22.03.2268. 2230 GMT
Saltlake Naval Base
With a familiar clang vibrating through the hull of the ship, and the slight nudge felt as air escaped the airlock seals, McMichael knew that the ship was clear of the station before the readouts could tell him. He touched the controls to gently ease the craft further away from the arm, while giving her a little forward thrust at the same time to start the transit to the LaGrange point. Even though the break was a short one, it was good to be back in the driver's seat. He knew this ship like it was an extension of his own body. He could make the 162-metre long corvette move with the grace and precision of a bird. At times he could almost forget that the Redoubt had a mass of over 19,000 tons. The illusion of agility was afforded only because of the tremendous power available to her main thrusters and plasma grid.
McMichael sort of understood how the spongiform neutronium reaction surface interacted with the accelerated particles bombarding it, but he didn't really care. All he knew was that it was a beautiful thing to be in control of at moments like this. He felt the Redoubt dance to his touch.
He nudged the thrust up a little as they cleared the structure of Saltlake Base, and headed for the LaGrange point marshalling area, where they were to meet their escorts. He forced himself to remain within port speed limits, but only just. Hot-shotting was not tolerated anywhere in Earth orbit, especially not around Saltlake.
McMichael risked a glance up at the mirror while he was piloting to the escort rendezvous waypoint. Captain Ferris was busy at his command station, checking systems, responding to comms from the STC people, confirming reports of readiness and ensuring that his marine guests were tucked away in their souped-up pastie. Ravindran had been very quiet and professional since they boarded and strapped-in, so he just decided to leave her alone. He was sort of missing Kenji, too.
McMichael had barely had the chance to chat with their new ENG officer, but his first impression was one of cool reserve. Skarsgaard was hard working, at least. He was trying to fit in with them, but somehow he lacked that ill-defined and unspoken social code so commonly seen amongst corvette crews. Maybe the guy was just rusty in the service, too used to fetching coffees, pressing pants, and drawing up boardroom seating plans. That, and the fact he was one very scary-looking individual. McMichael was just glad that the mirror bolted to the ceiling struts didn't offer him a view of the new Chief's disturbingly translucent skin. There were certain benefits to being up in the front seat, with your back to the rest. Not being able to see the Visible Man was number two on the list of benefits right now.
Piloting this corvette was definitely benefit number one. McMichael immersed himself in the joy of feeling at one with the Redoubt.
Skarsgaard spoke to Ferris from his ENG station. "All systems are functioning perfectly, Captain. LDS and Capsule drive are ready when you want them. I'm reading an unusual amount of energy being drawn by the new accommodation module, but I should be able to compensate without difficulty."
"Thank you, Chief," Ferris replied. "I'll have to have a chat with Colonel Carr, and ask him about some of the special features his accommodation module is sporting. In the meantime, adjust power grids three and four to compensate."
Ravindran reported from her WEPs station. "Captain, our magazines are, as you suspected, modified from the standard combat loadout. We're carrying a larger number of LDSi missiles and Disruptor missiles than usual. We also have two REM missiles. We've only got a handful of seekers. All I can say is: I hope we don't get into a fight."
"I agree with you on that, Rav," Ferris acknowledged. "But if we do get into a fight, we've got some escorts for help. Even without them, we know how to change our tactics to optimally use the loadout we've got. Meaning, of course, that we should run like hell, and hope to live to fight another day with some real missiles in those magazines."
McMichael's chuckle was stifled by the sounds of the entrance hatch to the bridge opening, then closing again. Colonel Carr strode from the airlock at the rear of the Command Section to stand next to Ferris, on the port access walkway.
"Captain, my people are secured and ready. What's taking us so long to make the jump?" said the marine Colonel, as he walked to Ferris' side. He glanced upward and caught sight of McMichael's non-regulation modification affixed to the ceiling brace, and fumed, "What in the hell is that? Since when do non-regulation modifications get past a Commonwealth Navy Captain? Ferris, what kind of a ship are you running here, anyway?"
Ferris kept his eyes on his Command workstation screen, and replied calmly, "Colonel Carr, welcome to the bridge of the Redoubt CNV 534. While we're currently only engaged in port manoeuvres, I would advise all of our guests against walking about my ship until we've extinguished the 'no smoking' and 'secure seatbelt' signs." He made a clear point of not answering the Colonel's questions, and he emphasized the possessive reference to the ship. He was not going to let this guy get him into a pissing contest. Not on his ship. Not in front of his officers.
"Captain," the Colonel said slowly. "This is not a joke. You have no idea who I am, do you? I'm the man who is going."
"Colonel Carr!" Ferris interrupted him. "I'm in the middle of operating this vessel. I would appreciate it if you would restrict yourself to the starboard accommodation module, with the rest of the marine complement. Any communications you wish to make can be made from your workstation there. I'd be happy to give you a complete tour, but it will have to be some other time. Now please leave this bridge, and let me do my job."
"Captain Ferris, if we're going to have some kind of a problem, you'd better."
"Colonel Carr," Ferris bellowed over him. "The only problem we have is the fact that you are impeding the functioning of my ship by strolling in here for no reason. Unless you want to go on record as jeopardizing this mission by challenging the command of this vessel, then you will leave now, and trust the operation of this ship to me and to my crew. Do you understand me perfectly clearly?! Get off my bridge. Or am I going to be forced to have you removed under restraint."
Colonel Carr was turning red as he listened to Ferris. He simply was not accustomed to any kind of backtalk. He started to shake as he struggled to control his anger. Carr glanced over his shoulder at Ravindran, who held his regard and answered it with her own glare. It was clear he wasn't going to win this one easily. It didn't stop him from trying, though. "Captain," he emphasized the rank, "you just crossed a line. And it is going to cost you in the final analysis."
"Mac," Ferris said to his NAV officer. "Bring us a halt. All stop." He waited quietly while McMichael fired the braking thrusters.
"All stop, Captain," reported McMichael when the corvette had completely shed its velocity.
Ferris slowly looked over at Colonel Carr again, and held his gaze. Ferris' calm demeanour only worsened Carr's barely contained rage. "Are you still here?" Ferris asked in his best condescending tone.
Carr was beginning to turn an even deeper shade of red. "This kind of insubordin."
"Get the fuck off my bridge!" Ferris cut him off again. "NOW!"
The marine Colonel, as intimidating as he appeared, could not bully Ferris, who simply held his stare. Ferris knew how important this little contest had become in establishing the new hierarchy aboard his vessel. He would not allow anyone to dress him down in front of his crew, especially in front of a new ENG officer. For a moment, Ferris wondered if the Colonel would draw his sidearm, and use brute force to save face. As angry as he was, Carr was not a fool. He simply stared at Ferris for as long as he deemed necessary to make his feelings clear, then he fired an equally spiteful look at each of the others before finally storming off the bridge. If he could have slammed the rear access hatch, he would have. Instead, it quietly slid closed and sealed with an anticlimactic hiss.
"Mac, resume transit to our rendezvous waypoint, please," Ferris said as calmly as he could.
"Aye, Captain. Resuming course and speed," replied McMichael. He glanced up at the reflection of Captain Ferris, who was breathing a little more rapidly than usual, and happened to notice the seating equipment attached to the rear bulkhead behind Ferris that they almost never used. "I'm guessing you didn't want me to point out the two fold-down rumble seats we have there at the back of the bridge, right Captain?" Ferris gave him a look in the mirror that shut him up immediately. Ravindran, who knew better than to start making jokes at such times, remained silent as she busied herself at her workstation. Unfortunately, Skarsgaard also couldn't suppress his urge to comment on the recent exchange.
"Captain, do you have any idea who Colonel Carr is?" Skarsgaard asked. "I mean, he's 'The Barber'. I don't think that he's the kind of guy you'd want as an enemy."
"Lieutenant Commander," Ferris said. "If I want your opinion..." McMichael noticed the Captain's hands were shaking a little, as he worked the keyboard of his command workstation. "I know exactly who he is, and what he is, by reputation. In fact, I did a little research before we undocked, because I wanted to know a little more about my new crew. Our Colonel Carr is indeed a tough customer, and deserving of our respect when it comes to his particular expertise, but he is not going to bully me aboard my own ship. I learned that he has a history of doing that with Naval vessels," he said. The shakiness left his hands as he typed more commands into his console. "He and his marines are used to operating from either an LST, or as guests aboard someone else's ship. The good Colonel has a nasty habit of going straight to the Captain of a ship and testing his or her mettle. I, for one, do not wish to be baited or harassed by a passenger. So I decided to make it clear, from the start, who is in charge of this ship."
"Uh, I think he probably got the point," McMichael muttered.
After a few more moments of silent operations at her workstation, Ravindran reported a new contact emerging from the port's LaGrange point. "Traffic inbound from the L-point, Captain." She said. "It's the Dreadnaught. I heard they'd salvaged her and pressed her back into service. From all the chatter I'm hearing on comms, it sounds like she just pulled off an impressive rescue of her own. I guess they're the new heroes of the day in the Commonwealth."
"So much for our moment of glory," grumbled McMichael. "They couldn't have waited ten more minutes! No matter how famously we succeed, somebody always comes in and steals our thunder. What did they do this time?"
Ravindran was quiet for a moment as she listened on her headset. Then she relayed as much of the story as she could assemble. "They pulled a very impressive stunt in the Lupus system. They used a magnetic hopper to catch an antimatter reactor core that had been ejected and was headed for some highly populated station or something. Everyone's talking about it. It sounds like the Dreadnaught is the new sweetheart of the Navy. She's really making a name for herself again."
"Yeah, I've heard that, too," Ferris said, with a hint of envy in his voice. "I heard about the big splash they made at the Venturi fuel depot not long ago. I also heard rumours that the crew is getting some special help from an old A.I. ghost box. I'd rather make do without that kind of help, after what I've heard about those ghastly experiments."
"We've arrived at the marshalling point, Captain," McMichael said. "We're being hailed by the Crusader."
"This is Captain Hyslop-Smith of the Crusader." Even over the audio, Hyslop-Smith's voice had enough snobbish arrogance to make McMichael instantly dislike the man. "Your escort is ready, Captain Ferris. We'll use an Inclined Tetrahedron formation, with the Cayuga on point, the Iroquois and Athabaska on the flanks. We'll take the ventral aft position. We can formate on your vessel when you are ready, Captain."
McMichael rolled his eyes at Hyslop-Smith's formation report. Every NAV officer who had ever attended pilot training knew about the I-Tet formation, it was standard stuff. This guy was talking about it as if he'd invented it. Mac didn't care what fancy formation they chose, as long as they kept enemies away. He was pretty sure he knew why this Hyslop-Smith guy chose the rear escort position, too. He was about to voice this opinion out loud when Ravindran broke in again.
"Captain, we're being asked to hold by STC," she said. "We've been given orders to wait before proceeding to make the jump to the Toliman point."
"Very well, then. Nothing surprising in that, especially here at Saltlake," Ferris replied with nonchalance. "Relay that to our escort."
After a couple of days of familiarization, Allbright found his new workstation to be much easier to operate than he thought it might be. The engineering duties were more similar to the work he'd done on the Acadian, than they were different. In fact, he was surprising himself at how quickly he was finding himself adapting to the job of an engineer aboard this Navy ship. The part about keeping the machine running was essentially the same, with better machinery and monitoring equipment. The hardest thing about his new job was getting used to all the Naval military behaviour, the terms they used for things, and their Procedures. There were lots of Procedures to learn.
He was thinking about the procedure for team reassignment mid-repair, when he noticed something odd about one of the plasma conduits monitored from his station. He keyed up a more detailed readout, and sure enough, the readings were well outside the parameters he'd recently studied on that particular part of the plasma grid. Nothing in the monitoring system indicated that it was a problem, though. There were no alarms, no warning notices, and no automated shutdowns, or re-routes. He simply couldn't ignore it. After surreptitiously pulling up the manual and double-checking the ideal values, he knew he was right, but he was reluctant to ask for advice or a second opinion from his fellow engineers. Not only were they were busy, but he was the new guy and knew how that would look. He also didn't want to sound any alarms that could turn out to be false, which would make him look like even more of an ass. He decided to send a test to the sensor, and try to diagnose the bizarre reading that way. He typed the commands, and watched the value fluctuate, and then return to its values well outside of normal. His head was swimming with procedures, and he knew there was probably one for this, but he simply didn't know anything better than personally going to check it out himself. He made a note of the location of the fault, and excused himself from the control room.
Within a minute he was halfway to the aft monitoring control station. He was walking slowly down the corridor at this point looking down at the grid schematic displayed on the screen of his portable data pad, and back up at the conduit labels overhead. He stopped after a few steps like this, knelt down and removed a panel from a relay station, and plugged the portable into the local node.
The reading was still way off. There should have been at least two system warnings triggered by this, but the whole ship was acting as if all was well. After a moment of self-doubt, wondering if it was just something about navy vessel design, he decided to act. He'd rather be alive, and called a fool than ignore this problem.
"Better safe than sorry," he muttered to himself, as he set himself to reprogramming the faulty valve from the data pad's interface. In doing so, he realized that someone would have had to program the valve to go screwy in the first place. Someone had to have done this on purpose, especially if it was supposed to avoid all the automatic alarms that would react to its abnormal functioning. That had the smell of sabotage, which he did not like one bit.
He also realized that in order for his new commands to take effect, he'd have to shut down and reset this entire segment of the grid. Doing that would likely set off a warning or two, and take a number of systems offline, even if only briefly. Somebody was bound to notice that kind of a fluctuation. Whoever had set this valve awry in the first place could well be that somebody. He was wondering about the wisdom of doing this all by himself, probably in violation of a dozen procedures, when he remembered Chen's words. He wondered if this was what she meant by 'Independence.'
"Screw it," he said aloud to himself. "They can hang me later." He set to work again, determined to correct this problem, hurry back and strap himself into his workstation seat before anyone noticed he was gone. He was hoping the whole thing could be done in the time it took an old guy like him to have a decent crap. A glance at his watch told him that they wouldn't arrive at the L-point for several minutes yet.
There was plenty of time.
"Captain, Saltlake STC has just given us the green light," reported Ravindran. "We're clear to make the jump."
"Very well," Ferris replied. "Tell the escort vessels we're ready." He turned to glance up at McMichael. "Mac, take us through the LaGrange point."
"Aye, Captain," replied the pilot. "Here we go." He touched the controls and felt the thrusters propel them toward the L-point, portrayed on his Head-Up Display as a green disk with a blue mesh conical 'funnel' leading to it and a mirrored red funnel on the far side. These conventions were used as navigational aids in the HUD. They were coming up on it fast. McMichael watched the first escort flash as it passed into capsule space in front of them, then a flanking ship flashed to his right.
The Redoubt gained speed and crossed the theoretical plane of the green L-Point disk doing approximately 850 meters per second, relative. There was no flash, though. They passed through the LaGrange point without forming a capsule, and coasted straight into the exiting traffic space lanes, on the 'red funnel' side of the disk. The Crusader must have seen the failed jump and veered off at the last second, as she was still with them. The other three escorts were gone.
"Mac, get us clear of this lane, now. Bring us around and get us lined up for another try," yelled Ferris. "Rav, tell STC we had a failure, and will try again momentarily. Get them to hold traffic, and tell them we have to catch up to our escort as quickly as possible. While you're at it, thank the Crusader for their quick reflexes and ask them to bear with us." He turned to Skarsgaard, and spoke with quiet anger. "Chief, why the hell are we still in the Sol system while most of our escort are on their way to Alpha Centauri?"
"One moment, Captain," Skarsgaard was flustered as his strangely coloured hands worked the controls of his workstation. "It looks like someone reset a section of the grid a minute or two ago, which caused a temporary loss of a few systems. There was a power loss cascade that took the capsule drive offline for.for only a moment. I guess we lost the charge, and it took a few seconds to build that back up. It's all back and working nominally, now. We can jump anytime."
Ravindran listened to instructions in her headset, and then reported to them Ferris. "Captain, Saltlake has asked us to get positioned for another outbound LaGrange vector, and they'll clear us as soon as they've communicated with everyone else in line."
Ferris nodded at that, but continued speaking to Skarsgaard. "Mister Skarsgaard, which section of the plasma grid was reset moments before we were to make a capsule jump, and why did you have your team do that?"
"Section two, Captain," Skarsgaard answered. "That's Allbright's. He's the new."
"Are you or are you not the Chief Engineer on this vessel?" Ferris asked him, clearly unhappy about the situation.
Skarsgaard conceded the point. "I am, sir. Although it was an unauthorized repair, and one I did not order, I am responsible. I'll deal with it. I assure you it won't happen again."
"See to it, Lieutenant Commander," Ferris chided. "And when you're done with Mr. Allbright, send him to me," he continued. "I'd like to have a little chat with him myself."
Ferris returned his attention to the display in front of him, and addressed McMichael. "Mac, how long until we're ready to try this again?"
"We're almost there, now, Captain. Less than a minute until we're ready. Crusader is right on us, too, so we'll be ready whenever STC says go," he replied. "I've got to hand it to whoever was at Crusader's helm back there, sir. Those were some good reflexes."
"Tell them later, Mac," Ferris was clearly not pleased with the performance of his ship and new crew. His displeasure could be heard in his tone. McMichael reminded himself that they were still tired from a string of missions, with too little rest between them. The shuffling of crew must have had a bigger impact on the Captain than he thought. Maybe it was the fact that the Dreadnaught came in triumphant and heroic, gaining everyone's attention as the Navy's top crew. Maybe it was the fact that this mission had started out bad and was getting worse by the minute. Ferris sounded tired when he issued his next command. "Just get us to Alpha Centauri as quickly as possible. I'm sure our escort is wondering what happened to us."
Ravindran looked over from her station and said. "STC says 'go', Captain."
"Mr. Skarsgaard," Ferris said a little too loudly. "Are we ready to proceed?"
"All systems nominal, Captain. Aye," came the reply from the ENG workstation.
"Mac," Ferris said as he looked directly at him in the mirror, almost imploring him to salvage this mission. "Let's go find our escort, shall we? Take us through."
"Aye, sir," McMichael said. He fired the thrusters and aimed the Redoubt at the centre of the LaGrange disk for the second time in the span of eight minutes.
This time everything worked perfectly.