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Chain of Command: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 6, 2017 21:23 EDT



24 December 2133 (four hours later) (third day in K’tok orbit)

    Sixth Principle of Naval Leadership: Insure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.

    “Hand me that pinhole nitrogen blower, would you, Chief?” Sam said.

    Chief Pete Montoya’s beefy hand holding the nitrogen blower appeared below the fabricator’s support frame. Sparks from a flux welder cascaded behind him and Sam heard the babble of shouted orders and clanging of heavy equipment maneuvered into place on the forward engineering maintenance deck. Sam took the blower and started to clean the injection nozzles on the fabricator’s “underside,” which is to say the side secured to the bulkhead which would have been “down” had there been gravity. The first high-pressure squirt pushed him away from the nozzles, first against the deck and then bouncing back against the frame.


    Montoya’s face appeared. “You okay, sir?”

    Sam laughed. “Yeah, I’m fine, Chief. Last time I did this was in one gee, that’s all.”

    He braced himself, one foot against the deck, one on a support arm, and went back to work.

    “Try it now.” Sam heard the fabricator, centimeters from his face, hum with power, followed by Montoya’s bark of satisfaction.

    “That’s got it, sir! Green lights on the board.”

    Sam pushed himself out from under the fabricator and turned to the machinist mate standing by.

    “DeWilde, isn’t it?” Sam asked. “I’m sure you guys follow all the preventive maintenance schedules, but the bottom injectors on these large-cap DP fabricators are always getting clogged up, especially if you get an in-job stoppage. If you trip a breaker or something, you get blow-back in those bottom nozzles. So after you correct the main problem, always take a look underneath for trouble.

    “Okay, sir,” DeWild answered, looking surprised.

    “Thought you were a Tac officer, sir,” Pete Montoya said, the same questioning look on his face. “You do a hitch as a snipe?”

    “Nope. Back in The World I used to install and maintain these pigs,” Sam said, gesturing to the large fabricator. “So tell your boss, Lieutenant Hennessey, she’s got her number three fabricator turning out high-temp pipe again. I need that dorsal radiator back on line by 2400 hours.”

    The fusion reactor generated enormous energy–over two gigawatts at full power–but also enormous waste heat. Some of that was released with the thruster’s reaction mass, some was converted to electricity by the Seebeck generator, but the excess waste heat was bled off by the boat’s four large radiators, extending radially from the stern of the boat. Each radiator not in service cut the maximum safe power output of their reactor by a quarter.

    “Aye, aye, sir. And thanks for the help.” Montoya gave him a crooked grin as he took the nitrogen blower.

    The tone for his embedded commlink sounded and he saw the tag for the duty commtech. He dismissed Montoya with a wave.

    “Captain here.”

    Chief Gambara, sir. I’ve got a request from the flagship for a holocon with you.

    “How soon, Chief?”

    Right now, sir. I think it’s the chief of staff.

    “Okay, I’ve got my helmet. I’ll plug in and take it down here.”

    Sam lifted his helmet and felt a surge of apprehension. This was where he got chewed out for ignoring Captain Kleindienst’s direct order to cease fire during the battle, and maybe for his refusal to take Barger on board during the battle, and who knew what else? But the apprehension faded immediately, replaced by irritation at being pulled away from repairing his boat, and impatience to get back to it. He clicked the helmet in place and activated the holocon link.

    Instead of Marietta Kliendienst, he faced Admiral Kayumati himself, and his irritation vanished. The admiral looked more haggard than when he’d given his long rambling speech two days ago. He looked older. Had it really been just two days?

    “Bitka, you disobeyed a direct order,” the admiral’s holo-image said.

    “Yes, sir, I did.” Sam let out a short huff of breath and shrugged. “Truth is, Admiral, I imagine I’d do it again. I’ll turn over Puebla to Lieutenant Commander Barger as soon as he docks. Am I under arrest?”

    For a moment the admiral looked even more tired. “No, you’re not under arrest. We don’t usually throw captains in the brig for disobeying orders when it turns out they were right. Sometimes we do, but not usually. Besides, Lem Barger didn’t make it. He got it from an uBakai fire lance when his shuttle maneuvered between the missiles and Pensacola. Not sure whose idea it was, but I’m putting both him and the shuttle pilot in for Navy Crosses. Posthumously. Lots of posthumous medals today.

    “Where are you? Looks like engineering. How badly did you get hit?”

    “We were lucky, sir. Glancing hit, probably because we were realigning the boat for our shot. We have seven crew injured but none seriously. The hit took out about two hundred tons worth of hydrogen honeycomb tankage, but the internal bulkheads held and we didn’t get any O2 contamination. Our dorsal radiator’s almost a total loss, so our fusion power plant’s capped at about seventy percent if we need to go hot. But we’re fabricating high-temperature composite-alloy pipe to replace it and we should be back up to about ninety per cent by tomorrow. We lost another point defense laser, some sensor redundancy, and the boat’s axis is slightly bent.”

    “Bent?” Kayumati said. “Can you maneuver with your drives out of alignment?”

    “Not at the moment, sir, but we can magnetically bias the thrust angle a little and that’s all we’ll need. My Ops Boss is working on a software fix. We’re going to need some serious orbital spacedock time when we get home, but we’ve got atmosphere, power, and weapons, and we’ll be able to maneuver as soon as we get that software patch in place. Maybe three hours on that.”

    Larry Goldjune had been surprisingly pliant and cooperative when Sam gave him the task of getting the drives realigned. Perhaps the pounding the uBakai had delivered to the task force had sobered him, or frightened him, or made him less anxious to take command responsibility for what was shaping up as a disaster.

    As Sam spoke he saw the ghostly shadows of officers and crew moving behind Admiral Kayumati, a constant clutter of movement. One officer briefly came into sharper focus to hand Kayumati a data pad. The admiral nodded and handed it back, then looked at Sam again.

    “Three hours is better than I expected. How many missiles you get off?”

    “Nine, sir,” Sam answered. “Six over the north horizon of K’tok, the others south as they were departing. After that we didn’t have an intercept solution any more. They were just moving too fast.”

    “Any hits?” the admiral asked.

    Sam’s mind returned to the final frantic minutes of the engagement, when all their missiles were away and the bridge crew waited for some indication of success–Filipenko hugging herself, arms crossing, as if keep herself from flying apart with nervous energy, Ron Ramirez’s face tear-stained although he seemed unaware of it, Elise Delacroix calling off range to target in her nasal Quebecois accent.

    “Their point defense took out at least half our missiles,” he told the admiral, “and once the rest started detonating we couldn’t see much past the plasma cloud, so I can’t be sure, but …I don’t think so. No sign of heat spikes from any of the bandits, no visible debris.”

    Admiral Kayumati nodded. “Good honest answer, son. No, I don’t think you touched them–same as the other destroyers. The cruisers got a hit or two, and we took out at least one enemy ship. I say at least one because we blew it into so many pieces we couldn’t tell if all that junk was parts from one ship or two. But I think something’s seriously wrong with those fancy new Block Four missiles you destroyer folks are carrying. You may as well have been shooting blanks.”

    Sam tasted something bad in his mouth, felt different feelings tugging at him. At least it wasn’t just our shooting that was bad. It wasn’t something we’d screwed up. But the price for that absolution had been universal failure, and a problem that might be much harder to solve. He’d far rather have had two or three more dead uBakai warships, and let someone else get the credit.

    “How bad were the casualties on the cruisers, sir? Some of the crew … they have friends over there, former shipmates.”

    Kayumati looked at him for a moment, eyes empty. “We’re still searching, but as near as we can tell casualties on the three cruisers, the two fleet auxiliaries, and the one transport which were lost were one hundred percent. We lost two destroyers as well, but we got an emergency signal from survivors in Vicksburg and we have a shuttle on the way to check Shiloh for survivors.”

    “One hundred per cent? But …how is that possible? Somebody usually survives, in an airtight compartment or in escape capsules …don’t they?”

    The admiral looked away for a moment and then back. Just moving his head looked as if it took most of his remaining energy.

    “From a fire lance hit, yes. But they used some sort of electronic warfare on us, a version we’ve never encountered before, never even dreamed of. Atwater-Jones is still going over the signal intercept data. We’ll put together a briefing as soon as she and her staff figure out more pieces of the puzzle, but the bottom line is this: somehow they caused six of our ships to engage their interstellar jump drives. The electronic jump signature is clear as a bell, but mostly they didn’t go anywhere.” He paused and sighed, then shook his head.

    “This deep in a gravity well, the jump impulse was what the engineering people call ‘non-coherent’. Pieces of the ship and crew–very small pieces–jumped, but apparently only a few millimeters, and caused a whole bunch of annihilation events. Not much left but wreckage and …well, human remains. I don’t know how they did it, but somehow the leatherheads can turn our own star drives into weapons against us.”

    For a moment Sam’s mind was occupied trying to stave off the imagined picture of Captain Aretha Chelanga and others on the bridge of Bully with pieces of them missing. No, he realized, they would mostly have exploded. He pushed the vision out of his mind, made himself think about the problem at hand.

    “But weren’t the jump drives powered down, sir?”

    “Yup. Didn’t matter. Like I said, we can’t figure out how it’s even possible to do what they did, and until we do, we don’t know how to protect our remaining ships from it.”

    A shiver of fear made Sam lift his shoulders, and then he realized something important, something that affected him and the Puebla directly.

    “Admiral, then that means–”

    “That’s right, Bitka,” the admiral said, cutting him off. “The only combatant vessels we have that we can count on to stand up against this weapon are ones without jump drives, which means your destroyers–and for the moment we only have three left in K’tok orbit. And there’s something wrong with your blasted missiles. I hope we can figure that out and fix it quick.” He shook his head again, looking down, but then looked up at Sam and straightened.

    “Captain Bitka, you are chopped to DesDiv Four effective immediately. I just field bumped Juanita Rivera on Champion Hill up to O-5 to take over what’s left of the division. She’s your new boss and she’ll brief you–as soon as we figure out what the heck our next move is and tell her. You got any questions, son?”

    “Just one, sir. Any idea when you’ll have another replacement captain to us?”

    Kayumati squinted at him, a flicker of irritation flashing across his face.

    “I’m a little short of officers myself at the moment, Bitka. You didn’t completely foul things up this morning so you’re going to have to run Puebla until we get some reinforcements or …well, something turns up. I’ll see about taking Commander Huhn off your hands, but no promises. For the next thirty or so hours all our orbital transfer assets are going to be busier than a long-tailed cat at a rocking chair convention.”

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