Roger pressed on the button that would announce the trioís arrival to whomever occupied the small house in a semi-affluent section of Venusport. In a few seconds, a smiling man opened the door and jovially asked if he could be of help.
Tom held out one of the cards and said, "We understand that you might be able to help us find employment."
The man glanced at the card and without breaking stride, walked behind the trio and began herding them toward the entrance. "Gentlemen, please come in. We at the Venus All Faith Mission welcome everyone regardless of ability or disability."
He guided the men into the kitchen and began dishing out a soup and placed a bowl in front of each member of the group.
"My name is Ramos. I am called the gatekeeper to the mission. It is my job to welcome you and nourish you as you begin the first steps to a new life. First, please accept this humble soup as a token of our regard for your plight. It is our belief that feeding the body will lead to healing both body and spirit."
Tom thought that this was all too easy, but it would be necessary to accept the hospitality in order to move deeper into the organization. Tom raised the bowl to his mouth and sipped slowly. Roger and Astro followed Tomís example and within a minute, all three had finished the meal. Tom tried to think of a way of displaying his outrageous character, but he was having trouble concentrating on anything. It was then that he realized that his thought processes were being affected by a drug that must have been in the soup. Before he could voice a protest, a gray haze covered his consciousness and Tom fell to the floor even as Astro and Roger slumped silently in their chairs.
Tom could hear Astroís voice as if it were in a deep cavern. "Skank! Come on Skank! Wake up!" He then became aware that he was being shaken with considerable force.
"Okay, Okay!", he muttered, "Iím with you!"
After using a couple of minutes to clear his head of the drug-induced mist, Tom began looking around a fairly small room that was completely lined with what appeared to be stainless steel. There was a small ventilator on one end of the room and an exhaust in the ceiling at the other end. Except for very tight joints between the steel panels, there was no doorway or latching mechanism that was noticeable. After focusing on Astroís friendly face, Tom grabbed the big Venusian by the shoulders and allowed Astro to help him from the floor. As he looked around, Tom acknowledged Rossi and Tank by name and nodded at the other two figures in the room. It was then that he noticed that none of the assembled men were wearing their original clothing. They were, in fact, all dressed in gray jumpsuits and had no personal effects at all. Tom was thankful for the clean clothing and he checked himself for personal odor and was inwardly delighted to find that he had been cleaned up while unconscious. Paul noticed Tomís actions and called to him from his seated position on the floor.
"Looks like weíve all been stripped of everything, young fellow."
Tom glared at Paul and quipped, "Who asked you for an opinion?"
"Hey punk, I was just making an observation. No need not to be civil."
Roger jumped between the men and said, "Sorry mister. My friend here is famous for not having manners." He then held out his hand to Paul and introduced his group. "The name is Al Rossi, these are my buddies. Tank, over there likes everybody and Skank is very choosy about who he socializes with."
As Paul shook Rogerís hand he said, "Iím Paul Robertson and,", motioning toward Bull, "thatís my business partner, Taurus."
"Well, Paul, it looks like weíre in the same space-boat!", said Roger.
Tom jumped in as he looked for an exit, "Yeah, and that space-boat is drifting in vacuum without a rocket!"
Paul was certain that they were being monitored, so he kept up the banter with Roger for a while in hopes that by giving the appearance of becoming familiar, it would help disguise the fact that they had known each other previously.
Astro sat down beside Bull and asked, "Mr. Taurus?"
Bull glanced to his left and replied, "Just call me Taurus. Okay?"
"Okay, Taurus. Do you know how long we have been here?
Bull habitually looked at his left wrist, only to find that the cheap chronograph was missing. He thought for a few seconds and then said, "Well, gentlemen, I can tell you this, Paul and I woke up about an hour before you did. So, I would guess that we were drugged an hour before you were. Paul and I were treated to a large bowl of soup just before taps and judging from the condition of my stomach, Iíd say weíve been under for at least sixteen hours."
Astroís eyes grew wide as the thought of not eating for sixteen hours made him exhale involuntarily. "Man! I hope that our hosts decide to feed us soon!"
Tom sheepishly remarked, "I just hope they show us to a lavatory."
At that moment, a lightly-sounding bell began ringing and one of the steel panels that lined the room slid back slightly and then slid to the side. A short man with a shaven head stood in the doorway. He held a clipboard and pen in one hand while nervously pointing a bony finger into the cleft of his own chin. He was dressed in a business suit of fine quality and of the latest style. Tom didnít think that this man could be an interrogator. In fact, he looked more like an accountant or broker. The man took one step into the room and eyed each of the occupants carefully.
"My name is William. That is all you need to know. Please follow me."
William led the group down a long, dark hallway which terminated at another door. Upon opening the portal, the group was collectively startled to discover a very large room, more of a meeting hall, which was brightly lit and comfortably appointed with dining tables, chairs and fine linens. The ambience was enhanced by soothing classical music that cascaded from the ceiling. Tom was having trouble forming a scowl on his face because of the friendly feeling that the room radiated.
As they entered the room, William led the group to a table and pulled out a chair. "Mr. Robertson? Please be seated."
Paul sat down and nodded to his host
William also seated Bull at the same table and then led the younger men to another table, beyond listening distance, and seated each of them.
William positioned himself between the two groups and spoke loudly.
"Gentlemen, please forgive us for what I am sure you believe was shabby treatment. To make amends, my staff will now take your orders and prepare a wonderful meal for you. I promise that you have nothing to fear. There are no properties to this meal other than exquisite taste. I will visit with each of you after you have supped. You may also make use of the lavatories, which are located at the end of the room. Thank you and bon appetite."
Roger almost choked because he thought that Williamís character was a comic caricature of a matreĎd. In any case, William was definitely not a restauranteur.
Tom arose to his feet and leaned over the table as if he were excusing himself. He placed his hands across the shoulders of his friends and using the ancient Morse Code, tapped the message, "No Talk in Lav" into their shoulder muscles. Roger and Astro understood. Any communication among themselves would have to wait until they knew they were secure. He then left the group and visited the lavatory. While there, he looked for obvious monitoring devices, but was unable to discover any. Upon returning, he found Roger and Astro placing orders for a five course gourmet meal. Astro asked the steward for a large bottle of Mars Water with his meal. The waiterís eyes grew wide and he began stammering.
"B-B-But Sir! One does not serve Mars Water with such a meal!"
Tom saw his chance and he grabbed the server by the collar and forced the man backwards until his back was flat on the table and the tines of several forks poked angrily at his skin.
Tom screwed his face into an expression that defied easy description, then literally spat out orders to the bewildered man.
"My friend ordered Mars Water! You will get it for him! And... you will do it... NOW!"
He then released the man, who scurried away as fast as his feet would carry him. From across the room, Bull watched the performance of his young officer and was impressed with the believability of the moment.
Paul dropped his menu to the table and told his waiter, "Youíd better take that young manís order before hunger makes him angry!"
The man hesitantly obeyed and was relieved to find Skank to be calm and eager to order. After an hour of elegant dining and drinking, the five guests were content but curious about what would happen at this point. They were not given much time to imagine on future scenarios because William entered the room and greeted the men once again.
"Gentlemen, I hope that you are all feeling well and rested. Since you have come to us with different requests, we will now interview you in separate groups. It is our hope that we may be able help you and do business with you." William approached Tom and his crew and swept his hand toward a door on the right side of the room. "Gentlemen, please enter that room. I will be with you shortly."
Tom, Astro and Roger quickly entered the room and sat in chairs arranged behind a table that was about twelve feet long. There were scribe pads and pens at each seating position. In front of the table, on an elevated platform, was a small desk with a single chair behind it. The person who would occupy the chair would obviously be conducting the interview.
Within a few minutes, Bull and Paul were escorted into a similar room. As they sat at the table, a door opened on the far end of the room and William entered and took the elevated seat. After a moment of arranging note pads and a small recording device, he clasped his hands in front of him, leaned over the desk and asked, "Gentlemen, what may I do for you?"
Bull wasnít prepared for that particular question, so he decided to try to gain some information. "William, first I want to thank you for the hospitality. We are somewhat at a loss as to why we were drugged and stripped before being transferred here. Maybe you could answer some questions for me?"
William smiled and replied, "Mr. Taurus, I will be glad to answer within my ability. If it is not my prerogative to answer, you will receive silence."
Bull nodded and said, "Fair enough! Now, why were we drugged?"
Without blinking, William replied, "It is standard procedure for anyone who makes an inquiry about our missionaries."
"We received cards from a merchant who said that the people at that address might be interested in our talents or products. You donít even know what we have to offer or who we might represent. Why bother going to such measures?"
"Mr. Taurus, we review all offers presented to us. That is why you are here. However, it is not true that we know nothing about you. While you were indisposed we checked your identities through semi-official channels. I find it interesting that you are a businessman who deals in objects of rarity. In fact it seems as though you have a long history of providing products and services that are, shall we say, not always approved of by the authorities."
Bull glanced at Paul, who was displaying a faked look of surprise. The phony histories and rap sheets had been fed to every Solar Guard data base in the Alliance. It was evident that once the mission was over, it would be necessary to find out who was supplying information to Crux Venus. Paul decided that he could use some answers too. "Okay William, you know a lot about us. Why do you think we would come to you with any offers?"
"My dear Mr. Robertson, many people come to us for many reasons. You and Mr. Taurus are businessmen. Granted, not everyone would do business with you, but we are always intrigued when someone is willing to make us an offer. And I might add, we can be most accommodating if the offer is of value to us." William then returned his look to Bull. "You should also know that, as part of our security system, you have both been given complete physical examinations. Our staff has made some notes about your physical injuries. We are not really interested in the reasons for your injuries, although records of your treatments help to corroborate your historical information. You, in particular, Mr. Taurus, have a very expensive prosthetic leg. Your records indicate that you lost the limb seventeen years ago in an accident involving explosives. There was a Solar Guard investigation into the accident, but it seems as though you disappeared during the course of the inquiry. From that point on, you seemed to always be one or two steps ahead of authority. That can be a handy talent."
Bull gave a wry smile and said, "Thank you for what is considered a great compliment in my circles."
William smiled back and said, "That will be enough questions from you for now, gentlemen. You may be confident that we know all about you and we also know that because of your physical conditions that it is unlikely that you represent any entity that may be at odds with our goals. Yes, it may be possible for us to do business, but we need to know what you have to offer."
Paul leaped to his feet and replied in earnest, "We need to get back to our hotel to bring you some samples! Please, just drive us back for a few minutes!"
William held up his hand in a gesture to calm the man. "Mr. Robertson, driving you back to the hotel would be impractical at this point. You are over twelve-hundred miles from Venusport!"
"Twelve-hundred miles!? But... our samples!?"
"There is no need to be anxious, Mr. Robertson. We found your hotel keys in your clothing and you may rest assured that your samples are nearby."
Bull cleared his throat in an obvious quest for attention. "Well, William? What do you think of my products?"
"To be quite honest, Mr. Taurus, I donít know what to think. I know nothing about your trinkets. However, they will be evaluated shortly."
"Mr. Robertson and myself would like to be present when they are inspected."
William, showing a lack of confidence for the first time, looked downward at his papers and said, "I am sure that there will be some way to accommodate you gentlemen."
He then arose and walked to the doorway. Gesturing at the now open portal, he asked, "Gentlemen, shall we rejoin the young men?"