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Chain of Command: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 22, 2017 20:29 EDT



7 December 2133 (ten hours later) (fourteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Sam’s relationship with Captain Huhn had proved as constant and predictable as the energy output of an eruptive variable star.

    The day after the attack, and after the first promising conversation, Huhn had ignored Sam when in the same room and sent a series of increasingly brusque orders by commlink.

    The next day Chief Navarro had given Sam a badly needed education in his duties.

    The day after that Huhn had called Sam to his cabin during the afternoon watch, delivered his rambling monologue about his trust in Larry Goldjune having vanished, and sent Sam away with the admonition that the two of them needed to stick together in the face of their “enemies.”

    For the entire next day and the following one, Huhn remained in his cabin with orders not to be disturbed except for contact with the enemy or incoming communications addressed to him. Sam should handle everything else. Those were the two days before the scheduled rendezvous with Combined Task Force One. Sam knew that Huhn and Goldjune had been close and Goldjune turning on him must have shaken the captain up badly. He hadn’t know the cause of the break then, but he now suspected that Ensign Lee’s take on Huhn freezing on the auxiliary bridge the day of the attack was at the core of it. Lee had shared her thoughts with Marina Filipenko; wouldn’t she do the same with her department head and lover?

    Six hours after Sam’s conference with Commander Atwater-Jones in the afternoon of the rendezvous, Puebla and the other boats of their division–Destroyer Division Three–received a tight-beam burst transmission to be ready for a holo-briefing by senior staff of the task force in two hours. The briefing would include the command teams of all four DDRs of DesDiv Three: USS Oaxaca, Tacambaro, Queretaro, and Puebla, all patched into the same virtual conference space. Each DDR’s command team was limited to three officers: captain, executive officer, and Tac Boss.

    Perhaps Huhn would settle down after the briefing–it had only been five days since the attack, only five days of war. They knew the barest outline of a plan but no details, few specifics of what they were expected to do beyond hang back with Hornet and act as a reserve. Maybe this briefing would do the trick, give Huhn something to focus on. Sam hoped so.

    Whatever animosity he had felt toward Delmar Huhn had faded, although he could not say why. He felt no affection for the captain, not even sympathy. Instead it was as if Sam drove an aged ground car across the desert and Del Huhn was its engine–sputtering, overheating, losing power. He felt no emotions for the engine except anxiety and desperation to keep it running until he reached safety.

    Perhaps it would have been different if Huhn had stalked the boat, finding fault with officers and crew, delivering harangues, but Sam had not seen him in almost three days. As far as he knew no one had, except probably the mess attendants who delivered his meals. The captain communicated occasionally by voice commlink, more often simply by text memos. Perhaps Sam’s animosity had faded because Del Huhn seemed to have faded.

    Twenty minutes later, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he squinted up the ID tag of Yeoman Fischer.

    “What’s up, Fischer?”

    Sir, the captain said to ping you and say you won’t need to show for the holo-briefing. Lieutenant Goldjune will take your slot.

    “Understood. Thanks, Fischer.”

    Now that was odd. As far as Sam knew, the task force staff’s instructions had been specific. Huhn must have gotten permission to change the line-up. And had he patched things up with Larry Goldjune? Possibly. Or maybe he’d rather be surrounded by fellow-regulars, not a reservist like Sam.

    He tasted something sour, felt his face flush as resentment bubbled up within him. He should be in that briefing, goddamnit –either as executive officer or as Tac Boss. Huhn turning the tactical department over to Filipenko was asking for trouble. She was smart enough, but so far she hadn’t shown the fire in her to own the job rather than just go through the motions. What was Huhn thinking? What was that coward, that pathetic emotional cripple, ever thinking about but his own sense of aggrieved entitlement?

    Sam leaned back and took a deep, shuddering breath.

    Damn! Get a grip.

    Right, it wasn’t about Del Huhn’s grievances or disappointments, and it wasn’t about his either. It was just about the boat.

    So suck it up, Bitka.

    Sam looked at his desk display. He had been in the middle of finishing the certifications for promotion of seven petty officers. Two of them, including Joyce Menzies, were to fill chief slots they badly needed to fill–actually were just formal confirmation of the acting promotions they’d already made. He already had his hands full with work that needed doing, right?

    He looked around at the walls of the office, set to mimic the view from a small island in the Pacific, kilometers of slowly rolling ocean stretching all the way to a horizon made indistinct by low scattered clouds.

    “This job stinks.” he told the ocean.

    He shook his head, pushed the mass of contradictory thoughts and emotions aside, and got back to work.



    An hour and forty minutes later, when the holo-conference was to start, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he heard the ID tone of Captain Huhn.

    “Yes, sir?”

    Bitka, I know you think your paperwork should take precedence but I need you to helmet up for the briefing.

    “Aye, aye, sir, if that’s what you want.”

    Of course it’s what I want. Why else would I say it?

    “Well, Yeoman Fischer told me you wanted Lieutenant Goldjune to take my place, sir, but I’m happy to sit in.”

    Sam snapped on his helmet and immediately found himself in the holo-conference, flanked by Huhn’s virtual self to his left and Filipenko’s to his right. Both of them looked embarrassed and he saw a variety of grins and scowls on the other faces, which made him realize he had been live to the conference during his exchange with Huhn. What had the captain said earlier that made Sam’s words so embarrassing?

    “I’ll have to speak with Yeoman Fischer,” Huhn said with anger in his voice. “There was apparently a misunderstanding.”

    Ah! Huhn must not have gotten permission to alter the conference attendee list, then when he’d been called on it had lied, and then had his lie exposed.

    “I may have misunderstood, sir,” Sam said. Whoever was at fault, it sure as hell wasn’t Yeoman Fischer. Better for Sam to take the heat.

    “Very well,” Huhn said without looking at him.

    Commander Bonaventure–Captain Tall, Dark, and Greasy, as Jules had once described him–captain of Oaxaca and commander of the Third Destroyer Division (ComDesDiv Three in Navy parlance), sat with his team to Huhn’s left. The virtual images of the command teams of Tacambaro and Queretaro sat to Filipenko’s right, all of them forming a shallow crescent.

    The images of three senior officers faced them, floating slightly below their level and looking up. Two wore the white shipsuits of US Navy officers. The man on the right was vaguely familiar but Sam did not recognize the short, stocky, and formidable-looking woman in the center, who was clearly in charge. She wore the four stripes of a full captain–not the job, but the rank, one step short of an admiral Her hair was gray, her expression ferocious, and her build reminiscent of a fireplug.



    The third briefer wore dark blue: Commander Cassandra Atwater-Jones, Royal Navy. She seemed quite amused by whatever had gone before.

    “So you’re the famous Lieutenant Bitka,” the gray-haired staff captain said, making famous sound like an epithet. Her mouth seemed sculpted into a permanent frown, accentuated by her heavy jowls and deep-set eyes. “I better let you know neither I nor Commander Boynton thinks much of your theory of the uBakai attack profile. Commander Atwater-Jones disagrees with us, but I do not believe either she or you appreciate how tricky the astrogation set-up for that attack must have been.”

    Boynton. That name was familiar. Where did he know him from?

    She glowered at him and after a second or two he realized she expected a reply.

    “Understood, Ma’am.”

    “I still believe the problem must have been an intelligence leak.” She turned her glare on Atwater-Jones, who returned a cheerful smile. “Do you have anything to add to that, Commander?”

    “If I had,” Atwater-Jones said, still smiling, “and as it would involve an on-going intelligence investigation of a most sensitive nature, it would of course be for your ears only, Mum.”

    So apparently Sam was not the only one who occasionally felt the urge to bait the bear.

    The formal briefing got going after that. The formidable gray-haired captain running the show turned out to be Marietta Kleindienst, chief of staff to Admiral Kayumati, the commander of the task force. Atwater-Jones was obviously there as the N2–smart boss. Sam still couldn’t place the other officer.

    The plan was essentially as outlined before: a direct descent on K’tok, two cohorts of mike troops landed to seize the needle, another cohort in reserve, the fleet to engage and destroy any uBakai warships in the area of operations, then provide orbital bombardment support and secure the orbital space from interference by any arriving uBakai forces.

    Sam was unfamiliar with the terminology of the planetary assault itself, never having served in assault transports or in exercises involving deployment of ground troops. He kept squinting up glossaries to guide him through the maze of jargon. “Mike” stood for Meteoric Insertion Capable–soldiers dropped from orbit in individual re-entry capsules and accompanied by clouds of decoys to confuse missile interceptors.

    The five heavy cruisers would hold low planetary orbit (LPO), positioned to bombard the area around the Landing site. The four destroyers of DesDiv Four would form the outer screen in much higher planetary synchronous orbit (PSO). The transports and logistical support vessels, along with USS Pensacola, the task force flagship would take station as needed.

    Captain Kleindienst also told them a Nigerian and a British cruiser–NNS Aradu and HMS Exeter–had been detached to secure the system gas giant, Mogo. The four destroyers of DesDiv Five had been dispatched to Mogo; they would arrive later than the cruisers but relieve them on station there so the heavier ships could rejoin the task force.

    “Any questions?” Captain Kleindienst asked and looked at the twelve men and women in the crescent.

    To his surprise, Sam heard Filipenko clear her throat.

    “I have one, ma’am.”

    Kleindienst’s frown deepened and took on an added layer of impatience.

    “Very well, but make it fast.”

    “I’m a communications officer by training and principle experience. Usually communication back to Earth takes weeks, because there is no communication except by data transfer by jump craft. This is only our fifth day of war.

    “I know our emergency procedure calls for an automated comm packet dispatched by jump missile to Bronstein’s World, where it will be received, transferred to a similar jump missile to Earth, where it will be received, acted on, and the procedure then repeated in reverse. But even the emergency process takes days, usually many days.”

    “Yes, what’s your question?” Kleindienst snapped.

    Filipenko took a breath, perhaps to steady herself, and then spoke.

    “This plan was given to us in outline the day of the attack. I don’t see how consultation with superior authority was possible. Is this attack authorized?”

    That was a hell of a question. What Filipenko said was true, obviously true, but Sam hadn’t thought to wonder about it. He faulted the astrogators for not thinking tactically, but Filipenko just showed him what it meant to think as a signaler.

    Opposite them, Kleindienst paused, apparently to let her glare grow even more fiery.

    “Given the very problems you enumerate,” she said carefully and slowly, “and given the volatile nature of the situation here, Admiral Kayumati sailed with sealed orders covering a variety of anticipated contingencies. Yes, Lieutenant, this attack was authorized at the highest level. Admirals don’t go around starting wars.”

    Sam did not find that particularly reassuring. Of course the attack was authorized. But if the task force had sailed with contingency plans this detailed, how peaceful had the original intention been? The uBakai had struck the first blow, taken the role of aggressor. But what if they hadn’t? Maybe they had been very obliging to strike that first blow. Maybe that’s just what the coalition had wanted when the task force was sent, but that left Sam more unsettled than the idea of a rogue admiral swept away by desire for revenge would have. If their side had wanted this to happen, then they had wanted Jules and the others to die. But that was a very big “if.”

    “Very well,” Kleindienst said, eyes narrowed with irritation. “The smart boss will update you on our current threat assessment.” She nodded to Commander Atwater-Jones.

    #8220;Right,” she began. “Our best estimate, based on communication traffic analysis and sensor tracks over the last six months, is that the uBakai have four cruisers in the star system, of which two are currently in orbit around K’tok. One had been in orbit around Mogo but withdrew upon approach of Task Group 1.4–that’s Aradu and Exeter. We don’t know its angle of departure as it made its escape burn when Mogo was between it and our task force. Very clever boots, these uBakai. One cruiser is currently unaccounted for, but did depart K’tok orbit at a time consistent with Lieutenant Bitka’s theory of the initial uBakai attack profile.”

    “That doesn’t prove anything,” the dark-haired male officer with a squat face and bulbous nose said. He wore the three broad stripes of a commander and Sam finally placed him: Holloway Boynton, who had been Ops Boss on USS Theodore Roosevelt where Sam served as a sensor officer until three months earlier. He knew him by name but had never spoken to him.

    “No,” Atwater-Jones answered, “but if that cruiser made both attacks, and if it made its final evasive course correction using its MPD thrusters at a low enough energy level to escape thermal detection by us, we have a reasonably limited sphere in which it must be.”

    “Commander, we’ve had HRVS optics looking in your sphere for days, and haven’t found anything,” Boynton said.

    “Which means,” Atwater-Jones shot back, “either Leftenant Bitka’s theory is incorrect or the vessel is where we cannot detect it by visual stellar occlusion–which is to say it is directly between us and the asteroid belt, which I note we have not completed mapping.”

    “That’s enough,” Kleindienst snapped. “This is a briefing, not a staff debate.”

    “Quite right,” Atwater-Jones said. “As I was saying before I was interrupted, our best estimate is that they have four cruisers in the system, two around K’tok, one somewhere near Mogo, and one unaccounted for, but it’s bloody-well somewhere and up to mischief.



    “At present the surface objective is defended only by internal security forces, mostly military and civilian police. We rate their esprit and effectiveness as low. uBakai lift infantry and armor could be shifted back from the colonial frontier quite rapidly, but Operations is persuaded that our orbital bombardment assets can either prevent a large-scale move of mechanized forces or impose unacceptable losses on them. I must emphasize the importance of maintaining the orbital bombardment force on station in order to reduce the ground threat to manageable proportions.”

    She settled back in her chair and folded her hands over her lap.

    That was an interesting way of putting it–that the Ops staff was persuaded that the orbital bombardment would work, as if Atwater-Jones did not share that opinion but it wasn’t her job to question it.

    “Any more questions?” Captain Kleindienst asked and glowered at them. “Very well. Now for Destroyer Division Three’s specific part in this: Commander Boynton, the task force operations boss, will take over.”

    Task force ops boss? He must have moved up from Bully.

    “Aye, aye, ma’am.” Boynton put on a set of viewer glasses of his own and began speaking, probably reading from his prepared notes. “Because of the twenty-second burn the former captain of Puebla executed immediately after the first attack, USS Puebla is now seventy thousand kilometers in advance of the main body of DesDiv Three, and considerably farther in advance of the main body of the task force. Based on that, we’ve worked out the correction packages for Oaxaca, Tacambaro and Queretaro to use the thermal shroud of Puebla to occlude K’tok and mask their deceleration burns.

    “At those distances the tolerances are very tight, but doable if you follow the burn schedules precisely. Let me beam that data bundle over now and you can pass it to your Ops people. For what it’s worth, and considering the mission change for the division, I think Captain Huhn was right to want his Ops Boss in the conference. Not sure why we need the tac-heads.”

    “Noted,” Captain Kleindienst said dryly.

    Sam saw Huhn’s holographic image shift beside him.

    “Who will we use to mask our deceleration burn?” Huhn asked.

    “No one,” Kliendienst said. “Change in plans. You are detached to direct control of the task force commander for the duration of the assault phase. I think the admiral’s going to chop you to DesDiv Four but we’ll see how things shake out.”

    “You mean we’re going in with the assault force after all?” Huhn said, his voice wavering a bit. “I thought … I mean, we took a lot of damage, ma’am. And we’re very shorthanded, particularly officers.”

    Kleindienst said nothing but moved a pair of viewer glasses down from on top of her head onto her face and for a moment her eyes lost focus as she studied the data projected by them.

    “I’m looking at the list of repairs and you must have one hell of an A-gang, Captain Huhn. With the exception of being down one point defense laser, Puebla’s in better shape than any of the other three boats in the division. How are you dealing with only having seven PDLs?”

    After a moment of silence Huhn turned and looked at Sam, as did Filipenko on his other side.

    “Software patch on ATITEP is all we can manage for now, Ma’am,” Sam said. “Engineering says we can still get full coverage. We just won’t have as much redundancy.”

    “Less defensive firepower in a stern-on engagement,” Kleindienst said.

    “A destroyer’s preferred angle of engagement is bow-on, ma’am.”

    Boynton, the task force operations chief, shifted in his chair and scowled. “Is that your professional judgment, Lieutenant? Sounds like hot air to me.”

    Kleindiesnt’s eyes narrowed slightly and she turned to her left. “Commander Boynton, he’s quoting our basic manual on deep space tactical principles: DSTP-01, chapter four, something like section seven or eight. Which is it, Bitka?”

    “Sorry, ma’am, I don’t remember. It was just something that stuck in my mind.”

    “Well, I suppose there are worse things to stick in there. Anything else?”

    Sam thought for a moment, unsure whether he should press his luck, but there was a problem they needed to address while they still could.

    “Yes, ma’am, I am concerned about our ability to deal with another round of damage. We took a hit in an engineering parts bay, so a lot of our key replacement parts are gone, over and above the actual damaged components we had to replace. If you want us up front and active, we could really use a component resupply.”

    “It’s not possible, Lieutenant,” Commander Boynton said, taking off his view glasses and tossing them on his workstation in anger. “If you had an astrogation background you’d understand that. You know Hornet’s crippled. You want one of the destroyers in your division to shuttle back and forth to Hornet for parts? It’s not feasible, either from the point of view of reaction mass or available time.”

    Sam fought a momentary urge to answer that arrogant prick the way he deserved, but swallowed it and nodded seriously instead.

    “You&##8217;re absolutely right, sir, which is why that’s not what I had in mind. I bet most of the parts we need are on the other three division boats, and as they’re heading back to Hornet anyway–”

    “W-wait!” Captain Bonaventure of Oaxaca said, as if suddenly waking from a nap. “What’s that?”

    “Make up your list, Bitka,” Kleindienst said, “but light a fire under it. Captain Bonaventure, you fill that list, but spread it out. No more than two cargo pods per boat. I want your three division boats headed back to Hornet ASAP. The admiral detached an Indian cruiser–INS Kolkata–as close escort back there but he wants it up front in his line of battle when the shooting starts. Our two cruisers at Mogo won’t get to us until at least two weeks after we reach K’tok orbit. Until INS Kolkata can rejoin, the cruiser force is down to four heavies.”

    “Ma’am, I’m not happy about cannibalizing my parts lockers,” Bonaventure said. “As beat up as Hornet is, what guarantee is there she’ll be able to restock us when we get there?”

    “None,” Kleindienst said. “Make it happen anyway.”

    Then she turned to her right and glared at Atwater-Jones. “And what are you grinning about?”

    Atwater-Jones smiled sweetly at the chief of staff. “Nothing in particular, Mum. I hail from a green and pleasant land and it makes me cheerful by disposition. Sometimes just thinking about Old Blighty makes me smile.”

    Kleindienst turned back with a sour look. “Now, if there are no more questions, we’ve all got work to do. Let’s get on it.”

    She cut the connection and all of the holo-images vanished, leaving Sam alone in his office. He waited for his commlink to vibrate, waited for the accompanying ID tone of the captain, but it did not come and Del Huhn faded a little more. After five minutes he gave up, squinted up the boat’s directory, and pinged Rose Hennessey, the chief engineer.

    “Hennessey, I got six two-cubic-meter cargo pods worth of replacement parts lined up from the other three division boats, but I need a prioritized list of what you want and I need it fast.”

    “Six pods? Bitka …I want to have your babies!”

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