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Chain of Command: Chapter Three

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



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

    “She’s over there, Mister Bitka,” the medtech told him, “with the others. Ensign Waring and Chief Nguyen, too.”

    Sam turned and saw the seven gray body bags floating softly in zero gee, nuzzling against each other as if for comfort. They were tethered to a fitting at the aft end of the wardroom, which had become a temporary casualty dressing station. The air had been vacuumed and filtered now, but two hours earlier it must have been like hell in here. The circular stains on the bulkheads and walls bore mute testimony to globules of blood having floated in the air like a child’s soap bubbles.

    “Sir,” the medic said, “if it means anything, she never felt a thing. There was a lot of high speed fragmentation when they took that hit, most of it on the starboard side of the bridge. I know it’s none of my business, but … well, if I were you, I wouldn’t look inside. Remember her how she was last time you saw her. I mean …there was a lot of fragmentation.”

    Sam had already seen Captain Rehnquist, still alive but missing his right leg below the knee, right arm at the shoulder, and his lower jaw, nose, right cheek, and eye. Rehnquist had already gone into a cold sleep capsule to wait until they could get him to a hospital and start reconstructive surgery. Sam looked away from the bags and shuddered, then nodded. He wanted to thank the medic but no words came, so he just patted him on the back.

    The medtech went back to his patients and Sam floated to the gray composite bags, found the one with the tag reading “Washington, Lieutenant Julia K, Tactical Department#8221; and closed his eyes.

    “Hey, Jules,” he said very softly, “How did this happen? It doesn’t make sense. Little over a year ago I was back on Earth in civies, happy as a clam. Now here I am. Here you are.

    “One year. That was a pretty quick change from weekend spaceman to head of a department, but I wasn’t worried. I had you backing me up. Now peoples’ lives depend on me making the right call, on my own, and I wonder how ready for all this I really am. Maybe everyone’s wondering that, huh?”

    His embedded commlink vibrated. He opened the circuit and heard the voice of Senior Chief Petty Officer Constancia Navarro, the Chief of the Boat, COB for short.

    Lieutenant Bitka, all department heads are to report to the executive officer’s cabin.

    “On my way, COB,” he replied. Sam touched Jules’s bag one last time. “Goodbye, friend. God, I’ll miss you.” He pushed off toward the hatch, grateful for someone having ordered him to do something, anything.



    He paused in the main access trunk to let another damage control party hurry past going forward, where most of the damage had been suffered. The XO’s quarters were just aft of the wardroom and when Sam got there the stateroom already held three other officers besides Lieutenant Commander Huhn.

    Sam had never been inside Huhn’s stateroom and as he glanced around he was struck by its sterile, institutional feel. Most of that was due to the smart walls being turned off, showing nothing but bare gray composite panels. What sorts of pictures or background did Huhn normally display on his walls? Or was this it? Maybe so.

    He nodded to the others as he glided in the hatch and grabbed a padded handhold to anchor himself next to Lieutenant Moe Rice, the supply officer and the only other reservist in the room. Rice looked at Sam with eyes wider than normal and nodded a sad greeting. Jules had been his friend as well.

    Lieutenants Marina Filipenko and Rose Hennessey floated side-by-side against the opposite wall. Most of the others had zero-gee drink bulbs, but Filipenko had a “bat-rat”, a battle ration in a self-heating bag. She took a bite, pausing first to sniff the bag’s dispenser valve. Sam had noticed that habit of hers before: she always sniffed each bite of food before eating it.

    She was short and slender, but Sam knew from working out with her that her leg muscles were like steel springs–a legacy of growing up in the 1.1 gees of Bronstein’s World, the only Human extra-solar colony. Now she looked at him with that eyes-a-little-too-wide expression which always made him uncomfortable. Not that she singled him out–she looked at everyone that way, as if trying to see past their skin and into their souls, trying to solve the mystery of their existence with one good, long stare.

    Hennessey, the chief engineer, was a regular officer, but her degree was from MIT instead of Annapolis, and her solid build, ruddy complexion, and buzz-cut reddish-blonde hair, contrasted with Filipenko’s slighter physique and paler palette.

    Huhn was in his sleep cubby with the covers wrapped around him. He looked like a cocooned caterpillar to Sam. What kind of way was that to conduct a meeting? Sam looked quickly back at Moe Rice and raised his eyebrows slightly in question. Moe shrugged.

    “I see Lieutenant Bitka has finally joined us,” Huhn said. “Good of you, considering there’s a goddamned war on.”

    “Yes, sir, I heard the war announcement an hour ago. I came here as soon as I received word of the meeting.”

    “Oh, no hurry,” he answered, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “At least no one higher up the chain of command seems to think there’s any hurry. Do you know when the uBakai turned over their declaration of war to our consulate on K’tok?”

    He looked around at the faces of the other officers–glared at them, his rage barely contained.

    “Seven damned hours ago! Some bureaucratic screw-up. We didn’t get the formal word until fifty seven minutes ago, although an hour before that we got the message loud and clear, didn’t we? That’s for damn sure! My God we’re in the shit.”

    “What’d they go and start a fight for?” Moe Rice asked, looking from face to face in genuine bewilderment.

    “Who knows why leatherheads do anything?” Huhn said.

    “K’tok,” Filipenko said, eyes unfocused, as if she were talking to herself, her fork hesitating half way to her mouth. “That’s the brass ring everybody wants.”

    “Let’s not argue over why,” Hennessey said. “They did it. That’s what counts. So what comes next?”

    Huhn hunched his shoulders and pulled the covers tightly around him.

    “I’m taking command of the boat, effective immediately. Captain is officially off the duty roster. Hell, he’s an icicle down in the med bay. The bad news is we took a lot of damage. Worse news is Hornet couldn’t get out of the way of the particle cloud and the really bad news is she was turned broadside trying to evade when she got hit.”

    He paused and glanced at Sam for a moment and then looked away. Was that a veiled thanks for Sam getting them turned into the pellets or a veiled apology for freezing up himself?

    “Our anti-collision nose armor stopped most of the stuff that hit us, but Hornet’s crippled and the squadron commander was killed. Hornet barely has internal power. Their A-gang is working to get emergency maneuvering and life support up, but even if they do, she’s out of commission for the foreseeable future. Her jump drive’s shot, too, so she’s not going home soon, which means we aren’t either.”

    “Damn! What do we use as a back-up carrier?” Moe Rice asked.

    Huhn’s mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. “I guess they’ll tell us when they figure it out themselves, okay? We’ve got our own problems to worry about, starting with holes in the personnel roster and … well, we’ve got to get organized. Re-organized, I guess. Filipenko, what’s Lieutenant Goldjune’s status?”

    Filipenko looked up sharply as if her mind had been elsewhere. Her white shipsuit was stained–with grease, Sam had first thought, but now that he looked more closely he recognized the stains as dried blood. When they’d taken the hit she had been on the bridge in the communications chair, to the captain’s left, and that was probably his blood on her uniform. It was a miracle she hadn’t been killed or injured. She wrapped her arms across the front of her torso, hugging her shoulders, and shivered, then cleared her throat.

    “The medtech tells me he will be alright. He was on the bridge, was wounded by fragments in the shoulder, and passed out from oxygen starvation when his suit failed, but they got to him quickly enough. I saw him and … the others.” She shuddered again. “He was lucky. The medtechs already have him bandaged and stabilized but they want to keep an eye on him for a few more hours.”

    Sam understood her revulsion. His own brief glimpse of their mutilated captain would inhabit his nightmares for some time. Goldjune had been lucky his chair was on the port side of the bridge; no one on the starboard side–all of them people from Sam’s tactical department– had survived

    “Thank God!” Huhn said, shaking his head. “We’d really be in the shit without Goldjune. I …” Huhn stopped and cleared his throat, then continued in a reedy voice. “I don’t know how I’d run the boat without him.”

    Sam looked at Huhn and tried to match the figure in front of him with the officer who, a little more than two weeks earlier, had described himself as a “hard-charging warrior.”

    Huhn shook himself once, the way a dog shakes off water, took two long deep breaths, and looked up.

    “What shape’s the boat in, Hennessey?”

    Rose Hennessey put a pair of viewer glasses on and gave them a short and to-the-point summary of the damage Puebla had suffered and how far her damage control teams had gotten in repairing the worst of it. They had atmospheric integrity and all fuel leaks had been patched. The thermal shroud was operational again at about 95% efficiency. That struck Sam as a hell of a lot accomplished in only two hours. Beyond that, the drives and life support were operational, although their high resolution visual spectrum–HRVS–optics were still down along with their active radar.

    Hennessey pushed the viewer glasses back up on her head. “Problem is I only got eight EVA-qualified A-gangers, and they can only get so much done on the outside of the hull at one time. I’d like to get back to them as soon as possible.”

    Huhn looked away and frowned. “You got snipes can turn a wrench. I need you here, figuring out what we do next. But I’ll keep it as short as I can. Rice, what’s the final casualty count?”



    Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve others injured but expected to return to duty soon. It was a big bite out of a total crew of ninety-five, but the biggest bite had been out of Sam’s tactical department.

    As if thinking the same thing, Huhn’s gaze settled on Sam

    “Bitka, I don’t know how you’re going to manage the tactical department without Lieutenant Washington. She was a hell of an officer. You lost your senior chief, too, didn’t you? And Waring?”

    Sam looked away and swallowed before answering.

    “Yes, sir. Chief Nguyen was killed on the bridge along with Lieutenant Washington, Ensign Waring, and one of my sensor techs. But our weaponry is up, except for one point defense laser mount. I’d like to get the power ring recharged as soon as possible so we’ve got plenty of juice for the spinal coil gun and lasers, but TAC’s up and running otherwise.”

    The power ring was the boat’s superconducting magnetic energy storage system, or SMESS, wrapped around the boat’s waist like a corset, buried under armor and coolant lines.

    Huhn stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, can you handle the department without your best people? No officers, no senior chief–do you know what you’re doing?”

    Once Sam might have felt a surge of anger or resentment at that, but he looked at Huhn’s scowling face, wrapped in his ridiculous blanket, and he felt nothing: no anger, no resentment, no contempt–nothing. He tried to remember what it had felt like to be intimidated by Huhn, but he could not. He felt detached, withdrawn from everything going on in the room, as if it was happening to someone else. His body was here but his mind–part of it, at any rate–was in the wardroom staring at a floating gray body bag.

    “My two division chiefs are rock-solid sir. Chief Burns is ready to move up to Bull Tac, and he’s got a good machinist first behind him in weapons division to move up to chief.” Sam decided not to mention his candidate for promotion to chief was Joyce Menzies, one of the two petty officers Huhn had argued with him over earlier. “I’ve got a good set of acey-deucies to fill in behind them. We’ll manage, sir.”

    Bull Tac was the unofficial title of the senior chief petty officer in the tactical department, the position Chief Nguyen had held. Acey-deucies were the petty officers first and second class, the men and women who did most of the real work in the boat.

    “I hope to God you’re right,” Huhn said. “We’re going to need your department up to speed where they’re sending us, which is right straight into hell. There’s a combined task force following us in, about six days behind us. It was meant as a show of force, to keep the Varoki from pulling something like this, but it’s too late for that. Now they’re the counterattack force, and we’re riding point for them, all the way down to low orbit around K’Tok. When I said we were in the shit, I meant it. This is definitely Charge of the Light Brigade stuff.”

    Hennessey and Filipenko exchanged a worried look, but again Sam wasn’t sure if they were more worried about the new mission or Huhn.

    “I think somebody better warn the follow-on force to expect the same attack we got hit with,” Sam said.

    “Noted,” Huhn answered and looked away–which was Navy-speak for Who cares what you think?

    “I’m serious,” Sam said. “We need to get a tight beam message to the main task force right away or they’re going to get whacked.”

    “They came in later than we did so they’re in a different intercept corridor,” Huhn said.

    “Doesn’t matter.”

    They all looked at him and Huhn opened his mouth to cut him off but Sam pushed on. “This attack was launched along an exactly reciprocating course track. That’s nearly impossible. There is only one way this attack could be executed.”

    “Oh? So please educate us all, Mister Bitka,” Huhn said.

    “Yes, sir. Buckshot is just inert pellets, so once it’s launched there’s no way to alter its vector. That means the launch vessel has to already be on the correct course. The only practical way to do that would be to leave orbit around K’tok and accelerate into the reciprocal course, but to do that they would have to already know our position and in-coming course. That means the vessel had to leave K’tok orbit after we came out of J-space and began our glide. I bet there’s a departure report somewhere in the intel feeds for the last two weeks.”

    “You mean they had us detected all along?” Filipenko said.

    “Impossible!” Huhn spat.

    “Not if they knew where to point their hi-res optics,” Sam said. “If they have a couple optics platforms out in the asteroid belt we don’t know about, all they have to do is point them at the right spot, look from a couple different angles, and wait for us to occlude a star.”

    “But how would they know where and when to look?” Huhn demanded. “Do you have any idea how enormous the volume of space above and below the plane of the ecliptic is?”

    “Yes, sir, I do. But according to our standard operating procedure, we always enter this star system from above the plane–galactic north–always at the same distance from the orbital plane, and we always do it so that our residual momentum from the final sprint at Bronstein’s World carries us on a zero-burn intercept with K’tok. And we always do it with the same residual momentum so we don’t have to recalculate the intercept problem.”

    “Wait one,” Rose Hennessey said. “You want to unwrap that a little for the benefit of a poor engineer who doesn’t know beans about astrogation?”

    “Boy, howdy,” Moe agreed.

    Sam looked at their blank faces. Even Filipenko, who was supposed to have some background in astrogation, frowned in thought.

    “Sure. The galaxy is a flat spinning disc of stars. There’s no real north or south, up or down, but for purposes of reference, if you’re looking at it from a distance and it looks as if its spinning counter-clockwise, you’re ‘up’, or galactic north of it. If it’s spinning clockwise, you’re galactic south. Got it? Okay.

    “Same with a star system. Over 99% of the matter that makes up a star and its planets, asteroids, all that stuff is concentrated in a very flat disc. The planet orbits, the asteroids, all of them are in that disc, called the plain of the ecliptic. Only stuff that wandered in and got captured later, like some comets, move outside of it.

    “When we jump from star to star, we pop out of J-space into real space. If we come out and some part of the ship is in the same space occupied by, say, a rock the size of a baseball, you get what’s called an ‘annihilation event’.”

    “That sounds bad,” Moe said.

    “Sounds bad, is bad. So we like to do it above or below the star’s plane of the ecliptic, because there’s hardly anything floating around there.

    “When you make a jump you retain whatever momentum you had from before. So we jump here from Bronstein’s World, which has a plane of the ecliptic aligned almost the same as K’Tok’s: both of them angled between thirty and forty degrees off the galactic disc. Before we jump, we accelerate down, stellar south, away from the Bronstein’s World plain of the ecliptic, but we calculate the jump to come out north of K’Tok’s plane.”

    “Okay, so our momentum is carrying us down toward the plane and the planets,” Moe said.

    “Right. We know where K’Tok is in its orbit at any given time so the astrogator calculates the jump to come out exactly where our residual momentum will carry us on an intercept course with K’Tok.”

    “Of course,” Huhn admitted, finally speaking. “That way we don’t have to expose ourselves with a mid-course correction burn. All we do is decelerate into orbit once we get there.”

    “Yes, sir. But here’s the thing: at any one time there’s only one place we can emerge from J-Space with that vector and make that intercept. It’s a moving exit point, because K’tok is moving in its orbit, but it’s pig-simple to calculate where it is. Maybe they aren’t idiots. Maybe they noticed that. And so maybe that’s where they point their optics.”

    Rosie Hennessey ran her hands back through her buzz-cut hair and looked at Huhn. “Shit, sir, sounds to me like he’s on to something.”

    “Okay, okay, so you’re on to something, Bitka. What does that get us?”

    “If they saw us, they’ll use the same method to spot the follow-on force and may have buckshot on the way to them, so they need to be warned.

    “But we also know when ChaCha’s probe went active there was no ship on that course within normal detection range of our radar. Unless they’ve got some new super-stealth ship out there–and there’s nothing in the intel briefings to suggest it–they did a low-signature course correction after they launched the ordnance, and they got way the hell away by the time we started getting hit, which means they did it a long time ago.”

    “Get to the point,” Huhn snapped.

    “They had to have fired that buckshot days before the incident on K’tok they say started the war. This was a carefully-planned surprise attack.”

    For a moment the only sound in the compartment was the hiss of the ventilators.

    Moe put his hand to his temple and squinted, a habit he had when getting an incoming message on his embedded commlink. He nodded a few times absently, then his eyes opened a bit wider.

    “Roger that,” he said and turned to the others. “That was Yeoman Fischer. We sent the casualty report up to squadron and just got the modified chain of command. Commander Huhn, you’re skipper, of course.”

    Moe turned to Sam. “Looks like you’re second in command, Bub.”

    “What?” Huhn said. “No, that’s got to be a mistake! They must have drawn it up not knowing Larry’s returning to duty status.”

    “No, sir,” Moe said. “Seems like Bitka has almost a year’s seniority in grade over Goldjune.”

    “Were you on active duty when you got your promotion to full lieutenant?” Huhn demanded.

    Sam shook his head.

    “Don’t matter, sir,” Moe said. “Effective date is effective date.” He turned to Sam, his right hand out. “Congratulations, XO.”

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