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Chain of Command: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, July 21, 2017 21:46 EDT



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

    “Thanks for staying after,” Huhn said, pulling his blanket more tightly around his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with Sam. “I know we haven’t exactly been on the same page a whole lot, but we’re deep in the shit now, and we need to work together. You know what I mean?”

    “Work together. Yes, sir,” Sam said, trying to concentrate on Huhn’s words instead of the image of gray body bags.

    Huhn frowned at him and then looked away.

    With the others gone, Sam now saw a part of the smart wall near Huhn’s cabin workstation which was live, showing a rotation of family pictures. Most of them looked posed. They featured three people: Huhn, usually in uniform and with a variety of different hair lengths and colors; a woman ranging from her mid-twenties to late-thirties in different pictures, but always with the same tentative smile; and a boy ranging from six or seven up to late teens. The younger version of the boy looked bored, the older one defiant.

    “You’ve got a good tactical head on you, Bitka,” Huhn said. Sam looked up from the pictures with a start, but Huhn’s attention was on the blank gray expanse of the opposite wall. “You’ve shown that much. That was quick thinking during the attack, recommending we realign the boat. I had to think about it a little before agreeing, but you were right.” Huhn glanced at Sam again, perhaps gauging his reaction to this re-writing of history.

    “Thank you, sir.”

    Huhn fidgeted with his blanket for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed.

    “Okay. Like they say, water under the bridge, right? Okay. So …XO, huh? Quite a feather in your cap. Something to brag about to the folks back home, that’s for damn sure. It’s a big job, and a thankless one–take that from me. No one appreciates the XO, but you’ll learn that as you go. You’ll have to keep the tactical department too for now. Short-handed.”

    “Yes, sir. Not a problem.”

    “I’ll help you out with this job, show you the ropes. But you need to help me out too. I’m new to being captain, you know.”

    Something was happening here but Sam was too numb to understand quite what it was or what to do in response. His brain–the analytical part anyway–was still sharp, but the emotional part remained punch-drunk, useless. He knew he should say something.

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Okay. Well …we’ll take this up again later. Now you better get started on drafting the new watch list and general quarters assignments. Oh, and since you’re still Tac Boss, you’re also the boat’s intel officer. We need to let the crew know what’s going on. You know, big picture stuff, keep it simple, but put together a summary and broadcast it over the all-crew channel. So …well, dismissed.”

    Sam glided out and closed the hatch, then spent a moment holding a stanchion on the bulkhead, thinking through the conversation. Once Huhn got over his surprise having Sam as his XO he had at least been polite, had sounded as if he wanted to get along, work together. Sam wasn’t sure the two of them could manage that, but then he shrugged. What choice did they have?

    First things first.



    “All hands, this is Lieutenant Bitka the executive officer speaking. Captain Huhn directed me to tell you about our current situation and our mission. As you all probably know, as of 0937 Zulu today, the United States of North America, along with our allies–the West European Union, the Republic of India, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria–have been at war with the Varoki Commonwealth of Bakaa. The biggest thing we know is they shot at us first.

    “Something to remember is we’re not fighting every single Varoki out there. Like us, the Varoki don’t have one central government. They’ve got almost thirty sovereign nations, and we’re only at war with one of them: the Commonwealth of Bakaa. They’re called the uBakai in their language.

    “You’ve probably heard USS Hornet was badly damaged by the sneak attack. The other destroyers of the squadron took damage and suffered casualties too. We don’t know the extent yet, but for the moment it appears that all twelve destroyers are operational. Our own damage is repairable and does not threaten our survival or that of the boat. Our losses were heavy, though–seven dead and seventeen injured. The good news is, all but four of our injured have already returned to duty or will shortly.

    “We’re here in this system for one reason only–to protect Human colonists on the planet K’tok. Why is K’tok such a big deal? Because of all the ecosystems any of the Six Races have discovered in the last couple hundred years, K’tok’s is the only one that has proteins compatible with Humans. That means it’s the only place other than Earth where we can eat the fruit and vegetables and meat without it killing us. People can grow food in the ground, not just in hydroponic tanks.

    “The Varoki settled a corner of the world before anyone knew it was compatible with us, but when they found out, they tried to cover it up. That all came out a couple years ago and there’s been a flow of Human settlers there ever since. The local Varoki–the uBakai–started getting rough and so our government sent us to keep everyone honest. Instead they pulled a sneak attack on us.

    “There’s a big combined task force following us, ships from all four Human allied navies. They’re headed for K’tok, and so for now our mission is to provide the forward screen for that task force. That’s exactly what they built our destroyers for, and what we’ve trained for.

    “In twenty minutes we̵#8217;ll secure from general quarters and go to Readiness Condition Two. That will give half of you a chance to grab some chow and rest. They you’ll spell your shipmates.

    “We’re in a shooting war. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it, and there’s a lot of combat power backing us up. I was proud of the way everyone I saw performed during the attack, and I’m sure the captain feels the same way. Carry on.”



    Two hours later Sam was supervising a repair party, welding permanent patches over the holes in the interior of the central transit tube where uBakai “buckshot” had punched through. The all-boat commlink alert sounded.

    “All hands, bury the dead,” he heard Lieutenant Marina Filipenko, the officer of the deck, announce.

    He waved his work party to a halt and they all anchored their feet to stanchions and came to attention. Captain Huhn’s voice came on next. He must have been aft in Engineering, where the large maintenance airlock would allow all seven of their dead to be buried together, as was customary. The captain read off their names and said something about each of them, although he sounded as if he read summaries from the service folders.



    Sam’s mind wandered as it always did during ceremonies. He tried to look serious and attentive, mindful of how important ceremonies were to other people and unwilling to hurt or offend them. The truth was he never really understood–whether it was a birthday, wedding, graduation, or funeral–why people believed those particular five or ten or thirty minutes were more meaningful than the five or ten or thirty minutes which came before or after. They always felt the same to him and that made him feel slightly awkward, as if he were missing something important.

    Not that all moments in his life were the same. Some took his breath away, some would stay with him forever. His first sight of the seven gray body bags was one of those moments. But the important moments almost always came upon him by surprise, and never as the result of planning, never because time had been set aside for them in his schedule.

    As for this ceremony, he felt as if everything important which could happen to Jules and the others already had.

    “Honor guard, hand salute,” Captain Huhn ordered.

    “Mariner Striker Louise DeMarco, Chief Petty Officer George Nguyen, Machinist Mate Second Class Vincent Pulaski, Quartermaster Second Class Ernest Schwartz, Sensor Technician Third Class DeRon Velazquez, Ensign Robert Waring, Lieutenant Junior Grade Julia Washington.

    “We therefore commit their remains to space, to rejoin the universe from which we all came, and to which we all surely will return.”

    There was a pause of several seconds, presumably as the outer door of the airlock was opened and the bodies released, and then Captain Huhn spoke again.

    “All hands, resume duty.”

    “Okay,” Sam quietly told his work party, and they all returned to the job of repairing their boat, but without the banter which had filled the transit tube before.



    Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, sat in the fleet tactical center of KBk Five One Seven and studied the sensor readings from the thirteen Human ships. All communications between them were by tight beam and so interception of actual messages was out of the question, but he could at least see evidence of the volume of signal traffic by their changing emission states. What they said was unknowable, but it was clear they were all saying something, which meant none of the vessels had been disabled. He was not sure how he felt about that.

    Why were they at war? What was the point? What was its strategic purpose? What did his government hope to gain by it? Admiral e-Lapeela clearly supported the attack. He must know the objective, the stakes, the plan for prosecuting the war after the opening salvos were fired. What else did he know?

    Nuvaash glanced at the admiral who sat in the console to his right. Three months earlier, when the admiral had assumed command of the First Striking Fleet, Nuvaash had made several unobtrusive attempts to draw a response from him which would indicate membership in one of the shadow brotherhoods, the secret societies which cut across boundaries of class and nationality and which riddled Varoki society. Nuvaash knew the secret challenges of nearly a dozen such organizations, and he knew how to insert them casually into conversation, in ways that might provoke a reaction. He always arranged it so he could ignore a positive response and carry on as if the challenge was a coincidence, the significance of its answering countersign unrecognized. In e-Lapeela’s case, however, that was an unnecessary precaution. The admiral had responded to none of the challenges, and so Nuvaash had no more understanding of his commander’s true loyalties now than he had before he had heard his name.

    “Admiral, it will be easier for me to assess whether the attack has produced the desired effect if I knew what effect was desired.”

    The admiral chuckled and tilted his head to the side, the Varoki equivalent of a shrug.

    “Nominally, we aim to end the criminal colonization of K’tok by Humans. Since the re-integration referendum, all of K’tok is legally uBakai soil.”

    Nominally, e-Lapeela had said, so there was a larger objective in sight than simply the planet K’tok.

    “The bio-compatibility issue complicates–” Nuvaash began but e-Lapeela cut him off with a gesture.

    “It does not complicate the legality of the situation, Speaker. That much is simple. K’tok was discovered by Varoki survey vessels one hundred thirty-four years ago, colonized by Varoki settlers sent by the uZmataanki and our own uBakai governments a decade later, became a sovereign and independent member state of the Cottohazz two years ago, and voluntarily became a confederated territory of the Commonwealth of Bakaa eleven months past. Legally, Humans have no claim on any part of the world.”

    “Legally,” Nuvaash said, and e-Lapeela nodded.

    “You are right. Legality matters little to Humans. Every world in the Cottohazz where there are Humans, they are involved in crime. Some places they have even taken over the other criminals and organized them. Can you imagine? But you have experience with them, so you do not need to imagine. That is why I retained you in your post as Speaker when I took command here. I could have brought my own specialist, but you know Humans. You understand them.

    “So speak for the enemy. How will they respond to our First Action initiative?”

    “Rage,” Nuvaash answered immediately. “Like us, Humans have a cultural aversion to wars begun by treachery, particularly the main Human nations involved in the colonization effort of K’tok. An unprovoked surprise attack such as this will produce righteous rage in these governments and their people. This will complicate our task.”

    “How? Humans are savages and they will fight savagely. Will they be docile if we begin the war politely?”

    R#8220;Of course not, Admiral. But if they feel wronged, they will fight longer. Their governments will be less likely to come to terms. We will pay a higher price in warriors and ships. In both categories these four Human nations combined outnumber the uBakai Star Navy. But most importantly, in their rage they will strive to find a way to revisit on us not merely the physical damage of the attack, but also its psychological toll. They will attempt to strike back harder than they were struck.”

    Admiral e-Lapeela nodded and smiled.

    “They will not simply react to our attack,” he said softly. “They will over-react. I believe you are correct, Nuvaash. I certainly hope so. All of our plans rest on that.

    “Humans have been a problem since they were admitted to the Cottohazz seventy years ago. At long last, we are going to solve that problem.”

    Nuvaash shuddered, and he could not tell if fear or excitement made up the greater part of the feeling.

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