Paul Robb read the papers while enroute to the slidestairs. "Well, guys! Looks like we have an appointment at nineteen-hundred hours with Bull Wellington!"
Astro looked at his chronometer and exclaimed, "Weíd better hurry! We have less than fifteen minutes to get there."
The four men quickly jumped aboard the slide-stairs which would take them quickly to the sixty-third floor of the tower, which contained the office complex for Solar Guard Security. At the fortieth floor, they were obliged by armed Guards to leave the slidestairs and submit to a retinal and DNA identity check. After passing the identity check and a quick review of their orders, they were allowed to resume the trek to the Security Headquarters. As the slidestairs took them to higher elevations, Tom noticed that there were fewer people occupying each level, but the rate of activity per individual was just as frantic as it was on the ground floor. When they reached the Security level, a detail of guardsmen inspected their papers and identities again and a captain was assigned to escort them into Major Wellingtonís office. Upon entering the office, the captain presented the orders to Major Wellingtonís secretary, who accepted them and dismissed the captain.
Motioning to the four remaining officers, the aide, an obviously overworked captain, asked them to be seated until they were called.
Major Robb let out a breath of exasperation and herded the young men to a set of chairs in one corner of the office. "Well, Juniors, here we go again! Thereís a saying in the Guard that goes back at least three-hundred years... If you are involved in service to your planet, be prepared to hurry up and wait!"
Tom took the time to look around the reception room. The walls were undecorated except for a large photograph of the President of the Solar Council and a smaller portrait of Commander Walters, the Commandant of the Solar Guard and chief administrator of the Solar Guard Academy. Since these were standard office fixtures, Tom paid no more thought to them. He was looking for some hint of a personal touch that might give a clue about the occupant of the office. There was nothing to be seen. "Maybe,", he thought, "that is part of the decor! If there is no clue as the personality of the occupant, it might keep a visitor from forming an opinion before meeting The Bull!"
Actually, Tom and Astro had already met Major Buford W. Wellington more than a year before. Tom remembered that Bull Wellington was the acme of what one would expect from the head of a security organization. Bull Wellington was a large man, six-feet two-inches tall, dark brown skin and a jaw that was carved out of a chunk of pure ebony. His brown eyes could see through any falsehood and peel away layers of camouflage until the truth was revealed. In his mid-forties, his curly jet-black hair was broken only by a few light wisps of gray near the temples. His massive chest tapered down to a waistline that was no more than thirty-two inches around. The overall effect was a display of the ultimate security engine, contained in the form of a man that always got the answers that he was looking for. To meet Bull Wellington for the first time, especially if he was in an agitated state, could politely be described as an intense experience.
After what seemed like in interminable period, the door to Bull Wellingtonís office opened and three Solar Guard officers hurried out. The oldest officer, a major, looked straight ahead, not daring to look away or change his grim expression. The two younger officers, lieutenants, looked as if they had just come face to face with a ghost. Their faces were ashen and expressed pure amazement. As soon as they had filed out of the office, the intercom alarm sounded and the aide answered on a secure handset.
"Major! You and the lieutenants may see Major Wellington now.", spoke the aide.
All four officers rose to their feet and subconsciously checked themselves for properly adjusted uniforms and then proceeded into the office. As they entered, they could see a large manís silhouette against the floor-to-ceiling window of clear Titan crystal. He was silent as he gazed outwardly at the immense field of spacecraft which were standing like a huge bed of nails awaiting a gigantic fakir to lay upon them in order to entertain a race of giants. Tom had never seen so many space ships in one place at any time in his career. It reminded him of his history courses in which he watched vid-spools of the massive preparations before the invasion of Europe on D-Day in the year Nineteen Forty-Four. Standing at attention prevented him from getting a good view as he tried to identify all of the different types of ships, and he leaned a little too much and lost his balance. As he tried to recover, his knee caught the corner of Major Wellingtonís desk and the sudden, intense pain cause him to collapse onto the floor. Bull Wellington turned to see what the commotion was and saw Astro and Roger helping their friend to his feet. Tom thought for sure that he was going to at least receive a reprimand and possibly be boiled in his own pudding for not maintaining the correct posture at attention. Instead, the huge major reached under Tomís arms and pulled him straight up.
A deep, but gentle, voice asked, "Are you all right, lieutenant?"
Surprised by the lack of irritation in the majorís voice, Tom answered, "Yes, Sir. Iím sorry Sir."
"You are not the first officer to loose control upon seeing this vision, Lieutenant. Please, all four of you be seated. Better yet, bring your chairs over here so that you can see the preparations while we talk."
The four officers picked up the lightweight tubular chairs and arranged them near the majorís position. For the second time in this day for the officers, twilight was approaching and thousands of twinkling lights, floodlights, welders, strobes, worklights , warning beacons, markers and vehicle lights were painting a scene of incredible beauty. The gleaming beryllium-steel hulls of the spacecraft multiplied each pinpoint of light many times over and added their own reflective shapes to the scene.
"Impressive, isnít it?", asked the major in a low-keyed voice. All four officers nodded silently. "Yet, for all we know, it may be no more effective than a colony of ants piling up a mound of sand grains. An anthill was never much of a deterrent to an aardvark."
Paul Robb spoke up first. "Major, I have been off of active duty for a while, maybe you could let me and my young friends know what is going on."
Bull Wellington brought his right hand up to his right eye and massaged the area around his eyebrow. It was obvious that he was over-stressed and he was probably suffering from a tension headache. After a few seconds he spun around and looked Paul Robb in the eye and said, "Major I wish that I knew exactly what was going on! Let me brief you on exactly what we know. It will also explain why you are here and why we had to recall your young friends from their leave."
"Last June we received a distress call from one of the atmospheric cleansing and fracturing stations on Venus. The remote sensors indicated the unit had just quit operating. A repair team was dispatched to the site and it was quickly determined that the sensors were correct. In fact, the station did not exist any longer! The station had been completely destroyed by an explosion of unknown type. Forensic examination did not uncover any residue from any known explosive chemicals nor did it detect any radiation that was abnormal for Venusian exposure. Within two days, another station suffered the same fate and two days after that, yet another station exploded. The Venusian authorities were getting very worried and asked that a contingent of Solar Guards be sent to protect other sites. We depleted all reserves on the Venus Space Station, but still came up short on manpower and it would be another week before we could mobilize enough men and ships to guard the other fracturing sites."
Major Robb asked, "Is that why we have all of these ships on hand?"
"No Major! We have all of the remaining fracturing sites guarded, but someone apparently wasnít impressed. Three weeks ago, we received a message in plain text from someone calling himself Tamos Sen, Heir to the Golden Planet. This being, whoever he is, claims that his people are racial descendents of Venus. He says that his people abandoned the planet when it was believed that a rogue planet would collide with it. That was over a million years ago. He says that he has an army that is girded to fight to reclaim his home world and that the destroyed atmospheric stations were only a warning of things to come. He demands that we leave his home and do not corrupt the planet by using our foul handiwork on itís soil. If we fail to leave Venus before March 12 of next year, he claims that he will destroy the remaining atmospheric cleansers and make Venus unlivable for anyone."
Astro became excited by the claims of Tamos Sen. "Sir, if these people claim to be inheritors of Venus, why not see if we can accommodate them? Surely there is room for negotiation!"
The Chief of Security smiled faintly and then replied, "Son, the Solar Council formulated just such a plan shortly after we received the message from this... this Tamos Sen. Less than a day after it was transmitted, a vessel of some type was detected approaching the Venus Space Station. We dispatched a squadron of cruisers to intercept the vessel. As they approached the ship, the squadron commander sent a series of messages asking for notification on the vesselís intent. At a distance of less than one-hundred miles, the ship destroyed itself with a low-yield nuclear explosion. A few minutes later, the Solar Council received this message: You have our answer!"
Major Robb exclaimed, "Weíre facing off with a lunatic!"
"Maybe,", said the dark-skinned major, "But heís not a Venusian lunatic!"
Roger, surprised by that statement, asked, "Sir, didnít you just say that he was a Venusian descendent from a million years ago?"
"No, I said that he claims to be of Venusian descent. The facts tell us that he is either not as he claims, or that he is working with humans and using humans to accomplish his gains. Hereís what we know: The detonated ship was made of common materials. There was no on-board power plant, it was placed in a collision orbit from the surface of Venus, probably from a regularly scheduled ship, shortly after lift-off. In over a hundred years of exploration, not one artifact of a previous civilization has ever been found on Venus. Even after eons, something would remain even after a period of tectonic activity. Sonic mapping of Venus has never found a remnant of anything made by other than natural causes. A civilization that became spacefaring over a million years ago would have a tremendous technological advantage over us. They should also be a million years more advanced in the field of diplomacy. Tamos Sen has acquired none of these traits. I think that we are dealing with a despot rather than a leader from the stars."
Tom had been listening intently, but now he had his own questions. "Sir, if we are dealing with a simple lunatic, why are we going to all of the trouble, uprooting of lives and expense to mobilize the entire Solar Guard!"
Major Wellington sat on the edge of his desk and pointed to the massive display of power that was spread out beyond the window. "This? This is nothing! We have concentrated all of our space station, Mars Base, Mars Academy, Luna, Titan, Ganymede, and all satellite forces above Venus! Why, we even brought two destroyers from the Penal Asteroid to join in! Gentlemen, I said that this Tamos Sen was a despot, he may be mad, but he is also intelligent! So far we have hit dead-ends trying to locate him or anyone who may be involved with him. None of our agents have been able to even find a hint as to his whereabouts. We have dug a dry well, gentlemen! That is why the four of you have been brought here."
Astroís eyes dilated like those of a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. "Sir, Iíll do anything to save Venus!"
Major Wellington, upon hearing this statement, looked troubled. Unable to look Astro in the eyes, he reached down to his desk and began playing with a heavy pen holder that was made of a solid ball of Titan crystal. "Is that true, son?"
Without hesitation, Astro responded, "Yes, Sir!"
"And what about the rest of you? Is the saving of Venus, itís cities, farms and people, worth anything to you too?"
Immediately, the other three officers sounded off, "Sir, yes, Sir!"
"By the Holy Rings of Saturn, I believe that you would!" The Chief of Security picked up the pen holder and tossed it to Astro, who, in a reflex action, reached out with his right hand and grabbed the ball before it could fall to the floor. He then stated, "You are right-handed, son." Then, with a pained expression, he asked, "Would you be willing to give your left arm to save Venus?"
None of them could believe what they just heard! Astro held up the pen holder and looked into it. He then placed it in his left hand and stared into the beautiful crystal. His eyes then traced slowly from his thumb tip to his wrist and then up his arm. With a quavering voice, he then said, "Sir, Yes Sir!"
Paul Robb jumped up from his chair and began to protest loudly to Bull Wellington. The black major grimaced as he started to turn away from the older manís wailings. As quickly as a Martian Mongoose, he drew his right hand back into a fist and threw a bone-jarring punch that landed squarely on Paul Robbís moustache, just below the left nostril. Major Robbís body staggered for only a second and his legs wobbled then refused to support his weight. He crumpled into a pile of khaki clothing at Tomís feet.
Tom, Roger and Astro thought that Major Wellington had gone mad! All three of them assumed defensive postures as they prepared to engage in combat with their superior. Bull Wellington held up his hand in a gesture that indicated that he did not want to continue with a fight. Tom was grateful that the major did not want to be combative, because he doubted that all three of them could even wrinkle the officerís tunic.
"Major!", Tom screamed, "What are you doing?"
"Letís just say that it was necessary, young man. As of this moment, you are all committed to the success of this mission. That success will only come with sacrifice. Lieutenant Astro has consented to his sacrifice. Major Robb has just made his. Lieutenant Manning has already made his contribution. Itís your turn, Lieutenant Corbett. Are you prepared?"
Tomís mind spun with conflicting feelings of fear and duty and questions answered and unanswered. He then closed his eyes and tensed up waiting for the unknown. "Sir, yes Sir!"