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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 11448

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"That's right," sneered Winters. "Professor Sykes has disappeared and Vidac wants to talk to you!"

The burly spaceman stood in the open door of the cadets' quarters, legs spread apart, hands on the paralo-ray guns strapped to his side. Tom, Roger, and Astro eyed the man sleepily.

"Say that again," said Tom.

"I said Vidac wants to talk to you!" Winters shouted. "Now pile out of those bunks before I pull you out!"

Astro sat up and looked at Winters. His voice rumbled menacingly. "I'll give you five seconds to get out of here," he said quietly. "And if you don't, I'll ram those ray guns down your throat! One-two-three-"

Winters tried to match Astro's withering gaze and finally backed out the doorway. "Vidac wants to see you on the double, and that means, double!" He disappeared from view.

Tom and Roger were already out of their bunks and pulling on their uniforms.

"What do you think?" asked Roger, looking at Tom.

"I don't know, Roger," said Tom, "but I don't like the looks of it."

Astro jumped lightly to the floor. "I kinda wish Winters had tried something," he said with a smile. "I need a little early-morning exercise."

"Good thing he didn't," commented Roger dryly. "We're in enough trouble without you mauling one of Vidac's pet boys."

Tom listened halfheartedly to the chatter of his unit mates. He was thinking ahead to their meeting with Vidac. Since Roger's argument with the professor, they had continued their work, but under a severe strain. They had finally finished the series of study spools the night before, and Tom felt sure that Vidac had waited until the work was finished before he called them on the carpet. And then, too, there was the disappearance of Professor Sykes that Winters had mentioned. The young cadet felt there was trouble ahead.

A few moments later the three cadets presented themselves to Vidac in his office in the Administration Building.

The lieutenant governor was seated behind his desk and appeared to be very tired. Tom saluted smartly and stepped forward.

"Polaris unit reporting, sir," said Tom.

"Where is Professor Sykes?" demanded Vidac abruptly without even acknowledging the salute.

"Why, I-I don't know, sir," replied Tom.

"How about you, Manning? Astro?" asked Vidac, turning to the other cadets. "You have anything to say?"

"We only heard about it ten minutes ago, sir," volunteered Roger.

"I'll bet!" snapped Vidac. He got up and stepped around his desk to face the cadets. "You three were the last ones to be seen with the professor. What happened last night?"

"We finished the study spools and left him in the office, sir," said Tom. "Then we went for a swim in the pool and had a bite to eat before hitting the sack. That's all."

"Did anyone see you in the pool?" asked Vidac.

"I doubt it, sir. We didn't notice anyone around," said Astro. "It was pretty late."

"Did anyone see you at the mess hall when you went to get a bite?" pursued Vidac. "Surely there must be someone who can substantiate your story."

The three cadets looked at each other. "I guess not, sir," said Roger. "It was pretty late. After midnight."

Vidac eyed them curiously. "And you're sure you saw no one, and that no one saw you?"

"We can't be sure that no one saw us, sir," said Tom, "but I doubt it. As Roger said, it was after midnight."

Vidac whirled and sat down again. He pressed a small button on his desk and waited, silently considering the cadets, his eyes cool and level. The door opened and Governor Hardy walked in, followed by several men.

Tom suddenly realized that it was the first time they had seen the governor in nearly six weeks.

"Have you found Professor Sykes?" he demanded.

Vidac shook his head, then turned to the other men. Tom, with a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, recognized them as the colonists who had been with Ed Bush when Roger had his last argument with the professor.

"Did you hear Cadet Manning threaten Professor Sykes?" asked Vidac.

"Yes, sir," replied one of the colonists.

"What did he say?" asked Vidac. "Repeat it for Governor Hardy."

The colonist quoted Roger's threat almost word for word and Tom noted grimly that the witness made the most of the fact that he and Astro had followed Roger out of the office after the argument. The implication was clear that they were part of the threat.

Vidac then turned to Ed Bush. "Bush, did you see the cadets last night?"

"Yes, sir," said Bush.

"Where?" demanded Vidac.

"Leaving the swimming pool with the professor."

"With the pro-!" exclaimed Tom.

"Shut up, Corbett!" barked Vidac, and then turned to Astro. "Did you say you went swimming alone?"

"We did!" exclaimed the Venusian. "We left the professor at the office. We did not see him again after that. He did not go swimming with us."

Vidac turned to Winters. "Did you see the cadets last night, Winters?"

"Yes, sir," replied the spaceman. "I had the graveyard watch and I was in the galley having a cup of coffee. I saw the cadets enter the galley just as I was leaving."

"Were they alone?" asked Vidac.

"No, sir," said Winters. "Professor Sykes was with them."

"That's a lie!" shouted Roger. "We were alone!"

Vidac merely looked at Roger and then turned back to Winters. "Then what happened?"

"Well," said Winters, "they got into an argument, the cadets and Sykes. It was about the movement of a captive planet, or something like that. Anyway, there was a scuffle, and all of a sudden the big cadet"-he indicated Astro-"picked up the professor and carried him out of the galley. The other two followed."

"Didn't the professor put up a fight?" asked Vidac.

"Oh, yes, si

r," said Winters. "But he didn't have a chance against the three cadets."

"Why didn't you do something about it?" Governor Hardy suddenly broke in.

"I tried, sir," replied Winters calmly. "I ran after them, but they all piled into a converted jet boat and blasted out of there."

"Then what did you do?" asked Vidac.

"That's when I came to get you, sir," said Winters. "And we started looking for them." Winters paused. "Ah-pardon me, sir, but can I go now? I've been up all night and I'm pretty tired."

Vidac nodded and Winters left the room.

"You mean you've been up all night looking for the cadets?" asked Hardy. "Weren't they in their quarters?"

"No, sir," replied Vidac and turned to the cadets. "Well," he demanded, "what have you got to say for yourselves?"

The three cadets were silent.

"I must warn you," continued Vidac, "this is a serious matter and anything you say may be used against you. But on the other hand, if you speak freely and are willing to co-operate, I will do what I can to lessen your punishment."

Hardy suddenly stepped forward and slammed his fist on Vidac's desk. "None of that! There'll be no favors to criminals!" He turned to the cadets angrily.

"What did you do with the professor?" he demanded.

The cadets kept silent.

"Where did you take him?" he shouted.

Neither Tom, Roger, or Astro batted an eyelash. They kept their eyes front and their lips tight.

"I warn you, you'll spend the rest of your lives on a prison rock if you don't answer!"

Tom finally turned and looked straight at the governor. "May I speak, sir?"

"Only if you tell me what you did with Professor Sykes," replied Hardy angrily.

Bush pulled a paralo-ray gun from his belt and said, "All right, march!"

"You have not asked us, sir," said Tom coolly, "to tell our side of the story. You are accusing us of a crime and have already assumed that we are guilty. We are not."

"Do you deny it?" asked Hardy.

"We deny everything," said Tom flatly.

Hardy whirled around to face the colonists, Vidac, and Bush. "I want it clearly understood by everyone here that Space Cadets Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro, in the face of testimony given by eyewitnesses as to their argument with Professor Sykes, and their later abduction of the professor, do now conspire to withhold information which might help save the professor's life!" He turned to Vidac. "I want them arrested and held for investigation of their activities last night. Confine them to their quarters."

Vidac stood up and nodded his head to Bush. "Take them away. Keep a guard outside their quarters at all times."

"Yes, sir," said Bush. He pulled a paralo-ray gun from his belt and cocked it. "All right, march!"

The cadets of the Polaris unit spun on their heels in unison and marched from the room in perfect order.

* * *

"Attention! Attention! This is Captain Strong in rocket cruiser Orion calling central communications control, Roald! Come in, Roald! Orion to Roald! Come in!"

Aboard the space cruiser, Captain Steve Strong tried again and again to contact the star colony. For nearly five days, blasting through space at emergency speed, the Solar Guard captain had tried to contact the satellite, but to no avail. He snapped off the audioceiver and slumped back in his chair, a worried frown on his face.

When the second report from the Polaris unit had failed to come in, Strong had received permission from Commander Walters to blast off immediately for Roald. Walters agreed that it would be better for the captain to go alone, since the uranium discovery must be kept an absolute secret. Working by remote control relays from the control deck, Captain Strong handled the ship as easily as a jet boat and he kept the atomic reactors wide open.

He stared into the astrogation prism and sighted on the cold light of the sun star Wolf 359. Still unable to see the satellite circling the star, the captain's thoughts were on the past rather than the future. He still couldn't find any reasonable explanation for his suddenly having been taken off the Roald colony project and sent on the minor mission to Pluto. He had often thought about the man who had replaced him, Paul Vidac. Strong had heard the name before and associated it with something unpleasant. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, since he had never met the man. Certainly there was nothing illegal about him. His record had been carefully checked, or he would never have been put in the position of trust he held now. Still there was a persistent notion in Strong's head that something was wrong.

The young captain turned and walked the deck of the huge empty ship, still deep in thought. He considered the fact that no reports had come through to the Academy from the colony at all. Not merely from the Space Cadets, but from the expedition itself. Only the sketchiest details had been audioed back during the trip and absolutely nothing since their scheduled arrival on the satellite. A sudden cold wave of fear gripped the space officer. He wondered if they had arrived safely!

He shook off the horrible thought. There must be a simple, logical explanation for it all. Establishing a star colony was no easy matter. Communications could be easily disrupted for any number of reasons.

Strong forced himself to forget it. It was still a long way to the satellite and there was no point in worrying about a fact until it was established to be a fact. He stretched out on a bunk and moments later was asleep, while the giant ship hurtled through the dark void toward its destination with a thousand electronic hands and eyes to guide it safely across the immense gulf of space.

* * *

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