It had been two weeks since Astroís operation and the new officers had been summoned to the Tower of Galileo. Tom, Roger, Astro and Paul Robb were assembled in Bull Wellingtonís office for a briefing, but the security chief had not yet arrived. Roger became fidgety. He stood up and started to look around the office for clues to the Majorís background. Unlike the reception area, there were small details that gave insight to Buford W. Wellingtonís character. A relatively small area behind a Martian Blood Cactus plant camouflaged a large number of citations, commendations and medals, including the Solar Medal with Rocket Clusters.
"Man!", Roger exclaimed, "Old Bull has really been around! This guyís career is awesome!"
"Sit down, Roger!", demanded Tom. "Youíll have us in hot water if you donít stop snooping around!"
Roger, not breaking from his search, said, "Aw, stow it, space-boy. Iím just taking a peek around. I donít know much about Old Bull, and itís always better to get your information first-hand."
"Believe me, Roger, you donít want to see him get mad!", chimed Astro.
"When did you ever see Bull Wellington get mad?"
"Over a year ago, when you were laid-up with your skull crushed in. He was personally in charge of an interrogation about your accident and it didnít take long to get the truth from the suspect.", said Astro.
Tom, afraid that Astro would say something that would violate his oath of secrecy, nudged the big Venusian and barked, "Forget it, Roger! Just sit down until the Major arrives!"
"The Major has already arrived, Lieutenant!", announced a deep voice from behind the group.
Tom felt his heart sink and he was sure that they were all going to be reprimanded. Roger, who had picked up a small family portrait of the Major, his wife and two children, replaced his cock-sure grin with a look of genuine fear, and struggled to replace the photograph back on the senior officerís desk. His nervous shaking caused the picture frame to chatter across the smooth Titan crystal desk top.
"Having trouble with your coordination, Lieutenant?", asked Bull softly.
"N..N..No, Sir! Iím sorry, Sir!
The massive major strode around to his desk and picked up the photograph. "Have a seat, Lieutenant." He looked intently at the photo and, without looking away from it, said, "Wilma told me to keep my jets cool today. Young man, you can thank my wife for my willingness to forgive this intrusion."
Roger, sincerely apologized for the incident and thanked the Major for his lenience.
Bull looked at Roger and broke out in a wide grin and said, "Donít thank me, thank my supreme commander!"
Roger nodded and sank back into his chair.
The major then looked at Tom and asked, "Corbett, donít you know that is improper to have your duty-cap on when at ease? Remove that lid, mister!"
Tom reluctantly reached up and pulled the cap off of his head revealing the bizarre hair cut and even stranger tattoo. The senior officerís face contorted into a wince as he looked at the odd body decorations and he immediately said, "My apologies, Lieutenant, feel free to replace your headgear."
Tom gladly returned the cap to his head and said, "Thank you, Sir."
Bull sat in his high-backed desk chair, clasped his hands together and placed them behind his head as he leaned back. Looking at the ceiling, Bull formulated his thoughts even as he spoke. "Well, gentlemen, Iím happy to report that we are ready to embark on our mission."
Paul Robb jumped in. "We, Sir? You mean the boys and myself, donít you?"
Bull smiled from his semi-reclined position and answered, "Certainly Major! I mean you and the lieutenants..... and myself!"
The four men looked at each other questioningly, and then back at the security chief. Astro spoke first. "Sir, youíre a line officer! Your experience is too valuable to loose in a dangerous situation."
Ignoring Astroís statement, the dark-skinned major rose from his chair, walked around his desk and bent down in front of Paul Robbís face. "Smile for me, would you, Major?"
Paul, totally perplexed, managed to force an approximation of a smile onto his face. Great gaping holes appeared where several of his teeth should have been.
"Major, you sure donít look like a Solar Guard officer! Your dental hygiene must not have been up to snuff!"
Paul clamped his lips back together and brought his left hand up to rub against his jaw and nasal area. The pressure brought forth a deep pain from the bruised tissues and bone. He looked accusingly at Bull and said, "My dentist lacked certain basic skills, Sir. He used raw force instead of the finesse of a competent oral surgeon!"
Bull reared back and began bellowing with deep-throated laughter that reverberated off of the walls of the office. Tom, Roger and Astro tried to stifle their giggles and Astro began snorting like a pig, which brought a new round of laughter from everyone in the room. When he recovered enough to speak, Bull, half supporting himself on the edge of his desk, remarked, "Well, weíre a pretty motley crew arenít we?"
Tom understood what the security chief meant about the physical attributes of his former classmates and their new friend, Major Robb. He was totally baffled by Bullís reference to himself. "Sir, you are in perfect physical condition. How can you include yourself as being so... different?"
The major leaned farther back on the desk and began pulling up the right leg of his trousers, exposing his bare leg up to the knee. He then reached back on the desk and picked up a crystal model of a Solar Guard destroyer and, without warning, jammed the pointed nose of the model deep into the calf muscles of his leg. He did not make a sound, nor did he show any reaction to what must have been agonizing pain. All four of the visitors gasped in unison as Bull appeared to inflict injury to himself. He watched the reaction on their faces and then removed the crystal model and replaced it on the desk. Not wishing to continue with the mystery, the major pulled the trouser leg back down and tapped his leg. "Did I scare you?"
All four men merely nodded.
"Well, actually, itís just an illusion. You see, gentlemen, I lost my real leg in a bout with a piece of shrapnel many years ago. I just got this new prosthetic leg a few weeks ago. Itís perfectly natural-looking and it operates just like the real one, by neural transfer. These docs are getting pretty good at their craft, arenít they?"
Roger, whose stomach was churning, asked, "Sir! Donít you feel pain?"
Bull walked back around the desk and sat down. "Not if I donít want to, Lieutenant. I can turn off all sensation by pressing a small switch imbedded under the synthetic skin. That way the leg can be turned off!"
Tom grinned and then thought of a serious problem. "Sir, I thought that Solar Guard officers had to be in perfect physical condition in order to remain on active duty!? Shouldnít you have been place in the reserves?"
Bullís, facial expression changed to a scowl and he looked Tom directly in the eyes. "Mister, there are only three other people who are aware of my... condition and theyíre not talking. Are you?"
Roger began chattering almost immediately. "Condition, Sir? I donít know of any condition." In turn, he looked at the other three and asked, "Do you guys know of any condition that the major has?"
Tom shook his head, Astro uttered, "Nope!" and Major Robb said, "Iím not aware that the Major suffers from as much as a hangnail!"
Major Wellington smiled broadly and said, "Good! Now lets get down to business."
"Since we all appear to less than fit as Solar Guard officers, we shouldnít have too much trouble fitting in where we are going. You see, gentlemen, we have all sacrificed for the good of the Solar Alliance and for the Guard. We all know about the physical problems that each other has. My leg, Manningís crushed skull, Astroís arm and the Majorís mouth. Corbett is another matter."
Looking directly at Tom, the major smiled weakly. "Lieutenant, youíre pretty normal physically, but you are going to convince our adversaries that you are a social misfit! You are mean, nasty, uncaring and willing to do anything for a credit."
Tom slinked down in his chair and began wondering if his acting was good enough to hide his true character which was exactly the opposite of his required persona.
The major continued. "We are going to Venusport as a group of derelicts looking for easy credits. We wonít do anything to attract attention, but we will keep our scanners on looking for any opening into this subversive organization."
Major Robb asked. "Major, just what is this organization?"
Bull reached for a remote control on his desk and pressed a button. The crystal matrix in the Titan crystal windows immediately polarized and the room grew dark. A large monitor that was built into one wall glowed with the image of man undergoing an interrogation. Bull reduced the audio volume and began speaking. "The man shown in this vid-spool is a former member of an organization known as Crux Venus. His name is Jiri Korinek and he was a trusted minion of the leader of that group. Three weeks ago he engineered an escape from his leaderís fortress on Venus and he turned himself in to a Solar Guard garrison near Ishtar Terra. Mr. Korinek is truly repentant and he has asked to undergo the psychiatric remodeling treatment in order to rejoin our society as a productive person. He has also been a fountain of information for us. Mr. Korinek knows of almost every aspect of the Crux Venus organization and he has freely given us access to that information."
Bull pressed another button and a computerized portrait of another man appeared. Paul and the lieutenants sat up in their chairs as they studied the odd-looking figure.
"This is a rendition of the leader of Crux Venus. He is known as Tamos Sen, but we have no other identification on record for him. He is presumably human, but he claims to be a descendant of ancient Venus. We really doubt his claim. Mr. Korinek says that this man can convert the Devil and condemn the Angels with his gift of speech. This man, Tamos Sen, is the one responsible for all of the commotion on and around Venus. Iíll fill you all in on the particulars of the organization once we blast off for Venus. Remember this face, gentlemen. Itís our duty to remove him as a threat to the Alliance and to Venus."
Roger remarked dryly, "Who could forget that face?"
Astro added, "You wonít have to worry about me not recognizing that clown! Heís the reason that our universe is upside down and my home is threatened!"
Major Wellington pressed the remote once again and the monitor went blank and the light from the outside entered the office. He then motioned toward the doorway and asked, "Well, gentlemen, a grungy crew like us deserves to go to Venus in an appropriate vessel. Shall we go to our launch pad and inspect our means of conveyance?"
The four men arose and began following Bull out of the office and to the slidestairs. Astro lagged a few paces behind as Bull began chatting to Major Robb. As they began descending to the tarmac level, Astro reached ahead of him and pulled Tom back. He leaned into Tomís ear and whispered, "Iíll bet that this ship is a pile of trash. Iíll probably have to work around the clock to get it spaceworthy!"
Tom grinned and replied, "You canít fool me, you big Venusian ape! The worse the condition, the more determined you are to bring it up to first class condition! Besides, youíll have Roger and me to help you since youíre a little off your game, what with the missing arm."
"Oh yeah! Iíll have you know that I can overhaul any rocket engine, chemical or atomic, with one arm tied behind...... uh, left in the lab!"