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Chain of Command: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Sunday, September 3, 2017 09:36 EDT



19 December 2133 (twelve day later) (two days from K’tok orbit)

    “They’re gone,” Delacroix said, her eyes on the sensor repeaters.

    “Looks that way to me,” Robinette agreed.

    Petty Officer Second Elise Delacroix sat Tac Three and Ensign Jerry Robinette sat Tac One on the bridge, with Sam in the command chair. They’d been at Readiness Condition Two–half of the crew on watch–for the last day. An hour ago Sam had taken over for Ensign Barb Lee as OOD to give her a breather.

    They were coming up on K’tok. The transports and fleet auxiliaries had already begun their deceleration burns preparatory for entering orbit. The warships had more powerful drives and so could put off the burn longer, then make it short and hard. They’d go to general quarters then, but not until they had to. They could only keep everyone at their battle stations so long before performance went into the toilet.

    Sam looked at his own sensor repeaters, showing the radar return echoes from the sensor probe far out ahead of the task force, far enough to have cleared K’Tok’s orbital track and look “behind” it, into the space the planet occluded. Nothing there.

    “Those two uBakai cruisers only disappeared two days ago,” Sam said, as much to himself as the others. “Where did they go?”

    “Hiding with the asteroids behind them, like the Red Duchess said about the other one?” Robinette said. “And how come we don’t have a decent data map of the asteroid belt in this star system? All our stellar occlusion detection routines freak out as soon as we dump any data in with the asteroids in the frame. A million bogies, maybe more.”

    The “Red Duchess” had become Commander Atwater-Jones’s nickname throughout the boat, and apparently throughout the task force. Red came from the color of her hair. They called her a duchess partly because she was English, but also because she had an Oxford accent and money, judging by the fact her Royal Navy shipsuit was not standard issue but tailored, apparently by some famous “Old Bespoke” designer on Saville Row, if you believed all the scuttlebutt, which also required you to believe she had had sex with most of the male and half the female admirals in the Royal Navy, and possibly several members of the royal family. Sam’s state of mind, particularly concerning Jules’s death, had been such that he had not taken much notice of the British officer’s looks in their first encounter, but everyone else had.

    This all confirmed Sam in his belief that mariners on long deployment were like old men and women with nothing to do but make up gossip. Atwater-Jones was certainly attractive, but he wouldn’t call her vid-star beautiful. She did have an interesting attitude. He wondered if Jules would have liked her. Atwater-Jones was almost old enough to have been Jules’s mother–was old enough if she’d been naughty very early, and of course the gossips suggested exactly that. He saw a familiar flicker in the corner of his eye, turned to ask Jules, but of course she wasn’t there.

    Focus: cruisers and asteroids …

    “I think Survey is working on a data set of the asteroids,” he said, “but that’s not the problem here, Ensign. We’re coming down on K’tok from straight above the plane, galactic north, so they can’t be hiding in the background clutter. Only direction for those two cruisers to run and keep K’tok between us and them is straight down, below the plane, and there’s no asteroids down there to hide in–nothing but stars and hard vacuum. Your stellar occlusion routines are working fine.”

    So where the hell had they gone?

    Sam closed his eyes and concentrated on the problem. To keep K’tok between them and the task force left a very narrow cone where they could be. The uBakai could have gone cold, turned their thermal shrouds toward K’tok, and coasted away once they’d made their burn, but the probe was pumping active radar energy down that cone and getting no bounce-back. A thermal shroud didn’t stop radar echoes and there were no known means of defeating the multi-wavelength variable-pulse radar mounted on the US Navy sensor probes. Even if the uBakai had some new stealth trick up their sleeves, these cruisers were both from a familiar class of uBakai warships that ground-based radar had tracked with no trouble earlier. They couldn’t just have turned invisible.

    “Maybe they jumped out-system,” Robinette said. “I mean, we outnumber them–what–five to one in combatants? I’d sure get the hell out of Dodge.”

    “Smartest thing you’ve said so far, Ensign. I’m just reluctant to assume all our problems are over and they jumped back to Akaampta or someplace else. Would they give up the system that easily? Why start a war and then run away?”

    His commlink vibrated and when he squinted he saw the ID tag for the engineering officer, Rose Hennessey.

    “Yeah, Hennessey, what’s up?”

    “Mr. Bitka, we have a situation in the wardroom and we need you here, right away.”

    “I’m standing watch for Ensign Lee.”

    “She’s here, and I’ll send her forward, but you need to get here as soon as you can.”

    She sounded frightened, or maybe just out of her depth, off-balance. Sam couldn’t remember ever hearing her sound quite like that.

    “On my way,” he said and cut the connection. He turned to Ensign Robinette, who had still never stood a watch as Officer of the Deck.

    “Big day for you, Ensign. The boat is at Readiness Condition Two, Material Condition Bravo, on task force course for K’tok. Power ring is fully charged, reactor on standby, shroud deployed, sensors passive. Expect your relief by Ensign Lee shortly, but until then it’s your boat.”

    “I … I relieve you, sir,” Robinette said, his eyes larger than a moment before.

    I’m turning the boat over to The Jughead, Sam thought to himself as he unbuckled his harness. What could possibly go wrong?



    Sam passed Lieutenant Barb Lee going in opposite directions in the central trunk, her normally pinched features looking even more distressed.

    “What’s going on?” he asked.

    “If I say, you’ll probably arrest me for conduct unbecoming,” she answered as she glided by, avoiding eye contact.

    Maybe he had overdone it in telling Filipenko to come down hard on her. Lee hadn’t spoken to him much since then, come to think of it. He should have noticed, but everyone had been busy getting ready to enter K’tok orbit and almost certainly fight a major ship-to-ship action. Well, angry with him or not, it sounded like the problem was with Huhn.

    A minute later Sam pulled himself through the door of the wardroom and saw a tableau which would not have been all that unusual were it not for the awkward and distressed expressions on the participants’ faces–that and the fact Captain Huhn was in his dress whites complete with all decorations. Dress whites weren’t really made for zero gee and Sam noticed the trouser cuffs floating up high enough to show a band of pale hairy leg above the socks. Huhn floated at the head of the wardroom table with Goldjune to his right and Rose Hennessey and Moe Rice, to his left. Chief Navarro and Tamblinson the Med Tech floated near the end of the table as well. Actually, the presence of two enlisted crew in the wardroom was unusual.



    Everyone’s eyes turned to him as he entered. Huhn’s visage was unreadable, but from the expressions on everyone else’s faces Sam had the feeling he was in trouble–a lot of trouble. Maybe those mass-approved damage survey reports were coming back to haunt him. Or maybe one of the two enlisted crew were the ones in trouble. Somebody sure was.

    “Sam, come over here,” Huhn said. Sam kicked lightly off the door and floated over to the table. Goldjune moved down the table, making room for Sam next to the captain. Sam clipped his tether lanyard to the table and held a bracket, mostly to keep his hand from trembling.

    Huhn fingered his decorations, particularly an odd one, a large silver, gold, and red multi-pointed star or flower–Sam wasn’t sure which–that looked foreign and out of place below the orderly ranks of colored rectangular ribbons that represented his US Navy awards. Huhn’s index finger traced the edge of the star, lingered on one of the points.

    “Sharp. Could hurt someone with this if you weren’t careful,” Huhn said. “Order of the State of the Republic of Turkey. Got it back in ’29. I saved the daughter of the Turkish ambassador to Bronstein’s World. Just a teenager, got caught in an airlock without a vacuum suit, but I kicked a circuit box open and shorted it out, so we could pop the hatch manually. Just used my head is all, but everybody else panicked. Saved that girl’s life and got this for it. Proudest day of my life.”

    Sam wondered if he meant the day he saved the girl’s life or the day he received the medal.

    “It’s very impressive, sir. What was it you wanted?”

    “Sam, some of us are cut out for certain things, but not others. You know what I mean?”

    “I think so, sir.”

    “Sometimes we have to face hard truths about ourselves, look in the mirror and see things we don’t want to see, would rather look away from. But we’ve got to look, Sam. We’ve got to look hard.”

    Huhn stared at him as if he expected a reply but Sam said nothing.

    “We’re about to go into battle, Sam, and we all need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I cut out for this?’ It’s hard, but a lot of lives depend on us answering that question as truthfully as we know how. Do you agree with that?”

    “Yes, sir,” Sam answered and licked his dry lips.

    He had wondered this, many times, and also wondered if seeing ghosts might be a disqualification for duty. But he had no idea how to answer those questions except to see it through, do his duty as well as he could, and on the other side of it find out if that was good enough. He’d done okay in the first battle, but it had caught him by surprise. This coming fight filled him with a growing dread. He’d looked forward to their arrival, going to general quarters, facing whatever stood before them, but not because he longed for danger. It was only because he wanted this awful uncertainty, this dark foreboding, to end.

    “Well, I’ve been looking in my mirror,” Huhn said. “I’ve spent a lot of the last week looking in it, and I know now: I’m not cut out to command this boat in battle. I’m cut out for a lot of things in the Navy, but not that. I think…I think I need a rest is all. That’s why I asked Medtech Tamblinson here, to certify me medically unfit for command.”

    Sam looked at Tamblinson, whose eyes were larger than Robinette’s had been earlier when Sam turned the watch over to him for the first time. He looked at Goldjune and faced cold hostility, at Hennessey and faced anxiety bordering on panic, and he realized the trouble he was in was real, but was entirely different than he had originally thought, had in fact never imagined, and he felt this heart rate climb and chest constrict with the beginning of panic.

    “Captain, I…I wouldn’t do anything too hasty. You need to be–”

    “What? Certain? You think I’m doing this on the spur of the moment? Haven’t thought it through?”

    Sam licked his suddenly dry lips again, and swallowed to loosen his tight throat. “Nothing like that, sir. It’s just…if you do this, it’s going to change your life, and there’s no changing it back.”

    That was dishonest. Sam didn’t give a damn about Huhn’s future. He simply wanted no part of being captain. This was a job on which the lives of nearly a hundred people depended, and a job which he was so totally unprepared for he could not imagine any outcome but disastrous failure.

    Huhn looked down at the table for a moment and then looked back up into Sam’s eyes.

    “At least my conscience will be clear.”

    Sam wanted to scream at him, wanted to slap sense into him, wanted to get up and leave the wardroom, come back in and try again from the beginning. Instead he floated by the table and stared dumbly at Captain Huhn…no, not captain anymore…at Lieutenant Commander Huhn.



    Sam noticed that, while the grim-faced image of Captain Marietta Kleindienst, the task force chief of staff, remained fixed in his view, the ghosted image of the work area behind her floated gently, so she was holo-conferencing by helmet from the flag bridge of Pensacola, not from the conference room up in the rotating habitat wheel where there was spin-induced gravity and a full holo-suite. Sam couldn’t see her helmet, any more than she could see his, one of the odd effects of the helmet optics. The internal optics looked in and recorded the speaker’s face and head while the external optics looked out and recorded the nearby environment, but neither of them recorded the helmet itself.

    “Mister Bitka, exactly what in the Sam Hell is going on over there?” Kleindienst demanded. “Lieutenant Colonel Okonkwo just got off the link and sounded like he was going to have a stroke.”

    No one on Puebla had been sure who to notify about Huhn’s action, but Moe Rice had recommended the task force personnel department. Okonkwo was the task force N1–personnel chief–and Sam’s own conversation with him a quarter of an hour earlier had been difficult, eventually becoming heated.

    “Yes, ma’am. When I spoke with him the situation seemed …beyond his personal experience. I don’t know that any ship captain in the Nigerian Navy has ever requested relief from command and duty on medical grounds–at least for this reason. But that’s the situation with Lieutenant Commander Huhn.”

    It sounded strange not to call Huhn “captain.”

    Sam didn’t know much about the Nigerian Navy, but Okonkwo’s rank was lieutenant colonel, not commander. The fact they used the same rank titles as the army instead of most other nations’ navies was a small thing, but it still seemed like a strike against them.

    “And do I understand that those medical grounds are ‘psychological exhaustion?'” she asked.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “And you actually went along with this?”



    “He didn’t give us a lot of options. As long as he was in command, we had no choice but to obey his orders, and his last order was, ‘Take command.’ ”

    “It sounds pretty fishy to me. I just spoke to him on commlink but he won’t holo-conference so I can’t tell if someone’s holding a gauss pistol to his head. If you’re pulling some kind of fast one over there, you will spend the rest of your natural life in a Navy brig. Do you read me?”

    “Ma’am, you can commlink anybody you want to on this boat. If you think there’s some kind of conspiracy and everyone’s in on it …well, then I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t have a holo-conference suite over here, just our helmet optics. Lieutenant Commander Huhn won’t holo-conference because he’s in his dress whites and won’t change out of them for a shipsuit, so he’s got no helmet mount.”

    “No shipsuit? Is he crazy?”

    Sam didn’t answer. Kleindienst studied him for a moment.

    “Has he been acting …odd?”

    Sam paused to think about his answer, to choose his words carefully.

    “Nothing he did was outside the behavioral latitude enjoyed by a commanding officer on his own vessel, ma’am.”

    Kleindienst’s scowl deepened. “Meaning all captains get to act a little nuts? Alright, maybe you got a point. If you’d come running to the squadron medical officer with a list of peculiar behaviors, I’d have slapped you down as a disloyal bellyacher. And I’d have been right.”

    Sam said nothing.

    “Atwater-Jones thinks you’re smart, Bitka. Maybe so. But I never thought ‘smart’ was the most important attribute of a successful ship captain. What do you think?”

    “I think I’m smart enough to know I’m in over my head.”

    She nodded.

    “I agree. You’re short line officers, too, aren’t you? I’ve got someone in mind to send over to take command: Lieutenant Commander Barger, in the operations shop of the task force staff. Good man: Annapolis, class of ’17. The shuttle can take Huhn off at the same time, bring him over here and we’ll see if he can handle some light staff duty. But Barger’s coordinating the orbital bombardment plan and I’d rather not bring someone else up to speed between now and the landing. Can you keep things together over there for, oh, let’s say five days?”

    “Yes, Ma’am.”

    Kleindienst cut the link without saying anything more.

    The uBakai Star Navy had left K’tok orbit, so the task force shouldn’t encounter any resistance when they made their strike, and Puebla would be with the auxiliaries anyway. Five days–the duration of the short and hopefully uneventful career of Captain Sam Bitka, USNR. Chief Navarro should be able to keep him from screwing up too badly for that long. Then he would help Barger however he could, get through this war, and get back to his job on Earth.

    He remembered joking with Jules that this was like Space Camp with better food, but that was before people started dying.

    He triggered his commlink, squinted up the link for Ensign Lee–officer of the deck–pinged her, and had her patch him through the boat-wide announcement channel.

    “All hands, this is Lieutenant Bitka speaking. At 1421 hours today Captain Huhn relieved himself of duty on medical grounds and turned over command of USS Puebla to me. I’ve just spoken to the task force chief of staff and we can expect a replacement captain once the initial operations in K’tok orbit are completed. Until then I will serve as acting captain.

    “Lieutenant Commander Huhn will remain onboard until my relief arrives. He will be treated with the utmost respect and rendered every military courtesy by the crew at all times.

    “Carry on.”

    Sam cut the channel and went back to clearing the last of the paperwork on the replacement parts received from the other boats in the division, the repairs undertaken onboard, and the work that a proper shipyard needed to address the next time they saw one. He had already decided to continue with the XO job as well as command until his relief showed up. He saw no need to further disrupt the schedules and responsibilities of his fellow officers, short-handed as they already were. Everyone had to carry more water, and that included him.

    He finished the report and moved on to an intel bulletin from the task force. Sensors had picked up a strong energy glow consistent with star ships running their fusion plants to recharge their power ring, probably after emerging from jump space. The contact was over eighty million kilometers galactic south of the planetary plane and whoever it was they weren’t making a secret of their presence. If they were coming to K’Tok from there, the task force would have plenty of time to get ready. He made sure the Tac department was on the distribution list.

    A half-hour later his commlink vibrated and then he heard a feminine voice in his head.

    Sir, this is Signaler Second Lincoln, duty comm. I have another incoming tight beam for you from USS Pensacola, a Lieutenant Commander Barger.

    “Right, patch him through.” Sam heard the click of the circuit changing. “Bitka here.”

    Lieutenant Bitka, this is Lieutenant Commander Lemuel Barger. Captain Kleindienst has just told me what’s going on and that I am to take command and straighten things up over there as soon as the landing force is down and has secured the objective.

    “Yes, sir, I–”

    Do not interrupt me, Bitka.

    “No, sir.”

    I know Delmar Huhn. I cannot say we are close friends, but I believe he was capable of handling command of a vessel in combat, especially as part of a larger task force, provided he received the support of his subordinates. Given his emotional collapse, I can only assume he did not receive that needed support. I am made of sterner stuff than Delmar Huhn, Mister Bitka. I will not tolerate disloyalty among my officers, and I will get to the bottom of what went on over there once I take command. Is that understood?

    “Yes, sir.”

    A reckoning is coming, Mister Bitka. I hope you will share this information with your fellow-officers and the senior chiefs.

    “Understood, sir.”

    The connection broke and Sam sat there for a while, staring at the open report on remaining food consumables without really seeing it.

    Well, Barger hadn’t actually ordered him to poison the morale of his officers and chiefs, he had just “hoped” he would do so. Barger outranked Sam, but he had no authority to dictate what Sam did as captain of his own boat. And Sam had not promised to do so; he had only said he understood what Barger hoped for.

    So at least for the next five days the officers and crew would go about their duties as if their loyalty were not under suspicion. They would go into battle with pride, believing they were appreciated and that their sacrifices so far, and their efforts to overcome battle damage and crew casualties, were valued by their superiors. Sam could at least see to that.

    And for those next five days, until Lieutenant Commander Lemuel Barger was actually captain of USS Puebla, he could hope in one hand and piss in the other, and see which one filled up quicker.

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