What's In A Name?
Aboard the CNV Malta
Ted Allbright paced the room with a nervousness he hadn't felt in the two weeks since the SRF had been destroyed. Something about seeing Colonel Chen was making him nervous; an effect very few people had on him. He paused again to look out the small view port into the deep space of Epsilon Indi. It was a clear courtesy on the part of Chen to stage this encounter in one of the few locations on the destroyer that actually offered a direct view of the darkness of space outside. He relished the view. Those were constellations he knew. The faint light from the distant Lysithea nebula was a familiar and comfortable glow to him. He was eager to get back to it.
The door hissed open and Colonel Chen stood there with her hands behind her back. A gentle smile warmed her face. They greeted each other stiffly. He had been the room's only occupant when she entered, but as a guest on her ship he wasn't sure if he should offer her a seat, or wait for her to offer him one. She solved his dilemma by simply sitting in the chair next to her with a graceful ease and comfort that put him at ease as quickly. He sat at the other chair by the small table.
"Mr. Allbright," she said. "Is there anything I can say to change your mind?"
"Uh.no. Not really," he stammered. "I'd really just rather take the deal you offered before." He grew a little more hostile as a thought occurred to him. "You aren't going to go back on the deal, are you?"
"Certainly not!" she replied with a hint of hurt in her voice. "I just hate to lose someone with your talents. You have a real knack for.survival, Mr. Allbright."
"Call me Ted."
"Very well. Ted," she said, testing the sound of it. "We already have everything ready, as you requested when you returned from the mission. You have a new model Margate Multipurpose utility ship, fully loaded with the best equipment we could get, complete with all the papers, registered to you, and with the name you specified." She gestured toward the space outside the window he had been viewing a few moments earlier. "I'm surprised you haven't seen her already, docked at the next arm, fueled and ready to go."
"No I didn't see her, but." he moved to the window for a glimpse. "Oh yeah. I see it there, now." He nodded at the sight before turning to face Chen again. "Looks good. What about the other stuff we talked about?"
She enumerated the list on her fingers for his benefit. "First-class papers, license, five year contract with the employer you specified, better shielding, heater units, hydroponics lights, and air scrubbers for your home base, and the cash bonus we offered as well. By the way, you will want to check your little garden carefully when you get home. I arranged to have a small surprise installed there for you. I hope you like it."
Allbright blushed and looked very uncomfortable for a moment. "Uh.I didn't get you anything."
"No need, no need," she assured him with a pleasant laugh and a raised hand. "But I would like to know something, if you permit a question."
He shrugged. "Sure, I guess."
"Why?" she said as she stood from her chair and walked around the small round table to look out the small window. "Why did you turn down a chance at a commission and a seat with a ship in the Navy? It seems the Indies would have taken you, too. My sources tell me you were offered your old job back on the Acadian. You once described your handy-man job here in Epsilon Indi in very.colourful and unfavourable terms. I got the impression you hated it. Why would you choose to return to it?"
He shook his head a little at that, and sighed before answering. "I guess because this time, it was my choice. Those other postings, they sounded great but. they aren't who I am. I'm not cut out for that stuff. Navy. Indie. It really doesn't matter. After all that death and shooting and exploding and almost dying a dozen times, I realized that my little FTL maintenance job had its good points. Now I got my own rig, I'm actually looking forward to it. I'm out of debt, and I have a fresh start. I haven't even craved a drink once in over two weeks. Two whole weeks! That's some kind of record for me."
Chen faced him and nodded with an understanding smile. "I see. Thank you for your candour, and for everything else. I sincerely hope you will stay in touch; perhaps favour me with a message from time to time. Who knows, maybe I'll even pay you a social call someday at your little home base."
"That'd be nice," he said, surprising himself at how genuinely he meant it.
"One last question, Ted," she ventured. "If you permit."
"Why did you choose the name Isolabella for your new ship?"
Allbright smiled and winked. "Sorry," he said, as he stood and held out his hand for her to shake. "Some things just gotta stay private. See you around, Colonel."
Independent Navy Headquarters
"Come in, Captain Volochkov," said MacDuff. "Come in. Please. Sit." He gestured toward a chair and nodded to his assistant signaling for more coffee. "I suggest you try the coffee. It's real. So is the milk."
"Well," said Volochkov as he sat. "I see that your status has afforded you a few of the finer luxuries."
"Let's just say that my position allows me a few small niceties," MacDuff smiled. "I take advantage of them when I can."
"I'm sure you didn't call me in here for a cup of coffee," said Volochkov. "And since things didn't exactly go well at Momar, I've been waiting to hear whether I would be exposed and executed, exiled, or just left to run useless errands."
"Oh, none of the above, I asure you."
"Then why am I here?" Volochkov pressed.
"No doubt you're aware that we've been taking some time sorting through the details of what happened last month in Momar." MacDuff sat back as the coffee tray was delivered, waiting until the door was closed again. "The loss of the Crack-In-The-World has been a tremendous loss to us."
"Yes, but the Navy also lost a destroyer and even more ships, not to mention that vast research facility."
MacDuff waved his hand dismissively. "They'll rebuild that thing in no time. They might even use the same location even though those planetoids aren't there any more. And we can't afford to be trading losses ship for ship with the Navy. That's a losing game for us, to be sure." MacDuff took a careful sip of his coffee and closed his eyes as if to savour the taste. "No, the real problem is that those events only served to polarize the Council even more than it was. The Independence movement is in a bad way and the time pressure is greater than ever. Those who embrace COSA feel it's even more important that we throw our lot in with them now. Those of us who don't like COSA so much, feel that the mission has become even more important than ever."
"By mission," said Volochkov. "I assume you're referring to your personal mission; your desire to find a way out of this conflict and to expose COSA's involvement?"
"Indeed. The Commonwealth has been decidedly silent about those events. The explosion of the SRF was dismissed as some random stellar event, the defeat of the Crack-In-The-World group hasn't been mentioned even once, and the loss of the Purdue has also been written off as some random combat loss. No, the Commonwealth is keeping secrets, and these secrets only serve COSA's interests. This means that the rot goes all the way up to the highest levels of power. However, I still believe that there are those in the Commonwealth who aren't involved with COSA; those who would listen to us. The importance of making contact with a clean and legitimate member of the Commonwealth Navy is greater now than it ever was. Unfortunately, the best candidate we've been able to find thus far: the Captain of the Redoubt; this Captain Ferris, is also a liability. He's lost any credibility he may have had. He will not be listened to in the halls of power. He's been tainted by this false accusation of treason, and by his association with Chen. They truly fear and mistrust their own intelligence force. Such disdain still astonishes me. We're back at square one as far as candidates go, unless."
"Unless you were able to procure another contact for us to use, a legitimate, clean and well-known Navy contact, perhaps? All we need is a name."
"I'm afraid.no wait," Volochkov thought. "Ferris did mention someone. He mentioned a ship called the Dreadnaught. Yes, the CNV 301 Dreadnaught. Apparently this ship is the deadliest ship in the Navy these days, a true rising star. He called them the 'new sweetheart' of the Commonwealth Navy."
"The Dreadnaught, eh? Yes, this ship is known to us. She's been giving us a bit of trouble these past few months. It certainly fills the 'warrior' requirement. We're running out of time, but this lead sound's promising," mused MacDuff as he took another sip. "What's her Captain's name?"
"I don't know. I.didn't get that," Volochkov said. "My 'spy' skills must be slipping. I didn't think it would be important so I never asked. I just got the sense that Ferris was a little envious of them."
"An even better reason to consider them," Macduff seemed heartened. "No matter. I'm certain we'd be able to get the Captain's name eventually, but as I said, we're short on time. I'll look into this Dreadnaught and consider your suggestion carefully. I thank you, Captain." He started to push himself out of his chair. Volochkov remained immobile in his seat.
"What about me. What will happen to the Wolf-In-The-Fold?"
MacDuff settled back into his seat and gave Volochkov a careful look. "I need loyal ships now, more than ever. Even though the Crack-In-The-World and her support group were not among my inner circle, I had tremendous respect for Captain Guzman and her people. We lost too much potential there. I lost some of my more trusted Captains as well. I lost a friend. I can't afford to lose any more at this moment. So our deal stands. I want you right where you are. You've proven yourself a worthy asset, and I assure you I'll keep you on the inside of any further developments."
"Then don't just dismiss me like this. Tell me what you plan to do."
"Very well, Captain," said MacDuff as he poured fresh coffee into both cups. "You may even be invited to participate in some small way. You see I've prepared an invitation that will be etched into a piece of thermal shielding debris that we plan to use as a sort of calling card. All that was missing in this message was the name of the addressee. I suppose using 'the Captain of the Dreadnaught' will do, won't it. That invitation will be launched at a Commonwealth station just hard enough to embed itself for later retrieval. It'll be launched from, the Acadian, which is one of our more loyal commercial associates. We've arranged to make sure that this piece of debris is retrieved promptly and shown to the right people. Unfortunately, we have no control over events from there, but we will assume that the right eyes and the right minds will see it. From there, it is up to their intelligence people and the Captain of the Dreadnaught to follow through. Would you like to see the text of the message?"
"Yes," said Volochkov. "It sounds like quite a gamble you'll be taking."
"Indeed it is," said MacDuff. "In fact there is considerable risk associated with this venture, but we're running out of time. We could use some more help, though. For example, the Acadian could use some protection to make sure it gets the message safely to and from the target system. Interested in a little escort mission?"
Volochkov nodded slowly, a half smile creeping up one side of his face. "Yes," he said. "I believe I could be of use there."
Saltlake Naval Base
Earth orbit L-5
Aboard the CNV534 Redoubt
Captain Ferris stepped over the lip of the hatchway onto the bridge and paused there for a moment to fully experience the pleasurable feeling of familiarity and comfort. He was home again. His bridge officers were huddled over something near the NAV station at the front of the bridge, conferring about some problem they appeared to be having with a piece of equipment. Ferris cleared his throat. Iwamasa was the first to look up and bellow "Captain on the deck!" a little too loudly. McMichael and Ravindran shot to attention as well, turning to face their Captain and dropping the item in question in their haste. McMichael started to bend to retrieve it, then stopped himself thinking better of it, and resumed his salute.
"As you were," said Ferris with a hint of suspicion.
"Welcome back, Captain," said McMichael, a little too eagerly.
Iwamasa and Ravindran had moved away from the pilot's station, as if distancing themselves from the scene of a crime, preferring to hover nearer their respective duty stations in silence. Ferris took it all in, but waited to see if they would offer an explanation. Since none seemed forthcoming, he proceeded with his speech.
"I trust you've all had an enjoyable leave. You certainly earned it. As you know the events that took place at the SRF in Momar have been classified. The Navy has decided to completely bury the whole thing. Officially, it never happened. Wexler had some powerful allies that are still in power, and they don't want any attention drawn to this. President King was also eager to have this whole thing buried. The SRF never officially existed, so in their wisdom, they've decided to cover up one lie with a few others. The Purdue and her ships were lost to a series of random Indie assaults. Lie. Vice Admiral Wexler died in an accident. Lie. And the destruction of the Crack-In-The-World doesn't get mentioned. Ever. We must each swear an oath of secrecy on this. All of it. The penalty for violating this particular oath is.quite severe. The price I have exacted for this secrecy isn't so bad, though. The Redoubt got a nice little refit, and a spot of paint. I got to handpick my crew, and I get to a certain amount of latitude when it comes to selecting plum missions."
"What kind of accident?" Asked Mac.
"What?" Ferris shook his head.
"What kind of accident was Vice Admiral Wexler supposed to have died from?"
"This, you're going to like:" Ferris looked down at his feet trying to conceal his amusement. "He died while serving in space. His official cause of death was reported to be a bad seal."
McMichael, Ravindran and Iwamasa all looked at each other incredulously.
"They can't be serious," Iwamasa said. "That's got to be the oldest joke in the Commonwealth Navy. I mean: that's been around since we went into space."
"It isn't a joke; not this time," said Ferris soberly. "At least not to the public it isn't. Those of us in the Navy will know; every working spacer will know. But the general population has no idea what that means."
"I can hardly believe it, 'a bad seal'," McMichael shook his head in disbelief. "I'm starting to believe that the Commonwealth Navy actually does have a sense of humour. That's just too rich. Makes swearing to keep all those secrets almost worthwhile." His foot snaked out trying to push the bright, reflective object behind his other foot.
"Alright, what's going on here," he asked McMichael in a tone that made it clear it was too late to conceal anything further.
McMichael looked down at his feet, picked up the item and held it tightly. He shot a pleading look at Ravindran, then at Iwamasa before proceeding to explain. "Well, they really went over the ship after we got back," he said, "repairing, cleaning, repainting, the whole bit. But.well.they took down my mirror and dice." He looked up to the place over his station where they had been affixed to the support beam. Ferris followed his gaze, and indeed, the whole area was scrubbed clean, freshly painted, and conspicuously free of any adornment.
"I figured you probably wouldn't agree to me putting a new one up," he continued. "I know the last one caused you some grief, and I heard about the scolding you got because of Colonel Carr before we went on leave. But I found another personal touch that would be much less.conspicuous." He held out the object that had fallen. It was a chromed metal stylized human skull about the size of a billiard ball. It bore a devilish grin, and the bone of the brow looked to be knitted in anger. The eyes contained bright red faux jewels; probably cut red glass. It looked like the kind of gaudy trinket one would see on the head of the cane of a carnival crier. McMichael held it up closer for Ferris to inspect. "Wait, this is the best part." he pressed a region at the back of the tiny silvery object, and the eyes came to life in an eerie glow of red light. "The guy who sold it to me said the power cell in there could last for years. And hey, Captain, you never know when an extra power cell on the bridge might be a life-saver, right?!"
"You've thought of everything haven't you, Mac," said Ferris fondly. "Where exactly were you going to put this.thing.?"
McMichael scrambled to step up into his elevated piloting station and take his seat. He held the ghastly death's head trinket in front of him with reverence before slowly lowering it onto the top of the post of the ship's main attitude control joystick near the right arm of the powered seat. "Right here, where only I can see it," he said. "We were just trying to figure out the best way to attach it when you came in." He looked back and forth between Ravindran and Iwamasa who chose to remain silent. "Well we were. They both admitted that they liked it, and they had some very helpful suggestions for attaching it. Don't let them tell you anything different.pair of kiss-asses." Ravindran and Iwamasa took their seats at their respective stations and tried to look busy.
Ferris found it too difficult to hold his stern expression; he was having too much fun. He burst into a laugh that surprised all of them. The laugh spread to the others for a moment. As it died, Ferris said, "Damn, it's good to see everyone again," and he looked at Iwamasa, "and right where they belong. It was nice to have a month's leave. Believe me, we all deserved it, but I have to say it feels good to be back here." He turned to McMichael and addressed him again as he sat at the Command workstation, still dormant while they remained docked.
"Yes, Mac, you can put your little red-eyed skull on the controller as long as it doesn't interfere with any functions or orders, and it poses no projectile risk. I also suggest you attach it in such as way that it can be quickly removed and stowed for inspections, repairs, cleaning crews and the like."
"Yes sir!" replied McMichael enthusiastically. "I just wish that cursed Colonel Carr hadn't made such an issue out of the rear view mirror."
"Oh that wasn't all bad, Mac," said Ferris. "I managed to turn that into an all-out investigation by a team of efficiency experts. We may see the rear view mirror again someday. In the meantime, Colonel Carr, who has incidentally made a full recovery and bears us no malice, was satisfied with the proceedings, and with your punishment."
"My punishment?" McMichael looked confused.
"Remember, I promised to punish you for calling him a 'bald-headed psycho', or something like that. And he wanted to be there to make sure you were actually punished in a manner satisfactory to him? Well he's satisfied."
"But. you never punished me," said McMichael, a little confused.
"No I didn't," Ferris said, "but I did promise him I'd keep a little secret; a little something I learned about him that he would rather wasn't public knowledge."
He looked at them all as they eagerly waited to hear the secret. He was enjoying their anticipation. "I'll let you in on it, if you all promise not to let it off this bridge. Consider it a rider to your oath of secrecy. Since we're in the secrecy business, I'll give you this as a little gift for swallowing the truth and endorsing all those other lies. But if word of this gets out, I'll have to punish Mac for real, and suffer the consequences of a tarnished honor," he said both sarcastically making it clear he didn't care one way or another.
"Would you like to know why he was given the nick name 'The Barber'? Anyone?" He looked back and forth at their confused faces. "Anyone?"
"Oh, this, I've got to hear," said McMichael. Once again, the Captain was one step ahead of the rest of them, which was why McMichael had always liked serving with him.
"'Hear' is exactly right, Mac," continued Ferris. "I checked the inventory of files we acquired for our last mission, including those unclassified files flagged for our Colonel's personal use. I then verified this by asking around, and believe me, not many people know, or are willing to confirm the reasons for his nickname. Anyway, listen to this." He slipped a data-chip into the reader on his console and touched a key. He crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back in his chair with a distinctly smug look on his face. Music began to play over the bridge audio system. They listened to the sounds of men's voices singing in strange, often complex harmonies a cappella. McMichael watched Ferris' grin grow wider still, as they listened to the song.
"Excuse me, Captain," Iwamasa finally asked, "but what is that?"
"That is an antiquated style of singing known as 'Barbershop Quartet' singing. It turns out that it is the sole off-duty passion of our esteemed Colonel Carr. That is, when he's not training his soldiers, killing people, or bothering officers of the Commonwealth Navy." He burst into laughter.
"That is the weirdest thing I've ever heard." Iwamasa said over the laughter of McMichael and Ferris.
"It's kind of catchy isn't it?" Ravindran broke in. "I mean, I could see how it would grow on you."
Ferris immediately cut off the audio, plunging the bridge into relative quiet again. The three men all turned to give Ravindran a silent, disbelieving look.
"What?!" she said, defiantly. After they turned back to their respective duties, she could be heard muttering to herself in a mock defensive tone, "Well, I liked it."
The Meeting is an amateur writing project. I'll be the first one to admit that I still have a long road ahead of me when it comes to writing skills. Anyone can write a story, but I'm learning that to write a good story, and to write it well takes a good deal of technical skill, patience, experience, and far more hard work than I thought. Bringing a story to fruition, even something so 'frivolous' as science fiction is a laborious process. I'm still learning, and this story, represents a few more steps taken along that path, nothing more.
Having said that, I feel that this story is an improvement over my previous efforts, and is certainly more ambitious in its scope. It's a notch or two above anything else I've done to date, and I'm proud of it. When you read The Meeting, you are reading the result of considerable effort, long hours of work, and the benefit of much assistance from others. These people deserve recognition.
For starters, I have to acknowledge the people who created the Independence War games. They are responsible for inspiring me to use their universe to tell stories. Their creativity and hard work on those excellent games helped me to sit down and pursue this effort. Thanks also to The Corporate for his pastie deckplans and the entire deckplans thread at the I-War internet forum (now gone forever, I fear). It helped me to understand the insides of an important part of a corvette. I also must also thank Parias and the entire gang at the Atari I-war forums for keeping this alive, and SoupDragon and his wonderful Independence War website for hosting my stories past and present. I must also thank those who edited and read earlier drafts, providing comments and feedback, to help make this a tighter story. Thanks to Shane Maness for his helpful comments, and to Rob Douglas for his considerable editorial skills, his writing advice, and for helping me to realize that this is something I should just sit down and do.
Finally, and most importantly, I wish to thank my wife for encouraging me the whole time, even when it conflicted with other daily demands, and for supporting me in this crazy undertaking, simply because I enjoyed doing it (imagine, a novel that would be read by only a handful of fans, and that would make absolutely no money!). She believed that I could do this before even I did, and she helped make the time for me to write, even though I doubt she really understood just how profoundly geeky this kind of thing is. That's amore, baby!