On approach to Saltlake naval base
Home again. At the end of the Redoubt's third patrol in as many months, Captain Ferris was certain that his crew was feeling the fatigue as much as he was. His temper was growing shorter, and his thinking was getting fuzzier, which can be disastrous in this job. They had managed a nice little rescue operation to cap off this last mission, but the gratitude of the survivors of the Corregidor, and the accolades they were sure to receive from the brass wouldn't make up for the overriding need for rest. Ferris' thoughts drifted to the warm comforts of his billet on Saltlake Base. He thought of the different feel of the bed, the different sounds, and the uninterrupted sleep he could get there. For the past couple of years that was the place he called home. In fact, it was only slightly larger than his quarters on board his corvette, but that billet was all about spin time, Rest and Relaxation, and catching up with old friends. The captain's cabin on the Redoubt was a place to shave and catch a nap between watch duty and paperwork.
Ferris could feel the awe that gripped almost every member of every vessel that approached the cradle of the species. Even though he wasn't, his ancestors were born on Earth. No matter how far flung people had become; no matter how many generations were born and raised in the colonies, this was the common homeland to everyone. Returning here from a mission filled every member of the crew, from bridge officers to the deck hands, with excitement. Every returning spacer knew those feelings of relief. Some just relished the anticipation of getting off the ship and getting drunk and laid. For others there was a visceral sense of warmth and safety, being aboard Saltlake and so close to mother Earth.
The blue disk of Earth filled the bridge with a pleasant new brightness that was a refreshing change from the dull red overheads and the glow of their workstation monitor screens. Like a stick insect crawling across the lens of a big blue spotlight, Saltlake base appeared in the middle of that blue and white disk. It was a spindly station of cylinders, long thin docking arms at both ends, and rotating sections in the middle of its main axis orbiting the Earth's L-5 point. Two larger military ships could already be seen next to it from this far out. It all seemed to loom up at them ridiculously fast as they came out of LDS. More and more traffic quickly became apparent in the station's vicinity as they approached.
"Approach autopilot has disengaged, Captain. We're slowing to port speed and will be holding at 4 Km off Saltlake. Hey, that's the Purdue. It looks like Vice Admiral Wexler and his favourite destroyer are in town. Their entire support escort group is here, too. We've got corvettes all over the place out here. There's the Strathmere, the Stonebridge, the Khyber, and the Toulon. It looks like he brought the whole gang. From the look of the traffic around here, we'll be waiting awhile before getting docking clearance," McMichael reported from the pilot's seat, clearly frustrated. "Anyone need to make a trip to the head?" He heaved a sigh that was audible over the hum of machinery, the constant squawking chatter of ship comms, and the beeps of proximity warnings.
The traffic around Saltlake Base was indeed getting heavier these past few months, and the queues for docking were a major frustration. The confines imposed by the strict regulations of space traffic control and the density of orbital activity seemed to be unnatural for vessels accustomed to plying the vast open reaches of space unfettered. Naval corvettes were not supposed to be stuck in traffic, especially not when they were returning from a three-week patrol, and a bit of heroic rescuing.
To make matters worse, Captain William Ferris was not inclined to be patient with the STC personnel; not since they started joking on open channels about his ship. The good-natured ribbing had started innocently enough about four months ago when the crew of the CNV-534 Redoubt was returning from their first patrol since the now-notorious recon mission. The STC folks had asked the crew to "cool their jets" while they waited for docking clearance. This was followed by what sounded very much like laughter in the background over the comm. Then came the apologies for having to keep them "on ice", then came suggestions to "chill out", reassurances that they weren't getting the "cold shoulder", and so forth. They heard every other bad pun or reference to the cold imaginable, and some that were stretched beyond the imagination, all of which were followed by laughter audible in the background of the STC Centre. The Redoubt had been forgotten by the news media, and by the war-weary populace of Earth as quickly as they had been noticed, after their reconnaissance mission. Unfortunately, it looked like their peers in the navy weren't about to let it go as easily. The past was going to continue to haunt the crew who had once been Out in the Cold.
Now that they were back, they had to prepare themselves for more unwanted comments. With the exception of the Corregidor rescue, the patrol mission had been almost entirely uneventful. After two weeks on patrol, their only excitement was a brief comm exchange with a remote listening outpost, and the discovery of an old wrecked hulk of a tug from some unheard of fight that had taken place years before. There was nothing to do but tag it, log it, and continue on their way. At least they'd been able to end things on a high note with a heroic rescue.
The crew of the Corregidor wasn't making any cold jokes anymore.
Nonetheless, everyone aboard the Redoubt settled in to wait just like they'd waited for clearance the last two times they returned from patrol. Waiting seemed to be a big part of their job these days. Ferris doubted anyone on the bridge was in the mood for more cold jokes, but he steeled himself for it, in hopes that he would at least provide a good role model for his officers. As expected, they were hailed by STC.
"CNV-534 Redoubt, this is Saltlake STC. Welcome back ladies and gentlemen. You are cleared to dock on number 4."
The directness, and the politeness shocked Ferris out of his grim mood. Even his restless backside was stilled for a moment. They were cleared to dock already? And on number 4! That dock had recently been designated for civilian traffic, much to the chagrin of the Navy. In fact that whole arm of Saltlake station had been opened up as a civilian section last year under considerable political pressure, and now that the Independence war was heating up, the Admiralty was sorely regretting the decision. They thumped tables and shouted things like 'security risk', 'spy haven', 'intelligence nightmare' at station council meetings. But their complaints fell on deaf ears. Large corporate interests, as well as huge amounts of taxpayer funds help pay for and build this station, and they wanted their access. Once the Navy caved in to political pressure, and gave access to the free-market masses, it was next to impossible to take it back. Number 4 wasn't the nicest receiving area the orbital had, but it certainly was the most interesting. It was worth a stroll down the main concourse for the food stall smells alone. Ferris was thinking about the delicacy he tried during his last visit to that section for a moment before he recovered enough to consider that this might be an escalation of the pranks. Perhaps the folks in STC were joking with him.
He re-opened the channel to the traffic controller. "Saltlake STC this is the Redoubt. Please confirm immediate clearance to 4."
The reply was crisp, professional and very clear. "Confirmed, CNV 534 Redoubt. Number 4 is clear and waiting for you. Navy brass has given us permission to route any and all waiting naval traffic there, now. You aren't the only ones who get tired of waiting in line, so we're stepping things up. Nice work on the rescue of the Corregidor crew. Oh, and it appears that there's a message waiting for you there, Captain. Proceed when ready."
So it wasn't a joke. There was no laughing in the background, just straight up professionalism and a clear path from STC. "Acknowledged, Saltlake. Commencing docking," Ferris looked up to the mirror over the pilot station and saw McMichael looking at him in stunned silence. "You heard it right, Mac. Take us in nice and proud-like."
McMichael was rarely at a loss for clever retorts, but he still hadn't recovered sufficiently to say anything more than "Aye sir. Docking autopilot engaged."
It looked as though the Admiralty had given up complaining in council meetings and were trying a new tactic to secure that part of the station. Wondering about the waiting message, Ferris opened the comm to STC again. "Saltlake this is Redoubt, again. Transmit that message to me directly, please. Command codes appended"
"Negative. Aah, sorry, but no can do, Redoubt. It must be a special delivery. It says here that a member of Vice Admiral Wexler's staff will meet you at dock 4 with a message. That's all we know. STC out."
Ferris keyed the comm off and leaned back into the astonishingly uncomfortable captain's seat and reflected. It didn't sound good. A hardcopy message from Wexler, hand-delivered by someone from his staff simply couldn't be good. He'd only ever seen the Vice Admiral once before, during some pep talk presentation to Commonwealth Navy officers a couple of years ago. What in the hell could this be about? Re-assignment? Disciplinary proceedings? Ferris' mind started worrying over every possible screw-up he'd been part of in his career, trying to figure out what he'd done that would warrant an official skewering. For a brief moment, he entertained the possibility that this was his well-deserved commendation and promotion, but dismissed it almost as quickly. He was certain it wouldn't have anything to do with pulling off the rescue. Bad news traveled much faster, and through different channels than good news.
This was definitely not going to be good news.
McMichael, assuming that the waiting message must be related to their heroic rescue, uttered the nursery rhyme fragment that had become another signature phrase "Home again, home again, jiggity jig," to no one in particular, then added, "The last one to The Bad Seal buys the round. And we'd better get there early. If Wexler's boys and girls are here, it'll be that much harder to find a table. You'd better have your creds ready, there, Kenji."
Iwamasa ignored the taunt.
Ravindran turned from her WEPs console to face Captain Ferris. Even when she was exhausted, the small delicate features of her face were striking. "This should be a pleasant change," she said. "I hope we get more leave time before our next mission. Our last furlough seemed too short."
Ferris whispered, "Amen to that" to himself, as he keyed in final commands at his console.
The corvette slowed to a crawl as it closed the final few Metres to the dock. They all felt the small bump as the collars touched and the seals locked.
"And I hope we get something better than another patrol of empty space for our next mission. You'd think they were punishing us with these boring milk runs," Iwamasa added.
Ferris just nodded absently. A boring mission would have been fine with him, but he was pretty damned sure the next mission wouldn't be another milk run.