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Chain of Command: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, September 11, 2017 06:46 EDT



24 December 2133 (thirty minutes later) (third day in K’tok orbit)

    The wardroom was crowded, holding all the off-duty officers in white as well as the khaki-clad senior chiefs, almost a dozen total. Sam paused at the open hatch. He’d had the mess attendants set the wardroom’s smart walls to mimic the HRVS optics pointed laterally, so K’tok–enormous, blue, and cloud-wrapped–dominated the view to port. They were just coming up on the needle, a shining golden thread impossibly long, stretching all the way down into K’Tok’s atmosphere and over forty thousand kilometers up to its orbiting counterweight. Somewhere down at the bottom of it, Human troops held a small bridgehead on the planet surface, and were counting on support from a task force that had just been shot to pieces.

    But that wasn’t his immediate problem.

    Realistically, he figured he had one chance to win Puebla’s officers and chiefs over. He knew he’d have plenty of chances to lose them later, but that wouldn’t make any difference if he couldn’t even make this first meeting click.

    No pressure.

    “Atten-shun!” one of the chiefs barked and the officers and chiefs snapped to smartly enough, although several of them weren’t tethered and so started drifting slowly across the compartment.

    Sam took in a slow breath.

    Okay. It’s a staff meeting. You’ve run these before. Maybe not in space, not in the middle of a war, but the principle’s the same: don’t let them see you sweat.

    “As you were,” Sam said. “I’m having this meeting piped to the crew so we’re all on the same page. I just talked to Admiral Kayumati half an hour ago. We’ll get a complete report later, but what it boils down to is we got our asses kicked. We were very lucky on Puebla to come away with just a few bruises. Eight vessels are total write-offs, including three cruisers and two destroyers, and most of their crews are dead.”

    They had suspected bad news but he could see from their faces this was worse than expected.

    “We probably all lost friends today. I had friends on Bully Big Dick. Captain Chelanga … well, she was a hell of a lady. When you’re back in your cabins, take a moment, remember them, but right now we’ve got too much work to do.

    “I wish like hell I could tell you Puebla got a piece of those bastards, but we didn’t. It wasn’t your fault. You got our missiles out the tube faster than any other unit in the task force, except Bully, and near as I can tell we had the best target solutions. The problem is our damned missiles are broken. None of the destroyers got any hits, so it looks like the problem is in the Block Four missile design.”

    Sam scanned the group and was pleased–and a little surprised–to see Marina Filipenko and Joe Burns, his Tac Boss and Bull Tac, floating side-by-side.

    “Lieutenant Filipenko, Chief Burns, that’s the tactical department’s big job. Figure out what’s wrong with the missiles and fix it. Get Chief Menzies in on this, too. Nobody knows those Block Fours better than she does. Contact the other destroyers and get together with their tac-heads. Tight beam Hornet and see what their squints have to say. We’ve got a machine shop and fabricators, so you should be able to jury-rig something. Understood?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    He turned to the operations staff next but found Gordy Cunningham, the Bull Ops, floating next to Constancia Navarro and Chief Pete Montoya from engineering, with Ensign Barb Lee on the other side of the wardroom.

    “Ensign Lee, Chief Cunningham, I’ve got two jobs for the operations department. First, figure out a way to get a quick and dirty map of the asteroid belt so we can detect ships by stellar occlusion, even with asteroids behind them. This time they hit us from above, but those uBakai shitheads like to play hide-and-seek with the asteroids, and I’m sick of it.”

    R#8220;Sir, I don’t know how we can manage that,” Lee said.

    Lee had been calm and confident under fire only two hours earlier. She had been the same, he remembered, during the first attack three weeks ago. It was odd seeing her hesitant and unsure of herself in a meeting. Maybe her brain needed a good shot of adrenaline to get going, or maybe she’d settle down once she got away from the crowd and back to a workstation.

    “Genius, Ensign Lee. Give me an act of genius.

    “Now here’s operations department’s number two job. Lieutenant Goldjune will take this one when he’s done with the software patch he’s working on, but you pass it on to him. We lost six ships today that the uBakai never touched with a fire lance missile. They made their jump drives cycle and it killed the ships and everyone in them. Nobody knows how they did it.

    “Get with Task Force intel, pour over their data, our data, ship specs, whatever we have. How come those six ships blew up and the other eight jump-equipped ships in the task force didn’t? Start there. If we don’t figure out a way to keep our cruisers from blowing up, there’s going to be nobody left to hold the fort but us and two other destroyers. Anybody here think that sounds like a good plan?”

    He looked around and got a lot of shaking heads and a smattering of no‘s.


    “Lieutenant Hennessey, Chief Montoya, engineering’s only job is to get us operational, and as quickly as possible. Any off-watch personnel from any other department with usable skills, you take ’em. Lieutenant Goldjune’s finishing the software patch to bias the thrust nozzles, and I just told Admiral Kayumati we’d be ready to maneuver in three hours.”

    “Three hours?” Hennessey repeated. “How long before Goldjune’s done with the software patch?”

    “No idea, but it was advertised as ‘soon.’ Don’t look at me like that, Lieutenant. I’d give you an easy job if I had one, but there just aren’t any today.

    “And Lieutenant Rice, our supply officer. The task force lost one transport and two fleet auxiliaries today, almost half our support vessels. That’s going to mean trouble supplying the troops on the ground. Find out how bad the situation is and what they may need. It’s not our job yet, but it might end up that way, so if it does, let’s get out ahead of it mentally.”

    “I’m on it,” Moe answered.

    Sam scanned the faces. The men and women in front of him didn’t look happy or cheerful, but they didn’t look in shock either. Their minds were engaged, every department had a job to do, and for now that was as good as he could manage.


    “Yes, sir, I got one,” Gordy Cunningham, the Bull Ops said. “What the hell collided with us during the battle? Was that Pensacola’s shuttle?”

    “We took a hit from an uBakai fire lance missile, Chief,” Sam answered.

    “You mean it ran right into us? I thought they just shot a laser.”

    “That’s right, it shot a laser and the laser hit us.”

    Cunningham shook his head. “No, a laser would’ve cut through, right? This felt like something big slammed right into us.”

    Sam heard a mutter of agreement from the others, all except Chief Burns who looked at the others as if they were crazy. Joe Burns had been the chief of the weapons division before he moved up to Bull Tac, so he knew fire lance missiles and what they did. Didn’t everyone? No, apparently not.

    “Okay. Um … you’re right about lasers cutting the target, but only if the laser is at lower power and has a long burn time, say a second or more. A fire lance, when its warhead blows, pumps its laser rods once, and then they’re vaporized by the detonation within a nanosecond or two. That’s one or two billionths of a second. So the actual pulse of the rod is less than that, but in that instant it delivers about a gigajoule of energy to the target. That’s the equivalent of, what, Chief Burns? Isn’t that about two hundred kilos of explosives?”



    “Two hundred and forty, sir,” he answered.

    “Right, two forty. The thing is, it’s transferred so quickly–a lot quicker than a conventional explosion–it converts a section of the hull to plasma which is trying to expand, but it can’t expand fast enough to just drift away. Instead it whacks the boat about as hard as a quarter-ton explosive shaped charge attached to the hull: same concussion, same shear effects. We’re lucky we only caught a glancing blow.”

    He looked around and saw men and women exchange frightened looks. Somebody should have told them this sooner. Somebody should at least have explained how their damned weapons worked, even if they didn’t need to know it to do their jobs.

    “Any other questions? Okay. Chief Navarro, I want you to keep on top of progress, see where we need some extra help.”

    “Aye, aye, sir,” Navarro answered, her face expressionless.

    “Well,” Sam said, and thought for a moment about how to send them on their way. “Merry Christmas, or it will be tomorrow. Kwanza starts in two more days, Chanukah in three. The winter solstice was two days ago, Mawlid a month back. Bodhi Day was … what? … two weeks ago? The day some of you celebrate the enlightenment of the Buddha. Not much enlightenment to celebrate this year. Maybe it seems like there’s not much to celebrate at all, but we’re still alive, and that’s something.

    “We got punched pretty hard today. Next time it’s going to be different. So let’s turn to.”

    As the officers and chiefs cleared out past him, Sam noticed Del Huhn floating at the rear of wardroom, his tether clipped to a wall stanchion. He looked a lot better. He was wearing a standard shipsuit and his face appeared rested, more relaxed. He held a drink bulb in his hand and looked at Sam, an odd knowing smile on his lips as if he and Sam shared a secret no one else knew. As the last of the chiefs left, Huhn cocked his head to the side. Sam kicked off and drifted over to him.

    “So, how do you like being captain so far?” Huhn asked, and the smile became something closer to a smirk.

    “Enjoy your coffee, Lieutenant Commander Huhn, but in the future I want you to clear the wardroom when I’m having a meeting with my officers and chiefs.”

    “I’m still an officer on this boat,” Huhn said.

    “With respect, sir, you are a passenger on this boat. And by the way, since you were already packed for the transfer to Pensacola, we’ll swap cabins in two hours.”

    Sam turned and glided through the wardroom hatch only to find chief Navarro waiting on the other side.

    “Satisfied?” he asked, but from her grim expression he didn’t think so.

    “I got a little girl seven years old, a little boy five,” she said. “I don’t want them growing up sin madre. What do we do when El Almirante pulls everyone out of orbit except our three destroyers?”

    Sam had suspected Admiral Kayumati might do that–pull all the jump drive-equipped ships out of harm’s way–but he wasn’t as certain as Navarro seemed to be.

    “I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”‘

    Her face remained rigid for several seconds, and then she nodded.

    “With the captain’s permission, I think it’s time we had a talk.”



    Ten minutes later they tethered themselves to restraint rings in Sam’s stateroom. It didn’t feel like his anymore, now that he’d made the decision to move, and he was glad he had. He was probably going to have a lot of private conferences like this and the captain’s cabin had more room. This had been Del Huhn’s cabin before Sam moved up to XO and he remembered how crowded that first officers’ meeting had felt.

    Sam offered Navarro something to drink and for a change she took him up on it.

    “Orange juice if you’ve got it, sir.”

    After they took a moment to sip from their drink bulbs, Navarro cleared her throat and started.

    “Near as I can tell, you did real good today, sir. With respect, how much of that do you figure was luck?”

    It wasn’t the question Sam was expecting, although he couldn’t have said which one was expected.

    “I’m not sure. Maybe most of it.”

    She shook her head, her mouth a hard line.

    “Captain, if you follow my advice, you will never say anything like that to another living soul on this boat. You can be all modest and stuff for the brass and for the folks back home, but for this crew, since you aren’t a career officer and you aren’t an operations officer, you better be a goddamned tactical genius. Everyone had lots of questions about whether you were up to this job. If we had a nice long peacetime cruise, you’d have time to work into this gradually, but that’s not our situation.”

    “Not being from operations, not being a regular–does the crew really care that much about it?” Sam asked. He’d thought that pecking order was important only to the officers.

    “Sure they care. I care, sir. I came up through maneuvering, promoted from quartermaster first to chief, operations all the way. All my career, most tac-heads I ever saw were just ballast, and some of them weren’t even very good at that. And as for being a reservist, the things you have to figure out, think through, the regular men and women know by instinct. They’ve been doing it every day for years.”

    “That didn’t seem to be a problem for you when I got the XO job,” he said.

    “XO ain’t captain, sir. But you may have noticed I said everyone had questions about you. All those drills everyone thought were a waste of time–seeing how fast we can get to general quarters, how fast we can get missiles out the tube–everyone knew speed and quick reaction time wasn’t important, right?

    “But earlier today when our task force got hammered, we survived, and we were one of the only boats to get missiles fired. Even if the missiles ended up being broke-dick-no-workee, we looked pretty good. Now, the fact everyone but you thought those drills were stupid, makes you look like some kind of mastermind. And that’s good, because over a thousand men and women died in orbit earlier today, and as bad as everyone feels about it, they’d feel a lot worse if they were dead too.

    “Why are those other people dead and we’re alive? The crew thinks it’s because of you. Whether you’re smart or lucky, they don’t much care. In their minds whatever mojo you have going is keeping them alive, and that’s good enough for them.

    “I’m not saying to swagger around this boat as if you were Bull Halsey. I’m just asking you, please, to never let on to anyone that you don’t think you’ve got what it takes. The belief that you’re on top of this–even if it&##8217;s a lie–is all that’s holding these kids together.

    “Oh, and by the way, pitching in to help with the repairs was good. Most of the time I wouldn’t encourage a captain to do that, but you’ve got a kind of eccentric genius thing going with the crew that makes it work.”

    She stopped and took a long drink of orange juice. When she finished Sam expected her to resume speaking, but instead she just looked at him and he realized it was his turn to talk.

    “Eccentric genius, huh? Not at all the way I think of myself, but I can live with it.”

    “Don’t get me wrong, sir. I’m not telling you to try to be something you’re not, even though it may sound like it. But that won’t work either. You can’t act like the captain. You’ve got to be the captain.”

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