THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 38

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 38

…“Som……ing is not righ…” that is the last transmission they will be hearing on this trip down to the Martian surface…



Hal 2001

“All right Sam,” Roy Crippen advises, “Check in before returning to the Colony.”

“It’ll be there when we get back, as long as Al {Space Colony 1 mainframe brain) lets us back in,” referring to the
perfunctory processor.

So, Roy must sit back and watch while the McKinneys set out to prove their worth to an admiring world. Measuring the depth of dermis layers throughout Tithonius Lacus neighborhood will be accomplished with aplomb. It may be Saturday night, on a faraway silent habitat, but they would not trade places with anyone, here or there. And the pay is secondary to the payoff.Muddy tractor tracks.

Sampson actually is enjoying himself in the back, with Celeste at the wheel, while he calculates the exact depth of their tracks. It cruises handsomely across the barren plain, but he is noticing an earthly occurrence called clumping; like walking on naked rich black topsoil in the defrosting springtime, “Mud?!”

Not all terrain here is a plain and they conquer the grueling Martian hill climb with ease. The rover comes to rest on the crest of one of the craters, cropped-mars3.jpgoverlooking the Plain of Xanthe, from where Celeste takes notice the previously inconspicuous, yet prominent mound which nearly brought their mission to an unceremonious halt.

Intuition, the human trait that seems to get better with age, clicks on within Celeste, the driver who does notdunes-001 consult while taking a detour on their way to Syrtis Major; inquisitiveness is an attribute that begins at conception

The formation that has beckoned her, stands out because from what they observed about the general topography, this knoll is singular. As they draw near, its uniqueness is even more pronounced; nothing round about this mound, angular and structured, not at all natural.

Commander Sam suggests a cautious circling approach, like a vulture cruising at 300 feet above a rotting carcass. This “thing” has a different look from every angle; one side terraced, another gently sloping, yet another with a notch running perpendicular to the base, into the interior.

Braden King breaks in to express a concern, “Our picture has been degrading steadily since you took that detour—is there another inversion storm kicking up?”

Interference is hampering Mission Control’s depth perception, with the good looks they have been enjoying transitioning into a fuzzy blur.

“No sandstorms or such” Sampson fingers a touchscreen to boost the signal, “upping to 5500 dBs.”

“No change Sam,” there is a disappointing tone back on Earth. It is like losing the picture, leaving only sound for the 7th game of the 2029 World Series, in the bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, full count, bases loaded, score tied and it’s the West Coast Dodgers at bat vs. the Twin Moons of Minnesota. The first reaction is to check the coaxial cable connections.

“Go on with what you were doing Sam,” commands Roy Crippen, “We’ll tweak something at this end.”

Even as he speaks, the crackling turns to persistent static.

“Please repeat. Braden, what did he say?”

“Som……ing is…not righ…”

That is the last transmission they will be hearing on this trip down to the Martian surface.

Sampson shrugs, Celeste gives up.



Episode 38

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 37

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 37

…The Space Family McKinney, most recently of Mars, peers jointly out onto the planet outside…

Related image

Illustration by Legendary outer space conceptualizer Chesley Bonestell

The Mars landing fracas adds ½ mile, bringing them closer to the Tithonius Peninsula, but the averted disaster has raised everyone’s pulse x 2. When Tycho’s four pads contact Martian firma, they sense that it sinks down a bit, not like on Earth’s Moon where scientists had predicted 18 inches of moon dust when only 4 was present.

Heartbeats recede to mission norms.

A hazed yellow sun looms an hour above its dawning and even though the rays were reaching out 150 million miles, the equatorial latitude takes in enough radiation to raise surface temps to a balmy 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

my-project-23-001The Space Family McKinney, most recently of Mars, peers jointly out onto the planet outside, from opened viewing portals, with all the bluster settling down around them. Though their ground level perspective is less lofty, it does not temper their excitement.

Mars’ eerie serenity has the feel of an Old West ghost town. It has the feel of aged stillness, devoid of activity. Pay attention and you can imagine the passing of occasional tumbleweed. Listen closely and you can hear the sounds of a creaking one-hinged saloon door. Feel the wind sweeping down dusty streets. All that is missing are cobwebs and the ancient strains out of an out-of-tune piano, played by a shapely blond beauty bedecked in silk and sequins.


Artwork by Veenenbos

“The red sky is going to take some getting used to,” Celeste admitting her blue bias, “with nothing out there but craters and sawed-off mountains to break things up.”

“New things are popping up all the time. How about my landing skills? They are going to program that one into the simulator.”

“And we better improve that approach angle, seeing we are going to be doing it every two weeks for the next 8 months.”

A fresh voice joins in,I hate to interrupt, but you have but 12-odd hours of daylight to burn… and the matter of soil depth consistency is an issue.” Roy Crippen is getting itchy, along with a developing stress rash.

“Sounds like a plan Crip! What would we do without you?” Sampson quips.

“You would fly straight into the side of a foothill, that’s what.”

Vertical-001“We saw it,” Celeste relates her end of the story.

“It’s time to drop the wheels and see what we can see. You can be the backseat driver, Crip.”

The newest “manned” Mars Rover’s batteries are fully charged.

“Don’t mind if I do. I need you to keep that thing upright. The tow truck is 50 million miles away mars-roveryou know.”

“Cel is driving that buggy.”

 “That will drop our insurance rates!”

“I believe you are breaking up, can you repeat that wisecrack?”

“All right Sam, just check in before returning to the Colony.”



Episode 37

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 36

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 36

…“Pull up Sam,” Colony Control sees the same obstacle in the landing zone on real-time feed…


Onsite observations are off the charts, Colony Control conversations titillating, and the possibilities innumerable, but Roy must  keep abreast of the landing.Colony Control

Tycho had already reached the prominence of Syrtis Major, which looks like a dust-covered garden without the greenness of an ecosystem, with the helm responding to a 180 degree command, negotiating a wide sweeping turn that heads it across a desert-like sea of indigenous reddish {soil}. These and other features mark the Tithonius Lacus landing threshold.

Sampson has the lander that could, skimming at 350 foot altitude as they cruise handily across the Plain of Xanthe; a rather dull ending to what had been to this point a most enlightening flight. One thousand feet of “desert” is anything but exciting, but distractions are not necessarily a good thing, when landing is the objective.

Celeste is manning a forward monitor, the very vantage view enjoyed by those back closer to the sun. As they slow to airspeed of 220 mph, her right index circles a proper landing spot on the touchscreen at her disposal. The area she has chosen is about the size of an old American Football field, relatively flat with a good view of all horizons.

So, without fanfare or even a single Martian marching band led ticker-tape parade, “Okay Cel, I am putting her down rrriiiggghhtt heeeere,” pre-programed landings are for sissies.

Just as they were slowing to nominal airspeed, a misshapen mound appears out nowhere; small enough to mars-surface2blend in, but big enough to avoid.

“Pull up Sam,” Colony Control sees the same obstacle in the landing zone on real-time feed:
NASA Digital. No more 5 minute delay.

“…that did not show on the graphics, absolutely did not show on our flyover,” out of what had been to be flat ground. Like a mirage, it has abruptly reared itself into their intended way.dust-storm-on-mars

Fortunately the pilot clears the phantasm by fully 5 feet, which is not much considering he had applied full vertical thrust. The fiery blast raises huge amounts of red-hewed particles which ride the lightweight air, obscuring the area, thus moving the landing further down range.




Conquering the Sun’s Empire by Harry Lange

Episode 36

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 32

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 32

…Four armed guards charge out of the left-hinged gate, the one in the lead asking, “Are you Aldona Afridi?”…


All in all, Afridi has time to loosen the noose around his neck, having left the hardest roads behind. That he lives to tell the tale is testimony to his firm resolve and evidence of his good fortune.

The homemade taxi pulls up to the gates of the Ahmet Mosque, tall and unwelcoming. Four armed guards are-you-001charge out of the left-hinged gate, the one in the lead asking, “Are you Aldona Afridi?”

“I didn’t know what he was up to, I swear,” pleads the spineless driver, once an ally.

“Not you Cabbie! We are from the American Consulate, called here by your wife, she told us you would be coming.” Those are Marine uniformed men. “Pull that hunk of junk into that garage and leave the keys with the Sergeant.”

Naturally they comply, while being led inside, then left alone. The young Turk comments, “Whoever you are or whatever you know, I am impressed Saied.”

“Fatima, my dear Fatima,” Afridi prays aloud.

“Your fat mother?”

He needs to fill in the gaping blanks, “My name is Aldona Afridi and my wife Fatima and my two daughters are probably inside somewhere.”

“And mine is Mehmet Ali Erim,” they embrace like old friends. “I own a taxi, what do you do?”

“I am a scientist not a criminal, and there evil men chasing me!”

“I am intrigued, but not surprised Saied Al. You act like a man with a scorpion in your pants.”

“Do not tell Mr. Erim anything else,” the embassy guards warn.

“They know my name!”Image result for spy

“They may have been listening when you introduced yourself,” Afridi remarks, being the “seasoned spy” that he has become.

They are escorted into the catacombs of the 3rd Century structure and shown separate rooms. The two shake hands, not knowing what the future holds.

Mehmet Ali Erim is briefly debriefed as a precaution and released to the streets and his next fare.

Aldona Afridi is grilled on a number of subjects, none of which mention his defection, so it is he who asks, “May I see my family and when can I speak to someone about the Space Colony?”space-colony-banner-001

The team of inquisitors is headed by Elliot Deming, Consulate General of the Turkish delegation based in Ankara. The very tall middle-aged American political appointee paces in front of Aldona, knowing that he has not heard the whole story. “The Ambassador to Turkey is scheduled to arrive in another hour. We cannot move on your wife’s suspicious information until the Ambassador personally speaks with the United States Secretary of State.

“What I have to say cannot wait… I would not have risked my family’s lives for anything less!”

“We have to fully vet your story, I hope you understand?”

“No I do not.” This is no time for governmental red tape. He hangs his weary and exasperated head.



Episode 32

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 27

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 27

Too many questions and so little time…


Roy Crippen halts his advance when he is close enough to catch a glimpse of poor Philip Jansky’s former display. It is not for him to know what is or what is not supposed to be up there, but icons & etchings depicting the precise location and path of every piece of galactic wanderer {larger than a baseball} in the Mars parsec, is the responsibility of this man.

“How are things… Mister Gurk__,” he extends his hand. “Director Roy here.”

Soviet Cosmodrome Dhangotma stands to respond, but could use a step ladder in order to complete the exchange of palms. His English is fractured, like many World Space Consortium techs, but this one makes little effort to excel. His answers to questions are choppy and incomplete, but Roy manages to get a thumbs-up, with a couple of references to his involvement in the Russian Spaceflight program at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the former Kazakhstan.

international-space-stationAstronaut Crippen had spent some time at the former Soviet Union’s Cosmodrome in the past, as did every traveler to the International Space Station. Did he mention the shortsighted senseless budget cuts imposed by the “myopically socialist President of the USA from 2008-2015 that put in that fix”? No. Those are Roy’s words uttered freely, in a free society, free of oppression, clear of any retribution…probably, though he encrypts all outgoing and incoming Soyuzcommunications with his phone.

Back to the Soyuz experience where Roy seems to recall that fluent English was an uncompromising requirement for program participation. Then why does this Katmandu Tomcat speak the requisite tongue as if he just crawled out of his Himalayan Hut?

Too many questions and so little time. His inspection tour is snipped by Braden King background chatter, which by now is nearly nonstop. It seems things are actually ahead of schedule, a welcome change Image result for drag racing lightsfrom recent events. The Tycho driver is metaphorically honking his horn anxious to get going.tycho-001

Sam McKinney looks like a drag racer; his pride-and-joy muscle car poised and seated next to him, his best girl. Together they are ready to go down and press som

“Are you guys ready to go,” asks Roy Crippen?

“Turn us loose,” the McKinneys answer as one voice.

The hanger-bay doors of Space Colony 1 slowly widen, exposing a view shared by both Tycho and its distant earthbound counterparts; wide eyes, motivated spirits, and hopeful hearts.




Episode 27

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 26

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 26

…Silky smooth, in the groove…

…Something to prove…

…Then click those hooves…

…The natives are booing…


All that political posturing and football frivolity aside, suddenly the Mars orbiting station still-shot will soon be exchanged for Tycho perspectives now poised for its descend-ent leg. And after a full-day’s fun, of course we will have THE RETURN TRIP.beanie hat

At one point Sampson peers out of the main hatch, mouthing the words, ‘Hi Mom’, hamming it up for that camera. Celeste is sporting a doodly-bopper helicopter hat given her by son Gus for good luck.

If the pioneering pair is nervous, their space-happy antics debunk that concern. Like Venetian silk or Mercurial milk, there is nothing but solid greens across the mission dashboard; neither machine nor man providing a reason not to go with a bullet.

“Silky smooth, in the groove,” is the way Braden King describes the morning.

“Something to prove,” Sampson rhymes.

“Are you ready to move?” Roy’s turn.

“Then click those hooves!” Braden is a part-time rancher.

Martians“The natives are booing…..You should approve.” Lt. Commander’s antennae beanie topper is off, game-face on. “In 11.75 hours the Plain of Xanthe is going to be a dark negative 143°. I want to be back in orbit before that.”

By this time Roy Crippen has set to pacing again, nervously covering most of the 40,000 square foot Galveston Launch Control, in search of that illusive glitch, those pesky flies in the ointment. He stops to view certain critical kiosks along the way, manned to a man by a qualified tech.

The comprehensive tour affords him the opportunity, more accurately a good excuse to drop in on the Spatial Debris/Traffic desk and this new Gurkhas Dhangotma fellow. He ambles as nonchalantly purposeful as he can, in the direction of the Nepalese newcomer who has seen Roy’s roving anyhow. The former “sheepherder”, as Roy so sensitively put it, tries to look busy enough, yet he spends an inordinate amount of time looking like he is sitting on a wet pile of wool. 


Nomadic Himalaya Sheep Herder – Ghandruk, Nepal – Photo by Chris Streeter

Episode 26

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 25

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 25

…“You are looking live, at a sold-out Mars Aveeno/Sunscreen Stadium…


“What the mood out there,” Roy asks Braden King, the communication expert, while walking under the live streaming video.

“They’re all good, Crip. Celeste has spoken with Deke’s orthopedist, so she has settled down.”

“There has been a boatload of crap going on Braden; first Fred, then Phil and toss in a reckless child.”

“He was shooting pigeons, keeping them out of the cattle feed.”

mars-planetiers-001“Key people die suddenly without warning, cattle eat, chicken s**t and little boys break bones; what else bad can happen?”

“Good morning Earth,” Commander McKinney summons Mission Control from its funk. “You are looking live, at a sold-out Mars Aveeno/Sunscreen Stadium, where today you will witness a classic confrontation between the hometown Mars Planetiers and their cross-system rivals the Fighting Colonists from Earth.”

Sampson reimagines a long gone Brent Musburger sports-casting introduction, taking everyone by surprise and sanding the rough edges off the tense atmosphere.

“You are too cool for your spacesuit Sam,” Roy reacts positively.

Braden Kings adds, while getting an eyeful of the Martian countryside, “That view must take you back to your old shuttle days, the first time your saw Earth from 225 miles?”

“Not even close, nothing can touch this,” Roy qualifies and reflects. “We all have read THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES; any speculative-fictioner worth his salt has devoured those short stories.”

“When it came time to hang a name on the first of the new shuttles, I could not help but think of Bradbury, 19-freakin-50 when he wrote that stuff.

“Do you remember that his colonists mostly failed after early successes?

“Yes, the shape shifters and the sand ships.”

“They did not react well when it came time to share the planet with those interlopers from 50 million miles away; they were prepared for the Earthlings, but ended up abhorring them.

“It was their world, yet we claimed for our own. Fiction or not, sometimes I wonder if we are doing the right thing.”talibanistan-001

“I think it’s rather late in the game for second guessing, we’ll leave that poo-pooing to the Koreans and I suppose China, India and the Talibanstani Cabals.”

Rhetoric is just rhetoric until it is backed up.

“And the Koreans accuse us of being Imperialists, when helped themselves to their neighbors to the South. And in the case of the Taliban you can say, North, East, West and every “-stan” in between.”



Episode 25

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 13

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 13

…Excuse me Comrade Aldona; this is Comrade Nae Tan-Dan, our main liaison to the great nation of Korea and the constructor of our glorious plan…


Aldona Afridi is becoming more restless by the second. Everything about this strange encounter has trouble written all over it.

Oddly, no one in the limo makes a move; the newcomers cover ground in a hurry to join an already crowded limo.mastermind-001

“It is good to see you again Sheikh Khan-Nutkani,” states the smallest of the group, speaking with an accent not indigenous to the region.

“Glory to Allah, Comrade Dan, I am hoping your news is as good as Comrade Afridi’s”

“It is even better; phase one of the operation has been carried out. Fredrick Cabell has been neutralized.” The dwarfish man sticks his chest out as if he were waiting for a medal to be pinned on it.

“Excellent, excellent; time is growing short Dan.”

Afridi suddenly has the feeling that there is a plan that he is not in on. And what is with all this “comrade” stuff all of a sudden.


“Oh excuse me Comrade Aldona; this is Comrade Nae Tan-Dan, our main liaison to the great nation of Korea and the constructor of our glorious plan.” Nutkani’s introduction is lavished with admiration.

“I was not aware we were working on the same project?” Afridi has a shrinking perception of just what the goals of the Sang-Ashi Probe are exactly.

“Let us say that you have your talents and I have mine.”

“Comrades, let me say that both of your talents will be needed to defeat the greatest threat to our stature in the world since the unlawful attacks on our founding state. That is why you are here; to help each of our nations stare down imperialism!” Khan-Nutkani refers to the endless Afghan War and inspired by the chance to settle the score. “Afridi, you hold the key; Comrade Tan Dan needs to open the door, and between us, we must slam the door on Universe Expansionism!”

Nae Tan-Dan seems to have a {short} leg up on Afridi and is poised to carry out a plan. Aldona Afridi is still mostly in the dark, but a sliver of light is seeping through some seedy cracks.Sang-Ashi Probe

“To keep our solar system free of those who want to conquer it, we need the firing codes for the Sang-Ashi Probe.”

“Sang-Ashi will protect itself, if the occasion warrants. I built in superior internal defenses.”

“We need to have manual control over it…..and we need it now!” The Sheikh’s arms are shaking angrily.


Image result for expansionism

Expansionism by Robert Bertino

Episode 13

page 12

THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 12

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 12

… It is an unseemly ghetto where even the native rats must feel trapped, with no way out…


“Our alliance with Korea is essential to the success of our goal,” the Sheikh reminds the man, an arm’s length away, at the same time speaking for the other person along for the ride, who has been uncomfortably silent to this point. 

“Our satellite is safe and ready to take out the eavesdropping satellite network that has invaded the business of our great alliance!”



Image result for allah“Allah is counting on you Afridi. There are many other scientists who would cherish the opportunity you have.” Nutkani sounds like the quasi-benevolent benefactor who is expecting results. “I trust your family is doing well?”

“Very well, thank you. The new city is everything my wife and I have ever dreamed of. And the children like the zoo.”

“You must miss them.

“I have not seen them in over a month, yes.”

“I understand that. This meeting marks the end to your hard work. After today, you can take a very long holiday, Mumbai perhaps.”

Aldona Afridi bows in reverence. He has had his fill of field work. His last trip to the United Korean Peninsula was particularly unsavory; too many military types for his civilian tastes.

The tank-like version of mobile tribal luxury slows to a stop in a dark, dusty alley deep inside a lower-class mountainside neighborhood dead ending at a filthy rivulet. It is an unseemly ghetto where even the native rats must feel trapped, with no way out.

But there they were, parked and quiet, watching the moonlight dance off the slow-moving water in front of them. Afridi wants to break the silence, when from behind them another fancy black sedan approaches. That makes two vehicles very much out-of-place and the coincidences are beginning to pile up. There is no hesitation by the occupants; engine off, doors opened, three men emerge.

Afridi is becoming more restless by the second. Everything about this strange encounter has trouble written all over it. He is wearing casual garb, but still tugs on his collar to cool down. He grabs a handkerchief from his pocket to mop the beading perspiration from his forehead.


The Destruction of the Ghetto by Abraham A. Manievich

The Destruction of the Ghetto by Abraham A. Manievich

Episode 12

page 11


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…Commander McKinney’s first step in real gravity resembles that of a newborn colt…

Newborn Colt by Robert J Bryan

Newborn Colt by Robert J Bryan

Like the superb team they are, precisely the reason they were chosen to inaugurate the Colony, the McKinneys {of space family fame} are moving to advance history. Sampson brings their modified space shuttle into docking position, unleashing thruster blasts for fine tuning. The massive craft floats in with deceptive ease, belying its gross tonnage of 90,000.

independance-dayOnce in place, they are able to shut down the weary guidance systems of the deep-space shuttle, not to be reactivated until it makes way for the second wave of colonists, another 6.2 months from now (which will be 7/4/2030—Independence Day). It will be a long wait, but there will be no shortage of things to do. Space Colony 1 is a state-of-the-art scientific laboratory and this particular pair of space veterans can make these instruments dance.

Sampson frees himself from the pilot’s chair gladly. Albeit quite comfortable, the seat has his body’s imprint in it, but it will be good to have a change of scenery. He and Celeste are looking forward to stretching out underused muscle and ligament.

After extended space travel, this first foray into it, space medicine experts are giddy by having this look into the human physiology aspect. Commander McKinney’s first step in real gravity resembles that of a newborn colt. It is embarrassing to stagger helplessly with almost everyone on Earth watching live or on tape delay. He shrugs off Celeste’s chuckles to regain his balance.

beauty-crown-001Not unexpectedly, the sleek figure of Lieutenant Commander McKinney does not fare any better than her mate, but looks prettier doing it. From most any point of view, her Miss Sweden 2014 crown would not have tumbled from her head, not like her astronaut headgear. She tries to corral her long platinum blond hair, throwing her head back, trying to act like nothing had happened.

In the process, she tips over sideways, puts out her left hand out to brace herself… thereby slicing open her palm on a digital gyroscope display. Blood flows through the epidermis immediately, sending Sampson to the nearest station first aid kiosk for gauze and sterilization material. He is terribly concerned, yet calmly tends the ugly wound.display

“Don’t think that this will keep you off the job,” using his worst bedside manner. “It should be okay before we need it.”

“I certainly hope so… it’s just a flesh wound.” Celeste is confused by his prognosis.

“I was talking about the monitor!”

Sometimes he treats her a little too much like “one of the guys”. It is advisable for him to display more spousal compassion.

“Did you assign us separate cabins Commander McKinney sir?” She is kidding……….mostly.



Episode 5

page 7