Captains Tarquin Stuart-Lane and Algernon Pippington marched into Commodore Ishmael Al-Kawazi’s ready room, saluted and stood at ease.
“Take a seat, gentlemen,” he said. When it became clear that the two men were squabbling over the seat closest to their boss, he added, “There are two seats, for pity’s sake.” He pointed to one chair, then the next. “Stuart-Lane, you sit there and Pippington sit there.”
The two officers sat, suitably chastised, the looks passing between them indicative of the competition and mistrust they shared.
“Now,” Ishmael said, “we need to put Sir Prijs into an extended orbit to carry out more detailed surveys. This will be a four-week tour of duty that we shall divide into four periods of one week. Each of you will captain the cruiser for one week, then return here to change over. This will continue until the task is complete. At the same time, our Jinthate friends and partners will be carrying out on-planet investigations aimed to support the next stages of our overall mission. Am I clear?”
“But, Sir,” Tarquin whined, “I have a wife and child…”
Before Ishmael could respond, Algernon interjected, “Have a child? You are a child!”
“Not helpful, Captain,” Ishmael admonished, “I understand your concern, Tarquin, but you aren’t alone. Algernon here has a… what are we calling him, Captain?”
“Yes. Algernon has a partner whom he will miss and who will miss him as much as you will miss Anusha and Arty and they you.”
“But it’s not the same, Sir,” he bleated.
“Planetary laws, RSR Rules and Regulations and Ship’s Standing Instructions all say it is, Tarquin, and who are we to argue with UN resolutions, R&Rs and SSIs? Eh?”
“As you wish, Sir, but I still don’t think that the same rules should apply to normal people and…”
“And what, Captain?” Ishmael yelled, his face turning to a shade somewhere between a boiling lobster and a pickled beetroot.
“Nothing, Sir. Remark withdrawn.”
“I should think so. Once more and you’ll lose privileges, Mister. Now, I think you owe Captain Pippington an apology.”
“Yes, Captain Stuart-Lane, you must. Unless, of course, you have tired of being called Captain.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“How does Midshipman sound?”
“Captain Pippington, I am truly sorry if you were offended in any way by what you believe I was about to say.”
Algernon looked at Ishmael. “Was that an apology?” he asked.
“Probably as close as we’re likely to get to one, Algernon. Certainly closer than any I’ve heard before from Stuart-Lane. Now. Do you both understand what I require of you?”
“Sir, yes, Sir,” Algernon said with enthusiasm.
“S’pose so,” Tarquin mumbled without.
“Good. Who’s taking the first shift?”
“I would be happy to,” Algernon offered.
“Very well Captain. Prepare for departure at zero nine hours tomorrow. Dismissed.”
The two officers stood and saluted. Algernon Pippington marched out of his commander’s ready room, Tarquin Stuart-Lane slouched behind him, mumbling like a disgruntled teenager about how unfair everything had become and how no-one ever took account of the fact that he was now a father with parental responsibilities to shirk as well as his military duties.
Algernon’s wrist comm beeped. He looked at it and saw that a briefing document had been made available to him. He retrieved the tablet from a back pocket and studied the parameters of his new mission. The bloody toff will never understand this lot, he chuckled to himself. He ignored the funny looks he was receiving from just about everyone he passed. Of course they had no idea why he was laughing so hard. How could they? That made him laugh even more.
Tarquin received the same notification. He looked at the briefing and said to himself, never mind, Pipsqueak will have been doing it for a week before I have to, so Karolina will know what to do. He, too, started laughing. The difference between Algernon and him, though, is that Algernon had both an understanding of why he was laughing and a good reason for doing so. Tarquin laughed because… well, it could have been anything. He may just have seen the point of a joke he was told weeks previously, or maybe a random thought amused him. It is likely that we’ll never know why Tarquin laughed. In all probability, he’ll never know, either.