Racetrack & Spitfire visit a destroyer
25 months before the Fall.
"If you've looked out of a porthole or been in the air the last few hours, you'll notice that we are now cruising alongside the battlestar Agamemnon and her group," the CAG said. "I need a Raptor crew to go pick some men up from one of her destroyers; preferably someone who's done a destroyer landing for real. Volunteers?"
No hands went up. Never be first, Racetrack thought, never be last, and above all... On any ship, the Chief-of-the-Boat—the senior enlisted person—was a font of naval wisdom that wasn't taught at the academies. But on the Triton (and likely on her Neptunian counterpart the Theseus), the large fraction of the crew who were ensigns serving their first deployment out of school made the COB a guru-like figure who would induct the erstwhile midshipmen into the ways of seafaring and the fleet's real social dynamics. The first thing COBs taught ensigns: Acting superior to the enlisted crew = pissing off the COB = retribution. And second: And above all... never volunteer for anything.
The CAG sighed. "Any volunteers who've at least sim'd it and want to try it for real for the first time?"
"Ooh, ooh!" Spitfire's hand shot up. "Pick me, boss!"
He looked around hopefully; "anyone else? No?" He sighed. "Ensign Edmondson, you happy to go along for the ride?"
"She's not killed me this month, sir. She's earned it."
Destroyers were too numerous to have formal names—just hull-numbers, and, probably, crew nicknames. The one that they were approaching had 'DE715' lettered neatly on her bow. She was, Racetrack guessed, about 180 meters bow to stern, maybe 200, with a beam of maybe 30. Four single-barreled rail-guns, one each at the dorsal and ventral bow and stern; a dusting of point-defense turrets; a superstructure rearing low out of her dorsal surface with cluster of four missile-tubes on either side, an outsized dradome aloft, and a pair of Raptor pads astern. Pads, Racetrack noted—like on the ground.No landing bay, just a pad and a docking-collar.
"You ever been on one of these before, Abi?"
"No! Why else'd you tink I wanna go? You want to talk about hardcore sailin'? Dese tings are where you do it. It's about fifty officers, 250 enlisted, and they say it makes a battlestar look palatial. Hold on. D-E-7-1-5, Spitfire, inbound; I am the Raptor twenty degrees off your port bow. I have transfer orders for some of your complement. Request landing instructions."
"Spitfire, 7-1-5, roger; cleared to land on pad 2. That's the aft one."
It was a formality; pad 1 was already occupied by a Raptor with an assault package installed.
In its own peculiar way, Racetrack thought, the ship was so completely indifferent to aesthetic concerns as to be attractive in its self-assured ugliness. Since the war, assembly and upkeep of battlestars had fallen wholly into the hands of Scorpion Shipyards—with their ugly-ass Scorpian aesthetics. But the Buse-type destroyers were built at Leonis' Rice Shipyard by Astilleros del Norte, GmbH, a Tauron corporation, and the irreconcilable aesthetic tastes of the two colonies had produced compromise on a straightforward, functional design for the federal contract.
"Abi... What am I gonna say?"
"You're gonna say, Maggie, 'take it slow.' Don't worry. I've learned my lesson."
"My infirmary team and physical-therapist thanks you."
"Oh, poppet. That wasn't how I learn't that lesson." She made an obscene gesture.
"Oh, gross," Racetrack snapped.
"You'd think so"—passing the destroyer's fantail, she hauled the Raptor around to match courses and speed and then fractionally increased the throttle to gain on it slowly—"but let me tell you—"
"Nope. I'm calling bullcrap on this. You're not a gossip; if it actually happened, ya wouldn't be offering specifics unless you thought it'd make me blush."
"This story, believe me you'll blush."
They were parallel to the pad. "Shuttup and land the frakking plane, Abi!"
Spitfire stuck her tongue out at her, swung the plane perpendicular to their course, and inched across and down onto the pad. "7-1-5, Spitfire; skids down, mag se—Al-mighty Zeus!" They nearly jumped out of their skins when a hand smacked the canopy twice; someone in an excursion-suit grinned at them and waved, inching his way around to the hatch. Through the hull, they heard scraping and bumping.
"Spitfire, 7-1-5; please confirm helmets secure and cabin press."
"Frak, I forgot that. Mags, you secure?"
"Yeah, 7-1-5, confirmed." She touched her palm to her chest, still breathing hard and motioned for Racetrack to go aft.
Racetrack headed in back and opened the hatch, Spitfire a few steps behind her. Another figure in an excursion-suit—or maybe the same one?—waved them through the collar to a circular airlock hatch. Racetrack and Spitfire traded looks and followed.
"Sorry if I startled you back there. First time on a destroyer?" Racetrack nodded. "Ah. The docking-collar's manual; don't worry, I'd keep your helmet on just in case, but it's safe. After you!"
He locked the outer-hatch behind them, spun the locking-wheel on the interior hatch, and gestured through it.
A captain was waiting for them. "You Spitfire?"
"She is," Racetrack pointed; "permission to come aboard?"
"Granted. One of you's got some transfer papers?" Racetrack waved an envelope. "Alrighty, let's go see the XO." He lead them down a narrow, low companionway and forward several compartments through more circular hatches. One of them was lit only dimly by red lamps, and was stacked deck to overhead with low-profile racks, most with their curtains drawn. Cozy, Racetrack thought; terrifying, Spitfire thought.
The destroyer's CIC was smaller than the Triton's, but the same general idea.
"Major Kashina, these ladies are the Raptor crew from the Triton."
"Thanks, Ira. You got something for me, Ensign?"
"I wasn't asking for your name, Ensign." She motioned for the envelope; Racetrack handed it over. Kashina broke the seal and glanced over the papers. "Officer-of-the-Watch, the electronic transmission of transfers being confirmed, please notify the transferees. Chief-of-the-Watch"—she handed on the papers—"may the log so reflect." She turned back to Racetrack and Spitfire. "Most of them are packed and ready; we had a signal from the flagship giving us a heads-up. Specialist Pacelli's still on-duty for another twenty minutes; I can pull him if necessary, but if your orders allow, I'd rather you wait. The galley's open."
"I could eat"; Spitfire had stuffed herself immediately before the flight, but none of her appetites stayed sated for long. "B'sides, I'd love to see the galley on one of these. You got coffee on this boat, major, sir?"
"Ensign, this boat runs on coffee." Kashina picked up her handset and dialed; "COB, you got some time? We have a couple of guests need shown to the galley. Okay, yeah, thought you might. Yeah," she chuckled; "be my guest. I'll send them to you." She hung up and fixed Spitfire with a look, pointing out of the hatch. "Forward; port side of the passageway, three hatches down. It's labeled. I'll have you paged over the 1MC when your fares are ready."
Back home in Falstone, the horses that Racetrack had looked after had enjoyed stalls bigger than the COB's cabin-cum-office: A rack, what looked like stowage above and below it, and a tiny table with a bookshelf set into the wall. (Mostly service manuals, although Racetrack chuckled internally to note a copy of Proven Beyond Unreasonable Doubt—'now a major motion-picture!,' a sticker on the spine reported.)
The COB was a wiry man in his fifties, large-frame spectacles and thinning black hair. His accent was Tauron, but pale skin suggested a lifetime on ships. He proved gregarious, leading them forward and upward to a joint officer/enlisted galley. "Abigail huh? That's a lovely name, my niece has a cat called Abigail. First time on an escort-class ship? Sure hope you like powdered eggs, Abigail!"
The impertinence of an enlisted man—granted a Master-Chief, but still—addressing an officer by her first name seemed to go by Spitfire, but it was not lost on Racetrack, who wondered idly whether it was some kind of light hazing. Kashina had said things consistent with authorizing it…
She forgot all about it when they stepped through the hatch. The Triton's galley would have passed for a decent-sized diner in any suburban area, but the—wait,what's this thing called?
"Hey, COB? What's this thing called? The ship, I mean—the crew's got a nickname for her?"
—the Fleetfoot's galley, by contrast, was the size of a battlestar's head, and smelled of coffee, baking bread, boiled potatoes, and parsnips. And not, interestingly, of tobacco; there was a hand-written "no smoking" sign above the kitchen.
"What's with the sign, COB?" Spitfire had caught it too.
"Ay." He grinned. "Chief Thompson is very proud of his galley. See, most escort ships, you don't get fresh nothin'. No room to stow it. But the Old Man's family were farmers, and him and Chief Thompson managed to find some space to run up some hydroponics for high-yield low-space vegetables, and—"
"And," Thompson interrupted, handing the COB a steaming plate, "we do not do all that work just to let a bunch of smoke erase the difference. Newbies, COB?"
"Visitors, Frenchie. Ensigns Ainslie and Edmondson, passing through."
"Welcome." He offered a hand. "French Thompson. What can I get you, sirs?"
Sirs, Racetrack noted, feeling yet more sure that the COB was having some authorized fun at their expense.
"D'yeh have coffee an' grease? I'm indif'rent ta what form da grease takes."
Racetrack winced and poked Spitfire in the ribs; no tact at all. She never learns. "We'll each take a coffee and some of those veggies with whatever else you recommend, chief."
He grinned broadly. "You got it."
They found a table and the COB said a perfunctory grace, nodding at a figurine of Demeter on the bulkhead. "So: Ensigns on Triton? You're fresh outta Poseidon, then? How long?"
"Seven mon'ts," Spitfire said, examining a parsnip. "What's this?"
"That's a parsnip, shugah," Racetrack said.
"Is it any good?"
"Oh, pleione, you've put way worse in your mouth; just eat it!"
The COB arched his eyebrows.
Spitfire tried it, gingerly, then brightened. "Not bad! How about you, COB? I mean—no offense, but how d'yeh stand it? This place is terrifyin' cramped."
"You get used to it. You'd be surprised; most people here like it, they've pretty much made a career on these ships, 'specially enlisteds. Plus—you said seven months, right? So you've likely breathed fresh air, what, once? Twice maybe since you shipped out? Us, our crew rotates every three months. I've served on battlestars, and, sure, it's less cramped, but you sail months at a stretch. That's brutal on families. This is a good trade-off if you want to have some kind of family life and still sail."
"The racks look cozy," Racetrack said. "Just no privacy."
"Sure. If you're claustrophobic, a destroyer ain't the billet for you anyway, and you don't get much more privacy on any other assignment."
"Well, shore assignments."
"Shore's for sissies. And officers, the junior racks are a bit bigger, and the staterooms ain't bad. Officers like these boats, too, 'cuz you get to be command-staff way sooner in your career."
Spitfire's ears pricked up. "Yeah?"
"Sure. We get a lot of pilots lookin' to get that red trim come over here—so, perfect example: The XO did a deployment as the CAG on the battlestar Knossos, then she comes over here and gets her red, and once they make her a colonel, she'll have her pick to either conn one of these boats or go be the XO on a battlestar." The compartment was starting to empty; he glanced over at the clock. "Best chow-down fast, ladies."
Racetrack took a mouthful of coffee and—mother of Zeus!She screwed up her face and swallowed it in two gulps. "Holy crap, COB!"
"Yeah, Frenchie brews it a bit strong, huh?"
"Just a bit!" Gods, that's some double-brewed Leonine espresso right there. She wondered if that, too, was light hazing.
"You'll both vibrate the whole flight back. Best you go easy on the stick, ay?"
The flow through the hatch had reversed, and the 1MC rang. "Ensigns Ainslie and Edmondson, report to pad 2 for shuttle-run."
"That's time." He let them wolf down what was left on their plates and in their cups and took their trays. "Hodge!" he shouted to a crewman trying to sidle out. "Get your butt over here. Escort these ladies to pad 2, if you would? Sorry ensigns, I'm on-duty. Good luck; hope you enjoyed the visit."
"It's a path," murmured Spitfire on the way back. "It's one way to the top. Definitely worth thinking about."