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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 19088

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"You mean Captain Strong has been recalled to the Academy?" gasped Roger.

"That's right," replied Tom. "He had a talk with Governor Hardy last night and this morning he took the jet liner back to Earth. Special orders from Commander Walters."

"Well, blast my jets!" exclaimed Astro. "Wonder what's up?"

"I don't know," said Tom. "But it must be something more important than the Roald project for him to pull out now!"

"It might have something to do with the project, Tom," suggested Roger.

Tom shook his head. "Maybe, but it just isn't like Captain Strong not to say anything to us before he left. I wouldn't have known about it if one of the enlisted guardsmen hadn't asked me if we were going with him."

Astro and Roger looked at each other. "You mean," asked Roger, "Captain Strong didn't tell you he was going?"

"That's just it!" replied Tom. "We've been traveling all over space together screening the applicants, and then Captain Strong just leaves when we start the final screening."

The three cadets were seated in a snack shop in Luna City on the Moon, sipping hot tea and eating spaceburgers. For six weeks they had been interviewing the applicants for the new satellite colony and were getting near the end. Their task had gone fairly smoothly except for some difficulty on Mars when Strong and the cadets had rejected scores of applicants with shady backgrounds; criminals and gamblers; spacemen who had had their space papers picked up for violation of the space code, and men who had been dismissed from the enlisted Solar Guard for serious misconduct. But now, finally, the quotas of all the colonies and planets but Luna City on the Moon had been filled. Soon the expedition would blast off for Roald.

"Well," said Tom, sipping the last of his tea, "we have a heavy day ahead of us tomorrow. I guess we'd better get back to the Polaris and sack in."

"Yeah," agreed Astro, tossing some credits on the counter and following Tom and Roger out into the street. They walked past the shops, their blue cadet uniforms reflecting the garish colors of the nuanium signs in the shopwindows. At the first corner they hailed a jet cab and were soon speeding out of the city toward the municipal spaceport.

The boys didn't talk much on the way out, each wondering why Captain Strong was recalled on such short notice, and why he had left without saying good-by to them. They knew they would see him in a few days when the processing of the Luna City applicants was over and they would return to Space Academy, but the relationship between the cadets and the Solar Guard captain had developed into a deeper association than just a cadet crew and officer supervisor. They were friends-spacemates! And the boys sensed trouble ahead when they arrived at the Luna City spaceport. They stood in the shadow of the Polaris and stared into the sky to watch the globe that was Earth revolve in the depths of space. The outline of the Western Hemisphere, flanked by the shimmering Atlantic and Pacific oceans, could be seen clearly. It was a breath-taking view of a world that had given birth to all the men who now took the travel from one world to another for granted.

"Gosh," said Tom, staring at the magnificent sight. "I see the Earth like that every time we blast off from Luna. I should be used to it by now, but-" he stopped suddenly and sighed.

"I know what you mean, Tom," said Astro. "It's the same with me. Gets me right here," and he put his hand to his heart.

"You don't know your anatomy yet, pal," drawled Roger. "Move your hand down a couple of inches. Things only get you in the stomach."

"Oh, is that a fact?" growled the big Venusian. Suddenly, without any apparent effort, he picked up the blond cadet and held him high in the air. "Which way shall I drop him, Tom? On his head or the seat of his pants? Seems to me it won't make much difference."

Tom laughed at the spectacle of Roger flailing the air helplessly, then suddenly stopped and grabbed Astro by the arm. "Wait, Astro," he called. "Look! There's someone in the ship!"

"What?" cried Astro, dropping Roger and turning to the Polaris. The three cadets saw light gleaming from the control-deck viewport.

"Well, I'll be a space monkey!" exclaimed Roger. "Who could it be?"

"I don't know," replied Tom. "Governor Hardy is at the Luna City Hotel, and Captain Strong is the only one besides us who has the light key to open the air lock!"

"Well, what're we waiting for!" said Roger. "Let's find out what's going on!"

The three cadets climbed into the ship and raced up the companionway to the control deck.

"No one here," announced Roger as he stepped through the hatch. He turned to Astro. "You were the last one out of the ship. Are you sure you locked it up?"

"The ship was locked, Cadet Manning!" said a voice in back of them. The three cadets whirled around to face a tall, wiry man with dark hair, dressed in civilian clothes and holding a cup of coffee. He smiled at the three startled cadets and casually drained the cup. "I opened her," he continued in a deep voice. "Governor Hardy gave me the key."

"Who are you?" asked Tom, almost indignant at the man's self-assurance. And then he stopped, frowning, "Say, haven't I seen you before?"

"You're right, Tom," cried Astro. "I've seen him too!"

"Who are you, mister?" demanded Roger.

The man turned back to the messroom just off the control deck, put the coffee cup down on the table, and returned to face the three cadets. "My name is Paul Vidac. I'm the new lieutenant governor of Roald."

"You're what?" gasped Tom.

"You're space happy!" exclaimed Roger. "Your application was refused. Captain Strong rejected it himself."

"Fortunately for the project of Roald," said Vidac with a half-smile playing at his lips, "Captain Strong has been taken off the Roald project." He paused and lounged against the bulkhead to announce, "I have replaced him."

"You couldn't replace Captain Strong digging a hole in the ground, mister!" snapped Roger sarcastically.

"You might have taken over his work, but you couldn't touch him with an atomic blaster," growled Astro. "Captain Strong is-"

"Wait, fellows," said Tom. "Let's find out what this is all about."

"That's all right, Corbett," Vidac broke in. "I appreciate your allegiance. I wouldn't like anyone who would accept another person in place of a friend without putting up a beef." His voice was as smooth as the purr of a cat.

"How could you have replaced him, mister?" asked Tom, with just a little more self-control than Roger or Astro had shown.

"Very simple," said Vidac. "Governor Hardy has the final say on all applications, as you know. He has unquestioned authority to appoint, approve, and select anyone he wants. In view of my experience, Governor Hardy was delighted to have me join the Roald expedition."

The three cadets looked at each other in bewilderment. Finally Tom walked over and stuck out his hand. "We're glad to have you aboard, sir." He managed a smile.

Reluctantly Roger and Astro followed suit.

"Thank you, boys," said Vidac with a smile. "I'm sure we'll learn to work together smoothly in these last few days. There are a few changes to be made of course. But it really doesn't matter. You'll be finished with the screening soon."

"What kind of changes, sir?" asked Tom.

"Oh, just routine," answered Vidac. "Instead of you seeing the applicants first, I will speak with each one briefly before sending them on to you."

"What's the matter with the way we've been doing it?" asked Roger with a slight edge to his voice that did not go unnoticed. Vidac looked at the cadet. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were hard.

"I think, Cadet Manning," purred Vidac, "that it will be better for you not to question me, or any of my practices. A Space Cadet's first rule is to take orders, not to question them."

Tom was thinking quickly. It was obvious that Vidac had gone straight to Governor Hardy and had prevailed on him to review his application. Tom could see how Vidac's background would impress the governor. He remembered that there wasn't any real evidence against Vidac. In fact, Tom thought, it was only because Vidac's background was so superior to most of the applicants that he had aroused suspicion at all. Now, with Captain Strong recalled to the Academy, it was only natural for the governor to get the best man for the job. Tom was ready to admit that Vidac's background certainly spoke for itself.

He looked at the man and grinned. "I'll tell you honestly, sir. When Captain Strong refused your application, it was because-well-"

Vidac was watching Tom shrewdly. "Well?" he asked quietly.

"It was because we couldn't understand how a man like you would want to bury yourself on a satellite for seven years when you could get most any kind of job you would want, right here in the Alliance."

Vidac hesitated just a second, and then his face broke into a broad grin. "You know, Corbett, you're right! Absolutely right! I can see where you three boys have done a fine job for the governor." He slapped Astro on the back and threw his arm around Tom's shoulder, speaking to them in a suddenly confidential tone. "As a matter of fact, I was offered the directorship of the Galactic space lanes only last week," he said. "Do you know why I refused it?"

Tom shook his head.

"Because I'm a spaceman, just like yourselves." He looked at Astro. "Cadet Astro, would you take a job with an outfit

and give up space to sit behind a desk eight hours a day?"

"No, sir!" said Astro emphatically.

"Well, that's exactly the way I feel. But I commend you on your observations about me, Corbett. I think I would have been a little suspicious myself."

The three cadets smiled.

"Thank you, sir," said Tom. "And forget what we just said. If Governor Hardy's okayed you, that's good enough for us."

"Thanks, Corbett," said Vidac. "I appreciate that."

"I guess we'd better turn in now," said Roger. "We have a hard day ahead of us. Those applicants come at you like dinosaurs."

"Right!" said Vidac. "I'll take over Captain Strong's quarters. See you in the morning."

The three cadets went to their quarters without saying a word. When the hatch was closed, Roger turned and faced his unit mates.

"Well, it sure looks like we made a mistake about that spaceman!" he said. "I think he's all right!"

"Yeah," said Astro, "you can't blame a guy for not wanting to take a desk job."

Tom merely sat in his bunk, starting to pull off one of his soft leather space boots. He held it a moment, thinking, and then looked up at his two unit mates. "You know, I think I'm going to have a talk with the governor."

"About what?" asked Roger.

"Vidac," said Tom simply.

"What could you say that he doesn't already know?" asked Astro.

"Why-" Tom stopped. After a moment he dropped his boot to the deck, looked up at Roger and Astro, and smiled. "Nothing, I guess."

"Come on," said Roger, yawning. "Let's turn in. Just the thought of facing those applicants tomorrow makes me tired."

Astro turned out the light and hopped into bed. Tom lay in his bunk, hands under his head, wondering about Vidac, and then he began to think about the colony of Roald. He lay a long time, thinking about the fine people who were giving up comfortable homes, successful businesses. He thought of Hyram Logan and family; the shopkeeper from Titan with three sets of twin boys; the Martian miner who had spent twenty-five futile years searching for uranium in the asteroid belt. They were all ready to go over fifty billion miles into deep space and begin their lives again. Tom shook his head. He wondered if he had a choice whether he would chance the mystery and danger of deep space.

With the steady hum of the electronic generator on the power deck droning in his ears the curly-haired cadet soon fell asleep.

* * *

"What did you say your name was?" asked Roger of the applicant standing before him. He was a man badly in need of a shave and his clothes looked as if he had slept in them. He was the sixty-sixth applicant Roger had seen that morning.

"Tad Winters," replied the man in a surly tone, "and hurry up with this business. I haven't got all day!"

Roger looked up sharply. "You'll wait until I've had time to check your application, sir. Or you can leave right now!"

"Listen, punk," snarled Winters, "I just saw your boss-"

"My boss?" asked Roger, puzzled.

"Yeah," said Winters. "Your boss, Vidac! And he said I was to tell you to pass me!"

Roger stood up and looked the man in the eye. "You've had your space papers suspended twice, Mr. Winters. Once for smuggling, and once for insubordination on a deep-space merchantman. Your application to go to Roald is rejected."

"We'll see about that!" growled Winters. "Gimme that, you space jerk!" He snatched the application out of Roger's hand and stomped out of the room.

Roger smiled. It was nothing new to him for the applicants to threaten him and seek higher authority. He buzzed for the next applicant.

Meanwhile, Tom was interviewing a small man with heavy eyebrows and a thin face. One side of his mouth twitched continually, making the man look as though he were laughing. Tom read over the application and looked up quickly.

"Mr. Bush," said Tom, "you've stated here that you were once a messenger for the Spaceways Bonded Messenger Service and that you were dismissed. Why was that?"

Ed Bush's mouth twitched as he played with his hat and stirred uneasily in his chair. "I was framed," he said finally.

"Framed?" asked Tom.

"Yeah, framed!" snapped Bush. "I was taking a credit pouch to Venusport from Atom City when it was stolen from me."

"Could you prove it?" asked Tom.

"How could I prove it when I don't know what happened to it?" growled Bush. "Listen, Corbett, you can't hold a little thing like that against me. A man is entitled to one mistake-"

Tom held up his hand. "Mr. Bush, you also had your space papers suspended for six months and were caught during the suspension blasting off with false papers. Was that a mistake?"

"Well, what do you expect a man to do? Go hungry? I've been a spaceman longer than you've been alive. I had to have a job. There wasn't anything else I could do." His voice trailed off into a whine.

"But you did, willfully and with full knowledge of your act, violate the space code by using false papers, didn't you?" pursued Tom.

"Yeah, but-" whined Bush.

"I'm sorry," said Tom, standing up. "Your application has been rejected."

Bush stood up and snatched the application from Tom. His mouth began to twitch furiously. "Why, you little-"

"That's enough, Bush!" snapped Vidac, who had suddenly entered the room. "Leave your application on the desk and get out!"

Bush turned and looked at Vidac, nodded, and glared at Tom before stalking from the room. Vidac smiled at Tom's questioning look and walked over. He sat on the edge of Tom's desk and picked up Bush's application.

"Funny thing about Bush, Tom," Vidac mused.

"What, sir?" asked Tom.

"Notice the nervous twitch he has on the side of his face?"

"Yes, sir," said Tom.

"I've known Bush a long time. Many years. He used to be the happiest little space joker in the system, singing all the time, playing a concertina. And then he lost that credit pouch. It bothered him real bad."

"I guess it would, sir," said Tom.

"And then he got caught blasting off with false papers and of course that made him a marked man. He developed the nervous twitch right after that. He's a good man, Tom. And I think we ought to give him another chance."

Tom gasped. "But, sir, he's broken the space code!"

Vidac looked at Tom and smiled. "I know, Tom, and it's a serious thing. But I think he deserves another chance."

"We've refused people for a lot less than that, sir," said Tom emphatically, "before you came."

Vidac's face hardened. "I said we were going to give him another chance!"

Tom met the lieutenant governor's eyes coolly. "Yes, sir." He stamped the application and handed it to Vidac.

"It's pretty easy to sit in judgment of others, Tom," said Vidac, smiling again. "If there are any more-ah-questionable applicants, I suggest you send them to me. And if I want to give them another chance, you will, of course, follow orders."

"Very well, sir," replied Tom, tight-lipped. "If you say so."

Vidac's eyes hardened. "I say so, Corbett!" He turned and walked from the room.

Tom sat down weakly. As he was about to buzz for the next applicant, the door burst open and Roger came into the room. The blond-haired cadet's lips were pulled tight in a grim line.

"There's something rocket-blasting screwy around here, Tom!" he exclaimed.

"What do you mean?" asked Tom.

"I just rejected a real low-down space crawler-a guy named Tad Winters."

"Yes?" Tom was alert, anticipating Roger's answer.

"He went to Vidac and came back later with his application approved."

Tom slammed his fist on the desk. "That proves it! Governor Hardy has to be told what's going on!" He flipped on the teleceiver near by and asked the central communications operator to connect him with the governor's office. In a moment the face of Christopher Hardy sharpened into focus on the screen.

"What is it, Corbett?" asked the governor.

"I'd like to talk to you, sir, if I may. Something's just come up and I'm not sure what to do."

"Well, whatever it is, I'm sure Governor Vidac will be able to take care of it. Speak to him."

Tom gulped and glanced at Roger. "But, sir," he stammered, "it's-it's-"

"It's what, Corbett? Hurry, lad! I haven't got all day."

"What I have to say is-is-about the lieutenant governor, sir," Tom managed finally.

"Now listen, son," said Hardy, "I have a lot of confidence in you three boys. You've all done a fine job. But I screened Mr. Vidac myself, and I'm satisfied that he is just the man I need. After Captain Strong was recalled to the Academy, I had to have a man to take over for him. And I am satisfied that Mr. Vidac is about as fine a man as I could get! Now don't bother me again. You've done a fine job, as I said. But don't let it go to your heads!"

"Yes, sir," said Tom, clamping his teeth together. "Very well, sir!"

"One more thing," said Hardy. "We've about finished here at Luna City. When you've processed the last of the applicants, prepare the Polaris for a return trip to Space Academy." He paused and smiled. "I think I might be able to convince Commander Walters you need a two weeks' leave!" He smiled again and then his face disappeared from the screen.

Tom looked up at Roger. "I don't like it, Roger. Maybe I'm wrong, but either the governor is pretty dumb or Vidac is the slickest thing in space!"

"Could be both," drawled Roger.

Tom looked at the pile of applications on his desk, and then at the door to Vidac's office.

"Whatever it is, we've got to tell Captain Strong!"

* * *

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