The five officers were gathered around a large chart table on the command deck. The table was illuminated from underneath and the surface was covered with a transparent sheet that had geographic location grids plotted on top of a topographic map of the Ishtar Terra region of Venus. Rogerís finger traced a series of ridges running from east to west for over three-hundred miles.
Roger look up from the chart and questioned the senior major. "Whoowee! Sir, are you certain that this Tamos Sen has his fortress in this mess?"
Bullís brown eyes stared at the features of the map and he answered without looking away. "Yes, Lieutenant, heís there and heís got a well-armed force to keep him there. Look at this." Bull reached into a pouch and pulled another map overlay and aligned it to the marks of the original terrain. The new schematic showed an amazing array of caverns and tunnels that radiated from the center of the chart.
The blonde involuntarily let out a shrill whistle as his eyes widened at the sight of the complex. "Man! Er, Sir! Are you certain that this information is accurate?"
"Oh, itís accurate all right, Lieutenant. Our friend who recently defected from this organization brought out original data spools." He pointed out several dozen red-colored dots on the surface. "These are emergency exits and they are protected by double blast doors that can only be activated from the inside. The perimeter of each exit is mined and there are motion sensors, cameras and thermal sensors at each one." He then pointed to a similar number of blue dots. "These are active ventilation shafts. The arrows point in the direction of ventilation flow. Some are intakes and some are exhausts. Each of these shafts can be closed down and the internal atmosphere can be cleansed and recirculated as needed."
Astro pointed to a row of ten green dots. "What are these, Major?"
"Those are of special interest to the Solar Guard, Lieutenant. Those are the exit ports for rocket launch tubes!"
"You mean that this guy has spaceships?"
Wellington looked directly at Astro and set his jaw tightly. He then squinted and said, "I mean, Lieutenant, that this guy has warships!"
The words pierced the air and heightened the attention of each of the young officers. Tom thought about the statement for a moment and then said, "Major, not even the Solar Guard has true warships. Our ships are armed but not armored and even that armament is pretty light. How did he get these ships?"
Bull chuckled lightly and straightened up. "Well, Corbett, the only space warships that I am aware of are a few examples in the Space Museum at the Academy. Our new friend has confirmed that Sen had these ships built on site." The major walked over to a console and lifted a red cover off of a switch. He pressed the button that was located under the cover and a quavering siren-like sound came from a speaker on the console. Looking back at Tom, he asked, "What did I just do, Lieutenant?"
Tom, somewhat nervously answered, "Sir, you just armed six six-inch atomic cannons.... Two in the nose and two each in the dorsal and ventral turrets."
"Do you think that this ship is well-armed?"
"Yes, Sir! In fact, we have three-times the armament as the Polaris, Sir!"
Bull walked back to the chart table and placed another drawing on the surface. "This, gentlemen, is a rough drawing of Senís ships. Remember that he was not restricted by treaty or conscience. These ships are designed to accomplish warfare and they can do it well. These ships are small, fast and maneuverable. They have a targeting system that can track up to thirty targets and select appropriate weapons systems to deal with each target. The ships is manned by a pilot and four gunners. Each gunner has at his disposal a quad six-inch atomic cannon turret, a twin five-hundred gigawatt laser turret and each gunner can select missiles from a missile launcher located in the belly of the craft. There are also a large number of space-mines that can be dispensed during a pursuit of the craft and those mines are effective!"
The round interior of the Andromeda amplified the Venusian shriek. "Whooo-eee!" screamed Astro. "Those itty-bitty ships can take on a Solar Guard fleet? I donít believe it!"
The major growled back, "Believe it, Mister! We ran a series of computerized wargames with some of our best pilots. In each case we were outclassed and out fought with a great loss of men and ships."
Astro looked at Major Robb, who nodded in confirmation of the statement. "By the Craters of Luna, no wonder we are sending an armada to Venus!" The big Venusian slumped into a chair and stared at the map. "Sir, Venus will be soaked in blood if these ships launch!"
Bull stood behind Astro and placed his massive hands on the young manís shoulders. "Son, weíre hoping to avoid that. And, thatís where our mission comes in to play."
Bull rolled up the drawing and stuffed it back into a tube. Going back to the map, he said, "I want everyone to study this complex carefully. I want you to know it like you knew your dormitory at the academy. Intimate knowledge of the target site will be vital to the success of the mission and to our own safety."
Roger asked, "How do we get there?"
Bull replied, "When we raise ship during the scramble tomorrow, we make for Luna and do a sweeping turn at mid-point where we will meet up with a large troopship and a commandeered luxury-liner which paint the same sized blip on the radar as the Andromeda. We will maneuver close to these two ships and we and the troopship will resume the original course and the liner will continue on our course toward Luna."
"Where do we go from there, Sir?", asked Tom.
"We and the troopship will make way to Venus Space Station and dock there. The five of us will debark and continue to Venusport on a shuttle. The Andromeda will stay at the Space Station until we return."
Roger wrinkled his brow, not understanding this part of the plan. "Sir, weíve got a beautiful ship here! Why would we want to leave it in orbit?"
Bull smiled weakly and said, "Yes, Lieutenant, she sure is a beautiful ship. Do you think Senís spies would believe that five space-bums just happened to arrive on one of the Guardís newest ships?" Bull reached into his tunic pocket and produced five tickets for the Venus-Space Station shuttle and began handing them out to the other men. "Be glad that itís a short flight, gentlemen..... weíre making the hop in coach class!"
Astroís face beamed as he announced, "I love going coach, Sir! I like collecting those little bottles of Mars Water that the stewardesses hand out!"
The comment caught the security chief off-guard and after performing an involuntary double-take at Astro, he began bellowing with laughter. Paul Robb tried to refrain from laughing but soon joined in and Tom and Roger also began chuckling.
A very perplexed Astro looked at the other men and asked, "What?... What did I say?"
Bull, now recomposed, slapped Astro on the back and said, "Lieutenant, for the life of me, I sometimes wonder how you and your comrades made it through Space Academy! There are times when you men perform like twenty-year veterans of the high, wide and deep.... and other times you are as naive as ten-year old children!"
Bull walked toward a locker and then spun around, facing the group of men. "You know something?.... I think Iím going to like working with you!"
The major reached into the locker and pulled out a flight-bag and brought it over to the chart table. He then unzipped the bag and looked at each of the men in turn. All of the officers had a look of anticipation as the big man reached into the bag. Bull started pulling all kinds of sundries from the kit and set them aside as he looked for his quarry. The searching suddenly stopped and a look of satisfaction came over his face. His hand withdrew a large, blue, silk pouch which was cinched at the top with a braided cord of gold-colored micro-fiber. He slowly worked the cord open and pulled the sides of the pouch down revealing at least twenty of the miniature bottles of Mars Water. Bull grabbed one of the bottles and unscrewed the top allowing the effervescence to push a head of foam out of the bottle. Exhibiting a huge grin on his face, Bull pointed to the remaining bottles and said, "Dig in gentlemen! What better way to toast to the success of our mission than with the sweet aroma from the extract of the Martian canali-bean?"
The other officers grabbed their bottles in stunned silence. Bull held his bottle high and began the toast. "To the Solar Guard!"
"To the Solar Guard", repeated the officers.
Bull put the bottle to his mouth and took a small sip. The other men did likewise. Raising the bottle again, Bull shouted, "To the success of our mission!"
Again the men repeated the toast and sipped from the bottles.
Bull raised the bottle a bit higher as he made the last toast. "And to Hell with Tamos Sen!"
"To Hell with Tamos Sen!", chorused the men.
Bull swigged down the remaining beverage and swung the empty bottle in a wide arc, sending it crashing into the center of the locker door where it shattered into hundreds of pieces. Enjoying the freedom of the moment, Paul, Tom Astro and Roger followed suit by flinging their bottles onto the hard metal.
Bull then said, "Okay, men! Lets go through the plan step by step!" As they cleaned off the chart table, the dark-skinned major leaned over to Roger and said, "By the way, Manning, at the first opportunity, you might want to clean up that mess and get us ship-shape again."
Roger resigned himself to the fact that he had just been had.