I didn't realize at first that I had finished my story. I just gazed outside through one of the windows. Another orbital sunset got me before I knew it. Zoomer sat on her couch with her feet tucked into the sleeping pouch to stay in place. Her nose twitched calmly up and down. She looked at me without a word and wiggled herself into the pouch. I did the same. "So, Major, you think I should be able to sleep on that story now?" asked Zoomer quietly, gravely pondering what she had heard. She added after a long pause, "You know, if I ever meet Pancake or Abby, or any of the others, I'll ask them about it." "I wouldn't expect anything else; good night," I said with a grin.
The next morning, Zoomer woke up before me and had finished the morning chores before I opened my first eye. "Major, two hours and twelve minutes before the cutter probe arrives," announced Zoomer. "I suggest we suit up. I hear they are unreliable half the time," she added. "Affirm!" I yawned.
I grabbed a warm beverage and a high-fiber chew bar and pulled up the latest weather forecast. The timing of her retro burn would determine where we landed. Looking through our potential landing sites, I wondered what else to throw at Zoomer. Most of the sites were very unappealing, vanilla spots on the various oceans. There was one place that looked interesting, but it would be difficult to get to. We would have to shallow out our re-entry angle. We would splash down outside the bounds of the standard recovery corridor, but Zoomer would get extra points for that. I looked at the clock and tried to do the math in my head to figure out when the retro burn would have to happen for us to hit that particular location. I typed in my request to the Center to verify my numbers. They were close enough.
Zoomer and I got ready for the cutter probe. The probe gripped our ship and the unruly booster and separated the two. She thought this was her luckiest day ever because the maneuver went without any of the horrors she expected. Zoomer paid no attention to me and carried on with the Center and Capcom. She was exuberant because she just about had the entire check flight in the bag. I rechecked the clock, tightened my couch restraints, and started a three-minute countdown timer. I opened the cover of my right keypad, entered the first malfunction code, and pressed the exec key.
All hay broke loose. "You're losing pressure; fuel cells one and three are off-line," I announced calmly. As I increased the strain on Zoomer, a funny thing crossed my mind. Would she react like I did that one time when I refused to let my instructor take the airplane controls? The instructor said, "I have the aircraft," and I was supposed to say, "You have the aircraft," and so on. It was a proficiency training flight, and she was putting me through the usual workout. She wanted to put the craft into an unusual attitude and have me recover from it, but something snapped in me, and instead, I said, "No; why?" We both burst out laughing, but I became instantly sick to my gut over the possible consequences. Of course, she got the aircraft, and we did the training routine. Then I thought, "What if my student had done that?" For a long time, I thought I was done flying, and from then on, I never took any bun's reaction for granted.
I watched what Zoomer would do. She declared the emergency without a flinch and asked me to work the radios. She got on with configuring the craft for immediate deorbit. Somewhere between the checklists, Zoomer looked at me with raised eyebrows once she realized we would be landing at night. She dumped our service module to be recovered by a recycling crew and proceeded with the deorbit burn. We were heading home whether we liked it or not.
It just so happened that there was a shift change at the Center and a new Capcom took over the console. "Toes, you old trickster! What are you up to? Fancy a night swim in the ocean, do you?" That was Hopper! "What are you doing there? I thought you would be on your berry farm!" I exclaimed. "I was on my way out the door, and then we heard what you did," giggled Hopper.
He was right. I kicked up a lot of commotion. I could just imagine the recovery crews scrambling. All the youngsters still on student status were chomping at the bit for a chance to get live rescue points and get that much closer to graduation. After all, they had to train like everybunny else, so why not let them in on the real action?
I was hoping Abby and Pancake would be listening to the Center communications. We usually try to eavesdrop on bun another when somebun is on orbit and the other on the ground. They were on a work vacation, tending to experiments like growing hydroponic carrots in seawater.
I checked on Zoomer one more time. She was still all business but seemed a bit more relaxed. She knew she was doing well. "We have a low-pressure weather system approaching our landing site, a category four cyclone," I announced, "Rog, say present position and direction of movement," acknowledged Zoomer. "It's moving fast, west, north-west and I recommend we avoid it to the northeast," I responded.
"Good grief, Toes, she won't get any points for a heart attack, you know!" Hopper chimed in, quite out of line, and continued, "Rog, Red Hop One, correct at your discretion." We needed to flatten out our trajectory just a tiny bit, half a whisker, to skip over the imagined bad weather. I felt a little jolt when Zoomer tilted our capsule just a fraction to let it produce more lift. The new trajectory would take us outside the normal recovery zone, enough to qualify our landing as "off-site." Once we stabilized, I said to Zoomer, "That's enough points for one flight." "Don't let me stop you if you need more points, Major," Zoomer cut right back.
Now there wouldn't be just ships speeding toward our landing site. At least one or two long-range SeaRex amphibian transport planes would be taking off from the nearest bases. I hoped somebun else was scrambling to pick us up too.