Tom, Astro and Roger had not been home for more than an hour when Mrs. Corbett called to them from the patio. The young men had worked up quite an appetite during their day at the beach and they had prepared quite a feast in the Corbett back yard. Astro didnít want to leave his food unnecessarily, so Tom ran to his mother to see what she wanted.
"You have a call from Solar Guard Headquarters. Lieutenant Johnston has a message for all three of you."
Tom glanced at his motherís face and noticed the look of concern. "Donít worry, Mom. Itís probably just some routine information before we report for duty."
Tom really didnít believe what he just said. He knew that the Guard was thorough when it issued orders. Something was going to change, but he didnít have any hint of the nature of the change. Tom tried to be nonchalant in his body language as he picked up the handset and slowly walked toward his room.
"Lieutenant Johnston, this is Lieutenant Corbett.....". The voice faded away as he entered his room and nudged the door closed with his knee. A few minutes later he emerged and slowly walked toward the patio. His manner was completely different now. A new look of determination was punctuated by a firmly set jaw and eyes that belonged to a hawk on the wing. He walked past the sculptured stone and Titan crystal garden and water falls until he reached his friends, who were still joking about their antics on the beach.
"Whatís up, space-boy?", asked Astro as he started to take a drink from a bottle of Mars Water.
Roger added, "Yeah! And why the long face?"
"Our leave has been cancelled and we are to report to Major Wellington at the earliest opportunity.", he announced.
Astro suddenly started choking as the news had caused him to involuntarily gasp while drinking the cold beverage. After he cleared his lungs, he wheezed out, "What?! Weíve only got two more days left!"
Roger jumped in. "I knew things were going too smoothly! Man! I really wanted to go to the mountains tomorrow! Whatís the reason for the change?"
"I donít know, but it must be something important. Lieutenant Johnston said that there were over three-hundred leaves cancelled and that some of them were for senior and line officers."
"Well, what do we do now?", asked Astro.
"Weíve got to call the airport and catch the next plane back to Atom City. We have an Alpha Class priority so someone will get bumped from their flight.", said Tom.
"Well,", said Roger, "Weíd better change into uniform and get going."
The three young men silently went to the house and entered their rooms. Tom called the airport and made the necessary arrangements for transportation. A few minutes later, they were gathered in the family room, in uniform and carrying their necessary belongings in their gray plastic flight kits. Tomís and Rogerís mothers were sitting on the front porch chatting when the new officers emerged from the house.
"Wha.. whatís this?", asked Tomís mother with nervous anticipation.
Tom found it difficult to look his mother in the eye and he did his best to act calmly. "Oh, itís not much. Just a change in plans. It seems that there must have been a mistake in the orders and weíre supposed to report back a couple of a days early."
Roger hugged his mother and said, "Yeah, they must be using green earthworms in the dispatcherís offices!"
A yellow jet-taxi veered around the street corner and the whine of the turbine engine startled Mrs. Corbett, who became very anxious.
"You are leaving right now?"
"What will I tell your father... and Cathy and Billy?"
Tom knew that his father would understand, but he really would like to have talked to his siblings. "Call Dad at the lab and tell him what happened. Tell the kids that we are going to report early and that weíll bring the some souvenirs when we return in a few months."
It was obvious to Tom that his mother wasnít fooled by the attempt to represent the situation as a routine mistake. He looked into her eyes and said, "Donít worry. Everything will be just fine. Iíll send you a vid-message as soon as I can. In fact, we all will. Okay?"
Both women looked at each other, then back at their sons and nodded in approval. The taxi driver was becoming impatient and started sounding the cabís warning horn. The boys each hugged both women and picked up their flight kits and walked to the taxi to stow the gear. The bubble of the cab had not completely closed when the driver began accelerating away from the residence. As Tom looked back toward his house, he could see their mothers embracing each other in mutual support.
"By the Craters of Luna!", Tom exclaimed, "That was the most difficult goodbye that Iíve ever made!"
Astro nodded and said, "Yeah, it was almost as if they knew that we were headed into trouble!"
"Quit babbling, space-gas!", chided Roger. "We donít even know whatís going on, let alone if itís something dangerous."
"We wouldnít be reporting to Bull Wellington if there wasnít something big going on. It has to be at least dangerous to the Solar Alliance if Solar Guard Security is involved.", said Tom.
Roger leaned his head against the taxiís bubble as he thought about Tomís words. None of the young men spoke again until the taxi arrived at the airportís embarkation pavilion.
The officers received priority service from the airline personnel and their luggage was immediately taken to the aircraft by a special courier. A red-jacketed man introduced himself as the airlineís special agent and he asked the threesome to follow him to a waiting jet-car which would take them directly to the aircraft. The agent starting driving down a special access road past more than a dozen aircraft stopped in their taxi-ways to allow the car to pass. He picked up a small handset and announced, "Cirrus Air special agent fifty-nine to Cirrus Air Flight Seven Twenty-Three, I have your priority passengers and am proceeding to your location."
A tinny voice returned from the handset, "Roger, SA Fifty-Nine. We are holding for your arrival. Cirrus Air Seven Twenty-Three out and clear."
The car was soon speeding down the runway itself. Tom thought that this was bizarre because there should be all manner of traffic weaving in and out of the runway in a closely coordinated pattern. There was not one aircraft near the runway except for the medium-sized transport waiting at the end of the intersection of the taxi-way.
The fading daylight accentuated the multi-colored lights and strobes surrounding the transport. As they approached the aircraft, Tom took note that it was a Lockheed-Martin AJ-501 Starstream, which was more of an executive transport than a commercial airliner. The aircraft sat low to the runway and was painted in a gloss white with red trim. Tom didnít pay too much attention to aircraft, but this one was truly a beautiful plane. It was definitely built for passenger comfort! The small cockpit sat forward of a very wide-bodied fuselage that was ringed by huge windows made of clear Titan crystal. There was a short tail empennage and the wings almost seemed like an afterthought because they were almost completely lost in a series of nacelles which housed three small atomic turbines on each side of the fuselage. There were two additional engines located in the aft part of the fuselage. Because the wings were located on the rear of the fuselage and were small and deltoid, Tom thought that the plane looked more like a rocket than a conventional aircraft.
When the jet-car pulled up to the boarding hatch, the stewardess beckoned to the young officers to quickly board. Exiting the jet-car on a run, Tom and Roger quickly took the two steps up the integrated ladder into the cabin. Astro made a quick bound and bypassed the steps altogether. The pretty young stewardess told them to quickly be seated and to buckle their seatbelts, then she ran forward and pounded on the cockpit door and shouted "Go...go now!"
Tom had never seen a flight stewardess seem so agitated, much less allowed to pound on the cockpit entrance! She then took a seat at the front of the cabin and strapped herself in. The craft immediately started moving as the engines revved to higher speeds. The hatch and ladder retracted during the initial movements of the plane and the cabin was sealed tightly within three seconds. All eight engines suddenly roared and the craft rotated itís nose toward the dimming sky. Within seconds, the sun reappeared from over the horizon and long shadows flitted around the cabin as the ship turned to the southwest. Flying faster that the earthís rotation, the sun steadily climbed in the sky and daylight returned for the young Guardsmen.
The stewardess unbuckled her seatbelt and made her way down the center aisle to Tom and his companions. "Iím sorry for the rush, gentlemen.", she said with a genuine smile. "Our orders were to take off as soon as you entered the ship."
Roger smiled back at the young lady and said, "Donít mention it, Miss. Weíve been running like lead on Mercury for the last two hours!" Then, looking at his friends, he asked, "Miss, do you suppose that we could get three Mars Waters?"
The petite blonde nodded and started toward the rear of the cabin. Astro, always mindful of hardware, looked around the cabin and asked, "Hey, have you guys ever seen an airliner decked out like this?"
Tom had not paid any attention to the interior of the craft until Astro brought it to his notice. Indeed, the interior fixtures were unusually posh for a commercial airliner. The seats were large and plush and they were arranged into groups of four which curved around a beautiful table of highly polished wood. Even the cabin lights were reminiscent of a well appointed office, rather than an aircraft. When the stewardess returned with the beverages, Astro asked her, "Excuse me, Miss. Are all of your planes decked out like this? If so, Iím booking all flights on Cirrus Air from now on!"
The young ladyís face flushed slightly as she poured the Mars Water into three long stemmed glasses. "Iím sorry to say that this isnít one of our regularly-scheduled flights, gentleman. In fact, this is the private ship belonging to the president of the airline!"
Astro started to bellow out one of his Venusian whoops, but caught himself. Instead, he exhaled forcefully through his pursed lips. "Whew! Thatís a kick in the tailfins!", he said. Then he realized that the stewardess was still present and he immediately offered his apology. "Iím sorry for being so vulgar, Miss."
She gave a short chuckle and patted the young man on the shoulder. "Donít let it bother you.", she said. "Believe me, I hear far less civilized chatter when the plane is full of executives! Now, you gentlemen will have to drink your refreshments quickly. We are flying at over Mach four and weíll be landing at Solar Guard Headquarters in just a few minutes."
Tom, surprised by this statement, asked, "You mean that weíre not landing at Atom City?"
"No, sir. Denver Control just gave Captain Robb a priority clearance directly to the spaceport at the Academy. Weíll be landing on runway two-seven and taxiing directly to the entrance to the Tower of Galileo. Please continue with your refreshments and Iíll be back in two minutes to collect your glasses."
"Man!", exclaimed Roger. "These flights are too short! How are you supposed to strike up a conversation with a girl of you donít have any time!"
Tom wasnít too concerned about social interaction. In fact, he was trying to figure out why they had received all of the special treatment and wondered why there was so much emphasis on speed. It was certainly unusual for a civilian craft to land at the Spaceport, but to taxi directly to the terminal doors at the Headquarters building was unheard of! As he looked out of the huge window, he could now see the snow-capped peaks of the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains. They were descending rapidly and before long he could see the gleaming white pylons of the monorail system that led to Atom City. Within seconds he could see the city, itself, not far to the south, and he knew that they would be landing soon. A sudden bump was felt and the sleek craft became less knife-like in itís interaction with the atmosphere. The leading edges of the stubby wings extended and bent down to assist in creating lift for the heavy craft as the plane decelerated. As the plane passed over the Academy grounds, Tom marveled at the beautiful complex of buildings, bunkers, tarmacs and launch pads. He also noticed that every launch pad was occupied with a Solar Guard cruiser, scout or destroyer. He thought that he saw a couple of ship types that he wasnít familiar with. They were on the northern edge of the Spaceport, but the plane banked into itís landing pattern and he lost sight of them before he had a chance to identify them. The pilot had finished aligning the plane to the runway and Tom felt his lungs pushing up into his throat as the negative g-force indicated that the ship was dropping like a meteor. At about thirty feet from the runway, the pilot flared out and the short landing gear extended and locked into position just as the wheels touched down. The thrust reversers extended from the engines and the three young officers braced themselves for swift decerlation. Instead, the chairs that they were strapped into, rotated on gimbals built into the deck and the chairs provided cushioning and support to the body as the chair backs were now facing toward the direction of thrust. Tom noted that was the most comfortable landing he had ever experienced!
The chairs rotated back around, facing the front of the ship as a ground control jet-car zoomed out in front of the plane. A large florescent display on the back of the car flashed the message, "Follow Me!", and the pilot tailed the car right up to the front of the Tower of Galileo. The message changed to "Slow" and then to "Stop". Immediately, the planeís enginesí whine began to die away and the boarding hatch and ladder extended from the side of the ship. The young men unbuckled their seat belts and started for the hatch. After debarking, they looked around the area and saw all of the familiar sights and sounds that had been so much a part of their lives for four years. A young ensign approached them and saluted.
"Sirs, I am Ensign Victor Dodge. I am instructed to escort Major Robb, Lieutenants Corbett, Astro and Manning into headquarters for briefing and assignment."
Roger pulled his duty cap out of his tunic belt and popped it back into shape. As he pulled it tightly over his short blonde hair, he said, "Well, sonny, youíve got Astro, Corbett and Manning, but who the heck is Major Robb?"
"I am!", came a voice from behind them.
The new officers were startled by the statement and they turned around in a reflex action. They saw a man of about fifty years of age with a ring of short-cut white hair and an equally-white trimmed moustache standing in the hatchway of the aircraft. He was dressed in the khaki-colored uniform of the Solar Guard Reserves. He jumped down and reached out to shake the hands of the lieutenants.
"Iím sorry that we didnít have the opportunity to meet before. Iím Paul Robb, formerly of Ground Attack Squadron 53, now Chief Executive Pilot for Cirrus Air.... Maybe I should say that I am also formerly with Cirrus Air. Iíve been called up for active duty!"
As Tom shook his hand he said, "I thought some of those maneuvers were a little too brisk for the average air-bus driver! Have you been in the reserves for very long?"
The older man jumped down from the hatch as spryly as if he were in his twenties. After adjusting his tunic, he said, "Oh, Iíve been away from the daily grind for about five years. I knocked around space and airports for a few months, picking up an odd transport job here and there and an old friend recommended me to J.B. Throckmorton, the president of Cirrus Air. It turned out that he liked me and the old man gave me the job of being his personal pilot."
Paul started to give a detailed description of his history as an executive pilot, when the young ensign interrupted. "Ahem! Sirs, I must insist that we leave now. You must all report for duty immediately."
Major Robb reached under his left arm and retrieved his duty cap, flipped it open and pulled it down tightly over his partially bald head. "Sounds to me like junior is in a hurry! I guess weíd better go with him or heíll blow a rocket."
The four officers followed Ensign Dodge into the Tower of Galileo. The Tower was humming with activity as Guardsmen in multi-colored uniforms scurried about in all directions. Tom noted that a very large ratio of reserve officers were present. Some of them were obviously older than even the senior career officers of the training academy. There were also a large number of reserve enlisted men in the building. They were easy to spot because they wore the familiar red uniform of Guard enlistees, but the uniform trousers had a gold stripe on the outseam of the legs, rather than the black stripe of active duty personnel. As they walked toward a desk that had been hastily placed in a hallway, Tom nudged Astro to get his attention. When he looked at Tomís face, Tom nodded toward the desk, which was manned by an older guardsman in a khaki reservistís uniform. The man was busy trying to decipher some of the handwriting on the stack of papers that he was holding in his hand. That was when Astro noticed that the man had only one hand. He had evidently lost his left hand in an accident or in battle. Roger also noticed the injury and looked at Tom and Astro quizzically. In all of their years at the Space Academy, none of them had ever seen an officer with such an infirmity on active duty. Tom looked around and saw that there were other men in advanced years or obviously not in peak condition who were working at a furious pace.
Tom wondered to himself, "Whatís going on here? Are we at war?"
Before he could try to figure out any answers, Ensign Dodge presented them to the officer seated at the desk.
"Sir, Ensign Dodge reporting. Presenting Major Robb, Lieutenants Astro, Corbett and Manning."
The older man slowly lifted his good arm and gave a weak salute without lifting his eyes from the mound of papers. He then grunted, "Dismissed, Ensign."
Major Robb leaned over the hunched-up figure and spoke directly into his ear. "Whatsa matter, Sam? Havenít you got any good words for an old buddy?"
The man looked up and his face broke into a wide smile. "Paul! You old Space Buzzard! Donít tell me they called you up too!?"
Major Robb literally pulled the captain up out of his seat and hugged him with genuine affection. "By the Craters of Luna, you havenít improved with age!", he exclaimed. He then released the captain and asked, "What in Plutoís domain is going on here, Sam?"
The older man, using the stub of his left arm, pointed to some tubular-framed chairs and asked them all to be seated. As they sat down, he began, "Youíve got me, Paul. Iíve only been here for two days and the word is that you wonít get a straight answer unless you have an office occupying space on the fortieth floor or higher. Iím here to handle preliminary assignments as people report in. From what I can see, every active and reserve officer and enlistee who can still sit up and hold a pen has been brought to active duty."
"Youíre no fun at all, Sam!", said the major. " I thought for sure that youíd have some answers!"
"Answers? By the Blessed Rings of Saturn, if I had answers, Iíd know why I was here!". Then beckoning his friend closer, he said, "The only thing I can figure is that we must be at war of expecting to go to war!"
Major Robbís mouth opened slightly as he involuntarily exhaled. "War? With whom?"
Tom jumped into the conversation, "But sirs, war is illegal! Our constitution forbids it!"
"Well, sonny, the Constitution of the Solar Alliance does forbid war among ourselves.", said the major, "But, it doesnít keep us from hammering it out with beings alien to the Solar System! Maybe my question should have been War with WHAT!?"
The captain leaned back into his chair and waved his stub in a wide arc in the huge hallway. "Twenty-thousand Guardsmen are on the grounds here. Another thirty-thousand are reporting to the bases at Buenes Aires, Tokyo, Moskva, Sidney, Pensacola, Tel Aviv, Luna, Mars, Venus and all of the bases on the planetary satellites and space stations. Even some of the old stations from the last century are being refurbished and re-manned. Whatever is going on, itís bigger than anything Man has wrestled with before."
The captain noticed two more groups of men lined up behind the seated officers. "Sorry, Paul. Iíve got to keep things moving. Iíll give you your preliminary assignments. Youíll have to find out any more for yourselves." Then, smiling at his old friend, he said, "I hope you wonít be stationed too far away. I would like to reminisce about old times with you for a while."
Major Robb stood up, followed closely by the three lieutenants, accepted the papers and said, "Sam, you old throttle-jockey, you can wager that Iíll make time for you as soon as I can. I need to clear the rust out of my rockets too!"
The captain stood and presented a smart salute to the major and received one in return. The young officers saluted Sam reverently and followed Major Robb toward the slide stairs.
"Well, juniors, you just met a real space-hero!", stated Major Robb.
Roger, not easily impressed, gave a half-sneer and asked, "Oh yeah! What made him a hero?"
The major busied himself pulling off his gloves while slowly walking toward the stairs. Looking back over his shoulder, he said, "Sam Tyler was a captain in the Space Infantry. About a year after I retired, he was leading a company in a charge on a heavily fortified strongpoint on the main base of the Venus rebels during the Revolt. It seems that some young clown had gotten himself captured in some scheme to infiltrate the rebel base and Samís unit was trying to get him out. His unit was pinned down by heavy fire from a heat blaster and Sam inched his way to the position to throw a sleep-gas grenade into the gun emplacement. He lobbed the grenade, but before he could get his arm down, he took a blast just above the wrist and lost it all. Itís a darned shame too. Sam used to be a wonderful violinist."
The young men walked along in silence. Rogerís eyes welled up with tears when he realized that the clown who was responsible for the captainís injury was himself!