Chain of Command – Snippet 03

“The other four races we contacted have been content with the arrangement,” the admiral continued. “The Humans, though…” The admiral paused and shook his head. “You know them. They are like children who never grow out of their questioning phase. ‘What is this? How does that work? Why can’t I see that? Why can’t we manufacture this ourselves? Why? Why? Why?‘”

Nuvaash knew it was so. He had experienced it many times but did not find it as annoying as did the admiral. Still, he nodded in sympathetic agreement.

“But mostly,” the admiral continued, “they want to know the secret of the jump drive–our most closely guarded secret, something which only a handful of Varoki even know.”

“But others have wanted to know as well, Admiral. We have always prevented it.”

“Yes, we always have. The intellectual property covenants make scientific research along those lines already explored economically fruitless, as the Varoki houses which own the core knowledge own any discovery based on it. Every member state agrees to this as a condition of access to the jump drive itself. But the Humans persist.

“When Human research firms began making dangerous progress, Varoki trading houses bought them up and redirected the research, as we have done elsewhere, but the Humans persist. Now there are private Human charitable foundations dedicated to pure scientific research–with no hope of commercial gain. Their curiosity is inexhaustible and relentless.”

Nuvaash knew that as well. He had never found it anything but interesting and sometimes admirable. Now he began to understand the potential threat it posed.

“But even if they discover the underlying science, commercially it will still belong to the Varoki trading houses,” he said.

“Not if the Humans withdraw from the Cottohazz,” the admiral answered. “Once they discover the secret on their own, what is to keep them? And if they withdraw, what is to keep the other races with us?  The stable and peaceful star-spanning civilization we have built will unravel and the Humans–aggressive, violent, and impulsive–will end up our rivals, and in all likelihood eventually our masters.”

Nuvaash felt his skin flush with fear as he listened to the admiral, fear of the future the admiral prophesied but also a more immediate one–fear of where the idea that war was the only road to peace might take them.

“It must not come to that, Nuvaash. It will not come to that.

“This war, which starts here in the K’tok system, will not end here. It will end with Human fleets swept from space, Human cities in ruins, and the Human spirit broken forever. But before it can end, it must begin.”


An hour later Sam Bitka sat over coffee in Puebla’s “away” wardroom in Hornet’s habitat wheel, with Lieutenant Julia Washington–“Jules” to her friends–and Lieutenant Moe Rice. Moe, the largest and most heavily muscled member of Puebla’s crew, a former offensive lineman from Texas A&M, made Jules’s diminutive figure look out of scale next to him. They were his two best friends on Puebla, in Jules’s case maybe even more than that.

“Oh, Sam,” she said. “Commander Huhn can ruin your career. How could you be so stupid?”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe added.

Sam laughed. “I think it must be a gift.”

Jules sipped her coffee, but her green-flecked brown eyes stayed on him. She had good eyes in a good face, clear-featured and softened by her thick curly black hair cut short, but not the buzz cuts popular with a lot of starship crews, something called a pixie cut. Her café con crema complexion–classic American hybrid–contrasted sharply with the white of her officer’s shipsuit. Moe was much darker, the only black Jewish cowboy Sam had ever known

“He can’t hurt my career back at DP.” Sam said. “Oh, you mean here. Well, the thing I figured out today is I’m bullet-proof. See, I don’t really have a Navy career to worry about. Do my job and stay out of prison for two more years and I’m out of here. Nobody back in The World is ever going to read the fine print in my fitness reports.”

That was something he’d realized. He really was bullet-proof, as least as far as Del Huhn was concerned. Sam had a good career, just starting to turn into a damned good career, waiting for him back home. It took him seven years with DP–Dynamic Paradigms, LLC–to work his way up through middle management, but he had just finished the company’s Emerging Leaders program, the first step to executive service. Activation of his reserve commission had interrupted that, but only for three years. His corporate mentor had assured him it would look very good on his resume when he came back. It would set him apart. To rise, you needed to stand out from the herd.

“In the meantime,” Sam added, “I’m just not going to worry about Del Huhn any more, that’s all. Besides, I got him so pissed off at me I think he forgot about Menzies and Delacroix, which is good. Those two he could hurt.”

“We call that drawing fire,” Jules said, “and you know how well that usually works out in the tactical exercises–for the draw-er.”

“Bullet-proof, remember?”

“Can you reason with him, Moe?” Jules said.

“Reason?” Moe said and shook his head. “I’ll tell you what, if stupid ever goes to ninety bucks a barrel, I want the drillin’ rights on Sam’s head.”

“Very funny,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you something else I figured out today. Jules, I’ve been riding you guys in the tactical department like a whip-wielding overseer–updating squadron contingency planning and SOPs, running drills, memorizing Varoki naval manuals and ship energy signatures. And now I’m wondering why.”

“Because you’re Puebla’s Tac Boss, and it’s your job,” she answered. “And I think you’re right.”

Sam shook his head. “I’m just a dumb reservist. Look at the regulars, the Annapolis grads–other than you, I mean. Goldjune’s looking for an open slot on the admiral’s staff and Captain Rehnquist is getting his resume together to retire into a cushy job with a DC defense lobbying firm.”

“Nest featherers,” Moe said, his voice heavy with disdain.

Sam shrugged.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around. And ever since Jules rebuffed his amorous advances Del Huhn just wants to be Bed-Check-Charley. Every regular officer on this boat above the rank of lieutenant junior grade has their head full of everything except getting ready for a war.

“So what do they know that I don’t? The odds-on favorite answer is: damned near everything.”

“Ain’t wrong there,” Moe agreed.

Jules sipped her coffee and thought about that for a while before answering.

“So, fewer drills?”

She didn’t look happy about the prospect. Sam knew Jules took pride in the ‘missile monkeys,’ in her weapons division, took pride in their efficiency and professionalism, but also in the sense of esprit she’d fostered in them. There wasn’t a sharper, more square-away division on Puebla, and every one knew it–especially her missile monkeys.

“I got the word right before I talked to Huhn: we decouple from Hornet in three days. Our destroyer division’s taking point, right out front, the ‘position of honor,’ somebody called it.”

Moe snorted at that but Jules straightened slightly in her chair and her eyes brightened.

“So, yeah, drills are cancelled until we’re separated. Between now and then we’ll have our hands full just getting the crew moved over and settled in, and making sure all the systems are nominal. Tactical department’s got a nice edge and we’ll start running cold drills out there to keep it, once we’re on station. But I’ll tell you something, near as I can tell I’m the only department head taking this whole imminent war thing seriously. I guess that makes me either the smartest guy in the Navy or the dumbest.”

“Pretty sure I know the answer to that one,” Moe said.

Jules glanced at Moe and then back at Sam, and she smiled, showing even white teeth with one crooked incisor which he suddenly and inexplicably found very sexy.