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Chain of Command: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Monday, August 7, 2017 21:25 EDT



5 December 2133 (six hours later the same day) (sixteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, ducked his head to avoid a low-mounted circuitry trunk line as he entered the admiral’s tactical center in the rotating habitat wheel of the cruiser KBk Five One Seven. He already had one small patch of spray bandage on his forehead from an earlier collision with an equipment housing. In happier times Nuvaash had served as a liaison officer on two different Human warships and found them much more comfortable than Varoki ships. That was pointed to by some officers as further proof of the frivolous approach Humans took to war. But their ships had not struck Nuvaash as luxurious; their designers had simply paid more attention to their interior layout and to making them easier to use.

    Nuvaash paused at the door to the admiral’s office and heard music from inside. The office was soundproof but Nuvaash noticed the slight trace of light along one edge. The door had been left ajar and the bright beauty of the music from within stopped him in his tracks.

    Instruments unaccompanied by lyrics painted a rich picture of sunlight and hope and love, and he rested his head on the doorframe, eyes closed, and let it wash through him. It was as if every note surprised him as he heard it, but then reminded him it was the only note which could possibly have followed the ones before, and that of course he should had known that all his life.

    The music ended. Nuvaash breathed deeply for a few moments to regain his composure, then rang for entry. The admiral’s voice sounded more gruff than usual and as Nuvaash entered he saw e-Lapeela rubbing his face with both hands, as if to scrub away whatever expression had been there a moment earlier.

    “Admiral …I could not help but hear that music. I wonder …can you tell me the composer?”

    “Some Human, of course,” the admiral answered. He nearly snarled the words but then he frowned in thought and shook his head. “His name is–was–Jobim. He has been dead for over a century. Have you studied music, Nuvaash?”

    “No, admiral, although I have listened to a great deal of theirs, trying to better understand them. I often find it …quite moving.”

    e-Lapeela ran his fingers along the surface of his desk, tracing the outline of the visual icon of the music file, his eyes far away.

    “As a youngster I studied music,” he said. “I wanted to compose music like that, but I never could. I could understand it, duplicate it, but never create it. You are familiar with the concept of the Sequence of Creation?”

    “I have heard of it, Admiral, but I am not familiar with its meaning.”

    “It is a simple mathematical progression, beginning with the numbers zero and one, which bracket the moment of creation, the instant when something emerged from nothing. Every number following those two consists of the sum of the two which came before, so: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and on forever.

    “It is not simply some mathematical curiosity; it is a sequence which repeats throughout the natural world. It describes the rate of creation of seeds in a plant, the multiplication of cells within an organism, the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes. Its ascending ratio perfectly defines every naturally occurring organic spiral, such as the carapace of many aquatic animals.

    “All of the six races have studied it. How could they fail to notice something so omnipresent in nature? We call it the Sequence of Creation. The Katami call it The Pulse of God. Humans call it the Fibonacci Sequence. Trust them to name it after one of their own.”

    “I see, Admiral,” Nuvaash said, although he did not see what this had to do with either music or their war.

    e-Lapeela looked at him and his expression hardened. He tapped the icon on his desktop.

    “Music follows a sequence of recurring and non-recurring harmonics, sounds at different frequencies. Given the natural relation between frequencies and their progressions, it is possible to chart the likelihood that a particular note will come next in a composition, and whether it will be of a certain length. I see that means nothing to you, but trust me as a former scholar of music, it is so.”

    E-Lapeela’s eyes had grown wide, his ears lay flat back against his skull, and his voice became more intense as he spoke. Nuvaash felt a flash of danger, as people often do when they suspect they are in the presence of either madness or genius.

    “Most music is communally generated, and is designed to be participatory” e-Lapeela went on. “As a result, it must rely on predictable and repetitive patterns of rhythm and harmonics. But Human music includes a class of compositions designed to be communicated from the musician to the audience. The different races have wide varieties of music, but for some reason only this Human presentational music consistently reaches across the racial and cultural barriers, and appeals to the souls of all the intelligent species of the Cottohazz. How can that be? How is that even possible? I will tell you.

    “Mathematically generated music is produced simply by varying how closely the creation of the next note adheres to expectation, based on what has come before. If the probability is set very high, the music is rhythmic but repetitive, predicable, even dull. If it is set very low, the sound is nothing more than random noise. You understand that these are two extremes on a continuum?”

    “I believe I understand that, Admiral.”

    “If you study Human presentational music Nuvaash, if you study it as I have, you will find the pattern of progression of harmonic frequencies and rhythms is, nearly–but not quite–predictable. It sometimes delays the satisfaction of expectation, sometimes anticipates it, but over and over and over again, its likelihood of matching expectation is described by the Sequence of Creation. The Sequence of Creation, Nuvaash. And when we hear it, without knowing exactly why, we sense that it is …right.

    “How can they so instinctively know that? It is as if Creation itself whispers in the Human soul, and speaks to us through their music.”

    Nuvaash felt momentarily dizzy thinking about what that might mean. The admiral had not asked him to do so but he sat down in the chair facing the desk. For some time they sat together in silence.

    “Do not let this information seduce you, Nuvaash,” the admiral finally said. “The Humans do not speak for Creation. Are you religious?”

    Nuvaash blushed. Religion was the most private of matters, seldom if ever discussed in public.

    “It does not matter,” e-Lapeela said. “My point is that I am not a mystic myself. I do not know that I believe in Creation. But I believe in blasphemy. How can the one exist without the other? I do not know how they can, only that there is something …abominable about Humans. If there is Creation, why would it speak through these crude, violent, evil beings? Why not speak through us?

    “They are like demons, Nuvaash, and they will consume us. They are a plague. We must be the physicians who heal the Cottohazz, and the healing must begin here. Do you see?”

    “Yes, Admiral, I see,” Nuvaash said, but what he saw most clearly was an obsession in the admiral bordering on madness.

    E-Lapeela’s ears fanned out from his skull and his skin took on a slight orange anger tint.

    “Our people are at a crossroads. Our governments are corrupt, the civilians softened by decades of luxury and now embittered when times grow only slightly harder. The coup in our own nation a year ago might have begun setting things right but we relied upon the ground forces to control the cities. Only one task did we entrusted them with, and they were not even capable of carrying that out!

    “Now our navy is humiliated, many of our most visionary admirals and politician are in detention or dead, their voices stilled. Weak fools run the government.”

    That the government was weak and corrupt was not news to Nuvaash, nor was the fact that ever since the disastrous failed coup the uBakai Star Navy’s loyalty had been an open question. But Nuvaash wondered why, given all of that, the government had authorized this reckless war.

    The Admiral stood up and continued speaking, now more animated, more angry.

    “The Cottohazz, which we Varoki created, which was once a bulwark of our primacy, is now only concerned with the rules and regulations of its massive bureaucracy–and satisfying the whining grievances of the lesser races.

    “Only victory in this war can restore the Star Navy to its position of respect,” e-Lapeela continued, his ears relaxing back again, his skin clearing, “and give our people a vision of destiny worth fighting for. Do you see it, Nuvaash? Only victory matters.”

    “Of course, sir,” Nuvaash answered soothingly, “only victory. But in that regard I have …questions. What is our real objective? How are we to achieve it with such limited forces? And as you say, the Navy is demoralized, the government uninterested in anything other than shoring up its political security.”

    “Our objective is to destroy the Human will to resist, to question, and to expand. K’tok is only the pretext, the inciting event.

    “Our resources are greater than you imagine, Nuvaash, because they are not limited to those solely of Bakaa. Others stand behind us, in the shadows, but they will emerge when the time is right.

    “And the Humans will never understand what is happening to them until it is too late.”



    “Where the hell do you get off poaching my officers?” Lieutenant Larry Goldjune, the Ops Boss, demanded as he floated through the door to the XO’s office.

    Sam looked up from the script he was drafting for the hologram message he’d record and send to the parents of Machinist Mate Second Class Pulaski, Vincent J., of Joliet, Illinois. Pulaski had died when the first uBakai pellet hit Puebla and evacuated the forward machinery spaces where he was conducting routine maintenance on the thermal shroud retractor. Pulaski had not died immediately, nor easily, and Sam had been trying to find a way around sharing that information when Goldjune’s outburst interrupted him.

    “Where do you get off storming into my office without knocking and waiting for permission?”

    “Don’t pull that XO crap on me, Bitka. It’s not going to fly.”



    “Tell you what, Lieutenant Goldjune, why don’t you go back out into the passageway, count to ten, knock, and we’ll try starting this conversation over.”

    “Why don’t you go to hell? Now answer the goddamn question.”

    Sam leaned back in his zero gee restraint and looked Goldjune over. His fleshy face was flushed and he panted slightly, either with emotion or exertion.

    “You’re really pissed, aren’t you? Well, if it makes any difference, I wanted you to take over TAC, but the captain overruled me. Filipenko was the only alternative. With Washington and Waring dead and me at Exec, there are only four line officers–two lieutenants and two ensigns–left to staff the two line departments–Operations and Tactical. Hard to figure out an arrangement that doesn’t end up with one lieutenant and one ensign in each department. So which would you prefer: to run Ops with Barb Lee as your ensign, or run Tac with Jerry Robinette?”

    The answer was obvious for several reasons: Goldjune was a die-hard Ops man, Jerry Robinette was the most inept ensign on the boat, and it was an open secret that Larry Goldjune and Barb Lee had been having an affair for over a month.

    Goldjune hooked his feet through a padded handhold on the wall and folded his arms across his chest, but Sam could see his anger slipping away, and Larry struggling to maintain it.

    “So you wanted to stick me in TAC, huh? That figures.”

    “Yeah, it does, because you’re better qualified than Filipenko. When the shooting starts, the Captain better have the best brain he can get sitting beside him in the Tac One chair. At least that’s how I see it. But he decided you’d be happier in Ops, and what the Captain says goes.”

    Larry looked at him, thought that over, and for a moment Sam thought they might get past this wall of animus that separated them. But Goldjune’s eyes narrowed again, and hardened.

    “What do you know about what he’ll need in combat? When did you become an expert on it? You think just because you guessed right once on an attack profile you’re some kind of military genius?”

    Sam could have told him that neither of them had ever heard a shot fired in anger, that all any of them had to go on was their training, but he was suddenly tired of arguing. No matter what he said, nothing would change.

    “Filipenko is taking Tac and that’s it. And while you’re here, your affair with Ensign Lee is over, effective right now–or at least on hiatus until end of our deployment. It’s none of my business after that. But she’s your direct subordinate, for Christ’s sake. Now get out of here so I can do some work.”



    An hour after Goldjune left, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he heard the ID tone of the captain.

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Bitka, come to my cabin at once,” Huhn said, clearly agitated, and then he cut the connection.

    “Aye, aye, sir,” Sam said to the empty office around him. Now what?

    As Sam unbuckled his restraint lanyard from the workstation he saw a flickering something out of the corner of his eye, just for a moment, and turned quickly, but nothing–or rather on one–was there. The image had been unclear but somehow familiar, familiar enough to make his scalp tingle, make his vision lose clarity and turn the colors pale, make his hands tremble. It had been Jules, hadn’t it? The thought filled him with a familiar warmth and dread realization in equal measures.

    Oh, that’s great. First an interstellar war, and now I’m going nuts.

    He looked around the office one more time, took a long breath to steady himself, and left.

    Sam’s office was forward, off the bridge, and Huhn’s cabin was aft, in officer’s country, but it still took him less than five minutes to reach the door. He touched the knocker and camera-mike, which would turn the inside surface of the door into a window and show his presence to Huhn.

    “Sir, it’s Lieutenant Bitka, reporting as ordered.”

    Huhn immediately opened the door. He hadn’t shaved in at least a day, as near as Sam could tell, and pale stubble covered his cheeks, chin, and the sides and back of his head.

    “Come in, Sam. Come in.” Huhn stuck his head out into the corridor and looked both ways before closing the door and locking it. “Care for some coffee? Or can I offer you something stronger–got some pretty good bourbon over here.” He kicked off from the door, gliding over to a cabinet behind his desk. Sam looked around and the cabin walls were still unadorned gray. A dirty sock was stuck to an exhaust ventilator.

    “Thank you, sir, coffee sounds good. I still have some work to finish up later this afternoon. Better keep a clear head.”

    “Of course, of course,” Huhn said. He punched in the order on his desk dispenser and in seconds handed a warm drinking bulb of coffee to Sam. He gestured to the padded restraints and handholds along the gray cabin walls. “Make yourself comfortable, please. No need to stand on ceremony.”

    Sam pushed off the deck toward a wall stanchion and clipped his restraint lanyard to it. So far this was not the conversation he had anticipated.

    Huhn floated silently behind his desk for a few seconds, as if gathering his thoughts. “Sam, I want to talk to you about Lieutenant Goldjune.”

    Okay, here it comes, Sam thought and took a swallow of coffee. Maybe the bourbon would have been a smarter move.

    “Yes, sir?”

    “You and I have disagreed about him, especially in our assessment of him as an officer.”

    “I think Goldjune is a talented and capable officer, sir,” Sam said, just to get it on the record.

    “Of course he is,” Huhn said, nodding, “as far as that goes. But you know, sometimes character’s more important. Maybe that’s especially true in wartime. The war’s made me take another look at some things. I’ll tell you something, Sam: I don’t trust him. He’s been acting funny for the last day or so, talking to people in the wardroom and then they stop and just look at me when I come in. What’s that all about?”

    Sam thought it might be about Del Huhn’s guilty conscience, but he didn’t say that.

    “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll try to find out.”

    “You haven’t heard anything? Any …disloyal mutterings?” Huhn searched Sam’s face but avoided his eyes.

    “No, sir, and if I had, they’d have stopped right there. I give you my word on that.”

    Huhn looked at him for a moment and then looked away and nodded.

    “I believe you, Sam. I think you’re a man of character, an honest man–too honest maybe. I suppose that’s why we had our little disagreement. Seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Well, water under the bridge. Peace and war, different times, different lifetimes. Maybe it’s only possible to be too honest in peacetime, you know, like I was saying, war and character …something about them going together, I …I don’t know. But I trust you, Sam.”

    Huhn looked at Sam with eyes that shown with moist affection and entreaty, a combination Sam found pathetic, repellant, and vaguely alarming.

    “Thank you, sir,” he managed and looked away, his eyes fastening again on Huhn’s family pictures, slowly cycling on the one small live area on the smart wall.

    “That’s Joey, my boy,” Huhn said, and glided over to the video window. He stopped the display and enlarged it to show the family in yet another posed grouping. Did they ever vacation? Did they ever do anything together but pose for pictures? The son was in his late teens in this picture, beginning to look heavy in the face and upper body, and for a change staring directly at the camera in an apparent act of defiance with a hint of contempt.

    “He’s a few years older now. He tried the Navy–probably wanted to please the old man, follow in my footsteps, you know how sons are. It didn’t work out, Navy wasn’t for him. Joey’s had trouble finding his niche, but he’s a good boy. He’s …well, he’s a good boy.”

    Sam looked at the picture and nodded. The woman with her tentative smile, fleeing in quiet panic toward the safety of dowdy middle age, looking as if she needed permission to do anything, who might have been pretty when she was young if she’d let herself, if she’d just given herself permission. Married to a husband who tried to cheat on her when on deployment–probably thought it was what mariners always did, were supposed to do, made them somehow more manly and desirable. And Huhn couldn’t even manage to do that right, could he? Jules had turned him down, and how many others before her?

    When Huhn had graduated from Annapolis and, with a thousand other white-clad men and women, thrown his hat as high into the air as he could, he must have envisioned a life about to unfold before him. He had seen those plans realized, but distorted and grotesque, as if reflected by a funhouse mirror. Did he sometimes wonder where he went wrong? Did he ever stop wondering?

    “We’ll get through this, sir,” Sam said. “We’ll get through it, and we’ll get back to our families.”

    Huhn put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.

    “I know I can count on you, Sam. Now, Goldjune?” Huhn looked aside, eyes focused farther away than the barren gray wall he faced. “After all I’ve done for him? Stood up for him? Covered up his mistakes and indiscretions? He’s just a disloyal little shit. Sometimes I wish he was dead.”



    In the corridor outside Huhn’s room Sam stopped and closed his eyes, but the flickering shadow he knew to be Jules persisted, dancing at the periphery of his right field of vision, always just out of reach. Her being there, watching, waiting for something, made his nervous, almost sick to his stomach. Who was crazier? he wondered. Huhn or him?

    He squinted up the medtech’s comm address.

    Medtech Tamblinson. What can I do for you, Mister Bitka?

    “Tamblinson, I’ve …I’ve got a headache,” he lied. “Yeah, a real skull-buster, and I need to get some shuteye. Can you give me something that will knock me out for a couple of hours but not leave me punchy when I wake up?”

    They don’t call me Doc Feelgood for nothing, sir.

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