Major Buford Wellington, with his four new crewmen, walked toward the western exit of the Tower of Galileo. As the automatic doors slid open, they were greeted with a cool blast of air that had recently been occupying the tops of the western range of mountains.
Space Academy is located in a naturally-shielded valley in the middle of the Rocky Mountains of North America. One-hundred years ago this land had been pasture for farmers and ranchers who grazed domestic sheep and cattle in the bowl of the valley and the lower slopes of the mountains. Shortly after the formation of the Solar Alliance, it was decided to build Space Academy as a means of training future generations of Solar Guard officers and a careful study of all of Earthís topography and climate was made to determine the ideal site for the academy. This area, located southwest of Denver, Colorado, on the North American continent, proved to be as near perfect as could be found. Because of the shielding of the mountain peaks on all sides, temperatures rarely became extreme and excessive rain and snow were almost unknown. Within three years the valley had been leveled completely, most of the basic structures had been built and the pasture had been tunneled under with a vast network of service and drainage tunnels, atomic and chemical fuel depots and hundreds of miles of piping supplying air, fresh water, electricity and the chemicals needed for servicing the mighty force of spacecraft that would be stationed at the academy. Electricity was generated by free-flowing steams that cascaded from the nearby mountains. These same streams provided both the academy and nearby Atom City with a continuous and nearly-pure supply of fresh water. Atomic-powered generators provided auxiliary and back-up power, should it ever be required. The engineers made certain that all the infrastructure was immune to the unlikely shock of a major earthquake.
On the surface of the valley, a monorail and a jet-car highway system connected Atom City, Denver and Pueblo directly to the Academy and all three cities were frequently visited by the cadets, faculty and support personnel of the academy. The mountains surrounding the academy provided yet another service to the citizens of the area. They helped to contain the noise generated by the constant aircraft and spaceship traffic in and around the training center. This place, formerly known as the Valley of the Sun, seemed to have been designed by God as the location for Space Academy.
The Academy consisted of over forty buildings used as classrooms, dormitories, laboratories, and research centers for engineering, drafting, medical, radio-astronomy, animal husbandry, botany, zoology, xeno-sciences, electronics, chemistry, physics and law studies. The hub of Space Academy consisted of a three-sectioned building dominated by the Tower of Galileo, which was flanked by the administration offices of the Solar Guard. The south wing of the administration building was unique in itís own right because it was capped by a gleaming white dome which housed the Robert Burnham Memorial Telescope, named for a 20th century amateur astronomer who, more than any other person, was responsible for popularizing observational astronomy. Although the 300 inch telescope was no longer the largest aperture on Earth, it was still one of the best and the astronomers and researchers who used it were grateful for every second of time allotted to them for itís use.
On the north end of the administration building was an outdoor sports arena which always seemed to have cadets engaged in intramural contests. By far, mercuryball was the favorite game to be played on the grounds and there were many wagers of ice cream sodas and Marswater won and lost on the teams that were playing in grudge matches. The eastern side of the building was perhaps the most relaxing area of the Academy. This was the Quad, a large grassy area that was bordered by concrete sidewalks that connected to other buildings by slidewalks. Cadets and faculty often sat on the grass and chatted, studied or just soaked up the sunlight. At the beginning of the fall term, long lines of green-clad cadet candidates would march around the Quad while red-uniformed petty officers would scream threats or demoralizing epithets into their ears. The off-duty upper-classmen considered this ritual as high-class entertainment!
The west side of the building was the window to the universe. An expanse of concrete tarmac extended for twelve miles to the west and six miles each to the north and south. Onto this man-made desert were built hundreds of rocket launch pads and an airstrip for fixed-wing aircraft. Near each launch pad was a single-story bunker for service personnel and a retractable gantry which could be configured for many space ship types. In the very center of the tarmac was a lone building that contained banks of radar and scanner monitors as well as electronic maps of the entire complex. From here, all space and air traffic to the Academy and ground traffic was monitored and controlled. A round-shaped tower rose seven-hundred feet above the center of the building. From this tower, officers and enlisted traffic controllers kept a visual account of the traffic. This remnant of the past methods accented the Solar Guardís belief that if all else fails, believe your eyes.
Major Wellington raised his hand toward a jet-car that was painted in the dark blue of Solar Guard staff vehicles. The driver pulled up to the towerís apron and the officers climbed into the car. "Launch pad one-hundred and twelve, Corporal.", was the instruction that Bull gave to the driver.
As the car sped northward toward the assigned launch pad, Tom, Astro and Roger constantly craned their necks as they passed the rows of space ships that were stationed in the assembled armada. Each of the young men were engaged in pointing out the activities at each launch station, but what they were really doing was unspoken. They were each trying to catch a glimpse of the Polaris. It was an impossible task because there were so many Solar Guard cruisers in the port that the chance of spying a specific ship was remote, indeed.
The car made a sharp left turn at the most northern end of the tarmac and it continued in a westerly direction. A moment later, ground control called the jet-car and ordered the driver to halt the vehicle until an arriving space ship had landed. Major Wellington turned around in his seat and, looking into the back seat, stated, "Itís almost as impressive from here as it is from my office window. Isnít it?"
Roger answered, "Yes, Sir." The others nodded. By the time that the arriving ship had landed and the ground stopped vibrating, Astro had become bored and he closed his eyes and leaned back in the seat to rest. Within a few minutes, the car had arrived at launch pad one-hundred and twelve. Astro was dozing so deeply that he was not aware that the vehicle had stopped.
"Astro..... Astro!", Tom shouted as he shook the shoulder of his friend.
"What?", said Astro as he slowly opened his eyes.
Tom was grinning widely as he looked down into the open bubble of the passenger seat. He and Astro grasped each otherís right forearms as Tom helped his buddy up and out of the jet-car. Astroís brow furrowed as he looked at his friend. He said, "You certainly seem happy about something, space-boy."
Tom grabbed Astro by the shoulders and spun him around as he said, "Thereís your pile of junk!"
Astro focused his eyes on the tailfins of a type of ship which he had never seen before. The ship was of the familiar double-tapered fuselage shape, very similar to that of the Polaris, but it was much larger. In fact it was half-again as big as the Polaris. Astroís mouth was agape as he studied the huge, polished alloy features of the ship. He ran over to the boarding ladder that extended from the lower fuselage. As he stood at the base of the ladder, he looked back at his friends and exclaimed, "Sheís new! Sheís brand-new!"
Bull Wellington strode up to Astro and, placing his hands on his hips, grinned at the young man. "Well, Lieutenant. What do you think of this hunk of space-debris?"
Astro couldnít speak. He reached up and stroked the smooth metal of a tail fin as if he were petting a kitten. His grin said it all anyway.
Wellington backed away from the group and addressed them all. "Gentlemen, may I have your attention?"
The four men turned to the major, expecting a long lecture to begin.
"First of all, I want to tell you about your new ship. Her name is Andromeda and she is a new class of ship known as a heavy battlecruiser. She is armed to the teeth and those teeth are sharp! She has an internally built in hyper-drive and the main rocket tubes are augmented by three additional rocket motors located on the ends of the tail fins. Look her over quickly, gentlemen, you wonít have much time for gawking. Now follow me."
The five men walked into the low-roofed blockhouse that was the maintenance center for the launch pad. After saluting several scurrying enlisted men, Bull motioned to a huge stack of manuals. "There are your references to this ship, gentlemen. You have a week to become familiar with her and not one day longer. I suggest that you gather them up and take them on board. You are going to live in that ship for the next week. Iíll be back then with our orders and the details of our mission. That is all!"
Major Wellington quickly exited the building and sped off in the waiting jet-car. Paul Robb grabbed a stack of manuals and tucked them under his arm. "You heard the Major, fellas! He then began muttering under his breath. Tom couldnít quite make out what he was saying, but it didnít sound very complimentary of the security chief. Each of the men grabbed a stack of manuals and they began walking to the boarding ladder of the great ship.
Upon reaching the base of the launch pad, one of the red-suited service personnel, suggested that it would be easier to take their heavy burdens aboard by entering the crew cabin section directly. He then spoke into his communicator and a steel plate near the base of the launch pad retracted and a red and yellow-painted gantry rose from the ground. As soon as it was placed next to the ship, an elevator door opened and the four men walked into the carriage.
As the elevatorís cage began gaining altitude, Astro, balancing a small stack of manuals on the stump of his left arm, remarked, "Man! Iím glad we didnít have to carry all of this up through all of those decks!"
The lift finally came to a stop near the nose of the ship and Tom worked the controls that extended a platform to within an inch of the gleaming hull of the Andromeda. Standing at the end of the platform, Tom then pressed against a hinged flap that was indicated with a yellow arrow that contained the wording "Hatch Actuator". The flap opened to reveal a pair of buttons and Tom pressed the green button. A slight sucking sound could be heard as the pneumatic seals were released around the door and the hatch pulled inward a few inches and then slid open. All four men entered the hatch, which was the outer seal of an airlock and Tom repeated the procedure on the inner door. As the cycle began to repeat, the outer door closed and sealed first and then a green lamp above the inner hatch became illuminated and the inner door slid open with little noise. Astro hesitantly stuck his head through the opening, seemingly fearful of what he might find. After looking around for a couple of seconds, be broke into a wide grin and exclaimed, "By the rings of Saturn! Check this out fellas!"
The four men slowly entered the cabin and began looking around. The deck that they had entered was used for extra-vehicular activity and it contained no less than ten lockers loaded with space-suits as well as large quantities of supplies and tools designed to be used from the inside of the bulky space-wear. After looking around for a few minutes, Roger asked, "Okay, guys! Just how do we get to the other decks? I donít see any ladders!"
Tom looked around and discovered a switch labeled "Deck Escalator", which he pressed. An eight-inch diameter conduit suddenly became alive as a series of steps and hand-holds protruded from it. Tom stepped on one of the rungs and looked around the hand-hold until he found a pair of switches imbedded in it. He pressed the switch marked "Down" and an iris-like hatch in the floor spun open and the transporter began moving downward. He released the pressure on the switch and then pressed the "Up" button and Tom began rising toward the ceiling of the cabin. As he approached to within two feet of the upper deck, another iris-hatch swirled over his head and he continued upward into the next cabin. He then leaned over the opening and shouted down to his friends. "Come on up, fellas! Thereís a lot more to see!"
For the next hour, the four spacemen explored several decks and they were totally impressed with the layout of the ship. The roomy bridge would allow up to five people to comfortably occupy itís cabin and all engineering, radar and command-control operations could be performed from the one level. Astro was particularly happy that he wouldnít be so isolated from the rest of the crew except when accomplishing actual maintenance and repair work. Once the crew quarters had been located, they brought the stacks of manuals into the cabin and began the drudgery of studying them. They divided the manuals up into appropriate categories according to each ship function. Astro had the largest stack of books assigned to him and he became frustrated because there was so much to learn. Tom and Roger assured him that they would take care of the more mundane aspects and they agreed to share their knowledge of the ship as required. Even with the mutual assistance, each of them knew that it was going to be a long week.