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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 15437

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A thousand spaceships, freighters, converted luxury liners, auxiliary supply vessels, rocket cruisers, destroyers and scouts, all led by the Polaris, blasted in even formation through the last charted regions of the solar system. Inside the gleaming ships the colonists had settled down for the long voyage to the new satellite of Roald. Their quarters were cramped and uncomfortable. There was very little to do and their only entertainment was the shipboard stereos. Many spent endless hours at the long-range telescanners watching the sun star Wolf 359, seeing it come closer and closer.

Aboard the Polaris, Tom, Roger, and Astro worked an endless tour of duty, maneuvering the great fleet of ships into ordered formation so that any vessel could be found without difficulty. Now that the fleet was in position, and the early confusion of forming up was over, they had hoped for a little rest, but were disappointed when Vidac suddenly ordered them to report to his quarters.

Standing at the hatch outside of Vidac's room, Tom and Roger waited for Astro as he climbed up the ladder to join them. The big cadet finally made the top and stood breathing heavily.

"By the rings of Saturn," he grumbled, "I'm so tired I could sleep right here. Right now!"

"Yeah," growled Roger. "You'd think Vidac would give us a break after what we've done."

"We'll have plenty of time to rest on this trip," said Tom. "This is just the beginning. I'll bet by the time we reach Roald we'll be wishing we had something to do to pass away the time."

He turned and pressed the annunciator button and the hatch slid open. The three cadets entered the room and snapped to attention.

"Polaris unit reporting as ordered, sir," said Tom.

Vidac swung around in his chair and stared up at the three cadets, a hint of a smile curling his lips.

"You've done a fine job, boys," he said. "The fleet is in good formation." He paused as he settled back in his chair. "But I'm not the one who believes in idle hands. I've assigned you to Professor Sykes. He needs help in charting the unexplored regions of space we're approaching. And you three need that kind of training. Report to him in one hour."

"One hour," gasped Roger. "But we're completely blasted out!"

"Yes, sir," agreed Astro. "Couldn't we log some sack time before we start another assignment?"

Vidac stood up and faced them. "You might as well learn right now," he said sharply, "that when I give an order I expect it to be carried out without suggestions, complaints, or whining excuses!"

"But-!" stammered Roger.

Tom quickly stepped forward. His back ramrod straight, he saluted the lieutenant governor. "We understand, sir."

He executed a perfect about-face and, followed by Astro and Roger, he left the lieutenant governor's quarters.

Outside, the three cadets walked wearily toward the messroom just off the control deck. After preparing a hasty cup of tea, they sat about the table silently, each thinking about the long trip ahead of them and the difficulties they were sure to encounter with Vidac. They all three jumped when Jeff Marshall, Professor Sykes's aide, entered and boomed a cheerful greeting.

"Hi, fellas!"

"Hiya," muttered Tom. Astro and Roger merely nodded.

"Say!" cried Jeff, his usually cheerful face showing concern. "What's the matter with you three guys? You look as though someone told you there isn't any Moon!"

"Worse than that," said Roger. "Vidac just assigned us to work with Professor Sykes on charting the new space regions."

Jeff smiled. "Nothing wrong with that. The old professor isn't so bad. He sounds worse than he really is."

"Listen," growled Astro, "you don't have to tell me what Professor Sykes is like. I had a class with him at the Academy. That guy is so sour, vinegar is sweet by comparison."

Astro's outburst was said with such fierce conviction that Tom, Roger, and Jeff burst out laughing.

"It isn't that we mind working with Professor Sykes," said Tom. "He's a real brain and we could learn a lot from him, but-"

"But what?" asked Jeff.

"It's the way Vidac has suddenly-well, taken over around here. We're supposed to be under the direct orders of Governor Hardy."

"Well, Vidac is Hardy's executive officer," said Jeff.

"Yeah," muttered Roger. "We're finding that out, the hard way."

"I still can't understand why Governor Hardy would make him lieutenant governor, with his background," mused Tom.

Jeff grinned. "You three guys have been jockeying with so many space crawlers since you came to the Academy, you're suspicious of everyone you meet. I'm surprised you haven't decided that I'm an arch space criminal myself!"

The three cadets smiled. Jeff Marshall was so gentle and mild, his manner so quietly humorous, it was impossible to picture him as any kind of a criminal.

During the few minutes they had left, they casually discussed the chances of the senior space cadets against the enlisted guardsmen in a forthcoming mercuryball game, and then went up to the forward compartment of the Polaris, which served as a temporary observatory for Professor Sykes.

The Chief Astrophysicist of Space Academy, Professor Barnard Sykes, was a man of great talent and even greater temper. Referred to as Barney by the cadet corps, he was held in high regard and downright fear. There were few cadets who had escaped his scathing tongue when they had made a mistake and practically the entire student body had, at one time or another, singly and in unison, devoutly wished that a yawning hole would open up and swallow them when he began one of his infamous tirades. Even perfection in studies and execution by a cadet would receive a mere grunt from the cantankerous professor. Such temperament was permissible at the Academy by an instructor only because of his genius and for no other reason. And Professor Sykes fitted the bill. It was by sheer devotion to his work and single-mindedness of purpose that he was able to become a leading scientist in his field. Professor Sykes had been assigned, at his request, to the Roald expedition. As the leading scientist, it was his job to evaluate every new discovery made during the trip out to the distant satellite, and later make observations on the colony itself. Scientifically, and in a sense ultimately, the success or failure of the Roald expedition would rest on his round hunched shoulders.

When the three cadets and Jeff Marshall entered the observatory, they found Professor Sykes bending over a calculating machine checking some figures. Apparently finding a mistake, he muttered to himself angrily and started over again. Roger stepped forward.

"I can handle a calculator pretty well, sir," Roger said. "You want me to do it for you?"

Sykes whirled around and glared at the blond-haired cadet. "What's your name?" he snapped.

"Why-Cadet Manning, sir," replied Roger.

"Cadet Manning, do you see this calculator?" Sykes pointed to the delicate instrument that could add, subtract, divide, and multiply, in fractions and whole numbers, as well as measure the light years in sidereal time.

"Yes, sir," said Roger.

"Cadet Manning," continued Sykes, "I perfected that machine. Built the first one myself. Now offhand, wouldn't you say I would know how to operate it?"

"Yes, sir," stammered Roger. "But I just wanted to help, sir."

"When I need your help I'll ask for it!" snorted the little professor. He turned to Jeff. "What are they doing here? You know I don't like to be interrupted when I'm making observations!"

Jeff smiled slowly. "They've been assigned to work with you, sir. They're your new assistants."

"My assistants!" screamed Sykes. "What

space-blasting idiot got the idea that I needed any assistants?"

"The lieutenant governor, sir," said Jeff.

"Oh, he did, did he!" Sykes turned to the teleceiver, flipped it on, and waited impatiently for the machine to warm up.

In a moment Vidac's face came into view. Before the lieutenant governor could say a word, Sykes began to scream at him.

"What's the idea of sending these brainless Space Cadets to me! Assistants-bah! Can't you find something else for them to do?" bawled Sykes. "Is my work considered so unimportant that I should be impeded by these-these-" He sputtered and turned to wave at Tom, Roger, and Astro who still stood at rigid attention.

Sykes got no further. Vidac simply cut off his teleceiver and left the professor staring into a blank screen. His face became beet red, and he screamed at Jeff Marshall. "Get them out of here! Put them to work-scrubbing the decks, cleaning up the place, anything! But keep them out of my way!" Then wagging a finger in Roger's face, he screamed his last warning. "Don't ever speak to me again, unless I speak to you first!"

Smarting under the continuous blast of anger from the professor, Roger could no longer restrain himself. Slowly, with the calm deliberate manner and slow casual drawl that characterized him at his sarcastic best, the cadet stepped forward. He saluted, and with his face a bare six inches from Sykes, said evenly, "To speak to you, sir, under any conditions, sir, would be such a stroke of bad luck, sir, that I wouldn't wish it on the last spaceman in the world, sir." With another curt salute he wheeled smartly and walked out of the room.

Flabbergasted, Professor Sykes could manage no more than a hoarse bubbling sound and he finally turned to Jeff Marshall, waving his arms violently. "Get them out of here-get them out of here. Get them out!"

The sergeant nodded quickly at Tom and Astro, who, repressing smiles, saluted and followed Roger out of the observatory.

Within the hour, Professor Sykes was still screaming loudly, this time to Governor Hardy himself. Standing before his desk the eccentric scientist babbled his complaint of Vidac's rebuff and Roger's outrageous insolence.

"I won't stand for it, Governor! My work is more important than having to wipe the noses of three loudmouthed sassy cadets! And as for that-that man Vidac, if he ever turns off the teleceiver again when I'm talking to him, I'll go to the Solar Council itself. I'm an officer of the Solar Guard and demand respect!"

His harangue concluded, Sykes turned and stalked toward the hatch.

"Just a moment," called Hardy, stepping around the desk to confront the little scientist. "All of us are assigned to important jobs," he said calmly. "Yours is scientific research; the cadets have a specific job of education; I am the co-ordinator of the whole project and Lieutenant Governor Vidac is my immediate executive officer. We all have to work together. Let's see if we can't do it a little more smoothly, eh?" Hardy smiled and turned back to his chair. "But one thing more, Sykes. If there are any more petty disagreements, please settle them with Vidac. Don't come up here again, unless I order you to!"

"You order me," gasped Sykes.

"That's all, Sykes!" said Hardy coldly, picking up some papers in an obvious gesture of dismissal. His fury redoubled, the professor backed out of the room and hurried below to Vidac's quarters. Expecting another cold interview, he was surprised when Vidac met him with a smile and asked him to enjoy a cup of coffee with him.

"No need for us to antagonize each other over the foolish mistakes and bunglings of the cadets, Professor," said Vidac evenly. "I apologize for cutting you off, but I make it a point never to talk to a man when he's angry. Come, sit down, and have a cup of coffee. I'm sure we can work out the answer." He paused and then added pointedly, "Without bothering Governor Hardy."

"Yes-yes-of course," said Sykes, accepting the proffered cup.

Within a half-hour, Vidac had Sykes laughing at his jokes and stories, and when they parted, the professor's temper had abated. When the scientist finally left, Vidac turned to the ship's intercom and paged the cadets. A few minutes later they entered his quarters for the second time that evening.

Vidac was ready and waiting when they entered the room and came to attention. He leaned back against his desk and looked at each cadet through half-closed eyes. Finally, after a full minute of silence, he began to speak.

"I gave you specific instructions to report to Professor Sykes for work as his assistants," he said in a cold, hard voice. "I also told you I wanted my order carried out without complaints or whining excuses. You saw fit to start an argument as soon as you reported, thereby interrupting his work. The professor went to the governor and interrupted his work. The professor came to see me, interrupting my work. Three men had to stop their jobs because you didn't feel like carrying out orders."

"But, sir-" said Tom. "The professor-"

"Shut up, Corbett!" said Vidac coldly. "Don't ever interrupt me again while I'm talking!"

"Yes, sir!" said Tom through tight lips.

"You boys have been enjoying considerable latitude under Captain Strong. But I would like to remind you that Captain Strong isn't here. There's no one here but me. You will do as I say, when I say it, and as long as I say it. If you don't, I promise you, you will regret it."

"May I speak, sir?" asked Roger.

"No, Manning. I've heard about your tongue. I warn you, never use it on me, or-" He paused. "Just never use it, that's all."

He walked about the room, but kept his eyes on the cadets. "There's just one more thing I want you to understand, before you're dismissed. I know that all three of you refused my application as a colonist originally. I know what your feelings must be now that I am your superior. And because I know, I feel I should warn you not to try to express your feelings. You can't win. You can only lose. If I ever catch you going to Governor Hardy, by-passing my authority, I'll make your lives so miserable you'll wish you were dead. Now get out of here!"

As one man, the cadets of the Polaris unit saluted, turned a perfect about-face, and walked once again from the room. Outside in the passageway, they relaxed and headed for their quarters.

None of them could say a word, for the simple reason that each of them was so boiling mad he couldn't speak. Finally, after they had showered and were climbing into their bunks, Tom spoke for the first time since leaving Vidac.

"I have to write a report to Captain Strong," he said, when Roger started to turn out the light. "Better leave it on a while, Roger."

"O.K., Tom," said Roger. "Are you going to tell him what's going on here?"

"Yeah," growled Astro. "Give him the whole works. There's something wrong here somewhere. I can understand the professor blasting his jets. He does that all the time. But I can't understand Vidac acting the way he does."

"I feel the same way, Astro," said Tom, "but actually what are we going to say to Captain Strong? So far nothing concrete has happened." He shook his head. "I'm afraid if I put what happened down on an audioscriber that it'll look as though we've suddenly become cry-babies!"

"I'm ready to quit!" said Roger. "Grab a freighter and blast outta here. A whole year with this guy! There's no telling what he's liable to do!"

Tom leaned over the table and stared at the bulkhead in front of him. He clenched his fists. Needless to say, he agreed with Roger, he had the same feelings. But he was powerless to do anything about it.

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