The next work day, Roger was working in the communications lab along with two other men. Each had been assigned different duties and Roger was making connector cables for radio transmitters. The other two men seemed oblivious to Rogerís actions and he took the opportunity to pre-set a transmitter to a specific frequency that would be monitored by the Solar Guard. When his co-workers assembled themselves at the far end of the lab, Roger plugged in a microphone, activated the transmitter and called, "Random reason....Random reason...Random reason!" He then deactivated the transmitter, removed the microphone and scrambled the frequency selector so that it would not display the frequency in case someone at Crux Venus had been monitoring. He would know within two hours if the Solar Guard had heard the transmission.
On board the Venus Space Station, a young lieutenant intercepted the message and relayed it to Central Command. Captain Xen Huah approached and saluted Colonel Lou Conell and handed the message to him. The veteranís eyes grew wide as he read the words, "Random Reason". He immediately pressed the switch on the intercom and told the aide to open a transmission channel to all Solar Guard units and bases. As soon as the links were established, he announced, "All units...All Units.... Begin Operation Xanadu in exactly fifty minutes." He then repeated the order and closed the link.
On distant bases, in deep space, on and around Venus, a massive military campaign began with precision. But first, the Solar Guard enlisted the help of the most powerful non-military entity in the Alliance.... the news media.
Josh Trumbull, one of the lead anchors of the Alliance News Network, was in the makeup room just off of the studio when he heard unusually loud voices coming from the data services section. A young lady rushed up to him and shoved a printout under his nose.
"Look at this, Josh!"
Trumbull, grabbed the sheet and held it out to a comfortable reading distance. As he read the item, he jumped from the chair and tore off the protective bib that the makeup artist had put around his neck. "Kill every story and bring the studio on line for a live broadcast!"
He ran out of the room and went directly to the set. Still holding the microphone in his hand as the light went on to indicate that the live feed was being broadcast, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our regular ANN features to bring you this breaking story. Solar Guard astronomers have just announced that a sungrazer comet has changed orbit and is on a collision course with Venus. I understand that we have a feed from Solar Guard Headquarters and that two of the top scientists are waiting to give us additional information.
The director switched to a feed from a conference room at Solar Guard Headquarters and the images of Professor Sykes and Dr. Joan Dale appeared on the monitor.
Trumbull began. "Sir, Madame, this is Josh Trumbull of ANN. Can you give us more details on this rogue comet?"
Professor Sykes first introduced himself and Joan and then began, "At Oh Seven-thirty hours, our HOWIE satellite detected a major course change in comet Pippin Five One Seven. We believe that it was caused by a split in the core of the comet which changed the gravitational effect of the sun. Normally, this comet would hold a very close orbit to the sun and be very predictable. The stresses of many orbits must have caused the core to fracture and as a result, this outward-bound comet has changed course by three degrees. We predict that in four days, the main body of the comet will strike Venus unless a method of diverting itís orbit can be devised."
Josh then addressed Joan. "Dr. Dale, what methods might be used to change the cometís course?"
Joan, obviously worried, said, "We are hoping to blast Pippin Five One Seven with atomic cannon and thermonuclear weapons. The problem is that since the Alliance constitution has forbidden thermonuclear weapons, we must have the weapon cores shipped to site from Titan and it is doubtful that we can get them in place in time."
"And if you canít?"
Joan, obviously emotional, walked out of the frame. Professor Sykes said, "If we cannot divert the comet with thermonuclear blasts, we will have a large number of Guard craft attempt to pulverize it with their cannon fire. The ships have already been dispatched and the first units will begin their attacks in just a few hours."
"And, if that should fail?
Sykes pulled the antique spectacles off of his face and began cleaning them with a cloth. The camera zoomed close in to his face and he looked directly into the lens. "I am afraid that there is no time to evacuate the planet. If the comet hits, the destruction will be immense and at any rate the atmospheric converters will be ineffective. Venus will become a planet of desolation."
There was a long period of silence and then Josh cleared his throat and moistened his dry mouth with a sip of water. The excitement in his voice was replaced with an unprofessional quavering. "T-Thank you, Professor Sykes." Then, returning a hollow gaze to the camera, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is very somber news, indeed. Please stay tuned to ANN for minute-by-minute updates on this developing crisis. We pause now for further reaction on your local news."
Tamos Sen was furious. His councilors were split as to their advice. some believed that the comet story was a ruse and others looked up from their hasty calculations to announce that the story was entirely plausible. A thin man stood cowering in front of his master and said, "Sire, it is possible that this is an elaborate trap by the Solar Guard. But, I do not believe that they would risk the panic of millions of people just to spring a trap. The political consequences would reach to the far ends of the Solar Alliance."
The room erupted in noise as each man tried to shout above the next man in order to be heard.
Sen grew tired of the constant bickering and screamed, "Silence!"
The room became as quiet as death while Sen weighed the options. He spun around on his heels and looked at a man in uniform. "Commander! Eight of our ten ships are now operational... true?"
"Good! you will dispatch ships Three through Eight to an intercept course with the comet. Ships One and Two are to remain on standby. You are to deploy all of your mines in the path of the comet and then intercept the object and expend all of your munitions on the surface. You must not fail."
The commander bowed and immediately left the room. A rotund man stood up and began to protest. "But, Sire! If we weaken our forces, we will not be able to defend ourselves against the Solar Guard!"
Senís body spun around as his fire-filled eyes trained on the man. "You idiot! If this comet strikes Venus, we will have nothing to defend! We are closer to the comet than any substantial number of Guard ships. We have the firepower of an entire fleet in only eight vessels. We must take the chance to save Venus. We will deal with the Guard later!"
Sen began to compose himself and said, "We will hold a meeting of all members of Crux Venus in the great cavern this evening. Only essential personnel will be exempt."
Six bright-blue trails of flame streaked away from the surface of Venus on a vectored route to intercept comet Pippin Five One Seven. Lou Conell spoke slowly into the microphone as he reminded his crews to stay beyond the scanner range of Senís ships. After two hours the tiny fleet began itís final approach to the path of the comet. As the miniature dreadnoughts approached the projected course of the rocky snowball from space, they laid a gauntlet of very powerful space mines in their wakes. Had this been a well traveled space-lane, an armada of maneuverable ships would have lost at least fifty per cent of their number. The ships captains were certain that the lumbering space-rock would contact every one of the mines and they hoped that the blasts would deflect the comet just enough to change itís course by a half of a degree. After the mining operation was completed, the ships reversed course and battled the fine debris that peppered their hulls as the sunís energy pushed dust and gases outward and ahead of the comet in a tail that extended for more than a million miles. The six ships then took up positions around the comet in matching orbits and trained their weaponry onto the monstrous rock. On the commanderís order the ships began a continuous barrage of solid projectiles, missiles and atomic cannon fire onto the surface of Pippin Five One Seven.
Great chunks of rock and frozen gases began flying off of the surface as the materials were exploded or melted until they could not hold on to the weak gravity of the cometary core. The attack went on for over an hour until one-by-one, the small ships ran out of ammunition and energy. The squadron commander calculated that there was not enough energy available to return to Venus and he decided that he would take his ships to the neutral space of Mercury and negotiate with the Mercurians for sanctuary. Neither he nor Sen were aware that there were two battalions of Space Marines waiting there to greet him.
Sen half-watched ANN as all manner of expert droned on and on about the impending doom of Venus. There was an immediate shift to the cameras at Solar Guard Headquarters where Professor Sykes was holding a news conference.
"We have detected a tremendous number of surface explosions on Pippin Five One Seven.", stated the frizzy-haired scientist. "Shortly after the explosions ceased, there were a series of additional explosions that occurred on a regular basis. We believe that these were space mines, but we are at a loss as to their origin because the Solar Guard units are still at least an hour away from rendezvous."
One reporter shouted over all of the others and asked, "Professor, was there any change in the cometís course or reduction in mass?
Sykes replied quickly, "Oh yes, the mass has been reduced by almost five percent, but we must wait for a few minutes before we have the course recomputed." He then added, "You must understand that the great chunks of material that were blown away have been scattered in all directions. Most of them will accompany the comet, but many will create navigation hazards at the least."
Joan Dale approached the podium and showed a clipboard to Professor Sykes. Sykes smiled and said, "You may have the honors, Doctor."
Joan smiled at the assembled newspeople and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen of the Alliance. I am please to report that the mysterious explosions have affected Pippin Five One Seven as a small perturbation that will take it below the plane of the ecliptic as it enters Venusí orbit. It should miss the planet by four-hundred thousand miles."
Cheers of joy and tears of relief filled every known repository of mankind within the alliance. The inhabitants of Venusport, in particular, celebrated by taking to the cityís streets and sounding every siren, horn and noisemaker available. Even along Spacemanís Row, bands and singers from the entertainment establishments played joyous songs in the streets. Politicians began drafting decrees that would proclaim this date as a day of Thanksgiving. They did not know that they had never been in danger from the comet.
Tamos Sen was filled with self-richeousness as he approached the podium that elevated him well above the assembled throng of his workers and military. A bright spotlight accentuated the utter whiteness of his being. He held his open hands high as his followers hailed him as the savior of Venus. Dramatic march music began emanating from the speaker system and the Soldiers of Sen began stomping their boots to the beat. The celebration continued for more than five minutes and as the music began to fade, a huge flag of a green field with the golden stars and crescent of Crux Venus descended from the top of the cavern, forming a backdrop to the man in white. Another round of cheering from the thousands brought Sen close to the podium. He then held out his hands and made a downward motion that caused the roars to abate.
Occasionally, a single voice could be heard shouting an invocation such as, "Master Sen! Blessed are you!"
Paul and Bull assumed their seats for the presentation and prepared to use the concentration game to prevent themselves from being enraptured by the coming speech. Roger, Tom and Astro were also present, but in widely separate parts of the huge room. Tom looked at one of the chronographs located around the room and knew that it would soon be time to begin the final phase of the mission.
On the surface of Ishtar Terra, four units of the elite Solar Guard Engineers worked at four sites that were each separated by over a hundred miles. Each team hand-dug a shaft that was over fifty feet deep. The shaft sites were beyond the numerous monitor locations that kept a constant vigil over Senís realm. The shafts were being hand-dug rather than drilled because drilling would require large rigs that would have to be transported over hundreds of miles of extremely rough terrain. Colonel Andre Dumas was satisfied with the progress of his men as each site reported the activation of a nuclear detonator at the bottom of each shaft.
"Major Li?", called Dumas.
A short man of Asian ancestry, wearing the white apron of the Engineers, ran to his commander and gave a salute. "Sir?"
"Give the command for all units to withdraw. They have thirty minutes to get to their vehicles."
Major Li, saluted again and replied, "Aye Aye, Sir."
Colonel Dumas thought to himself, "This should give Sen a good rattle!"
The teams of engineers ran at the double for twenty minutes and then boarded their lightly armored all terrain vehicles which immediately began speeding toward a prepared meeting location.
Sen was at his evangelical best at this point during the assembly. Astroís fingers were becoming numb and his leg was sore from the constant manual calculation that was designed to counteract the mesmerizing effect of Senís voice and actions. An aide approached the podium and attempted to attract Senís attention, but Sen ignored him. Risking retribution, the man jumped in front of Sen and handed him a small piece of paper. Senís scarlet glare at the man was soon focused on the paper and the message caused even the mighty Sen to gasp. He quickly returned to the podium and read the message.
"Men, we have just received a report from ANN that a portion of the comet has eluded Solar Guard pickets. The piece is almost one-half mile in diameter and is predicted to enter Venusí atmosphere about one-hundred miles from our base. Everyone report to your stations and implement Plan A."
Tom was seated near an exit and began running into the maze of corridors. He knew the entire layout of the complex and as soon as he found an electric cart, he commandeered it and began making his way to the rocket launch tubes.
Astro was impeded by the crush of humanity that was seeking an exit. He finally maneuvered his way into the corridor that would take him to the power station. He ran at full speed toward the control room which was over a half-mile away.
Roger was standing on the bumper of a cart that was filled with seven other men. The overloaded vehicle strained to continue itís way but was still faster than running on foot. As the cart approached the communications lab, he jumped off and tried to move his legs fast enough to continue his forward motion. Unable to match the speed of the cart, Roger began tumbling uncontrollably and he rolled into the path of a group of men that were running on foot. As the men tripped over Roger, one of them came down hard on Rogerís rib cage and the young blonde felt a tremendous pain course through his torso. Fighting nausea, he untangled himself and entered the door to the lab and fell into a chair. He was having trouble breathing and when he made the attempt to inhale deeply, he was stopped by another sharp pain. Still in the chair, he pulled himself around the lab by grabbing the consoles and using the chairís castors as wheels. When he reached the console that controlled the surface scanners, he stopped to rest and think about his next move.
Bull and Paul walked quickly toward the rocket launch tubes, but tried not to look out of place. Their further participation was not vital to the mission, but might be beneficial to Tom.