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Chain of Command: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 20:52 EDT



15 November 2133 (thirty-six days from K’tok orbit)

    Seventeen days before the course of sentient history changed irrevocably, Lieutenant Sam Bitka stood at attention in the office of Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn, executive officer and second-in-command of the destroyer USS Puebla.

    “Why are you being so stupid?” Huhn demanded.

    Sam thought about that. It wasn’t a bad question; it just didn’t go far enough.

    Tension had been growing between Human and Varoki colonists on the planet K’tok, so the US Navy’s Second Destroyer Squadron–including Sam and his shipmates–had been sent “as a precaution.” When they emerged from jump space earlier that day, the Varoki heavy cruisers in the K’tok system had immediately gone into low emission mode. Now everyone found themselves trembling on the brink of what might turn into the first all-out interstellar war in the history of all six known sentient species.

    And the only thing Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn had on his mind was a sexual encounter between two petty officers in Sam’s tactical department. Why was everyone being so stupid? But Sam didn’t say that.

    “Um, stupid, sir?”

    “You call this disciplining these two? Why, it’s not even a slap on the wrist.”

    “I informed petty officers Menzies and Delacroix that their fraternization constituted an infraction of Navy regulations concerning conduct injurious to order. Any repetition would result in more serious disciplinary action which would show in their permanent records. As per your orders, I altered their watch and duty assignments so they would neither work together nor have significant overlapping off-duty time.”

    “And what’d they say to that?”

    “That they intend to marry upon completion of the deployment, sir.”

    Huhn’s mouth twisted at that and he looked as if he wanted to spit. “Marry! Navy won’t let a married couple ship out together. They’ll get different assignments and replace all this enforced intimacy with enforced separation. That’s why these shipboard romances never last, that’s for damn sure. Did you tell them that?”

    “As part of my counseling I acquainted them with the relevant statistics, sir.”

    “And what’d they tell you?”

    “That they were not statistics.”

    Huhn looked at Sam and softly tapped the Annapolis class ring on his left hand against the surface of his desk, the ring that was a constant reminder of the gulf which separated the academy professionals–like Huhn–from Naval ROTC amateurs–like Sam.

    Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn was slightly older than Sam, in his mid-thirties, but he looked younger when he smiled and older when he scowled–which was more often the case. Between his height of five-six, spindly arms, and the start of a middle-age paunch, the executive officer was not physically impressive, but he somehow managed an intimidating presence despite that. He shaved his head and, because his sparse eyebrows were a light blond nearly matching his skin tone, he had a pale, hairless look which Sam found vaguely unsettling.

    “I can see this doesn’t sit well with you, Lieutenant Bitka. Your heart’s not in it. What’s the problem?”

    “No problem, sir.”

    “Sure there is. I can see plain as the nose on your face.”

    He leaned back in his desk chair and switched to simply fingering his ring, moving it back and forth with the tip of this thumb. “I know the way we do things in the Navy takes some getting used to, especially for you reservists. They pull you out of nice civilian jobs back home in the United States of North America and stick you out here with a bunch of hard-charging warriors. Let me know what you’re thinking. You have permission to speak freely. In fact, that’s an order.”

    As if to emphasize this new familiarity, he smiled–a broad smile as full of small off-white teeth as it was of professed warmth.

    In his seven years in the civilian corporate sector Sam had several times been told by superiors to speak freely, but they had never meant it, any more than Lieutenant Commander Huhn meant it now. But this was different. This was the Navy, and an order from a superior officer here carried the weight of law, or at least so Sam told himself.

    “Come on, Bitka, spit it out.”

    Sam’s heart beat faster and he took a breath.

    “Well, sir … I think this is exactly the sort of chicken shit that makes people hate the Navy.”

    For a moment Huhn froze. Sam expected his superior’s face to redden, but instead it lost color–a bad sign. Huhn slowly leaned forward and placed his hands on his desk, palms down and fingers spread.

    “Chicken shit? You think maintaining proper order on deployment is chicken shit?”

    “No, sir. But there are two sexual liaisons going on among commissioned officers of Puebla’s wardroom, including your protégé Lieutenant Goldjune, and every man and woman on this boat below the rank of ensign knows it.”

    “How do they know it?” Huhn demanded.

    “A destroyer’s a small boat, sir. Hard for anything to go on and nobody notice. You want to make a point? Come down hard on the officers. The enlisted personnel will get the message loud and clear.”

    Huhn slowly stood and leaned forward, the knuckles of his tightly balled fists resting on the desk top.

    “Larry Goldjune is one of the most promising young officers I’ve ever served with. You wouldn’t understand this, Mister Bitka, but the Navy’s in his blood. His father Jake is a rear admiral in BuShips and his uncle Cedrick is in line to be the next chief of naval operations. If you think I’m going to blemish Larry’s career with a reprimand for something like this, you don’t know the United States Navy.”

    Sam was pretty sure he did know the United States Navy, but he did not say that, either.

    “Have it your way, sir. But if you make me come down on my enlisted personnel for doing what you’re winking at among officers, they will despise us, and they will be absolutely right.”



    “I-I’m the goddamned executive officer of this boat! You can’t talk to me like that!”

    “Am I to assume then, sir, that your direct order to speak freely has been rescinded?”

    Huhn glared at him for several long seconds before shaking his head in disgust.

    “Get out of my sight!”

    “Aye, aye, sir.”

    Out in the corridor Sam paused and with trembling hands checked his bio-monitor, to see if he was in danger of a stroke, or perhaps a heart attack. To his surprise they registered almost normal. Well, he had only been following orders.

    The broad and warmly lit corridor rose up and away from him to either side, and even though he was used to the optical illusion created by the rotating habitat wheel of the carrier USS Hornet, today it took on an unpleasant significance. No matter which way he turned, sooner or later he would end up back here. For a moment he felt dizzy, but he knew that was simply the coriolis effect of the habitat wheel’s rotation. Its hundred-meter radius was not enough to keep his inner ear from noticing his feet moving slightly faster than his head.

    He took the four steps over to the opposite wall and stood at the broad “window.” It wasn’t a window, of course. It was simply a smart wall keyed to show the view aft.

    The carrier USS Hornet stretched over half a kilometer astern from the habitat wheels, terminating in the intricate lattice-like crossings and re-crossings of the interstellar jump drive generator, softly glowing and sparkling against the pitch black of deep space. Between the habitat wheels and the engineering spaces aft, a dozen black vessels clung to the carrier’s gray hull in three rows, like sticks of dynamite around the torso of a suicide bomber. One of those was his destroyer, USS Puebla. He waited until the rotation of the wheel brought it into view. Aside from the blocky low-contrast gray hull number, DDR-11, it was indistinguishable from the others.

    Each one a hundred-forty-meter-long dart, the DDRs were austere, angular, and slab-sided to reduce radar reflection, built for battle and little else. The lack of an interstellar jump drive in the destroyers, and the subsequent need for a large ship to carry them from star to star, officially reduced them to the status of “boats,” as opposed to star ships, but they were dangerous boats.

    They weren’t large enough to have their own habitat wheels, so in transit the crews lived in Hornet. Even with exercise, crews in prolonged zero gee began suffering from bone density loss and muscle atrophy within six months, but more serious were the effects of intracranial hypertension which began showing up in half that time, sometimes less. One thing a century and a half of space travel had made clear: gravity wasn’t a luxury.

    The sight aft was spectacular and chilling at the same time. Sam found it hard to accept this massive ship and its deadly cargo–so cold and inhuman in appearance–as a work of man. He had stood here and looked often, and had gotten used to this strange mix of emotions, in part because he knew he did not have to make a lasting peace with it. He was a reservist, activated for a three-year hitch due to the current emergency. In a little less than two years all this would just be a strange memory, raw material for stories told at cocktail parties, and even now, looking out at the disturbingly beautiful jump drive and the deadly destroyer riders, he knew he would be unable to recapture this strange unsettled feeling later. He would remember that he had felt such a thing, he would remember the words he had used to describe it to himself, but the actual feeling would elude him.

    Sam stood closer to the smart wall to let a squad of twelve Marines in PT gear jog past in formation. Trust the jarheads to be getting ready for a possible fight when everyone else had other things on their minds. As he stood there watching them move away and up the outside of the wheel’s curve, the smart posters on the wall chatted quietly to him about post-enlistment education and employment, and about destination resorts for his next liberty which were guaranteed to be romantic, exciting, picturesque, and restful–all somehow at the same time.

    “I sure hope you guys are right,” he said to the posters,



    Several hundred thousand kilometers from where USS Hornet and its twelve destroyer riders continued their long approach toward K’tok, the uBakai heavy cruiser KBk Five One Seven coasted behind the cover of its thermal shroud on a converging course. Unlike Humans, no Varoki navy gave its warships names–a practice widely disdained as foolish and sentimental. Ships were simply inanimate pieces of machinery, and to think otherwise was evidence of clouded judgment.

    In the cruiser’s fleet tactical center–low-ceilinged, crowded, and dimly lit except for the glow of the tactical displays–the access hatch hissed open and Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker For the Enemy, what the Humans called a military intelligence officer, entered his admiral’s comparatively spacious office. The admiral continued working, absorbed by the smart display on his desktop. Nuvaash examined him again, searching for some additional clue to the man who carried all their fates in his pocket.

    Admiral Tyjaa e-Lapeela was of no more than average height for a Varoki, although a Human would still have to look up at him. His hairless iridescent skin gleamed in the lamplight and his broad, leaf-like ears for the moment rested back against his head, but not tightly so. Part of the skin on the left side of his face was discolored, remnant of a burn he had sustained during the failed military coup a year earlier. Most senior officers associated with the coup–those who had survived–had been retired or imprisoned. Nuvaash did not know how e-Lapeela had avoided a similar fate. As the admiral read from the screen, Nuvaash noticed the tips of his ears tremble slightly in relish.

    The admiral nodded to himself as he finished reading the report and looked up at Nuvaash. He reached out his hand, palm up, and curled his fingers–long even for a Varoki–in summons.

    “Come closer, Nuvaash. I have read your threat assessment. It is quite thoughtful. The inclusion of recent Human warship traffic near the outer gas giant of their primary is an imaginative gauge of their ability to reinforce their forward fleet elements on short notice.”

    “Thank you, Admiral. I live to serve.”

    “Of course, as do I.” e-Lapeela leaned back and gestured to the chair across the desk. “Please, sit. I see you have served as a liaison officer to several Human fleets. I once did as well. Did you know I also began my career as a Speaker for the Enemy?”

    “Your public service record mentioned that, Admiral.”

    “And as a conscientious Speaker, you learned what you could about your new fleet commander. I expected nothing less.” The admiral fell silent for a moment and shifted slightly in his chair. Nuvaash sensed that the conversational preliminaries were complete.

    “Nuvaash, we are about to embark upon an undertaking of enormous danger, but also of historic significance. You understand that. You have read the plan for First Action.”

    Yes, Nuvaash had read the plan for First Action–a euphemism for the surprise opening shot in the first interstellar war in Cottohazz history. What he could not understand was why? Why now? Why here at K’tok? Why risk tearing asunder the entire fabric of the Cottohazz, the stellar commonwealth which the Varoki had labored so long to assemble and maintain? What could be worth all of that?

    The admiral nodded, as if knowing the unspoken question.

    “You know our history, but take a moment to consider its grand sweep. Three hundred years ago we Varoki learned the secret of the jump drive and began exploring the stars. Every sentient race we found, we added to our Cottohazz as equals. We are not conquerors, Nuvaash. All that we have retained for ourselves is the secret of the jump drive, although we license it to the others. Our laws, and other tangible measures, protect its secret, but within those limitations it is theirs to use.”

    Nuvaash knew all of that, of course, but he sensed e-Lapeela was laying the groundwork for something else. The ‘other tangible measures’ he had mentioned were the deadly anti-tamper devices which effectively kept anyone but the manufacturers from examining the interior of the sealed jump drive components, a so-far effective way of preventing reverse-engineering.



    “The other four races we contacted have been content with the arrangement,” the admiral continued. “The Humans, though…” The admiral paused and shook his head. “You know them. They are like children who never grow out of their questioning phase. ‘What is this? How does that work? Why can’t I see that? Why can’t we manufacture this ourselves? Why? Why? Why?‘”

    Nuvaash knew it was so. He had experienced it many times but did not find it as annoying as did the admiral. Still, he nodded in sympathetic agreement.

    “But mostly,” the admiral continued, “they want to know the secret of the jump drive–our most closely guarded secret, something which only a handful of Varoki even know.”

    “But others have wanted to know as well, Admiral. We have always prevented it.”

    “Yes, we always have. The intellectual property covenants make scientific research along those lines already explored economically fruitless, as the Varoki houses which own the core knowledge own any discovery based on it. Every member state agrees to this as a condition of access to the jump drive itself. But the Humans persist.

    “When Human research firms began making dangerous progress, Varoki trading houses bought them up and redirected the research, as we have done elsewhere, but the Humans persist. Now there are private Human charitable foundations dedicated to pure scientific research–with no hope of commercial gain. Their curiosity is inexhaustible and relentless.”

    Nuvaash knew that as well. He had never found it anything but interesting and sometimes admirable. Now he began to understand the potential threat it posed.

    “But even if they discover the underlying science, commercially it will still belong to the Varoki trading houses,” he said.

    “Not if the Humans withdraw from the Cottohazz,” the admiral answered. “Once they discover the secret on their own, what is to keep them? And if they withdraw, what is to keep the other races with us? The stable and peaceful star-spanning civilization we have built will unravel and the Humans–aggressive, violent, and impulsive–will end up our rivals, and in all likelihood eventually our masters.”

    Nuvaash felt his skin flush with fear as he listened to the admiral, fear of the future the admiral prophesied but also a more immediate one–fear of where the idea that war was the only road to peace might take them.

    “It must not come to that, Nuvaash. It will not come to that.

    “This war, which starts here in the K’tok system, will not end here. It will end with Human fleets swept from space, Human cities in ruins, and the Human spirit broken forever. But before it can end, it must begin.”



    An hour later Sam Bitka sat over coffee in Puebla’s “away” wardroom in Hornet’s habitat wheel, with Lieutenant Julia Washington–“Jules” to her friends–and Lieutenant Moe Rice. Moe, the largest and most heavily muscled member of Puebla’s crew, a former offensive lineman from Texas A&M, made Jules’s diminutive figure look out of scale next to him. They were his two best friends on Puebla, in Jules’s case maybe even more than that.

    “Oh, Sam,” she said. “Commander Huhn can ruin your career. How could you be so stupid?”

    “Boy, howdy,” Moe added.

    Sam laughed. “I think it must be a gift.”

    Jules sipped her coffee, but her green-flecked brown eyes stayed on him. She had good eyes in a good face, clear-featured and softened by her thick curly black hair cut short, but not the buzz cuts popular with a lot of starship crews, something called a pixie cut. Her café con crema complexion–classic American hybrid–contrasted sharply with the white of her officer’s shipsuit. Moe was much darker, the only black Jewish cowboy Sam had ever known

    “He can’t hurt my career back at DP.” Sam said. “Oh, you mean here. Well, the thing I figured out today is I’m bullet-proof. See, I don’t really have a Navy career to worry about. Do my job and stay out of prison for two more years and I’m out of here. Nobody back in The World is ever going to read the fine print in my fitness reports.”

    That was something he’d realized. He really was bullet-proof, as least as far as Del Huhn was concerned. Sam had a good career, just starting to turn into a damned good career, waiting for him back home. It took him seven years with DP–Dynamic Paradigms, LLC–to work his way up through middle management, but he had just finished the company’s Emerging Leaders program, the first step to executive service. Activation of his reserve commission had interrupted that, but only for three years. His corporate mentor had assured him it would look very good on his resume when he came back. It would set him apart. To rise, you needed to stand out from the herd.

    “In the meantime,” Sam added, “I’m just not going to worry about Del Huhn any more, that’s all. Besides, I got him so pissed off at me I think he forgot about Menzies and Delacroix, which is good. Those two he could hurt.”

    “We call that drawing fire,” Jules said, “and you know how well that usually works out in the tactical exercises–for the draw-er.”

    “Bullet-proof, remember?”

    “Can you reason with him, Moe?” Jules said.

    “Reason?” Moe said and shook his head. “I’ll tell you what, if stupid ever goes to ninety bucks a barrel, I want the drillin’ rights on Sam’s head.”

    “Very funny,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you something else I figured out today. Jules, I’ve been riding you guys in the tactical department like a whip-wielding overseer–updating squadron contingency planning and SOPs, running drills, memorizing Varoki naval manuals and ship energy signatures. And now I’m wondering why.”

    “Because you’re Puebla’s Tac Boss, and it’s your job,” she answered. “And I think you’re right.”

    Sam shook his head. “I’m just a dumb reservist. Look at the regulars, the Annapolis grads–other than you, I mean. Goldjune’s looking for an open slot on the admiral’s staff and Captain Rehnquist is getting his resume together to retire into a cushy job with a DC defense lobbying firm.”

    “Nest featherers,” Moe said, his voice heavy with disdain.

    Sam shrugged.

    “Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around. And ever since Jules rebuffed his amorous advances Del Huhn just wants to be Bed-Check-Charley. Every regular officer on this boat above the rank of lieutenant junior grade has their head full of everything except getting ready for a war.

    “So what do they know that I don’t? The odds-on favorite answer is: damned near everything.”

    “Ain’t wrong there,” Moe agreed.

    Jules sipped her coffee and thought about that for a while before answering.

    “So, fewer drills?”

    She didn’t look happy about the prospect. Sam knew Jules took pride in the ‘missile monkeys,’ in her weapons division, took pride in their efficiency and professionalism, but also in the sense of esprit she’d fostered in them. There wasn’t a sharper, more square-away division on Puebla, and every one knew it–especially her missile monkeys.

    “I got the word right before I talked to Huhn: we decouple from Hornet in three days. Our destroyer division’s taking point, right out front, the ‘position of honor,’ somebody called it.”

    Moe snorted at that but Jules straightened slightly in her chair and her eyes brightened.

    “So, yeah, drills are cancelled until we’re separated. Between now and then we’ll have our hands full just getting the crew moved over and settled in, and making sure all the systems are nominal. Tactical department’s got a nice edge and we’ll start running cold drills out there to keep it, once we’re on station. But I’ll tell you something, near as I can tell I’m the only department head taking this whole imminent war thing seriously. I guess that makes me either the smartest guy in the Navy or the dumbest.”

    “Pretty sure I know the answer to that one,” Moe said.

    Jules glanced at Moe and then back at Sam, and she smiled, showing even white teeth with one crooked incisor which he suddenly and inexplicably found very sexy.

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