Previous Page Next Page

Home Page Index Page

Chain of Command: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 26, 2017 20:38 EDT



3 December 2133 (one day later) (eighteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Sam paused at the hatchway and surveyed the men and women gathered in the wardroom. Aside from the captain, the only officers not present were lieutenants Marina Filipenko, who was officer of the deck (OOD) on this watch, and Carlos Sung, the duty engineering officer (DEO). He saw a microcosm of the boat’s society and hierarchy, both formal and informal, all absorbed in conversation. Sam pushed off and glided across the room, over their heads, toward the far wall.

    “Ah, the XO!” Moe Rice called out with a smile. “Can the cap’n be far behind? What’s the latest word from the task force?”

    Sam thought the jovial mood seemed a little forced, the smiles around the table a little brittle, but twenty-four hours into an interstellar war that made perfect sense.

    “Since Newton’s First Law of Motion hasn’t been repealed locally, the task force is still coming,” Sam answered as he floated past them. He stopped himself at the bank of automated food and drink dispensers and punched in the code for black coffee. The zero-gee drink bulb popped out almost immediately.

    “Any more word on the attack?” Rose Hennessey the senior engineer asked, and most of the soft conversation stopped. Sam collected his warm drink bulb from the dispenser and turned to look at them.

    Captain Rehnquist had programmed the smart walls of the wardroom to duplicate the look of the wardroom on USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay over two centuries earlier. The deck had looked as if it were covered with teak planking, while the walls had sported mahogany wainscoting and brass-rimmed circular portholes which showed the exterior star field instead of the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean–all of it an illusion, of course, and all of it turned off when the room had been used as a casualty dressing station. Sam noted that Huhn had not turned it back on, and so the walls and deck were now all simply neutral gray, like the new captain’s cabin. At least the blood had been scrubbed from the walls.

    “I imagine you’ve already pumped the communications people of all the information they’re willing to share,” Sam said. “I can give you this bit of news. I just received word the entire crew will receive the pay augmentations for both hazardous duty and duty in a combat zone, retroactive to yesterday’s date. Beyond that you’ll have to wait for what the captain has to say.”

    Hennessey looked away with a worried expression. Everyone probably figured Sam knew and was just playing hard to get, but he had no idea what the tight beam messages Filipenko had patched through to Huhn from Task Force One said, as the captain hadn’t shared them with him. The XO was as much in the dark as anyone–a strange way to run a boat in wartime, Sam thought.

    “Whatever it is, we’ll be ready for it,” Larry Goldjune said. His left arm rested in a black medical restraint, the only visible relic of the attack. The triangle of black across his white shipsuit, like a ceremonial sash, seemed to add substance and credibility to his words. “You all know the only time an Earth ship has ever been in a space battle was three years ago, right here in the K’tok system, when USS Kennedy got caught in the middle of a fight between the uBakai and the uZmatanki. Kennedy took out two Varoki cruisers and then held the whole goddamned system until her relief showed up. The leatherheads have an edge on us in technology, but they’re not much good in a fight.”

    Sam hoped Goldjune was right. That’s certainly what had been drilled into all of them in their training and indoctrination, probably in all fleet training for the last three years, ever since the First K’tok Campaign–in which the Earth fleet forces had never been technically at war with anyone and USS Kennedy had acted solely as a local peacekeeper for the Cottohazz. The others at the table certainly seemed to take some heart from Larry’s speech and began talking again.

    Goldjune ran the operations department–astrogation and communication–and he was the sort of officer others talked about as a “future chief of naval operations.” His family connections–two admirals–didn’t hurt. Although Sam didn’t have much use for him on a personal level, he had to admit that Larry was a competent Ops Boss. He was handsome in a strong-jawed, blond, Aryan sort of way, the effect slightly mitigated by the ten or fifteen extra kilos he carried on his frame.

    The central feature of the wardroom was the long table affixed to the deck–now the aft bulkhead. When the boat was under acceleration it served as a standard table, but in zero gee, as now, its supports were extended so its surface rested closer to the center of the compartment, and the zero-gee brackets fixed to its underside were extended to hold the food and drink containers of the officers dining along its length.

    The captain’s place at the head of the table was empty, but along the table to the captain’s right floated the officers of the operations and tactical departments–the line officers: astrogation, communication, and combat specialists who formed the actual chain of command of the boat. Normally the executive officer sat to the captain’s immediate right but Sam saw that Larry Goldjune had taken that position. He turned and looked at Sam, his expression challenging. Goldjune’s normally round and fleshy face had been made even more so by two weeks of zero gravity and now his eyes seemed particularly recessed and hostile.

    Sam used a handhold to launch and glided over to the table.

    “Good to see you up and looking fit, Lieutenant” Sam said. “You know, I don’t much care where folks sit but it’s sort of traditional for the XO to sit here, in case the captain has something he wants to go over with him.”

    “Cap’n asked me to sit beside him,” Goldjune drawled with a look of triumph in his eyes.

    “Well then we’re fine,” Sam said. He pushed off from the dispenser wall and took a place further down the table, on the far side of Ensign Barb Lee, head of the maneuvering division. He anchored his drink bulb in the food holder and clipped his tether lanyard to the table’s restraint ring to keep from floating away. A glance at Goldjune gave him the feeling he had just avoided some sort of trap intended to make him look foolish. He felt his face flush, but not from embarrassment. They were at war. People were dead–Jules was dead. What was the point in these stupid head games?

    Rose Hennessey sat to the left of the captain’s place, then three of her officers and then Moe Rice, Puebla’s supply officer. That side of the table was informally called support-side because the supply and engineering officers who sat there were technical specialists not in the chain of command. There had been a time, a century earlier, when engineering officers were also line officers, but that was before fusion reactors had become standard shipboard issue. Now they were expected to concentrate more on their specialty. Rose Hennessey had over a year of seniority on Sam, but she couldn’t step up into a line or command slot–like the executive officer job–except in an extreme emergency. So far this didn’t qualify as that. Sam figured they’d have to get down to no line officers left, except maybe Ensign Lee, before Rose Hennessey stepped up to command.

    Line officers to the captain’s right took precedence over support branch officers to his left. Engineering and Operations sat closer to the head of the table than did Supply and Tactical, showing another sub-hierarchy. And then there were the regular officers versus the reservists. They only had eleven officers remaining of their original fourteen, eight of them floated at the table waiting for the captain to join them, and they were as thoroughly sifted and labeled and divided by rank, job, specialty, and service status as exhibits in a museum.



    Sam had always accepted this hierarchy, never questioned it. He was just one of the cogs, focused on doing his job and making his boss happy–usually. Now it was different. Now he was executive officer and his job was to make all these cogs mesh into one efficient machine. The carefully regimented hierarchy was supposed to make it easier to understand the extent and limits of every other officer’s authority and responsibility. It was supposed to make it easier for everyone to work together, but Sam wondered.

    “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Captain Huhn said as he coasted through the hatchway to the wardroom and then kicked off the compartment wall toward the table. “As you were. No standing on ceremony here. Let’s enjoy our supper, but cover some business while we’re eating, okay? Go ahead and order. I hear the curried chicken’s good tonight.”

    Sam couldn’t imagine why the machine-reconstituted and cooked curried soy-chicken would be different tonight than it was any other night but he ordered it to be agreeable, punching the order into the smart table surface. Huhn seemed awfully cheerful one day into the war, nothing like on the auxiliary bridge or in his cabin. Maybe he’d recovered his balance, his self-confidence.

    The mess attendant handed Sam his dinner tray with the sealed food packages held to it by fibre pads. Sam peeled back the cover of the entré container, unclipped the fork from the tray, and started eating curried chicken. Not bad, but nothing special. Food eaten in zero gee never tasted all that great. For one thing, the aroma never rose from the food, so unless he brought it right up to his nose he couldn’t smell it, and that cut a lot of the enjoyment. Even when he did lift it up, Sam couldn’t smell it all that well. Along with everyone else after the first couple days in zero gee, the fluid accumulation in his head meant a permanent stuffy nose.

    “Well, it’s customary for a new captain to call a wardroom meeting like this to get acquainted,” Huhn said once the orders were in and the mess attendant began bringing out the food and beverage containers. “But we already know each other, don’t we? What’s really changed everything is this war. Some of us saw it coming, and Captain Rehnquist and I were among them. Nobody upstairs would listen to us, of course. Staff officers have a hard time listening to the people who can see what’s what, and so here we are.”

    That was surprising. As far as Sam could tell, Captain Rehnquist and Delmar Huhn had been singularly unconcerned about looming hostilities. It was possible they had logged warnings to their superiors and had not said anything to the crew to avoid worrying them. Anything was possible, he supposed.

    “Well, that’s all water under the bridge,” Huhn went on. “The important thing is we’re in a war and we have a job to do. The task force coming behind us has seven heavy cruisers from four different navies: the WestEuros, India, Nigeria, and us. Transports, too, carrying three cohorts of troops–two of them Mike Troopers, and one conventional infantry. The grunts were going to land and reinforce the local security forces in the Human colony while the Mikes would be an orbital reserve and quick reaction force. Now the plan is to drop the whole expeditionary brigade right on T’tokl-Heem, the Varoki colonial capital, and grab the needle. The brass thinks that should be enough to force them back to the bargaining table.”

    “They gotta be kidding!” Rose Hennessey said and Huhn looked over at her, eyes suddenly wide with surprise.

    “What do you mean?” he asked.

    She shook her head, her cheeks and neck turning a splotchy red, either embarrassment or anger, Sam couldn’t tell which. “Jesus, grab the needle? An elevator from planet surface to orbit is just about the most delicate and complicated piece of engineering anyone in known space has ever built, and it costs a fortune. One wrong move, one stray shot, and we’re gonna have a hell of a mess on our hands.”

    “You mean they will,” Larry Goldjune said from across the table. “They started this fight, they attacked us by surprise, killed our shipmates. If we break their needle, I say too goddamned bad. Fuck ’em.”

    Several officers nodded and growled their agreement.

    “But our people gotta live down there too, Goldjune,” Hennessey said. “Hell, they broke the needle on Nishtaaka twelve, thirteen years ago and still haven’t got it working right.”

    “Okay, okay,” Huhn said. “Settle down you two. I’m inclined to agree with Larry on this one, but let’s not worry about that stuff until they tell us to pin stars on our collars. Alright? Okay.”

    Huhn was right, this was way above their pay grades, but Hennessey had a point, too. Whatever commercial viability a world had was tied to it having a functioning needle. Boosting payloads to orbit by rocket was absurdly expensive, not remotely economical. Star drives were fine for exploring the galaxy and all that, but the reality of interplanetary and interstellar commerce was that almost all the cost of moving something from one planet to another–regardless of which star it orbited–was paid once you got it into low orbit. A needle cut the cost per kilo of lifting cargo and people to orbit by two orders of magnitude.

    Sam had read about needles his whole life, and lived with the images of them, but the first one he actually saw was the Central Pacific Needle, shortly before he rode it to orbit his second summer of NROTC training. It shone bright gold in the Pacific sunlight, and stretched up into the haze, an impossibly long, impossibly thin column, plated in gold only molecules thick to prevent oxygen erosion of the carbon nanotubes that formed the core of the structure.

    It was really a bundle of nanotubes, a big vertical cable in permanent synchronous planetary orbit–SPO–over one spot in the equator, but reaching past the SPO orbit track and tethered to a massive captive asteroid, far enough out it moved at escape velocity and would depart orbit if it weren’t for the mass of the Needle holding it back; the centrifugal force of the asteroid trying to escape orbit held the Needle up and balanced the centripetal force of gravity trying to pull the whole thing down. It all made sense mathematically, but that never changed the chill Sam felt whenever he stepped into the passenger compartment of the elevator and realized he was already in orbit, even though he was still at sea level. The whole structure and everything on it was in orbit.

    But needles were huge investments: difficult to build and almost impossible to restore to their original condition once they suffered major damage. Fighting anywhere near one was a hell of a gamble.

    Huhn was talking again and Sam shook the vision of a shattered needle from his mind to listen.

    “Now, because of the damage we took,” Huhn went on, “they are modifying our job. The task force has accelerated and is overtaking us. The other eight boats in the squadron will accelerate as well and form the forward screen, but our four-boat division will hold back to escort Hornet, at least until they can get power up. Then we’ll be the task force reserve.

    “I know this is probably a disappointment to everyone. I’m sure all of us want to be in on the first strike back at these people, to avenge our shipmates and because … well, just because, that’s why. But in the Navy we follow orders, no matter how unpleasant they may be, and we do it without bellyaching.”

    As Sam looked around the table, a few officers showed looks of genuine disappointment but Delmar Huhn wasn’t one of them.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image