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Chain of Command: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Saturday, September 16, 2017 10:20 EDT



26 December 2133 (two days later) (fifth day in K’tok orbit)

    The four holo-conference attendees seemed to float in space, each one surrounded by a small sphere of imagery–a cabin, a wardroom, a work station, an empty conference room–the spheres forming the four corners of a small square surrounded by dimensionless gray. Atwater-Jones was holo-conferencing from the unarmed command ship, USS Pensacola, but from a conference room somewhere other than its habitat wheel, so she was in zero gee. Her long red hair was tied back into a ponytail, but a very loose one, so her hair floated around her head in a soft cloud, as if she were under water. It was a little distracting. The three destroyer captains, of course, floated in zero gee as well–they had no other option.

    Sam had balked at another holo-conference–he had too much to do as it was without another meeting to attend–but he found himself looking forward to seeing Cassandra Atwater-Jones again. He liked her sense of humor. After five minutes, though, he wasn’t laughing; he found himself staring at the image of the British officer in disbelief.

    “They hit Bronstein’s World? But the BW’s neutral, isn’t it? They don’t even have a military, just a police force.”

    “That is quite correct, Captain Bitka,” Atwater-Jones said. “However, the US Eleventh Fleet Headquarters is located on land leased from the planetary authorities, close by the needle down station and in the administrative capital. There are also several orbital facilities owned by the United States Navy, as well as one owned jointly by India and Brazil. All of the orbital installations were destroyed and the Eleventh Fleet ground facilities were attacked from orbit, with considerable loss of life both in the facility and the surrounding civilian community.”

    Sam shook his head and for a moment thought about Filipenko–she hit her hard.

    “Beyond that,” she went on, “the coalition task force assembling near the system gas giant was taken under attack as well and has suffered casualties similar to ours, both in scope and apparent cause.”

    “What does that mean for us getting reinforcements?” Juanita Rivera on Champion Hill asked.

    Rivera was the acting commander of the destroyer division, and Sam had spoken to her several times about readiness and repair progress. She hadn’t been able to tell him what the long-term plan was, because task force hadn’t told her yet. They’d both hoped this briefing might answer that question.

    In sharp contrast to Atwater-Jones, Rivera’s raven-black hair was cut to a uniform length of five centimeters and in zero gee stuck out like a porcupine’s quills. She was big, with big hands and a strong, squared-off jaw. She looked as if she lifted weights normally, but the extended zero-gee was getting to her, rounding her face and body. She probably wasn’t getting as much exercise as she should, but she still looked as if she could kick down doors that got in her way. So far her command style was just about as subtle as that, which was fine with Sam. The time for subtlety had passed, in his opinion.

    Atwater-Jones said nothing for a moment.

    “Our two detached cruisers–Exeter and Aradu–are en route to join us, as are the three destroyers under Commander Bonaventure escorting USS Hornet. They will be here in three days. The admiral has also ordered your four remaining destroyers to leave orbit around the gas giant Mogo and join us. But as to reinforcements from Earth …well, that’s off, at least for the immediate future.”

    “Mierda,” Rivera said. “Any more bad news?”

    The British intelligence officer shifted uncomfortably–the first time Sam had seen any hint that anything might put her off balance.

    “I am afraid so. It seems our initial assessment that we destroyed an uBakai cruiser in the battle was incorrect.”

    Sam sat back in his chair.

    “But I’ve seen the wreckage imagery,” he said. “We all have. Now you’re telling us we didn’t kill a single uBakai ship? How is that possible?”

    The other two destroyer captains in the holo-conference made noises of agreement, and Atwater-Jones’s expression didn’t change as she listened. Her briefing had already made clear that the task force still had no idea how the uBakai had turned their jump drives on remotely. Now this.

    “Yes, I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” she said. “Believe me, the cruiser captains were even more distressed. They had thought to have been responsible for the one uBakai ship destroyed. But careful study of the sensor records indicates that the single enemy craft lost was destroyed well before any ordnance was launched by any of our vessels.”

    “You mean the uBakai blew up one of their own ships?” Rivera said. “Bullshit! They aren’t that loco.”

    “Blew up their own ship? Not deliberately,” Atwater-Jones answered, ignoring the implied challenge. “It appears to have been an accident. They were able to arrive seemingly out of nowhere because that is in fact precisely what they did. You see, they exited jump space well within the plane of the ecliptic, under ten thousand kilometers from K’tok. Our sensor records clearly show the energy signature of a jump emergence at the point we first detected them.”

    “And no one in the task force saw it coming?” Rivera said, her voice taking on more of an angry edge.

    “Sane people like us never do that sort of thing,” Atwater-Jones said quietly, “because the plane of the ecliptic is full of debris, dust, asteroids–widely spaced to be sure, but chance emergence in the same space as even a fairly modest-sized piece of rock can be catastrophic, as you all know very well. That appears to have been what happened: one of their ships exploded immediately upon exiting jump space.” She glanced briefly at Sam and raised one eyebrow.

    “Sane people like us listen carefully to what our astrogators say, and follow all the rules, even after the rules cease making sense.”

    “So their admirals are smarter than ours, is what you’re telling us,” Rivera said.

    “I’d say they gambled and won,” Atwater-Jones replied.

    “I’d say they just revolutionized interplanetary warfare,” Sam said. The others turned to look at him. “Think about it. All of our tactics are built around the assumption jump drives get us from star system to star system but Newton thrusters move us around in the system. It makes perfect sense in peacetime, but these in-system jumps are the way tactical surprise returns to the battlescape. Sure, there’s a risk, but there’s a hell of a payoff if it works.”

    Sam did not add that in a single stroke the uBakai had also rendered the destroyer rider concept obsolete, or at least a great deal less useful. The others sat silently for several long seconds.

    “So we didn’t even get a piece of them?” Captain Mike Wu of Petersburg, finally said. Wu looked as if he was well over the fleet mass limit for his height. He frowned and rubbed the top of his shaved head with his small but fat-fingered hand–or at least seemed to, but the hand moved back and forth several centimeters above his head, rubbing the top of his invisible helmet.

    “I’ve looked through the data dump on the attack. There are heat spikes, additional debris, even some outgassing.”

    “Yeah, how do you explain that?” Rivera demanded.

    “Oh, they did not escape entirely unscathed. One of USS Theodore Roosevelt’s missiles certainly hit an uBakai cruiser. We cannot tell how serious the damage was–not enough to disable it–but a fire lance hit can cause quite a lot of mischief short of that. And Captain Rivera, you may find this particularly heartening. USS Shiloh, one of your destroyers, was effectively overrun by the uBakai squadron as it passed behind K’tok, and as you know was destroyed with considerable loss of life. But in recovering survivors we also recovered its intact bridge data log.

    “The late Captain Rothstein of Shiloh fired six missiles at the oncoming uBakai, and although they caused no hits their close-in detonation provided her with an interference barrier against the uBakai sensors. That kept them from hitting her boat until they were quite close. Rothstein redirected her point defense lasers to engage ship-sized targets instead of missiles, and appears to have done considerable damage to several of the four remaining uBakai cruisers.”

    “Someone better put Miriam in for a decoration,” Rivera said. “It’s not much, but it might mean something to her husband and kids.”

    “I quite agree,” Atwater-Jones replied.

    Sam cleared this throat.

    “I’ve got one more question. Why is this war so important?”

    Atwater-Jones shifted in her chair and gave him a look partly quizzical, partly mocking.

    “Important? I thought the admiral’s address made that clear. The salient point is the bio-compatibility of–”

    “No,” Sam said, cutting her off. “I understand why it’s important to us. But we didn’t start the war, they did. And now they’ve escalated it by hitting Bronstein’s World. K’tok is just one of more than a dozen Varoki colony worlds, and some of them are Varoki bio-compatible. So why is this one so important to them?”

    “Well …” Atwater-Jones began but then stopped. She frowned for a moment and looked away, perhaps to gather her thoughts, and then her face cleared.



    “Damned if I know,” she said. “I really had better find out, hadn’t I?”

    “Let me just make sure I got all of this squared away,” Rivera said. “The uBakai are cranking up the heat in the war, from everything I read in the intel brief they can double or triple their available ships here, our cruisers blow up when they look cross-eyed at them, and the missiles on our destroyer don’t work.”

    “Yes, that last bit’s something of a challenge. I’d get on fixing those missiles right away,” Atwater-Jones said.

    “We’re screwed,” Rivera said, barely containing her anger, or was it fear?

    “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the intelligence officer replied.

    “No? Why not?”

    “Because I am paid not to. Come to think of it, so are you. I believe what you are paid for is producing good results under trying conditions. I doubt you will ever in your career get a better opportunity to demonstrate that aptitude than you have right now.”

    For a moment all Sam heard was the faint whisper of the air circulation system in his cabin.

    “Easy for you to say, sitting on the command ship,” Rivera answered. Sam looked over at her holo-image. She gripped the arms of her acceleration rig hard enough to make her knuckles white, and her eyes had narrowed to slits. Sam didn’t like the situation much either, but he didn’t see how insulting the task force N-2 was going to improve things.

    “Not altogether easy,” Atwater-Jones replied carefully. “Of course the real trick is to make difficult jobs look easy. You might work on that, Captain Rivera.”

    And then she cut her transmission.

    “Nice one, boss,” Sam said to Rivera. She looked at him for a moment, eyes cold, and then cut her own feed. Sam looked over at Captain Wu on Petersburg, who gave an elaborate shrug and then cut his transmission.

    Well, the situation may be hopeless, but at least we’ll die among friends.

    Sam kept his faceplate down so his next conversation would be private. He squinted up the commlink code for Marina Filipenko. She should hear the news of this attack on her home directly from him.



    Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, made way as a damage abatement party glided past in the weightless operations core of KBk Five One Seven, then continued to grip the handhold as two other crewmen passed, guiding three long bundles–bodies of crewmen wrapped in white death shrouds. The composite liner of one must have been torn because Nuvaash saw a red stain spreading along the side of the bundle. He closed his eyes and tried to master his growing anger and confusion.

    A hand touched his arm. His eyes jerked open and he saw Senior Lieutenant e-Toveri, one of the few officers on the cruiser whose company he enjoyed.

    “I am sorry, my friend, if I startled you,” e-Toveri said. He tethered himself to a wall stanchion, then dug a short length of crushed Taba root from a plastic pouch and slipped it into his mouth between this gum and lip. He shook his head and nodded toward the two crewmen and their somber cargo.

    “A difficult business, this is turning out to be. Two more dead forward who we could not get to without hard suits and cutting torches, these three here, and I hear three more in engineering. Koomik’koh is one of them.”

    Nuvaash felt the news course through him like a wave of electricity, searing the nerves it surged through.

    “Koomik’koh. I knew him,” Nuvaash said, the traditional acknowledgement of the passing of a friend–the only other officer on the cruiser Nuvaash could honestly say that of.

    “As did I,” e-Toveri responded. “He inspired me to rise above the commonplace. He drove me to become better than I am.”

    “He made me laugh,” Nuvaash answered honestly. Koomik’koh was the only officer on the cruiser who had.

    e-Toveri touched his arm again and then pushed off to glide down the corridor, and soon Nuvaash was alone.

    None of this made any sense!

    Why would the home government support a war of aggression against the Humans when that war would bring glory to the Navy, the main agents of the failed military coup a year ago? Why? There must be a hidden reason.

    Then he remembered–a report had arrived shortly after the battle describing the course of ground combat on K’tok. Something about it had struck him as odd, but his attention was absorbed in helping stem the loss of atmosphere and directing damage abatement parties, and in the chaos and urgency of saving the ship the message had slipped his mind. Now it was back with its annoying itch of vague wrongness. He rested the back of his head in one of the wireless datalink alcoves spaced along the corridor. Not all of them were still live, after the damage they had sustained, but this one was. He activated his surgically embedded commlink and contacted the ship’s e-synaptic memory core.

    Load ground status report received Day Seven, Tenmonth Waxing.


    Access visual.

    Nuvaash donned his viewer glasses and scanned the virtual image of the report which appeared in his optic centers. What had caught his attention? Then he saw it, at the bottom, the signature: Villi Murhaach, Governor Plenipotentiary of K’tok. That wasn’t the name of the governor he remembered.

    When had they arrived in-system? About two and a half months ago.

    Identity of Governor Plenipotentiary of K’tok, Day Seven, Sevenmonth Waning.

    Tinjeet e-Rauhaan

    Yes, his memory was not betraying him. When had that changed?

    Circumstances of replacement of e-Rauhaan by Murhaach as governor.

    Tinjeet e-Rauhaan killed in groundcar accident on Nine of Ninemonth Waxing. Replaced same day as governor plenipotentiary of K’tok, in accordance with statute, by deputy governor Villi Murhaach.

    Killed in a groundcar accident? e-Rauhaan must have been the unluckiest governor in history. Nuvaash could not remember the last time he had heard of an autocar malfunctioning dramatically enough to result in a fatality.

    Day Nine of Ninemonth waxing. Now why did that date stick in his mind? Oh, of course.

    List date KBk Five One Seven fired first multiple target ordnance in K’tok system.

    Ten of Ninemonth Waxing.

    Yes, they had fired the first shot of the war the day after e-Rauhaan had died and was replaced by Murhaach.

    Nuvaash accessed background files on both the former and current governor. Tinjeet e-Rauhaan, a politician widely known for his moderate views, had worked to reduce violence with Human colonists along the frontier zone. Not the sort of politician who would have approved of this war at all. News feeds described Murhaach, on the other hand, as a firebrand, an extreme anti-Humanist, who had been appointed to the largely ceremonial position of deputy governor only as a political concession to the opposition. But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he had become governor, and heir to the governor’s plenipotentiary power.

    Nuvaash broke the link to the ship’s memory core and floated in the corridor, thinking the puzzle through, arranging the pieces.

    Plenipotentiary powers: plenipotentiary meant the governor spoke with the full force of the home government and could act locally in its stead. Technically it meant the governor could launch the nation upon a war, but Nuvaash had never heard of that power being used–at least before now. The preemptive attack was not the sort of thing e-Rauhaan would ever have countenanced, while Murhaach would have embraced it immediately, used his extraordinary powers to authorize it, all of which was unprecedented and irregular, yet entirely legal. But …

    But Nuvaash had been briefed on the attack plan four days before e-Rauhaan’s death, and at that time KBk Five One Seven had already been on its firing course for two days. The plan must have been made even earlier.

    Why would anyone make a plan which relied upon the complicity of a planetary governor who would never agree to it–a plan which could be carried through only by virtue of the convenient, but presumably unforeseeable, death of that governor, and his replacement by the fanatical Murhaach?

    Nuvaash knew the answer to that question, and the answer froze him in place in the corridor, momentarily paralyzing his muscles and emptying his mind.

    Nothing had made sense since this operation began, but now Nuvaash saw clearly it was because of their habitual Varoki willing embrace of secrecy in every aspect of their lives. The shadow brotherhoods which formed a hidden layer of cross-cutting ambitions and allegiances below the surface of Varoki society, the complex jostling of wealth and ideology, privilege and pride in successive layers of political and corporate governance, had rendered the true motivations for public acts seemingly unknowable. The Varoki were used to things not appearing to make sense, used to the idea that the real reasons for actions were complex and concealed–so used to it that it no longer occurred to them that someone might simply be lying. Their suspicious nature did not protect them from deceit; on the contrary, it made them defenseless against it.

    We are dupes, Nuvaash thought, a race of dupes.

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