The bonfire was almost entirely out except for a few glowing ambers, yet no bun wanted to call the picnic over. The later it got, the less we wanted to go back. A thick current of apprehension twisted our moods, and the anxiety started permeating us like the surrounding cold, damp night. We didn't want to face having to go back "home," whatever that meant anymore.
After our big art discussion, Joey sunk into a puddle of melancholy. He kept trying to talk to "Hop," but Hopmeric never answered. Finally, Pancake and Penny took the electric cart and went back to the ship to get the disinfecting supplies. The moment was coming when we would have to part ways with Hopmeric. We all said our goodbyes. Hopmeric almost got a bald spot on his forehead from all the head rubs. When Pancake returned, she gave him a thorough scrub. She sniffed his leg where the wound used to be, but it was all healed. She said the leg felt absolutely fine to the touch.
"Hop, do you want to go with us?" Joey tried one last time to get through. Hopmeric only sat and looked at us, a little discombobulated after the scrub, and kept washing his paws with his mouf.
We had to go. We put everything back on the cart and the hover-stand, then we took our seats for the short ride back to the ship. Joey tried to take "Hop" by the paw and lead him to the cart, but Hopmeric twisted away with a thump and hopped off into the night, flicking his feet. I was sick to my stomach; my head was swirling. Joey kept staring at the dark woods and thumping. Pancake and I took him under his arms, led him to the cart, and placed him on the seat. He could barely move his feet. Joey slumped in the seat next to Molly, and his head hung so low I wanted to cry. Our caravan moved slowly toward the ship. We would make any funeral procession look like a circus.
When we arrived in the loading bay, the sound of the ramp closing with a heavy thud crushed my heart again. All of my defenses went down, and I felt incredibly exhausted and broken down. Abby and I followed Joey to his sleeping quarters, and we all piled in. It was tight with all three of us there, but we would never leave him alone on a night like that. I stretched "cross bun" style over Joey's head and rested my chin on Abby's back. I needed them as much as Joey needed us. Mercifully, a deep slumber claimed me within seconds.
Waking up from that nap was a rather unpleasant affair. I was still tired, but I couldn't sleep anymore. So was everybun else. Pancake and Abby were both barking out the morning checklists for us. Joey and I had to start bringing the ship back to life and get it ready for launch. Pancake displayed a countdown timer to liftoff on every idle monitor. The girls went back to the engine room to give it a good cleaning. All the microscopic debris after their work had to be removed. Airborne metal shavings in zero gravity would become a life hazard. They could get into small places and close electrical circuits, interfere with sensors, set off alarms, and cause all sorts of cryptic and potentially deadly failures. Right now, the engine room was the most contaminated space on the ship and required all the care and attention we could muster.
Joey and I slowly hopped toward the flight deck. Once there, I looked at him and got the feeling I would have to do everything myself. I decided to help him into his couch and handed him a sweet berry chew bar and a pouch of warm, coffea beverage. I would rather he did nothing than screw up and get us all killed. The poor guy looked done for. If we missed our launch window because of that, so be it. We would take the next one.
I settled into the familiar, old routine and started on the checklists, hopping between the consoles when I had to switch between the different systems. It made everything go more slowly, but I wanted to isolate the work on the various parts in some physical way. I didn't want to get confused by working on a single screen. After a couple of hours, Joey started to come back to life and at least followed me around and provided a second pair of eyes on everything I did. He warmed up enough to take over some of the checks, and we made up some of the lost time. We didn't say a word about last night. There would be plenty of time for that later, should we be so lucky.
When Pancake and the others came up to the flight deck to check on us and to get something substantial to eat, we decided to push back the launch. The engine room was still a mess, and we were all exhausted. There was no need to rush anything, and we all opted for naps right there at our stations. Only Joey stayed up, in the first row next to the windows, and stared quietly at the woods.