Saltlake Naval Base
Lines were connected and secured, hatches opened, and the CNV Redoubt was, once again, one with Saltlake base. Once shutdown procedures were completed, and clearances given, crew started drifting out through the freezing connecting tube with their kitbags. Navy medical staff was on hand to look over the Corregidor crew, and three naval intelligence officers stood at the station side hatch, waiting for Lejeunne and the Corregidor's officers for debriefings.
Ferris waited on the bridge of the Redoubt until he was certain his ship was secured, and the Saltlake maintenance crew was aboard. With a satisfied sigh, he signed out, switched the command console to standby, and stood up from his chair. He brushed aside a fleeting moment of reluctance at leaving his post and headed for the docking collar. A much-deserved break awaited him.
His bridge officers were standing beside their kitbags just inside the station hatch, watching the last of Redoubt's crew exit with their gear, exchanging jokes and the odd good-natured insult. As Ferris re-oriented himself to the station's gravity, and approached them at a walk for the last few steps, he could see that they were waiting specifically for him.
"Lejeunne and his officers had to leave with the intelligence folks, right away," McMichael said, "but he wanted me to tell you 'thanks' on behalf of his crew one more time."
"I'm glad I wasn't here for that," Ferris joked. "I mean, he's a good man and everything, but if he had thanked me one more time to my face, I might've lost it and done something I would have regretted. He thanked me so many times during our return trip, I was starting to wish we'd left them out in the.out there."
There was a shared chuckle at this, more at his slip than at the pleasantry he was trying to make. There was no sign of the message-bearing officer from Wexler's staff that was supposed to have met them already at the docking port. Ferris had no desire to stand here and wait for whoever-it-was to show up. His billet awaited, and the entire station beckoned. The delicious smells of the civilian arm of Saltlake base were already starting to make him salivate.
Ferris looked toward the security checkpoint at the end of the passage, and the bank of lifts beyond which the rest of the station awaited. "Since the Vice Admiral's aide isn't here, I guess I'd better head toward their offices and get whatever it is over with."
McMichael looked at Captain Ferris with an expression of deep sympathy and spoke in an exaggerated tone of mock concern, "We thought we'd wait around, so we could, you know, be there for you when you get the bad news, whatever that may be."
Iwamasa laughed and said, "Yeah, right! Truth is we're more than just a little curious. We just don't want to wait to find out what's going on."
"We don't want to impose, but if it concerns us or our next mission, we thought." Ravindran added.
"It's OK," Ferris assured them, reaching down to grab his kitbag. "Let's go to the Vice Admiral's office together."
They walked toward the security checkpoint near the lifts. Before they could reach it, they saw a man exit from the third lift to the right. "Looks like the Vice Admiral's aide decided to come after all. Here he comes now," said Ferris softly.
They all looked toward the man approaching the security checkpoint from the bank of lifts. They watched as he passed through the checkpoint and started toward them. Kenji and Ravindran's eyes got bigger as he got closer. The man walking toward them, in a Commonwealth Navy uniform bearing the stripes of a Lieutenant Commander, appeared normal in all respects, except that his skin was somehow.wrong. They could see that his skin was translucent, like looking through a thin milky film into tissue layers normally obscured by the dermis. They could see the myriad blood vessels, the fat deposits, tendons and connective tissue, the superficial musculature and in some places, bone. His eyes were a disconcerting pale blue, rimmed with pink. Captain Ferris composed himself first and turned to face the approaching aide with the decorum the situation demanded.
"Captain Ferris," said the man with the clear milky visage streaked with pink and blue. He saluted smartly, which was answered quickly, but a little less tightly by Ferris. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard, of Vice Admiral Wexler's staff. I apologize for the delay. I fully intended to meet you right at debarkation. I have a message to deliver that requires formal acceptance." He reached into his breast pocket and produced a small envelope, obviously containing a data chit and a message on real paper. The sight of blood vessels, bones, tendons and cartilage of his hands was just as disturbing to the officers of the Redoubt, who all watched the movement with muted shock.
Ferris reached out for the envelope, pressed his thumb into the seal on the back, and said, "I, Captain William Ferris, accept this delivery." Ferris knew that his voice pattern and thumbprint had just been registered by recording devices somewhere on the aide. "Thank you, Lieutenant Commander. And no need to apologize. We're just grateful you made the trip all the way down here. Aren't we Lieutenants?" They all recovered themselves and nodded in agreement. "Was there anything else?"
"No, Captain. You are simply urged to read the message immediately and attend the briefing in the morning. With the Vice Admiral's compliments." Skarsgaard saluted.
Ferris returned the salute, said "Thank you," and nodded a dismissal to the aide. After Skarsgaard was beyond the checkpoint and well out of earshot, Iwamasa finally spoke.
"Sir, what the.what was wrong with him? I've never seen anything like that."
"Nothing's wrong with him, Kenji," replied Ferris absently as he turned his attention to opening the message envelope and pulling his data pad from his pocket in order to read the chit. "He's a Visible Man." This left Iwamasa no more informed than he was a moment before.
"It was kind of a fad about ten or fifteen years ago," McMichael added. "A bunch of people went through some genetic and chemo procedures to thin the skin and remove all traces of pigment. It made their skin almost see-through. Apparently it was a pretty painful procedure, and most suffered from skin sensitivity problems after the fact. The fad died out pretty quickly."
"No shit!" Iwamasa snorted. "That's the creepiest thing I've ever seen. He must be great at Halloween parties."
Ravindran spoke for the first time since the aide had departed their company. "I remember reading something about this. People did it to make a statement. They wanted to renounce any racial affiliations whatsoever, didn't they?"
"People did it," Ferris said, as he inserted the data chit into the pad, "for the same reasons people do just about anything like that: to make some kind of statement. Some were making a statement about racism, like you said. Some were saying something about our moving to the stars and living inside artificial protective shells; kind of declaring that Humanity no longer needed skin as protection from the elements. Some were saying something about secrets and concealing stuff from others. Apparently you can always tell what these folks are feeling, so they can't lie very well. Some people did it to defy the superficial nature of everyone's ideas of beauty. I think a lot of them just did it to be different; you know, for pure shock value. It makes quite an impact."
"Well, it sure worked on me." Iwamasa said. Ravindran had already gathered up her kit and was starting to move toward the checkpoint. Kenji watched her and continued, almost to himself, "A Visible Man. Damn, now I've seen everything.and I'm not sure I wanted to see as much as I just did."
Ferris had been looking over the message with a furrowed brow. "Ravindran, hold up for a second. You were all dying to know the contents of the message, well here it is: I've got a briefing at 07:30 tomorrow morning about a new mission. They're already starting to make some changes to the Redoubt as we speak, and readying her for departure sometime in the next couple of days from the look of the work schedule. It looks like we get an even shorter break than we thought. Meet me at the lounge down the hall from my billet at 10:00 tomorrow, and I'll tell you whatever I can at that time. In the meantime, get all the sleep you can pack into the next 18 hours. More than likely we'll ship out again in a couple of days with all this hurry."
McMichael objected openly to the news. "Wait a minute. Aren't we supposed to get at least a couple of weeks of spin time after that many weeks of grav plates? I mean, I thought it was a health rule or a law or something. You're supposed to only spend so much time in artificial gravity fields because of the health risks, then you get down time either dirtside, or in the spinning sections, away from the fields. I remember reading that in our training vids."
"You're probably right," Ferris said, "except they were guidelines, not rules, and the Navy's own studies say the health risks of the grav fields aren't that bad, so they ignore the guidelines whenever it suits them. Besides, these are orders. Health and safety guidelines or not, we obey orders."
"Yeah, well.if I get cancer, or my nuts start to rot, the Navy'll be hearing from my legal team."
"Give it a rest, will you, Mac," Iwamasa said as they started to collect their things to clear the security checks. "All you've been doing the past couple of weeks is gripe and complain."
"I only complain when I have good reason to. Have you noticed that most of the time I'm pointing out the lousy maintenance work you and your so-called Engineers have been doing? You wouldn't have to hear about it if you were halfway competent."
"Sure. Whatever you say, Mac. Just stay away from me during our shore leave, OK?" Iwamasa then turned to Ravindran "Hey Rav, you want a hand with your bag there?" he offered the WEPS officer, somewhat meekly.
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" McMichael bellowed. "Would you two please drop the school-yard crush crap for one stinkin' moment?! For three weeks you've been driving me nuts with 'Hey Rav, want to take a coffee break with me?' or 'Hey Rav, what do you think of my PBC cooling conduit modifications?' I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of you two. Hey Kenji, here," Mac held out his own kitbag. "You can carry my fuckin' bag if you're so eager to help someone." He dropped his bag on the deck, turned, and walked toward the security desk.
"Stop right there, pilot!" Ferris said with a firmness that halted McMichael before he got four paces away. When he did not turn back around to face them, Ferris yelled louder than he remembered yelling in months. "Turn and face your Captain when he's speaking to you, Lieutenant! And by God, you will stand at attention!"
That got everyone's attention. McMichael spun around, and they all snapped to attention. Ferris fumed as he took a deep breath and spoke to them all in a strained, but much quieter tone. "You may be tired and you may be irritable, but that does not excuse you from treating fellow officers with respect. Believe me, I'm as much in need of a break from you as I am from the bridge of that ship. But we are officers of the Commonwealth Navy. We've all worked and trained too hard to give in to a little fatigue or to personal frictions. Lieutenant McMichael, you just crossed the line with that outburst. You are an embarrassment to the uniform you wear. You owe your colleagues an apology. Right here, right now. You also owe your Captain an apology for that display of conduct most unbecoming of a naval officer."
"Aye, Captain," McMichael seethed. He paused before turning to face Ravindran and Iwamasa. He balled his hands tightly at his sides as he forced the apology. "Lt. Iwamasa, Lt. Ravindran. I apologize for my outburst." Kenji was still flushed with embarrassment, or rage, Ferris couldn't tell, and Ravindran had remained cool throughout the exchange. They simply nodded acceptance.
McMichael then turned to Ferris. "There are no excuses, sir."
"Damn right, there aren't! Now, according to this message, we need to revise the duty roster and make room for several new staff and a specialized accommodation module. That means we have to leave behind about a third of our crew for this next mission. You just earned yourself the task of coming up with recommendations for who stays and who goes. I'll expect to review them by oh-six hundred, Lieutenant, so unless you can work fast, you can forget about a stop at The Bad Seal this evening. Get me?!" Ferris said.
"Aye, Captain," McMichael said again, all formality and military snap.
Ferris turned to his engineer and weapons officers. "I don't know how much of this I should be directing at you, Ravindran, but I'm going to say it to both of you, here and in the open: I don't know what, if anything, is going on between you two. Frankly, I don't care. You already know the navy's policies in this regard, so you proceed with any romantic entanglements at your own peril. However, you also seem to require a reminder about the uniform you're wearing. I demand absolute professionalism, courteous conduct and top performance from you, on or off duty. No more flirtations. We're here to get a job done. Do you understand me?!"
"We understand you, sir!" they both yelled in unison.
"Very well, then. The two of you, go and get the most out of whatever liberty we're going to get. I'm guessing it won't be much of a break, so focus on the rest part of R and R." Ravindran gave Iwamasa a look that shifted from annoyance to warmth before they headed to the checkpoint. Each of them carried their own kitbag. Ferris watched them as they stood together, reading their body language and how closely they stood to one another as yet another sign that they were now more than fellow bridge officers. They took turns leaning and looking directly into the security scanner. A light turned green, a computer voice cleared them, and they walked into a lift. They barely got a nod from the bored soldiers standing there, weapons dangling loosely from shoulder webbing.
"Mac, you're with me. Pick up your kit. Bring mine, too, while you're at it."
"Aye, sir," McMichael acknowledged, without the usual wisecracks. There was a distinct absence of gentleness as he grabbed the bag, letting Ferris know he was still furious. Let him pout, Ferris thought.
With that, Ferris started toward the security checkpoint and the lift beyond it that would take them to the concourse. Delicious smells of the food stalls were already drifting in the air, playing havoc with his salivary glands. McMichael fell in close behind him, lugging the bags.