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Chain of Command: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 18:30 EDT



5 December 2133 (one day later) (sixteen days from K’tok orbit)

    “Fillipenko, I appreciate you agreeing to step up like this to take over the tactical department,” Sam said.

    Sam and Filipenko had travelled in silence so far, floating side by side down the central transit tube heading aft, banking from one wall to the opposite wall and then back again every three meters to avoid the half-bulkheads, tacking as if they were sailing vessels heading into the wind. Now Filipenko, the former communications officer and now acting Tac Boss, looked at him, surprise showing clearly on her face.

    “You mean you don’t mind?”

    “Mind? Hell, you’re saving my ass. The admin duties are overwhelming, especially with all this repair work. You wouldn’t believe how many forms I have to fill out.”

    Marina Filipenko’s surprise changed to something close to disapproval. At least she had recovered from her distracted lethargy of the day before. Sam mentally shrugged. A job’s a job.

    “I’ve got some help for you, too. I got curious about our new engineering ensign when he told me his specialty was electronic warfare. Moe Rice looked through the personnel folders and noticed that Ensign Jerry Robinette is a rated line officer. He’s just serving a tour with engineering right now, but I’m moving him over to head up your EW division, give you at least one other commissioned officer to work with. Supervising and training him won’t hurt your resume, either.”

    “Pretty odd, putting a line officer in engineering, isn’t it?” she asked.

    “Well, that’s the Navy for you. Good for us, though. We need the extra body.”

    He glanced over at Filipenko. She didn’t seem too curious about Robinette, which was just as well. No point in maybe souring her on the kid. It turned out he’d bombed out of astrogation school and then out of communication. He’d barely squeaked through electronic warfare school, and the Navy must have decided he’d fit better in engineering until–and if–he found his footing. He hadn’t even commanded a division of his own; he’d been deputy to Lieutenant (JG) Carlos Sung, commander of the Auxiliary Division–universally known as the A-gang, the people who handled the odds and ends of routine maintenance most of the time and damage control during and after a battle.

    They drifted past a large yellow arrow pointing in the opposite direction, toward the bow. As with every compartment and stateroom on Puebla, the central transit tube had omnipresent visual cues indicating up and down, despite the absence of any such physical sensation in zero gravity. Everything toward the bow of the boat was “up,” and everything toward the stern was “down.” All pictures on walls, all signs, everything which suggested orientation rigidly followed that pattern. Without that it was too easy for people to lose their sense of spatial orientation in extended zero gee, and then it became more difficult to re-adapt to a normal environment afterwards.

    “I think you’ll like Menzies,” Sam said. “She’s kind of a diamond in the rough–Quebecois from the wrong side of the tracks.”

    “Wrong side of the tracks? There’s an expression I haven’t heard in a long time. I take it you’re from the right side?”

    Sam thought about that for a moment before answering. “Originally, but we sort of moved over as I got older. My dad had a pretty good job at Presidio Collective, but when the collective collapsed, it took out most of his equity and he was a little old to get as good a job anywhere else. None of the big outfits were all that crazy about hiring a former collectivist anyway, so things got …austere.”

    “It seems as if a lot of people moved across the tracks the last thirty years,” Filipenko said. “You ever think maybe it was the tracks that moved?”

    Filipenko was alright, and she meant well, but Sam didn’t feel like talking about it. His family’s decline wasn’t really her business. He had described it as austere. Soul-crushing was more like it–his father’s unwillingness to bend with the growing wind, his mother’s slide into alcoholism and addiction and compulsive spending, trying to maintain the shabby façade of middle-class gentility in worse and worse apartment buildings. But the part of the process which at first confused and then frightened and then angered Sam most was the look of assessment in the eyes of strangers. It wasn’t judgment or blame or contempt. It was just that he and his family had once mattered, and then gradually stopped mattering.

    Only his father’s decision to move his college fund into a separate trust early in the disaster, before the debts became overwhelming, had let Sam make it to UC San Diego and have a shot at getting back across the tracks. His younger brother Rico hadn’t even had that, nor had he wanted it. He was doing okay, he claimed, although he was careful never to explain to Sam or their parents who he worked for or what he did, and none of them asked about the growing coldness in his eyes

    But Sam had pulled himself back across the tracks and up the lower rungs of the management ladder at Dynamic Paradigms, had gotten his MBA at night and on weekends, almost had his doctorate of financial management. If he could crack his way into the executive track at DP, his children would never not matter.

    Anxious to change the subject, Sam remembered Filipenko’s origin.

    “What I said in the crew briefing about K’tok’s biology–I never really thought much about it before all this blew up. But you’re from Bronstein’s World, right? Must be tough there.”

    She thought for a moment before answering.

    “Tough …but beautiful, too. Maybe that makes it worse. My parents emigrated from the US of NA before I was born. I have dual citizenship. It sounds exciting to live on an alien world, to build a new home for Humanity among the stars, but that’s just a romantic lie. It is hard, boring work, and it is dangerous in ways that are so mundane. My little brother …” She paused for a moment, looking away, and took a slow breath. “Well, it’s like hell’s garden. I finally had enough and the Navy would pay for my relocation back to Earth if I joined, so here I am.”

    She didn’t say anything for a while and then she shook her head. “The Varoki knew K’tok was compatible with our proteins. You know what they were trying to do? Ecoform it to suit their body chemistries. The only place in the whole galaxy that doesn’t try to kill us, and they were trying to fix it so it would. What kind of people do that?”

    Sam had the feeling Filipenko didn’t talk about this very often. There was a bitterness in her voice she must keep bottled up most of the time. He also realized with a start that he now knew why she sniffed every bite of food before eating it. Living her entire life in a toxic environment where food could become contaminated and poisonous by the slightest mistake probably made everyone sniff every bite, every meal, every day of their lives. There was no chance of contamination here on Puebla, but habits like that don’t just go away.

    “Here we are.” Sam said. He keyed the hatch from the main access passage into the port missile room and eased it open a crack, Loud, rhythmic electronic music escaped into the corridor. “You’ve been back here before, right?”

    ̶#8220;Only once, on the tour when I first came aboard. No reason to since then.” She squinted through the hatch and hesitated, as if afraid she would get dirty inside.

    Sam nodded. As communications officer she never had to venture aft of officer’s country, seldom interacted with anyone but officers and her division chief petty officer. This could be an assignment even less well-suited to her than Sam had feared.

    Sam pushed through the hatch and into the missile room and Filipenko followed. Newly promoted Acting Chief Joyce Menzies and two ordinary mariners were on duty, the mariners at workstation consoles and Menzies at the maintenance station with a missile secured to the anchor bracket and the housing open to reveal its guts. Menzies saw Sam and Filipenko and came to attention, her feet locked through a deck handhold.

    “Attention!” she barked and the two mariners came to attention at their work stations. Menzies was short and not exactly stocky, but solid, with the look of upper-body muscles. She wore her dark hair short, like most of the crew, and her nose looked as if it had been broken once and had not set quite right. She was almost invariably cheerful, but was also one of the last people on the boat Sam thought anyone who valued their health would pick a fight with.

    “As you were,” Sam said. “Someone want to secure the music for a couple minutes? Thanks. Just showing Lieutenant Filipenko around. She’s your new department head. Ms Filipenko, this is Acting Chief Menzies, the best missile technician in the whole squadron. Speaking of which, how’s it feel to be a chief?”

    “Doesn’t suck, sir,” Menzies said, grinning. She turned to Filipenko, her face now blank, noncommittal. “Welcome aboard the Tac shop, Ms Filipenko.”

    Filipenko nodded and looked around, again squinting. The missile room was a wedge-shaped section of the boat’s hull, about five meters across and over four meters fore-to-aft. Racks along the outside wall held fifteen missiles, with one empty set of clamps. That was the missile on Menzies’s maintenance station.



    “Damaged?” Sam asked, nodding toward the open missile.

    “Not so’s I can see, sir. We wasn’t hit back here but we take some jolts. I pull open every bird, run the internal diagnostics, make sure no ostie de crisse parts got shook loose, yeah?”

    Listening to her mix of English and bits of Quebecois slang again reminded Sam of the yawning social gulf between Menzies and Filipenko. It was more than just enlisted and officer, it also had to do with education, experiences, and mannerisms. Filipenko’s background–growing up on Bronstein’s World–had toughened her, but not the same way the slums of Ottawa-Gatineau had toughened Menzies.

    Sam hadn’t had a problem with her. He’d grown up with kids like her, at least when he was getting older. Also, he’d spent a year and a half in his company’s Montreal service center and had acquired a smattering of Quebecois trash talk. Filipenko, though …

    “Good thinking, checking out the missiles.” Sam told Menzies. He turned to Filipenko and gestured to the massive cradles lining the hull of the missile room. “These are our real stingers and nobody knows them better than Menzies. Chief, do the honors.”

    “Aye, aye, sir.” Menzies laid her hand on the open missile casing. “The DSIM-5 Bravo– Deep Space Intercept Missile Mark Five B. We call her the Mark Five Fire Lance. Manufactured by Lockheed-Siemens, this is the latest block four version: it has the better energy storage system and tweaked targeting mechanics.”

    “I know some of that,” Filipenko said. “It has a nuclear warhead, right?”

    “Yes, ma’am, here in the belly.”

    She patted the smooth composite housing of the missile on the maintenance station and then explained how the thirty laser rods up front all aligned on target and then, when the nuclear warhead detonated, were completely vaporized, but not before–for just an instant, fewer than five nanoseconds–they were engorged with energy and discharged that energy in thirty incredibly powerful bolts of coherent x-ray energy.

    “If it has a nuclear warhead, why not just crash it into their ships?”

    Menzies glanced quickly at Sam and then back at Filipenko, her face expressionless.

    “The missile can evade and it releases two dozen radar decoys, which can get it closer to the enemy ship. But the point defense lasers–at a certain range they do not miss something the size of a missile. But the fire lance only has to get within five thousand kilometers. It detonates and the x-ray lasers do the rest, tabarnak.”

    Filipenko colored slightly with embarrassment and frowned. “Yes, of course. I remember, I’ve just been away from this for a while. But why thirty rods? Why not just one big one?”

    “Insurance, ma’am. At them ranges it don’t take much deflection to miss: some vibration faible, the target starts to evade, you see? Thirty rods means a pattern of thirty shots, like the shotgun. Also we can independently target each rod ostie, take out up to thirty targets …or so they say.”

    “What makes you think it won’t?”

    Menzies looked back at the missile and frowned.

    “Well, ma’am, is all new stuff, yeah? Lots of times this new de saint-sacrament de câlice stuff don’t work as advertised. BuOrd says is fine, but they always say that. I hear talk–misaligned rods missing the targets in some tests, missing big.”

    Filipenko eyebrows went up a fraction but her expression remained cool. “The Bureau of Ordnance is responsible for testing and evaluation. From what I know, they are very thorough.”

    “Well, ma’am,” Menzies answered, with an edge of challenge in her voice, “is hard to pull them apart and see why mon crisse de missile is broke-dick-no-workee after it’s fired, being reduced to radioactive dust and all.”

    “Thanks for the briefing, Chief,” Sam said quickly, now anxious to get Filipenko away before she and her chief petty officer started shouting at each other.

    Sam led Filipenko back toward the spine of the boat. Sam had no idea which one was right about BuOrd–the Bureau of Ordnance. He knew nothing about their testing protocols, but he knew something about how the corporate world worked, and he knew there was a steady stream of former BuOrd officers moving into VP jobs at Lockeed-Siemens.

    “You may be right about BuOrd,” Sam said once they were back in the transit tube. “Hope so. But the real takeaway here is that Menzies knows her stuff,”

    Filipenko nodded. “Yes, I picked that up. I’m not crazy about her attitude, though. Wasn’t there a discipline problem?”

    Sam could have said the problem was Del Huhn’s sexual frustration, his temporary mania for rooting out every sexual affair between enlisted personnel, but he couldn’t say that, and what did it matter now anyway?

    “Peacetime stuff,” he said, “and nothing to do with her job performance. Don’t worry about that. This is what’s important.” He gestured toward the hatches to the two missile rooms on opposite sides of the transit tube. “This is Puebla’s reason for existing.”

    Filipenko frowned and looked at Sam for a moment. “You really love this stuff, don’t you?”

    Sam glanced around and shrugged. “I like hardware and I like tactical theory. I’m not sure I’d like throwing these monsters at living targets nearly as much.”

    Sam said the words because it would ease Filipenko’s path, but it wasn’t really true. He did want to fire these missiles into an uBakai naval formation and watch it come apart. Part of it was a hunger for revenge, whose growing heat had begun to replace some of the dead, black places in his heart. But part of it was something possibly more primitive still–the thrill of the hunt.

    Filipenko looked around half-heartedly. “It all seems so … mechanical. The point defense lasers are controlled by that automated fire control system–what’s it called again?”

    “ATITEP,” Sam said, “Automated Threat Identification, Tracking, and Engagement Protocol.”

    “Yes, that one,” Filipenko said. “We don’t make any decisions except to turn the system on or off–guns up or guns down. We maintain these missiles but most of the firing decisions on them are made by ATITEP, as well.”

    “You’re mostly right,” Sam said. “This is all pretty mechanical. Setting up the shot window, keeping the enemy from detecting you until you’re in that window–those are the tough parts.”

    “But astrogation does most of that,” she said. “What do I do other than …preside?”

    “Presiding–if you want to call it that–is what a department head does. It’s ninety-nine percent of your job: keep the equipment running, keep your personnel trained, disciplined, and effective. That other one percent is sitting in the Tac One seat when people are shooting at us, and you giving the captain the best tactical advice you can.”

    “Which I know nothing about,” she said and shook her head.

    Sam thought that the unspoken second half of that sentence might have been, nor do I want to.

    “Look, Filipenko, I know you’d rather stay in Operations. Honestly, I’d be happier running Tactical. Somewhere on the boat there’s probably someone who wants to wear ballet slippers and be called Princess Anastasia. But since none of that is going happen, why dwell on it?

    “We’ve got a couple weeks to get ready, especially since they pulled us out of the first wave. I’ve got some drills slated that will sharpen your tactical thinking, bring back those course lessons from a few years ago. You’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think. I bet you’ll make a good Tac Boss.”

    “Well, thanks for the confidence,” she said, although without much enthusiasm.

    “Hey, it’s not rocket surgery. I got pretty good at it and I’m just a dumb reservist. You’re got The Ring of Power, so how tough can it be?”

    She looked at her Annapolis class ring and smiled at that, but Sam knew words could only do so much. What Filipenko really needed was just to get into the routine of the job and build up some confidence. He pointed back to the missiles.

    “Look, deep space tactics are easy. It’s all a matter of speed and distance. If you can put a Mark Five Fire Lance within five thousand kilometers of an enemy ship, it will take care of the rest. In order to get it where you want it, you point the boat in the direction you want the missile to go and shoot it out of our spinal coil gun. The coil gun’s a linear magnetic accelerator that runs from here all the way up to the bow, right through the boat, just ventral of this access tube. It kicks the missile out with an exit velocity of six kilometers per second. If you know the relative velocity of the target, it’s grade school arithmetic to figure out whether you can put a missile moving six kilometers per second within five thousand kilometers of it.”

    “There’s more to it than just that,” Filipenko said.

    “Well, sure. That’s why they pay us. But that’s the core of the problem: putting one of our missiles within killing range of a target. Everything else is a variation on that theme.

    “This is your job now. To do it right you have to understand your tools–and your people. You’ve got a good weapons division chief in there. She may be a little rough around the edges, but she’ll help you learn the ropes and she won’t let you down in a crisis. You just need to get along with her.”

    “Sure. The way you get along with the captain.”

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