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Chain of Command: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 20:11 EDT



29 December 2133 (three days later) (eighth day in K’tok orbit)

    Larry Goldjune had already moved to the Maneuvering One chair by the time Sam got to the bridge.

    “Sir, the boat is at Readiness Condition Three, MatCon Bravo, in stationary planetary orbit above K’tok, in formation with DesDiv Four. Power ring is fully charged, reactor on standby, shroud secured, sensors active. We are on alert for a captain’s holo-conference with task force command in six minutes,” Goldjune reported as Sam strapped himself into the command seat.

    “Thank you, I have the boat, Mister Goldjune. Did you say task force? I thought this was Captain Rivera’s meeting.”

    “Was sir,” Goldjune answered, “but Captain Kleindienst, task force chief of staff, wanted in. Guess she’s got some news.”

    Sam looked at him and Goldjune just shrugged, but the gesture had the look of resignation about it. The bridge crew didn’t look up, concentrated on their workstations more than this routine period in orbit would suggest. Sam sensed their anxiety and it make him nervous as well.

    He nodded a greeting to Chief Joe Burns in the Tac One seat. Unflappable Joe, he’d heard one of the crew call him, and it fit. He was a rock, the steadiness the tactical department needed after all the changes, after Jules’s death. Strange that he could think that phrase now and it didn’t leave him short of breath, although he felt the now-familiar flutter just out of his field of vision–watching what he’d do here, watching how he’d handle more wheels flying off this wreck.

    Chief Adelina Gambara sat in the comm chair. She’d taken over the communication division when Marina Filipenko moved over to Tac. She must have been in her late twenties but looked younger because of her slight physique. Her jet-black hair pulled back in a tight bun and her olive complexion complemented the lighter tone of her khaki shipsuit. Of course he’d always known she was attractive, but Sam now realized she was strikingly beautiful. It had never occurred to him before.

    I only had eyes for you, he thought to the shadow in his mind.

    Ron Ramirez sat the Tac Two chair and Rachel Karlstein from engineering was at the ship systems station, two of the people who had been with Sam in the auxiliary bridge the day of the first attack. A petty officer first named Zimmer sat in the Maneuvering Two chair. All three of them were part of the nearly invisible–to most officers–rank layer called acey-deucies, petty officers first and second class, the people who actually made the boat work. Chiefs and officers, the folks above them, supervised. Those below, the petty officer thirds and the ordinary mariners, usually didn’t know quite enough to let near the really critical jobs. If damage got fixed, if something important got done, most of the time an acey-deucie turned the wrench, or recalibrated the thingamajig.

    Sam shook his head. Why was he thinking this way, almost sentimentally, as if taking stock of the crew before taking leave of them? None of them were going anywhere. Well, they were all going into the future, a fog-shrouded land which would take on a more distinct shape after this holo-conference, but would probably look no more inviting.

    “I’ve got a preliminary ping from Pennsacola, sir,” Chief Gambara said. “Setting up the conference network now.”

    “Thanks, Chief,” Sam said and plugged the life support umbilical from the work station into the socket at the waist of his shipsuit. No telling how long the conference would last and if the air in his helmet started getting stale he didn’t want to have to fumble with it later. Once those were in place, he put his helmet on and clicked it into the neck ring, slid the faceplate down, and checked the diagnostics on life support and the holo-optics: all green lights. He slid his faceplate up and leaned back against the acceleration rig.

    “Any time, Gambara.”

    After ten seconds she gave him a thumbs-up gesture. He slid his faceplate down and the manufactured environment of the holo-conference replaced the bridge around him. Marietta Kleindienst hovered at a briefing station, ahead and slightly below him, with captains Mike Wu of Petersburg and Juniata Rivera of Champion Hill on Sam’s right. To his surprise, Captain Bonaventure of Oaxaca, and commander of DesDiv Three, sat to his left.

    Bonaventure and the rest of DesDiv Three had missed the First Battle of K’Tok, but they were approaching, escorting the crippled Hornet, and in all the excitement and distraction Sam had momentarily forgotten. Three more destroyers wouldn’t hurt. Bonaventure hadn’t changed much: he was tall and large-framed without being very heavy, and he still had a vaguely greasy look, possibly from his shiny black hair, possibly from the fact that he tended to perspire more than most. Sam nodded to him and Bonaventure’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

    “Where’s Captain Huhn?” he asked.

    “Relieved on medical grounds … his own call.”

    Bonaventure’s eyebrows rose even further.

    “Really? So, ‘Bow-on’ Bitka’s has the Puebla. Did you have command during the battle or did Huhn?”

    “Enough socializing,” Klelindienst said sharply from the briefing station. “You’ll have plenty of time to gossip and exchange war stories later. Now we have urgent task force business to go over and only so much time.”

    Bonaventure shrugged and turned to face the task force chief of staff. Sam did as well, but with an odd feeling. Before this he had hardly exchanged a dozen words with Bonaventure… Different boats, two pay grades difference in rank made even more pronounced by Bonaventure’s additional command responsibilities, and the still wider yawning chasm of regular versus reservist, had all meant they lived in separate worlds. Sam realized he didn’t even know Bonaventure’s first name, but suddenly those differences seemed not to matter, at least not to Bonaventure.

    Bonaventure displayed a familiarity toward him which Sam did not find exactly unwelcome so much as inexplicable. Was it because they were all in this together? Or was it because Sam had performed well? No, that couldn’t be it, as Bonaventure had not even known he was in command until just now. Perhaps it was simply that Sam had been part of this first terrible battle and Bonaventure had not, but wanted some sort of a claim on membership in that exclusive fraternity. Sam had the feeling membership would not stay exclusive for very long.

    And then there was the name: Bow-on’ Bitka. Is that what they called him in DesDiv Three now? It must have been from the holo-conference when he had quoted from DSTP-01: A destroyer’s preferred angle of engagement is bow-on. No one in DesDiv Four called him that, but they hadn’t been plugged into that conference and Sam had all but forgotten. Obviously someone remembered.

    “I’ve asked Captain Bonaventure to join this briefing because his destroyer division will enter K’tok orbit tomorrow and reinforce the defense here,” Kleindienst began. “As he has seniority, he will assume overall command of all your destroyers as Task Group 1.2, with the acting rank of commodore.

    “His destroyers are currently escorting USS Hornet, which as you know is severely damaged. Although his destroyers will remain here, Hornet will not enter orbit. It will do a correcting burn and slingshot back to orbit the gas giant Mogo, beyond the asteroid belt. The surviving cruisers of Task Group 1.1 will take over escort duties for it. The transports and auxiliaries of Task Group 1.3 will accompany them. All ships vulnerable to the uBakai jump drive scrambler will move out to Mogo.”

    Jump drive scrambler. It was as good a name as any, Sam thought. But all ships vulnerable to it meant every single starship in the task force. They were pulling out with everything except the three destroyers–well, six destroyers, once Bonaventure joined them.



    Navarro had seen this coming, and Sam had as well, perhaps with less certainty. Admiral Kayumati had hinted at it in his and Sam’s only holo-conference. But the task force staff could have given them some warning. Were they that worried about how the destroyer crews would react? Or had they just not made a firm decision until now? Sam wasn’t sure which option sounded worse.

    “Captain Bonaventure, you will detach DDR-10, Tacambaro, to remain with Hornet as a close escort,” Kleindienst continued.

    Bonaventure’s face colored and his eyebrows rose.

    “Tacambaro? Ma’am, we lost the coil gun on Oaxaca, and Queretaro lost half its power ring. Taco’s my only fully operational boat. You can’t pull it and expect us to …what is it you expect?

    “I can pull it and I just did,” Kleindienst said. “The task force is only taking a single destroyer so it needs to be fully operational. Your mission is to hold the orbital space above K’tok until relieved by friendly forces, and support the ground troops to the extent of your ability.”

    “What friendly forces?” Bonaventure asked, his eyes still wide with exasperation.

    “Destroyer Division Five is inbound from Mogo orbit and should reach you within the week. In addition, reinforcements are being prepared for dispatch from Earth. They may already be on the way, we don’t know for sure.”

    “How are we supposed to support the ground troops?” Bonaventure demanded. “We don’t have orbital bombardment munitions, or any way to launch them if we did.”

    “The two surviving cruisers are off-loading their bombardment munitions dispensers in low orbit. You will have to improvise a means of aiming and firing them, but the task force operations department is working on a communications network upgrade for you now. We’re also leaving a two-seater orbital tug with each group of dispensers to aid in repositioning them.”

    Kleindienst’s answers sounded rehearsed, which made sense. She’d clearly thought through the obvious questions they would ask. For a moment Bonaventure stared at her, mouth open. Sam exchanged a look with Captain Mike Wu of Petersburg, who shrugged.

    “Excuse me, Ma’am,” Wu said, “but if the cruisers are off-loading ordnance in orbit, we could use some of their Mark Three missiles as well. We can reposition them in a higher orbit and once they’re powered down they’d be all but undetectable.”

    “Yes, good idea,” Bonaventure said, nodding vigorously. “When the uBakai show up, we can give them a nice surprise.”

    “You’ll have to use some of your own missiles for that,” Kleindienst answered.

    “Beggin’ your pardon, Ma’am,” Wu said, “but our Mark Fives are designed for launch by coil guns. They don’t really have any thrust of their own, except for some ability to take evasive action. But those Mark Threes are self-flying, with their own thrusters. We can–”

    “The cruisers need all their missiles,” Kleindienst said, cutting him off. “Any other questions?”

    Bonaventure shook his head, more in exasperation than negation, Sam thought. The silence stretched out for several seconds.

    “What about logistics?” Sam finally asked. “Not ours, but the troops down in the dirt.”

    “The composite brigade’s rear support company has secured the needle highstation,” she answered. “The fleet auxiliaries have off-loaded the supplies the troops on the ground need, in proximate orbit with the highstation. The support company will see to moving it down the needle, but if they need some help, pitch in.”

    “Yes, but what about the lost fabricators for the British cohort?” Sam said. “Did they ever get the codes to let the other units fabricate for them?”

    Kleindienst’s eyebrows went up for a moment, perhaps surprised that Sam knew this detail of the supply arrangements.

    “The British are stretching their own supplies by using captured small arms and ammunition,” she said.

    That would be a no.

    “Speaking of logistics,” Bonaventure said, “we could sure use Hornet here in orbit to support us. It has the best facilities for retrofitting the warhead patch on the Mark Five Block Four missiles, so we could get up and running quicker. I think Commander Rivera’s division could probably use a missile resupply as well, and Hornet’s magazines are full.”

    “Hornet’s too vulnerable to leave here in orbit,” Kleindienst said, “and we’ll need its workshops to support the task force at Mogo. Transfer whatever material you need from Hornet today, before you start your deceleration burn. Clear it through the task force N-4 first.”

    “That’s only about six hours, Ma’am,” Bonaventure said.


    Sam looked at the others and saw grim expressions. Everything he’d heard so far sounded as if they were being written off.

    “Ma’am, our crews are coming up on six weeks in zero gee,” Sam said. “Any chance of rotating them to the cruisers and transports for at least a day in a spin habitat wheel?”

    “No, there isn’t time. We expect to have a relief force to you well before you experience serious zero gee health issues.”

    Or else we’ll be dead by then, Sam thought.

    No one said anything for several seconds, then Juanita Rivera spoke, the first time she had spoken in the meeting.

    “Yeah, let me get this right.”

    Sam looked at her. She looked about as angry as she had by the end of the Atwater-Jones briefing.

    “The task force is taking three combatants–two cruisers and a destroyer–and leaving six combatants–our destroyers–here to carry out the primary mission, with four more destroyers on the way.”

    “That is correct, Captain Rivera. Did you have a question?”

    “Si, Senora. Which of our destroyers is Admiral Kayumati moving his flag to?”

    Sam suppressed a smile. She had a bigger set than he did, or just the confidence which came from being a long-service regular who had spent years preparing to be a boat captain. Wherever it came from, sometimes it took real guts to point out the obvious: that the commanding admiral’s place just might be at the point of greatest danger and strategic importance.

    Kleindienst straightened, her eyes narrowed, and color came to her fleshy cheeks. “There will be five combatants at Mogo once we rendezvous there, including our heaviest elements. That will be the task force center of gravity, and that is where the admiral needs to be.”

    “Five?” Sam said. “I thought the two cruisers at Mogo were inbound and due here in six days.”

    “Their jump drives make them too vulnerable. They will do a fly-by and slingshot maneuver to follow the main body to Mogo.”

    So they really were on their own. The chief of staff glared at each of the ship captains in succession, as if daring them to ask another question. After several seconds of silence, she cut the connection.

    Kleindienst disappeared, along with the virtual briefing room background, but the four captains, surrounded by ghostly details of their cabins, continued to float in what was now a featureless, dimensionless gray void. Looking into it gave Sam a sensation of vertigo and so he looked at Bonaventure, concentrated on his face.

    “I kept the connection open because I wanted to add something,” Bonaventure said. “This sounds like a raw deal. I don’t like it any more than anyone else. But you got a big mouth, Juanita, and you came real close to open insubordination with the chief of staff. You need to put a lid on that defeatist bullshit, understood? All of us need to work together to get through this.”

    “Bullshit? Jesús, listen to you, Pablo! A commodore for five minutes and already you talk like el almirante grande. You want me to shut up? Sure-sure, no hay pedo, I shut up. But you know where the bullshit was coming from in that briefing, and it wasn’t from Juanita Rivera.”

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