"Grumph!" the shock absorbers grunted when we hit the water, and our couches softened the punch of the landing. Now, our capsule bobbed up and down in the sea, and the motion was unnerving. At least the capsule was oriented correctly, right side up. That's less work for us and less of a chance to get nauseous. We had made quick work of the After Landing Checklist and Zoomer opened the outside air vents. We took off our helmets, and the fresh air felt delightful. Gone was the sterile, machine-scented stuff we had been breathing for days. If you wonder why this is exciting, try going without clean, fresh air for a few days. Then go to the beach, or visit your local woods and notice the difference.
"Congratulations, Zoomer, and welcome home, Major!" announced Hopper.
"Rog, thanks for all your help!" I responded.
"WaveHopper is a few minutes away from you; they should be there momentarily. Remain this frequency till the recovery," added the Capcom.
"This frequency till the recovery," read back Zoomer.
I filed my paperwork for Zoomer. It was such a relief to have the formalities done. She was a proper, certificated bunstronaut.
Mr. Toes and the otter
We duffed our bulky suits and tried to get used to things falling to the ground. If you tried to let go of your helmet for a second to do something, it would remind you where you are with a crash. Drink pouches would splat and spill everywhere. Also, now the blood started to drain from our heads. It was time to sit down and take it easy.
Soon, we heard from Abby on the WaveHopper. A little later, somebun was banging on the main hatch, and I heard strange thumps and scrapes on the outside of our capsule. I could never get used to the otters crawling all over outside when they worked to secure the spacecraft. Zoomer and I put on our water harnesses and double checked each other. A bun can get very wobbly after a flight like ours, and should we end up in the drink, the harnesses and the life vests that came with them would be our best friends. Hopefully, the otters could get to us before the sharks did. We released the hatch when the otters were ready for us. One of them immediately stuck its little head inside the capsule to check on us.
Mr. Toes on the slide
I nudged Zoomer to get out first and immediately pulled her back.
"Wait, wait. Now you are the proper bunstronaut in command. That makes you the commander, the captain. You're the last bun off the ship. I'm sorry, Zoomer. Here, watch me, and make sure you hop slowly and deliberately when you're on the catamaran," I said.
An illuminated rubber slide already connected our capsule to the catamaran. One of the otters tethered me to a cable between the spacecraft and the sea vessel. I checked the tether, just in case. You never know if the otter is having a good night. I slid down toward the ship on my belly, paws stretched out in front of me. Once at the other end, somebun grabbed me, secured me to a railing, and helped me into a comfy seat. Zoomer followed right behind me.
AquaRex and the catamaran
We turned toward the capsule. It had a red and green rotating beacon mounted on the top, where the docking probe was. The otters closed the hatch and secured the capsule for the night. Once they released the security line and pulled in the slide, we were ready to go.
Pancake chatted with one of the disappointed AquaRex commanders. There would be no need for them to make a water landing. They would have to settle for an escort flight. Still, those bunletts would get their full credit for the mission, and they would log the flight time. They would brag about it all the same.
Pancake and the Jackie
A nurse came by to check on us and gave us the diagnostic pellets to swallow. I took mine with a swig of water. Water would have to do for now. For the remainder of the ride home, we tried to relax and enjoy the breeze. Zoomer faced the wind and sat with her eyes closed.
The ride was quiet, and you could barely hear the engines as the catamaran plowed through the ocean. Somewhere overhead, an AquaRex lazily droned in the sky. Zoomer did her best to sit up and take in the ambiance, but she started to nod off. Each time she woke up, she tried to straighten up more than she did the last time. She gave up in the end and took a nap.
Joey and the bunletts
Abby sat next to me, and we held paws all the way back home. Pancake stretched out on the deck, tocks out, and watched little Jackie, the "used-to-be-shy" bunlett at the helm. Once the lights of the dock became visible, we woke up Zoomer. Jackie got some assistance from one of the otters to make sure everything went smoothly to the very end.
I should have known. It had to be around midnight, local time, and the dock looked pretty busy. There stood Joey and all the bunletts attending the camp. They lined up and looked as sharp as carrot peeler blades. Joey wore his vacation's best for the occasion, even the greasy old chef's hat and was gripping his favorite spatula. When Zoomer disembarked the ship, Joey blew the whistle, saluted Zoomer, welcomed her to the camp and drilled the bunletts like an honor guard. It proved too much for Zoomer, and she tried to binky. Zoomer got off the ground all right, but the landing turned out to be tricky. She lost her balance and spilled with a roll. One of the bunletts almost let out a jeer and almost went into the drink. I barely caught the sight of Joey's paw moving away from the offender's scruff. After the welcome ceremony, we marched toward the bonfire and collapsed into the beach chairs. Proper beverages arrived, and we toasted the newly certificated bunstronaut, Zoomer. The carrotinis were wonderful.
The otters joined us once they secured the catamaran, and we got to sample their grog. They roasted whatever it is they ate and enjoyed it very much. Joey kept roasting sweet puffy carrots and all sorts of goodies, even some of those hydroponic carrots and parsnips. The bunletts stayed up as well and chatted with Zoomer. Little Jackie became a different bun and took a real liking to the otters. Finally, Pancake had to shush them off to beds.
That's when Zoomer noticed the medallion hanging around Joey's neck and paused. It was round, with a diameter of a medium carrot. The outside was a plane, thin ring made of Inconel-X 750, a heat-resistant nickel alloy. It almost looked purple when the light hit it just so. The inside was set in a transparent resin, and it held a clump of hair attached to a shiny bead.
"It that the real thing?" asked Zoomer.
"What? The medallion? Yeah, the medallion's real," chuckled Joey as he took another swig of his carrotini.
"I mean the little orange piece of fuzz, is that the real..." Zoomer tried to clarify, but Joey's demeanor changed. He turned around, went back to his beach chair, and pulled out a stogie. No bun said anything.
"Not sure what you mean by real. It's a real piece of fuzz. I had it colored orange. Yes, the bead of chrono-chromium is real," said Joey as his voice dropped.
At last, Joey managed to light up his stogie and leaned back in the chair. He kept looking at the starry night and the moon. The aroma of mint and basil filled the air as he puffed on the herb wad.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know." Zoomer tried to apologize.
"That's OK, maybe one day we'll write a book about that," chuckled Joey with a sad grin.
In the end, the night had gotten all of us, and we decided to retire to our quarters. This time, Zoomer gave up on heroics and slowly waddled away to her room. Shortly after, she closed her windows and turned on the air conditioning. From the sound of it, she must have set the temperature in her room every low, and Abby and I exchanged smiles. Zoomer was catching on to what she had accomplished. She realized she was back on the ground and missed the place she just came from. "Was any of it real?" she might have wondered.
Joey decided to go back to the kitchen to "check on something," meaning he just needed some time alone. I just wanted to lie down. I needed a break, a real vacation to regroup, replenish, and decide where to go from here.