Chain of Command – Snippet 04

Chapter Two

2 December 2133 (seventeen days later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit)

Later, Sam would decide it had been a mistake to accelerate, but later still he would realize the captain had made the best call he could based on what he knew at the time. Captains sometimes just don’t know enough to know what the right call is, but they have to make one anyway.

But that all came later.

Sam woke to bedlam–harsh, repetitive, mechanical bleating, deafeningly loud, which made no sense and nearly drowned out the voice trying to be heard. His body responded before his mind did, hands tearing open the zero-gee restraints on his sleeping cubby, feet kicking free first. His right arm became tangled in the restraint netting as his brain separated the sounds and made sense of them: the regular gongs of the call to general quarters, the whooping siren of the hull breach alarm, and the klaxon warning of imminent acceleration. He had never heard all three at the same time.

“General Quarters. General Quarters. All hands to battle stations,” the calm but insistent recorded female voice said over the boat’s intercom. “Hull breach. Hull breach. All hands rig for low pressure. Warning. Warning. All hands prepare for acceleration. General Quarters. General Quarters,” the voice continued in its synthetic loop.

Suddenly there was gravity, enough to turn the rear wall of the stateroom into floor and drop Sam’s feet against it. That would be the first pair of MPD thrusters. He untangled his right arm as the second and third pairs kicked in, upping the gravity to a half gee.

He yanked the helmet from the locker beside his sleeping cubby, now a narrow bunk bay set into the wall and parallel to the deck, and he sealed the collar of the white shipsuit–short for ship environment suit–he’d slept in. He prepared to catch himself when the acceleration stopped, but it didn’t, so he pulled open the stateroom hatch and sprinted down the trunk corridor to the hatch to the boat’s spine and the access tube leading forward. “Sprinted” was a misnomer; he used the low-gravity fast shuffle, the only way to cover ground quickly at a half gee without his head slamming into the overhead. He ducked past half a dozen crew on their way to their own battle stations. The acceleration cut out as he approached one of the main bulkheads and he sailed the rest of the way, colliding with two ratings and sliding past them.

“Mr. Bitka!” one of them called out. “What’s up?”

“Get to your battle station, Cummings. Your section leader will tell you.”

If he knew, Sam thought. He hadn’t kept exact count but he guessed the acceleration burn had lasted at least forty seconds, perhaps more, and the thought made him sweat. At full thrust the Puebla’s low-signature MPD thrusters had less than two minutes worth of juice in the energy storage system.   Whatever was going on, it was bad. The General Quarters and Hull Breach alarms continued to sound but at least the acceleration klaxon had fallen silent. With his free hand he snagged the handhold above the bulkhead hatch as he nearly collided with it. The sudden stop at an awkward angle wrenched his back but he launched himself through the hatch, into the spinal transit tube, and forward toward the bridge.

The tube itself was square and three meters across, but was also interrupted by half-bulkheads jutting out from the sides, closing off the port half or starboard half of the tube, alternating back and forth every three meters for the length of the boat. It made travel through the tube tedious in zero gee, but it also kept the tube from becoming a hundred-meter-deep shaft of death when the boat accelerated.

Within twenty or thirty meters he encountered a mass of men and women, mostly in blue enlisted personnel shipsuits but with a couple in the khaki of chief petty officers.

“Make way,” Sam called.

The crew closest to him looked back, saw his white shipsuit, and one of them shouted, “Officer. Make way!”

Each half-bulkhead also included an extendable hatch which could completely close the shaft, sealing it in the event of a hull breach. Sam moved forward and several hands helped pull him to the extended and sealed bulkhead hatch, with flashing red lights around its perimeter: low atmospheric pressure on the other side. As he watched they lights changed to solid red: vacuum.

Surgically embedded commlinks included a limited visual menu controlled with eye pressure. Sam squinted up the boat’s directory and pinged Damage Control.

Damage Control. Go, a harassed-sounding female voice answered inside his head.

“Lieutenant Bitka aft of frame fifty-five with a sealed hatch and a vacuum warning forward,” he reported.

Wait one, she said and for a few seconds the connection went mute. Then the brusque voice returned. A-gang on the way. Do not open the hatch until they arrive. Acknowledge.

“Bitka acknowledged,” he answered and cut the connection. His commlink vibrated softly almost at once. He opened the command channel and the captain’s voice filled his head.

Mister Bitka, this is Captain Rehnquist. I understand there’s a block at frame fifty-five.

“Yes sir. I’m here with about a dozen other crew trying to get forward to our primary battle stations.”

Understood. We have maneuvering watch personnel here to cover the bridge stations, and Lieutenant Washington will ride the TAC One chair. Send the crew aft to their secondary stations. You go to the auxiliary bridge and help Lieutenant Commander Huhn.

“Aye, aye, sir.”

So Jules would ride the TAC One chair in the bridge. Whatever was happening, she could handle it as well as Sam could. He passed the captain’s order on to the nearby crew and made his own way aft to the auxiliary bridge.

Puebla’s auxiliary bridge was only half-manned by the time Sam got there. It was a smaller, cramped version of the main bridge. A smart wall comprised the forward bulkhead, able to display any combination of sensor and instrument readings. The nine crew stations were built into the bulkhead three meters back.

The dorsal row consisted of the Tac One chair to the right, Communications to the left, and the command chair in the center, with Huhn buckling himself in. The broader second tier consisted of two more Tac chairs on the right with Petty Officer Third Elise Delacroix at Tactical Three, the hatch giving access to the central communication trunk in the center, and the two maneuvering station chairs on the left, with Ensign Barb Lee at the helm. The bottom row, usually called “the pits,” held another empty Tac chair to the right side of the access trunk tunnel and engineering petty officer second Rachel Karlstein at boat systems station to the left.

“What are you doing here, Bitka?” Huhn snapped.