CHAPTER 11 The mood was somber while Bella and Colt headed down into the kitchen area of the club where most of her friends waited to say their goodbyes. She and Colt had spent the previous day packing up her quarters as well as her baggage for the journey back to Earth. The remainder of the items she was leaving behind were being put into storage and would await her return from the vacation she was taking. She made her way down the line of her friends and shared a hug, a laugh and a tear with each. It wasn’t easy leaving those she had come to love as close friends and even surrogate family. “I’ll keep your spot warm for you,” said Monica as she and Bella shared a warm hug. “Just keep Jake out of trouble,” laughed Bella. “Impossible,” laughed Monica. “I hope you have a beautiful wedding.” “I wish you could be there,” said Bella. “I could be packed in about fifteen minutes,” grinned Monica. “This place would burn down without you,” laughed Bella. “You take care of yourself.” “Bye honey,” said Monica as they shared one more hug and Bella made her way to Jake. “You take care of yourself,” said Jake as he took her into a hug. “I really don’t know what to say,” said Bella as tears came to her eyes. “Not much to say,” said Jake. “You’ve been the best thing that ever could have happened to this place. But I also know you’re the best thing that’s happened to that young man over there. I’ve hoarded you long enough and it’s time you spread your charm to the rest of the System.” “You couldn’t make this any harder?” she laughed and a tear escaped her eye. “Bye Bella,” said Jake as they shared one more hug and a tear escaped his eye as well. “Thank you for always being there,” said Bella. Jake shared one last handshake with Colt with a warning to “treat her right” and sent them out to the cab that was waiting for them. The baggage was already loaded onto the top cargo area and she turned to wave goodbye one last time before the small crowd came out waving goodbye and saying the words as well. Bella waved as the cab departed for the shuttle station a little earlier than planned. Once they arrived, Colt went ahead and got her luggage and set it off to the side before telling her to wait while he grabbed some help from inside. After several minutes, he returned with a medical gurney and placed her baggage on the hovering device. “Isn’t that cheating?” she asked. “Slightly,” said Colt. “Of course, you packed a kitchen sink in here so no.” “I wasn’t sure what to bring,” she said. “So you brought everything,” he chuckled. “If you want, go ahead and check out through the customs office while I get this stowed. I’ll grab you when I get finished.” “Okay,” she said and headed towards the customs office and went inside. There was one person on duty and only one other person being helped at the time. She headed to the desk when prompted and handed over her ID to the man on duty. “You said you were departing with the Atomic Destiny?” he asked as he checked the computer. “Yes,” said Bella. “Is there a problem?” “You’re not listed on the manifest,” said the customs agent. “There is probably a mistake,” said Bella. “My fiancé will be here in a moment.” “Okay,” said the man as he passed over her ID. She waited for several minutes before Colt appeared in the office and looked at her. “Ready?” he asked. “No, I’m not on the manifest,” said Bella. “Probably a mix up,” said Colt as he went to the customs agent. “How do we fix this?” “The Captain or First Officer can add her in,” said the agent. “But I can’t give her an Earth visa until one of them signs off that she’s authorized.” “Okay, I’ll grab the Captain,” said Colt as he pulled out his communicator. But before he was able to call Captain Winston, he popped in the door of the office. “My sincere apologies,” said Winston as he headed for the counter. “I forgot to add her to the manifest and only remembered this morning.” “I was about to call you,” said Colt as he stowed his communicator. “Camille pointedly reminded me of the fact this morning,” said Winston and turned to the agent. “I’ll vouch for Miss Phillips and add her to the manifest.” “If you would sir, just enter your authorization code on the pad and that will clear her for departure,” said the agent as he passed over a small tablet. Winston added in his Infinicon command code and made Bella’s departure from Pluto official for the moment. “Okay Miss, you can get your visa now,” said the agent. “Well babe, you’re stuck with me for good,” said Bella with a grin. “I could think of worse people to be stranded with,” laughed Colt as she got the appropriate clearance to depart Pluto and head for Earth. “If you want, I can take Bella with me while you’re doing the preflight checks,” said Winston. “I’ll make sure she gets on board.” “In the luggage compartment,” he grinned. “That’s not very nice,” protested Bella with a frown. “Better than the hood ornament,” he laughed. “See you in a bit.” “Go to work baby,” said Bella with a quick kiss and Colt headed to the shuttle to bring everything online before the rest of the crew arrived. He already saw one or two waiting in the staging area or hauling baggage to the ship. He headed inside the shuttle and into the cockpit before pulling the checklist up on the tablet and bringing the systems online. As he was going through the checklist, one of the IP Services personnel came to the cockpit and checked in. “You’ve got a full load of fuel and a reserve tank to get you to Charon. A shuttle will meet you at the Charon Docks to take custody of the reserve tank before you attach to your parent ship. We gave the landing gear a check and didn’t find anything out of place,” said the man as he handed over a tablet with the information for Colt. “Thanks,” said Colt as he signed off on the items and the man departed. He was continuing through the checklist when Mendoza got on board and stowed his gear. “Early aren’t you?” he asked as Colt continued to turn on systems. “I had to make sure Bella got her Earth visa,” said Colt. “I’m almost finished here.” “Anything I can help with?” asked Mendoza. “Yeah, you mind grabbing a pressure suit and checking the reserve tank?” asked Colt. “And doing an exterior walk around?” “Sure,” said Mendoza as he headed towards the small airlock and got into a pressure suit to head out to check the ship from the outside. It didn’t take long to get into the pressure suit and exited the ship before checking the systems Colt couldn’t get to. “Looks okay out here,” said Mendoza over the communicator. “Tank is locked in place and everything else looks to be in working order.” “Check the topside?” asked Colt. “I’m heading there now,” said Mendoza as he climbed the small ladder and looked over the systems on the top of the shuttle. “Looks like everything is in place.” “Good deal,” said Colt. “I’m done with the checklist and all we have to do is warm engines.” Mendoza returned to the airlock and doffed the pressure suit before reentering the shuttle. Once he made his way to the cockpit, he found everything was waiting for the authorization to get the shuttle underway for the short trip to the Atomic Destiny. “You want to monitor the systems while I make sure Bella gets on board?” asked Colt. “Sure,” said Mendoza as he settled into the right hand seat. “Nope, for this one, you’re driving,” said Colt. “Okay,” said Mendoza in a confused tone. “I think you need some additional time in the left hand seat,” said Colt. “No problem,” said Mendoza as he got up and Colt departed. Once he arrived in the staging area, he saw the majority of the crew waiting as a few were still checking out. “And check out this lover boy!” exclaimed Brent McMasters. “Mister Romeo here was making some little hot thing just positively swoon the other night.” “You mean that little hot thing?” asked Colt as he nodded towards Bella. “Why yes, that does appear to be the little hot thing I was referring to,” said McMasters with a laugh. “No offense intended ma’am.” “None taken,” said Bella. “And yes, he does make me swoon.” The gathered crowd let out a couple of low catcalls and “ohhhhs” as Colt blushed up slightly. He managed to track down Talbert as she checked her tablet to make sure the crew was accounted for. “We’ve got everything ready,” said Colt. “Okay, the Captain is getting his briefing and should be here shortly,” said Talbert. “And everyone is checked out which is a miracle. Okay everyone, head to the shuttle.” The crowd broke up and headed into the shuttle where they found seating. Colt directed Bella to the rear of the craft where the reserve seating was and gave her a quick hand squeeze as she departed back through the craft. He returned to the cockpit to find Mendoza busy getting the engines warmed up. Before they were finished, Winston appeared and gave them the official “go ahead” and started strapping himself in. “Not flying today Colt?” he asked. “Mendoza needs to make sure he can dock this thing without breaking it apart,” said Colt. “Yeah, I’m a horrible pilot and all,” said Mendoza from the left hand seat. “We’re clear as soon as everyone is strapped in. We’re got departure clearance from Pluto Control and IP Services.” The Captain turned around and saw the crew was seated and buckled in. Or in the process of buckling in. He turned back to Mendoza and gave the official word. “Mister Mendoza, please take us home.” “Aye Captain,” said Mendoza as he gave the craft the command to come to life and start the engines. It took a couple of minutes for the engines to warm up as the small fusion power plants were brought online. But soon they showed in the green and Mendoza got on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your normal pilot speaking, please return all seats and tray tables to their full and upright positions and assume crash positions for takeoff,” said Mendoza. “I hope everyone is wearing clean underwear for the mortuary teams that will recover your bodies from the crash site and dressed in their Sunday best for the photo-drones that are sure to beat the rescue teams there. But I do ask you put on a smile for the camera as we will likely end up on the cover of every news report in the Solar System. The inflight entertainment will be provided by yours truly and is normally accompanied by yells, screams, crying, cursing and threats to my wellbeing. So without further ado, please strap yourselves in and enjoy the flight.” “Funny guy,” said Winston as he heard Mendoza talking to the various controllers and powering up the engines. The craft lifted off and set a course for Charon as they rose away from solid ground fairly quickly. “I don’t think we’ll lose anything from our main tanks,” said Mendoza as they achieved escape velocity and were on their way. Colt looked down and saw the reserve fuel tank would likely give them enough to make it to the Atomic Destiny without any troubles. And although they could refuel from the parent craft, it was not easy as it required a crew member to go outside the craft. A major design flaw, it was being corrected on their planned refit once they arrived at Earth. As they closed on Charon, the communications system came alive from the docks. “Neutron Destiny, be advised Charon Cargo Shuttle 4 is enroute to reclaim the reserve tank prior to docking with your parent craft. They will meet you five hundred meters out,” said the controller on the orbiting station. “Neutron Destiny copies,” said Mendoza as he closed the distance and slowed the shuttle. The docks came into view as he slowed even further and oriented the ship to where the top was facing the Atomic Destiny. “How come you’re doing is this way?” asked Colt from the copilot’s seat. “When that shuttle comes in, the tank is a lot easier to get at for them. All we’ll need to do is roll and dock when we hand it over,” said Mendoza as he checked his instruments and brought the shuttle into a hover. “Smart thinking,” said Colt. “I have my moments,” said Mendoza with a wry smile. “No, seriously,” said Colt. “You came up with a good plan.” “Thanks,” said Mendoza as he saw the shuttle approaching on the sensors. “Neutron Destiny, this is Shuttle 4, ready to collect the reserve tank,” said the pilot. “Copy Shuttle 4, releasing tank…now,” said Mendoza as he made sure the connections were severed between the tank and the ship before ejecting it. The tank slowly crept away from the shuttle before the large robotic arm on the cargo shuttle snatched it and brought it back into the cargo area and secured it with automated clamps. “Neutron Destiny, we have the tank, you are cleared to dock with parent craft,” said the controller on the Charon Dock. “Acknowledged,” said Mendoza as he checked his systems again before rolling the ship and preparing to dock. “I can’t get over how big these ships are,” said Bella from the passenger compartment as she looked out the window and saw the Atomic Destiny filling the screen. “I’ve been on them since they were first built,” said Becky Sanchez. “And even I still can’t get over how we built something that large.” “You’ve been with them that long?” asked Bella. “Helped do the finishing work in the Ceres Shipyards and was on board during all the builders trials,” said Sanchez. “Are you just taking a tourist ticket back to Earth?” “Sort of,” said Bella. “Colt and I got engaged.” “You did?” exclaimed Sanchez. “I didn’t hear about that!” “I thought his whole crew knew,” said Bella as she showed off her ring once again. “Oh, that’s pretty,” said Sanchez as she looked it over. “I love that cut.” “I know,” said Bella as she looked over it herself for the thousandth time. “Makes the gold stand out just that much more.” “I think he likes you just a tad,” chuckled Sanchez. “I always knew Colt had someone waiting for him on Pluto, but I never put two and two together.” “Three years,” said Bella. “But he’s mine for good now.” “Well, at least he won’t be all mopey this time around,” said Sanchez. “I’m sorry?” asked Bella. “Whenever we get done with shore leave, he’s all depressed and mopes around like a zombie for about a week,” said Sanchez. “Missing you I’d imagine.” “Really?” asked Bella. “Yes,” said Sanchez as the shuttle was heard and felt docking with the Atomic Destiny. “But since you’re around, I’d expect to see a different side of him.” “I never knew that,” said Bella. “You are a special part of his life,” said Sanchez. “He’s the best,” said Bella. “Okay folks, we’re docked and transfer tunnel shows green across the board,” said Mendoza over the PA system. “You are clear to grab your goodies and head back home.” The Captain led the procession off the shuttle and back onto his ship where several Infinicon workers were seen completing last minute tasks before the departure. The senior most member of the detail came up to him as he came onto the ship. “Sir, we’ve gotten everything done we could in the time allotted,” he said and transferred a detailed list to the Captain’s tablet. “I wish we had another week or so to get some kinks worked out in some of the systems.” “Nothing critical I hope?” asked Winston. “Negative sir,” said the technician. “Or at least nothing your crew can’t fix while under way. We left some parts kits for the items we couldn’t get to.” “But we’re good for flight ops?” asked Winston. “Yes sir,” said the technician. “We already woke your core and it’s up and running. The ship’s provisions are full, all cargo is downloaded and engineering is just waiting for the command to get the reactors and engines online.” “Thank you,” said Winston as he looked over the items. “Sensors are out in random sections of the ship?” “We tried looking for the fault, but couldn’t find it,” said the technician. “You still have fire and radiation sensors, just thermal and motion sensors are out in part of the crew quarters.” “We’ll work on it,” said Winston. “Go ahead and grab your party.” “Aye sir,” said the technician as he alerted the remaining members of the maintenance crew and summoned them to the airlock that was attached to the dock. Several waited for their counterparts in the various sections and briefed them on what was going on before meeting up and departing the ship. The crew headed towards their quarters and stowed their gear, waiting for them to be underway before unpacking. They knew that departing from the docks was an all hands affair and quickly shed their civilian clothing for the Infinicon uniforms before departing for their duty stations. “Right this way,” said Talbert as she grabbed the few passengers that had tickets for the journey to Earth. Bella looked at her and found Colt coming off the shuttle before motioning her to follow Talbert. Bella grabbed whatever bag was available and quickly jogged to catch up with Talbert. “Bella, hang on by the shuttle, you have different quarters,” said Talbert but was interrupted by Camille Winston before she could turn around. “I can show her to her quarters,” said Camille. “Thanks Cam,” said Talbert as she continued with the remainder of the passengers. “Were you able to pack everything?” asked Camille as she turned Bella around and headed towards the married couples berths. “And some,” said Bella with a grin. “Poor Colt’s eyes popped out.” “He’s probably handy to have around as a pack mule,” laughed Camille. “Certainly has the shoulders for it.” “Would I be able to get something to help me move them off the shuttle?” asked Bella. “I’d wait until we’re underway,” said Camille. “Once we head out, I’ll have Markus relieve Colt so he can help you get your things.” “You don’t need to do that,” said Bella. “Once we’ve plotted a course, one of the junior pilots can take over,” said Camille. “And you two can make plans with the home style bot we picked up.” “You got it?” asked Bella. “Yes and at an agreeable price,” said Camille. “Once I get done with our quarters, you’re more than welcome to it.” “I figured there’d be a line forming to use it,” said Bella. “Well there might just be,” said Camille and added a smile. “But the wife of the Captain has certain prerogatives she can throw around. This being one of them.” “Thank you,” said Bella. “No problem,” said Camille as they arrived at one of the berths. “Here we are.” “Roomy,” said Bella as the door opened and she stepped inside. “They were designed for families,” said Camille. “There is a door that leads into the quarters next door for those with children like Tiffany and her husband.” “You are right, they are a bit drab,” said Bella as she plopped one of her bags on the bed. “You’re only limited by your imagination now,” said Camille. “If you need anything, I’ll be down three doors at the head of the passage.” “How long before we depart?” asked Bella. “A few hours at most,” said Camille. “And I’m to stay here?” asked Bella. “During launch yes,” said Camille. “Sorry, but regulations require it.” “No problem,” said Bella. “But I’d like to be able to unpack while we’re heading out.” “I’ll see if I can scrape up a few crew members,” said Camille. “If it’s not too much trouble,” said Bella. “Just hang tight here for a bit and I’ll get you some help,” said Camille. “Thank you,” said Bella as she wandered through the cabin. The bedroom was one of the two adjoining rooms with the other being a decent sized bathroom. There was plenty of closet space in the bedroom and additional storage in the living room and kitchenette. A rehydrator and other cooking appliances were seen still covered in plastic from when they were bought. And as Bella observed them, appeared to be top of the line models as well. As she was continuing her inspection, a bell was heard announcing someone was outside her door. “Ma’am?” asked a younger crew member. “I was sent by Mrs. Winston to help you grab your things. If you’ll come with me please.” “Just you?” asked Bella. “No ma’am,” said the younger man. “Colt is meeting us at the shuttle with someone else.” “He doesn’t need to be drug away from his duties!” protested Bella. “Apparently the Captain is having Mendoza in the pilot’s seat for the launch,” said the man. “Isn’t Colt the chief pilot?” asked Bella. “He is,” said the younger man as they traversed the corridors towards the shuttle dock. “So?” asked Bella. “Ma’am, I’m junior nobody honestly and I don’t get that kind of information as to why the Captain put Mendoza in the driver’s seat,” said the younger man. “I understand,” said Bella as they approached the passageway that led to the shuttle. Colt was seen already loading her baggage onto a moving pallet and adding his as well. “Is this everything?” he asked as she came up to him. “One more,” she said and picked up a small pack and slung it over her shoulder. “We’re good guys,” said Colt. “I can get it from here.” “Okay sir,” said one of the two as they departed to get ready at their stations. Once they were out of earshot, Bella got in closer to Colt. “I thought you were the chief pilot,” she remarked. “I am,” said Colt. “However, the Captain thinks some of the younger crew members need some seasoning in some of the trickier maneuvers.” “So he’s benching you?” asked Bella pointedly. “Not at all,” said Colt. “I’ll still be there, but in the instructor seat next to the pilot. He can run a checklist just as well as I can and I won’t be needed until we actually launch.” “Why all of the sudden does he think they need more seasoning?” asked Bella. “Because they do,” said Colt. “The Captain and I talked it over a few days ago and came to the decision that Mendoza and the others need some quality time in the seat. This is just the beginning of that training.” “You’re not in trouble or anything are you?” asked Bella after a moment’s pause. “No,” chuckled Colt. “You happen to be engaged to one of the best pilots in Infinicon service if I may toot my horn a bit. I’ve been chief pilot for almost four years which is ten years younger than most accomplish that fact on a ship this size. And knowing that, I’m destined for bigger things as the Captain says. And knowing that, he and I both decided it was better for the younger kids to get some play time rather than me doing everything.” “I just wanted to make sure,” said Bella. “If anything, I’ll likely move into a better job,” said Colt. “But you love being a pilot!” she objected as they arrived at the quarters. “I’m going to be lost for a while until I can figure my way around this ship.” “It’s easy,” said Colt. “The passageway we’re in runs bow to stern and the same on the opposite side. Same thing below us. Corridors at the top run port to starboard into the main passageways except when labeled and have doors normally closed.” “And where are the communicators located?” asked Bella. “For what exactly?” asked Colt. “For when I get lost trying to find our quarters,” deadpanned Bella. “Just call my name and I’ll come running,” said Colt with a cheesy grin as he opened the door. “Looks like a pretty big upgrade. Way nicer than I’m in right now.” “Speaking of which, we’ll need to clear out your old quarters,” said Bella. “When we are underway,” said Colt. “Until then you get to pick out decorating designs.” “How did you know?” asked Bella. “I saw the crate for the home style bot when I loaded your baggage,” said Colt. “And yes, they are a bit drab with nothing but the white walls.” “I was thinking a western look,” said Bella. “Some wood paneling with some softer earth tones and a sunset border or something.” “Sounds like you’ve got it planned out,” chuckled Colt as he unloaded the bags from the pallet and set them on the floor. One of his bags he set to the side as the remainder were set in a neat line for Bella to go through them. “Of course I’d like your inputs,” said Bella. “You have to live here too.” “For a few months at least,” said Colt. “What do you mean by that?” asked Bella. “Well, like I said, I won’t be in this job forever and who knows what might happen between now and the time we reach Earth,” said Colt. “And there’s always jobs I could get selected for.” “Anything in particular?” asked Bella. “Well, maybe,” said Colt evasively as he took off his civilian clothing and grabbed the Infinicon uniform he gathered before he met Bella at the shuttle. “I don’t have any spare credits on me or else I’d be more than happy to tip for this striptease,” she grinned and plopped down on the bed with a naughty grin. “Sorry babe, but duty will call shortly,” said Colt. “We might be able to have enough time to christen the quarters the right way,” she said mischievously and rubbed her hands on the mattress. “I’m not sure how others would think if I showed up on the bridge smelling like your perfume,” he chuckled and grabbed his work boots. “There’re showers silly,” said Bella with a grin. “I’d rather make sure I had the time to do everything up right,” said Colt as he pulled on the legs of the jumpsuit. “No sense in rushing the perfection I want to create for you on your first time on board this ship.” “Oh my,” she laughed. “You do certainly make an interesting proposition.” “It’s a deal then?” he asked. “Only if you make good on your promise,” she smiled. “I never break a promise,” said Colt. “Anyway, I took the liberty of looking through the available jobs in Infinicon while we were on Pluto.” “Okay, and?” she asked. “Well, there are a few jobs I thought were interesting,” said Colt. “Such as?” asked Bella. But before she could get an answer, the ship-wide PA system came to life with a request. “Pilot Colt Daniels to the bridge,” said the navigator, Robert Duncan. “Colt Daniels to the bridge please.” “How about when we get the chance to talk about it uninterrupted?” asked Colt. “Sounds fair,” said Bella. “Go to work baby.” “Nice having you around to say that,” said Colt as he collected a quick kiss. “See you in a bit,” said Bella as Colt departed. She sighed and started unpacking her things as several announcements were made across the PA system with the different requests for different personnel to perform whatever duties they were required to in order for the ship to launch. A feeling of nostalgia swept over her as she remembered the same kinds of announcements from her youth summoning the crews of the various freighters in much the same way. And an odd feeling of normalcy although never having been on the ship before. ******************** Colt arrived at the bridge and saw the various crew members at work. He immediately headed towards the pilot’s seat when he was stopped by Duncan. “The Captain says you’re interested in learning about different parts of the ship?” he asked. “I did?” asked Colt. “Yes, it would be good for you to get some cross training into the various positions on a ship for if and when you ever get put into a First Officer or Captain position,” said Winston. “Of course,” said Colt. “Subtle hint taken.” “Come over and I’ll show you how to plot the course to where we start searching,” said Duncan. “Sounds good,” said Colt as he looked at what he considered “his” chair one last time. “The Captain did the same thing to me,” said Duncan in a low voice once Colt arrived. “I was originally in communications and he pretty much forced me to learn the other systems.” “I understand,” said Colt. “You’re going to be a Captain yourself one of these days,” said Duncan. “And the more knowledge you have of the ship’s systems, the better Captain you’ll be.” “Not fair to use logic on me,” said Colt with a chuckle. “I said the same thing,” laughed Duncan. “Okay, here’s our position at current down to one hundred meters…” Duncan continued showing Colt the items needed to plot the course and even had him input some of the variables and how to transfer it around to other consoles. And how they worked together with the various stations on the ship. It was a crash course in basic interplanetary navigation which Colt picked up fairly quickly and before long the computer spat out the necessary course they needed to take. “See how easy that is?” asked Duncan. “And now we’ll need to check the computer.” “How come?” asked Colt. “Because computers aren’t perfect,” said Duncan. “It still takes a trained eye to go over the figures manually to make sure we’re heading for where we want. Let’s put it another way, do you trust the computer to dock the ship on its own?” “No way,” said Colt. “And navigation isn’t any different?” asked Duncan. “Suppose not,” said Colt. “How’s your math?” asked Duncan. “I can count to ten,” said Colt. “And after that, I start removing clothing.” “Let’s see just how bad you are,” said Duncan. “Go ahead and work those triangulation figures for our current position.” Colt broke out his communicator which also had a calculator built in. He found it odd to trust one computer to verify what another computer told him, but saw many of the basic equations could be done on his own. Eventually he lost track of time doing the various figures as the Captain announced the ship was ready to get underway. “Not bad,” said Duncan. “You could probably shave fifteen, twenty minutes off your time when you get more familiar with what you’re doing. But for a first time that’s a good job.” “I didn’t realize it took me so long,” said Colt. “For not knowing the systems, it’s better than average,” said Duncan. “We’ll see if we end up in quadrant Kilo-44 by the time we’re done,” chuckled Winston. “Mister Mendoza, do we have clearance for departure?” “Aye Captain,” said Mendoza from the pilot’s chair. “We have automated clearance and waiting for the verbal go-ahead from the Charon Docks. Our course is clear of all traffic for ten million kilometers and we have full power available on all engines.” “Charon Docks, this is the Atomic Destiny,” said Winston over the communicator. “Requesting clearance for Pluto departure en route to quadrant Kilo-44.” “Atomic Destiny, you are cleared for departure,” said the controller. “No traffic in your pattern and clear path for five million kilometers from Pluto orbit.” “You said ten million,” said Winston to Mendoza. “Colt’s advice sir,” said Mendoza. “Always double what they give you and check everything twice just in case.” “Good lesson there,” said Winston. “You are clear to take us out.” “Aye sir,” said Mendoza as he brought his controls online. “Maneuvering thrusters…distance five meters…ten meters…twenty meters…fifty meters…” Mendoza continued the expanding numbers as the Atomic Destiny moved away from the space dock and into the area around Charon’s orbit. There were no debris or satellites in their path as they reached the point where they could engage their engines. “Ten kilometers from the Charon Docks sir,” said Mendoza. “I have the course on my console and engines are ready for full power burn.” “Orient us towards Kilo-44 and take us out,” said Winston. Mendoza advanced the throttles under the observation of Colt and used the main engines to help orient the ship, turning it a lot tighter space than it would have with thrusters alone. Eventually they were on the course and the power and speed were both building at the same time. “Very smooth,” said Winston. “Good launch.” “Thank you sir,” said Mendoza with a polite bow. “We are clear from launch,” said Talbert over the PA system. “All crew members are cleared for work-rest cycle and all passengers are free to move about the ship except in designated off limits areas. If you monitor the holo-projectors in your cabins, a detailed list of off limits areas will be loading shortly along with basic shipboard rules and your designated emergency escape areas.” “And me sir?” asked Colt. “Let Mendoza take a break and put on proper boots,” said Winston as he looked down towards where Mendoza’s feet were on the pedals. He couldn’t see through the partition that separated his position from the Captain, but he traced the line from the Captain’s eyes right to his feet. “I…didn’t know you noticed sir,” said Mendoza who was still wearing the sports shoes he had from when they departed Pluto. “A good Captain notices little things like red and blue tennis shoes,” said Winston with a chuckle. “And might even overlook it since you did a fine job getting us on course.” “Aye sir,” said Mendoza. “I relieve you,” said Colt officially. “I am relieved,” said Mendoza. “Why?” asked Colt. “I wanted to get a jump start on the checklist,” said Mendoza. “First and only time,” said Colt. “Aye sir,” said Mendoza as he departed the bridge. The ship continued its journey into the cosmos where they would spend thirty days reclaiming various objects as they normally did. Colt settled into the chair and set the controls to where he normally had them and got comfortable in the chair, thinking of how nice it was to be in the seat once again. And remembering who he had waiting for him when he got off shift. And apparently someone else noticed his mood as well. “Is there some reason you’re grinning like a mule eating green briars?” asked Talbert. “No reason,” said Colt. “Uh huh,” said Talbert. “I had that same look when my husband finally moved on board.” “It is nice knowing I don’t have empty quarters to return to,” said Colt. “Did I miss something?” asked Lilly from her station. “Just saying how nice it was having my fiancée here on board,” said Colt. “Oh, right,” said Lilly as she went back to her console. The remainder of the crew on board the bridge settled into their duties as everything was running as it should and the ship didn’t show any problems in the equipment. There were still several problems they had noted prior to arriving at Pluto that needed to be fixed, but the significant problems had already been corrected and the ship was running as it was supposed to. But little did they know there was one additional piece of equipment that was running like it should as well. The crew had no idea it was on board much less that it was transmitting their position in space to a very specific party that was highly interested in such data.