Captain Martin Tremblay was sitting in the starboard ops seat of the Lander craft assigned to Task Force Cimarron, facing the console, and above it the narrow row of windows. Cimarron, the larger flat vehicle they were strapped underneath, was on final approach to Military Bay Three, it's temporary home while routine maintenance proceeded on their normal bay at Lagrange Station 5.
The negative pressure locks of the bay, freed to move now that the interior of the hold had de-pressurized, began to open, popping inward, free of their safeties, and then sliding apart. Normally Tremblay enjoyed this sight, it reminded him of the massive water locks of the Welland Canal - a favourite hang-out spot when he was growing up, back home in Thorold, Ontario - that made container ship travel possible between Lake Erie and the much lower Lake Ontario.
In truth the physics involved in the safeties of the Bay were very similar to the water locks. The doors of both were angled just enough that pressure on one side did much of the work to secure the closure and keep the contents within the space from harm.
This time, however, Tremblay was lightly snoozing. Dead tired from a string of missions and complications related to them. He sat in the chair, looking busy, or at least engaged in some activity to those behind him. But the Lander Pilot beside him knew better.
In fact, Fleet Lieutenant Kelso Yancy, could actually hear the light snoring going on beside him. He knew better than to say anything. They'd all been long over-due this return.
Tremblay shuddered suddenly, one of those odd body spasms that seemed to happen just as he was falling asleep, and he opened his eyes. On the display before him was the gapping maw of their hold, home.
He smiled, "There's a sight for sore eyes," he muttered dreamily.
Yancy's eyes went wide. He looked back quickly hoping no one else had heard them. Specifically the Task Force commander Major Wilf Ackers, who thankfully was up a deck, in the Cockpit of the Cimarron orbiter.
Every time someone said anything remotely like that during final approach, another mission came in, keeping them from actually landing.
It had originally been funny, but now, having happened three times a row it was anything but. In fact, Major Ackers had subjected the last person he heard saying that to a week of primary coil maintenance.
Yancy wasn't superstitious, he didn't believe that what the Captain had just said would make any difference. He just didn't want to invoke the Major's wrath.
Fortunately it looked like they were alone, no one had heard them, and the front nose of Cimarron had already crossed the hold's threshold.
Ten weeks earlier they'd launched, fresh from a week off, for their rotation along the Asteroid Belt. A make-work project the Astral team drew once a year for near-Asteroid training and patrol.
The fourteen days they were out there had allowed various pursuit and approach drills, one of which had damaged a Hornet when it got too close to some of the debris in the field, but it was good for them to get a chance to run the course.
Hornet drivers didn't have much to do for the other missions Cimarron got because of the risk six small combat craft create in most special and covert operations. Frankly Yancy didn't know why they even had the Hornets, the Lander was so versatile it seemed like an unnecessary redundancy, but he wasn't in charge, and the fast little craft had come in handy on more than one occasion.
Well, he thought, that's what a Task Force was all about, to provide a variety of tactical options in the field, as needed. Certainly that had been the case on their way back from the exercise.
Demonstrations for the apparently growing independence movement on New Terra went violent fast, and Cimarron, being the closest to the Space Colony anchored in Earth's orbit on the far side of Sol, was diverted to it.
Who knew the instigators of the violence weren't even from the station population and had an escape craft standing by at one of the gates? They would've gotten away too, but for the Hornets.
Able to launch without prep and boosted to full speed in seconds the six craft corralled the renegade craft before Cimarron had even pulled away from its gate.
The report indicated that the renegades, had they been able to get up to speed, would have outpaced Cimarron. And by heading toward the Asteroid Belt they could've eluded capture all together.
Yancy stopped on that thought, wondering again if, by heading for the Asteroid Belt, the renegades were revealing they were New Soviet operatives or not. He'd never know for sure, he simply wasn't cleared that high up, but it didn't stop him from wondering. He glanced over at Tremblay again, who had drifted back in his light sleep.
They were closing on the moorings, a sure sign that they'd made it back home this time without the effects of the curse playing out. Yancy sighed at that. The trip back to Earth from New Terra would have been uneventful, should have been. They'd even made is past the orbit of Venus before someone said something and they'd gotten the call.
A group of Mercologists, geologists specializing in the planet Mercury, hadn't cleared the surface of the fast little world early enough and the solar activity, high this year, had clogged their driver causing them to get an extreme opportunity to study their specialty.
Normally, they would either be dead or in the cue for pick-up by a civilian craft, but the extreme environmental conditions at the moment made such an action too risky for any vehicle operating only on plasma based drivers, and that mean Military craft.
The Lander had a variety of propulsion systems, not the least of which were two chemical reaction boosters, normally stored laterally beside the Lander when it was nested beneath the Orbiter. Auto-Servo systems recharged the boosters directly from the driver section of the Orbiter.
Then precision mechanical systems developed by Magellan Shipyards in contract to Anex Astralnautics reached out, latched onto and secured the two boosters, pulling them tight and anchoring them to either side of the craft before launch.
So that from the moment they were free of the mother craft the Lander was capable of descending, and departing nearly any type of environment the craft could survive. Even then it was tricky. The science craft hadn't landed flat and Mercury, being so close to Sol, has some pretty wild fluctuations in gravity, particularly when the ground you're over is in the process of transiting from the dark-side to full exposure.
Even with the front baffles on the only window the Lander had down the internal heat was pushing the cooling past the red line. They couldn't extract quickly because the Grav-Plates were threatening to overload. A problem that kept Yancy very busy while he tried to keep the Lander steady, inclined fifteen degrees to port with a pitch nine point six degrees forward, in order to match the angle of the science crafts hatch.
They didn't know the other vehicle was overheating as badly as it was until a stress fracture, caused by the crash, overheated and gave way. One of the researchers didn't make it, but considering the reason they were lucky it had only been the one.
Moments later the Lander was free of the damaged vehicle and ascending back to orbit, boosters going full steam. But that, oddly enough, was the root cause of Tremblay's napping in the ops seat beside him.
Cimarron wasn't a rescue craft. It was a military vehicle, fully packed, in tight quarters, by the crew aboard. The Orbiter had room for twenty-one people, twenty-two in a pinch, but the Lander, where the twelve noncoms stayed, only had four bunks.
This precipitated a hot bunk policy not otherwise found anywhere but on Submarines. Each Trooper was allotted seven hours in the bunk for sleep and one for prep and rotation. Each eight hours another Trooper climbed in after the previous.
Three noncoms rotated in each bunk, thereby ensuring they were always warm. The officers had it better for sure. One of the cubicles on the Orbiter was for the Fleet Pilots.
Four people rotating through three bunks, which was fine because at least two pilots were on-duty at any given moment.
Normally Yancy would be there but Captain Tremblay's cubicle had two bunks, one for the Tactical Officer.
And as they didn't have a Tactical Officer at the moment Yancy was allowed to use that bunk. Which was fine with him, it was a slightly roomier cabin than the Pilots had, it even had a small table and two chairs.
The three Engineers were bunked together in another cabin. Three bunks in it, one for each, so that was nice, because the ship's engines took a lot of maintenance to stay at peak performance and you didn't want a sleepy engineer doing that stuff.
The Infantry Officers, as the Astral Field Leaders were called, were normally in a cabin of six, as were the Hornet pilots. But that was fine too, as there were six of each.
Only Major Ackers got a cabin to himself. He had a fold down bunk which was used for emergencies, like this had become.
Everyone, including the fourteen scientists, would have to do some 'hot bunking' on the trip home, but even then, some system was needed to free up bunk space. Thankfully the Hornet drivers offered their bunks up entirely. Turned out most of them prefered to sleep in the tail track of their craft, a tight, but infinitely quieter space than the shared cabin.
The Pilots and the Engineers came up with a rotation system that allowed them to share one cabin. Pilots won the toss to decide which one, they picked theirs but changed their minds, and all six moved into the tighter Hornet pilot's cabin so their guests would have more space.
But all the juggling only created six open bunks. Ackers converted his cabin to bunks and turned it over, Tremblay moved himself and Yancy out, which opened up four more beds, a grand total of ten bunks for fourteen guests.
Only four would have to rotate beds and they decided to do so in Tremblay's and Ackers' cabins because of the extra space.
But that left the Commanding Officer of the Task Force, the Squad Commander and it's Lander Pilot with no place to stay.
The Astral Officers handed over half their cabin immediately. The six of them would rotate on three bunks, letting their Leaders and the guy responsible for getting them where they needed to go, the most peace and quiet.
Unfortunately, despite a career in Ground Ops, Tremblay couldn't sleep in a strange bed, and so he'd spent most of the trip back, tossing and turning and being generally grumpy, when he wasn't just dozing off.
The first of the moor lines automatically secured with a resounding clang that brought cheers from everyone on board who wasn't awake, and smiles from most of those sleeping. They were home.