Seconds later, one of the beacons received a reply transmitted from the object at a precise frequency. The reply was automatically shunted through the beacon to a receiving station spinning around the Earth in geosynchronous orbit. From there, the signal was sent on a tightbeam transmission to the Department of Space Affairs in the sprawling Armstrong Building, where a string of characters embedded within it allowed it to bypass multiple levels of bureaucracy to arrive at the office of the Secretary of Space Affairs, Ronald Drake.
Drake's chief aide, Marcus Griffin, heard a chime from the communicator on his desk indicating an incoming astrophone message. A viseograph on the wall above the desk lit to reveal the pilot room of an XV-class patrol ship. Seated at the controls were two men Griffin knew well: Rockwell Stapleton Jones IV, invariably known by his nickname Rocky, and Antonio DelPonte, even more invariably known by his nickname Winky. Both wore standard shipboard duty attire: soft caps and pale gold short-sleeved shirts bearing the winged-planet emblem of the Space Rangers. DelPonte was tall and thin, with dark hair and brown eyes, while Jones was more compact, with light brown hair and blue eyes .
"XV-2 calling Office of Space Affairs," Jones' voice echoed from the speaker grill, "come in, please. This is the XV-2 calling the Office of Space Affairs. Come in."
Griffin strode over to the desk and activated the comm system's response key. "Come in, XV-2," he responded. "State celestial position."
"This is Rocky Jones of the Space Rangers reporting," came the reply. "Celestial meridian fifty-eight degrees, parallel one four six degrees. We're now in second braking ellipse of Earth, requesting landing clearance at approximately sixteen hundred."
Peering at a navigational display on his desk, Griffin reported, "You're dead center on Baker Flight Path, Rocky. Ride her in, we're all clear and waiting for you." The door to the outside corridor opened, and Drake entered at a sedate pace. "Hold it, here's Secretary Drake." Griffin knew that Drake would want to speak with Jones personally. The two were old friends, dating from Jones' time as Drake's co-pilot on one of the Space Rangers' old NXR-class cruisers. Smiling at his superior, Griffin handed over the microphone.
Drake had retired from the Space Rangers ten years before to take the post of Secretary of Space Affairs, and age might have thinned and whitened his hair, but it had not robbed him of his keen intellect, nor softened his physique. His brown eyes were still sharp, and his voice and carriage were still those of a man of thirty. "Welcome home, Rocky," he said warmly as he smiled into the viseograph.
"Thank you, sir," Jones replied. "It's certainly good to be back." Although Drake was no longer Jones' commanding officer, the younger man still sounded like a junior officer reporting at the end of his duty shift. He was not a man who could easily unbend before a superior, even one as close as Ronald Drake. Jones' own copilot, on the other hand, gave Drake an answering smile. Winky DelPonte could be just as serious as any other member of the Space Rangers, but he was more informal by nature than Jones.
"Was it a rough trip?" Drake continued.
"More or less routine, sir," said Jones, though DelPonte's expression spoke volumes about his own opinion of their flight. Leaning over to Jones' microphone, he added, "Much more 'more' than less 'less', Mr. Secretary, believe me."
"I can believe you, Winky," Drake chuckled. "Come in the office when you land, boys. I'll have your leave papers ready."
"Thank you, Mr. Secretary," said a grinning DelPonte.
Jones confined himself to a simple, "Thank you, sir. Out."
* * *
Officially, Rocky Jones' patrol ship was known as the XV-2. Unofficially, and more popularly, it was called the Orbit Jet. As its braking ellipse brought it into the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific, the ground crew at Tsiolkovsky Spaceport sprang into action. Landing pad 17 became the site of a carefully rehearsed mechanical ballet as the spaceport's public address system barked out orders, emergency vehicles positioned themselves, and the gantry was readied for use.
A brilliant light appeared in the western sky, like a tiny second sun, as the Orbit Jet's retrothrusters fired and its speed began to drop. Men and women in the spaceport's control tower compared the Orbit Jet's passage through the atmosphere with its assigned flight path, and found them to be in perfect alignment. As Griffin had told Jones, the ship was dead center on Flight Path Baker.
Ronald Drake emerged from the entrance of the Armstrong Building to watch the Orbit Jet's final descent. As many times as he had seen a ship come in, he still found it hard to resist the urge to drop everything and rush out to see with his own eyes as it landed. When it was Rocky Jones' ship, "hard to resist" became "impossible to resist". He felt as much as heard the sonic concussion that washed over the neighborhood of the spaceport as the Orbit Jet fell below the speed of sound and its wake caught up with it. The light of the ship's retrothrusters grew until it rivalled the westering sun, and the sound was like a thousand thunderstorms all at once. As Drake and the other observers on the ground, in the control tower, and in the Armstrong Building watched, Jones and DelPonte brought the Orbit Jet down to a perfect landing in the center of landing pad 17. The retrothrusters died, and the silence felt louder than the thunderous roar of the landing had. The Orbit Jet stood like a vast silver tower as the ground crew manning the gantry drove it across the blackened concrete of landing pad 17 until it nestled against the ship's side.
Griffin emerged from the entrance to stand by Drake's side. "Pardon me, sir," he reported, "but a car just drove through number three gate without stopping for identification." At once, Drake's elation was replaced by worry. The government was still reeling from the news that Professor Dominic Newton, the most renowned scientist in the Solar System, had defected to the Ophiuchians. If a saboteur or terrorist penetrated the grounds of the spaceport and carried out an attack under the very nose of the Secretary of Space Affairs, the backlash might bring about its fall.