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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 14458

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"All set, Tom," called Roger, adjusting the valves that supplied a steady stream of oxygen into his space suit. Tom nodded and turned to Astro, seated behind them, his hand on the remote-control switch governing the huge air-lock portal on the jet-boat deck.

"Open her up, Astro," he ordered, his voice crackling through the spacephones inside his space helmet. Astro pressed the lever opening the sliding panel in the side of the hull of the Polaris and the cold blackness of outer space came into view.

Seated at the controls of the jet boat, Tom pressed down on the acceleration pedal, sending the tiny ship rocketing out of the Polaris like a projectile. As they circled their mother ship, Roger pointed out the vessel they were going to and Tom settled down to full throttle in the direction of Roald colony vessel Number Twelve. The huge converted luxury liner carrying many of the colonists was several lanes away in the sprawling formation of ships and it would take several minutes for them to traverse the four hundred miles to Number Twelve.

The three cadets were under orders to tour the fleet and observe conditions aboard the other ships. It was obviously a nuisance assignment since any extraordinary conditions could have been reported by teleceiver. But they were glad to get away from Vidac and Professor Sykes if only for a little while.

Holding the small vessel at full throttle, Tom settled back and pointed out several of the large star clusters in the clear airless void of space around them. Andromeda Galaxy whirled above them like a Fourth-of-July pin wheel. And the sun stars of Regulus, Sirius, and the Seven Sisters sparkled like diamonds on black velvet.

"Think we'll ever reach those babies?" mused Tom in a quiet voice.

"We're on the first step right now with this expedition," replied Astro.

"A short step," commented Roger. "To us Wolf 359 is a long way off, but when you stack it up against the distance to Regulus, for instance, it's just an inch."

"I'd sure like to go to Regulus," said Astro.

"So would I," snorted Roger. "But we'd probably wind up with a space crawler like Vidac for a skipper. That you can have!"

Nearing the first stop in their tour, Tom signaled ahead to Number Twelve to be taken aboard. He waited for the outer portal of the ship's air lock to be opened and then sent his tiny spacecraft into a shallow dive, applying his braking jets expertly to bring it to a dead stop inside the jet-boat deck of the converted space liner. The outer portal slid closed and a moment later the air pressure on the deck had been built up enough for them to remove their space helmets.

As they climbed out of the jet boat, the inner air-lock portal slid open and Tad Winters, the civilian captain of the liner, appeared. There was a scowl on his face and he made no attempt to hide his annoyance.

"Whose idea was this to come snooping around while we're in flight?" he snarled.

Astro bristled and stepped forward, towering over the smaller spaceman. "If we had anything to say about it, Mr. Winters, your company would be the last we'd want!"

Winters glanced at Tom and Roger who stood to one side silently, their faces grim.

Tom stepped forward. "Vidac sent us, Winters. We're here to check the departments and see that everything is in order."

"Vidac, eh?" sneered Winters. "What's the matter? Can't he do it himself, instead of sending a bunch of space squirts?"

"The lieutenant governor is busy," said Roger sarcastically. "Very busy, in fact."

"Doing what?" asked Winters.

"Trying to keep the rest of his space rats in line!" snapped Roger.

"Listen, you!" growled Winters, taking a threatening step toward Roger. "I don't have to take that from you. One word outta me, and Vidac'll bury you in the brig."

Tom quickly stepped between Roger and the angry civilian spaceman to prevent the impending fight. He stared at Winters and smiled. "What's the matter, Winters? Need Vidac's help in everything you do?"

"Aw, go blast your jets, you space-brained jerks!" snorted Winters. He turned back toward the hatch, but there was noticeably less swagger to his walk.

The three cadets smiled at each other and followed him into the main body of the ship.

While the Polaris was the command ship of the fleet, the nerve center of the entire operation, it was still hardly more than a prison ship for the cadets. In direct contrast, the space liner was bright, gay, and full of life. Everything imaginable for the convenience of the colonists had been installed aboard the massive ship. As the three cadets walked through the ship on their way to the control deck, they passed the auditorium where stereos were shown in the evenings and indoctrination lectures were given during the day. They passed a number of compartments that served as a school for the children of the colonists. There were workshops where the colonists could make objects for their future homes in their spare time. And in the heart of the ship was one of the most complete and extensive libraries in the Solar Alliance. Audioslides, soundscribers, story spools, question-and-answer tapes, everything designed to answer just about any question the human mind could ask.

The main living quarters of the ship were arranged so that each family had a small apartment, complete in every detail, to preserve as much of the family life as possible. There were no governors or supervisors to control the colonists. It had been decided to allow the colonists to choose their own leaders aboard the ships. But they were living together so peacefully, they hadn't found it necessary to select any one individual to be a leader. The ship was a miniature city.

As the Space Cadets made their rounds of the power deck, control deck, and radar deck, they were amazed by the excellence of the equipment and the care given it. And because they saw nothing to substantiate their suspicions of Vidac, and his hand-picked crew, on Number Twelve, they found themselves confused about their feelings toward him.

On the power deck, Astro had questioned a rocketman closely about the arrangement of the baffling around one of the firing chambers. The power-deck officer, Shilo Speed, heard Astro's questions, agreed with the cadet, and made the rocketman rearrange the baffling. Then, on the control deck, the pilot had been careless in maintaining his position with the other ships in the fleet. Tom mentioned it to Winters, and Winters immediately ordered the man off the bridge, and replaced him. Such action for the safety of the colonists had made the cadets wonder about Vidac's ability.

After inspecting the ship from radar mast to jet exhausts, the three cadets started back for the jet-boat deck. As they retraced their steps, they passed through the library and encountered Hyram Logan and his son Billy.

"Hello, Mr. Logan," greeted Tom with a big smile.

"Well, hello, Corbett," Logan replied. "Didn't know you were aboard Number Twelve."

"We're not assigned to her, sir," replied Tom. "We're just making an inspection for the lieutenant governor. How do you like the way she's being run?"

Logan's endorsement was immediate. "Just fine, Cor

bett. This ship is almost a colony in itself."

"Yeah, including school," chimed in Billy sourly. The three cadets laughed. Then the boy grinned and stuck a finger gently into Roger's stomach. "She ain't here, Cadet Manning. My sister is teaching kindergarten right now."

"Be quiet, Billy!" barked his father.

Roger's face turned a slow red while Tom and Astro grinned. After a few more words, the three cadets again headed for the jet-boat deck.

"That Billy will make a fine radarman someday," drawled Astro.

"How do you figure that, Astro?" asked Tom.

"Did you see the way he spotted Roger's roving eye looking for his pretty sister? Why, in ten years, he'll be picking up asteroids the same way."

Back in their jet boat a few minutes later, blasting through space on the rest of their tour, Tom turned to his unit mates, a troubled look on his face.

"Did you notice anything aboard Number Twelve that looked-well, suspicious?" he asked.

Astro and Roger shook their heads.

"Me neither," said Tom. "Maybe we've got Vidac pegged wrong. Maybe-"

"I thought of that, Tom," interrupted Roger. "But there's one thing that doesn't seem right."

"What's that?" asked Tom.

"Your report to Captain Strong," Roger replied. "You sent it to him ten days ago. You should have had an answer by now."

"He's out on Pluto," said Astro. "Space Academy might not have forwarded it to him."

"You know the rules," said Roger. "Any official communication to a Solar Guard officer is sent through regardless of where he is in the universe, if communications are at all possible."

"You're right, Roger," said Tom finally. "I should have had some sort of answer by now."

"You think," mused Astro slowly, "maybe Vidac didn't send the report?"

Roger hesitated and then replied, "There's one way to find out."

"How?" asked Tom.

"Take a look in the communications logbook on the control deck."

"We can't, Roger." Tom shook his head. "Vidac's got his own men planted in every one of our departments."

"Yeah," growled Astro. "I been watching the way that guy Smith takes care of the power deck and, believe me, it makes me burn. Why, he hasn't washed down the atomic motor casing once since we blasted off!"

"Wait a minute!" cried Roger suddenly. "Jeff Marshall!"

"Jeff?" asked Tom. "What about him?"

"He can get to the control deck and take a look at the logbook," answered Roger.

"Say, that's right," said Tom.

"Come on," said Roger. "Let's finish off this tour and get back to the Polaris. If Vidac's on the level, he'll have sent your report to Captain Strong. If not, we know where we stand."

Astro shook his head slowly. "Honestly, fellas, I don't know whether to hope he did or didn't."

* * *

Their tour completed, the three cadets returned to the Polaris. They quickly audioscribed their report to Vidac and then hurried to the observatory to find Jeff Marshall. Luckily the sergeant was alone and they were able to give him all the reasons for their suspicions of Vidac and tell him what they wanted him to do.

"But what can I say I'm looking for in the logbook?" Jeff Marshall protested.

"We passed through a cloud of meteor dust the other day, didn't we?" asked Tom.

"Yeah," replied Jeff, "but what's that got to do-"

"You had to report it to central weather control," said Tom. "Tell the pilot you lost your own copy of the report and want to get the official path out of the log. Tell him the professor wants it."

Jeff thought a moment, then nodded his head. "O.K. I'll see you later."

The three cadets returned to their quarters to wait while Jeff went up to the control deck. He walked in with a smile, chatted with the pilot a few moments, and then made his request.

"I want to take a look at the log a minute, Johnny," he said casually. "The professor lost his notes on the meteor dust we passed through the other day."

"Sure," said the pilot. He tossed the dog-eared book to the sergeant. Jeff flipped through the pages and found the day Tom's report was to have been sent. He checked carefully, continuing through the entries for the succeeding days, ending with the last entry made just an hour before. There was no mention of Tom's report. Jeff turned to give the logbook to the pilot when Vidac and Professor Sykes stepped through the hatch. Seeing Jeff with the log in his hands, Vidac frowned.

"What are you doing here, Marshall?" he snapped.

Jeff was trapped. He came to attention and remained silent. Vidac walked across the control deck and stood in front of him.

"Well, Marshall?" he barked. "Answer me!"

"I needed some information about the meteor dust we passed through recently, sir," said Jeff.

Vidac turned to the professor. "Did you send him up here?"

Sykes merely shook his head.

"I lost the professor's notes and needed the information in the logbook, sir," said Jeff.

"What are you talking about?" growled Sykes. "The notes are still in my work journal. You put them there yourself!"

"What have you got to say to that?" demanded Vidac.

"I repeat, sir," said Jeff, "that was my reason for looking in the log."

Vidac paused, and when he spoke, his voice was cold. "The control-deck logbook contains classified information, Marshall. You know that. I won't say you're lying about reasons for looking at it, but that does not excuse the fact that you did look at it without my permission. I'm confining you to the brig for ten days."

Jeff didn't bat an eyelash. The fact that he had found no entry of Tom's report to Captain Strong in the log, and the unreasonable annoyance Vidac expressed over his having looked into the logbook, convinced him that the cadets were not wrong in their suspicions concerning the lieutenant governor.

Vidac dismissed him and the enlisted sergeant was escorted to the Polaris' brig by two hastily summoned crewmen.

When the cadets learned of Jeff's punishment they immediately went to Vidac's quarters and requested permission to speak with him. After making them wait for nearly three hours, Vidac finally received them.

"Well, what now?" demanded Vidac.

"We would like to ask a question, sir," said Tom.

"Speak up!" snorted Vidac impatiently.

"It's about Sergeant Marshall, sir," said Tom.

"What about him?"

"We would like to know, sir, under what article of the space code was Sergeant Marshall sentenced to the brig?"

Vidac's eyes sharpened. He spoke quickly and crisply. "I suspected that there was some connection between Marshall looking in the log and your coming here to see me. I don't know what you have in mind, Corbett, but I'm going to lay it on the line. This is the last time you will question my authority. From this moment on, and until you are released from my jurisdiction, I am the space code. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear, sir," said Tom tightly. "Then will the lieutenant governor please put in writing any further orders he might have for us?"

"I will not!" snarled Vidac. "But I tell you what I will do. I'll confine you to your quarters for ten days for that impertinent request! And if I so much as see your noses outside your quarters, I'll really get tough! Dismissed!"

* * *

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