The three young men unloaded their meager belongings at a cheap hotel in the middle of Spacemanís Row. Spacemanís Row was once a prosperous part of Venusport. It had been originally the home to thousands of migrants who were eager to carve out a life and home on Venus. Over the last fifty years, Spacemanís Row had degraded into a center of activity for illicit and illegal functions. The area was comprised mainly of entertainment facilities featuring acts of low moral character, Rocket Juice emporiums for those who wished to imbibe in distilled alcohol drinks, and pawn shops which were heavily stocked with items of dubious origin.
As Tom, Roger and Astro exited the hotel, they turned to the left and slowly walked down the street. Spacemanís Row, aside from having a bad reputation among the mainstream citizens of the Alliance, had a flavor, look and immeasurable excitement about it that was like no other place in the solar system. There was little street traffic, except for the occasional passing of a Civilian Authority Solar Guard patrol vehicle. Each intersection was host to a number of derelicts, inebriated spacemen and entertainers, each in search of credits in their own way. The air was filled with wonderful odors from small bars and restaurants which offered food that was cooked in the less-than-healthful methods of previous centuries. Astro smiled as the sights and smells reminded him of his younger self, who was at home in these surroundings. They also awakened his appetite for the food of his youth.
Astro strode ahead of his companions and turned to them. "Come over this way, fellas! Thereís a great grill around this corner and you wonít believe how good the French fries taste!"
The three young men entered a dingy room that contained a small bar and four very well-used tables made of Venusian teak. The woodwork was stained with food, drink, blood and grit from decades of use. Astro selected a particular table and sat down with the stump of his arm propped on top of the surface. Roger sat across from him and Tom grabbed a chair from another table and brought it over for additional seating.
Astro began looking around to see if there was anyone around who he might recognize or who might recognize him. Seeing only a short man in a greasy shirt, working behind the bar, Astro called to him.
"Hey Mac! How about some service?"
The man appeared to be annoyed, but he tossed a dirty towel over his shoulder and slowly walked over to the table.
"I ain't seen you guys here before. Just passing through?", asked the man in a surprisingly civil manner.
"Yeah, weíre just passing through, Bub.", growled Tom. He then added, "Unless we can find some good employment. The credits are getting scarce."
The manís eyes grew wide and then narrowed to small slits as he leaned into Tomís face. "You guys wouldnít try to stiff me, would you?"
Roger quickly jumped in. "You donít have to worry, mister. Weíve got the credits for a meal. Weíre just thinking of the future, thatís all."
The man grunted and then took their orders. Ordering was simple enough. All three asked for Ďburgers and fries. Tom thought that they should stay in character, so he ordered rocket juice for all three of them. When the order arrived, Astro bent down to the plate and inhaled the flavors wafting from the food. Roger grabbed his sandwich and bit into it eagerly. As he chewed, a look of wonder came over his face. He leaned over the table and exclaimed, "This is the best Ďburger I have ever tasted!"
Astro smiled and raised his sandwich to his mouth to relish the flavor. Tom, grunted his approval as he took a second bite and nodded to Astro. Astro was happy that his friends were enjoying a taste of real Venusian cooking. Several minutes later, as Tom was stuffing the last French fry into his mouth, Astro leaned back in his chair and smiled as he looked at his friends.
"Well, fellows, how do you like those Ďburgers?"
Roger patted his now-full stomach and said, "Iíve got to hand it to you, Tank. That was one great meal."
Tom added, "Yep, Iíve never tasted a Ďburger and fries that had so much flavor! Any idea how they do it?"
Astro chuckled and answered, "Sure.... grease! You guys have never been exposed to food the way it was meant to be cooked. Animal fat rendered into tubs of gooey.."
Roger held up his hand in front of Astroís mouth. "Enough with the explanations, Tank! Youíre descriptions are beginning to take the edge off of the meal!"
The threesome got up from the table and walked to the bar to pay for the meal. The short man began calculating the bill and as he did so he looked up at Astro and asked, "Are you boys looking for any particular kind of employment?"
Astro waved his stump in the manís face and said, "Well, as you can see, we are limited in our employability." He leaned his head toward Roger and said, "Rossi here has had his head smashed in and he sometimes acts a little funny." He then turned to put his body between Tom and the bartender. Pointing with his right hand to indicate Tom, he said, "Skank, on the other hand, can do just about anything. He just doesnít like anyone who asks him to do it." He then leaned in to make the barkeep believe that he was trying to make his next statement unheard by others. "Except for me and Rossi, Skank doesnít like anybody!"
The man recorded the sale of the meals and handed Astro some low denomination credits as change. Astro laid a couple of the credits on the bar and said, "For you, my friend! It was a great meal!"
As the young men began to walk to the door, the bartender called out, "Hey, you guys! Come here for a second!"
The boys returned to the bar and the man reached underneath the credit register and produced three white cards. "Take these.", he said. "Each of you must carry one. The address on the front of the card will get you connected with someone who might be able to use your help. I donít know what it pays, other than room and board, but at least it might be something."
He looked at Tom and said, "You might even meet someone who you would like, Skank."
Tom looked at Roger, who signaled by furrowing his brow and exposing his set teeth. Tom, taking the hint, ran to the far end of the bar and grabbed an empty rocket juice bottle, breaking it on the edge of the antique teak counter top. He then began threatening, snarling and screaming words that neither Roger or Astro had ever head come from their friend. Astro shouted at the bartender to give him his towel and as he did so, Astro hurriedly wrapped it around his hand to protect him against the jagged glass and began approaching Tom, all the while trying to calm him down with soothing words. In less than a minute, Astro had talked Tom into putting down the bottle and leaving the grill. As the three men left, the bartender shouted, "Donít bring that crazy man back in here!"
A block away from the grill, the trio ducked into a side street. After making sure that there werenít any other occupants in the alley, the three began reveling in the success of their ruse.
"Did you get them?", asked Tom.
Roger held up two more of the cards which he had taken from under the register while Tom and Astro had created the diversion .
Tom looked at the cards and began grinning. "Letís hope that these are the tickets that will get us close to Sen!"
"Should we go now?", asked Roger.
"No, not until we meet with Paul and Taurus. We also need to look closely at these cards."
After placing the cards safely in his tunic, Tom and his friends returned to the hotel and placed a call to Taurus from the public communicator booth. Bull instructed them to meet Paul and himself in a better quality restaurant for the evening meal. Tom told him that he didnít think that they would be allowed in, considering their state of cleanliness and Bull agreed. They decided to meet in Dinosaur Park, a strip of lush green vegetation within the city that contained a small zoo and botanical garden. It was also a buffer zone that separated Spacemanís Row from more prosperous parts of the city.
Long shadows brought warm breezes across the city as Venusport slowly turned away from the sun. Three figures leaned against a heavy steel fence that overlooked a dinosaur pit at the zoo. To any passerby, it would appear that the young men were silent, but they chatted in undertones that were camouflaged by the screeches, trumpeting and roars of the dozens of plant-eating animals that occupied the enclosure. Their attention was diverted as they recognized a familiar tune that was being whistled at a very slow pace. Tomís mind placed words with the slightly off-key rendition.
"From the rocket fields of the Academy
To the far-flung stars of outer space,
Weíre Space Cadets training to be
ready for dangers we may face."
The young men slowly turned around and spotted two men sitting on a bench at the edge of some tall ferns. Tom, Roger and Astro slowly maneuvered their way toward the bench and Tom sat down beside the larger of the two occupants. Roger and Astro remained standing and alert to anyone who might approach the group. Tom, reached inside of his shirt and produced the five white cards and handed them to Bull.
Bull inspected the cards and noticed that in addition to an address, there was an encoded data strip running the length of the card. Holding the card up to the fading light, he could see a faint holographic image of a crescent planet and an asterism consisting of four stars that were arranged in the shape of a cross. "Crux Venus!", grunted Bull. He looked at Tom and said, "Well, it looks like you men have found the keys to the quarry. I think that we should pay a visit to this address tomorrow morning."
Paul suggested that they arrive in separate groups to keep suspicion from being put upon the younger officers, in case the pilfered cards were reported as missing. That way, if Paul and Bull were denied access, Tom and his crew would have a chance of infiltrating Senís organization.
The group broke up and began walking in opposite directions as the yellow rays of the sun bloomed into a quick green flash from the spectrum and then settled into a dull orange that melded into dark blues and indigo that dominated the eastern sky. The green flash, as it was known, was a rare sight on Earth, but the peculiar blend of suspended particles in Venusí atmosphere and the very slow rotation of the planet made the phenomenon a regular part of the Venusian sunset. Having experienced the green flash for the first time in over three years, made Astro feel truly at home. It also reaffirmed his determination to save his world.