Over the next few days, Merry set about consolidating her position as interim captain of the shuttle Sir Prijs. And there was a world of difference between Commander Merry Winstanley, who left Earth on the moonship Waist of Space, and Acting Captain Meredith Winstanley, who was in command of the Sir Prijs. Incisive and decisive, learning the nuances of leadership and earning the respect, confidence, admiration and affection of those under her authority, she became the model officer.
This was confirmed in a call with Admiral Farquharson at Regiment HQ.
“How long have you been in command there, Winstanley?” he asked.
“Three weeks, Admiral,” she replied.
“Been hearing reports, Commander.”
“Good ones; don’t fret yourself. You probably need to know that Weinberg is under my direct command. Put her there to keep an eye on van Winpell. Never really trusted the man. Not like Weinberg. Thoroughly reliable; good egg, that one. Rely on her judgement 100%. Trained her myself.”
“Based on her reports, backed up by 360 degree evaluations done by other officers, including your pal Stuart-Lane—“
“No pal of mine, Sir. You ordered us onto that suicidal mission together.”
“Yes. Damned mistake, that. Under-estimated you, Winstanley. To be fair, though, you never showed any promise.”
“That was my error, Admiral. Papa bought me this commission against my wishes. I suppose I was rebelling against him, mostly. And our little, erm, contre-temps – if you remember, Sir”
“Be that as it may, Captain, that’s in the past.”
“You just called me Captain…”
“So I did. Must have forgotten to tell you.”
“Tell me what, Sir?”
“Promotion is confirmed. You want me to freight the documents and insignia up to you, or keep them here until your next Earth visit?”
“Wow. I’d be grateful to receive them soonest, Admiral.”
“Very well, Captain. Tell you what; I’ll fly up with my adjutant at the next window. That’ll be… let me see… tomorrow at 1500 Zulu. That suit?”
“I’ll have quarters prepared, Sir.”
“Very well, Captain. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“A demain, Sir.”
Full of the joys of Spring, and with a spring of joy in her step, Merry marched onto the bridge. Of course, Lt Weinberg was aware of the Admiral’s plans and correctly read Merry’s merriment. She stood smartly to attention, withdrew her ceremonial whistle from her tunic and blew the customary three-note salute before shouting, “Ten HUT. Captain on the bridge.”
The bridge crew came briskly to attention, faced Merry and saluted.
Joan Weinberg then cried out, “Hip hip!” to which the crew responded, “Hooray,” a duet that was, in keeping with the best of military traditions, repeated a further two times.
“Thank you all,” Captain Winstanley responded, “as you were.”
Life quickly resumed its normal pattern.
Commander Tarquin Stuart-Lane sidled up to his erstwhile colleague and said, “I say, Merry… I mean Captain… jolly well done. Well deserved and all that kind of thing.”
“Shut up, Tarquin.”
“What’s your station?”
“Don’t yet have one, Captain.”
“Very well. I’m putting you in charge – under my guidance and control – of alien relations. I need you to talk with Flatulon and his people. Find out exactly what they want, both in nature and in number, and report back to me. You are not to give any undertakings or even opinions. Your job is to gather information. I would say intelligence, but I don’t think that’s a word I’d like to use with you. Understood?”
“And one more thing.”
“Screw this up and you’re busted all the way back to Midshipman.”
Tarquin carried on. Doing nothing, that is.
The following afternoon a personnel transit shuttle arrived from Earth. On board were Rear Admiral Alasdair “Reggie” Faquharson and his adjutant, Commander Algernon “Pipsqueak” Pippington. As is the custom on RSR vessels, the captain didn’t meet her visitors at the airlock; an honour guard of four bridge officers and a detachment of eight security officers met the two and escorted them, with due pageantry and ceremony, to the bridge, where the new captain was waiting with her second-in-command to pipe them aboard.
“Thank you for that welcome, Captain,” Rear Admiral Farquharson said.
“It’s an honour to have you aboard, Sir.”
“Tell me, Captain, how are you finding Lt Weinberg”
“She’s a fine officer, Admiral, and is doing a sterling job as my second-in-command.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Captain. At the same time as confirming your promotion to the substantive rank of Captain, and officially appointing you to the command of this vessel, it is my intention,” then, turning to her deputy, he said, “to offer you, Lt Weinberg, a field promotion to Lieutenant Commander, to be confirmed later, and appoint you XO of the Sir Prijs.”
Joan blushed with pride.
“Congratulations, Lt Cdr Weinberg,” Merry whispered.
“Care to join us in the mess, Sir?” Merry asked, “CFP Patsy has prepared some very special treats in honour of your visit.”
“Best go down, then,” the Admiral replied. “Wouldn’t want to upset Patsy. Scares me, that one does.”
“She’s like my sister’s Rottweiler, Sir,” Merry said, “looks scary, but she’s a pussy cat really.”
While enjoying the fruits of CFP Patsy’s (the preposterously post-pubescent, pouting, preternaturally pugilistic preparer of puff pastry, pies and pasties) labours, Cdr Pippington and Lt Cdr Weinberg discussed their continued collaboration in attempting to get the Admiral’s love life back on track. They both knew of the arrangement that he and Merry had enjoyed years before, and had plans to rekindle it.
Meanwhile, Admiral Farquharson and Merry were discussing the Waist of Space mission.
“What I don’t understand, Sir, is all the weirdness as we were approaching the moon.”
“What do you mean Captain?”
“Please, Sir, call me Meredith; we’ve known each other for a long time.”
“Certainly, Meredith; and you must call me Alasdair.”
“Wouldn’t be appropriate, Sir. Not in front of the junior ranks.”
“Fair point. So; what’s this weirdness?”
“Well, Sir, the clocks were running backwards, the briefing book was blank, telescopes, recording devices and control buttons appearing and disappearing — weirdness.”
“Think I can answer that,” Cdr Pippington interrupted. Tarquin was seated at the next table and was listening intently.
“It seems,” the Commander said, “that a ship powered by a variant of the Unlikelihood Drive passed through the area a couple of days before. I think you encountered its wake.”
“Oh, gosh,” Tarquin said, “If we’d known that, we would have taken our hats off, said a prayer or something.”
“What?” asked the Admiral, Captain, Commander and Lt Commander in unison.
“Well,” Tarquin explained, “if it was a wake, that means it had died, so we should show some respect, don’t you think?”
“May I, Sir?” Merry asked.
“Proceed, Captain,” the Admiral replied.”
“Shut up, Tarquin.”
“Thank you,” three officers said.
“Sorry,” Tarquin apologised, and shut up, just as he had been ordered.
“Thing is, Algernon,” Merry said, “the Unlikelihood Drive sounds like a rip-off of the Infinite Improbability Drive, and that is fictional, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely, but there’ve been rumours in the Wardroom for some time that some bright sparks out there are testing something functionally analogous.”
“Our people?” Admiral Farquharson asked.
“No, Sir. No-one from this planet.”
“Don’t they know about copyright?” Joan Weinberg asked, “The Infinite Improbability Drive was postulated by Douglas Adams, in the book Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy. They can’t just copy it, and changing the name won’t help.”
“Not sure aliens would accept the jurisdiction of UK courts even if they did understand our laws,” the Admiral suggested.
“We’ll have to bally-well teach them a lesson, then,” Tarquin said, “give them a bloody nose, that’d make them sit up and think.”
“Again. May I, Sir?” Merry asked.
“Proceed once more, Captain,” the Admiral replied with a grin.
“Shut up, Tarquin.”
“Thank you,” three officers said.
“Sorry,” Tarquin apologised, and once again shut up, just as he had been ordered.