Taking Sides

22.03.2268. 1033 GMT
Saltlake Naval Base
L5 point in Earth orbit

Ted Allbright hefted his kit over his shoulder and walked the last few steps from the docking ramp into the main airlock that joined Saltlake Base to the CNV 534 Redoubt. The Universal Docking Collar and main UDC shaft at the core of the corvette was immense. The absence of gravity, once he entered it, made it feel that much bigger to Allbright. He drifted to one of the nearest handholds, and waited while a member of the ship's crew drifted by, skilfully manipulating a large supply crate into the shaft. He had to remind himself that these people were now his crewmates. He watched for a moment, trying to get his bearings in a new up-down environment. The majority of the navy crew were still on leave. The boarding call wouldn't come for another day or so, but Ted wanted to get aboard and start getting familiar with the ship as soon as possible. He also didn't have any other place to go, he knew he had a cabin assignment, and he wanted a bed and a shower badly. He noticed the flow of people in the shaft and saw a navy crewman and a few station dock personnel head for the same airlock off the UDC core shaft. The navy crewman started to shout at one of the station personnel, pointing at one of his two rather oversized kitbags, barking something unintelligible. Allbright looked more closely to see that the crewman was, in fact, his new boss: the new Chief Engineer to be precise. Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard was telling the station dock personnel something about his baggage that had him very upset. A marine on guard duty on by the opposing hatch was starting to take interest in the commotion and spoke into a collar comm. pickup. Skarsgaard seemed satisfied that his point was made about the bags, and they were both now in his charge as he guided them through the hatch into one of the accommodation modules. The station personnel left him to carry the baggage alone, returning to the UDC main hatch with looks that told Ted that their low opinion of Naval officers had just been confirmed. At least now Allbright knew reasonably clearly which side would be the port accommodation module, and ultimately his destination.

This was his second time aboard a naval corvette, and he still found it a remarkable study in contrasts from his days aboard a Puffin-class tug. The NSO-929 corvettes, first tested in 2155, weren't as old as the Puffins were, but they'd already proven themselves as the most successful medium sized military vessel in active service. They had become the standard workhorses of the Commonwealth Navy fleet. Some of the spaces in this ship, like this central UDC core shaft, were very large, as they were designed to accommodate big pieces of machinery, spare ship parts, large supply crates, even ground vehicles at times. Other parts of the ship were downright cramped. From the manuals he was studying, and from what he recalled of the Idzumo Maru that had rescued him, there were just as many spaces deeper inside this vessel that would seem surprisingly small. He hadn't had much of a chance to look around the corvette that had rescued him, so he was looking forward to exploring the Redoubt.

He made a mental note of the hatch leading to the port accommodation module, clipped his kit to a support rung nearby, and nudged himself so that he would drift deeper in the shaft toward the hatches for the lower decks and the airlock at the opposite end of the UDC core shaft. As an experienced spacer, he had little problem judging direction and speed when he kicked off, allowing him to easily grasp a handhold next to a hatch leading to one of the lower saucer aft deck passages. This was the upper of two decks contained in the lower section of the ship. He oriented himself to the correct vertical, and opened the airlock that would place him on one of the engineering decks of the corvette. He swung himself into the opening after the hatch opened, and a moment later he felt the effects of the artificial gravity field draw him through the transitional space inside the lock. He alighted as if he'd stepped down from a normal sized step.

The corridor that opened before him was narrow and short. It ended at a small set of steps that were closer to a ladder than a staircase, leading down almost two meters. He bent down to see that it continued for a few metres only to end at another set of equally steep steps back up to his level. This must be one of the many detours the crawlspace passages had to make around the immense machinery that powered and drove the ship. He remembered the location of the main Capsule drive, from his crash course briefing documents, most of which he had yet to read, and realized he was looking at a part of it. The Capsule drive on this type of vessel was a ring-shaped assembly, situated in the lower saucer section of the corvette's hull, inside the diameter of the collider ring.

If he continued aft along that passageway, he'd come to the control room for the main injector for the collider ring, the main fusion reactor, and the smaller crawlspace passages that provided limited access to the premix chambers and plasma drive units. He would have time to explore some of those areas later. In fact, he'd be expected to make periodic trips to make checks in the small local control room back there once they got under weigh. He was also going to have to visit the Collider Ring Accelerator Coils control room in the forward parts of this level, as well. This would be where members of his team monitor the 36 accelerator cells. He'd been pretty familiar with the duties of a 'C.R.A.C.' team, back when he worked on a Puffin-class tug and the layout couldn't be that much different on this ship. He was grateful that he wouldn't have to spend much time visiting the incredibly noisy Accumulators Monitoring Station. That was someone else's job. In fact, he was grateful that visits to these control and monitoring areas in the lower section would only be periodic. Most of his duties would be handled from the comfort of one of the Engineering control workstations in the port accommodation module. After a quick look around, he decided to head to the pastie that would be home for the next few weeks, and start getting familiar with his workstation.

A shout from a marine guard posted in the main UDC shaft drew his attention. He turned to look back up the shaft at the commotion, only to realize that the marine was shouting at him. The noise level in the shaft made it difficult to hear what was being said, but it was clear the very large, very burly, and very bald marine was protesting Allbright's explorations, and telling him to come out of there. Allbright exited the lower passage and moved back into the main UDC shaft, keying the passageway hatch closed behind him. He would do some more exploring later. Right now, he'd better face this marine's challenge before an unfortunate misunderstanding occurred.

A gentle kick sent him on a perfect trajectory back to his clipped kitbag. The marine guard made an even more skilful interception, arriving at the same handhold rung at the same time as Ted, but at a much faster speed. The marine wasn't just a burly fellow. Once Allbright got up close to him, he could see that this marine was better described as a muscular giant. All the marines he'd seen fit that description. Ted decided there and then that the rumours he'd heard about marines ingesting a steady diet of enhancing drugs was probably true. He also noticed that they were all completely hairless, males and females alike. He'd heard that this was an effect of the drug supplements they took, but also had to do with how their combat armour was supposed to fit, or something like that.

Ted put on his best 'Don't-mess-with-me' face for the marine. This fellow was enormous, but Ted had been beaten up by the biggest and the best during his years as a barfly. A single marine wasn't enough to make an old spacer like Allbright lose his nerve. Ted stared back as he was confronted by the calm almost bored-looking visage that inspected him as if he were just another kit bag. The marine Corporal's eyes darted quickly over the name on Ted's chest. Those same eyes seemed almost soulless as they snapped back to hold his gaze in a most disturbing and unwavering manner.

"Lieutenant Allbright. You're the ship's Assistant Chief Engineer, aren't you?" The guard asked in a non-querying tone, as if he were reading information from a database scrolling by behind his eyes. Before Ted could begin to reply, the guard continued. "Sir, what was your business entering the lower saucer section hatch, please?" The addition of the polite phrasing was not meant as a nicety.

"Corporal.ah, Vecchio, is it?" Allbright read the nametag, and did his best to sound condescending, as if speaking to a child touring a naval corvette at some exhibition. "I'm the new Assistant Chief, which means I'm the guy who runs one of the four main Engineering repair teams. I oversee a lot of the engineering systems on this vessel. This means that I get to go wherever I feel like going; on whatever level I feel like going, do you understand me? The only people I have to answer to on this corvette are my direct superior, Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard, and his boss, Captain Ferris."

Vecchio continued to look at him impassively, silent for a moment, as if he were processing information and considering response options. Ted became all too aware that the man could probably reach out and snap him in two with one hand. He wondered if that were one of the options the marine was considering. Instead the marine simply said. "Until the Redoubt is under weigh, we are to act as ship security during loading. I was performing my duty. Please remember that the starboard accommodation module is strictly off limits to you, and all other members of the ship's crew. You will not be reminded again."

Never having been very good at showing restraint, or when to shut up, Ted poked a crooked finger into the remarkably solid chest of the Corporal. "Allow me to remind you of something, Corporal. You and your marine buddies are guests on board the Redoubt. In fact, a better description would be cargo. I'm a member of the crew, which means this is our ship. Confine yourself to your accommodation module, and let the rest of us go about our work." It felt good for Ted to start thinking of the Redoubt as his ship. "And that means wherever we are required to go, including your accommodation module."

"What's going on here, gentlemen?" said a new voice. Allbright hadn't heard anyone approach, so he spun around to see Captain Ferris drifting nearby, gripping a handhold, looking mildly annoyed.

"Lieutenant Allbright, new assistant to the Chief, reporting for boarding, Captain." Allbright said with what he thought was a good imitation of navy snap. "This bald sack o'shit, here, was just informing crewmembers where they could and could not go. He seems to have forgotten the difference between crew and cargo."

Ferris just stared at Allbright for a moment, then turned his attention at the immobile marine Corporal. "Thank you, Corporal. I'll handle this."

Vecchio continued to hold his position for a moment, and looked off to the side, as if he were considering more options. Then he released the handhold and said to Allbright, "Please take your gear and proceed immediately to the port accommodation module. The starboard accommodation module is classified, and off limits to all unauthorized personnel. Sir."

Without waiting for Ted to reply, the marine simply pushed off the handhold, and twisted expertly as he vaulted back to his guard station outside the starboard accommodation module hatch. Ted watched the marine surreptitiously re-holster his sidearm as he crossed the main UDC shaft. He hadn't been aware of the fact that the weapon was there at all, let alone the fact that it had been drawn.

Ferris turned back to glare at Allbright again. "You're not exactly Navy, are you Allbright?"

"Uh, no sir. I'm newly commissioned. I've been given the rank of acting Lieutenant, though, as a kind of specialist. I've been given to understand that it gives me all the privilege due a real Lieutenant. That marine was."

"Not on my ship it doesn't, Mr. Allbright." Ferris said firmly. "This isn't some game you can come and play for awhile. I don't know who's lap dog you are, or why you're on this mission, but you had better watch your step, because I sure as shit will be." He crooked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the marine. "Corporal Vecchio was following his orders to guard the ship while we prepare for launch. I hope you know how to take orders, and how to give them with the same kind of respect and professionalism he just showed. As the new Assistant to the Chief, you'd better know this ship inside and out. You screw this up, even once, and I'll find you something nice and harmless to keep you busy in the toilet-cleaning department. The only thing I want to see or hear of you again, is uncommon praise for outstanding performance, do you get me?"

"Loud and clear, Captain." Allbright said, meeting Ferris stare for stare.

"Well? You are dismissed! Do you even know how to salute? Or when?"

"Yes, sir.I mean, Aye, Captain." Allbright stumbled as he saluted. "Permission to continue my orientation, sir."

"Permission granted. And if you can't keep your mouth in check around those very lethal guests of ours, stay clear of them entirely. Now get!"

Allbright unhooked his gear and walked hand-over-hand the short distance to the open hatch of the port accommodation module. It wasn't exactly the beginning he'd hoped for, but at least he could now say that he'd met the Captain. He wasn't sure why, but he had just decided that he liked this Captain Ferris. In a sense, Allbright had just taken sides with a man who had chewed him out on their first meeting. Crossing the short airlock passage into the pastie reminded him just how cold these sections could get. He flashed his ID tag to the auto-monitor at the accommodation module entrance, and drifted to the floor with an expert step, as he crossed the artificial gravity transition zone. He felt the weight of his bag again, filled with navy issue stuff he hadn't even had much time to inspect. Heat from a vent blasted down on him from the inner hatch, as he strode into the main corridor of the port pastie.

Home sweet home. He saw a couple of crewmembers busily stowing crates and gear, moving them deeper into the accommodation module down its main central corridor, and rounding the corner to the left. That must be where the galley was. To the right would be the infirmary and medical lab, if he remembered the layout correctly from his brief stay on the Idzumo Maru. The corridor in which he stood was wide, reminding him of the halls from his boyhood school, or that detox hospital corridor he stumbled down one time when he was so sick with the shakes. A quick glance behind him confirmed his recollection of the last module like this he was in: the hatch through which he had just come was actually a hatch within a much larger boarding ramp-type hatch. He started walking down the hall, away from the main hatch and the equipment storage area, toward the control workstations of the accommodation module. The space was roomier than he would have expected, but it was already starting to feel a little cramped because of the cargo stores being stowed. He remembered that this time out, they were accommodating more in this module than they normally would, so things would be cozy for the next few weeks.

Directly ahead, behind that closed door, were the engineering workstations, one of which would be his. Beyond that, behind yet another set of doors, would be the cockpit. He had yet to visit the command and navigational controls for the independent space flight operations of an accommodation module. He was eager to get a look at the view from the cockpit; to see the stars and the infinite depth of space. It was something he missed since he had lost the Cupcake. In fact, it was the only thing he missed about the Cupcake.

As he walked in that direction, he noticed doorways opening into the officers' suites off the main corridor. He automatically started to envy and resent the lucky sons-of-bitches who got to stay in those, until he remembered that he was one of those lucky sons-of-bitches now. The rank and title he held still took some getting used to. He checked his printed orders again, and looked more carefully at the numbers on the doors. His cabin was not in this corridor, but off the galley corridor down to the left, so he headed there to stow his bag and get cleaned up.

He found the cabin number on his right. It took him a moment to work out that his room was on the aft side of that corridor. He wanted to personally thank whoever had invented artificial gravity, which effectively negated all those up/down, fore/aft orientation concerns. He was still trying to remember the name of that long-dead scientist when he keyed open his door. Her name would come to him eventually, and he'd say a silent prayer for her when it did. In the meantime, he had new quarters to inspect. The hatch had opened silently to the side to reveal a comfortable looking cabin with a couple of bunks. Not bad. Not bad at all, he thought.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, he eagerly headed to his workstation, just behind the module's flight control room.  Allbright opened the doors to the Engineering control area and looked at the four identical Engineering workstations that took up the majority of this area, two apiece on either side. Each station was a complex array of consoles and displays, mostly silent for the moment. Looking at them served as a reminder to Ted of just how much catch up reading he had to do in the next day or so.

One workstation was already occupied. Sintillo, whose name was written on a piece of adhesive tape on the back of his powered anti-inertia chair, turned and nodded to him, then returned his attention to the controls. Allbright realized the other three stations had similarly labelled strips of tape: one each for Taft, Coren, and his own. Time to sit down and get to work brushing up.

As usual, someone had spelled his name wrong.

 

 

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