Chain of Command – Snippet 01

Chain of Command

-Frank Chadwick

(Stars and Hard Vacuum, Book 1)

For Beth


Thanks first of all to my many friends and colleagues who read the work and offered both insightful criticism and generous support, especially Nancy Blake, Rich Bliss, Linda Coleman,  Craig Cutbirth, Tom Harris, Bev Herzog, Glenn Kidd, Jim Nevling, Bart Palamaro, and of course Jake and Beth Strangeway.  I remain enormously indebted to my three writing/critique groups. How essential they are to my creative process was particularly brought home by this project. The book which emerged from rewriting after their critiques and always thoughtful suggestions is immeasurably superior to the earlier version. I know, a lot of folks say that, but it’s really true here. Without meaning to slight anyone else, I want to single out Elaine Palencia and John Palen who consistently see what I miss and seem to know where I want to (or ought to) take a character before I do.

Above all, I am most indebted to Tony Daniels and Toni Weisskopf at Baen Books who put their collective editorial finger on exactly what was wrong with the original manuscript of this book. That insight not only produced a superior book, it made me rethink how I was writing.

A word about science: aside from the interstellar jump drive itself, most of the differences between our universe and the fictional one of Stars and Hard Vacuum stem from engineering advances, not breakthroughs in theoretical physics. That notwithstanding, this novel at its heart is more space opera than hard science fiction, but  I’ve never felt that authors of space opera needed to check their brains–or their hearts–at the door. Nor should their readers be expected to.  In keeping the physics within what I consider the bounds of willing suspension of disbelief, I am indebted to Rich Bliss, Jim Lenz, and Jim Nevling as well as several enormously useful books by Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games. That said, none of this should be considered an endorsement of the physics of the book by any of them.

But war’s a game which, were their subjects wise,

kings would not play at. Nations would do well

T’extort their truncheons from the puny hands

Of heroes, whose infirm and baby minds

Are gratified with mischief, and who spoil,

Because men suffer it, their toy the world.

-William Cowper, The Task, 1785

Chapter One

15 November 2133 (thirty-six days from K’tok orbit)

Seventeen days before the course of sentient history changed irrevocably, Lieutenant Sam Bitka stood at attention in the office of Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn, executive officer and second-in-command of the destroyer USS Puebla.

“Why are you being so stupid?” Huhn demanded.

Sam thought about that. It wasn’t a bad question; it just didn’t go far enough.

Tension had been growing between Human and Varoki colonists on the planet K’tok, so the US Navy’s Second Destroyer Squadron–including Sam and his shipmates–had been sent “as a precaution.” When they emerged from jump space earlier that day, the Varoki heavy cruisers in the K’tok system had immediately gone into low emission mode. Now everyone found themselves trembling on the brink of what might turn into the first all-out interstellar war in the history of all six known sentient species.

And the only thing Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn had on his mind was a sexual encounter between two petty officers in Sam’s tactical department. Why was everyone being so stupid? But Sam didn’t say that.

“Um, stupid, sir?”

“You call this disciplining these two? Why, it’s not even a slap on the wrist.”

“I informed petty officers Menzies and Delacroix that their fraternization constituted an infraction of Navy regulations concerning conduct injurious to order. Any repetition would result in more serious disciplinary action which would show in their permanent records. As per your orders, I altered their watch and duty assignments so they would neither work together nor have significant overlapping off-duty time.”

“And what’d they say to that?”

“That they intend to marry upon completion of the deployment, sir.”

Huhn’s mouth twisted at that and he looked as if he wanted to spit. “Marry! Navy won’t let a married couple ship out together. They’ll get different assignments and replace all this enforced intimacy with enforced separation. That’s why these shipboard romances never last, that’s for damn sure. Did you tell them that?”

“As part of my counseling I acquainted them with the relevant statistics, sir.”

“And what’d they tell you?”

“That they were not statistics.”

Huhn looked at Sam and softly tapped the Annapolis class ring on his left hand against the surface of his desk, the ring that was a constant reminder of the gulf which separated the academy professionals–like Huhn–from Naval ROTC amateurs–like Sam.

Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn was slightly older than Sam, in his mid-thirties, but he looked younger when he smiled and older when he scowled–which was more often the case. Between his height of five-six, spindly arms, and the start of a middle-age paunch, the executive officer was not physically impressive, but he somehow managed an intimidating presence despite that. He shaved his head and, because his sparse eyebrows were a light blond nearly matching his skin tone, he had a pale, hairless look which Sam found vaguely unsettling.

“I can see this doesn’t sit well with you, Lieutenant Bitka. Your heart’s not in it. What’s the problem?”

“No problem, sir.”

“Sure there is. I can see plain as the nose on your face.”

He leaned back in his desk chair and switched to simply fingering his ring, moving it back and forth with the tip of this thumb. “I know the way we do things in the Navy takes some getting used to, especially for you reservists. They pull you out of nice civilian jobs back home in the United States of North America and stick you out here with a bunch of hard-charging warriors. Let me know what you’re thinking. You have permission to speak freely. In fact, that’s an order.”

As if to emphasize this new familiarity, he smiled–a broad smile as full of small off-white teeth as it was of professed warmth.

In his seven years in the civilian corporate sector Sam had several times been told by superiors to speak freely, but they had never meant it, any more than Lieutenant Commander Huhn meant it now. But this was different. This was the Navy, and an order from a superior officer here carried the weight of law, or at least so Sam told himself.

“Come on, Bitka, spit it out.”

Sam’s heart beat faster and he took a breath.

“Well, sir … I think this is exactly the sort of chicken shit that makes people hate the Navy.”

For a moment Huhn froze. Sam expected his superior’s face to redden, but instead it lost color–a bad sign. Huhn slowly leaned forward and placed his hands on his desk, palms down and fingers spread.

“Chicken shit? You think maintaining proper order on deployment is chicken shit?”

“No, sir. But there are two sexual liaisons going on among commissioned officers of Puebla’s wardroom, including your protégé Lieutenant Goldjune, and every man and woman on this boat below the rank of ensign knows it.”

“How do they know it?” Huhn demanded.

“A destroyer’s a small boat, sir. Hard for anything to go on and nobody notice. You want to make a point? Come down hard on the officers. The enlisted personnel will get the message loud and clear.”

Huhn slowly stood and leaned forward, the knuckles of his tightly balled fists resting on the desk top.

“Larry Goldjune is one of the most promising young officers I’ve ever served with. You wouldn’t understand this, Mister Bitka, but the Navy’s in his blood. His father Jake is a rear admiral in BuShips and his uncle Cedrick is in line to be the next chief of naval operations. If you think I’m going to blemish Larry’s career with a reprimand for something like this, you don’t know the United States Navy.”

Sam was pretty sure he did know the United States Navy, but he did not say that, either.

“Have it your way, sir. But if you make me come down on my enlisted personnel for doing what you’re winking at among officers, they will despise us, and they will be absolutely right.”