Paul Robbís mind slowly became aware of more than the empty blackness that had filled it for the last half-hour. He had to work hard to make his eyelids move and when he finally got them open, he could only see a bright blob of light which was occasionally interrupted by a shadowy figure crossing between himself and the luminescence. He reached out on either side only to find that he was lying in a hospital bed with rails to prevent him from falling out. Using his seemingly weak hands, he grasped the rails and pushed downward to scoot his head higher in the bed. As he shook his head to remove the cobwebs and regain the ability to focus his eyes, the light source was completely blocked out and he could faintly hear a voice say, "I do believe that the good Major is finally coming around!"
Another voice, from an unknown direction, exclaimed, "Holy Rings of Saturn! Look at that shiner!"
Slowly Major Robbís eyes started to focus and the shadow took a form that terrorized him.... the smiling face of Bull Wellington! He tried to cover his face, but there was not enough energy in his arms to do any more than flail helplessly across his chest.
"Hold on, Major! Iím not going to hurt you.... again.", stated Bull Wellington. He was grinning widely and even let out a jovial chuckle as he walked around to the other side of the bed.
Tomís face replaced that of the security chief. "Hello? Major? Can you hear me?"
Paul Robb nodded and let out a gasp along with the words, "Yes... What happened?"
Roger, smiling, walked up to the bed and leaned over the rail. "Major, you were the participant in a great experiment... to prove that no two objects can occupy the same space, and that an un-opposable force can displace any object that it comes in contact with!"
The reserve officer took on the look of befuddlement and then sank back into the bed. He then asked if he could have a drink of water and Astro quickly brought a glass of the cool, clear liquid up to mouth level. Paul took the metering straw between his lips and started to draw the water from the glass. He was immediately aware that something wasnít working right because he wasnít getting enough liquid into his mouth. He felt for the straw with his tongue and was shocked to discover that he was missing several teeth on the left side of his mouth.
"What in Plutoís Realm is going on! Now Iíve got teeth missing!" The words were meant to be harsh and directed to Bull Wellington, but without the benefit of having learned to enunciate without the use of the teeth in the proper place, the resultant speech pattern was a comical hash of slurred words and saliva, which dripped down the front of the majorís gown. Roger began laughing out loud and convulsively shook so hard that he spilled much of the water out of the glass and onto the poor majorís chest. This added to the hilarity of the moment and soon all four standing officers were laughing at the expense of Paul Robb.
Bull Wellington soon collected himself and strode to the bed. "Major, Iím going to get these young men out of here. The doctor says that you will need to rest for a couple of more hours. Heíll give you a stimulant to help you regain your energy and Iíll come back to see you and get you briefed before taps."
Totally confused about these events, Paul resigned himself to the situation and closed his eyes. His bodyís repair mechanism quickly brought on a deep sleep as all non-essential systems were shut down. The sleep not only released him from further humiliation, but also helped to mask the increasing pain from the bruising and swelling of damaged tissue.
Paul awoke to the recorded sound of reveille being played throughout the base intercom system. This was followed by a series of announcements, which was normal for the beginning of a day at Space Academy. he sat upright and pushed the nurse-call button. When the matronly lady came into the room, he asked, "How long have I been out?"
"Oh, about ten hours since your friends left, Major."
"Hump! Some friends!.... I thought Major Wellington was going to call for me at around twenty-four hundred hours?"
The woman placed a thermometer probe in his mouth and said, "Quiet, please! Yes, Major Wellington was here when I came on my shift last night, but he took one look at you and decided that matters could wait until this morning."
She removed the probe and said, "Well, Major, youíre as good as you are going to get for a while. The doctor has already signed your release. When you get up, do so slowly and donít make any quick moves for a while. If you become dizzy or nauseous, please report back to the infirmary or call for a corpsman unit. Your uniform is in the closet and there are shaving sundries in the bathroom. Good day, sir."
The nurse abruptly spun around and exited the room as if she didnít want to be around when Paul began his morning hygiene ritual. "She certainly acted prudish, for a nurse!", he thought to himself. He slowly brought his legs over the side of the bed and began putting his weight on them, testing to see if they would support him. Satisfied that they were working properly, he shuffled to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. He then reached to the side, feeling for the light switch, found it and flipped it on. As the light flickered, like a strobe, then settled to a steady output, he saw a grotesque figure staring back at him from the mirror. "By Lunaís Craters! Is that me?", he thought as he studied the image in the glass.
The entire left side of his face was black and blue from broken and traumatized blood vessels, his upper lip had been split in-two and was sutured back together. His nose and much of the skin on the left side of his face was swollen to almost double itís original volume. He brought his hand up to probe the area around the split lip and placed his fingers on the red-brown-stained moustache. Lightly touching the area, he soon discovered that he was still very sore. More importantly, the lack of resistance to his pressure reminded him that he was missing some teeth! He spread his lips to reveal huge gaps where there once had been five perfectly cared-for teeth.
"What a mess!", he exclaimed out loud. "I look like a drunken deckhand after a bad night in Venusport!"
"Thatís what you are supposed to look like, Major.", came a deep voice from just outside of the bathroom.
Paul looked past his own image in the mirror and saw Bull Wellington framed in the doorway. He turned around to face his former assailant and asked, "Major, Iíve been out of active service for a few years. During all of the time I was training or hunting targets on high speed runs, I had the opportunity of meeting Lou Conell, your predecessor, on two occasions. Not once did he make an assignment by beating his personnel to a pulp! Now, I understand that everyone has his own methods, but tell me, how do you get someone to work for you more than once?!"
Bull grinned and said, "I am truly sorry, Major. But, it was necessary for the success of this mission. Believe me, the young men who will be with you on this investigation have or will sacrifice more than a few teeth."
Wellington backed out of the doorway and spoke loudly from the hospital room. "Donít bother to shave, Major. It wouldnít be practical, considering the condition that your face is in. Besides, I want you to look as ragged as possible in just a few days. Iíll see you in my quarters at ten-hundred hours."
Without another word, the security chief left the room. Paul shrugged his shoulders and resumed his self-examination in the mirror. He decided that a shower would do more to refresh himself than anything. As he stood in the warm stream of pulsing water, he believed that he felt the sensations returning to his battered body. As he rinsed off, he saw a stream of once-dried blood and small clots racing toward the drain. He then wrapped a bath towel around his waist and re-entered the ward room to dry off. It was now obvious that he had been given a pain medication, because it was now wearing off. The dull pain was so noticeable that he had to gently pat his face dry. He then walked to the window and pressed the button that changed the crystalís matrix and allowed light from the outside to penetrate into the room. Although the infirmary room faced the east, away from the flightline, he could still hear the sound of rocket motors being tested. He could see a new batch of green earthworms being herded into small groups, each of which had a very animated red-clad non-com rushing around berating individuals and generally terrorizing the young men. He began to think to himself, "Nothing changes! The circle continues...", then he caught himself as he noticed that one of the groups consisted of only young ladies, not more than little girls. This was a first! There were a few female enlisted people in the Solar Guard, and there was one female civilian instructor at the Academy, Dr. Joan Dale. Even she wore the uniform of the Solar Guard, although she was officially a reservist. But, she was the only exception. Now it appeared that the Guard was reversing a policy that had been in effect for over a hundred years. He thought, "Maybe Wellington just hit me too hard and Iím dreaming this!". He then pushed another button and the window became opaque again. He finished dressing and went to the mess hall for a quick breakfast before his scheduled meeting with Major Wellington.
Upon entering the mess hall, he became the focal point of several dozen conversations. A group of three raw earthworms were loitering at a table near the spot where Paul sat down with his meal. As he broke his bread, the three juveniles started taunting him.
"Hey, Pops! Aren't you a little old to be throttling rockets?", shouted the obvious leader of the pack.
The other two boys started cackling with laughter, which encouraged their leader to continue with his taunts.
"Whatís the matter, Pops? Loose your bearings and bump into a tailfin?"
Under normal circumstances Major Robb would not have been so forgiving of the young fools. He was a veteran of several campaigns and a skilled fighter. Certainly he could have pulled rank on them and dressed them down like so many upper classmen will do in the near future, but he was not in the mood and he still didnít feel as if he was an active duty Guardsman. He pretended to ignore them, hoping that they would go away and leave him in peace. But, the taunts and jeers continued at his expense until a voice as sharp as a dagger pierced the air.
"What do you maggots think you are doing?"
A red-uniformed drill instructor strode up to the three smart alecks, who were now huddled together for support.
"You people havenít even been sworn in to the Cadet Corps yet, and yet you have the audacity to orally abuse an officer of the Guard? You people will now give me your names.... I mean NOW!
"Cadet Candidate Jones, C.J., Cadet Candidate Foster, R.I., Cadet Candidate Benson, H.R., Sir!" , came the reply from the leader.
"Donít call me Sir, exhaust wipe!", growled the Chief. Pointing to Paul, he said, "That, misters, is an officer! He is wearing the leaves of a major on his collar. You will address him with the respect that he has earned... and you will do it with sincerity. If you donít, I will allow him to demonstrate several hand to hand combat techniques to you and then report your demise to your families. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Chief.", came the reply.
"Now leave here on the double and report to your units."
The three boys started toward the door when the chief shouted, "Halt! Come to attention!". All three assumed a reasonable pose of standing at attention and the NCO confronted them again. "Havenít you worm-slimes learned anything in the hours that you have been here? You are leaving the presence of an officer of the Solar Guard! You will salute and wait for him to respond before you leave! Now, do it!"
The three raised their right arms and assumed three different forms of salute to Major Robb. The amused officer returned the salute in almost as sloppy manner as it was received. The boys then turned and filed out of the mess hall.
The NCO approached Paul and said, "Iím sorry for the trouble that those boys caused you, Sir." Then, having noticed the extent of the wounds to the officerís face, he asked, "Sir, pardon me for asking, but how did you sustain your injuries?"
Paul tried to smile as he answered, "Bull Wellington decided to interview me for a job. He liked my answers, but didnít like me asking questions!"
Hearing this, the scarlet-clad DI came to attention, saluted and said, "Congratulations, Sir!"
Paul wrinkled his nose as he tried to come to reason with the odd response. "Well, Chief, why are you congratulating me?"
"For surviving the interview, Sir!"