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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 15030

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Now, now, boys," purred Governor Hardy, "I think you're jumping to conclusions. Personally I'm very much pleased with the way Lieutenant Governor Vidac is handling details. And as far as the asteroid cluster is concerned, we'll go under it, or over it, or whatever is the shortest route."

"Yes, sir," said Tom, "but-"

"No buts, Corbett," said Hardy, still smiling. "This is a great undertaking and we need the co-operation of every member of the expedition. In a few days we'll be arriving at Roald and the strain of this long trip will be over. Mr. Vidac is a capable man and I trust him implicitly, no matter how strange his methods may appear. I urge you to bury any differences you might have with him and work for the success of the colony. Now what do you say?"

Tom glanced at his two unit mates. Roger shuffled his feet and looked down at the deck, while Astro studied the bulkhead behind the governor's desk. "If that's the way you want it, sir," said Tom, "then I guess we'll have to play along."

"I guess you will," said Hardy, a slight edge creeping into his voice. "And if you tell me any more wild, unsubstantiated stories such as Vidac sending you to scout an unknown asteroid cluster in a poorly equipped rocket scout-well, I'll have to take stronger measures to ensure your co-operation. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir," chorused the cadets. They saluted and left the room.

"Well," said Tom, when they had reached the safety of their quarters, "I guess that just about does it."

"Yeah. We played our last card," grumbled Roger. "Either Hardy is the smoothest crook in the world, or Vidac really has him space happy."

"I wouldn't bet that it isn't a little bit of both," commented Astro.

The hatch suddenly opened and the cadets spun around nervously.

"Jeff!" they yelled in unison.

"Hello, guys," said the enlisted man glumly as he entered the room. He slumped on Tom's bunk. "I've got bad news."

"We already know," said Roger. "Vidac met us before we got out of the air lock. He couldn't wait to tell us."

"He asked us if we knew anything about it," said Tom. "We told him No."

"I lied myself," said Marshall. "I-I was going to do a little work on it, hoping to have it ready for you when you got back, but-" He stopped and shrugged his shoulders.

"Never mind, Jeff," said Tom. "If Vidac suspected we were building that communicator, he'd have found it sooner or later. The thing is, what are we going to do now?"

"I'll tell you in three words," growled Astro. The others looked at the big cadet. "Sweat it out," he said finally.

Tom nodded his head. "You're right, Astro. We're tied hand and foot to this guy for the next eleven months."

"How about Governor Hardy?" suggested Jeff.

"We just saw the illustrious governor," said Roger bitterly. "And the only question left in our minds is whether Hardy is working for Vidac, or Vidac for Hardy. No one could be as blind to what's going on as Hardy seems to be."

"Three words," said Tom half to himself. "Sweat it out!"

* * *

Like a gleaming diamond on the black velvet of space, the sun star Wolf 359 loomed ahead of the giant fleet, solitary and alone in its magnificence. With the Polaris leading the way for the mass of space vessels that stretched back and away, the pioneers and their families blasted through the last million miles that separated them from their new home in deep space.

Fifty-five billion miles from their own sun, they were about to establish a colony as their forefathers had done centuries before them. Like the first colony in the new world, then on the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Titan, and Ganymede, and hundreds of outposts in the asteroid belt, these Earthmen were braving new dangers and hardships, leaving the comfort of their homes to establish the first star colony. Inside each of the massive ships, Earthmen gathered around the scanners to look ahead across the abyss of space and gaze at their new home. Finally the momentous order came crackling through the teleceivers.

"Polaris to fleet! Single up for landing! Ships to follow the Polaris and touch down in order of their fleet numbers!"

On the control deck of the command ship, Vidac began barking orders to Tom. The three cadets had been reassigned to their original stations because of their intimate knowledge and sure handling of the giant ship.

"Prepare the ship for touchdown, Corbett!" yelled Vidac.

"Yes, sir," said Tom. He flipped on the intercom and barked orders to Astro below on the power deck.

"Stand by to reduce thrust to one-quarter space speed, Astro. Stand by forward nose braking rockets."

"Right," replied Astro.

"Hey, Roger!" yelled Tom. "How far are we from the surface?"

"Estimated distance to touchdown is two hundred thousand feet," answered Roger crisply.

"Reduce thrust to minimum, Astro," barked Tom, his eyes watching every dial and meter on the control board.

"Distance one hundred fifty thousand feet," reported Roger. "Looks like an open plain right below us. Maybe we'd better try for it, eh?"

"I guess so," said Tom. "Relay your scan down here to the control-deck scanner." Tom gave it a quick glance, saw that there was plenty of room on the plain Roger had mentioned to hold the entire fleet, and turned to Vidac. "Request permission to touch down, sir," said Tom.

"Granted," replied Vidac.

The curly-haired cadet turned back to the control board and once again checked his instruments. Behind him, Vidac and Governor Hardy watched the surface of Roald as the Polaris began to turn for her tailfirst landing.

"Cut all thrust at one hundred thousand feet, Astro," ordered Tom.

"Aye, aye," replied Astro.

"One hundred ten thousand feet," reported Roger. "One-O-seven, one-O-four, one hundred!"

Almost immediately, the blasting roar of the rockets was cut to a whisper and the ship began to drop toward the surface of the satellite.

Vidac jumped forward and grabbed Tom's shoulder. "What're you trying to do, Corbett? We're falling!"

"I have no data on the gravity of Roald," said Tom calmly. "The best way to find out is to check our rate of fall. I can then gauge the amount of braking power necessary."

Behind the two spacemen, Governor Hardy smiled. He stepped forward and tapped Vidac on the shoulder. "Whatever your difficulties coming out here with them, Paul, you've got to admit that they know how to handle this ship."

"Yeah," growled Vidac. "Too bad they don't know how to handle themselves as well."

Tom smarted under the sarcasm but concentrated on the task of getting the ship safely to the ground.

"Fifty thousand feet," reported Roger. "I'd say that the gravity of Roald is about 2.7 over Earth's, Tom."

"O.K., Roger," replied Tom. "Give her one-quarter thrust, Astro. We'll have to feel our way down."

As the rumble of the main rockets started again, Tom waited for the ship's descent to be checked, and sudden concern welled up within him as the ship failed to respond.

"Thirty-five thousand feet," reported Roger from the radar deck.

"Full thrust, Astro," called Tom, anxiously watching the approaching surface of Roald. He checked his instruments again and his heart jumped up into his throat. The needles of all the gauges and meters were dancing back and forth as though they were being flicked with invisible fingers.

Tom grabbed the intercom and shouted wildly. "Astro! Emergency space speed! We've got to get out of here!" Tom whirled arou

nd to face Vidac and Hardy. "You'd better call Professor Sykes up here, right away," he declared.

"Why? What's the matter?" stuttered Hardy.

"Something's interfering with our whole electrical system, sir," replied the cadet.

"What's that, Corbett?" snapped Sykes, stepping quickly through the hatch into the control room. Tom was about to repeat his statement when suddenly the rockets blasted loudly, and the ship tossed and rocked, throwing everyone off his feet. Astro had applied emergency power to his reactors, sending the Polaris hurtling back into the safety of space.

"By the rings of Saturn," bawled Sykes, after he had adjusted to the sudden acceleration, "I'll have that space-brained idiot court-martialed for this!"

"It's not his fault, Professor," said Hardy, getting to his feet again. "If Corbett hadn't ordered emergency space speed, we'd all be smeared across that plain down there." He pointed to the scanner screen where the surface of Roald could be seen receding rapidly.

"Umph!" snorted Sykes, "let me take a look at that control board."

Quickly and surely, the professor tested every major circuit in the giant panel. Finally he straightened up and turned to face Hardy.

"Governor," he said quietly, "I'm afraid you'll have to forget about landing on Roald until I can find the reason for the disturbance."

"Then it's not caused by any malfunction aboard the ship?" Vidac broke in.

Sykes shook his head. "Whatever force field caused those instruments to react the way they did came from Roald. You'll have to stand off until I can go down and make a complete investigation."

"Well, what do you think it is?" asked Hardy.

"It might be one of a hundred things," replied the professor. "But I wouldn't attempt to land down there until we know what's causing the interference and can counteract it."

"Space gas!" exploded Vidac. "Is this another of your tricks, Corbett?"

"Tricks, sir?" asked Tom stupidly, so incredible did the lieutenant governor's question seem.

"Yes, tricks!" roared Vidac. "Get out of the way. I can take this ship down." He sat down in the pilot's chair and called Roger on the radar bridge. "Notify all the other ships they are to stand off until we have made a secure touchdown!"

"Yes, sir!" replied Roger.

"Professor," whispered Tom, "do something!"

Sykes looked at Tom a moment and then turned to leave the control deck. He paused in the hatch to call back in a low voice, "What can you do with a madman?"

Helplessly, Tom turned to appeal to Governor Hardy but changed his mind and stood beside Hardy, crossing his fingers.

At the controls Vidac gripped the acceleration lever and called into the intercom, "Stand by for touchdown. Power deck, cut all thrust!"

"Power deck, aye, sir," reported Astro.

As the main rockets were cut out again and the Polaris slipped back through space toward the surface of Roald once more, Tom stood behind Vidac with Hardy and watched the instruments begin their strange gyrations again. The cadet glanced at Hardy, whose face was impassive.

"Sir," asked Tom quietly, "isn't there something we can do?"

"Keep quiet, Corbett," snapped Hardy. "That's what you can do!"

"Yes, sir," replied Tom. He turned away to climb into the nearest acceleration chair and strap himself in. He knew it was possible for the Polaris to land successfully. He felt sure he could have made a touchdown on the satellite without trouble, but his first thought had been for the safety of the others aboard the ship. Now it was out of his hands and he grudgingly admired the way Vidac was handling the giant rocket cruiser.

"Twenty-five thousand feet to touchdown," reported Roger.

So far, Vidac had kept the ship dropping at a steadily decreasing rate. But the tension on the control deck mounted as the surface of Roald loomed closer and closer.

"Fifteen thousand feet," reported Roger.

Governor Hardy walked to a near-by acceleration chair and strapped himself in.

"Ten thousand feet!" yelled Roger.

"Power deck, give me three-quarters thrust!" ordered Vidac. Tom heard the whine of the rockets on the power deck increase with a sharp surge.

"Seven thousand feet," reported Roger.

Vidac remained cool, staring at the control board. Tom wondered what it was he was watching, since there wasn't one instrument that registered properly.

"Five thousand feet!" screamed Roger. "Spaceman's luck!"

The Polaris landed safely on the surface of the satellite

Immediately Vidac ordered Astro to apply full thrust to the main rockets. The great ship bucked under the sudden acceleration, and Tom could feel the tug of war between the cruiser's thrust and the satellite's gravity. The ship continued to drop at slightly lessened speed, but still too fast to land safely.

Tom waited for Vidac to order emergency thrust to counter the pull of the satellite. They were dropping too fast. He watched Vidac and waited for the only order that would save the ship. If he doesn't do it now, thought Tom, it will be too late.

"Vidac!" yelled Tom. "Emergency power! We're falling too fast!"

Vidac didn't answer. "Vidac!" screamed Tom again. "Emergency power!"

The man didn't move. He sat in front of the control panel as though paralyzed. Tom slipped off the straps of the acceleration chair and raced to the intercom. Vidac made no attempt to stop him.

"Astro! Full emergency thrust! Hit it!"

In immediate reply, a jolting burst of power blasted through the tubes, jerking the ship convulsively and throwing Tom to the deck. A loud, crashing sound filled the ship, followed by a strange stillness. Dimly Tom realized that the rockets had been cut and they were safely on the surface of the satellite.

He picked himself up and turned to face Vidac. The lieutenant governor was unstrapping himself from the pilot's chair. His face was ashen. He stalked out of the control deck without a word.

"Touchdown!" screamed Roger from the radar deck. "We made it. We're on Roald!"

Tom heard the blond-haired cadet, but his unit mate's excitement did not register. He was staring at the open hatch. "He lost his nerve," said Tom aloud, half to himself and half to Governor Hardy who was unstrapping himself from the acceleration chair. "He quit cold!"

"He certainly did," said Hardy. "And if it wasn't for your quick thinking, we'd be spread all over this satellite!"

Roger tumbled down the ladder from the radar deck. "Nice work, Tom," he shouted, slapping his unit mate on the back. He followed Tom's gaze past Hardy to the empty hatch.

"Say, can you imagine a guy like that suddenly losing his nerve?" asked Roger.

"No," replied Tom. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it!"

"This will go on your official record of course," said Hardy. "I'll see that you're rewarded in some way, Corbett."

"Thank you, sir," said Tom. "But if you could just assure me that my reports back to the Academy will get through, I'll be very happy."

"You mean they're not being sent?" asked Hardy, seemingly quite concerned.

"No, sir," replied Tom. "At least I don't think so. And this is the first time I've had a chance to tell you."

"Well," said Hardy, "there's a lot to be done now that we've arrived, Corbett. I'll take this matter up with Vidac as soon as I get a chance." He turned and walked off the control deck.

"Well, I'll be a space monkey!" exclaimed Roger.

"Yeah," agreed Tom, "I'll be two of them!"

* * *

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