As the Venusian Aurora drifted gracefully away from the space station, a lovely stewardess, attired in a trim blue uniform, strolled down the aisle of the wide shuttle. When she approached the seats that were occupied by three ragged-looking individuals, she smiled cordially and asked if she could bring them some refreshments. Astroís ears perked up and he smiled broadly.
"Yes, ma'am! Iíd sure like to have a couple of those little bottles of Mars Water!"
She then looked at Roger, who just shook his head . When she looked toward Tom, he seemed to be annoyed and he brought his hand up, half-hiding his face and said in a loud voice, "Just leave me alone, lady. Go away!"
Her professional smile disappeared for a second and then resumed her attentions on Astro. "Iíll be right back with your Mars Water, sir."
As she proceeded toward the rear of the cabin, Astro poked Tom in the ribs with his stub and whispered, "Arenít you taking this act a little too seriously...Skank?"
"I donít like doing it any more than you would, but itís my duty to be obnoxious."
Astro leaned back in his seat and turned his head back to Tom. "At least you could have asked for some Mars Water for later!"
After fifteen minutes, Roger unbuckled his seat belt and climbed across Tom and Astro. He leaned down to them and said, "Iíll be back in a few minutes. Iím going to the lavatory." Astro gave him the OK sign as he delighted in his second bottle of Mars Water.
Roger slowly walked toward the rear of the craft and scanned each row of seats as he came upon them. he finally saw both of the Majors seated together in the last row on the starboard side of the ship. They were dressed casually in inexpensive, but clean, casual clothing and, except for Bullís size, were as unremarkable as any other passengers on the craft. They seemed to be chatting between themselves and, even though they noticed Roger, did not divert their attention toward him.
As he closed the door on the lavatory, the light came on revealing his reflection in the mirror. For the first time in his life, Roger realized that he was truly worried about a mission. He splashed some water on his face and primped his blond hair back into place with a comb. When he tried to place the comb back into his trouser pocket, the teeth became ensnared in the ragged cloth of the shirt and the tired fabric ripped apart creating a ten inch long gash in the shirt. Totally frustrated, Roger sat on the toilet lid and leaned his head backwards, using the bulkhead for support. "Come on, Roger!", he thought, "Get your head together! Youíre only worried because youíve had too much time to think about this mission."
It was true. As cadets, the Polaris Unit had faced danger and intrigue many times. All three of the young men had been injured, even close to death, and not one of them had ever expressed anxiety during the course of battle. The fact was that they had been thrust into combat with minimal warning and they each used their wits and instinct to overcome the danger. But this was different. Roger knew what awaited him. The lives of his comrades would depend on his attention to duty and detail. His only reliance on instinct would be to mold a situation into the form that he needed to perform his duty. Roger took a couple of deep breaths and then grabbed the door latch as he stood up. As he opened the door, he came face to face with an older man who was obviously uncomfortable.
"Itís about time that you vacated the lavatory, young fellow!", growled the man. "Weíll be slicing atmosphere in just a few minutes. You havenít given me much time to attend to the matters at hand."
Roger tried to act unconcerned by raising his eyebrows and tipping his head as he walked away. As he walked back to his seat, he noticed the forward chronograph and realized that he had been in the lavatory for over twenty minutes. As he took his seat, Tom and Astro pulled their feet back to let him pass. After latching his seat belt, Roger began staring out of the view port and did not offer a single word of greeting to his pals. Tom, noticing Rogerís moodiness, became concerned.
"Are you okay?"
Roger just nodded.
Tom leaned over to his friend and whispered, "Are you worried about this mission?"
Roger quickly made eye contact with Tom and could only nod in the affirmative.
Tom whispered again. "Me too! I imagine Astro is just as concerned."
Roger returned his look to Tomís face and Tom gave an almost imperceptible nod. They both turned to Astro, who was gulping yet another bottle of Mars Water. He turned his head in tome to see Roger and Tom staring at him. Believing that they wanted something, Astro grabbed a package off of his tray and offered it to his buddies.
"Neptune Nuts, anyone?"
Astroís off-the-wall comment immediately broke the tension. Roger and Tom shook convulsively as they stifled their laughter. Astro was bewildered by their actions and his questions about their chuckling, added to the hilarity.
The cabin lighting began dimming and several tones announced a message from the cockpit. The captain requested that all passengers should be buckled into their seats because the shuttle would begin atmospheric interaction shortly. A stewardess checked with each passenger to make sure that all was in order. She picked up a plastic bag full of Mars Water bottles and snack packaging from Astro, who showed his appreciation with a wide smile. She smiled back and pointed at her teeth as if she were indicating a problem to the big man. Astro nodded and then turned his head toward his companions. Tom put on a look of mock disgust and then told Astro that he had some bits of packaging imbedded between his teeth. Not having his left hand to help with the opening of the packages, Astro had used his teeth to hold the packages while he tore them open with his right hand. Tom grinned and began searching for something to act as floss. He pulled a long wooden splinter out of the cloth of the shirt he was wearing and offered it to Astro, who shook his head.
"No thanks, Skank! Iíll use some of the cruddy stuff inhabiting my own clothing! At least the previous owner of these duds took a bath occasionally!"
Astro eventually found a suitable material and he quickly cleared his teeth of the bits of plastic. The shuttle suddenly lurched slightly as it made contact with the upper atmosphere of Venus. Literally skipping along the upper gas, the ship quickly lost much of itís inertia and began descending quickly. Because they were still on the dark side of the planet, glowing pink plasma could easily be seen forming a shock wave in front of the wings of the craft. The Beryllium-steel hull of the ship absorbed a tremendous amount of energy as the atmosphere became denser. As the craft approached the terminator of light and dark, the sun rose above the surface of the planet, illuminating a beautiful world of green, blue and white colors. Astro gazed at the wonderful sight and silently vowed that he would not let a madman turn his world back into desolation.
The shuttle began bouncing and the captain announced that they were at Fifty-thousand feet and beginning final descent to the Spaceport at Venusport. A few quick turns and gentle applications of the rockets brought the large craft into a perfect glideslope to the commercial runway at the Spaceport. A pair of previously hidden flaps extended from the large wings and the ship suddenly seemed to float above huge expanses of jungle. As they sped by a clearing, Roger could briefly see a pair of large dinosaurs, which were grazing on the massive array of plants. The view of lush foliage quickly changed to buildings of concrete, steel and Titan Crystal on the edge of a huge sea of blue water formed from the bowl of an immense crater. The nose of the ship rose slightly and the landing gear extended from the wings and hull of the ship as if they were reaching downward to grasp the surface. In another second, the wheels screeched in protest as the heavy ship settled itís weight on the runway. Thrust reversers and spoilers braked the craft swiftly and soon the shuttle was on a taxi-way in search of itís terminal.
After arriving at the terminal, a huge refrigeration unit began pouring clouds of carbon dioxide over the shipís hull to cool the surface enough for debarkation and servicing. Within a minute, the on-board intercom announced, "On behalf of Captain Childer and the crew, thank you for traveling aboard the Venusian Aurora, ladies and gentlemen. We have arrived at gate Twenty-three and all passengers must have passports and immigration papers available for inspection."
A few seconds later, the boarding hatch opened with a gentle "whoosh" as pressures equalized.
Everyone, including the majors, slowly filed off of the craft. Bull was trying not to look overworked, but it was obvious that the case with the diplomatic stickers on it was putting a strain on even his large frame. Security was extremely tight and it seemed as if everyoneís luggage was being searched. Tom kept an eye on Bull and Paul to see if the officials were going to give them any problems over the sealed case, but the inspectors were satisfied with the diplomatic identities that were provided.
Without delay, all five men exited the terminal and awaited transportation. Paul and Bull took a jet-taxi and the young officers boarded an express monorail that would take them to the heart of Venusport.
The second phase of the mission was about to begin.