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Chapter 20: A Deck Beneath my Feet

A couple of hours later, I stepped onto the Crockett’s bridge. Like many smaller ships, hers was an ‘open’ bridge. A fifteen meter diameter semi-circle of glassteel panels is all that separated us from space. It was a magnificent view, but one that would be often useless in actual combat, which is why each panel also doubled as a viewing screen.

Front and center was the helm and engineering stations. Behind and to port was the weapons station. Front and starboard was the captain’s chair and behind that the holoscreens for the navigation charts. The captain’s seat was nondescript, plain wood. It didn’t look very comfortable, none that I have ever seen did.

“Captain on the bridge!” Vennick saluted, the rest looked at me expectantly. Ransome sat at her post, hands on her lap, making no attempt to suppress a smile. At the helm stood the steersman.

I took a deep breath. “Mister Vennick, let’s let her stretch her legs a little. Plot a course for a loop ‘round Iskander and back.”

“Aye sir.” The first officer positioned himself at the plotting table. Soon a blue line decorated the holographic image of New Samarkand’s moon like a ribbon. “Course laid in.”

“Ahead one-third.”

“Ahead one-third, aye sir.” The steersman relayed the order to engineering and then turned the ship’s virtual wheel.

There was a low vibration as her fusion-powered engines engaged and the star-field began to move. She’s Alive! This was a different experience from the Compass Rose. The Rose is a vehicle, the Crockett is a ship!

I strode calmly to the chair and sat down to enjoy the show. A few minutes later, a yeoman appeared with a mug of coffee. Yes, I can learn to like this very much. If only this were all there was to it.

It took about an hour to accelerate, swing around the satellite and decelerate back into a parking orbit. The simple maneuver was performed flawlessly.

“How long since the crew’s been drilled, Mister Vennick?”

“About eighty hours, sir”

“Let’s shake the cobwebs out.”

The crew drilled and sweated while I sipped my coffee. When shown the ready time, I nodded in satisfaction. “That’s quite adequate.” Actually, it was more than adequate. I would have been justified had I jumped up and danced a jig with Mister Ransome. I silently thanked God and Rachel Pym. I put down my mug and stood. “You have the con, Mister Vennick. I’ll be in my quarters.”

“Aye sir.”

I entered my cabin, let the door slide closed behind me and leaned against it. Whew! I think I got through that without making an ass of myself. The cabin was larger than what I was accustomed to but smaller than Winslow’s on the Agamemnon. There was a desk, a bed, a couple of chairs, a dresser and some shelves. I threw off my cap, unbuttoned my jacket and sat down at the desk. The latest log entry was flashing on the computer screen awaiting my approval. That done, I proceeded to unpack.

A spacersbag on my bed contained all my kit from the Agamemnon. I opened it and began the ritual of making the quarters my own. There wasn’t much to do it with; junior lieutenants don’t accumulate much and have little space to store it if they tried. Spare uniforms and footwear, a handful of paper books, including a sadly neglected Bible and Missal from my mother, and two holos, one of my parents and one of my brother and me. I need one of Ari now. Damn! I should have grabbed one of those that Justin took of the wedding!

I had just settled down on the bed to read when there was a knock at the door.

I sat up. “Enter.” The latch clicked and the door slid open.

A yeoman stood there bearing a box. “It’s for you, sir. It came on the last supply shuttle.”

“Thank you.” I took the box. Now what might this be?

“Would you be needing anything before I go, sir?”

“No, that’ll be all, thank you.” The door closed, leaving me alone again.

I knew it must be from Ari, so I opened it eagerly. Inside the box was a holo from the wedding, a single rose, a note and a plain, gold ring.

A wedding band! I put it on. Somehow I wasn’t surprised to find that it fit.

The note read:

Last night we spoke of love, now we’re forced to part

You leave to the sound of a marching drum and the beat of a lover’s heart.

P.S. You have no idea how hard it is to find a rose in Samprime at this time of year.

Love, Ari

That’s when I really began to miss her.

About an hour later, the intercom beeped. “Bridge to captain.” It was Vennick’s voice.

“Captain here.”

“A communication from the squadron commander; he wants to meet with his captains and first officers in the Zaitsev’s wardroom at 1900 hours.”

“Very well, I’ll meet you on the flight deck in about twenty minutes.”

It was short notice, but rather convenient none the less. I was going to have to meet and coordinate with my squadron commander anyway. It was better to do so sooner rather than later. It was also preferable to do so with the other captains present. There was no time for squadron maneuvers; I was going to have to learn on the fly. I hoped my trust in my first officer was well placed.

We took the skiff, a small shuttle no larger than a land skimmer. I took the pilot’s seat, it gave me something to do with my hands. Once clear of the flight deck, I decided to find out what my first officer knew.

“Well, what can you say about our squadron and its chief?”

Vennick smiled slightly as he kept a watch on the screen. “Do you want the sanitized version?”

I snorted out a short laugh. I’d prefer the version most likely to keep the Crockett and her crew alive and functioning.”

“Lord Caldwell’s a prick,” he said matter-of-factly, “a prick and an aristocratic snob.”

“Hmn.” I nodded. “But is he a competent snobby prick? That’s the important thing.”

“I wish I could say yes.” He frowned. “The squadron’s not been tested yet, so I can’t say for certain. I just have a bad feeling.”

I did want honesty. It was possible that my first officer’s opinion was based on prejudice, perhaps a reverse snobbery against ‘lordships’, but I suspected not. In any case I would soon get a chance to do my own evaluation.

“What about the other captain’s?”

“Pym got to know them better than I. Solid, competent, but not very imaginative is my impression. No toadies thank God.”

The squadron flag was on the Zaitsev, identical to the Crockett except for one feature; no shark’s teeth painted around the muzzle of the railgun. What that told me about our commander made me almost as uneasy as Vennick’s words.

“Does Caldwell have these get togethers very often?” I asked.

“Every chance he can get, I’m afraid. He says it gives command a ‘personal touch’.”

“Someone must have given him a book about Lord Nelson.”

“I hope so, and as I live and breathe, I hope he read it and got some good out of it.”

The wardroom of the Zaitsev was just a bit crowded with five captains and their execs. The table was laid out with charts and diagrams, mostly of ship formations. I can see what this is going to be about. There was also a small holoprojector, no doubt loaded with more such images.

The men and women around the table were pretty much as Vennick described. All were probably within five years of my own age. None of them stood out by demeanor or appearance. Whether any of them stood out in any other fashion would have to await our first battle. I took it as a good sign that they were sizing me up as well.

We stood and came to order when Commodore Caldwell entered. He was a tall, gaunt man with graying hair and a thin, dark moustache. His eyes were brown and somewhat saggy. I estimated his age at about mid-fifties. That put him a whole generation older than his captains. Generally it’s good to have commanders older than their subordinates, but perhaps not that much older. On the other hand, there was nothing about him that made me automatically dislike him. We sat and he began to address us.

“I fear it will be a short session today, preparations are calling me away. We’ll have no time for fleet maneuvers tomorrow either, not even simulations.

“We have a new comer.” He nodded in my direction. “The name’s Morgan, isn’t it?”

“Yes Sir,” I replied.

“Would that be the New Idrian Morgans?”

“No sir, the Caledon Morgans.” There was a slight ripple of good humor around the table.

Caldwell appeared unmoved. “Since you won’t be able to maneuver with us before we make our combat jump, your ship will take up the rear position in our formation. The Crockett already held that position anyway, so there will be minimal disruption. Pym was always our least apt pupil when it came to formation keeping. Just try not to be any worse.”

“Yes sir,” I said coolly. It was gratifying to note that there was no chuckling at the slighting of my predecessor.

The conference was brought to a close a few minutes later. As the others were leaving, Caldwell motioned to me. “I would like a private word with you, Captain Morgan.”

“Yes sir.” I stood and waited politely as the wardroom emptied.

“I’ll be waiting on the flight deck,” said Vennick quietly.

Caldwell crossed his arms on the table and looked up at me. “Do not interpret your position in our formation as license to do as you want. I expect you to try to keep formation. Also you will fire when ordered to and only when ordered to and only at the targets I designate. Is that clear?”

“Very clear, sir.”

“We carry only five projectiles apiece. I will not have any of them wasted. Is that also clear?”

“Abundantly, sir.”

“Fine, I’m glad we understand one another. I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Don’t expect me to be impressed just because you happen to have caught the Prefect’s fancy and are sleeping with the Emperor’s favorite tail. You are dismissed.”

I clenched my teeth and gave a very stiff and formal salute, then turned to leave.

“By the way, Captain, it’s ‘milord’ not ‘sir’.

On the flight deck I settled into the skiff’s cockpit then guided it out of the hanger. “Mister Vennick, you are quite right. The man is a prick.”

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