Chapter Index
-First Command - A Tom Corbett Adventure

Chapter 8

The man looking over a series of computer printouts would have been remarkable in almost any port of the Solar Alliance. His gaunt appearance was accented by the harsh lighting provided by un-dissipated elements in clear light sources. His skin lacked any pigmentation and the snow-white hair on his head was waxed or starched to stand straight up in a vertical column. It was then cut perfectly flat on the top about two inches above the scalp. The pink pupils in his eyes rapidly darted left and right as he consumed the information that he had recently received. The door on the cavernous room emanated a rapping sound indicating that someone wished access to the room.

"Come.", was the terse invitation.

The door slowly opened to reveal a squat and stooped-over man of indeterminable age. He was unkempt and anyone standing close to him would have immediately noticed the foul odor of a mixture of ammonia, bacteria and perspiration that filled the air around him. In a low pitched and slow delivery, he announced, "Sire, our men in Venusport report that another Solar Guard patrol has been dispatched."

"Where are they going?", growled the albino.

"It is not known, Sire.... Does the Great Tamos Sen wish me to inquire further?", asked the man.

Tamos Sen grabbed a lead ingot that weighed at least a pound and threw it at the short creature, who covered his head and turned away just as the heavy missile struck him in the back. Screaming in outrage, Sen told him, "You incompetent fool! Do not bother me with useless information! When, and only when you have anything of value to offer me, will you disturb me again!"

The small man, whimpering and writhing in pain, crawled back to the door and managed to pull himself out of the room while apologizing for the intrusion. Once outside, he made his way through the hallways, beyond several guards who pretended not to notice the pain that he was in. The hallways were nothing more than quickly excavated tunnels deep under the surface of the highlands known as Venusí Ishtar Terra region, far north of the most populated central and equatorial areas of Venus. Because of the rugged terrain, there was little agricultural activity and it would be several centuries before anyone would deem it necessary or profitable to develop this area of the planet. For these reasons, Ishtar Terra was the perfect area to establish a base of operations and develop an army of miscreants who were devoted to the conquest of a planet. For Jiri Korenek, his devotion to Tamos Sen had been stretched to the breaking point. He had allied himself to Tamos Sen over three years ago when he met the albino in an entertainment facility on Titan. Jiri had migrated to Titanís mining operations several years before, after being lured to signing on as a means of leaving his dull, central European heritage behind. After being injured in a mining accident, he was no longer able to find work and he used his monthly injury payments to pursue a lifestyle in the least desirable hangouts around mining camps and in establishments devoted to taking advantage of persons like himself. Jiri welcomed the attention that the white-haired stranger had given him. Tamos Sen had told Jiri that he was destined to achieve greatness and that he should prepare himself for that station in life. Jiri took the words to heart and began keeping himself clean and sober. He attended secret meetings staged by Tamos Sen in which the albino spoke charismatically and at each meeting he would add more recruits to his growing cadre of followers. In time, Jiri was given additional responsibilities and his respect toward Sen grew into outright admiration. To Jiri, every word spoken by Sen became etched in his mind as a revelation of truth. In less than a year, Senís followers had grown to over ten thousand in number and each of them was dedicated to recruiting more derelicts into the secret organization. An outsider would have been in awe to learn of the sheer size of Senís army. However, an outsider would never know. Tamos Sen had the gift of making even the least cognizant person understand the need for secrecy. This ability to control his followers would serve him well... until it was time to make himself known. Senís people sent every bit of money that they could gather to feed Senís need for funds. They provided Sen funding for purchasing ships, arms, construction materials, food, clothing and all manner of ancillary supplies that would stock a complete military base.

Jiri thought about how good Tamos Sen had made him feel. He rubbed the deep bruise on his back and then wondered how his mentor could turn on him as he did. For the last several months Sen had changed in his demeanor. The once-understanding and compassionate man now flew into a rage at the slightest provocation. Even his closest advisors now tried to avoid contact with the despot when it was not necessary to do so. Even Jiri, who had been with him since the beginning, had reached the end of his tolerance. It was time to get out of this organization. But how? Jiri was familiar with the multiple layers of security that Tamos Sen had built around him. If he attempted to leave the base without reason and an armed escort, he would not survive long enough to talk to another human. His plan must be well thought out and executed to perfection. For his safety, not one other person must know of or even suspect that he was preparing to defect. That, in itself, would be difficult to achieve because no one in the organization would dare to provide any service or hardware without checking for permission to do so. Jiri would have to improvise an almost diabolical scenario to make his escape. Having made his way to the infirmary, he held in his screams as the medic wrapped a pain-killing package around his back and taped it tightly. He then swallowed a fast-acting anti-pain medication and left the medical center to return to his drab quarters. Even with the chemically induced euphoria of the medicine, his mind became dark with thoughts of escape and revenge.

Even darker were the plans for world conquest which Tamos Sen had formulated and refined since his childhood. His formative years were not the carefree and joyous ones that most children enjoy. Born Thomas Knutson, the son of a Venusian farmer, his odd appearance drew ridicule from the youngest and least sophisticated of his classmates. Even in later years, when his peers understood albinism, he carried the memories of the mistreatment with him and he refused to participate in social interaction. He became the archetypal loner. At an early age he vowed that he would someday rule Venus. His anger and self-pity festered for years and fueled his passion for dominance. Evenings for Tamos Sen became his true schooling period. He would stand in front of a video camera and record his own movements, gestures and facial expressions as he mimicked successful speakers from the past. He studied every nuance of politicians, motivational speakers, ministers and monarchs. There was one individual whom he studied endlessly. This one person was the most charismatic speaker he had ever heard. Every known audio and video recording of this man became the library of reference for Tamos Sen. There were times when he wished that he had personally known this speaker and he would carry on fantasy conversations with his hero. He learned to turn the lie into the truth and to reduce truth into insignificance. Yes, his hero would have been proud of Tamos. Each evening Tamos would place his reference recordings into their proper file location... under "H" for "Hitler, Adolph".

In time, Tamos became a wonderful speaker, able to emote sympathy to the downtrodden and forgotten. Whether in a one-to-one conversation or orating to a cavernous room full of men who were looking for hope, Tamos Sen made friends of the friendless and he then gave them purpose and direction. Of course, these men didnít really know what direction they were going in, they were blind to everything except their adoration for Tamos. They happily worked long hours to provide the funds to build a secret empire... one that would someday rule a planet. Starting at remote outposts, Tamos began recruiting his minions in taverns, mining camps and any site that would likely have a good population of men who were from the fringe of acceptable social standing. The Solar Alliance was a compassionate government, always ready to assist those who had been injured or fallen prey to the small number of people who would lure the unfortunate away from rehabilitation. However, just as there was an unsociable element that refused mental adjustment because they actually liked working against society, so there were people like Tamos Sen who were willing, even anxious, to lead them to his own version of glory.

Tamos reveled in his growing importance. He maintained a strict code of secrecy and no one who looked him in his mesmerizing pink eyes was left unaffected. After even the shortest interview with Tamos Sen, a new recruit would devote his entire being to the conquest of Venus. Tamos convinced these men that he was the sole genetic descendent of Venusian sentient beings who lived along with the dinosaurs and lesser life forms millions of years before. He described how he would take over and rebuild Venus into the advanced civilization of the past. He explained that life would be difficult at first. For several years only men would populate the planet as they formed the new society. It would be similar to living during the Alaskan gold rush of the early twentieth century. After the initial work was done, women and families would join the men. Other than the company of a few entertainers, there would be little socializing.... or time for it. Tamos described ancient Venusian cities of native marble and sandstone buildings that were integrated into the landscape. Everywhere there was foliage, birds, small tamed dinosaurs, streams teeming with fish and waterlife. The people were hard-working and happy tending to fields and arbors. People were rarely ill because the society worked in harmony with Mother Venus. Tamos Sen described an Eden for which Man had been longing for millennia. Only the accidental approach of a rogue star brought an end to this Utopia. Tamos explained that only a few original inhabitants were able to escape and that he was the last descendant of his kind. The Solar Alliance had no authority to lay claim to Venus and it was up to Tamos to reclaim his heritage and bestow citizenship to those who assisted him in his venture. It was beautiful. It was intoxicating. It was a lie. Tamos had created Mother Venus in his teen years while plotting undeserved revenge against the Solar Alliance. It was his personal fantasy that he vowed that he would someday turn into reality. That day was rapidly approaching.

Tamos Senís treasury was bulging with credits. Considering that all of his labor was freely given by his followers and that there were few expenses, a mere few years of collecting funds was a fruitful time, indeed. After selecting the base camp site at Ishtar Terra, Tamos worked on a schedule that would have at least two-thousand of his men on Venus at any one time. They would arrive as regular passengers on scheduled transports, tramp cargo ships, chartered tour ships and even as crewmen or stowaways. Each of these men carried a valid identification as well as a finger ring that identified the individual as a member of Tamos Senís organization, which he referred to only as Crux Venus. The ring was made of an engineering plastic which contained an imbedded security code and identification information which would validate the wearer as a member of Crux Venus. The crown of the ring bore a distinctive design of a crescent, which represented the Planet Venus, and a star pattern commonly referred to as the Southern Cross, which represented a group of stars from which Tamos Sen claimed that the survivors of Venus had fled to millions of years before.

Within a few months, the subsurface of Ishtar Terra was honeycombed with a maze of tunnels that connected natural caverns and water supplies. The central command area of the complex was the hub from which many miles of corridors extended. The removed soil and rock was used a fill in many of the natural caverns that were formed as bubbles in the strata during the early stages of Venusí formation. Because the crews were able to use the unwanted material as a construction resource, there were no indications on the surface of the planet that a major project was underway. For Tamos Sen, even the planet seemed to favor his agenda. The surface of Ishtar Terra was extremely rugged and Tamosí engineers were able to cleverly incorporate communications and surveillance equipment that could not be detected unless an unwary prospector literally stumbled across it. If that would happen, it was unlikely that the poor fellow would ever be heard from again. Tamosí security forces were as efficient as they were loyal.

Of particular note were no less than ten camouflaged tunnel openings. Each one was the termination of a rocket launch ramp which extended for a thousand feet into the Venusian rock and soil. At the bottom of each ramp, work crews were assembling an atomic-engined space ship which would, by itís size have been categorized as a destroyer by the standard of the Solar Guard. However, the armament designed into each of these ships was equal to that of a Solar Guard cruiser. The ships were designed by Tamosí own engineers and were strictly weapons platforms. No crew comforts were provided, nor were they expected by those who would man them. All parts and materials were brought to Venus as scrap for recycling, and indeed, to the eye of any agent of the Venus Import Authority, it would appear exactly as claimed. In fact, scrap was generally looked upon with favor because of the metal-poor soil of the planet. Large quantities of metals were always welcome as it would help to feed the small industrial base of this largely-agrarian society. Weapons systems were constructed in Tamosí own shops and nuclear propellants and munitions were smuggled in by the very pilots who would man the warships that were under construction. When the day came, Tamos would have a force with which to rule his planet.

Tamos, like so many of his predecessors, had become so reactive to those who were close to him that he had given several of them reason to inwardly question his goals, his reason and even his sanity. Yet, not one of these men had betrayed Tamos. Nor would they even consider being disloyal. Except for Jiri Korinek.

Jiri hesitated at the doorway to Tamos Senís office. His report would be concise and constructive. He knew that what he would tell Sen would probably bring a fit of outrage from his leader, but it was his duty to make the report and it was also his only chance to escape the madness that he was tied to. He slowly raised his right hand and knocked sharply. "Come!" was the response. He opened the door and found Tamos reclined against a small metal pillar that had been placed to reinforce the ceiling in the office. Senís thumb and forefinger were spread out across the bridge of his nose and they lightly pressed against his weary pink eyes. He spoke in the low tones of someone who was eager to end the day and get a good rest.

"Sire?", asked Jiri, "Why donít you lay down and get some sleep?"

"Yes, Jiri, I think that I will. I have been working non-stop for over forty hours and it is becoming difficult to think."

Jiriís blue eyes darted around the room in search of anything that might be within reach of Sen. He wanted to avoid being the target of another heavy object that might be thrown at him. Seeing nothing that would be too harmful, he cleared his throat and addressed Sen. "Sire, I have some disturbing news from the chief engineer of the western section."

"Yes? What is it?, asked the weary tyrant.

"I am sorry to report that he has found that the surface soil is too loose to support the tunnel roof without a major structural reinforcement. It will set back your timetable by at least a month, possibly more. He says that the sulfur content is too high and that fusing the soil will not provide enough strength to the walls or roof."

"That incompetent fool!" , screamed Sen as he flung his arm across the desk and swept maps, drawings and pens to the floor. "He told me that we should have no problems in that area!"

Jiri had involuntarily jumped back into a shadow at the outburst. He re-emerged into the light and stated, "Sire, I really donít think that it will be much of a problem. The main hydroponics rooms are safely under solid rock, it is just the shaft leading to the surface for the ventilation system. I do not believe that we will have a great delay if we can fit a steel or plastic culvert into the shaft. The tunnel is only twelve feet wide and it is very straight. The work would have to be completed at night to reduce the chance for discovery."

Tamos listened to Jiriís assessment and thought for a moment. "Do you really think it will work?"

"I am certain of it, Sire. I would be glad to personally supervise the project, if it pleases you."

Sen looked directly at the small man. The fire in his eyes faded back to a rosy pink color and his voice softened. "Yes, Jiri. That would please me very much." He scribbled orders onto a piece of paper and handed it to Korinek. "Here are the orders. Complete the project quickly and you will be rewarded. If you fail, you and the engineer will both regret it!"

Jiri grasped the paper, silently bowed and backed out of the door. He closed the door softly even as he shook with nervousness. Sen had not only signed the orders to reinforce the tunnel, he has also signed Jiriís passport to freedom. It would only take a few hours to complete his plans for escape.

Jiri placed the explosive device between the lens and filament bulb on his hand-held lamp. He then checked to make sure that it would not cast a shadow or interfere with the operation of the lamp. Satisfied, he placed the lamp in a holster and hailed one of the many electrically-operated two-man carts that scurried around the maze of caverns. He told the driver to take him to the western section on Tamos Senís orders and the driver unhesitantly changed course for the construction zone.

In an uncharacteristic display of authority, Jiri strode to the construction site and asked for the foreman and the engineer. A worker pointed out a pair of men who were engaged in a loud debate over a set of blueprints. A stocky, white-haired man looked at Jiri as he approached and shouted, "Who are you and why are you bothering me?"

Jiri handed the orders to the man and explained that he was here to inspect the excavation and make a decision on whether to reinforce or abandon the tunnel. The squat man spat on the ground and said, "Yeah! Well, Iím in charge of this project and I say that we should re-drill about one-hundred yards farther north." Pointing to the younger man, he said, "This egg-head engineer, who never got his hands dirty, says that we should hold up this project by building a completely reinforced shelter around the shaft. Iíve about had it with junior!"

The young man started to explain the intricacies of the project and how it interacted with the surrounding soil. Before he could go on at length, Jiri held up his hand and said that he didnít understand all of it, but that he would like to inspect the tunnel and make a decision on behalf of their leader. The engineer bowed assent and the burly foreman extended his hand toward the tunnel and said, "Have at it, Mac. Weíll do what you want."

Jiri approached the tunnel and ran his hand along the walls. "It is safe?", he asked.

The foreman replied, "It is right here, but as you travel upward, the consistency of the soil changes. About one-hundred yards from the surface, it gets pretty loose. Iíd step lightly up there!"

Jiri started walking up the sloping floor with the foreman at his side. About fifty yards from the floor of the cavern he turned to the stocky man and said that he didnít want to put anyone in unnecessary danger and he ordered the white-haired man to return to safety. The older man just shrugged his shoulders and did an about-face to make the return hike. Inwardly, he was relieved to not have to tag along during the inspection.

Jiri was also glad that he did not have to pull rank on the man because he wanted his next actions to take place without undue attention. As he approached the end of the tunnel, he used the available light to aid him in disassembling his lamp. After retrieving the explosive from the light, he reassembled it and began looking for a suitable location to plant it. About fifty yards from the end of the tunnel, the soil was particularly loose. He used the shank of a screwdriver to dig a small hole into which he placed the device and set the timer for thirty seconds. As soon as the bomb was activated he started running for the mouth of the cave. As he approached the fading light of a Venusian dusk, he noticed that much of the tunnel was beginning to crumble around him without the aid of an explosive. After exiting the tunnel, he fell to the ground and began crawling through the scrubby vegetation in order to avoid the known detection equipment. Even though his path was littered with large insects and foot-long dinosaurs, be did not miss a beat as he struggled to put distance between himself and the cave. Suddenly he felt the ground shake and heard a muffled roar as hundreds of tons of sulphurous soil collapsed under itís own weight, aided by a good shake from the explosive.

Jiri continued crawling for several hours. After he was sure that he was out of range of Senís electronic eyes and ears, he began jogging as fast as he dare in the rugged terrain. He glanced skyward occasionally and was heartened to see the reflection of the Venus Space Station as it orbited around the green planet. At one point, he decide to check his position and he unbuckled the belt on his now tattered trousers and dropped them to the ground. His thighs were covered with tough plastic bladders of water and food and he had a Venus Positioning Unit, or VPU, taped to his right calf. Pausing to eat and drink, he was grateful that his plan had worked so well up Ďtil now. He checked the VPU and found that he was less than fifty miles from a road that would take him to the nearest settlement, which was about three-hundred miles away. When he reached the road, he could locate a civilian call station and he would report that he was stranded with a disabled jet-car. If Tamos Senís people were monitoring, it was unlikely that they would take notice. Why should they? As far as they were concerned, he was dead... buried under a good portion of the planet. It would take several weeks of excavation to uncover his body and, considering the looseness of the soil, he doubted that Sen would even bother giving the order and delaying the project further. His injured leg ached from all of the exertion, but the closer that he hiked toward the road, the better he felt. It could have been the result of the pain-killing medication from his med-kit, but he believed that it was the natural anesthetic of freedom!

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