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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 16055

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Of the thousand ships that blasted off from Earth there are only six hundred thirteen left that can be used in the construction of the first colony of Roald."

Governor Hardy's voice was firm as he addressed the assembled colonists and spacemen from the air lock of a space freighter.

There was a murmur among the colonists at this news. They knew that the landings on the satellite had been costly; that many ships had crashed as a result of the unexplained interference with the ships' instruments. And since each ship had been designed to be cannibalized into houses, workshops, and power plants, they realized the plans for the settlement would have to be radically revised.

Once the Polaris had landed safely, the other ships of the fleet had followed, each trying to find the delicate balance between the pull of the satellite and the thrust of their rockets. And since many of Vidac's hand-picked crewmen were in control, a large number of the valuable and irreplaceable ships and their supplies had been lost. They didn't burn when they crashed. Fire could have been easily extinguished. Instead, deadly radiation from the cracked firing chambers flooded the ships and their cargo, rendering them useless.

Tom, Roger, and Astro stood with Jeff Marshall and the Logan family as the governor outlined their initial objectives on the satellite.

"First," declared Hardy, "we have to build atmosphere booster stations. We can't live without oxygen and there isn't enough oxygen in the atmosphere to sustain us very long. Second, we have to establish our ownership boundaries and begin planting our crops. We can't live without food. Third, we have to live more frugally than ever before in order to maintain our reserves of food and essential items. The nearest supply center is fifty billion miles from here." He paused and surveyed the sea of grim faces before him.

"We've had a hard blow," he continued, "in losing so many ships and their supplies, but it will not defeat us. We all came here with the understanding that it would be difficult. We did not expect an easy life. We knew it would be tough, but not quite as tough as it's going to be now. But we will win! And remember, we are no longer people of Venus, Earth, Mars, or Titan, we are citizens of Roald!"

There was a roar of approval from the colonists. A band began to play and the assembly was adjourned.

"He talks sense," Hyram Logan commented. "Real fighting sense!"

"I'd like it a lot better, though," replied Astro, "if he didn't make it sound like a rally."

"Yeah," agreed Roger. "He sounded as though he was pepping up his team to do or die in a mercuryball game."

"This is no game," said Tom. "We're fighting starvation, perhaps death! And, believe me, if this colony goes the way of all space dust, it will be a long time before there'll be another fleet of a thousand ships gambled on a star colony!"

Logan nodded his head. "That's the way I look at it, Tom," he said. "Regardless of what kind of beef we might have with Hardy or Vidac and his crew, we all have to work together to make Roald a colony. A successful colony!"

Returning to Fleet Ship Number Twelve, which was to be used for quarters by the colonists until their homes could be erected, the three cadets and Jeff Marshall said good-by to the Venusian farmer and continued on toward the Polaris.

"Did Professor Sykes find any indication of what might have caused the instruments to act up during the landing, Jeff?" asked Tom. The curly-haired cadet referred to the professor's investigation started as soon as the Polaris had landed.

"Nothing so far, Tom," replied Jeff. "But it must be something big. He packed a lot of gear into a jet boat and blasted out of here this morning."

"What do you suppose it is?" asked Astro.

"I don't know," replied Jeff. "I can't even guess."

"I can," said Roger, "and if it's what I think it is-well, I just hope it isn't, that's all." The blond-haired cadet stopped talking abruptly.

Tom, Astro, and Jeff looked at each other. Finally Tom asked, "Well, what do you think it is?"

"There's only one thing I know really well, Tom," replied Roger. "Just one thing, and that's electronics. I may be a jerk about a lot of things, but I know electronics."

"O.K.," said Astro. "You know electronics. But what has that got to do with the instruments going out of whack?"

"The only natural element that would cause such disturbance is uranium."

"Uranium!" breathed Tom. "You mean uranium pitchblende?"

"I mean uranium!" snapped Roger. "Uranium pitchblende isn't concentrated enough to cause a reaction like that on the instruments. It would take a big chunk of pure uranium to do the job."

"But if that were so," Astro protested, "wouldn't the instruments still be acting up? In fact, wouldn't we start feeling the effects of the radiation?"

"Not necessarily, Astro," said Tom. "I understand what Roger's getting at. The uranium could be located in another sector of the satellite, on the other side, maybe. It could be throwing radiation out into space without affecting us here."

"You mean we're under the effects?" asked Astro.

"Looks like it," replied Tom. "But on the other hand," he continued, "why wasn't there some report of it when the first expedition came out to look over the satellite?"

"I can't answer that question, Tom," answered Roger. "But I'd be willing to bet my last credit that there's uranium on this space-forsaken rock. And a whopping big deposit of it!"

They reached the air lock of the Polaris and climbed wearily aboard. At the end of the first day, on the new satellite, they were exhausted. A few minutes after entering the giant cruiser they were all sound asleep.

Dawn of the second day on Roald saw the vast plain crowded with men at work. The first community objective was the construction of an atmosphere station, and before the woman and children had finished lunch, they were breathing synthetically produced air.

Working from a master plan that had been devised back at Space Academy before the expedition blasted off, the colonists were divided into three separate crews: the wreckers, those who would remove essential parts from the spaceships as they were needed; the movers, those who would haul the parts to construction sites; and the builders, those who would take the parts and construct the community buildings.

The first and most difficult job was building a gigantic maneuverable derrick and jet barge for removing, hauling, and installing the heavy machinery.

Astro had been assigned to the crew responsible for the construction of the jet barge. With many of the vital parts aboard the crashed freighters still hot with radioactivity, the crew had to improvise. And Astro, with his native talent for mechanics, soon became the unspoken leader of the crew. Even the supervisor acknowledged the young cadet's superior ability and allowed him a free hand in the construction of the barge. After six hours of hard labor, the "mover" was finished. It was not the streamlined machine its designer had conceived, but it was effective, in some cases, more so than the designer imagined. A low, flat table roughly three hundred feet square, it moved on sledlike runners and was powered by two dozen rockets. On each of the four sides there was a two-hundred-foot boom which could be swung around in a 360° arc and was capable of lifting three hundred tons. Astro's most outstanding improvement on the original design was what he termed "adjustment rockets," placing single rockets that could be individually controlled on all four sides, so that the operator of the giant jet barge could jockey into perfect position anywhere. The machine quickly demonstrated it could move anything, anywhere.

Roger worked with the supervisor of the assembly groups, ordering supplies and machinery as they were needed from the wrecking crews and seeing that they were sent to the right place at the right time. One of his first j

obs was the assembling of materials for the construction of the Administration Building of the colony. Less than five days after the foundation had been dug, the last gleaming sheets of Titan crystal were welded together and the building towered over the plain, a glistening monument to man's first flight to the stars.

Tom had been assigned to work closely with Vidac, who was responsible for all the construction on Roald. The young cadet welcomed the chance to observe the man in action, and time after time he found contradictions in the character of the lieutenant governor. Vidac's attitude and behavior in his drive to build the colony were completely different from his actions on the long space flight. He was a man of firmness and immediate decision. Shooting from one project to another in a jet boat, he would listen to the supervisors' complaints, make a snap decision, and then head for another project. Once Tad Winters and Ed Bush, who had taken over Astro's jet barge, had hesitated when trying to transfer a four-hundred-ton lift. A bank of atomic motors from Fleet Ship Number Twelve was to be installed in the main power plant for the colony. The motors were in a position where it was impossible to use more than one of the booms for the lift. Bush and Winters tried futilely to maneuver the jet barge into position where they could use two booms, and when Vidac arrived he promptly took charge. Using Tom as signalman, Vidac stood at the controls of the giant derrick, and after testing the strain on the five-inch cables, he yelled down to the cadet:

"Think they'll hold, Corbett?"

Tom looked at the derrick, the motors, and the boom Astro had constructed. Finally he nodded his head. If anyone else had built the jet barge, Tom would have said No, but he knew when the Venusian built something it was built solidly.

Stepping back out of range, Tom watched Vidac slowly apply power to the rockets on the jet barge. Slowly, inch by inch, the boom began to bend under the load. Vidac continued to apply power. The boom bent even more and still the motors would not lift free of the ground. The rocket exhausts on the jet barge glowed fiery red under the sustained surge of power. All over the colony, men stopped work to see if the jet barge would handle the outsized lift.

Vidac sat at the controls calmly and watched Tom. The curly-haired cadet continued to wave his hand to lift the motors. The boom continued to bend, and just as Tom thought it must snap, the motors lifted free and Vidac swung them around to the table top of the barge. He climbed down and walked over to Bush and Winters.

"Next time you're afraid to try something and waste valuable time," he barked, "you'll pay for it!"

He turned to Tom. "Let's go, Corbett," he said casually.

Day after day the work continued and finally, at the end of three weeks, the dry barren plain had been transformed into a small city. Towering above the city, the Administration Building glistened in the light of their new sun, Wolf 359, and streets named after the colonists radiated from it in all directions, like the spokes of a giant wheel.

There were houses, stores, and off the central square a magnificent assembly hall that could be transformed into a gymnasium. There were smaller community buildings for sanitation, water, power, and all vital services necessary to a community. Along the wide spacious streets, still being paved, converted jet boats hummed. Women began to shop. Men who had helped build the city the day before, now appeared in aprons and began keeping account books until a monetary system could be devised. A medical exchange that also happened to sell spaceburgers and Martian water was dubbed the "Space Dump" and crowds of teen-agers were already flocking in to dance and frolic. A pattern of living began to take form out of the dead dust of the star satellite. Several of the colonists who had lost everything aboard the crashed ships were made civilian officials in charge of the water, sanitation, and power departments.

The three cadets worked harder than they had ever worked before. Once, when the jet barge needed to be refueled, Vidac had ordered them to salvage the remaining reactant from the crashed ships and they worked forty-eight hours in lead-lined suits transferring the reactant fuel to the jet barge.

In addition, Roger was now hard at work building a communications center and a network all over the satellite. Communicators were placed at intervals of ten miles, so that any stranded colonist was within walking distance of help.

The four hundred ships that had crashed had been loaded mostly with farming equipment, and the seriousness of the situation was discussed at great length by Logan and other farmer colonists. Vidac had tried to salvage some of the more basic tools needed in farming the dusty satellite soil, but nothing had come of it. Three to five years had to pass before the radioactivity would be harmless.

"We'll have to farm with chemicals," announced Vidac finally to a meeting of the farmers. "I know that chemical crops are not as tasteful as naturals, but they are larger, more abundant, and nourishing." He paused and looked at the men. "However, even chemicals are not the whole answer."

"Well," said Hyram Logan, who had become the unofficial spokesman for the farmers, "give us the chemicals and let's get to work. Everyone here knows how to grow crops out of a test tube!"

"I'm afraid it won't be as simple as that," said Vidac. "Perhaps you remember that you paid over part of your future profits during the trip out from Atom City?"

There was a murmur from the group of men as the outrageous incident was brought up. Most of the men felt that Vidac had been directly responsible. Vidac held up his hand.

"Quiet, please!"

The men became silent.

"You will have to purchase the necessary material for farming from me. You will sign over one-half of your future profits to the treasurer of the Roald City Fund, or you don't farm."

"What's the Roald City Fund?" demanded Isaac Tupin, a short, thin man with an uncanny knack for farming. He had been very successful on Mars and had been asked to institute his methods of desert farming on the dusty satellite.

"The Roald City Fund," said Vidac coldly, "is an organization dedicated to the good and welfare of the citizens of Roald."

"Who's the treasurer?" asked Logan.

"I am," said Vidac. "Governor Hardy is now in the process of setting up Roald currency. Each of you will be allowed to borrow against future yields, a maximum amount of five thousand Roald credits. This will be your beginning. If your crops fail"-Vidac shrugged his shoulders-"you will forfeit your land holdings!"

There was a storm of protest from the assembled farmers. They stood up in their chairs and hooted and howled. Vidac faced them coldly. At last they fell silent and Vidac was able to speak again.

"I would advise you to consider carefully the proposal I've made here. Your equipment-the equipment given to you by the Solar Alliance-has been lost. The chemicals which you are now being offered are the property of the official governing body of Roald. We cannot give you the material. We can loan it to you, providing that you guarantee the loan with your future profits. All those interested may draw the necessary supplies from Tad Winters and Ed Bush in the morning."

He turned and walked out of the hall.

"We'll go to the governor!" shouted Logan. "We won't be treated like this. We're free citizens of the Solar Alliance and under their jurisdiction. We know our rights!"

Suddenly Tad Winters and Ed Bush appeared, seemingly from nowhere. A sneering smile on his face, Winters held two paralo-ray guns and covered the group of farmers while Bush slipped up behind Logan and hit him on the back of the neck. The elderly man sank to the floor.

"Now get this!" snarled Winters to the colonists. "The joy ride is over! You take orders, or else!"

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