The Navy Petty Officer at the transit office was efficient. My guess is that concentrating on her work took her mind off the desire to scratch her left arm. Which is what she did every chance she got. The skin that showed there was pink and new compared to the skin on her right arm. The whole hand a fresh look to it. Probably a replacement from a quick grown clone. Given the cost of that process, and the expert naval gunnery pin on her uniform, she was one of the lucky ones. A survivor of space combat. The Navy goes to great lengths to keep those people around so they can teach others how they did it.
Between scratches, she got me a flight plan out to the Drake. It was a multi-hop trip. The first leg was a transport. Besides me, there was a Navy Lieutenant, whose desire to sleep was fine with me, a civilian tech with her head in a VR helmet and seven sealed cargo containers. I took a hint from the Lieutenant and woke up in time for landing.
We exited the plane from the side door while the cargo when out the back. The Lieutenant had obviously been to Edwards before. He took the blast of desert heat in stride. The tech took a long pull from her hydration tube before she got off the stairs. There was an ABS and Marine Corporal waiting at the base of the stairs with two Hovers behind them. The ABS collected my fellow travelers. That left the Corporal for me. He got right to the point after I returned his salute.
"Gunny Steele. I'm to take you straight to the shuttle. You're the last to board."
"Let go then." I waved his hand away from my space bag. It would not be a blow to the Corps honor for a NCO to carry his own bag ten meters. The bag found a home in the back as I climbed in front with the Corporal. After checking with the Pad Controller, he turned on the safety strobes and speeded over toward a Naval Dyna-Soar over on the space end of the field. The delta lifting body had the interchangeable cargo and passenger modules of a basic Earth to Orbit and Back hauler.
The Hover stopped next to the loading elevator. I thanked the Corporal for the lift, and hopped out. The ship's crew chief, a CPO with hash marks up to his elbow already had my space bag and was leading the way to the waiting lift.
"You've done this before Gunny?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Multiple times Chief."
"Good. It will help if you can stow yourself in the last open pod while I get this tucked away. The Skipper is hurry to catch a launch window."
The CPO led the way when the lift doors opened. He double-timed toward the storage bay at the end of the passenger module. On the way to the pod, I removed my cover and placed in a thigh pocket. The other nine heading up were already sealed in. I sat down into the pod as it adjusted to my frame size. Once that was done, I slide my hands into the control pockets and flipped the ready switch. The pod cover closed over my body and the foam interior inflated to keep me secure during maneuvers and provide some protection against the Gs we would be pulling. As the face plate lowered, the screen lit up with UN Military logo, followed by the standard safety vid. Even locked in the pod, I could feel the big air breathing engines light up and the ship start to move. After a brief taxi, the pilot fire walled the throttles. We were climbing fast and steep. Once we were most of the way out of the atmosphere, the ship leveled off. We got another kick in the chest as the rockets kicked in. This took us up past the limit of the air breathing jets and into low orbit. Checking the available vid feeds, I found out that the Navy flight crew was a decent sort. They were piping the flight data and exterior camera feeds back the meat cargo. I watched the process that got us lined into our assigned orbit. Switching through the external feeds, I could see the Station tug waiting to pick us up, and the other tug with the modules going dirt side to take our place. Right on the numbers our module was released and pushed into the waiting Waldos of the tug.
Once we broke off from our ride up, the vid feed stopped, and was replaced by the standard entry procedures list for the UN Orbital Station Thomas J. Kennedy. I followed just to make sure it hadn't changed since the last time I saw it. I was not disappointed. It was the same video I've seen every time I've taken this trip. It was timed to fill the trip to the station. I've actually seen the ending. Once. That's enough to give me bragging rights in most squad rooms. This time it was cut off at least 10 minutes early. The ending of the vid was followed closely by the thunking of our docking, and the opening of our pods. Our various bags had already been tethered to our pods by the ABS waiting by the lock. She was young and fit into her utility jumpsuit quite nicely. A glance to the pod nearest the lock showed an Admiral emerging. Once again, my theory held out. The higher ranking the Naval officer on board, the prettier the Spacer greeting them out of the pod. The time I came up with a squad of Marines, the first thing we saw was 30 service year P02 with a five o'clock shadow, decompression scars and a very non-regulation lit cigar.
I was the senior NCO on the trip, so I entered the station right after an Ensign who was so green he still had his space legs from his Senior Year space training. He didn't make the first mover with the senior officers. He was forced to take the next trip out to the ring with a group of NCOs who were in the service before his balls dropped. He handled himself well enough in Zero-G that he didn't get in our way, so we were nice to him.
The mover's grav warning lights started to flash as it slowed and rotated so the floor pointed toward what we now considered down. Once it stopped, the rest of us took our time unstrapping and gathering our gear. This allowed the Ensign to collect himself and exit first without having us hover over him. I took my time getting off, adjusting to the .7 G the Kennedy's spin provided to the ring section. There were still too many starship keels being built to use expensive grav plates on an old orbital station. After a half dozen steps, I had the stride down that would move me efficiently, without bounding. Carrying my now 30% lighter Space Bag, the walk to the transit office took half the time I spent standing in line once I got there.
The PO2 there wasn't efficient as the one dirt side, but he did finally find out that I had 63 hours till the next shuttle out to the Drake. He found me a slot in the Transit NCO quarters. It was a double, and for now I was to be the only occupant.
The quarters were small and Spartan, as always. I stowed my space bag in one of the lockers and sealed it with a thumbprint. That taken care of, I headed off to get chow.
After getting a tray loaded (thankfully run by the Navy, not a civilian contractor), I paused to scan the mess hall. I had seen the TO&E for the Drake's Marine contingent, and the Marines are still a close-knit group. I spotted Sgt Tomatin, slotted as one of the squad leaders, working through the popular roast rabbit with algae sauce. I moved over and sat down at his table.
"Hello Sergeant, mind if I join?"
"Good to see you Gunny Steele! Of course," was his reply after a hasty swallow of rabbit. I shook his extended hand. The formalities that would come later as we firmed up the platoon had no place in the enlisted mess.
We caught up on our recent activities as we worked our way through our food. The talk turned to our current assignment after we bussed our trays and returned with mugs of fresh coffee. We went over those Marines we knew, sharing insights on abilities and behavior traits. After making bets on who would collect the most PT in unit, Sgt Tomatin brought up a subject of much barracks speculation and a complete media blackout.
"We've got a Black Ops unit on board. Five of them. I've never seen more than two on a ship before."
"Belay that." I looked around. Almost everybody in the room was in uniform, but Operational Security is a full time job. "I know where this is going, and it's neither the time nor the place."
Sgt. Tomatin nodded
®1996. Traveller is a registered trademark of Far Future Enterprises.