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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Space Pioneers By Carey Rockwell Characters: 18071

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Jeff Marshall was just turning the jet car into the Plaza in front of the Administration Building when Jane suddenly grabbed his arm.

"Jeff, look!" she cried. "Isn't that Captain Strong?"

The enlisted spaceman slowed the car and followed the direction of Jane's pointing finger. He saw Strong step around the corner of the Administration Building, stop, then scurry back around to the side. The streets of the city were deserted. "He's running away from us," said Jeff. "Probably thinks we're part of that searching party coming back."

He brought the car to a screaming halt in front of the building and jumped out, calling, "Captain Strong!" His voice echoed through the deserted streets. "This is Jeff Marshall!"

Peering around the corner of the Administration Building, Strong saw Marshall clearly and then recognized the daughter of Hyram Logan. He dashed out of his hiding place and greeted them with a yell.

"Jeff! Jeff! Over here!"

The three friends of the Space Cadets were soon telling each other the latest developments. Strong listened to Jeff's story of the professor's work journal and shook his head disgustedly. "I was in that lab for nearly four hours this morning," he said. "If I had only known."

"Don't blame yourself, sir," said Jeff. "You didn't know it was there!"

"Let's find it now," said Jane desperately. "We're losing time. Those men back in the hills may catch the boys."

"They haven't been caught yet," asserted Strong. "And if I know my cadets, those men will have a hard time nailing them. Come on!" He turned and raced into the Administration Building, heading for Professor Sykes's laboratory.

In less than five minutes Jeff was searching through the pages of the professor's work journal. "There's no telling when he made the discovery," said Jeff, scanning the mass of complicated diagrams and figures.

"It must have been soon after our arrival on Roald," said Jane. "That was when we saw him searching the hills around our farm."

Jeff flipped the pages back to the front of the book and began to read it from the beginning. "Here's something!" He quoted some figures from the book and looked at Strong.

"That make any sense to you, sir?" he asked.

"It sure does!" said Strong. "That's a preliminary survey on uranium! He's just getting the scent there. Keep reading."

Jeff turned a few more pages and suddenly stopped. "Here it is!" he exclaimed. "And say-look at this!" He handed the journal over to Strong who began to read quickly. "' ... conclusive proof found today in hills surrounding farming area of Hyram Logan. Potentially the biggest hot metal strike I've ever seen. Am going to make a report to Vidac today. This could mean the beginning of a new era in space travel. Enough fuel to send fleets of ships on protracted voyages to any part of the universe ...'"

Strong stopped reading and looked at Jane and Jeff.

"This was dated the tenth." He turned the page and continued, "This is the day after, the eleventh. Listen to this! ' ... Vidac is sending my information to the Solar Council immediately. He was very impressed.' And so forth and so forth."

Strong closed the journal and faced Jeff and Jane again, a triumphant smile on his lips. "This is just what we needed. This journal is admissible in Solar Courts as evidence the same way a ship's log is! Come on. Now we've got to get Vidac before he gets the cadets!"

"Wait," said Jane in a fearful whisper. "Listen."

Strong and Jeff stood still. In the distance they heard the unmistakable roar of jet cars converging on the Plaza. Strong turned to Jeff. "They've either found the cadets or-"

"Or what?" asked Jeff.

"I-I won't say it," said Strong hesitantly, "but if anything has happened to those boys, I'll personally dig Vidac's grave!"

Jane had moved to the window and was watching the wild activity in the Plaza below. "They're spreading out!" she cried. "They must be searching the city."

Strong rushed to the window and looked down. "That means they haven't found the cadets!" he exclaimed.

"I've been thinking, sir," said Jeff. "Do you think we really have enough proof of Vidac's guilt to make the colonists understand it was Vidac and not the cadets who could have done something to the professor?"

"We've got to try!" said Strong. "We've got to try!"

The two spacemen and Jane left the laboratory and raced down the slidestairs and through the halls of the Administration Building to the double doors that opened onto the Plaza. They stepped into view just as the colonists were about to spread out and search the city. One of the men was standing on the steps shouting orders. Jeff recognized him as Joe, the man who had stopped him on the highway. There was a roar from the crowd when they noticed Strong, Jeff, and Jane standing in the open doorway.

Strong held the black journal high over his head and called for order. The colonists crowded around at the base of the steps not knowing what to make of his sudden appearance.

"What are you doing here?" demanded the colonist deputy. "You're Captain Strong of the Solar Guard, aren't you?"

"That's right," replied Strong. "And you're making a big mistake accusing the cadets of the murder of Professor Sykes, when you're not even sure the professor has been murdered! The man you want to question about that is Lieutenant Governor Vidac!"

A startled murmur ran through the assembled men. Strong continued, "I have absolute proof that Vidac received information about the biggest uranium strike in the history of the universe from Professor Sykes and plans to keep it for himself. His accusation of the cadets is a cover-up to clear himself and to throw you off the track."

The word uranium spread through the crowd like wildfire.

"You're pretty friendly with the cadets," sneered the deputy. "How do we know you're telling us the truth, and not just trying to save them?"

"Yeah. Answer that one!" roared a voice from back of the crowd.

"Do any of you understand physics?" asked Strong.

"Physics?" asked the deputy. "What's that got to do with it?"

"Plenty! I have information here in this journal that will prove what I just said! Read it for yourself. It's in the professor's own handwriting."

"I can read it," said a small man in front of Strong. "Gimme that thing!" Strong handed him the black book and told the man where to look. The man considered it for five minutes, then turned to the crowd. "He's right! We're sitting on the hottest uranium rock in this galaxy!"

"Where is it?" cried someone from the crowd. "Tell us where the uranium is!"

The mob of men, forgetting all about the cadets, were now seized with the greed for riches. Strong took the journal back and tucked it under his arm.

"I'll tell you where it is," said Strong, "when we put Vidac where he belongs! Behind bars!"

"What are we waiting for?" cried the colonists. "Let's get that murdering space crawler!"

The deputy pushed his way through the crowd and raced for his car. Others followed and once more the Plaza echoed to the roar of jets.

Strong turned to Jeff. "You'll find Winters up in Vidac's quarters. I had to freeze him." He handed over the paralo-ray gun. "Get him and follow us to the spaceport. Tell him we know everything, and if he doesn't talk, he'll get life on a prison rock."

"Right," said Jeff. "I'll get a confession out of him if I have to wring his neck-and I'll get it on a soundscriber!"

"Good. Come on, Jane," said Strong. "This is the finish of a would-be tyrant!"

Jeff turned and dashed back into the building, while Strong and Jane climbed into the jet car and roared off toward the spaceport.

"If we only had a paralo-ray gun," muttered Roger as he and Tom sped after Vidac's powerful jet car.

"Yes," agreed Tom. "This could be a trap, but what can we do?"

Roger was silent. They had moved out of the cave as soon as Astro had been taken down the hill and they knew exactly what Vidac had in mind. But their need for information about Professor Sykes and their concern for Astro forced them to follow the powerful jet car into what they were certain was a trap.

"We'll ditch the jet car after we find out where they're going," said Tom, "and figure out something afterward."

"You think they'll go to Sykes?" asked Roger.

"It's a pretty safe bet, Roger. The professor's been well hidden, so why not hide Astro in the same place, hoping in the meantime to get us also."

"But I can't see walking into a trap, simply because we know it's there!"

"Roger-look! Vidac's stopping the car! Astro's trying to get away!"

"Astro's fighting with Bush!" shouted Roger. "Come on! Can't you get any more push out of this wagon?"

Tom jammed the accelerator down to the floorboard and the jet car fairly leaped ahead. Fifty yards from Vidac's stalled car, Tom slammed on the brake, bringing the little car to a screaming halt only two feet away. Roger was halfway out before the car had stopped moving. Beside Vid

ac's car, Bush was wrestling with Astro.

"Tom! Roger! Get back! It's a trap!" yelled Astro.

Astro's warning came too late. While Tom and Roger sprang to help their unit mate, Vidac slipped up on the other side and fired quickly and accurately with a paralo-ray gun. Tom and Roger were frozen just as they were about to pull Bush from Astro's back.

Vidac swung the ray gun around toward Astro. "See that, big boy?" He laughed. "Well, you're going to get the same thing if you make one funny move. Now pile those two stiffs into the back of my car! Get moving!"

Seething with frustration and rage, Astro turned to Roger and Tom, standing like solid slabs of stone. He picked up Roger and carried him gently to the car, placing him in the back. Then he turned and walked toward Tom. He made a slight movement toward Vidac and Bush, but they leveled their guns quickly.

"None of that," warned Vidac. Astro's shoulders drooped. He was almost in tears as he walked toward Tom. The curly-haired cadet stood immovable, staring at his friend. The Venusian leaned over and picked up Tom gently.

"Take it easy, Astro," whispered Tom, not moving his lips. "I'm not frozen. He missed me!"

Astro nearly jumped at the sound of Tom's voice. He recovered quickly, fighting back a grin of triumph. He threw a quick glance at Vidac and Bush, then carefully picked Tom up and carried him to the car. As he was about to turn around again, he felt the sudden jolt of the paralo ray, and in the split-second before the ray took effect, Astro nearly laughed.

* * *

Under the effects of a paralo-ray charge the body is paralyzed and there is no feeling. Tom, however, lying beside Roger but beneath Astro in the back seat of the car, began to suffer painful muscular cramps. He gritted his teeth, trying to lie rigidly still, but his arms and legs began to jerk spasmodically and he had to move.

Slowly he eased one arm from beneath Astro's heavy body and shifted his legs into a more comfortable position. Though the Venusian's weight still pressed him down in the seat, the muscular cramps were relieved. He began to pay attention to what Vidac and Bush were saying in the front seat of the car.

"We'll blast off as soon as we reach the spaceport," said Vidac, "and get up to the asteroid."

"Why so fast?" asked Bush.

"I want to get rid of those nosy space rats as quickly as possible. Then I'll go after Strong."

Bush shook his head. "That won't be easy. Strong's not a Space Cadet. He's Solar Guard. And good Solar Guard at that!"

Tom smiled in wholehearted agreement with the lieutenant governor's henchman.

Vidac sneered. "Don't make me laugh! Didn't you see the way I convinced those dumb colonists that the cadets were responsible for the professor's murder? If they'd stopped to think about it, they would have realized I was putting one over on them. All you have to do is keep talking, fast and loud. Keep them off balance, and don't let them think."

"There's the spaceport road," said Bush. "And there's the Polaris. I hope we don't have any trouble with the grease monkeys when they see us hauling the cadets out."

"If they start anything," said Vidac with a sneer, "you know what to do."

"Sure," said Bush, patting his paralo-ray gun.

The car roared through the gates of the spaceport and sped across the hard surface of the field. A moment later it came to a shuddering stop at the base of the giant rocket cruiser.

"All right," said Vidac. "Get them aboard the ship. Hardy will blow a gasket if we don't get this over with in a hurry."

Hardy! The name hit Tom like a trip hammer. So Hardy was mixed up in it! Hardy, the respected Governor of Roald, the man responsible for the welfare of the colony and the lives of the colonists, was really a swindler and a thief. Now if Jeff only had Professor Sykes's journal they could tie everything together, providing he could stop Vidac from sending them off to a prison rock! Tom's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the movement of Astro's heavy body on top of him. The young cadet broke out into a cold sweat. When he had been supposedly hit by the paralo ray his arms had been outstretched! He had been so busy thinking about Hardy's connection with Vidac that he had forgotten to resume his original position.

Astro was hauled out of the car and Bush reached in the car to get Tom. The boy braced himself and waited as the spaceman grabbed him by the feet. He was pulled roughly out of the door and stood on his feet. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Astro had been stood up beside the car like a tree. Vidac turned away from the giant cadet and started to give Bush a hand. Suddenly he stopped and pulled out his paralo-ray gun.

"Boss, what're you doing?" cried Bush, jumping away from Tom and leaving the cadet rocking on his feet, trying to pretend he was still paralyzed. He toppled forward, and before he realized what he had done, threw out his hands to break his fall.

Vidac laughed. "I have to hand it to you, Corbett. That was the best bit of acting I've ever seen in my life."

Tom picked himself up from the ground and glared at Vidac. Bush stood to one side, too startled to realize what had happened.

"You mean, he-he-" Bush stammered, his eyes wide with alarm.

"That's right," said Vidac. "The wonder boy of the space lanes acted as if he was frozen. What were you going to do, Corbett? Take over, maybe?"

"You'll never get away with it, Vidac," said Tom through clenched teeth. "You're through and you know it!"

"Not yet, my friend," said Vidac. "You've had your fun. Now get your friend out of the car and carry him aboard the Polaris. We're all going for a little ride!"

Tom turned reluctantly and began pulling Roger out of the back of the car. He realized that he could take no more chances with the paralo ray. As long as he was awake, there was a chance for him to do something. He lifted Roger gently to his shoulder, turned, and staggered toward the cruiser. Just as he was about to step inside the hatch, he heard the faint roar of jets in the distance. He stumbled and fell purposely to stall for time. He and Roger sprawled full length on the deck. As Tom sat up and rubbed his knee, Bush rushed over, leaving Vidac to struggle with the immense bulk of Astro.

"Get up!" snarled Bush. He poked the gun within an inch of Tom's face. The cadet knew that if Bush fired at such a close range, his brains would be burned to a crisp. He fell away from the gun.

"I wrenched my knee," he whined. "I can't get up!"

"If you don't get up by the time I count three," growled Bush, "I'll blast you! One, two-"

The roar of the jets was closer now and Tom's heart began to race. Feigning pain in his leg, he started to pull himself to his feet. He glanced toward the spaceport entrance and saw a stream of jet cars pouring into the field, heading for the Polaris. Suddenly Tom leaped for Bush from the crouching position. He lashed out with his right fist, while grabbing for the ray gun with his left.

Bush was not to be tricked so easily. He fired just as the cadet jumped. But in trying to evade Tom's crashing right hand, he missed his shot and was grazed by Tom's fist. He fell back out of the spaceship, his gun falling inside the air-lock portal.

Tom lay on the deck, wincing in pain. The wild shot had caught him in the right leg and he was unable to move it. He crawled across the deck, reaching for the gun as Bush came charging up the ramp.

Meanwhile, Vidac, seeing the commotion in the hatch of the spaceship, pulled his gun and leveled it at Tom. But Bush charged through the hatch just as Vidac fired and he caught the full blast of Vidac's shot. He landed on the deck beside Tom, stiff as a board.

Tom reached for the gun, preparing to fight it out with Vidac. But the odds were against him. His leg was completely paralyzed and Vidac was climbing into the ship. He knew he couldn't reach the gun in time.

Suddenly Vidac became aware of the jet cars streaming into the spaceport. He stopped and turned to look at them. Then, sensing something was wrong, he turned back to dash into the Polaris. The second his back was turned was sufficient time for Tom to grab the gun and fire. Vidac was stopped cold, his bright eyes burning with hate, unable to move.

"You can drop that now," said a voice in back of Tom.

The curly-haired cadet whirled around to face Governor Hardy, holding a paralo-ray rifle up to his shoulder, aimed and ready to fire.

"You're a good spaceman, Corbett," said Hardy in a cold, harsh voice, "but this is the last time you'll ever get into my hair!"

Tom's leg prevented him from moving and he had turned in an awkward sitting position to face Hardy. All he could do was bring his gun up quickly and fire over his left shoulder. Hardy fired at the same instant. At such close range neither could miss.

When Captain Strong and the colonists dashed into the ship they found two perfect statues.

* * *

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