Chapter Index
-First Command - A Tom Corbett Adventure

Chapter 3

The summer went by faster than a cruiser in hyperdrive. The three friends filled their time with every manner of sports and games available to them. It was a defense for them because if they didnít have any idle time, they wouldnít dwell on the inevitable separation that was coming. With only one week left before they reported for duty, Mrs. Corbett insisted that they spend the rest of vacation enjoying home life with the family. Mrs. Manning helped Mrs. Corbett in the kitchen as they prepared the most amazing array of foods and desserts that Astro had ever seen. Astro was always partial to apple pie because apples were scarce on Venus. It was one of the few plants from Earth that would not grow on Venus. Even in the year Twenty-three Fifty-five, agronomists were baffled by the refusal of the plant to sprout in the Venusian soil.

Mr. Corbett read the news pages on his armchair terminal while the boys finished up a great dinner. One item, in particular, caught his eye and he called to Astro. "Astro! Your home planet has some real problems!"

Astro ambled into the living room while carrying a huge plate of sweets. "Whatís up, Mr. Corbett?"

"It looks like three of the Venus atmospheric modification units have broken down and threatens to allow the entire planet to revert to itís previous unlivable condition."

"Huh!", grunted the huge man, "But there are over five-hundred units on the surface. That shouldn't have such a big effect!"

Mr. Corbett continued. "It says here that all three units are located on the equator and that there is a possibility that the other units will fail due to overload. As they fail, it will cause a chain reaction and there will be no stopping it. Remember, Astro, it took the terraformers over thirty years of working in terrible conditions to construct these units and they were all put on line at the same time to prevent such a problem. It looks like this could be real trouble."

"Is there any more?", asked Astro.

"Nothing with any real information.", said Mr. Corbett as he fumbled through a drawer in the desk. Retrieving a small book with handwritten notes, he started leafing through the pages until he found the information that he wanted. While looking at a page in the book, his fingers tapped in a sequence of numbers on a handheld communications unit. A moment later, the boys listened to a one-sided conversation.

"Hello. Willis? This is George Corbett.... Fine....And you?.....Great. Say, Willis, Iím interested in getting some information that may be, shall we say, beyond official release. No, not that! I need to know about this atmospheric converter problem on Venus...

Astro was getting antsy as Mr. Corbett grunted and said "Uh-huh" and made gestures toward the microphone. After an interminable period, Mr. Corbett finally said, "Thanks, Willis. Youíve been very helpful. Good bye."

"Well, sir?", huffed Astro, even before the receiver had been turned off. "Whatís going on?"

Mr. Corbett rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he contemplated the information that he had just received. Over one hundred years ago, a group of terraformers landed on Venus with the sole intent of turning Venus into a livable world. Previous expeditions found a hell-world of sulfur compounds and a very dense carbon-dioxide atmosphere which made carbon-based life impossible. Early explorers were amazed to find that Venus did not always exist under these conditions. At one time the planet was similar to pre-Jurassic Earth, except that the time-line was far ahead of Earthís. Dinosaurs of every size inhabited the planet at least two-hundred million years before the first lung-fish emerged from Earthís oceans. Fossil records indicated that there was an amazing similarity, even duplication, of species between Old Venus and New Earth. There was speculation that somehow some of the species from Venus had been seeded on Earth, which would account for the fact that even the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex was a denizen of both planets. Geologists believe that a small black hole or a star passing through our solar system came very close to Venus and gravitationally pulled the light gas atmosphere and water vapor away from the surface. There was little time for life to adapt. The great creatures and plants quickly died as they choked on the sulfur and poison gasses that remained. The little remaining water was converted to sulfurous and sulfuric acids which boiled above the surface and joined with carbon dioxide to become the most corrosive atmosphere in the solar system. Yet, life is tenacious. Over the millions of years before Man first saw Venus as a bright light in the heavens, eggs, spores and seeds from the Venusian past waited to be re-born when conditions improved.

Man, in a few short hundreds of thousands of years, learned that his destiny was to interact with nature. As humans learned to live and work in space, they eyed Earthís near-twin in the way that a carpenter looks at a tree. With a little effort, a mass of wood could be turned into a sculpture or a musical instrument which could please the eye or the ear. Venus, on the other hand, could be turned into a home. After learning about itís past, scientists calculated that Venus could be turned back to itís former condition by importing water from comets and by building a large number of fracturing units on the surface of the planet. Timing was important. Everything would have to go on line simultaneously in order to keep the effort from being futile. If the materials in the atmosphere and the surface outpaced the conversion to life-sustaining compounds, all of the effort would be for naught. In the spring of Twenty-two Sixteen, the Venus Society was formed to coordinate the massive build-up of materials and volunteers needed to terraform the planet. For fifty years, a huge fleet of cargo ships was positioned in a stationary orbit above the planet. When all needed materials were ready, fifty domed outposts were built in evenly-spaced positions on the surface. These were to house the first pioneers on the new world. Living conditions were minimal, at best, and the harsh atmosphere took many lives in the early stages of settlement.

For thirty years, the volunteers at each outpost built at least ten cracking and atmospheric cleansing units per station. The cracking units used high-energy atomic reactors to break down the sulfur compounds into hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The sulfur itself was cracked into other elements in appropriate quantities. After all testing had been completed, the Venus Society announced that on September 11, Twenty-two Ninety-six, the process would begin. On Venus Day, at twelve-hundred hours Universal Coordinated Time, all of the buttons were pushed and switches were thrown. Almost immediately, the effects were noticeable. Within a few days, the yellow clouds gave way to patches of blue and thin wisps of water vapor.

Tremendous storms ensued as weather patterns changed and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere slowly replaced the acrid materials. For the next fifteen years, pioneers working in sheltered vehicles slowly combed the surface for sulfur. Literally vacuuming the surface of the planet free of the yellow dust, the lowland areas were cleaned first in order to provide reservoirs for the life-sustaining water that was being shepherded into place by fleets of tiny ships that had plucked water-bearing comets from their orbits. The comets were exploded in a high orbit in order to allow the lighter methane and ammonia gasses to escape before being allowed to impact with the planet surface. Indeed, impact they did. But not with a cataclysmic bang. Instead, the water turned to vapor on entry and the impacts were in the form of dirty rain because of the carbon compounds imbedded in the comets. Craters and other sinus areas of the planet filled with water first and more pioneers began the task of cleaning the water and separating sludge and remaining sulfur compounds from the liquid of life. Gradually, more water was added as the surface was cleaned and the materials were converted to water and oxygen.

The successes of the early pioneers brought even more people to the planet. It was evident that Venus would soon be a garden planet, capable of sustaining an agricultural society that had never been envisioned before. Astroís grandparents were among the first people to stake their claim and their lives in the new soil.

As the levels of available water rose, the soil started soaking it into itís former aquifer layer and wonderful things began to happen. Almost without warning, indigenous plants and animals began appearing in isolated areas. Awakened from their long sleep, huge insects and even larger reptiles amazed scientists and farmers as their presence became known. Crags and crevices were explored in search of seeds and eggs to be preserved and nursed back to life. As one generation passed to the next, the entire planet had been transformed to an ultra-tropical jungle from which small communities and plantations were cut. The remaining pioneers were justly proud of their accomplishments, but they were also resentful of the thousands of newcomers who would lay claim to the results of their labors. A later generation of Venusian purists would attempt to remove the influence of the greater society, but the attempt would be in vain.

"Mr. Corbett? Mr. Corbett!", shouted Astro.

George Corbettís thoughts returned to Astroís question. "Oh... Iím sorry, Astro. Well, my friend says that everything is stable right now, but the atmospheric converters will need to be repaired soon. One problem is that they are so old, that there are few spare parts available for them."

Mr. Corbett glanced at his wife and little Cathy, who were busy helping Mrs. Manning in the kitchen. Hoping that they were far enough away that they wouldnít overhear, he motioned the boys to close in on him. "Thereís something else.... the units did not fail on their own! They were sabotaged. My friend also says that the Solar Guard has an intense investigation going. Iím sure that the mystery will be solved soon."

The three young men looked at each other questioningly, but none of them uttered a word. The thought of an entire worldís civilization being in jeopardy was difficult to comprehend. Astro was particularly disturbed because Venus was his home and, although he was human, he had developed a third-generation heritage that was rooted firmly in the second planetís rich soil.

The last week before reporting to their new assignments was not as joyful as it could have been. Astro became obsessed with the problem on Venus and Tom and Rogerís attempts to distract him were not very successful.

"Come on, Astro! The beach-dome will be getting crowded soon!", shouted Tom as he climbed into his fatherís jet-car.

"Nah! You guys go ahead. I want to check the news-vids again."

Tom looked at Roger, who put on an angry face and shouted, "You Venusian baboon! Forget about that sulfur-rock and letís have some fun!"

Astroís face flushed as anger welled-up inside of him. He took three huge strides and he was suddenly face to face with the brash blonde man. Astro drew his fist back and shouted, "It may be a rock of sulfur to you, but itís home to me!"

Roger, leaning back to put a little distance between him and the huge man, held up his hand and said, "Whoa there, big-boy! I wasnít trying to insult you or your home, I was just trying to get you to think of something else!"

Tom grabbed Astro at the shoulders and could feel the tension beginning to relax in Astroís neck muscles. "Heís right, Astro. Youíve been obsessed with this problem ever since you heard about it."

Astro suddenly felt ashamed as he realized that he had made his last few days with his best friends, a less than joyous occasion. "Iím sorry fellas. Itís just that I am so frustrated by not being able to do anything. As much as I am human, I am also a Venusian and I have friends there. I also have the memories of my childhood, as bad as it was, which are rooted there. My grandparents worked long and hard to produce a new home, not just for Venusians, but for all of man. They left a legacy to me. I donít want to see it reduced to acid and fumes."

Roger, having recovered from the near-assault, said, "Donít worry, Astro. The Guard is working on it. Besides, we are part of the Guard now. No matter what assignment we are on, our presence will allow other Guardsmen to work on the Venus problem. In a way, weíll all be part of the effort."

Astro grinned widely. "Roger, Iíve known you for four years and Iíve seen and heard you pull all sorts of con-games on everyone from green earthworms to Major Lou Conell, but I swear I've never heard you sound so eloquent! You should record that speech on a vid-spool and take it to the Recruitment Division of the Solar Guard!"

Roger, slightly embarrassed, said, "Aw! You know what I mean, rocket-breath!"

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Astro leaped into the car and looked at his friends. "Are you guys going to the beach-dome? Or, am I going alone?"

Tom and Roger jumped in and Tom set the navigation system to take them directly to the huge entertainment plaza in the domed park on the western shore of Lake Michigan. In the next minute, the car was speeding along the jet-way with itís three occupants chatting and laughing as if they had no cares at all.



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