The five men ran and reran each facet of the mission during the transit to Venus. Bull Wellington drilled each man on the layout of Senís base, individual leaders of the various sections and the actual makeup and organization of Crux Venus. Everyone listened and asked questions if he wasnít absolutely certain of a detail. By the time Andromeda was close to orbit insertion, each of the men could visualize the layout of the base without need for maps. Roger was the only man in the group who was not totally convinced of the accuracy of the information, but, that was his nature.
"Andromeda, this is Venus Space Station control. You are cleared to dock in bay One-five. Please acknowledge."
Tom adjusted the microphone on his headset and replied, "Venus Space Station control, this is Solar Guard cruiser Andromeda. Docking at bay One-five in seven minutes. Please confirm negative traffic in pattern."
A second later, the station control affirmed that Andromeda was the only ship involved in docking with the station. Roger added his okay after sweeping his scanners around the stationís perimeter.
Tom leaned back in the acceleration chair and raised a small platform that had been folded down into the side of the chair. The platform supported a number of buttons and a joystick throttle control that would be used for the final maneuver into space dock.
Tom looked to his right and said, "Okay, Astro, this is going to be tricky on a ship of this size! You have the rear maneuvering thrusters... Iíll work the front and verticals. Remember, youíre going to be keeping the tail perpendicular to the docking port!"
"Yes, Captain!", was the short reply.
Because the space station was shaped like a giant wheel and it spun around the hub in order to provide a centrifugal gravity to the outer rim, docking was particularly difficult. In order for a ship to insert itís nose into one of the many vacuum-sealed airlocks, the ship had to align itís nose with the airlock and use maneuvering jets to stay in front of that port while the station spun away. The rear maneuvering thrusters actually worked harder because the length of the docking ship created a wider arc of travel at the stern. As the pilot kept front and rear of the ship aligned, small bursts of the main engines would push the huge ship closer to the station. Space station docking was the supreme test of a flight crewís ability to act as a team.
Docking port Fifteen was surrounded by tiny flashing strobe lights which beckoned to the great ship. As Andromeda assumed the turning rate of the great wheel, it also created a gravity that pulled the shipís crew against their chairs, Astro deftly adjusted the shipís artificial gravity to compensate for the spin. As the cruiser came close to the port, internal details of the opening became apparent. The constantly changing angle of the light from the bright sun threw a kaleidoscopic display of dark shadows and mottled reflections through the windscreen of Andromeda until the nose of the ship had been engulfed by the space station. As soon as the ship was situated properly in the port, space-suited personnel descended onto the surface of the ship and attached mooring lines which held the ship firmly in place. Tomís earpiece received information from space station control that confirmed tie-down and he and Astro ceased their maneuvering. Within a minute, the inflated vinyl seal had snuggled around the ship, producing an airtight barrier to empty space.
As Astro turned off all propulsion systems, Tom announced that the cabin would again rotate, allowing the ship to return to the normal vertical deck configuration. As the deck rotated, the men could again feel gravity providing a solid footing. After performing the final checklist, the crew unstrapped themselves from the acceleration chairs and stretched their weary muscles. Major Wellington asked Tom to request an electric cart for the luggage and the five men then descended to the airlock deck.
Tom had just pulled his duty cap over his strange hair style when an intercom speaker over the airlock hatch announced that the docking crew was awaiting egress of Andromedaís personnel. Tom pressed a button at the side of the hatch and the airlock cycled until the inner hatch opened. A lance-corporal and several spacemen first-class entered the cabin and saluted the officers. Bull indicated the luggage and the airlock crew began toting the cases to the cart, which was located just outside the ship.
"Sirs, please follow me to Customs Inspection.", bade the young man.
Upon exiting the ship, the Andromeda crew followed their guide though several twisting corridors and then began walking toward a gently upward-curving pathway that would lead to the customs department. To the uninitiated, the act of seemingly walking uphill without effort would be disconcerting, but the seasoned spacemen knew that regardless of their position around the rim of the space station, they would always be on a level footing. As cadets, Tom, Roger and Astro used to toss a plastic ball down the middle of the walkway and thrill as they saw it seem to roll uphill and not return to them. Today, however, there was not the time for games, nor the room. It seemed as if every square foot of the station was filled with Solar Guardsmen and Cadets, each one on his own personal mission as the Solar Guard prepared to rid Venus of itís infection.
A weary-looking captain stood behind the customs desk and upon noticing the shadows in front of him, held out his hand and began his rote speech. "Passports and travel orders please. Are you carrying any flora or fauna not indigenous to Venus? What is the nature of your...."
Before he finished his sentence, he looked up and directly into the scowling face of Bull Wellington.
"Major Wellington, Sir! I-Iím sorry for the inconvenience.", stammered the young officer. "Please, just your passports. There wonít be any need for inspection."
"Thank you, Captain.", uttered the major. "Now, can you please direct us to our quarters until the shuttle makes for Venus.?"
The officer nervously made inquiries on his computer and then replied. "Sir, you and Major Robb will be lodged in Section F, Deck Two, Cabin Sixteen and the lieutenants will be next door in cabin Eighteen. I'm sorry for the cramped conditions, but the station is filled to capacity. Also, your shuttle will be the Venusian Aurora, due to depart at Thirteen-thirty tomorrow."
"Thank you, Captain. We wonít need an escort. We are quite familiar with the station.", growled the senior officer.
The captain handed the passports back across the counter and saluted as the crew began their trek to the transient quarters section of the station. Roger became the operator of the luggage cart and Bull told him to lead the group so that they could keep a watchful eye on the contents of the carrier. Astro lagged behind the group and whispered into Tomís ear, "I thought you were the commander of this mission?"
Tom dropped back and returned a whispered answer, "Only on board the ship, Astro. Major Wellington is the commander of the mission."
Astro raised his eyebrows in revelation as he realized that his assumption was in error. He was also glad that he had not made his belief in Tomís command position known to the senior officers. That could have caused more than a little embarrassment.
As the crew arrived at their assigned quarters, Bull checked each room for security before he let the others enter. Satisfied, he instructed the lieutenants to remain in the room until further notice.
After a few hours, Roger announced that he was going to the shower. Tom and Astro decided to go over the details of the mission but their concentration was hampered by Rogerís loud and off-key renditions of several popular songs. On one particular passage, the emanations from the bathroom caused Tom and Astro to grimace as the discordant noise assaulted their ears.
The hatch buzzer announced that someone wished to enter and Tom turned on the video security system, which presented the images of Majors Wellington and Robb. He opened the door and asked the senior officers to enter. The majors slid several heavy-duty bags through the door as they entered.
"By the Rings of Saturn, Lieutenant!", exclaimed Major Robb, "Is Manning the source of that caterwauling?"
Yes, Sir. Iím afraid that he is."
Astro added, "Sir, weíve never had the heart to tell him that his singing is less than..."
"Melodious?", injected Paul.
"Roaring rockets, man! Major Wellington and I thought the station was suffering structural failure! As much as I hate to interrupt his aria, ask him to come out... now!"
Astro maneuvered around all of the luggage and humanity that occupied the small room and disappeared into the bathroom, at which time the vocalizations ceased. I a few moments Astro returned and Roger then appeared with a towel wrapped around his waist.
Bull stared at the young man and then said, "Donít bother putting your jumpsuit back on, Manning. In fact, I want you all to make sure that you donít have any article of clothing, jewelry or paperwork that would identify you as a Solar Guardsman." He then picked up one of the duffels and tossed it to Roger. "Here are your new clothes!"
Roger opened the bag and withdrew some obviously well-worn articles and stuffed them back into the sack. He then went into the bathroom and changed into his new wardrobe.
Bull shoved another bag toward Astro and said, "When Manning returns, go ahead and take your shower and change into these."
Tom reached out to the remaining duffel and opened it up to inspect the clothing. "This costume seems to be in pretty ratty condition, Major.", stated Tom.
The dark-complected man grinned, then responded, "Sorry to say, Lieutenant, that it will fit your character perfectly! I want you to become as seedy as your clothing!"
Roger returned, wearing his new-old clothing. Astro excused himself and went to the bathroom to shower and change. While Astro ministered to his hygiene, the remaining officers sat on the bunks discussing various details of the mission. When Astro returned, Tom arose and began maneuvering his way toward the shower.
Bull, noticing Tomís actions, ordered, "Stow any ideas that you might have about a shower, Corbett!"
Tom, puzzled by the order asked, "Sir? You donít want me to clean up before we go to Venus?"
"No, Lieutenant! Remember, I want you to be in character. Just go change and return as soon as possible."
Tom returned shortly and it was apparent from his facial expression that he was not happy with his new uniform. Astro looked at Major Robb for a clue, but the former, attack pilot just leaned against the bulkhead with a half-smirk on his face. He was enjoying the moment and anticipating the next question.
Tom held his arms out from his body, as if he didnít want to touch himself. He then looked at Bull and asked, "Sir, no disrespect intended, but isnít this costume a little..."
Tom failed to come up with a proper adjective, so Bull completed the question. "Skanky? Sleazy? Smutty? Stringy?" Bull gave a hearty chuckle and said, "There, Lieutenant, Iíve just come up with your name for the duration of this mission...Skank!"
Tom knew better than to protest, but the redness in his face betrayed his feelings about both the name and the clothing. It was obvious that the clothes had been worn for a long time by someone who had no concept of cleanliness. As Tom stood before the assembly, he became aware that he was exuding an odor that was anything but pleasant.
Roger began sniffing the air and looked at Tom with mock disgust. "Man! You stink, Skank!"
Tom rolled some of the tattered and frayed material in his fingers. After the quick inspection, he stepped to the right bulkhead and said, "Alright you guys, Iíll stay over here by the exhaust vent so I donít offend your senses!"
Paul then spoke up, "Major, I donít see why the Lieutenant couldnít splash on some cologne to cover up some of that reek. At lease until we reach Venusport."
Bull conceded, "Okay! Lieutenant, you have my permission to control the odor. But, donít overdo it. I want you appropriately in character tomorrow!"
Tom gratefully retired to the bathroom and chose Astroís bottle of Blue Neptune cologne because it was strong enough to effectively mask most of the odor. When he returned, Bull began assigning additional mission names.
"Lieutenant Astro, you will be known as Tank. Lieutenant Manning, you are Al Rossi. Major Robb will become Paul Robertson and I will be known, appropriately only as Taurus."
Bull could see the crimson faces appear when he made the last announcement.
"Whatís the matter, men? Donít you think that I know that Iíve been called Bull behind my back? By the Moons of Jupiter! Iíve carried that moniker since my first Mercuryball game at the Academy... almost thirty years ago! Now remember, the next time you see me, Iíll be dressed as a civilian and you will address me as Taurus. Got it?"
"Yes, Sir.", they all replied.
"And donít forget to drop the Sir! Iíll still be the leader of the group, but donít let anyone suspect that there could be a military connection!"
Bull and Paul quickly exited the room and the three young men sat down and contemplated their situation.
Roger suddenly shouted, "OW!" and he stood up and began scratching at his rib cage area. He then looked at Tom and said, "If itís any consolation to you, I donít think that Iím the only animal inside of these clothes!"