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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 13882

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Strong's plan to follow Vidac in order to locate Hardy had paid off. While Vidac and Bush were rounding up citizens of Roald City and sending them out to search for the Space Cadets, the Solar Guard captain had checked the frequency setting on the communicator in the lieutenant governor's jet car. Then hiding in Professor Sykes's laboratory, Strong tuned the lab communicator to the same frequency and waited. He knew he was taking a chance. Vidac might not contact the governor on that setting if he contacted the governor at all, but there was no other way at the moment. Strong waited three hours before hearing the click of Vidac's communicator on the laboratory speaker.

"Able One to Able Two. Can you hear me, Able Two? Come in, Able Two!" Vidac's voice crackled through the set.

Strong listened intently and was rewarded by the sound of another click and another voice speaking.

"Able Two to Able One. Come in."

"I've got Strong," reported Vidac, "and the cadets are somewhere in the hills between here and the spaceport. I've just organized the colonists into searching parties and am about to leave."

"Good. Contact me the minute you find them."

"Right. Keep an eye out for them. They might try to reach the spaceport."

"Very well. I've set up an alarm on the outer hatch. No one can get aboard without my knowing it."

"Right. Able One out."

"Able Two out."

Strong heard the clicks of the two communicators and sat back, breathing hard. He had recognized the voice of Able Two instantly. It was Governor Hardy. He was at the spaceport, hiding aboard a spaceship. But why? Could he be mixed up in this affair?

Pacing the floor restlessly, Strong tried to figure out the connection. Hardy's reputation was spotless. It seemed inconceivable that he could be involved with Vidac. And yet Hardy had selected Vidac as his right-hand man. And Vidac couldn't have gotten away with his treatment of the colonists unless Hardy had silently endorsed his orders.

The Solar Guard captain left the laboratory and watched the colonists as they milled around in front of the Administration Building. Vidac's jet car was in the middle of the group of men and Strong saw him jump up on top of the car and begin addressing them. He couldn't hear the lieutenant governor's words, but he knew the men were being urged to hunt the cadets down like common criminals. He watched until Vidac rocketed off in his jet car, followed by a stream of colonists in various types of vehicles. In a few moments the area in front of the Administration Building was quiet and deserted. Strong began searching for a jet car.

* * *

Jeff Marshall turned sideways in his seat and looked at the pretty face of Jane Logan. Her brow was furrowed with worry.

"Are you afraid?" asked Jeff as he guided the car down the private road leading to the highway.

"I'm frightened to death!" murmured Jane. "That man Vidac is so ruthless!"

Jeff grunted. "I have to agree with you there. But Tom is right. We need proof before we can stop him."

The girl shrank back. As far as one could see, the road was lined with jet cars. Colonists with paralo-ray guns and anything that could be used as a weapon were scrambling around in the hills.

"What does it mean?" asked Jane.

"I don't know," replied Jeff. "But I think it's a search for the cadets!"

"Oh, no!" cried Jane.

"I hope they'll let us through," said Jeff. He pressed down on the accelerator and started moving along the line of cars. On either side of the highway, he saw colonists beating the bushes, looking behind rocks and boulders, shouting at each other as they pressed their hunt for Astro, Tom, and Roger. Jeff managed to get halfway past the line of cars when ahead of him another jet car pulled out across the highway, blocking it. He was forced to stop.

"Hold on there!" roared a man suddenly appearing at the side of the car, holding a paralo-ray gun pointed directly at Jeff.

Jeff looked at him in mock surprise. "What's going on here?" he asked.

"Who are you?" demanded the man roughly.

"Jeff Marshall. And this is Jane Logan. What's all the fuss about?"

"We're looking for the Space Cadets. They murdered old Professor Sykes!" snapped the man. His eyes narrowed and he looked at Jeff closely. "You were pretty chummy with them, weren't you?" he asked.

"Sure, I knew them," replied Jeff calmly. "But if they've done anything to the professor, I want them caught as badly as you do. I've been the professor's assistant for years. He's-he's like a father to me."

Several of the other men had gathered around the car and were listening. "That's right, Joe," said a man on the outside of the group. "This feller's okay. And that's Logan's daughter, all right. They ain't done nothing."

"When was the last time you saw the cadets?" demanded the man called Joe.

"Why, a couple of days ago," Jeff replied.

There was a long pause while the man continued to look at Jeff ominously. Finally he stepped back and lowered the paralo-ray gun. "All right, go on. But if you see those murdering cadets, let us know. We're out to get them, and when we do, we're going to-"

"But what right have you to do this on your own?" cried Jane.

"We ain't," said Joe. "Governor Vidac made us all special deputies this morning."

"But we'd do it, anyway," cried someone from the rear of the crowd. "Those Space Cadets are guilty and we're going to see that they get what's coming to them!" There was a roar of agreement.

Jeff nodded, stepped on the accelerator, and eased the car slowly through the group of men. As soon as he was free, he stepped down hard and sent the jet car racing along the highway back toward Roald City.

"Jeff-Jeff," asked Jane despairingly, "do you think they'll catch the boys?"

"I don't know," replied Jeff grimly. "But if they are caught, the only way we can save them is to find the professor's journal and pray that the uranium report is in it."

"But you said the information would be there," said Jane.

"When you need something as badly as we need that report," replied Jeff, "you never find it."

* * *

The three Space Cadets were watching their pursuers from a high ridge. They had been driven back all day, and now they could go no farther. Caught while climbing down the other side of the hills from the Logan farm, they had narrowly escaped detection at the very beginning and had been racing from cover to cover ever since. Now there was no place to go. It was only a question of time before the colonists would reach the top of the ridge and find them.

"What do you think they'll do?" asked Roger.

"We'll be sent off this satellite so fast," answered Tom, "you'll get sick from acceleration."

"Why?" asked Astro.

"Vidac won't want us hanging around. Not since Captain Strong is here. He'll give us a trial within an hour, sentence us to life on a prison rock, and delegat

e some of his boys to take us back. We don't have a chance."

Astro let out a low animal-like growl. "If that happens," said the giant Venusian, "I'll get off that rock someway, somehow. And I'll find Mr. Vidac. And when I do-"

"No need to talk like that now," said Tom. "Let's just not get caught!"

"But how?" asked Roger. "Look, over there! They've already reached the top of that ridge on the left. The party on the right will be up there soon too. We're trapped!"

"Wait a minute," said Astro. He picked up a huge boulder and hefted it in his arms. "We can stand them off all day by tumbling rocks down on them."

"And kill innocent people who don't know what they're doing?" asked Tom. "No-put it down, Astro!"

"All right, brains!" snapped Roger. "What have you got to suggest?"

"There's only one thing we can do!" said Tom. "Down on the side of the hill here I noticed a small cave. Two of us could squeeze inside."

"Why only two?" asked Astro.

"Somebody would have to cover the entrance from the outside with a boulder and then give himself up!"

Astro slapped Tom on the back. "That's a terrific idea. Come on. You two hide and I'll move the rock over."

"Wait a minute, you goof," said Roger. "Don't be in such a hurry to be a blasted hero!" He turned to Tom. "Just like that Venusian hick to be ready to sacrifice himself to get a Solar Medal!"

"Don't argue, Junior," snapped Astro. "I'm the only one strong enough to move one of those rocks. You two hide and I'll cover you."

"Now wait a minute, Astro," Tom protested. "I didn't mean ..."

"You should have," replied Astro. "And if you don't get moving now, you'll never make it!"

Roger looked at Tom and nodded. "Guess he's right for once in his life, Tom. He's the only one strong enough to do it."

Tom hesitated and then slapped Astro on the back. "All right, Astro," he said. "But there's more to it than just giving yourself up! You've got to make them think that Roger and I ran out on you. That way they'll continue to search for us, but in another direction. And Vidac won't try to do anything to you alone. He'll wait until he's got all of us."

"O.K.," said Astro. "I get it. Come on. Get in that cave."

The three boys scrambled down the side of the hill and found the cave Tom had seen. After a quick search Astro found a boulder that half-covered the front of the cave, and the three boys pushed it close to the entrance.

"Go on. Get inside now," said Astro. "I'll push this one into position and then pile a few smaller ones on top and around it. That way you'll be able to get air and still be hidden."

Tom and Roger crawled into the hole and settled themselves as Astro pushed the boulder up against the opening. He piled the other stones around it quickly. When he had just about finished he heard someone behind him. He turned and saw one of the colonists scrambling down the side of the hill, heading for him.

"Here they come," Astro whispered hoarsely. "Spaceman's luck!" He dropped the last stone in place and turned to face the man who was now almost upon him.

Tom and Roger crouched in the darkness and listened intently.

"You there!" they heard the colonist cry. "Halt! Don't move or I'll freeze you!"

Astro stood still. The man came up to him and felt the cadet's uniform for a hidden weapon. Then he jammed the ray gun into Astro's back and ordered him down the hill. Astro started walking, hardly daring to breathe, but suddenly the man stopped.

"Where are the others?" he demanded.

"They ran out on me."

"Ran out on you. I thought you three were supposed to be such good buddies?"

"When the chips were down," said Astro as harshly as he could, "they turned out to be nothing but yellow rats!"

"Which way did they go?"

"I don't know," said Astro. "It happened last night. We went to sleep, and when I woke up, they were gone."

"Where'd they go?" snarled the man, pushing the ray gun into Astro's back.

"I-I-" Astro pretended he didn't want to talk.

"I'll freeze you, so help me," said the man. "I'm going to count five-one, two, three, four-"

"Don't! I'll tell you!" cried Astro. "I'm not sure, but I think they headed back for the city. We were talking about it last night. We figured it would be the best place to hide."

"Ummm. That makes sense," said the man. "I guess you're telling the truth. Now get down the hill. One false move and I'll blast you!"

Astro turned and stumbled down the hill in front of the paralo-ray gun. A smile tugged at his lips.

Vidac and Bush were waiting for them on the highway at the bottom of the hill.

"Where are Corbett and Manning?" Vidac demanded, looking at Astro.

Astro repeated the story about Tom and Roger having deserted him.

Vidac eyed him speculatively. "They just walked out on you?" he asked.

Astro nodded.

Vidac turned to the colonists who were standing around listening to the giant Venusian's story. "All right, men," he said, "I guess he's telling the truth. Back to the city. There aren't too many places they could be hiding."

The men turned and ran for their cars. Vidac continued to look at Astro, a thin smile tugging at his lips, his eyes twinkling. "You stay here with me, Bush," said Vidac.

"But you said-"

"Never mind what I said," snapped Vidac. "I'm telling you to stay here. Have some of the colonists double up and leave a jet car here."

In a few moments the rest of the jet cars were roaring off toward the city. Vidac waited until the last car had vanished down the road, then he turned to Astro, "Do you really think you fooled me with that stuff about Manning and Corbett running out on you?"

"What happened to them then?" asked Astro innocently.

"We'll see," said Vidac softly, looking up into the hills.

Holding a paralo-ray gun on the giant cadet, Vidac forced him into his jet car. Bush slid under the wheel and started the jets.

"You think the cadets are still up there in the hills?" asked Bush.

"Never mind what I think," snapped Vidac. "Head for the spaceport."

Vidac spun around in his seat and looked back along the highway. He punched Astro in the shoulder and motioned for him to look. Astro turned to see the jet car left by Vidac pulling away from the hills.

"They must have heard every word I said," mused Vidac. He turned to Bush. "When they reach the spaceport, don't bother waiting for them to get out of the car. Blast them on sight!"

"What are you going to do?" asked Astro tightly.

"Don't you remember your Space Code laws, Astro?" asked Vidac. "Article Sixteen? It specifically states that in cases of emergency, the commanding officer of a Solar Guard community can be the judge and jury, and can pass sentence for felonies or worse. In two hours you and your buddies will be aboard the Polaris, under guard, and headed for a life sentence on a prison rock!" He laughed. "And I'll make it stick!"

* * *

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