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Chain of Command: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 20:49 EDT



2 December 2133 (seventeen days later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Later, Sam would decide it had been a mistake to accelerate, but later still he would realize the captain had made the best call he could based on what he knew at the time. Captains sometimes just don’t know enough to know what the right call is, but they have to make one anyway.

    But that all came later.

    Sam woke to bedlam–harsh, repetitive, mechanical bleating, deafeningly loud, which made no sense and nearly drowned out the voice trying to be heard. His body responded before his mind did, hands tearing open the zero-gee restraints on his sleeping cubby, feet kicking free first. His right arm became tangled in the restraint netting as his brain separated the sounds and made sense of them: the regular gongs of the call to general quarters, the whooping siren of the hull breach alarm, and the klaxon warning of imminent acceleration. He had never heard all three at the same time.

    “General Quarters. General Quarters. All hands to battle stations,” the calm but insistent recorded female voice said over the boat’s intercom. “Hull breach. Hull breach. All hands rig for low pressure. Warning. Warning. All hands prepare for acceleration. General Quarters. General Quarters,” the voice continued in its synthetic loop.

    Suddenly there was gravity, enough to turn the rear wall of the stateroom into floor and drop Sam’s feet against it. That would be the first pair of MPD thrusters. He untangled his right arm as the second and third pairs kicked in, upping the gravity to a half gee.

    He yanked the helmet from the locker beside his sleeping cubby, now a narrow bunk bay set into the wall and parallel to the deck, and he sealed the collar of the white shipsuit–short for ship environment suit–he’d slept in. He prepared to catch himself when the acceleration stopped, but it didn’t, so he pulled open the stateroom hatch and sprinted down the trunk corridor to the hatch to the boat’s spine and the access tube leading forward. “Sprinted” was a misnomer; he used the low-gravity fast shuffle, the only way to cover ground quickly at a half gee without his head slamming into the overhead. He ducked past half a dozen crew on their way to their own battle stations. The acceleration cut out as he approached one of the main bulkheads and he sailed the rest of the way, colliding with two ratings and sliding past them.

    “Mr. Bitka!” one of them called out. “What’s up?”

    “Get to your battle station, Cummings. Your section leader will tell you.”

    If he knew, Sam thought. He hadn’t kept exact count but he guessed the acceleration burn had lasted at least forty seconds, perhaps more, and the thought made him sweat. At full thrust the Puebla’s low-signature MPD thrusters had less than two minutes worth of juice in the energy storage system. Whatever was going on, it was bad. The General Quarters and Hull Breach alarms continued to sound but at least the acceleration klaxon had fallen silent. With his free hand he snagged the handhold above the bulkhead hatch as he nearly collided with it. The sudden stop at an awkward angle wrenched his back but he launched himself through the hatch, into the spinal transit tube, and forward toward the bridge.

    The tube itself was square and three meters across, but was also interrupted by half-bulkheads jutting out from the sides, closing off the port half or starboard half of the tube, alternating back and forth every three meters for the length of the boat. It made travel through the tube tedious in zero gee, but it also kept the tube from becoming a hundred-meter-deep shaft of death when the boat accelerated.

    Within twenty or thirty meters he encountered a mass of men and women, mostly in blue enlisted personnel shipsuits but with a couple in the khaki of chief petty officers.

    “Make way,” Sam called.

    The crew closest to him looked back, saw his white shipsuit, and one of them shouted, “Officer. Make way!”

    Each half-bulkhead also included an extendable hatch which could completely close the shaft, sealing it in the event of a hull breach. Sam moved forward and several hands helped pull him to the extended and sealed bulkhead hatch, with flashing red lights around its perimeter: low atmospheric pressure on the other side. As he watched they lights changed to solid red: vacuum.

    Surgically embedded commlinks included a limited visual menu controlled with eye pressure. Sam squinted up the boat’s directory and pinged Damage Control.

    Damage Control. Go, a harassed-sounding female voice answered inside his head.

    “Lieutenant Bitka aft of frame fifty-five with a sealed hatch and a vacuum warning forward,” he reported.

    Wait one, she said and for a few seconds the connection went mute. Then the brusque voice returned. A-gang on the way. Do not open the hatch until they arrive. Acknowledge.

    “Bitka acknowledged,” he answered and cut the connection. His commlink vibrated softly almost at once. He opened the command channel and the captain’s voice filled his head.

    Mister Bitka, this is Captain Rehnquist. I understand there’s a block at frame fifty-five.

    “Yes sir. I’m here with about a dozen other crew trying to get forward to our primary battle stations.”

    Understood. We have maneuvering watch personnel here to cover the bridge stations, and Lieutenant Washington will ride the TAC One chair. Send the crew aft to their secondary stations. You go to the auxiliary bridge and help Lieutenant Commander Huhn.

    “Aye, aye, sir.”

    So Jules would ride the TAC One chair in the bridge. Whatever was happening, she could handle it as well as Sam could. He passed the captain’s order on to the nearby crew and made his own way aft to the auxiliary bridge.

    Puebla’s auxiliary bridge was only half-manned by the time Sam got there. It was a smaller, cramped version of the main bridge. A smart wall comprised the forward bulkhead, able to display any combination of sensor and instrument readings. The nine crew stations were built into the bulkhead three meters back.

    The dorsal row consisted of the Tac One chair to the right, Communications to the left, and the command chair in the center, with Huhn buckling himself in. The broader second tier consisted of two more Tac chairs on the right with Petty Officer Third Elise Delacroix at Tactical Three, the hatch giving access to the central communication trunk in the center, and the two maneuvering station chairs on the left, with Ensign Barb Lee at the helm. The bottom row, usually called “the pits,” held another empty Tac chair to the right side of the access trunk tunnel and engineering petty officer second Rachel Karlstein at boat systems station to the left.

    “What are you doing here, Bitka?” Huhn snapped.



    “Captain’s orders, sir. Blockage at frame fifty-five, so people are reshuffling their stations. Jules is sitting TAC One up front.” Sam pulled the folding workstation over his midsection and locked it in place after strapping himself into the chair. He plugged the life support umbilical from his shipsuit into the work station socket, slid the helmet cover down over his face, and checked to make sure his suit was sealed and had positive air flow, in case they lost pressure in this compartment as well. All his internal system telltales showed green and he slid his helmet cover back up.

    “Damage report,” Huhn demanded, now ignoring Sam.

    “Umm … multiple hull breaches forward and amidships,” Karlstein answered, her eyes flickering across the different data feeds and flashing red indicator lights at her workstation. “We’ve lost atmosphere on decks one, four, five, and nine, as well as parts of number one crew bay. All of the compromised spaces are sealed and pumped down to vacuum. No casualties reported yet. We’re losing hydrogen from tanks eleven, twelve and fourteen through seventeen, and have some O2 contamination, but it’s under control.”

    “How bad’s the hydrogen loss?” Huhn asked.

    “Not critical. Cumulative loss rate looks like about twenty liters per minute and dropping,” she said. “Automatic self-sealing is working. The thermal shroud is compromised as well.”

    “Christ, we’re a sitting duck without that shroud!” Huhn said. “Bitka, where are your other people?”

    Sam looked up from his operations display, which was blank except for the faint thermal signatures of the other eleven destroyers in the squadron and the one larger signature of USS Hornet, the squadron carrier.

    “There’s Ramirez,” he said, as Petty Officer Second Ron Ramirez glided through the hatch and toward Tactical Four. Neither of the two weapons specialists had shown up yet. Sam punched the manning roster up on his display.

    “Sir, Smith and Chief Patel are probably coming from the forward crew bay and if it’s sealed they’ll have to cycle through the lock,” Sam answered. “Ramirez, we don’t have any sensors active so move weaponry to your board for now. Guns up. Delacroix can handle the passive sensors,

    “Aye, aye, sir. Guns up.”

    “Sir, do we know what hit us?” Sam asked Huhn.

    Huhn didn’t answer for a moment, probably listening on his embedded commlink to the bridge command channel. Then he shook his head. “Negative. No energy spike, no radiation, no thermal plume anywhere nearby. Just impact shock, holes, and interior spalling, so something small and solid–a bunch of somethings.”

    Sam scanned back through the recorded integrated operational displays to a minute before the impact and saw nothing.

    Petty Officer First Kramer, their communications specialist, glided through the hatch and toward her station. She looked shaken.

    “Where the hell you been?” Huhn barked.

    “Sorry, sir. We lost pressure. I had to wait a cycle to get through the crew bay air lock.”

    “Didn’t you tell them you needed to get to a critical battle station?”

    “The casualties had priority, sir.”

    “Casualties? What casualties? I thought you said there weren’t any, Karlberg,” Huhn said, his voice angrier.

    “It’s Karlstein, sir,” she answered, “and none reported so far.”

    Huhn turned back to his own display. “What the hell’s the medtech doing?”

    Probably tending the wounded, Sam thought. Of course, anyone admitted to sick bay would be scanned into the system already, but until the medtech made an assessment there wouldn’t be a report.

    Nobody on board Puebla had ever been under fire in a space battle before, including the Captain and Exec, but Sam had still expected to look to the regular officers as models of how he should behave. Sam wasn’t sure Huhn was giving all that good an example so far.

    “One KIA,” Karlstein said, her voice flat. Sam’s vision became more focused, the colors on his monitors a little more vivid, and for a moment he tasted metal.

    Puebla’s complement was only fourteen officers and eighty-one enlisted personnel. Now one of them was dead? Which one? After five months he knew all of them by sight, all but a few in the engineering department by name. He shook his head. He’d find out later; for now he had to focus on the job.

    Unbidden, an image of Jules came to him. At least the bridge was okay. He’d have liked to say something to her, although he couldn’t think what he’d actually say if he had the chance. “Hey, you okay?” That sounded stupid even to him.

    She’d be doing fine. Since he met her she’d been eager to prove herself, even more so once her promotion from ensign to lieutenant junior grade came through six weeks earlier. Sam had a more cautious approach to demanding situations, not that that mattered now; whatever sort of trouble this was, it had found them.

    The boat shuddered and the feed indicator on Sam’s tactical display flickered from “slave” to “direct.”

    “Multiple hits forward!” Karlstein called out, her voice rising in excitement. “Deck two now depressurizing. Hydrogen loss rate up to fifty-four–no, sixty-one liters per minute.”

    “Sir, I’ve lost the bridge feed on my ops display,” Sam said. “I’ve still got a feed but it’s direct from the sensors now and updated locally.”

    “Same here, sir,” Ensign Lee reported from the Maneuvering One station, followed by a chorus from the others.

    “Yeah, I lost the commlink to the command channel,” Huhn said. “Kramer, get those internals back up.”

    “Sir?” Kramer asked.

    “I’m on it, sir,” Karlstein said before Huhn had a chance to answer.

    Petty Officer Delacroix in the Tactical Two seat below Sam turned her head back and raised her dark eyebrows. Sam frowned at her and shook his head, which drove the petty officer’s attention back to her screens, but her unasked question was obvious. What was Huhn thinking? Kramer’s station was for boat-to-external communications and vice versa. All the internals ran through Karlstein’s Boat Systems board. The Exec knew that.

    Sam put that out of his mind. His job was the tactical situation, and right now it was out of their control and getting worse. They had to do something to regain some initiative, and quickly.

    “Sir, something’s hitting us and I still got nothing on thermals or HRVS optics,” Sam said. “I want to go active with radar.”

    “Active? Are you insane? Everyone in five hundred light seconds will see us.”

    “I think they already know we’re here. This feels like those pellet cluster things the uBakai were supposedly deploying. Intel called it ‘buckshot.’ You remember the briefing on them? If the launch vessel isn’t close enough to pick up, we should at least be able to detect incoming pellets.”

    “Permission denied, and it’s the captain’s call anyway. Karlstein, any luck on the command channel?”

    “Negative, sir. Looks like whatever hit up there cut the data and comm feeds. I’ve alerted Engineering and they have a damage control party headed there now.”

    It might have cut the hard feeds, Sam thought, but everyone’s embedded commlinks up there should still be working. Why weren’t they?



    “Cha-cha has gone active with a drone!” Delacroix reported from the Tactical Three seat beside him, and Sam saw it on his own screen as well. USS Oaxaca, the command vessel for their four-boat destroyer division, nicknamed Cha-cha, had just launched a sensor drone and turned on its active radar.

    “Multiple radar echoes,” Delacroix continued, “small projectiles incoming, bearing zero degrees relative. Range nine thousand kilometers and closing fast. Very fast.”

    The projectiles were coming on the exact opposite heading. All the captain’s burn had accomplished was to add about two hundred meters per second to their collision velocity. Sam checked the calculated closing rate: 97,000 kilometers per hour. Jesus Christ, that was twenty-seven kilometers a second! They’d better get out of the way quick. He set a course intersect timer.

    “Three hundred thirty seconds to impact,” he said.

    Ensign Lee at Maneuvering One began working the current and projected courses. “Best evasion track is ninety degrees relative and flat. Permission to align the boat for burn.”

    “Negative! It’s the captain’s call,” Huhn answered.

    Ensign Lee, the only reservist line officer other than Sam, turned and looked at Huhn and then at Sam, her eyes questioning. Her face was round and fine-featured, chin recessed, mouth small, eyes always open wide, and her nose was incongruously large and wedge-shaped, which gave her the look of a slightly startled bird, even more so just then. She was right, though. Sam was sitting TAC One. It was his job to speak up.

    “Sir, you’re in command until we’ve got comms to the bridge. We need to get the hell out of that cloud’s way.”

    “Kramer, get me the division commander,” Huhn said. That would be Captain Bonaventure aboard USS Oaxaca.

    “Incoming text from Cha-Cha now, sir,” Kramer answered from the Comm Station “Message reads: All red stingers, evade. Seventy-eight degrees relative, angle on the bow ninety, forty-second MPD full burn. Expedite. Signed Red Stinger Six Actual. End message.”

    “Aligning the boat,” Ensign Lee said immediately, punching the acceleration warning klaxon. Huhn visibly started in his command station as it sounded. Sam saw him open his mouth to speak but then hesitate and close it again. For just a moment Sam was sure he had been about to order Lee to belay the alignment. Then Sam felt the side-ways acceleration as Lee turned the boat’s orientation with the attitude control thrusters. After a dozen or more seconds he felt the acceleration switch direction, begin slowing them to the new orientation. Sam played with the range adjustment and resolution on his tactical display just to keep his hands busy, waiting for the boat to finally settle on its new track, feeling the precious seconds bleed away.

    “Boat aligned,” Lee finally announced. “Full burn.”

    Again Sam noticed she didn’t ask for permission. He felt himself pushed back into his acceleration rig from the first thruster pair, then rapidly climbing to a half gee once all six thrusters kicked in, roaring out 8,500 tons of thrust for forty seconds.

    “Two hundred five seconds to impact,” Sam said when the thrusters fell silent and they were weightless again. A plot of the course change due to the burn showed they’d have displaced forty kilometers laterally from their former position by the time the cloud got to them. Forty kilometers wasn’t much in deep space, where they usually measured distance in light seconds, each of which was about three hundred thousand kilometers.

    If the intel briefing had been right, the pellets in the cloud were small, maybe not much bigger than sand, and the search radar couldn’t track individual particles that size, just the collective reflection of a whole bunch of them. That made it hard to tell how wide the cloud was and exactly how far they were from its leading edge. The shipboard tactical system had made some assumptions about likely dispersion and had predicted they’d avoid the likely danger zone, but assumptions weren’t facts.

    How had a cloud that small, relatively speaking–actually three of them in succession–happened to hit them in all this big black vacuum, and on an exact reciprocal course? Whoever lived through this had better give that some hard thought.

    “One hundred sixty seconds to impact.”

    They sat in silence, feeling the burden of time’s glacial passage, waiting to empirically discover their fates. As they did so, Chief Petty Officer Abhay Patel glided through the hatch and wordlessly strapped into the Tactical Two chair. Sam nodded to him.

    Maybe they should have burned longer, but for Puebla that would have meant emptying their energy storage system. They’d have had to use the direct fusion thruster to get back on course. Everyone in the star system would see that. Maybe everyone already knew where they were. Maybe they all should have just used the direct fusion thrusters and poured on two gees of acceleration for the full two minutes they had until impact. Maybe.

    One thing occurred to Sam: if the pellet cloud hit them now, it would hit them broadside, and that would do a lot more damage. Huhn didn’t look as if he was thinking things through very well, and it was Sam’s job as Tac One to remind him.

    “Commander Huhn, I recommend we re-orient the boat nose-on to the angle of attack. The forward micro-meteor shield will give us some protection.”

    Huhn jerked a bit in his acceleration rig and looked at Sam, eyes wide.

    “Sir, shall I order Ensign Lee to reorient the boat?” Sam asked.

    Huhn stared at him blankly. His eyes blinked.

    “Yes, sir,” Sam said. “Ensign Lee, reorient the boat to our previous heading.”

    ̶#8220;Aye, aye, sir,” she said and sounded the boat-wide acceleration klaxon.

    “One hundred to impact,” Sam said as he felt the Puebla begin to turn.

    Why wasn’t Jules or anyone else on the bridge answering their commlinks?

    She and Sam had hit it off almost as soon as he came on board. They were officers and both understood their responsibilities–she probably better than he–so they hadn’t crossed any lines, hadn’t broken any rules. Maybe they should have.

    The radar image of the pellet cloud disappeared when it crossed the 1700 kilometer range band and snuffed out ChaCha’s drone and its active radar. Sam’s screen went back to displaying just the passive thermal images of the nearby friendlies.

    “Sixty seconds to impact.”

    It was funny. His taste in women usually tended toward the buxom, but Jules was thin, wiry even. But people aren’t just types, are they? You think you know what you want, where your life is going, and then someone comes out of nowhere and just surprises the hell out of you. She had this amazing smile.

    “Twenty seconds to impact.”

    “Damage control party has reached the bridge,” Karlstein reported, her voice strained. “Multiple casualties.”

    Sam breathed in slowly.

    “Impact in five, four, three …”

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