The Commandant walked up to the podium and looked at the crowded room. It seemed every one of his senior staff and the majority of the Cadets were attending the announcement. He knew the scuttlebutt had already made the rounds and the majority of the people here already knew most of what he would be telling them.
One of the senior instructors lifted his hand and the roomful of people settled down to listen.
He shuffled his notes and cleared his throat. "As you all know, Vice President Davies instructed me to select a minimal voluntary crew for the scientific mission to Mother Earth. We have a few limits to adhere to, because the council from the New World is uneasy about large groups of military personnel being on their world.
Only sixty fully trained crew and officers will go along and only forty Cadets will be permitted to accompany them." The audience began talking softly amongst themselves. They had hoped for larger numbers. "Since this mission involves exploring unknown situations without any possible back up, we have decided to limit the Cadets that wish to volunteer. Only those who are over twenty-one years of age and who are at least 1st and 2nd Class Cadets. We need more experienced people on this voyage and we wish to limit it to those who are legally able to sign waivers.
The younger cadets muttered angrily but didn't dare protest loudly. The Oldster Cadets were grinning until the Commandant continued.
"The Cadets chosen will be by random drawing in the time honored method of drawing names from a hat. Now," the Commandant placed both hands on the podium and looked over the crowd, his eyes and face stern. "Before all you eager students rush forward, be warned. Those in command of this mission won't have courts or boards or warm jail cells for those who get into trouble. I will give my officers very liberal rights to see to discipline as they see fit—even if it means shooting someone under their command if all else fails. If the Captain decides your behavior warrants bread and water for a month, so be it. If she decides to hang a sailor then it will be done! Mark my words, this isn't a weekend pass in Hawaii. Every single member on board is responsible for the safety of his or her fellow crewmembers and the scientists they are protecting.
"I want everyone to think about this before placing their names in that hat. The journey could last several years. The supplies taken along won't last that long and in order to eat you will have to hunt and gather wild foods. You'll be looking at the same damned faces day in and day out. There's no movies, restaurants, bowling alleys, bars, or television. Your friends and families won't hear from you for a long time and the only thing you have between you and danger is the people who are with you on that ship."
The Commandant looked them over once more before standing ramrod straight and uttered one word. "Dismissed."
· * * * * *
Every Cadet who wished to enter his or her name was given a sealed envelope and told not to disclose what was written to anyone else. Inside was a statement by the Commandant reminding them of what the voyage would entail and what could and could not be carried onto the ship. Also was a list of suggested items and the waiver each volunteer had to sign in order to be accepted on the assignment.
For the Cadets who returned from the voyage there were a variety of benefits that would be given. Hazard pay and the field experience would go towards future graduation and commissions. A form was included to cover how the wages earned during the assignment would be paid, either to an interest bearing account or to family. If for any reason a Cadet were to be killed during the assignment then the surviving family members would collect a set sum and entitled to other benefits from the Coast Guard.
With those grim reminders in hand, the enclosed letter also informed them that the volunteer had 48 hours to withdraw their name from consideration. If chosen, their gear had to be packed and the cadet must be prepared to depart within another 24 hours if necessary.
· * * * *
Cierra and the honor guard did their best to hide the nervousness they all felt. Before them was the guarded Boeing 747 that would fly them to the eastern coast where the Coast Guard cutter was docked. This was the first time any of them had been more than 100 miles from the village in almost two years.
Robbie imagined the very worst. She pictured them up in the plane and finding out it was all a trap and no possible way of jumping to Mother Earth for safety. Once on the far side of the United States, if they had to jump, it would be a dangerous and long trip by foot. The former security expert also felt naked without her gun.
The Honor Guard was symbolic since they were not permitted to carry their weapons aboard Air Force Two. Michael apologized but even Robbie knew and understood the reasons behind it. But knowing and being comfortable over it were two very different matters.
Servicemen took their luggage to the plane while another group escorted them to the runway and up the long set of stairs into the plane. A man in an expensive suit met them just inside.
"Mr. Vice President, good day. Queen Cierra, I hope your trip with us will be comfortable. If you'll follow me this way," the man said pleasantly, leading them into the spacious area towards the center of the plane. Michael had a private room on the plane but felt it would be rude to go to his office and catch up on work while the ladies sat outside in the lounge area.
The plane seemed eerily silent to the Vice President. Typically there were handfuls of reporters on every flight in addition to aides and other politicians.
But this trip was done without fanfare or public disclosure.
Michael joined them and they chatted during the long wait before takeoff. He looked at the faces of the anxious women and knew it would be a very long flight.
· * * * *
Cierra was getting tired of seeing the inside of their hotel suite. All of them were. The women were not in the habit of remaining still for so long with nothing to do. They were getting restless while they waited for the supplies to be gathered.
Everyone had agreed on a loading plan for the cutter. Cierra would interview the men involved in loading the ship after Robbie and the honor guard searched the ship for hidden stashes and weapons. After they were satisfied, they would look over the pallets of supplies brought onto the ship. Once loaded the crew would each greet Cierra and shake her hand before boarding. From there, Cierra would jump the ship to Mother Earth and then jump back. It would have to be done quickly, performed between dawn and before sunset of one day. Michael would have them escorted back to Air Force Two the next day and return them back to California.
Carey was the first awake on the morning of the jump. She rubbed her eyes and yawned as the coffee maker perked and hissed. She heard a slight noise and turned around, spotting Cierra as she slipped out of her bedroom.
"Hey, I thought I smelled coffee."
"Yeah, one of the nice benefits of coming back to this hell hole. I had forgotten what smog smelled like."
"I thought I was the only one who thought that. Then all those people on the streets below. I was watching them, scurrying around like ants."
"Yeah. We got used to Heaven, Cierra. Visiting Hell just reminds us why we left this world. No amount of things like coffee and chocolate can compete with that."
Cierra had to agree and thanked her friend when she handed her a fresh cup of coffee. They stirred in their sugar and greeted several others as they joined them. JP looked out the window then at the clock on the nightstand.
"It'll be dawn soon. I guess we had better order breakfast and shower while we have the time." The tall slim woman grinned impishly and asked her partner if she wanted to join her. The others hooted and told them not to use all the hot water as they left for their bedroom.
Cierra was pleased to see that look once more in JP's eyes. It had been a long time since they last been intimate. JP helped her undress and into the warm spray. Cierra was glad for the help, her growing tummy making her balance unsteady at times.
They washed each other slowly, their soapy hands gliding as their mouths refuse to part once united. The last coherent thought Cierra had was that they would both be squeaky clean when they got out.
· * * * * *
It had been a grueling day. Cierra was tired and she wondered where her friends got their energy. The supplies were nearly finished being loaded and then she needed to scan the crew and take them to Mother Earth.
"About twenty more minutes, Cierra," Carey told her. The Shaman nodded her head and grabbed her dufflebag. She would change in one of the cabins in the ship. One of the officers had suggested that she wear a wet suit just in case and everyone had agreed.
She struggled into the suit even though it was a size too big for her because of her pregnancy. She zipped it up and put on her swimmer shoes. After shoving her clothing into the bag she went back to the dock and saw everyone was waiting for her return.
Cierra nodded and went down to the end of the gangplank to shake hands with first the Captain, a woman in her late thirties with graying dark hair.
"Captain," Cierra nodded, giving her nod of approval and releasing her hand. The woman would be a steady influence over the young crew.
Behind the Captain were the officers then the department heads, the regular crew, then finally the Cadets. Cierra allowed each one to pass until one young man took her hand.
The Cadet looked at her face and wondered why she looked so upset. He wasn't some sort of pervert or had any intention to cause trouble. "What?" he asked with worry.
"You won't be joining them," the Shaman told him softly. Before he could ask why, she continued. "You have a weak blood vessel in your head. You need to see a doctor now. If you wait even a day you'll die."
The stricken youth gasped in shock and dropped her hand. He couldn't even speak. The news he might die too shocking to deal with.
One of the men guarding the dock spoke up. "We'll take care of him, ma'am. Don't worry." A jeep drove up and stopped nearby and two men escorted the Cadet away.
The next Cadet in line, a young woman with huge brown eyes wiped her palm on her pants then shakily held out her hand. Cierra took it and continued with meeting the crew. Happily, no one else was rejected.
Cierra followed the last Cadet up the gangplank and onto the deck. She waved at her friends below. JP looked the most worried, hating the idea of her going there alone even if for just a few minutes. The crew prepared to leave the dock while members of the Coast Guard stood ready on a patrol boat. They would follow the ship to deeper water and wait for Cierra to return from Mother Earth.
The huge ship began moving away from its berth and moved slowly, the huge vessel's engine guiding it safely to deeper water. From there the ship would use the sails to travel, using the engines only when no other choice remained.
One of the petty officers stood next to Cierra while keeping an eye on both the Captain and the patrol boat below. Everyone nodded in readiness. "We're ready any time you are, Cierra."
At her nod, he signaled the Captain who had a mechanical horn shatter the near silence. The tension in the air could be felt as Cierra gripped the guardrails of the ship and closed her eyes. The crew gasped as a group when the ship actually dropped several feet and bobbed in the water like a bathtub toy. It took a minute or two for it to settle. The captain ordered a head count to make sure no one had fallen overboard.
Once she was assured none of her crew had been lost the Captain joined Cierra on deck. "It never occurred to me that the water level might be different on this world," she commented before thanking Cierra for bringing them there. Cierra chatted for just a minute then told the officer she had to leave. The Shaman knew JP would grow worried if she were gone too long.
"Let me break out a life raft," the Captain offered.
"No thanks, that would just slow me down." Cierra took off her jacket and pulled the cord on her inflatable life vest. "All I need is a way down to the water. Have a rope handy?"
The crew chuckled and helped place a padded rescue halter around her and lowered her down. Once in the water she shucked it off, held her breath, and jumped.
She felt the cold water as it surrounded her but she kept calm and kicked for the surface. She was glad of the wetsuit and the fact the patrol boat was just about thirty feet away. They retrieved her from the water and took her back to shore.
JP met her on the dock and threw a blanket around her and gave her a huge hug.
"Glad you finally made a jump without something horrible happening."
JP had tried to make it sound like a joke but Cierra heard the worry in her tone.
"I'm fine. Let's get back to the hotel and get some dinner. I'm bushed."
To be continued in part 15
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