"Venus Space Station, this is Lieutenant Tom Corbett flying a captured Crux Venus craft. Request safe escort for docking at the station."
"Stand by Lieutenant Corbett.", was the reply heard in the headset. After a short pause, the traffic control officer said, "Lieutenant Corbett. Central Command requests that you answer a question.... What was the code message to begin this operation?"
Tom smiled as he realized that his claim of identity was being challenged. "Random reason! Random Reason!"
The familiar voice of Lou Conell came through the speaker. "Welcome home, Lieutenant. You are clear to dock in bay Seven. Your escort is being dispatched now"
Tom smiled again as he turned around and gave Bull and Paul the thumbs-up sign, letting them know that they had received docking clearance. Suddenly a warning light and buzzer drew Tomís attention to the rear scanner.
"Missile! Prepare for evasive action!"
Bull and Paul pulled their harnesses tight and activated the gun turrets. As they swung their armaments to the rear of the craft, they could see a pinpoint of white light quickly approaching their position. The captured ship had been decelerating in preparation for docking and at slow speeds itís maneuverability was greatly diminished. At a range of twenty-five miles, Bull and Paul unleashed a barrage of atomic-cannon rounds that were trained at the oncoming missile. At ten miles distance, the warhead of the missile exploded in a blinding white light.
Tom knew that he would have to begin accelerating again in case another missile would be fired at him. Right now he was a sitting duck. Before he could increase the reactant rate, a radio message began coming through his headset.
"Crux Venus Number Two, this is Crux Venus Number One. Prepare to die as a coward. I, Tamos Sen, condemn you to death for desertion. And, when I am through with you, the crews on the Space Station will join you!"
Tom decided to change course in order to draw his adversary away from the space station. As soon as his coordinates were set, he dumped the reactant into the nuclear engine as fast as it would go. He knew that it would be futile because he would be accelerating from a very slow speed and would be overtaken in short order. As he was pressed deeper into the acceleration chair, he opened the radio transmitter and announced, "Tamos Sen, this is Crux Venus Number Two commanded by Lieutenant Tom Corbett of the Solar Guard. Break off your attack and surrender to me or suffer the consequences of your action."
Bull shouted into the cockpit, "I got to admit it, Corbett. Youíve got Brass Boosters! That ought to make him mad enough to follow us to the ends of the universe!"
Tom began a series of maneuvers that twisted, turned and zig zaged the small ship in an evasive course that gradually drew Senís ship farther away from the space station. Again, the alarm sounded and Tom shouted, "Another missile!"
Tom rolled the ship so that both turrets could be trained on the speeding object. As soon as it was in range, eight atomic cannons opened fire and sent a stream of miniature nuclear charges toward the point source of light. One of the defensive rounds exploded close enough to the missile to damage the steering system and the rocket began cartwheeling through space, but still approached Tomís position. As soon as the sensors on the missile detected that it was at the closest point to the target, the charge detonated. The small ship was thrown laterally in itís flight path and the reactor baffles were buckled enough to cause the shipís systems to shut down to prevent an uncontrolled atomic reaction. The ship now drifted helplessly through space with no chance of making repairs.
Sen, laughed maniacally at the stolen shipís condition. He pressed the transmit button and called to Tom. "Crux Venus Number Two this is Tamos Sen. I will personally destroy you and all Solar Guardsmen who oppose me."
Tom looked toward the gun blisters and Paul said, "Sorry, Lieutenant. Without power, we canít mount a defense."
Sen ordered his pilot to intercept the stricken ship on a parallel course. Within minutes, the ships were drifting together with a distance of less than a half-mile between them. Senís pink eyes turned red as he activated the gun turret. As soon at the guns were charged, Sen grabbed the joystick and cocked the handle to the right until the gun barrels were pointed directly over Tomís ship. He then pushed slightly forward on the stick and the cannons aligned on the center of the fuselage.
Sen pushed the button on the transmitter again and stated, "You have sealed your own fate, Guardsman. Since you do not worship me, I sentence you to death."
As Sen began to squeeze the trigger, he was jolted in his seat. For a split second he heard the screeching sound of twisted metal and then the air was gone and he could hear nothing. Within seconds, he could see, breath and think nothing.
A series of holes began appearing in the fuselage of Crux Venus Number One. Beginning at the engine compartment, they began appearing in a straight line running to the nose. The pattern was as neat as that produced by an ancient sewing machine as it stitched clothing together.
Tom, Bull and Paul could not believe their eyes. Tom had already resigned himself to never seeing his family again and he was reliving the sight of his and Rogerís mothers comforting themselves as they drove away from home that fateful day just a few weeks ago.
The speaker on the console cracked as a transmission began coming through. "Crux Venus Number Two, this is Solar Guard Cruiser Polaris. Could you use a tow home, Lieutenant Corbett?"
Tomís heart almost jumped out of his chest. He picked up the headset and pressed the microphone to his mouth. "By the Holy Craters of Luna, Captain Strong! Am I glad to see you!"
"We had a tough time finding you, Lieutenant. So we played follow the missile until we got a lock on you. You can thank my Astrogator for that idea. Iíll put him through to you."
A familiar voice emanated from the speaker. "Lieutenant, this is Astrogator T.J. Thistle at your service."
"T.J.!", Tom shouted joyfully. "I owe you a platter of Ďburgers and a tub of Mars Water!"
"You owe me more than that, you ungrateful space-ape........Sir."
Tom began laughing as relief from the stress finally overcame him.
Steve Strong resumed his communication. "Lieutenant, weíre coming around to lash on with a tow line. Weíd better get you back to the space station while you still have air."
Several hours later, after space-suited crews manually guided the small ship into an airlock, maintenance crews cut through the boarding hatch, which was inoperable due to the loss of power. Tom, Bull and Paul exited the craft and inhaled fresh air deeply into their lungs. They were escorted to the infirmary for quick checkups and then released. Bull led the trio to the command center where they were greeted by Lou Conell. After salutes were exchanged, Colonel Conell congratulated the men on jobs well done. Tom, worried about Roger and Astro, asked about their status.
"Well, Lieutenant, Manning is in a recovery room. He broke a rib and punctured a lung in the planetside melee. Heís doing fine and you can go right to him. Lieutenant Astroís whereabouts have not been confirmed. Thatís primarily because of the lack of proper identification in your undercover operation. However, we have a report of an individual answering Lieutenant Astroís description who refuses to leave the surface until he sees someone called Skank.
Bull and Paul began laughing loudly as Tom rubbed his tattooed scalp.
"Sir, please relay to him that Skank, Al, Paul and Taurus are waiting for him on the station."
The colonel didnít understand the request, but agreed to send the message.
Several hours later, all five members of the undercover team sat at a conference table in a debriefing room. Major Wellington, now dressed in his Solar Guard uniform, had wholesome meals prepared and brought to the room. While pouring a cup of China Black tea into a cup, he smiled as he relished in the success of the mission. The other members were seated at the table and chatting leisurely about their own involvement. Bull sat down, sipped from the cup and gave the whole group a toothy grin.
"Well, gentlemen, we made a pretty good team, didnít we?"
Paul spoke first. "Iíll be the first to admit that, Major. I also want to add my two creditís worth of praise for our younger members. They did quite well on their own."
Astroís eyes widened as he remembered one of the details. "Major Wellington, did the Guard secure Senís reception center?"
Bull swallowed another sip of tea and answered, "MmmmÖ Oh yes! Lieutenant Manning gave the information to the Space Marines and they had no problem locating the facility once they knew of the approximate location. The assault on the center was swift and complete. The gatekeeper and his soup kitchen were shut down too." Bull, in an unseemly display of informality, pulled up a chair and put his legs up on the seat. "It may take months to unscramble all of the information, but we should be able to completely dismantle Senís network of spies and suppliers."
"What about the men that followed him?", asked Tom.
"Theyíll be given a complete evaluation and an opportunity to reform. If not, I suspect that The Rock is going to be very crowded!"
Bull was holding the teacup between the thumb and forefinger of both hands. He straightened out his right forefinger and pointed it directly at Astro.
"Before we become embroiled in the bookwork and politics in the aftermath of this operation, we should get you back to Solar Guard Headquarters for the reattachment of your arm."
Astro, his midsection covered in bandages, smiled broadly and said, "Yes, Sir!"
"How about some major dental work for me, Major?", asked Paul.
"Oh, I think we can get that done too, Major. Although, I must say that youíre present condition kind of takes the edge off of your stiff personality!"
"What do you mean stiff?", protested the reservist. "Iíll have you know that I can fly and fight with the best of Ďem"
"Not while youíre driving bigwigs from city to city on Earth, you canít!", stated Bull. "Itís too bad that a man of your capability has become a chauffeur to the elite."
Paul stepped nose to nose with the security chief.
"You big bag of space-gas! You wouldnít know a real job if it kicked you in the tailfins! Youíre pretty smug prancing around in your soldier-suit barking orders to some poor boy that just left the family farm. Let me tell you, misterÖ I donít need it! I donít need you and I donít need the Guard to drag me away from my family, beat me up and send me on some insane mission!"
Without as much as a blink, Bull listened to the tirade and then totally disarmed Paul by quietly stating, "You really hate civilian life, donít you, Major?"
As Paulís façade collapsed, he fell into his chair and dragged his hand over his face. "Youíve really got me pegged, Major. OkayÖ I wish I was back in the ranks. Those gold stripes are just a reminder that I made a big mistake by opting out into the reserves."
Bull leaned down and put his hand on Paulís shoulder. "Iím not without a little influence around the Academy, Major. Weíll talk later."
Tom, Roger and Astro sat, mouths agape, watching the spectacle unfold before them. As Major Wellington exited the room, he turned to his crew and said, "We work well together. Iíll look forward to another mission with all of you. See you at Space Academy. Spacemanís Luck!"
As the door closed, the three young officers surrounded Paul and congratulated him for returning to permanent active service. As the night turned to day and back to night aboard the orbiting station, the four men recounted their adventures again and again, only pausing to look at the chronograph to see how long it would be before they would board the Andromeda and burn reactant for home.