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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 15355

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"I'll leave you here," said Vidac to Captain Strong as the two spacemen stood in front of the Administration Building. "Take the slidestairs up to the seventh floor. First corridor to the left. There will be a guard outside their door. Give him this note and there won't be any trouble."

Strong looked at the lieutenant governor coolly. "There better not be," he said.

"That's a strange attitude to take, Captain," said Vidac.

"Vidac," said Strong coldly, "I want you to know right now that I don't like this setup. There are many things cadets might be, but they are not kidnappers or murderers!"

"I intend to prove otherwise!" asserted Vidac.

"I figured you would," said Strong, "but you still have to produce Professor Sykes's body."

"Don't worry, Captain." Vidac smiled. "My men are searching for it now. We'll find it."

"When you do, Vidac," said Strong grimly, "and he happens to be alive, make sure he stays that way, eh?" The Solar Guard captain wheeled and entered the Administration Building before Vidac could answer.

Inside, he found the slidestairs and rode up to the seventh level. Taking the first corridor to the left, he rounded a corner to find Ed Bush standing in front of the door to the cadets' quarters. As he approached, Bush took out his paralo-ray gun and held it on Strong.

"That's far enough, mister," said Bush.

"Do you realize what you're doing?" demanded Strong.

"Never mind what I'm doing," snapped Bush. "Who are you and what do you want?"

"You'd better get spacewise, mister! It's against the law to hold a weapon on an officer of the Solar Guard! I'm Captain Strong and I want to see the cadets!"

"No one gets inside without a pass from Governor Vidac," Bush answered surlily.

Strong pulled out the note and handed it over brusquely. Bush glanced at it and handed it back.

"O.K.," he said. "You got ten minutes." He unlocked the door and stepped aside.

Strong was furious at this treatment. But he held his temper in check, realizing he had to talk to the cadets first and find out what had happened. He would deal with Bush later. He stepped past Bush and opened the door.

"Polaris unit-stand to!" he yelled.

Seated around the table, the three cadets stared at their captain in disbelief, then instinctively rose and snapped to attention. Their backs were straight and their eyes forward, but it was impossible for them to keep smiles off their faces. Suppressing his own elation, Strong managed to stride in front of them in mock inspection, but then could no longer hold back an answering smile.

"Unit-stand easy!"

Like three happy puppies the cadets swarmed over their skipper, pounding him on the back, grabbing his hands, and mauling him until he had to cry out for peace.

"Take it easy," he cried. "Relax, will you! You'll tear me apart!"

"You're the happiest sight I've seen in weeks, sir!" shouted Tom.

"Yeah," drawled Roger, grinning from ear to ear. "I couldn't be happier if you had brought along a ship full of space dolls!"

"When did you get here, sir?" asked Astro. "Why didn't you let us know?"

The questions tumbled out of the boys' mouths thick and fast, and Strong let them chatter until their initial burst of elation had worn itself out. Then, after quickly bringing them up to date on all news of the Academy, and news of Earth, he pulled up a chair and faced them solemnly. The three cadets braced themselves to tell him about their experiences since leaving Atom City.

"There's a lot to tell, sir," began Tom. "But we're only going to give you the facts as we know them, sir. And then let you decide."

Then starting from the beginning, when they were first relieved of their stations on the Polaris on the way out to the satellite, the three cadets related their experiences with Vidac, Hardy, and Professor Sykes. They ended with a detailed account of their being held for the disappearance of the professor.

"And you say that the colonists were forced to pay for their food on the trip out?" asked Strong incredulously.

"Yes, sir," said Tom. "And later, after the ships crashed, there was a shortage of farm tools and equipment, which meant that the colonists would have to farm with chemicals. Vidac made them sign over part of their future profits and mortgage their land holdings to get the chemicals."

"And four hundred ships crashed in landing? Hasn't anybody figured out why yet?" Strong asked.

Roger shook his head. "The instruments just went out, sir," he said. "I never saw anything like it, and when the professor wanted to go down in a jet boat first to investigate, Vidac insisted on taking the Polaris down, anyway. He brought her in by the seat of his pants ..."

"Only because Tom took over when he got cold feet," chimed in Astro.

"Yeah," agreed Roger. "But the others couldn't do it. They just splashed in."

"And there hasn't been any explanation of why the instruments went out?"

"I haven't heard any, sir," said Astro. "Professor Sykes started out right after we landed to investigate the satellite, but I never heard anything more about it. When I asked him one day if he had found anything, he told me to mind my own business."

"And now you're accused of abducting and murdering the professor," mused Strong.

"That's it, sir," said Tom. "As I said, we didn't want to give you anything but the facts as we know them. There are a lot of incidents that would show Vidac is trying to pull something funny, but nothing that could be proved."

Strong nodded. "Well, it certainly looks as though Vidac is-"

Strong was suddenly interrupted by Bush who stepped into the room arrogantly, paralo-ray gun in hand.

"Time's up!" he yelled, waving the gun at Strong.

"Hasn't anybody figured out why four hundred ships crashed in landing?" Strong asked.

"I've warned you about holding a weapon on a Solar Guard officer," snapped Strong, rising to face the man. "Either put that thing away or use it."

Bush glanced at the smiling cadets and turned back to Strong.

"Your time is up," he growled. "Get out!"

"I said," replied Strong coldly, "either use that thing or put it away!"

Bush glared at Strong, but the gun in his hand began to waver. "I said your time's up!" he repeated, but there was considerably less conviction in his voice.

Suddenly Strong stepped forward and grabbed the man's wrist, forcing the gun down. As Bush started to struggle, Strong tightened his grip, and the victim's face grew white with pain. Slowly Bush's fingers opened and the paralo-ray weapon dropped to the floor.

"Now pick it up and get out of here!" barked Strong, releasing Bush's arm. "I'm going to stay with the cadets as long as I want. And if you ever pull a gun on me again, I'll make you eat it!"

He turned his back to Bush and faced the cadets again. Bush dove for the gun, raised it threateningly, then suddenly walked out of the room, slamming the door as hard as he could. The cadets sighed in relief and Strong smiled.

"Let's see what Vidac makes of that," he said. "Now, let's get down to business. There's only one thing I can do right now."

"Yes, sir?" asked Tom, waiting attentively.

"I'm going to talk with a few of the colonists and see what else I can pick up. Meantime, you just take it easy. And if that space jerk outside gives you any trouble"-Strong paused and smiled-"show him a few of your wrestling tricks, Astro."

The big Venusian nodded enthusiastically. "My pleasure, Captain."

Strong stood up and shook hands with each of them. "From what you've told me," he said, "I think I should see Hyram Logan first."

"Yes, sir," said Tom. "He's

sort of the spokesman for the rest of the colonists. He can give you a lot of information."

"Good!" said Strong. "Where will I find him?"

Tom gave directions and the captain left the three cadets with a smile. "Don't worry. We'll see this through. In a short while you'll be on duty again."

A half-hour later, in one of the converted jet boats, Steve Strong sped along the smooth broad streets and flat level highways of the colony. He was heading for the Logan farm and the long drive through the Roald countryside would ordinarily have been interesting and enjoyable. But the Solar Guard captain was preoccupied with his own thoughts. A name kept repeating itself over and over in his mind. Hardy-Hardy-Hardy. Why hadn't the governor done something about Vidac? Where was he when the colonists were forced to pay for their food? Why hadn't he checked on the cadets' statement that their report hadn't been sent out? Strong made a mental note to check the logbook of the Polaris when he returned.

Suddenly, ahead of him, he saw a young boy walking along the highway. He slowed down and stopped beside him.

"Hello, Sonny," called Strong with a smile. "Can you tell me where I can find the Logan farm?"

The boy stared at Strong, eyes wide. "Sure thing, Mister, er-I mean-Captain. I'm Billy Logan."

"Well, hop in, Billy!" said Strong. "I'll give you a lift!"

"Thanks," replied the boy and jumped in beside Strong. "It's about a mile up the road, then we turn off." He couldn't keep his eyes off Strong's black-and-gold uniform. "I'm going to be a Space Cadet when I get old enough," he gulped breathlessly.

"You are?" asked Strong. "That's fine. You have to study very hard."

"I know," said Billy, "I'm starting already! Tom, Roger, and Astro lent me books and study spools to work on. Why, I bet I know every single Academy regulation right now!"

Strong laughed. "I wouldn't be surprised!"

"We turn off here," said Billy, indicating a narrow road branching off the main highway. "We live about three miles down. Out in the wilderness. By the stars, It's so lonely out here sometimes, I wish I was back on Venus!"

"If you want to be a spaceman," said Strong, "you have to learn not to be lonely. Why, I just made a trip out from Atom City all by myself. Didn't bother me a bit!"

"You did?" cried Billy. "Gosh!"

He was so awed by Strong's solo trip out to the satellite that he remained silent the rest of the trip.

A few moments later Strong pulled up at a small crystal structure, just off the road. He had no sooner stopped, than Billy was out of the car yelling to his father and sister at the top of his voice that they had a visitor.

Hyram Logan came from around the back of the house to greet Strong, and Jane, who had been busy in the kitchen preparing supper, came to meet the young officer, wiping her hands on her apron.

"Mighty glad to see the Solar Guard remembered we're out here," said Logan as he led Strong into the house. Seated comfortably in the living room, Strong brought up the purpose of his visit right away.

"I've just finished talking to the cadets, Mr. Logan, and they've been telling me some strange stories about Vidac and Governor Hardy. I'd like to hear what you have to say about it."

"I can say everything in one sentence, Captain," snorted Logan. "Those space crawlers are trying to take everything we have away from us!"

And for three hours Strong listened as the Venusian farmer talked. When the farmer had finished, Strong asked only one question.

"Why didn't Governor Hardy do something?"

"I can't explain that," said Logan. "When we were forced to pay for our food on the way out, we signed a petition and sent it to the governor. But we never heard anything about it. Of course Vidac could have intercepted it."

"Well, thank you, Mr. Logan," said Strong, getting up.

"Won't you stay for supper, Captain?" asked Jane.

"Yeah, please stay, sir," pleaded Billy. "I'd like to hear about your trip out here all by yourself."

Strong laughed. "Some other time, Billy." He ruffled the lad's hair. "I have to get back and see if the cadets are all right."

A few moments later Strong was speeding along the superhighway back toward the city. There was only one thing on his mind-to get the cadets out of the trap they were in. But it would be a hard job. Vidac had witnesses against them. He mentally probed the situation further. Why would Vidac abduct Professor Sykes? Surely not to frame the cadets. He must have wanted to be rid of Sykes too. Sykes must have known something. But what? Strong suddenly thought of the professor's investigation of the landing disturbance. It could only have been the result of radioactivity in a large mass. So the professor must have discovered a large deposit of uranium. Strong's mind raced on. Sykes would have taken the report to Vidac or Hardy, or both, and-

Strong forced himself to stop thinking. He was violating one of the cardinal laws of the Solar Alliance. He was presuming that Vidac or Hardy was guilty-and he didn't have an atom's worth of proof. There was only one way to get the proof. The cadets would have to escape to find it.

* * *

Strong sidled around the corner of the corridor. Down at the end of the hall, still standing in front of the cadet's door, Bush leaned against the wall, idly picking his teeth. Strong realized that he would have to sneak up behind the guard. He couldn't afford to be seen. He had to wait until Bush turned around.

He waited and watched while the man shifted from one foot to the other. And after what seemed like hours, Bush shifted his position and turned his back on the Solar Guard officer. Strong quickly darted around the corner and ran lightly down the hall. If Bush turned around now, Strong would be frozen stiff by the paralo-ray. With ten feet to go, the captain lunged at Bush in a diving tackle, sending the man sprawling face forward. In a flash he was on top of him, and with a quick snapping blow on the back of the neck he knocked the man cold.

Strong snatched up the paralo-ray gun, then unlocked the door and threw it open. The cadets were sprawled on their bunks, listening to a story spool.

"Captain Strong!" yelled Tom.

"Quiet!" ordered Strong. "You've got three minutes. You'll find a jet car at the side entrance of the building. I can't explain now, but get out of here!"

"But what do you want us to do?" asked Tom. The three cadets were already grabbing their clothes and other items they would need.

"The only way you're going to prove that you didn't abduct or murder the professor is to find him," said Strong. "And pray to your stars that he's still alive. If he isn't, it'll be up to you to find out who killed him!"

"But what about you, sir?" asked Roger. "Won't Vidac know that you helped us?"

"Undoubtedly," said Strong. "After what I said to the guard today, Vidac will arrange for a hundred witnesses to prove that I helped you escape. You'll have to bring back the professor, not only to save your own necks, but my neck as well."

The three cadets nodded.

"All right," said Strong. "Spaceman's luck, and remember, you'll be wanted criminals when you walk out of that door. So act like criminals. Fight them the same way they will fight you. This is not a space maneuver. It's your lives against theirs!"

Without another word, the three cadets slipped out of the room and disappeared down the corridor.

Strong took a last look at Bush lying unconscious on the floor and hurried silently back to the front of the building. His heart was racing with excitement. The ball had begun to roll.

* * *

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