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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 14037

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Do you think it will be safe there?" asked Roger, as he watched Tom and Astro push the half-completed communications set under a workbench behind several large cartons.

"As safe as any place," replied Tom. "If Vidac has any idea we're building it, we could hide it any place and he'd find it. So, as the saying goes, the least hidden is the best hidden. We'll have to take a chance."

"Besides," chimed in Astro, "here in the storeroom, Jeff will have his eye on it all the time. If Vidac starts getting nosy, Jeff will be able to shift it to another hiding place without too much trouble."

"Well, that's all we can do now," said Tom, straightening up. "Come on. Let's get to the scout ship and blast off before Vidac wants to know what we're doing."

Checking the hiding place one last time, the three cadets left the storeroom and headed for the jet-boat deck. In a few moments they were blasting through space toward the rear of the fleet where a rocket scout was waiting for them. The scouts were being carried by the larger space freighters to save fuel. Now one had been fueled and was blasting alongside its carrier ship with a skeleton crew. When the cadets' jet boat came alongside, the crew of the scout transferred into the jet boat and the three cadets took over the scout.

On the control deck, Tom checked his instruments and made preliminary tests on the circuits. Suddenly Roger's voice crackled over the ship's intercom. "Blast that guy Vidac!" he yelled. "He's one jump ahead of us again!"

Startled, Tom called into the intercom. "What do you mean, Roger?"

"The ship's communicator," snorted Roger. "I figured once we got aboard the scout we'd be able to use this set to contact the Academy instead of having to monkey around with the homemade job back on the Polaris. But it's no soap."

"Why not?" boomed Astro over the intercom.

"The only open circuit here is beamed to the Polaris. And the radar is too complicated to change over to audio communications. We haven't got enough time."

Tom clenched his teeth. He had had the same idea about using the communications set on the scout to contact the Academy. Now there was nothing to do but hope Vidac wouldn't find the one they were building. He called into the intercom again. "Is the radar working well enough for us to search the asteroid cluster without plowing into any space junk?"

"Yeah," growled Roger. "He left it in working condition all right, but if we burn out a tube, we're blacked out until we get back. There isn't a spare nut or bolt in the locker for repairs."

"But what happens if something happens to the radar when we're in the cluster," called Astro. "We'll be sitting ducks for every asteroid!"

"That's the chance we have to take, Astro," said Tom. "If we complained, you know what he'd do."

"I sure do," growled Astro. "He'd call us yellow again, because we'd refused to make the trip!"

"That's the way it adds up," said Tom. "So I guess we'd better get started. Stand by to blast!"

"All clear fore and aft," reported Roger.

"Full thrust, Astro," ordered Tom, "but stand by for emergency maneuvers. This is going to be a tough trip, fellows. Perhaps the toughest trip we've ever made. So keep your eyes and ears open and spaceman's luck!"

"Spaceman's luck!" echoed his unit mates.

Under full thrust the speedy little ship shot ahead of the fleet toward the gigantic mass of asteroids, planetoids, and millions of lesser space bodies, whirling and churning among themselves at an incredible rate of speed. Hardly had they left the fleet when Roger's voice crackled over the intercom again.

"Say, you space monkeys!" he yelled. "I got an idea! How about taking this wagon and heading back for the Academy?"

"Can't," replied Astro, "we've only got forty-eight hours of fuel, water, and oxygen-and no reserves. We couldn't get one-tenth of the way back before we ran out of everything, even if we wanted to go back."

"What do you mean-if?" snapped Roger. "Wouldn't you go back? How about you, Tom?"

"I'd think a long time before I would," said Tom. "Remember, Vidac hasn't done anything we can actually pin on him."

"What about making the colonists pay for their food," sneered Roger.

"Vidac could say it was a precautionary measure," said Tom.

"What kind of precaution?" asked Astro.

The speedy little ship shot ahead of the fleet toward the gigantic mass of asteroids

"Well, Vidac could say that the colonists were using too much of the supplies simply because it was free. And instead of imposing rationing, he's making them pay, but that he wouldn't actually take their profit."

"Yeah," growled Astro. "And there's just enough hokum in that to make everyone back at the Academy happy."

"I'm afraid we'll have to go on with it," said Tom. "Not only this exploration of the asteroid belt, but we'll have to wait for Vidac to really tip his hand."

"From the way he operates," said Roger disgustedly, "that might be never."

Blasting farther ahead through the unexplored region of outer space, the cadets, who had seen a great many space phenomena, were awed by the thickening groups of stars around them. It was Tom who finally realized that they were getting closer to the inner ring of their galaxy and that the stars and suns they were unable to see from Earth, or other Solar Alliance planets, were some fifty to sixty billion miles closer.

Gulping a cup of tea and a few sandwiches, the three cadets continued their advance toward the uncharted, unknown dangers of the asteroid belt that lay ahead of them.

Meanwhile, back on the Polaris, Jeff Marshall walked into the observatory quietly. He stood and watched Professor Sykes adjust the prisms of his telescopes, then settle himself to an hour of observation. Jeff knew that the professor would remain there for the next two hours. He felt safe in going to the storeroom and taking out the communications unit to work on it. But just to make sure, he called out, "Will you be needing anything, sir?"

"No, I won't!" barked Sykes. "If I did, I'd ask for it!"

"Yes, sir!" said Jeff. He turned away with a slight smile on his face and left the observatory. He walked quickly through the passageways of the ship until he came to the storeroom hatch. He glanced around quickly and then stepped into the quiet chamber. Pulling the cartons away from the bench, he took out the half-completed tangle of wires, and by the light of a small flashlight, he peered into the maze, trying to figure out where Roger had left off. He had traced the connections and was about to go to work when suddenly the overhead light was switched on, bathing the storeroom in light. Jeff whirled around to see Vidac, standing in the open hatch, staring at him.

"Well, Sergeant Marshall," he said, advancing toward the enlisted spaceman, "some secret experiment, no doubt!"

"Yes, sir," replied Jeff. "I've-I've been working on a new type of communications set."

Vidac stepped closer to the

set and gave it a quick look. Suddenly, without warning, he picked up the delicate instrument, smashed it to the floor, and then trampled on it. He whirled around and faced Marshall.

"What's the meaning of this, Marshall?" he demanded.

Jeff was stunned by Vidac's violent action and could only stammer, "I have nothing to say, sir."

"Is Corbett or Manning or Astro in on this?" asked Vidac.

"No, sir," Marshall said quickly.

"I warn you, it won't go easy with you if I catch you shielding those cadets," snapped Vidac.

"No, sir," said Marshall, swallowing hard several times, "I am not shielding them."

"Very well, then. Tell me, what was the purpose of this 'experimental' communications set?"

"To make contact with amateur communicators back in our solar system, sir."

"I'll bet!" said Vidac coldly. "All right, pick up this piece of junk and get out of here. Any more experiments will take place in the observatory, and not unless I give my permission, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," said Jeff. "I understand, sir."

Vidac turned and walked away without returning Jeff's salute. The enlisted spaceman looked down at the twisted mass of wire and metal and muttered a low oath. Then, picking up the pieces, he turned and walked wearily back to the observatory. All of Roger's effort was destroyed. But worse than that, now Vidac knew about the attempt to build the set.

* * *

"Watch out, Tom."

Roger's voice blasted through the intercom from the radar deck. "There's the biggest hunk of space junk I've ever seen bearing down on us!"

Tom flipped on the control-deck scanner of the rocket scout quickly, estimated range, angle, and approach of the onrushing asteroid, and called to Astro on the power deck.

"Emergency course change!" he bellowed. "One-quarter blast on the starboard jets, ten degrees down on the exhaust steering vanes! Execute!"

In the cramped space of the power deck, the giant Venusian quickly responded to his unit-mate's orders. Opening the induction valves leading to the reactors, the cadet shot full power into the radiation chambers, sending the little space scout into a long downward curve, safely out of the path of the dangerous asteroid.

"Whew!" breathed Roger over the intercom. "That was fast thinking, Tom. I wouldn't have had time to plot a course change. And with all that other stuff around here, we might have missed this one and hit two others!"

"Yeah," agreed Astro. "It must have been good, because I'm still here!"

"Got your radar sweeping ahead, Roger?" asked Tom. "Any sign of an opening in this stuff?"

"Radar's going all the time, Tom," replied Roger. "But I don't think we're going to find a passage large enough to take the whole fleet through."

"I'm afraid you're right," said Tom. "I guess we'd better get out of here. How much fuel do we have left, Astro?"

"Enough to hang around here for another fifteen minutes. But let's not cut it too fine. We might have to spend a little time looking for the fleet."

"I don't imagine Vidac would lose any sleep," sneered Roger, "if we got lost!"

"Well, fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes," said Tom, "so we might as well take a look."

Roger gave the course change to Tom and the small ship shot to another section of the asteroid cluster while the electronic finger of the radar probed ahead, searching for an opening through the mass of hurtling rock. Time and again in the past fifteen hours, the cadets had discovered what they thought to be a way through, only to find it too small for the massed flight of spaceships to maneuver safely. Now after the many hours of concentration the boys were tired and more than willing to return to the fleet.

"Time's up," Tom finally announced. "Plot a course back to the Polaris, Roger. Stand by for a course change, Astro. We're heading home!"

Tom's remark about heading "home" went unnoticed, since the three cadets had long since thought of the giant rocket cruiser as being their home, more than Space Academy or their real homes with their families.

After making contact with the Polaris, Roger quickly plotted an intersecting course that would put them alongside the command ship of the fleet in a few hours. Then, safely out of the dangerous cluster of flying meteors and asteroids, the three cadets gathered on the control deck and relaxed for the first time since the beginning of their scouting trip. They discussed their chances of contacting Space Academy with the communications set they had left hidden in the storeroom.

"How far did you get with the tube, Astro?" asked Roger.

"You'll be able to send out a message four hours after we get back," replied Astro between bites of sandwich.

"Too bad we don't have the tube with us," said Tom. "Now that we're alone we could vacuumize it without worrying about Vidac."

"I've already tried to make another one here," said Astro. "But these scouts don't have any kind of tools or equipment. We'll have to wait till we get back."

In a few hours Roger picked up the welcome outline of the Polaris on his scanner and, shortly after, the rest of the fleet. After receiving instructions from Vidac to return the scout to the freighter and come aboard, the three cadets made quick work of transferring to the jet boat and a short while later were waiting impatiently for the hiss of oxygen to fill the air lock of the Polaris. No sooner had the dial indicated the equal pressure with the rest of the ship than the inner portal opened to reveal Vidac waiting for them.

"Well?" he demanded at once. "Is there a way through the asteroid cluster?"

"No, sir," said Tom. "We searched practically the whole thing. There are a few openings, but none large enough to let the whole fleet through."

"I thought so," sneered Vidac. "You just blasted to the edge of the cluster and waited for enough time to pass and then came running back here!"

"Why, you-" growled Astro. He took a menacing step toward Vidac. The older spaceman didn't move.

"Yes, Cadet Astro?" said Vidac coldly. "Did you want to say something?"

Before Astro could speak, Tom stepped forward. "Regardless of what you may think, sir," he said, "we did search the belt and there wasn't any way through it."

"I have to accept your word, Corbett," said Vidac. He turned and started back down the companionway, then stopped and whirled around to face them again. "Incidentally, something happened while you were away. Jeff Marshall was found experimenting with a homemade communicator. Do you know anything about it?"

The three cadets were dumbfounded. Finally Roger shook his head. "No-no, sir," he muttered. "We don't know anything about it."

Vidac smiled. "All right. That's all. Make out a full report on the scouting mission and send it to me immediately."

When the lieutenant governor had disappeared, Roger turned to face Tom and Astro. "Well, what do we do now?"

Tom answered between clenched teeth. "We're going to see Governor Hardy!"

* * *

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