The Rear View Mirror
"There's nothing out here, Captain," McMichael said from the pilot seat at the front of the corvette's bridge, "I hate to be the one to say it, but this is going to be one of those all search and no rescue missions".
Chief Engineer Iwamasa spoke before Captain Ferris could respond, "What are you complaining about McMichael? At least we aren't still patrolling a bunch of quiet waypoints in empty space."
"Yeah, except our patrol mission was all but finished when we got these new orders. We should be enjoying our government-mandated spin time right now. This is a complete waste of time, there's nothing out here. Whoever got into trouble, didn't do it in this sector."
"Well, the CNV Corregidor is somewhere, and we keep looking for her until I say we stop looking for her. She's been missing for almost a week, now," said Captain Ferris. "There's no telling what they might be going through."
After a pause, the pilot finally replied with some humility. "Aye, sir. I guess you're right. Besides, I'm in no hurry to get back."
Captain Ferris nodded, distracted by his own impatience and restlessness. The bridge officers were finding the fatigue and boredom as difficult to bear as he was. He couldn't seem to stop himself from squirming in his seat, despite the fact that it was a new, cutting-edge, inertial-dampened, form-fitting, heat-controlled, buttocks-massaging, Commonwealth Navy-approved, deluxe captain's chair model 10-048. It wasn't so much the chair that was bothering him. He'd just been sitting in it too long. His backside seemed to be developing a will of its own, shifting and sliding about. The five-point restraint harness didn't help either. It jabbed into his sides, serving as an uncomfortable reminder that he was getting a little thick around the middle. It was bad enough that his hair was thinning at the crown, and there was more grey hair at the temples than a thirty-five year-old should have. But it wouldn't do for an active duty ship captain in the Commonwealth Navy to look like he had a desk job. He didn't want to start looking like a desk pilot. He was looking forward to some station-side time, and a few hours in the fitness and training centre.
They'd been out on three patrols in as many months, and the crew needed a break. He needed a break. Getting the orders to abandon their previous patrol mission to look for a missing Navy vessel started out as a welcome distraction from the boredom. But the endless search patterns were acquiring a monotony of their own. Search and Rescue missions usually had an element of excitement to them; the noble feeling one got 'saving the day' and all that. The excitement wore off quickly when they were all this tired, and there didn't seem to be anything out here to find to feed that heroic feeling anyway.
"We've completed the search pattern in this system twice now," Captain Ferris said, "but if I were in a damaged ship, I'd seriously hope that some extra effort was going into finding me. So let's run it again. Mac, set up new search pattern waypoints offset by plus eight degrees from the last one. Lieutenant Ravindran, give me a fresh contact report as far out as we can see from each of these waypoints."
"Aye, Captain," came the gunner's reply from her WEPs workstation.
"Plus eight degrees, Captain. Aye," said McMichael. The LDS drive audibly ramped up as they began to speed toward the first of three new waypoints. NAV officer McMichael looked at the captain's reflection in his latest addition to the bridge. Ferris still wasn't used to being visible at all times by his pilot, so he glanced up to see his pilot's eyes in the in the rearview mirror attached over Mac's head and returned the nod in a silent acknowledgement. Ferris took the moment to look at this very non-regulation decoration recently installed by McMichael. It seemed his pilot had gotten the idea from some old practice involving internal combustion powered ground cars from a couple of hundred years ago: A pair of large dice 'hung' almost directly over the piloting station. They were fuzzy.
He'd affixed them to a small rectangular mirror he'd attached to the overhead bulkhead. The mirror was a purchase from an antique dealer who specialized in vintage automobile parts that had become so popular in home decorating recently. This wasn't the first pair of fuzzy dice they'd been subjected to, either. McMichael's first pair of homemade dice was much less attractive, and they drifted strangely in the artificial gravity and inertial dampening fields. Worse than the gaudy appearance, there was an incident when they broke free during a rapid course change, and flew dangerously close to Iwamasa's head, causing a very loud shouting match between the two.
Captain Ferris had banished them from the bridge after that, relenting only when McMichael could convince them all that the next version would be safe and secure. That, and the fact that McMichael cited several other non-regulation changes on their ship, in support of his argument. These modifications included a 3D holosticker of some young and very well-endowed female musician attached to the NAV station in the port accommodation module, a number of joke cartoons affixed to the hatch of the infirmary, and most importantly, the non-regulation heated coffee cup holder attached to the left arm of the captain's command chair. Mac seemed to be uncharacteristically determined to add this antique auto part to the ship as his own personalizing touch. He was very convincing. Ferris looked again at the abominations suspended above the pilot's head. At least these dice, securely fastened and attached using strong wire so that they only appeared as though they were hanging, were an improvement over the first pair he'd installed. Unfortunately, they were still fuzzy.
As an unintentional benefit, though, McMichael had created a combat edge no one else had thought of. The mirror allowed pilot and captain to make eye contact when they spoke to one another and when they were speaking with others. No one really used the video comm option that was a workstation feature on every corvette the navy commissioned. It seemed that McMichael was right in thinking that some kind of imperceptible but important additional information was transmitted via eye contact, and that this should be used like any other combat effectiveness improvement. Unfortunately, the admiralty frowned on any non-regulation modifications of the bridge configuration. So Ferris simply allowed it, and neglected to mention it to anyone outside the ship.
Ravindran interrupted his musings with her first report. "Captain, there are no vessels, nor any artificial contacts within range of our sensors at this first waypoint. However, there are four inert objects within range," she spoke with the clarity and diction of someone who'd had an excellent education, and the touch of a Bombay accent over her Oxford English hinted at a privileged upbringing. "Two of these objects are registered asteroids; the other two are unidentified. There are so many unregistered asteroid fragments in this belt that, in all likelihood these unknowns are just more rocks."
"Thank you Lieutenant. This is a large region filled with asteroids. The density of bodies is pretty low, but there is still plenty of rock floating out there we haven't logged yet. Keep scanning," Ferris sighed. "Mac, let's go have a look at Rav's unregistered rocks, one at a time, please."
"Aye, aye, Cap," came the pilot's reply, as the ship angled toward its new heading and began to accelerate to LDS speeds again.
It was, as suspected, an unregistered rock. They logged and tagged it for the commonwealth navigational chart database. Kenji Iwamasa felt that they should name it after Ravindran, since she'd detected it first. Ferris watched the reflection of his pilot roll his eyes and make a finger-down-the-throat gagging gesture at the suggestion. Fortunately, neither of the other two saw the display. The Captain, having noticed his Engineer's growing affection for the WEPs officer, suppressed his smirk, gently deflected the comment and hoped he wouldn't have to confront this little romance directly. "Let's leave naming decisions to the astrogation folks, shall we? Mac, set course for the second object and hit it."
As they approached it, Ravindran straightened her petite frame excitedly, then leaned in to examine her screen readout more carefully. "Captain, the unknown object is now showing on our contact registry. It's still unknown, but it's definitely not another rock. It looks like it could be artificial, but with a very odd profile."
"Thank you, WEPS," came the Captain's reply. "Let's identify them, and if possible, try to contact them."
McMichael spoke next as they approached. "It isn't big enough to be the Corregidor, but it could be a fragment, or a. wait. Captain, we've got an ID. It's an accommodation module from the CNV Corregidor! That pastie looks pretty banged up, too"
"Bring us in to one hundred meters; bow-facing, and keep trying to raise them on comms," said Ferris as he called up comms and ship codes on his console in an effort to make contact.
Before he could announce their arrival to the drifting accommodation module, they were hailed on the emergency comms frequency by a young man's voice with a French accent. "Merde! D'accord, essaye celui là. Redoubt, come in. It is good to see you! This is Lejeunne, former NAV officer and acting Captain of the CNV Corregidor. Or at least what's left of her."
"This is Ferris commanding the Redoubt. We're glad we found you, and are ready to render assistance. What is your status?"
Lejeunne replied again on the audio, though the reception was poor. "Captain Ferris, I am very content to meet you. We have low power, and our attitude thrusters are damaged. We have almost a full crew complement on board, so we are a little .um.cramped. Life support is nominal, and supplies are adequate, but I am very happy we did not have to wait longer. Ça pue ici. Things are starting to stink in here. We are getting ready to transfer right now, and are standing by for docking procedure. I will try to slow our movement some more."
With that the comms cut off, and the pastie seemed to roll a little less rapidly. Ferris opened the emergency channel again, "Glad to hear that you and your crew are unharmed, Captain Lejeunne. We're approaching to dock. Before we touch collars and open any hatches, though, I need a little more information about your. predicament."
"Absolutely, sir. And I apologize. We have been drifting here for more than a week, and seeing you made me a little.well.giddy.
"The Corregidorwas destroyed in an accident. We are all that is left. We were on patrol in this belt. I guess you already know that much or you would not be here. We met with a mishap while accelerating for an LDS transit to the next patrol waypoint."
"What sort of mishap?" Ferris prompted.
Lejeunne hesitated before his voice was heard over the audio again. "It was an asteroid, Captain Ferris," he said. The embarrassment was clear in his voice. "I'm afraid we.I.I hit an unregistered asteroid just as we were starting LDS drive. It was a ridiculous mistake; only a rookie would do this. The impact overloaded the LDA emitters, and caused massive hull and system damage, including the ring. The comsec was badly hit. Within seconds, we had explosions and fires everywhere. The port pastie was very badly damaged. We lost four people to the fire inside before we had to seal it off. We had about a minute to get everyone into this accommodation module and detach before she exploded. Captain Heckerling and Buckley, our Chief Engineer, were still trying to get the comsec separated when she blew. They didn't make it. Everyone else did, amazingly enough. I guess all those evacuation drills paid off."
"I see," said Ferris. He saw Mac make a wincing, pained expression in the mirror. It was every pilot's worst nightmare to hit a rock while entering LDS. This wasn't the first time it had happened in the history of starship navigation, but was still a rarity. This kind of disaster could befall even excellent pilots, and from the look on McMichael's face, it wasn't always the pilot's fault.
"I understand your question, though, Captain Ferris," Lejeunne continued, "and am happy to report zero biohazard threat and zero toxicity threat. We just need showers and a fresh change of clothes."
"Understood, Captain Lejeunne. We're docking now," he said. As he spoke, Ferris nodded to McMichael, who was still watching him in the mirror. This was all the command McMichael needed to bring the vessels together with a gentle nudge. Ferris continued on the communication channel to Lejeunne, "I'm sure we can manage some showers and togs. We'll mark the module and leave it for pickup later, as soon as the transfer is complete report to my office for a full report, please. In the meantime, get your people aboard as quickly as possible. I'm sure we're all eager to go home."
"Already transferring.and many thanks. I'll make sure you and your crew get a round or two on us next time we meet at The Bad Seal. This is the CNV Corregidor, signing off."
Captain Ferris rubbed his eyes with the gesture of someone who was very tired. As he worked his thumb and forefinger into the sockets in small circular movements, he spoke to his bridge crew through a barely suppressed yawn. "Tell everyone that we're going to be cramped for the next little while. Get the survivors secured and accommodated as quickly as possible, Kenji. They get priority in the galley, stores, medical and hygiene services. Mac, as soon as we have the All Clear, undock, and get us to Saltlake Base, best possible speed. I'm going to my office for a brief meeting with acting Captain Lejeunne."
Both officers acknowledged their orders, and turned unceremoniously to their tasks, relieved that at least the bridge couldn't get any more cramped than it already was.