The shrill whistle brought everyone's head snapping up and they watched as the lean, jumpsuit clad figure stepped out of the launch.
"Captain on the deck."
The crew straightened visibly and saluted crisply, heads motionless as they faced front but their eyes tracked the new arrival. Captain Chris Larabee was a legend in his own right, and so it seemed rather fitting that he would be handed command of the legendary seaQuest.
"Captain Larabee, I believe you are already acquainted with your Executive Officer?"
Admiral Hudson, former captain of seaQuest, greeted the new captain and led him to Buck Wilmington; a small smile playing over his face as the two greeted each other warmly.
"Good to have you on-board."
"Good to be here, Buck."
One by one the senior officers were introduced to their new captain, gradually working through the ranks.
"Commander Josiah Sanchez heads up the Engineering Section; Lt. Commander Nathan Jackson, your chief medical officer, also head of Sciences; Lt. Ezra Standish, who handles communications and supplies; Ensign Dunne, resident Navigation and Computer expert, and Ensign Tanner, our resident fish."
Everyone grinned surreptitiously as Vin ducked his head in embarrassment, trying to avoid the sudden interest flaring in the soft green eyes. He hated being referred to as 'the fish'. He was far more than that. He was a crack weapons officer and he was one damn fine pilot even if he did say so himself, and yet they only ever seemed to mention his artificial gills.
"I've heard you're also a good weapons officer and pilot."
Vin looked up in surprise. He had heard many views on their new captain. Some said he was as cold and humorless as a dead, wet fish, and yet others praised him highly, extolling his command abilities. Certainly, Vin was getting good vibes from the man who stood before him, liking the approval that had almost replaced curiosity he had seen in those eyes. It was a strange feeling, an instant connection with this man - and he liked it. Vin knew it had everything to do with the slight empathic skills he also carried, but that only explained why he liked this Chris Larabee instantly. It did not explain why Larabee was putting out those vibes, especially when the man had been strongly shielded when he first stepped on-board.
Hudson's voice cut through his thoughts and he watched Larabee turn away to be introduced to the next officer. As Hudson formally handed over the seaQuest to its new captain, Vin listened intently to the very brief acceptance speech. He smiled, pleased to discover that Larabee, like himself, was a man of few words.
Hudson and the new captain departed, and moments later the rest of the crew found themselves dismissed. Many hurried on back to their stations, eager to continue with whatever task they had been drawn away from, while others huddled together to discuss their first impressions.
"So, what do you think, Vin?"
"It important what I think?"
"Well, you do have that... you know... empathy thing."
"Ain't a strong empath, JD."
"But you could read him? Yeah?"
"Got tough shields."
"But you could read him? Come on, Vin. First impression. What do you make of him?"
"Yesss! That's what Casey heard."
Vin flinched as Ensign Richmond brushed passed him. He cursed under his breath. This damn empathy thing was too weak to be of any real good, but too strong to ignore. He could feel the unwanted waves of her desire smashing against his own shields and he turned away as she gazed at him coyly. He had made the mistake of sleeping with her once, having been flattered by the attentions from the slightly older woman. However, he hadn't enjoyed it at all. Every touch had felt wrong, as if their very skin rejected each other, and it didn't take long to realize that it was the undercurrents drifting through him from his empathic abilities that were causing those unwelcome feelings.
At the time she had made out that her marriage was over. Unfortunately, her husband had not shared that view. The result had been a source of great embarrassment to him as he felt the full impact of her glee at seeing two males fighting over her, destroying any love he might have otherwise felt for the woman. Afterwards he had made it clear that he was not interested but that had not stopped her from continuing in her advances towards him at any opportunity. He gritted his teeth and waited until she had moved on.
"Bitch." Vin looked at JD with shock having never heard a bad word fall from JD's mouth before. "Well, she is!"
Moment's later Buck approached, the beaming grin lightening the rebuke in his voice.
"Guess you boys have forgotten we're here to work."
"On our way, Buck." JD grinned, eagerly striding off towards the bridge with Vin following at a more leisurely pace.
Hudson's dark eyes appraised his successor. Larabee had been Hudson's choice as captain of the United Earth/Oceans Organization flagship following his own promotion to Admiral. He had watched Larabee's rise through the ranks with great interest, pleased to discover that the UEO was still producing such high caliber commanders. Larabee had proved his worth during some of the many battles fought in the war against Macronesia, and continued to prove it as he assisted the UEO in bringing new order following the uneasy truce.
"My orders state I'll be reporting directly to Admiral Travis."
Hudson gave a non-verbal response. Orrin The Judge Travis had taken over as Secretary General of the UEO several years earlier. Over the course of his career Hudson had encountered several run-ins with the Judge but had to admit that the man was nothing if not impartial, earning his nickname by his scrupulous principles of right or wrong. He wished he could have retained some position in the chain of command for seaQuest but Hudson understood the sound reasoning behind making a clean break. He glanced around the interior of the quarters that had been his own until earlier that day, dark eyes glowing warmly.
"Going to miss this baby." Hudson cleared his throat. "First orders."
He handed an envelope over to Larabee, waiting patiently as it was unsealed and the contents read.
"This for real?"
"Afraid so, Chris. And now I have to go."
Chris escorted his friend and mentor to the waiting launch. They clasped hands, offering more than just a simple goodbye in the firm handshake, and then Hudson walked away, the hatch sealing behind him. Minutes later the launch had departed and Chris gazed around the room, suddenly aware that this was all his now. He had worked hard to reach this point in his career and he knew there could be no finer honor than to be given command of Nathan Bridger's technological masterpiece, the seaQuest. They had offered him the chance to select his own command crew but he had left the roster unchanged. He trusted Hudson's judgment and was quietly reassured when he noted that Buck Wilmington had taken the executive officer post following the reassignment of Commander Ford some months earlier.
There was a time when Buck had been his best friend but tragedy had pulled them apart. He realised that he had not crossed paths with Buck in several years, however, with time lessening the grief, he had been more than pleased to see that familiar face again.
Chris glanced back down at his orders and sighed. The seaQuest had been reassigned to an area of disputed territory in the Earth's ocean known as Four Corners. It had gained its name through being the meeting place of several territories; Macronesia and the UEO being two of them. There was a small, but growing, deep-sea colony near the border that took its name from the area surrounding it, and seaQuest would use that colony as its base.
"Mrs. Mary Travis."
The colony's spokesperson was a familiar name, mainly for her outspoken attitude towards the travesties of justice occurring in the neighboring territories. However, she was just as reproachful in her editorials about the UEO and its policies. The fact that Mrs. Travis was also the daughter-in-law of the Secretary General Orrin Travis did not bode well. He had a feeling he was going to have some hard times ahead of him, walking a fine line between her political aspirations and those of the Judge.
None of this was a major problem though, except he had hoped to have a little downtime first, a chance to get to know the crew and the boat. Mentally, he crossed his fingers and hoped that the five-day journey to Four Corners would be enough time to iron out any major personnel clashes. He had been on-board submarines long enough to know it was better to get shot of anyone who didn't fit in as quickly as possible, although a change of command was bound to cause some friction at first.
Chris pulled away from these dark thoughts and strode out into the corridor, hoping the schematics he had drilled into his head would lead him back to the heart of seaQuest; to the bridge. Fortunately, he was only reduced to asking for directions on one occasion, although he had a feeling he had managed to terrify the crew member he had approached, but he had been so angry with himself for losing his way.
"Captain on the bridge."
"At ease. First standing order. No announcements are necessary."
A chorus of "Aye, Sir" followed but otherwise no one was that amazed by the order. Most captains quickly dispensed with that one piece of protocol as soon as they could, preferring to move freely about their command without being heralded on every deck.
"Helmsman. Set a course for Four Corners. Steady as she goes."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
"Mr. Wilmington? My quarters in 15 minutes."
"Sure thing, Chris."
The informal reply earned Buck a small glare but Chris was forced to shake his head at the unabashed grin, silently wondering if Buck had been so informal with Hudson. Somehow he thought not, and he hoped Buck's approach would not spur the other officers into taking the same liberties with him.
Buck entered the captain's private quarters once bidden, his long frame slumping into a seat opposite his oldest friend.
"Meant what I said, Chris. It's good to have you on-board."
"Been a long time, Buck."
"Understand your reasons for staying away. Not that I agreed with them."
"Didn't bring you here to discuss the past, Buck."
"I know." Buck accepted the shot of whiskey pushed across the low table placed between them, and then he leaned back. "So. Where do you want to start?"
Chris paused, his mind flitting to the ensign who seemed to have drawn him out from the moment their eyes met. He opened his mouth to ask Buck about Vin Tanner but realised how strange that would seem.
"Very well educated. Has doctorates in Philosophy as well as Biomechanics..."
"Can read that off his sheet."
Buck grinned and Chris recognized the teasing for what it was.
"Good, solid, dependable man. Has a few demons riding his back...but then, who don't? He knows the innards of this boat almost as well as Nathan Bridger himself. Enjoys fixing things...and people, too."
"Says he has slightly above average empathic skills."
"Yep. Makes him approachable when a man's got problems that need discussing. Some of the crew have nicknamed him Preacher because of that."
"Okay. The CMO?"
"Nathan Jackson. Brought up as a slave in the Mauritanian Colonies. Freed when the UEO moved in twelve years back. Knows as much about natural remedies for whatever ails you as he does about modern medicine... and that's a whole lot. Good with a knife, and a good man to have at your back."
"New on-board. Taken over as communications and supply officer. Has a way with words, loads of them, but seems to be able to get whatever you ask for... though I wouldn't vouch for the methods used."
"Hell.. a deep, dark shadow."
"Ain't saying that, Chris. Just an unknown element."
"Bad element?" Chris smiled, receiving an answering grin from his friend.
"No, pard. You're the bad element."
Chris sobered slightly, taking another sip of whiskey.
"Okay. Let's move on. JD Dunne?"
"Ain't gonna find a nicer kid, nowhere. Clever, loyal and as eager as a puppy dog."
"Sounds like he's made an impact on you, Buck."
"He's like a little bro'... but don't you go telling him I told you that. Boy's head'll swell so big he'd have trouble getting through the hatchways."
Chris grinned. There were other officers of lesser importance but he was now in the position to ask about the one that intrigued him the most.
Buck played with his mustache, blue eyes becoming thoughtful.
"Bit of a loner when he first came on-board, but JD's started dragging him out of his shell. Don't talk much...like someone else I could mention. Best weapons officer I've ever seen, could hit the nail on a side of a barn at more than fifty yards. Damn good pilot too. Oh and, yeah, he's part fish."
"What made him volunteer for gills?"
"Don't rightly know, Chris. Rumor has it he got into some bad trouble out near Tascosa on the Tonga Trench and this is how he paid the price. Got higher than average empathy...though I don't rate that empathy thing against my animal magnetism."
Chris grinned, recalling the easy way Buck had with women.
"Still pulling the girls, Buck?"
"Women love me. Can't get enough of me. Why, only yesterday some new filly on-board..."
"Buck?" Chris barely suppressed a yawn as he waited until he had Buck's attention. "Save it."
"You ain't no fun, Chris. Maybe I should go find some more appreciative company... if we're through?" Buck's pretense at offense disappeared, replaced instead by concern. "You look a little peaky, Chris. Reckon you should take a nap."
Chris glared at Buck but then relented. Truth be told he was exhausted.
"Took me two days to get here... and I couldn't get to sleep on that damn launch."
"Hell, Chris. It'll take us five days to get to Four Corners so I reckon you could take some time to catch up on some shut-eye."
Chris stood up as Buck unfolded his long limbs from the couch, and then followed his new Exec to the hatch. He opened the hatch but Buck turned on the threshold, blue eyes staring deep into his own.
"Hell, it is good to see you again, Chris."
Seconds later Chris was trying to extract himself from a bear hug, trying to remain indifferent to the warmth of this renewed friendship, and failing miserably. A passing crewman raised an eyebrow but carried on by swiftly.
"People will talk."
Buck laughed in that familiar, easy way that sent the intervening years rolling away, slapping Chris on the back and then departing, leaving Chris alone to take Buck's advice and get some much-needed rest.
As he placed his few belongings around his new quarters, Chris pondered over his new command. This was the chance of a lifetime, commanding the UEO's most prestigious boat. With the world still in turmoil following the recent war with Macronesia, there would be plenty of problems ahead of them as they tried to bring peace to this last frontier. Already there had been reports of piracy, and of trouble brewing between the large sea ranchers and the small homesteaders and deep sea mining outfits.
He thought about the other six people he would have to learn to rely upon and, on counting himself as well, he smiled.
Seven. His lucky number. Things were looking good already.