The speakers surrounding the master clock on the Tower of Galileo were still reverberating from the third tone when Major Wellington pressed the general quarters klaxon switch. Electronic bells and sirens sounded throughout the Andromeda and her highly-trained crew responded immediately by jumping from their cots and scrambling to their duty stations. Roger, by far the nimblest, pressed the manual override switch on the iris-hatch and climbed up the escalator frame without waiting for the hand and footholds to project from the tubing. When he arrived on the command deck, he found Bull waiting with a chronograph in hand as he timed the arrival of each officer. In just a few seconds, all five men were assembled in front of their assigned consoles, with the Paul Robb and the three lieutenants awaiting orders.
Bull disabled the alarm and called out, "Stand down, gentlemen!" The breathless crewmen looked at the major questioningly, but Bull just stared at the watch for a few seconds. He then closed the cover of the timepiece and tucked the watch in his trouser pocket. "By my Great Granddaddyís mechanical watch you men assumed station in twenty-seven seconds.... not bad for a ship of this size!"
Paul rose from his acceleration chair and strode directly in front of Bull. He glanced over to a shipís chronometer and noted the readout. "Confound it, Major! itís Oh-three-hundred! Havenít you got anything else to do except get my adrenaline pumping and my heart racing?"
Bull walked over to a view port and pointed outward. "Look there, Major. Those men have been working all night to get this fleet ready for blast-off! The least we can do is be ready when their work is done. All of you, follow me."
Bull walked over to the elevator and descended to the airlock deck with his fellow officers directly behind him. He activated the airlock and they all stepped into the gantry cage and began dropping toward the tarmac. A cool breeze penetrated the lightweight jumpsuits that the crew had been wearing during sleep period and Tom noticed that he wasnít the only man in the elevator who was shivering from the exposure to the mountain air. The cage door opened to reveal a jet-truck that had been waiting for them. Bull motioned to the rear of the truck and the crew walked around and stepped up to the truckís tailgate, which was in the lowered position. Tom and Roger clasped their hands together and formed a step to help lift Astro up, since it would have been somewhat awkward for him to board the truck without the use of both arms. Astro received the boost and stepped onto the gate as two pairs of arms reached out of the dark cargo area and helped to steady him. When the Andromeda contingent was aboard everyone sat down and the truck sped off toward another ship.
Astro looked across the dimly-lit hold and saw three strange faces grinning back at him.
"Thanks for the help fellas.", stated the big Venusian.
"Glad to be of help big fellow!", responded a sandy-haired man who was probably in his early thirties. "Iím Captain Ian Penwell of the scout ship Mirach and these are my crew, Lieutenant Hanson and Cadet Chappie." Handshakes were exchanged all around and the Andromedaís crew introduced themselves. Naturally, Mirachís crew recognized Major Wellington immediately and Cadet Chappie was obviously intimidated by his presence.
Paul Robb leaned back on the bench and eyed Captain Penwell carefully. He then asked, "Donít I know you, Captain?"
Captain Penwell grinned and said, "You sure do, Major. We both were temporarily assigned to a troop carrier when I was a cadet and you were a lieutenant."
"Sure, I remember now! We were ferrying Guardsmen to Titan on crew rotation! It looks like youíve done well, Captain. If I remember correctly, youíre from England, right?"
"Close, Major, Iím originally from Wales." The young captain caught a good look at Paulís face as they passed a bright work light. He then noticed that Astroís left sleeve had been folded back at the end of his stump and tacked to the back of the shoulder. "Say, Major... I donít mean to be disrespectful, but how are you and the Lieutenant on active duty?"
Before Paul could respond, Major Wellington loudly cleared his throat. As the eyes of everyone on the truck looked at him, they could see the security chiefís upraised index finger placed in front of his lips. Everyone understood that they had come precariously close to a breach of trust. Nothing more was spoken until the truck stopped at another ship to pick up itís crew.
The truck finally arrived at the academyís mess hall and the men piled out of the van and walked in groups into the cafeteria. Bull held his arms out to gather his men together. "Eat well, men! Itís hard to tell when youíll have another good meal. Iíll meet you back at the Andromeda at Oh-seven hundred." The major turned away from them and walked to a slidewalk that would take him to the Tower of Galileo.
Roger grimaced and shook his head while watching the major walk away. "That man sure does diddy-bop around! I donít think he stays in one place for more than ten minutes!"
Astro tugged at Rogerís arm and said, "Well, if you had all of his responsibilities, youíd probably be on the move too. Now letís go for some chow!"
The four men entered the cafeteria only to find that room was at a premium. Well over two-thousand men were present with each crew keeping to themselves. Other than nods between friends, there was no communication for fear that vital information might be inadvertently revealed.
When a table finally became available, Major Robb and the lieutenants took their trays to the table and ate in silence except for the occasional quip directed at Astro and his infamous appetite.
After having their breakfast, the four men exited the mess hall and hailed the driver of a jet-truck that was unloading more crews. Tom ran up to the cab and asked the driver if he was returning to the north end of the tarmac.
The driver shook his head and said, "Sorry Lieutenant. Iím going west. Hold on, Iíll get you a ride." He then spoke into the microphone that was attached to his headset and upon receiving an answer, said, "The second truck behind me is your ride, Sir!"
Tom thanked the corporal and waved the rest of his crew in the direction further down the line of trucks. When they found their ride, they began boarding as fast as they could. As Tom stepped onto the tailgate, he noticed that the sky was beginning to brighten in the east. His eye then caught a very bright point of light that was framed between the huge dish antennae of the Academyís radio-telescope array. It was their ultimate destination... Venus! Chill-bumps appeared on his neck and arms and Tom was aware that they were not caused by the cool air.
As the jet-truck sped toward the northern launch pads, it was apparent to the crew of the Andromeda that the level of activity on the base was increasing. Above the whine of the jet turbines that propelled the truck, the men could hear auxiliary motors and the shouts of men who needed to be heard above the din. Suddenly, sirens could be heard coming from all corners of the complex and the driver swerved toward the nearest blockhouse and slammed on the brakes. Unaware of the impending actions, the four men were thrown hard against the cab of the truck. Paul began shouting the well-polished epithets of a veteran Guardsman at the driver as he and the younger men attempted to untangle themselves.
The driver then appeared at the tailgate and before Paul could verbally assault him, he pounded on the gate and shouted, "Incoming! Everyone into the bunker!"
The four men reacted immediately and jumped from the truck and ran toward the blockhouse. One of the sirens was mounted to a mast above the concrete building and as they approached, the sound became almost unbearable. As the five men approached, they could see at least a dozen red-suited technicians and service personnel enter the building. Paul stood at the doorway until he was certain that everyone was in the shelter. He then pulled the heavy blast-door closed and spun the sealing mechanism until the hatch was dogged solidly closed. One of the technicians closed of the external vents and started the recirculating air-conditioning unit.
The major, peering from one of the Titan crystal windows, called the truck driver over and asked him, "Corporal, what in Hades is going on!"
The man, still panting from the exertion, said, "Sir, Spaceport control commanded Condition Red because an unknown object is in a descending orbit and the trajectory will bring it right on top of us!"
Major Robb muttered under his breath, "Sen! That son-of-a mutant knows whatís going on!" He then craned his neck against the crystal port as he looked up at the ship that was serviced at this pad. Looking over the assembled crew, he spotted the most senior member and asked, "Lance-Corporal! Can this building withstand a blast if that ship explodes?"
The non-com, still busy sealing off various systems, replied, "Sir, there wonít be much of an explosion since the mass is mostly reactant, but there would probably be radiation leakage if the baffles expose the core. Weíd still be okay unless the building is physically damaged."
The man finished his emergency procedures and switched off the bright lights and turned on dim red lamps that would not interfere with low-light vision. The communications system was monitoring the emergency command channel and a secondary radio spilled out the chatter of various stations reporting in as their status changed. The non-com then turned to the major and pointed to the floor. "Sir, if we have to, we can evacuate through the service tunnels, but we have to make sure that they are clear before opening the hatch."
Paul was relieved that there was an additional escape route. He didnít relish the idea of having to wait for rescue while a crew cleared away radioactive debris and then cleaned the area of contamination.
The command channel announced, "All units! Bogie is out of range of low-orbit intercept. Base defense is activated!"
As the wail of the sirens died into an eerie silence, the interior of the blockhouse was illuminated by a series of blue-white flashes that streaked from the perimeter of the spaceport. The sides of the surrounding mountains began spewing forth pinpoints of light, almost like those of a welderís arc, which screamed into the air with such velocity that each of them created a sonic-blast within a hundred feet after leaving itís launch-rail.
Astro squinted as the battery of defense rockets arched into the deep-blue sky. "Nike-Reagan intercept missiles!", he exclaimed. "Wow! I didnít even know they had been deployed!"
Paul turned away from the window and leaned against the wall and uttered, "Letís hope that Sen didnít know it either!" He then added, "Letís also hope that they work!"
Less than a minute had passed, but to those in the target area, time has slowed to a halt. Roger ran from window to window in an effort to see the interception. A technician suddenly shouted, "Over here!"
Everyone in the building tried to get a view at the northwest horizon as a series of white and orange flashes signaled that the missiles had detonated near the incoming projectile. When the fourth missile exploded, a streak of green and white vapor could be seen continuing in itís arc toward the Academy. In an split-second an immense, bright, white light illuminated the entire landscape. As the fireball dimmed, a ring of ionized particles seemed to slowly roll away from the point of ignition. The aftermath of the explosion looked like a gigantic doughnut that was floating in Earthís upper atmosphere.
As everyone watched the spectacle with awe, the sirens gave three short blasts and the command radio announced that the area was clear of unauthorized traffic. Paul opened the blast door and everyone slowly filed out of the blockhouse.
Still gazing at the sky, Tom asked Paul if it was a thermonuclear device. "Nope! If it had been a hydrogen bomb, the sky would still be burning!"
The ring of superheated gases had turned pink in the approaching sunrise and the shape was being distorted by high-level winds. Astro could not take his eyes off of it and Paul decided that he would have to prod him back to the job at hand. Astro reluctantly walked back to the truck and then turned to the veteran officer. "Major, Itís a good thing that Sen doesnít have thermonuclear bombs, isnít it?"
Paul grinned at the young man and squeezed his shoulder. "Astro, my friend, if you are playing horseshoes, it doesnít make a whole lot of difference if your shoes are seven inches wide or ten inches wide, if you can throw ringers!"
Astro nodded and raised his eyebrows as if he understood. After the men re-mounted the van and resumed their journey to launch pad one-hundred and twelve, Astro leaned over and whispered into Tomís ear. "Hey, Tom! What are horseshoes?"