The dining facility, which had once been called a mess hall, would have rivaled a fancy restaurant on Earth. It was filled with tables with sparkling white clothes on them. Red napkins were standing on each plate of fine china. The silverware was gleaming and the glasses were crystal clear. Two of the bulkheads had been paneled with dark wood from the rain forests on Earth. Another of the bulkheads was a real time holo of space outside the ship. Drifting in formation around them was the rest of the fleet.
Price found a table and sat down. He took the folded napkin, shook it out and place it in his lap. When Coollege was settled, he said, "You really want to eat."
"Now that we're here, why not?"
Price turned and watched the shifting the fleet as it moved. The backdrop of stars, some of them brilliant white, others orange and yellow and red, didn't seem to be moving at all. Had the fleet been ocean going vessels, it would have seemed they were at anchor. In space, with the distances so vast, it seemed they weren't moving at all.
Coollege followed his gaze and asked, "Why are we at sub- light speed."
"Searching," said Price. "Scouts are out, searching for the enemy. No reason to burn up fuel in faster than light without knowing where we're going."
"Galactic center," said Coollege.
"That's a huge target. Better to poke along at sublight than waste the fuel."
Coollege took her napkin and examined it. "Sometimes," she said, "I just don't understand what in the hell is going on. We could have bare tables, paper napkins and metal dishes..."
"Morale," said Price. "Gives everyone a feel of importance. And besides, paper napkins are wasteful but cloth ones can be recycled endlessly. Makes more sense than a paper stock that would either have to be dumped into space or stored on board to be recycled later."
"They think of everything," said Coollege.
"You can bet there is some bean counter sitting on the Colonel's staff who makes sure that we are operating on the lowest possible budget. Certainly don't want to waste a nickel."
"The taxpayers are probably happy with that attitude."
Price looked at her and asked, "You really want to get into this?"
"Well, things have been sailing along smoothly but you've just opened a can of political worms. There are times when the bean counters, insisting on the cheapest course, end up causing us to waste a lot of money."
"No, Tree, I don't want to get into this. I'd like to know just one example of the bean counters opting for the cheapest and then costing money."
"Replacement parts," said Price. "You buy the cheapest machine and the contractor, knowing that he is going to lose money on the deal also knows that he can make it back with spare and replacement parts."
"I had't thought of that."
Price grinned broadly. "Sometimes, late at night, in my cabin, I think about that...and that this ship was built by the lowest bidder. If we blow up in space, who's going to know the reason why. We just blew up."
"Thank you for that lovely thought," said Coollege. "I know that I'll sleep better tonight for knowing that."
A shadow fell across the table and when they looked up, Monier said, "I thought I'd find you here."
Coollege looked disgusted. She kept her eyes focused on the table.
Monier asked, "Why are you angry?"
"You knew we'd be here. Knew it. Not thought it. And if you can't read minds, how'd you know what I was thinking?"
"I don't know what you're thinking," said Monier. "I could see that you were angry. You body language shouted it to me. You don't have to be psychic to see it."
Price laughed and waved a hand. "Join us. Jackknife will get over her mad quick enough."
"No, Captain, thank you. I think that I'll just go back to my quarters." She turned and walked stiffly from the dining hall.
"Nicely done, Jackknife. There was no reason for that," said Price.
"Maybe not, but at least we get to eat our dinner alone."