“So,” Tarquin said, adopting a fawning, cloying, obsequious, and insincere manner worthy of Uriah Heep, “what will be my duties as Keeper of the Regimental Mascot?”
“Quit simple,” Merry replied, “you will ensure that Hotay—”
“The same. You will ensure that he is well-fed, clean, groomed and maintained in a manner such that he will bring credit to the Regiment.”
“You’re reading that from the book thing, aren’t you?”
“That is where your duties are defined, so… yes.”
“Without quoting word for word, Captain. What will my duties involve, exactly?”
“You’ll find out when we get back to barracks, Commander.”
“Okay. Will I keep my rank?”
“I haven’t heard otherwise.”
“And my pay-grade and seniority?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“But this is a proper job, is it? I hope it isn’t just a plan to get rid of old Stuart-Lane; put him out to pasture where he can’t do any harm.”
“The regimental constitution says that the mascot should be under the charge of a commissioned officer, and you are the only one currently available. Why would you think the Regiment is trying to sideline you?”
“Well, they did call me a waste of space.”
“They still do, Tarquin, and rightly so in my opinion. But that has no bearing on this reassignment.”
At the XO’s station, Lt Cdr Joan Weinberg and CFP Patsy (you remember her, the preposterously post-pubescent, permanently pouting, preternaturally pugilistic preparer of puff pastry, pies and pasties) were ensconced in a most unholy huddle, whispering furiously, and trying desperately not to laugh out loud as they listened to their Captain’s conversation with Tarquin.
“Fairy nuff,” Tarquin said, “I shall try my best to make a good fist of looking after Hotay the Donkey.”
“Thank you, Stuart-Lane the Commander,” Merry said, pointedly.
“Point taken,” Tarquin said, saluted and left the bridge.
“Oh Captain! My Captain!” Patsy cooed.
“Darling?” Merry responded.
“If you get fed up with running the ship, There’s always a job for you in the galley…”
“Well, Captain. Your pork pies are the stuff of legend!”
“Captain!” Joan Weinberg called.
“Approaching Earth orbit, Ma’am,” she said, handing the ship-wide PA microphone to Merry.
“Shields up! Red alert!” Merry shouted into the microphone.
“Ma’am?” Joan enquired.
“Always wanted to say that, Joan. Used to have the hots for Riker on The Next Generation.”
“What?” Patsy gasped.
“That was before… you know,” Merry replied.
“We still good then, Captain?”
“Of course we are, Patsy,” she said, blowing a kiss to her CFP.
Taking the microphone again, and pressing the button this time, she announced, “This is your Captain speaking. All hands, all decks. We are now in Earth orbit; prepare for insertion.”
The ship-wide flurry of activity that followed reassured Merry that the crew was hers, and was ready to carry out her orders. It did not reassure the Borborygmi of the Flatus team, none of whom had any experience of planetary gravity. The gravity in cargo hold three, where they had spent the journey, was held at 2m/s², only 23% higher than they were accustomed to on the moon.
Merry addressed them separately, “Earth gravity is six times what you have been used to on our moon,” she said, “you will need to allow your bodies to get used to this. You will also need to cope with atmospheric pressure averaging just under one kilogram per square centimetre. Please confirm you understand this.”
“Can you hear me, Captain?” Flatulon asked.
“I can. Please proceed.”
“Our habitations on your moon are pressurised to 1kg/cm², so we’re used to that. We may need some help adjusting to the gravity, though.”
“What will you need?”
“Our long bones may not be strong enough to support six times the weight they’re used to.”
Joan Weinberg signalled to Merry. The captain released the microphone button.
“I have a suggestion, Captain.”
“Go ahead, Number One.”
“Inflatable splints, Captain. They’ll give the support needed, and they can gradually be deflated as their bones strengthen.”
“Good idea, Joan. Do we have any on board?”
“Probably enough for ten of them, Captain.”
“Good.” Merry pressed the button again. “Flatulon. We can give ten of your people support devices. I’ll send my medical team in to fit them. The rest of your team should lay on their cots and stay there until we can get theirs, after we have landed.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
And so it was. The medical team fitted ten of the Borborygmi with inflatable splints for their long legs, and gave them all exercises to strengthen their arms and backs against the higher gravity. After the shuttle had landed, the other five received their braces, and the Flatus team, accompanied by a medical operative, were transported by bus to the RSR facility just outside Swindon, where they would start their work.
Tarquin settled into his new role as Keeper of the Regimental Mascot – a largely honorary role that was designed to give him good cover for his main job. He had been appointed HBL (Human/Borborygmi Liaison Officer); his job was to ensure that the Borborygmi had all they needed, but nothing they wanted.
Joan Weinberg received a further promotion to Captain, and was given command of the Sir Prijs.
Newly promoted Commodore Meredith Winstanley was military commander of Project Prodigialis, overseeing the construction both of the Borborygmus Flatus drive, and of its RSR-sponsored equivalent, code-named PP – which seemed to amuse the French scientists on the team.
However, the prospect of having two devices, each of which has the ability to be everywhere in the universe at once, brought a whole new set of challenges.
…or is it?