Shuffling the Deck (cont'd)
21.03.2268. 1008 GMT
Saltlake Naval Base
L5 point in Earth orbit
One hour after the mission briefing had finished, the officers of the Redoubt sat together in a common recreation lounge a few doors away from Ferris' billet.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss details of the briefing any more than I already have, but that's the news. Sorry, Kenji."
"Transferred?! What.I mean, did I do anything wrong? Captain, am I being punished for something?" Iwamasa was still in shock from the news of the briefing.
"No, this is not punishment. It's life in the Navy. You go where you're ordered, and hope that they know where you can do the most good." Ferris said, still trying to reassure his Chief Engineer. "Reassignment is common, you know that. Don't take it so personally. They're just shuffling the deck a little." He regretted starting the post-briefing analysis with that piece of news. They circled the soft chairs together around a low table in the lounge, trying to look like they were just catching up on old times, and not conferring on a secure mission briefing that ended twenty minutes ago.
Iwamasa, stung by the news, was still visibly upset. "Yeah, but the Niagara?"
"Look on the bright side Kenji. She's only a year old. You're getting a ship that's almost brand new. And you'll be joining a good crew." McMichael tried his hand at consolation, too. "Lejeunne will be a good Captain, and the rest of the former Corregidor gang is a good bunch to get behind. They're experienced and they're tough. And hey, at least everyone aboard the Niagara has skin of some colour or another. We get to look at the Visible Man for the next few weeks."
"I guess the crew could be worse," Iwamasa conceded, "but the Niagara spent the last eight months in repair docks, getting her premix chamber and faulty coil shielding replaced." Everyone knew about the recent spate of problems cropping up in newer corvettes as contractors tried cutting costs during manufacturing. "It isn't much comfort getting assigned to a ship that needs a new crew because her previous crew is still recovering from the dose they got. It sounds more like a curse than a blessing to me."
Ravindran reframed the assignment for him again. "Then think of it this way: Of all the things that can go wrong on a machine as complex as a star ship, that particular problem isn't likely to occur again." Whether it was her logic, or simply because it came from her, this argument provided the most effective tonic for his hurt. He stopped complaining, and looked at Ferris to continue his description of the briefing. They all looked at him, which was his cue to continue.
"I wish that was the worst part of the news, but there's more." Ferris said. "Not only will Skarsgaard fill Kenji's seat. We have a number of crew replacements and guests, which means we have to bench almost a third of our standard crew just to fit everyone on board." He waited for them to react with sounds of disbelief before he continued. "We'll get an intelligence specialist from the spook department; a desk jockey, by the looks of it. Apparently, it's the same guy Rav reported to when we got back from a certain chilly mission that shall go un-named. His name is Lt. Yves Dupuis." They looked at Ravindran, who nodded in recognition of the name, then turned their attention back to Ferris. "The cherry on the cake, though, is our esteemed guest, Colonel Carr and an assault squad of marines, complete with their own, specially equipped accommodation module."
McMichael spoke first. "You're joking, right? The Barber?! That guy is completely unhinged. He's a psycho, Captain! You've heard of him, right? He's the guy responsible for eliminating an entire colony of miners out in the NDS-A system, because they were suspected of being Indie sympathizers."
"Or so the story goes." Ferris finished for him. "Unfortunately, Mac, though the rumours we hear about Colonel "Barber" Carr may or may not be true, he's our psycho. We're stuck with him and his marines for the duration. He may be a little overly enthusiastic, but he has a reputation as the guy who gets the job done." Ferris replied. "Like everything else, these are our orders, and it's our job to carry them out. We're going to have to make the best of it. We launch either late tomorrow or first thing the day after that, depending on when they get the Redoubt ready."
"They're really rushing the turnaround, aren't they?" Iwamasa said, he was coping with the news of his reassignment better now. "Is there anything I can do to help, Captain?"
"That's good of you to ask, Kenji, but I'm afraid you're going to have your hands full. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the Niagara heads out for a shakedown patrol tomorrow morning with a skeleton crew. You're going to be on it. You've got even less leave time than we do. You probably have a message waiting for you from Lejeunne as we speak. It's a safe bet that you'll be in meetings for most of the afternoon," Ferris said. Both Ravindran and McMichael looked at each other in disbelief, then more sympathetically at Iwamasa.
McMichael, in a rare gesture of camaraderie, placed his hand on Iwamasa's shoulder and said, "As much as I love to bug you, Kenji, I hate to see you go. You'll be missed."
Ravindran looked at Iwamasa a moment longer and said, "That really doesn't give you much leave time. Perhaps we should go for a walk, to delay receiving Captain Lejeunne's message.at least for a short while." She stood, tilted her head, and raised her eyebrows at Iwamasa, who sat there still stunned. "There are some things I need to pick up on the concourse. I could use your help. Are you coming or not?" She turned and started toward the corridor.
He didn't need any more signalling than that. He stood quickly, and cast a glance back at Ferris. "I'm just going to.ahh, go give Rav.um, a hand."
"Get going, then. We'll catch up with you before you launch." Ferris smiled and watched them leave.
McMichael blew out some air from pursed lips, raised an eyebrow, and shook his head. After Ravindran and Iwamasa rounded the corner, Ferris and McMichael sat in a silent reprise of the previous day's tension. The air between them remained uncomfortable for a few moments. McMichael finally broke the silence. "I must be missing something, Captain. This mission makes no sense to me. They're all hot to catch a spy, and we're being sent out to hunt one of our own spies, one that we've hardly seen or heard from in months. How are the spooks on the Wolf-In-The-Fold supposed to be responsible for the Amarid massacre? It's not like we keep sending them a steady stream of sensitive information about our ambush plans. In fact, we've been pretty much out of contact for some time. It just doesn't track."
"I'm glad you see it, too." Ferris replied just as sceptically. "There is a lot about this mission that leaves me wondering. The evidence against them is thin indeed, and it all hinges on some EDR recordings I haven't even had time to review. We need to keep our eyes open. There are still a few things we don't know about the connection between the Amarid massacre and the Wolf-In-The-Fold, but its possible that the data we retrieved from them during the Out in the Cold mission set the time and place for that ambush."
"That far in advance?" McMichael said incredulously. "I find that hard to believe. I'd be surprised if they knew where they were going to be a week in advance, let alone a few months. No, that just doesn't make sense to me."
"I agree. The logic doesn't seem right. But it won't be the first time we've seen flawed logic in this man's navy." Ferris nodded. "They really want these guys badly, dead or alive, and I get the feeling that the preference is dead. I'm not at all sure we're being sent after the right target, either. Still, something is definitely going on with the Wolf-In-The-Fold, they've been out of touch so long.
"We owe them a serious favour. Screwed up or not, if I can use this mission to help bring them in, or help them in any way at all, I'm damn well going to do it. We owe it to them to see them out of harm's way." He paused and shook his head again. "There are just too many things that don't add up about this one." Ferris sighed as he slapped the palms of his hands on the arms of the chair in a gesture of resignation. "I guess we aren't supposed to require it to make sense. Vice Admiral Wexler said it himself: we're just a piece of the puzzle. There are other things afoot we don't get to know about. We follow our orders and trust in the folks upstairs."
They each sat for a moment in silence, absorbed in their own thoughts, until the sound of McMichael sucking the last droplets of his juice through a straw noisily from the bottom of his paper cup broke the reverie. Ferris stood with a slight grunting sound and said, "I'm going to hit the fitness centre for awhile, and then go over some of the mission prep notes. I'll call you later. I need to get our people ready, go through your recommendations to ensure we have the best of our crew with us, and then inform everyone of the roster changes. After that, I'm going to try to get some rest. I get the feeling we're going to need it. You should consider doing the same." He turned and started to leave, but then stopped short of the exit, and looked back at McMichael, who was still loudly sucking tiny juice droplets through his straw. "The Niagara launches tomorrow at oh nine hundred. I think we should be there about an hour earlier than that to see Kenji off."
"Absolutely. I wouldn't miss it." McMichael replied with more sincerity than Ferris had seen in awhile. It suddenly struck him how much he and Mac truly would miss the kid.
22.03.2268. 0806 GMT
Saltlake Naval Base
L5 point in Earth orbit
0800 hours came faster than Ferris would have liked. The previous day had flown by. He had found too many things that had needed doing, and too little time in which to do them all, including his hope to catch up on sleep. He was still feeling a little groggy when he arrived at the ramp of Saltlake's docking arm six, cup of coffee in hand. McMichael was arriving at the same moment, taking a few hurried steps off the nearest lift to catch up with Ferris as they approached the main dock ramp, trying carefully not to spill his tea. Ferris saw that Ravindran and Kenji were already there, chatting together. Iwamasa seemed to be doing much better than he had been doing yesterday, when he learned of this new posting in the lounge. In fact, he was laughing and smiling with Ravindran at some shared joke. Ravindran looked different, too. She looked more relaxed and animated than usual. She looked surprisingly feminine and attractive with her wavy black hair down around her shoulders. Ferris wondered if it was due to the fact that she wore a more casual outfit than her usual amber and green duty coveralls.
McMichael called out to them as they approached. "Hey Rav, I almost didn't recognize you without the flight suit and the braid." She responded with a look toward Mac that made it clear he wasn't the reason she'd softened her appearance this morning. Ravindran and Iwamasa turned and greeted Ferris with salutes and smiles. Iwamasa held his salute for Ferris a moment longer than usual, making Ferris feel the full impact of Kenji's departure. He returned the salute, and then shook Iwamasa's hand.
"I'm glad you could make it, Captain. I just got the request to get aboard and start readying things." Iwamasa said. "This whole shakedown patrol is happening really fast. Admiralty wants the Niagara tuned and calibrated and ready for combat operations as soon as possible."
"I wouldn't have missed seeing you off, Kenji." Ferris said with genuine warmth. "I was just getting you whipped into shape, too. I've already filed the request paperwork to get you back, so don't get too comfortable on this bucket, hear me?"
"I won't. At least I know that Lejeunne and his crew.I guess I should say my new crew, are a decent lot." Iwamasa said. "Thanks for coming down, but I'd better get aboard before my new captain declares me AWOL. That wouldn't be a great way to start, would it?"
McMichael stepped in closer to Iwamasa, and shook his hand, and said, "Take care of yourself out there, kid."
"Mac." Iwamasa smiled, "Do you have any idea how much it bothers me when you call me 'kid'? It drives me nuts."
"Oh I know. I know exactly how much it bothers you." McMichael returned the smile. "My life just isn't going to be as much fun anymore."
"Maybe you can dazzle the new see-through engineer with your wit." Iwamasa countered. "I hate to admit it, but I'm going to miss you, Mac."
"Me too, kid." McMichael winked, then stepped back a few paces to let the others say their farewells.
Ravindran stepped up to Iwamasa and hugged him gently for a moment, placed an even gentler kiss on his cheek, and then stepped back without a word, joining McMichael a little further away. Iwamasa looked blankly after her, as if he'd just missed something important, but wasn't certain what.
Then Ferris reached out to shake hands with him again, and said, "I know you'll do us proud, and make your mark with your new crew. You'll be an asset to whoever gets you. I just wished to hell we could keep you with us. Stay safe, Kenji." With that he stepped away to join the others. They began to walk away, to let Iwamasa turn and join his new crew, but before they got more than a couple of meters away, Ravindran turned and walked quickly back to where Iwamasa stood. She stepped in close to him, stood on her toes, reached up to grasp the back of Kenji's neck in her hands, and drew him in for a kiss with a force that seemed incongruous with her small frame. Iwamasa's arms found their way around her slender waist, and they stood like that, pressed against one another in a deep kiss, for longer than was comfortable for Ferris or McMichael to observe. She finally ended the kiss, whispered something into his ear, and then stepped away from him with an awkward backhanded wipe of her mouth.
Kenji continued to look blankly stunned, but this time there were overtones of ecstasy in his expression. Without turning back, Iwamasa stepped through and disappeared into the CNV Niagara.
Ravindran walked back to the others, gave them each a confident look and a wry smile that silently dared either of them to make a wisecrack. McMichael, unable to resist, said "Rav, you are just full of surprises aren't you? You will never cease to amaze me."
She stepped in close to McMichael, her eyes fixed on his, and placed her hand on his cheek, tapped it there three times and said, "Good." before turning and walking away from all of them, toward the main levels of the station.
McMichael turned to Ferris, and asked, "Didn't you just lecture them about romance between ship mates?"
"Yes," Ferris replied, "but they aren't ship mates anymore."
McMichael responded to that with a nod. He then asked, "I wonder what she said to him?"
Ferris shook his head before saying, "None of our business. Come on, we've got work to do." He turned and followed Ravindran away from the ramp. McMichael shrugged and trotted a few steps to join them.