Astro was finishing his order of french-fried potatoes while he read a manual that described the electro-mechanical systems of the Andromeda. Roger, laying on his back with his head inside a console, shouted to his friend. "Hey, you big oaf! Is there an addendum to the schematics on the lateral radar array?"
"I think so, jet-wash! Hold your reactant while I find it!"
Astro began shuffling through the mounds of drawings and then he noticed a motion to his left. He looked in that direction and automatically became rigid and shouted, "Attention on deck!"
Roger reacted with a start and banged his head on the frame of a circuit buss connector. "You big Venusian ape... quit clowning around!"
Not hearing any reply to his warning, Roger tucked his chin down and peered down his torso. Just beyond the toes of his boots he could see a pair of gold stripes running up the legs of a pair of black trousers. He immediately scrambled out from under the console and came to attention... face-to-face with Colonel Louis "Blastoff" Conell. The stout officerís craggy features were focused on Rogerís nose, which had a streak of dirty grease smeared across it. "Well, Manning... I see youíre still the consummate trouble-maker!"
"Yes, Sir!.... I mean, No, Sir!... I mean, sorry, Sir."
The former security chief gave a deep grunt and eyed the young man from head to toe. He reached over to a desk and grabbed a clean shop rag, tossed it to Roger, and said, "Wipe your face off, Manning. I canít concentrate when Iím talking to someone who looks like a raccoon!"
Roger quickly cleaned his face and came back to attention.
"At ease, gentlemen. My visit is not official. I just dropped by to see how you were coming along with your familiarization with this new class of ship."
Astro broke into a grin and asked, "Isnít she a beauty, Sir? We've been going through her for twenty hours a day for the last week. I think we know her pretty well, Sir."
"Youíd better know her, Lieutenant! The Guard is entrusting a ship worth a billion credits to you jokers. When this mission is over, there had better not be as much as a smudge on her hull!"
An iris-hatch opened from the deck above the three men and Tomís form began descending through the opening. One he caught sight of "Blastoff Conell", Tom greeted him from his moving perch. "Major!.... I mean Colonel Conell! Welcome aboard the Andromeda!"
"Thank you, Lieutenant! I trust that you have your hands full keeping these two in line!"
The conveyor came to a stop and Tom stepped off and saluted the senior officer. The colonel returned the salute and reached out to shake the hand of the young man. Tom glanced over to his friends and remarked, "Roger and Astro are the best, Sir. They just like to keep the work from becoming boring."
"Humph! They must be showing you a side that Iíve never seen! Anyway, since everything is in an uproar around here, I decided to pay you a visit before we all blast off tomorrow."
All three young men became attentive to that remark. Roger asked, "You mean that we are all raising ship? Why, there are hundreds of ships here!"
The colonel paced around the cabin and eyed each of the men in turn. "Yes, Manning I mean all of the ships! This will be the greatest space-armada ever assembled and this space port will be empty of space craft within three hours of the commencement of the exercise. If our friend on Venus has any spies around here or on Luna, they are going to have a tough time figuring out what ship is going where.
"You mean that not all of the ships are going to Venus?", asked Astro.
"No, not by a long shot.", mused the colonel. "In fact, less than one-third of the ships will head directly for Venus. Only the Andromeda and a few first line cruisers and scouts will be going to Venus. The rest of the contingent will be destroyers and older line vessels. We donít want that creep to know just how much we can throw at him if we have to."
Roger asked, "Sir, then what are the other ships doing while we are on Venus?"
"A few will be rotating short leaves at the Venus Space Station and the rest will be in close proximity waiting for orders. The entire Mars squadron will be hiding on Mercury, at the invitation of the Mercurians."
"What makes them suddenly so friendly?", asked Tom.
Conell ran his hand down his face as if he were wiping away the bad memories of the past. It was obvious that he was having a difficult time forcing out the next statement. "Gentlemen, the Mercurian Council of Elders is as concerned as we are about the state of affairs on Venus. I would guess that since they have not joined with the Solar Alliance, they recognize their vulnerability to force and they wish to look to us for support in case Senís ambitions extend beyond Venus." Conell then laughed and said, "After a couple of weeks playing host to two battalions of Space Marines, they may opt for invasion from Sen!"
"Sir, do you know where the Polaris will be stationed?", asked Astro. The question brought Tom and Roger to attention.
Colonel Conell shook his head and announced, "Sorry, men. There are just too many ships and crews in this operation and I just donít remember where they are all garrisoned." He looked at the dejected faces of the young men and then asked, "Is there a message that you would like me to give to Captain Strong?"
The young men quickly huddled and came to agreement. Tom stated, "Yes, Sir! We would like you to relate to him the following two words.... Spacemanís Luck!"
Lou Conell grinned and started toward the airlock. "Very well, men. Now back to your studies. Major Wellington and Captain Robb will be here in just a few hours for your final briefing." After entering the airlock, he poked his head back out of the hatch and said, "Spacemanís Luck to all of you!"
After the hatch closed, Roger started talking about all kinds of disconnected subjects. Tom noticed how agitated Roger had become and he told him to relax for a minute. The three men sat in silence for a minute and then Tom asked Roger, "Whatís eating at you, buddy?"
Roger began spinning a ring full of small hexagonal wrenches around his index finger and then he slammed them down on the desk. "It just doesnít make any sense to me, Tom! Man, we just made it through the Academy and our first mission is to infiltrate and dismantle a huge terrorist organization! Weíve got hundreds of ships and thousands of men waiting for the five of us to pull off a charade that probably wonít work! And to top it all off, we allow ourselves to be mutilated just to get into the good graces of this madman. Why not just zap the whole of Ishtar Terra and be done with it?"
Tom thought for a moment and said, "Well, I guess that the Guard must believe that Sen could pull off his threat to make Venusí atmosphere revert to itís former state."
Astro added, "Yeah! And since the local government has been so complacent about making replacement cracking machinery available, it could happen!"
Tom continued, "As I see it, weíve got to carry out this mission as the planners wish or there is the possibility of loosing the whole planet for hundreds of years. Apparently the Solar Council has considered all options and weíve been chosen to implement it, probably because Astro is so familiar with the area."
Astroís face suddenly whitened. "What!.... Donít put this on me space-boy! Sure, I know a lot about the populated areas as well as how typical plantations are run... but I canít be expected to know anything about Ishtar Terra! Man, thatís a wasteland! I only met one old prospector who ever ventured into the area and he said that heíd never go back!"
Tom considered Astroís statement and then said, "Okay, maybe Astro isnít the reason that weíve been picked. Iím just guessing and my guess is no better than anyone elseís."
Roger, now somewhat more composed, propped his chin on the knuckles of his balled right fist and half-murmured, "Well, we better get some answers soon or Iíll pop a gasket trying to figure it out."
A hissing sound came from the airlock and the inner door slid open revealing the form of Paul Robb. The major struggled in pulling a large valise behind him and after clearing the hatch, asked Roger for a little assistance. Roger grinned widely and said that he was honored to help "a venerable veteran Guardsman" with his burden. Roger grabbed the strap on the case and started toward the lockers. His forward motion came to an abrupt end after the slack was taken up in the strap. In fact, he almost fell backward as his legs walked out from under his body.
"What in the Europaís Seas are you smuggling aboard? Plutonium?", he asked.
Major Robb grinned and replied, "Just my personal effects... and some trinkets that we might use to trade for information."
Paul and Roger managed to maneuver the case into the bottom of a tool locker. Once it was safely stowed, the reserve officer said. "I hope you guys are ready! Bull Wellington is just a few minutes behind me!"
A look of panic came over the faces of the three young men and they simultaneously began scrambling around the cabin trying to clean away the paper and plastic containers of a weekís worth of food and snacks. Tom and Roger grabbed onto escalator handholds and began elevating themselves upward to the command deck. Satisfied that everything was in order, Astro activated a handhold and descended to the upper level of the main engine room. He knew that everything was in spotless, but his training demanded that he inspect the engines just one more time.
A stepped tone emanated from the console on the command deck. The three-pitched sound indicated that a message was being sent from the blockhouse that was used in servicing the Andromeda. Tom pushed the com-button and asked, "Yes?"
"Sir, this is Chief Rollins. You have brass coming in on your six!"
Tom replied, "Message understood. Thanks Chief. Corbett out and clear."
Tom pressed the intercom button after switching it to announce on all decks. "Attention all decks! Stand by to receive an officer of the line!"
All four men reassembled on the airlock deck just as the hatch slid open. The massive figure of Major Wellington was silhouetted against the bright lights that outlined the outer hatch. As he stepped through the inner hatch, all four men saluted the senior officer. Bull returned the salute and asked, "Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
No one moved or spoke. Tom was waiting for Major Robb to give the security chief permission to enter the ship, but the older man just stood at attention.
Bull Wellington, obviously becoming impatient, looked directly at Tom and growled, "Mister, are you going to give me permission to board?"
Tomís head began spinning and he thought he was going to faint. He managed to clear his throat and replied with a wheeze, "Permission granted, Sir!"
Bull entered the cabin and gave a quick look around. He then spun on his heels and came face to face with Tom. "Lieutenant, you are certainly slow to react to a common Solar Guard courtesy!"
Tom, totally confused, asked, "But sir, why would you be asking me to come aboard?"
Bull, trying to act as menacing as he could, let a slight smile appear on his face. "Lieutenant Corbett, perhaps you are not aware of the fact the Major Robb and myself are merely passengers on this ship! As of this moment, you are the Captain of the Andromeda!"
Tomís head began reeling and his legs felt as if they were made of soft vinyl. He grabbed the back of an acceleration chair and managed to slide into the seat before losing all control. He looked up at the grinning face of Major Wellington and asked, "Me? Iím the Captain of my own ship?"
Bull pulled the duty cap off of his head and folded it. He then slid it between his belt and trousers and then reached into the pocket of his tunic and produced an envelope which he handed to Tom.
"Here you are, son. Your orders and copies of the Andromedaís dockyard, delivery and commission papers. Congratulations on your first command!"
Tom accepted the papers with his mouth wide open. He looked at Roger and Astro, who were beaming with happiness for their friend. Suddenly self-conscious, Tom asked them, "Donít you guys have something else to do?"
Roger and Astro came to attention and replied in unison, "Sir, yes sir!"
Tomís face became even more flushed and his friends broke ranks and began slapping him on the back and congratulating him.
Bull and Paul each grabbed an elevator handle and began rising to the upper deck. Bull called back to the celebration and said, "When you people are ready, we will begin our mission briefing on the control deck."
The statement brought back the reality of the moment and all three young men soberly nodded at the senior officers. After the older men disappeared into the overhead deck, Astro jabbed Tom in the ribs with the stump of his left arm and the sudden exhalation of air signaled another round of celebration to begin.