bridge.

"What are you doing down here, Manning?" inquired Strong. "I thought you were sending out messages for Governor Hardy."

Roger dropped into the co-control pilots' seat and shrugged. "The governor said he'd handle it. Said the messages were top secret and that he wouldn't burden me with their contents, since he knew how to operate a teleceiver!"

Puzzled, Tom looked at Roger. "What could be so secret about this mission?" he asked.

"I don't know," answered Roger. "After that speech the president of the Solar Council made the other night, the whole Alliance must know about the project, the screening, and practically everything else."

Strong laughed. "You space brats see adventure and mystery in everything. Now, why wouldn't a man in charge of a project as large as this have secret messages? He might be talking to the president of the council!"

Tom blushed. "You're right, sir," he said. "I guess I let my imagination run riot."

"Just concentrate on getting this wagon to Venus in one piece, Corbett, and leave the secret messages to the governor," joked Strong. "And any time you get too suspicious, just remember that the governor was appointed head of this project by the Solar Alliance itself!"

Blasting through space, leaving a trail of atomic exhaust behind her, the Polaris rocketed smoothly through the dark void toward the misty planet of Venus. In rotating watches, the cadets ran the ship, ate, slept, and spent their few remaining spare hours attending to their classroom work with the aid of soundscribers and story spools. Each of them was working for the day when he would wear the black-and-gold uniform of the Solar Guard officer that was respected throughout the system as the mark of merit, hard work, distinction, and honor.

Once, Captain Strong and Astro donned space suits and went outside to inspect the hull of the Polaris. The ship had passed through a swarm of small meteorites, each less than a tenth of an inch in diameter but traveling at high speeds, and some had pierced the hull. It was a simple and quick job to seal the holes with a special atomic torch.

Like a giant silver bullet speeding toward a bull's-eye, the rocket ship pin-pointed the planet Venus from among the millions of worlds in space and was soon hovering over Venusport, nose up toward space, ready for a touchdown at the municipal spaceport. As the braking rockets quickly stopped all forward acceleration, the main rockets were cut in and the giant ship dropped toward the surface of the tropical planet tailfirst.

Tom's face glowed with excitement as he adjusted one lever and then another, delicately balancing the ship in its fall, meanwhile talking into the intercom and directing Astro in the careful reduction of thrust. On the radar deck Roger kept his eyes glued to the radar scanner and posted Tom on the altitude as the ship drew closer and closer to the ground.

"One thousand feet!" yelled Roger over the intercom. "Nine hundred-eight-seven-six-"

"Open main rockets one half!" called Tom. "Reduce rate of fall!"

The thunder of the rockets increased and the mighty ship quivered as its plummeting descent was checked slightly. Tom quickly adjusted the stabilizer trim tabs to keep the ship perpendicular to the ground, then watched the stern scanner carefully as the huge blast-pitted concrete ramp loomed larger and larger.

"Five hundred feet to touchdown," tolled Roger in more slow and measured tones. "Four hundred-three-two-"

On the scanner screen Tom could see the exhaust flare begin to lick at the concrete ramp, then splash its surface until it was completely hidden. He grasped the main control switch tightly and waited.

"One hundred feet," Roger's voice was tense now. "Seventy-five, fifty-"

Tom barked out a quick order. "Blast all rockets!"

In immediate response, the main tubes roared into thunderous life and the Polaris shook as the sudden acceleration battled the force of gravity. The ship's descent slowed perceptibly until she hovered motionless in the air, her stabilizer fins only two feet from the concrete ramp.

"Cut all power!" Tom's voice blasted through the intercom. A split second later there was a deafening silence, followed by a heavy muffled thud and the creak of straining metal as the Polaris came to rest on the ramp.

"Touchdown!" yelled Tom. He quickly cut all power to the control board and watched as one by one the gauges and dials registered zero or empty. The cadet stood up, noticed the time on the astral chronometer, and turned to face Captain Strong, rising from the chair beside him.

"Polaris made touchdown, planet Venus, at exactly 1543, sir," he said and saluted crisply.

Strong returned the salute. "Good work, Corbett," he said. "You handled her as though sh

e was nothing more than a baby carriage!"

Roger came bouncing down the ladder, grinning. "Well," he said, "we're back on the planet where the monkeys walk around and call themselves men!"

"I heard that, Manning!" roared Astro, struggling through the hatch from the power deck. "One more crack like that and I'll stand you on your head and blast you off with your own space gas!"

"Listen, you overgrown Venusian ape," replied Roger, "I'll-"

"Yeah-" growled Astro, advancing on the smaller cadet. "You'll what?"

"All right, you two!" barked Strong. "Plug your jets! By the craters of Luna, one minute you act like hot-shot spacemen, and the next, you behave like children in a kindergarten!"

Suddenly the compartment echoed to hearty laughter. The cadets and their skipper turned to see Governor Hardy standing on the radar-bridge ladder, brief case in hand, roaring with laughter. He climbed down and faced the three cadets.

"If kindergarten behavior will produce spacemen like you, I'm all for it. Congratulations, all three of you. You did a good job!"

"Thank you, sir," said Tom.

Hardy turned to Strong. "Captain, I'm going ahead to the Solar Council building and get things set up for the screening. I imagine there are many anxious colonists ready to be processed!"

As Strong and the cadets came to attention and saluted, Governor Hardy turned and left the control deck.

Strong turned to the cadets. "From now on, you might as well forget that you're spacemen. Report to the Administration Building in one hour. You're going to do all your space jockeying in a chair from now on!"

* * *

For the next week, the three Space Cadets spent every waking hour in the Solar Council Administration Center, interviewing applicants who had passed their psychograph personality tests. Endlessly, from early morning until late at night, they questioned the eager applicants. Ninety-nine out of one hundred were refused. And when they were, they all had different reactions. Some cried, some were angry, some threatened, but the three cadets were unyielding. It was a thankless job, and after more than a week of it, tempers were on edge.

"What would you do," Roger would ask an applicant, "if you were suddenly drifting in space, in danger, and found that you had lost the vacuum in your audio tubes? How would you get help?"

Not one in over three hundred had realized that space itself was a perfect vacuum and could be substituted for the tubes. Roger had turned thumbs down on all of them.

Astro and Tom found their interviews equally as rough. One applicant admitted to Tom that he wanted to go to the satellite to establish a factory for making rocket juice, a highly potent drink that was not outlawed in the solar system, but was looked on with strong disfavor. When Tom turned down his application, the man tried to get Tom to enter into partnership with him, and when Tom refused, the man became violent and the cadet had to call enlisted Solar Guardsmen to throw him out.

While Tom and Roger made decisions quickly and decisively, Astro, on the other hand, patiently listened to all the tearful stories and sympathized with the applicants when they were unable to tear down a small reactor unit and rebuild it blindfolded. Painfully, sometimes with tears in his own eyes, he would tell the applicant he had failed, just when the would-be colonist would think Astro was going to pass him.

The three cadets were doing their jobs so well that in the one hundred and fifty-three applications approved by them Strong did not reject one, but sent them all on to Governor Hardy for final approval.

On the morning of the tenth day of screening, Hyram Logan and his family entered Roger's small office. A man of medium height with a thick shock of iron-gray hair and ruddy, weather-beaten features Logan looked as though he was used to working in the outdoors. Flanked by his son and daughter, he stood quietly before the desk as the young cadet, without looking up, scanned his application quickly.

"How old are the children?" asked Roger brusquely.

"I'm nineteen," replied a low musical voice, "and Billy's twelve."

Roger's head suddenly jerked up. He stared past Hyram Logan and a small towheaded boy, to gaze into the warm brown eyes of Jane Logan, a slender, pretty girl whose open, friendly features were framed by neatly combed reddish blond hair. Roger sat staring at her, openmouthed, until he heard a loud cough and saw Logan trying to hide a smile. He quickly turned back to the application.

"I see here you're a farmer, Mr. Logan," said Roger. He stole a glance at the young girl, but Billy saw him and winked. Roger flushed and turned to Logan as the older man answered his questioner.

"That's right," said Logan. "I'm a farmer. Been a farmer all my life."

"Why do you want to go to Roald, Mr. Logan?" asked Roger.

"Well," said Logan, "I have a nice piece of land south of Venusport a ways. Me and my wife developed it and we've been farming it for over twenty-five years. But my wife died last year and I just sort of lost heart in this place. I figured maybe that new satellite will give me a start again. You'll have to have farmers to feed the people. And I can farm anything from chemicals to naturals, in hard rock or muddy water." He paused and clamped his jaws together and said proudly, "My father was a farmer, and his father before him. One of the first to put a plow into Venusian topsoil!"

"Yes-uh-of course, Mr. Logan," mumbled Roger. "I don't think there'll-er-be any trouble about it."

The young cadet hadn't heard a word Hyram Logan had said, but instead had been gazing happily into the eyes of Jane Logan. He stamped the application and indicated the door to Tom's screening room, following the girl wistfully with his eyes. He muttered to himself, "There ought to be more applicants like Farmer Logan and his daughter for the brave new world of Roald!"

"And if there were, Cadet Manning," roared Captain Strong, standing in the doorway from the hall, "we'd probably wind up with a satellite filled with beautiful women!"

"Yes, sir! Er-no, sir," stuttered Roger, jerking himself to attention. "I mean, what's wrong with that?"

"By the rings of Saturn," declared Strong, "you'll never change, Manning!"

Roger grinned. "I hope not, sir."

The door to Tom's room opened and the curly-haired cadet walked in holding an application.

"Captain Strong," he said, "could I see you a minute?"

"Sure, Tom. Any trouble?" asked Strong.

Tom handed him the application silently and waited. Strong read the sheet and turned to Tom. "You know what to do in a case like this, Tom. Why come to me?"

Tom screwed up his face, thinking. "I don't know, sir. There's something different about this fellow. Astro passed him with flying colors. Said he knew as much about a reactor unit as he did. Roger passed him too."

"Who is it?" asked Roger. Strong handed him the paper.

"Sure, I passed him," said Roger. "That guy really knows his electronics."

Strong looked at Tom. "How do you feel about it, Tom?"

"Well, sir," began Tom, "I would pass him in a minute. He's had experience handling men and he's been in deep space before. He's logged an awful lot of time on merchant spaceships, but-"

"But what?" asked Strong. He took the paper and studied it again. "Looks to me as if he's what we're looking for," he said.

"I know, sir," said Tom. "But why would a man like that, with all that experience, want to bury himself on Roald? He could get practically any job he wants, right here in the system."

"Ummh," mused Strong. He reread the application. In the blank space for reason for going, the applicant had written simply: Adventure. He handed the application back to Tom. "I think I see what you mean, Tom. It does look too good. Better not take a chance. Seven years is a long time to get stuck with a misfit, or worse, a-" He didn't finish, but Tom knew he meant a man not to be trusted.

"Tell Paul Vidac his application has been rejected," said Strong.

* * *

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