Actually, spending the morning with "Paper Boy" was not Jeff Gossard's idea of fun. What was his idea of fun was seeing the new T'Phetti ship up close and personal before anyone else got a chance to do the same. As a member of the Mobile Infantry, Gossard rarely got to view starships up-close from the outside and wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.
He was content to let the shuttle's autopilot handle most of they flying. Though Higgins persisted in his view that Carmen's refusal to assign any Fleet personnel to his little sight-seeing mission was an act of spite or distrust, Gossard wouldn't have been at all surprised if Ibanez honestly didn't have any personnel to spare. The Valley Forge was the only SICON flagship currently patrolling in Earth orbit. In the past few years Fleet had been spread pretty thin throughout the quadrant. The Federation had scaled back its military presence in almost all sectors since the few remaining Arachnid strongholds didn't seem to have much fight left in them. The Luna Ring was considered more than adequate for planetary defense, though it happened to be orbiting the opposite side of the planet from the stationary position of the Valley Forge.
The Valley Forge and L'Whar's Hope really weren't that far apart from each other. With a conventional zoom lens, Higgins probably could have gotten decent shots of the Hope's exterior from the view ports aboard the Valley Forge. But Higgins was adamant about maneuvering the shuttle in a spiral pattern around the T'Phetti vessel for one long continuous camera pass. The "beauty" shot, as he called it.
And L'Whar's Hope really was a beaut. It was much more curvaceous than the average Federation design. In Gossard's mind it resembled a squid with its tentacles bundled together and fully extended. If you then took the squid and somehow stabbed it through the center of a flying saucer, then arrayed four Hyperdrive engines in a circle around the squid you would have...well, you would have mess, but a mess that roughly resembled the silhouette of L'Whar's Hope against the stars. The layout of the ship was vertically oriented, the various decks stacked one on top of the other, more similar to the layout of a space station than the horizontally oriented decks of a Methuselah class starship. The bridge, crews' quarters, med facilities, recreation decks, research labs and shuttle bays were housed within the domed "head" of the squid, then there was an elevated ring of gunnery turrets surrounding the base of where the squid's shell intersected the "saucer" section.
The bundled tentacles protruding from the other side of the saucer were actually the spines of an up-side-down umbrella, a collapsed fan that could unfold to form a circular shield surrounding the particle beam cannon contained within the "tip" of the umbrella. The cloth-like material spanning the umbrella frame was manufactured to simulate the same molecular properties as the outer skin of a Transport Bug (the space-faring Arachnid species which had, as far as everyone knew, been driven into extinction). Gossard had only seen the shield unfurled in diagram simulations and was somewhat disappointed that he probably wouldn't get to see it extended for real. The "spines" of the umbrella were lined with sensors arrays, a design solution which struck Gossard as particularly elegant.
The base of the "umbrella" was attached to a cluster of grav generators and inertial dampers, not to mention a couple of missile silos. All of the attitude jets and their corresponding fuel tanks were embedded in the saucer ring. The Hyperdrive engine modules were mirrored on the top and the bottom of the saucer section, allowing the ship to hyper-jump and decelerate in both directions. Gossard suspected the umbrella shield would be torn to shreds if it were fully extended during a hyper jump, regardless of which direction the ship was jumping in. Obviously, the umbrella shield was designed for fire-fights in close quarters anyway. As long as the enemy being targeted was positioned somewhere "beneath" the T'Phetti vessel, it would be very difficult for an enemy ship to launch an successful counter-offensive. As far as Gossard knew, this was a unique T'Phetti design element that had never been attempted on other SICON spacecraft.
The shuttle debarkation was also a novel experience. Instead of heading toward a locker room to remove their Power Suit armor, Gossard and Higgins were routed to a decontamination chamber which was stocked with a full compliment of spare Power Suits. From there they would have to continue wearing their suits throughout the interior of the ship since the ship-board atmosphere and gravimetrics grid were both geared toward Skinnie physiology. This was also a "first" in the history of SICON ship construction. Gossard noticed that the Du'Kra Industries corporate logo was plastered everywhere, including on the shoulder pads of all the spare suits. The T'Phetti spaceship manufacturing firm was clearly doing well for itself these days.
T'Phai wasn't there to greet them outside the decon chamber door. A certain Ensign Nae'Quor had been sent to fetch them to the bridge. The young female T'Phetti officer was wearing a uniform Gossard didn't recognize until he deduced that it was probably the standard body glove that Skinnies wore underneath their proprietary Power Suits.
Higgins insisted on taking multiple shots of Gossard and Nae'Quor as they strolled down various corridors "to provide a sense of scale," he said. The ceilings were much higher than those aboard the Valley Forge. The walls bowed out in the middle and tapered toward the top so that the ceiling was visibly narrower than the floor. There was still a good five feet of clearance above the Skinnie's head, though most of the empty space was congested with atmospherics plumbing. The air had a tinge of yellow to it, and the overhead lights tinted the air further with a warm amber glow. All of the recently polished metal surfaces had an emerald sheen, but if you looked closely, the walls were actually a dull blue-gray color. Ensign Nae'Quor remarked that dull blue-gray happened to be the paint color on sale when the ship was commissioned. Higgins thought the Skinnie was kidding, Gossard knew what cheapskates SICON requisition officers could be and had no reason to doubt the ensign's statement.
Ambassador T'Phai was sitting comfortably in the captain's seat when they reached the bridge.
"Welcome aboard, Roughnecks. It is pleasant to see you again," said T'Phai.
"Hey T'Phai," said Higgins cheerfully, "I didn't know they let ambassadors sit in the captain's chair."
"Ahh, I am sorry to disabuse you of your preconceptions," T'Phai smiled in a most human-like manner, "As a matter of fact I am the 'acting' captain of this ship. I have been operating with only a 'skeleton' crew for almost a week now, making preparations for your visit. Ensign Nae'Quor, whom you've met, is the only member of my bridge crew at the moment. Captain W'Phurl and a full compliment of T'Phetti crewman still await my summons aboard the Valley Forge. This ship will be W'Phurl's to command once the christening ceremony is over. Until then, I'm afraid a mere ambassador will have to suffice."
"Nice digs, T'Phai," said Gossard, "For a Skinnie, I mean."
"Yes, it is quite gratifying to breathe easy on-board a starship for a change." T'Phai enthused.
"I can imagine it would be," said Higgins, "Mind if we take a look around? I'd like to get some more footage of the ship so I have plenty of angles to choose from when I put together my report for UNN."
"Be my guest, Paper Boy," T'Phai replied.
Higgins laughed. "No one's called me 'Paper Boy' for a long time. I guess I should be flattered that you remembered. Thanks, T'Phai."
Gossard just shook his head silently. Didn't that boy ever put the camera down? Come to think of it, Hig hadn't had a camera on him at the party last night. Maybe the unrelenting reporter in him was now making up for lost time.
Despite the fact that he had spent the morning stuck in a cramped shuttle with Higgins, it was shaping up to be a pretty good day for Cpl. Jeff Gossard. In a few hours the Skinnies would finally have a starship to call home. Tomorrow he would be able to say goodbye to the people who had been his closest friends for the past few years. The day after that he could finally retire to "inactive duty" and go home to see his sister, Victoria. Only this time he would be home to stay. Yes, his last few days as a mobile infantrymen were going to be a piece of cake, a walk in the park. At this late stage in the game, what could possibly go wrong?