For a second, Freddie stared blankly at the three faces peeking in through the window in the door. All three wore head cameras, and one of them was talking nonstop about something. Then it clicked. It was Pancake, Molly, and somebun he didn't recognize. Freddie went for the door, tears pooling in his eyes. He found the door release handle by feel. The salty puddles in his eyes grew too big to be held in place by surface tension and started to break away. When the door opened, he pulled himself forward and crashed into Pancake. He tried to wrap his tiny paws around her neck. Molly got a nosebonk from Penny. The third bun was named Rhea; she was one of the news buns, and she kept narrating the encounter for a continuous live broadcast.
Pancake put her right paw around Freddie and squeezed him tightly as she floated into the room. She released Mel from his seat and pulled his body into the open. He was out cold and unresponsive. She pulled the tranquilizer dart from his neck and looked at the label on the ampule. Well, Mel had a good few hours of deep slumber ahead of him, but nothing more. The same was true for Hopper and me.
Penny grabbed Mel by his collar, and Pancake and Molly took hold of Hopper and me respectively. They got out of the room with us in tow as quickly as they could and headed for the safety of the news ship. They barely made it into the airlock when the ship separated from the hospital and started turning around. All the while Rhea continued to call the play-by-play commentary of the evacuation in progress.
She had many questions, but at the moment only Penny could speak. Freddie must have turned into a marsupial as he refused to let go of Pancake and kept his head buried in the fur under her chin.
To everybun's surprise, the sensors on the ship picked up a personal distress signal. It came from somewhere nearby and turned out to be so close that the crew had a hard time believing it. Somebun was free-floating in space on the other side of the hospital module they had just left behind.
"Whoever is the closest to being suited up, you're doing the EBA! Engineering, get the Roach ready!" ordered the ship's commander over the intercom and swore like a space sailor. A couple of the news buns scrambled and gathered around Penny and Pancake. Freddie was still holding onto Pancake for dear life. Unflappable, Rhea continued to roll with the changing situation and calmly carried on with her commentary.
"You two, could you get your helmets on?" asked a news bun, signaling to Penny and Freddie. "We will help you get the Roach ready, and you will have to retrieve the survivor," another one said. They didn't care much for Freddie's panic attack. Penny got on with completing her suit up. Pancake whispered to Freddie, "Look, take how you feel right now, squeeze it into a little ball and put it in my pocket. I'll keep it safe for you, and you can have it back when you have finished this chore." She accentuated "you have finished this chore" just ever so slightly. After a second, she felt Freddie take a deep breath as he picked up his head, looked at her and slapped her on the arm, right on one of her pockets.
Freddie pushed off and looked around for his helmet. Molly snacks up behind him and put it over his head.
In the bay next to the airlock, the news buns were loading propellant cartridges into the Roach, a long, pill-shaped probe. It had small thrusters at both ends, and the buns were attaching handlebars to it. The handlebars also served as antennas. No bun was sure who, or when, first started calling it the Roach. It was a simple and tough vehicle able to survive in the harshest of conditions the chores that space had to offer. Core meltdowns, toxic spills, overheated particle accelerators did nothing to it. It always came back unscathed. You could couple it with specialized modules, for example, if you wanted to purify the contents of a liquid disdanium tank or inspect an about-to-melt combustion chamber after an emergency shutdown.
Now the ship was changing its course trying to get close to the sorry sod floating somewhere in the darkest of darkness.
The telemetry from the survivor didn't reveal anything personal, but it told a grim story. The levels of CO2 were close to fatally high. At least they had a rough idea as to what kind of medical help the survivor would need. The news buns moved quickly to stage the essential equipment next to the airlock and to get it ready. For all they knew, this could already be a recovery and not a rescue mission. But the buns didn't care. They were all sure of one thing: no bun, or badger for that matter, would be left behind to freeze-dry in the void. Only Freddie worried it could be a setup. All the same, he followed Penny into the airlock.
Once inside, they hooked up the tether cable to the Roach. The line also served as a control wire for the probe. The news buns helped to mount the Roach on a rail for launch and got out of the airlock. Penny depressurized the chamber and opened the big hatch. Penny stood too close to the open space, and her paws tingled with sparks. She and Freddie stood clear of the Roach as Freddie pulled the red handle and softly launched the probe into space. When it cleared the ship, the Roach started to home in on the survivor.
All the while, the news ship kept moving toward the creature in distress, but everybun had hoped the probe would snag the drifter first and bring him or her aboard. Maneuvering a craft the size of the news ship is a tedious and challenging affair on a good night. Everybun on the flight deck watched with apprehension as the probe closed in on the stranded bunstronaut. When it got close enough to the survivor to reach it with its grabber arm, it extended a spindly appendage with a bunch of fingers that could grab onto anything, like the toes of a gecko.
The arm gripped the survivor on its first attempt, and the flight deck erupted with cheer. Now Penny had control of the ship and started to retract the probe's tether line. They were lucky the commander was able to bring the craft almost to a standstill until they finished the retrieval. Penny watched as the probe got closer and closer to the airlock. She kept her paw on a joystick, ready to adjust the craft's orientation if it looked like the survivor would get whipped around and smashed against the hull of the ship. But the line kept steadily retracting. Toward the end, she had to make only two small adjustments, and she felt the violent shudders of the vessel's body as the RCS thrusters thumped the ship like battering rams. Whoever they were fishing out of the deep space was almost inside. As all of the tether line retracted into the floor, it secured the probe in place inside the airlock. Freddie immediately threw the handle to close the hatch.
The time it takes the airlock to pressurize always feels long, but this time it felt like an eternity. Penny glanced at the freshly rescued stranger and then stared at him for a long while; her nose twitched. She looked at Freddie with dread in her eyes and said, "This is Dr. Hopnom!"