Chain of Command – Snippet 06

Cha-cha has gone active with a drone!” Delacroix reported from the Tactical Three seat beside him, and Sam saw it on his own screen as well. USS Oaxaca, the command vessel for their four-boat destroyer division, nicknamed Cha-cha, had just launched a sensor drone and turned on its active radar.

“Multiple radar echoes,” Delacroix continued, “small projectiles incoming, bearing zero degrees relative. Range nine thousand kilometers and closing fast. Very fast.”

The projectiles were coming on the exact opposite heading. All the captain’s burn had accomplished was to add about two hundred meters per second to their collision velocity. Sam checked the calculated closing rate: 97,000 kilometers per hour. Jesus Christ, that was twenty-seven kilometers a second! They’d better get out of the way quick. He set a course intersect timer.

“Three hundred thirty seconds to impact,” he said.

Ensign Lee at Maneuvering One began working the current and projected courses. “Best evasion track is ninety degrees relative and flat. Permission to align the boat for burn.”

“Negative! It’s the captain’s call,” Huhn answered.

Ensign Lee, the only reservist line officer other than Sam, turned and looked at Huhn and then at Sam, her eyes questioning. Her face was round and fine-featured, chin recessed, mouth small, eyes always open wide, and her nose was incongruously large and wedge-shaped, which gave her the look of a slightly startled bird, even more so just then. She was right, though.  Sam was sitting TAC One. It was his job to speak up.

“Sir, you’re in command until we’ve got comms to the bridge. We need to get the hell out of that cloud’s way.”

“Kramer, get me the division commander,” Huhn said. That would be Captain Bonaventure aboard USS Oaxaca.

“Incoming text from Cha-Cha now, sir,” Kramer answered from the Comm Station “Message reads: All red stingers, evade. Seventy-eight degrees relative, angle on the bow ninety, forty-second MPD full burn. Expedite. Signed Red Stinger Six Actual. End message.”

“Aligning the boat,” Ensign Lee said immediately, punching the acceleration warning klaxon. Huhn visibly started in his command station as it sounded. Sam saw him open his mouth to speak but then hesitate and close it again. For just a moment Sam was sure he had been about to order Lee to belay the alignment. Then Sam felt the side-ways acceleration as Lee turned the boat’s orientation with the attitude control thrusters. After a dozen or more seconds he felt the acceleration switch direction, begin slowing them to the new orientation. Sam played with the range adjustment and resolution on his tactical display just to keep his hands busy, waiting for the boat to finally settle on its new track, feeling the precious seconds bleed away.

“Boat aligned,” Lee finally announced. “Full burn.”

Again Sam noticed she didn’t ask for permission. He felt himself pushed back into his acceleration rig from the first thruster pair, then rapidly climbing to a half gee once all six thrusters kicked in, roaring out 8,500 tons of thrust for forty seconds.

“Two hundred five seconds to impact,” Sam said when the thrusters fell silent and they were weightless again. A plot of the course change due to the burn showed they’d have displaced forty kilometers laterally from their former position by the time the cloud got to them. Forty kilometers wasn’t much in deep space, where they usually measured distance in light seconds, each of which was about three hundred thousand kilometers.

If the intel briefing had been right, the pellets in the cloud were small, maybe not much bigger than sand, and the search radar couldn’t track individual particles that size, just the collective reflection of a whole bunch of them. That made it hard to tell how wide the cloud was and exactly how far they were from its leading edge. The shipboard tactical system had made some assumptions about likely dispersion and had predicted they’d avoid the likely danger zone, but assumptions weren’t facts.

How had a cloud that small, relatively speaking–actually three of them in succession–happened to hit them in all this big black vacuum, and on an exact reciprocal course? Whoever lived through this had better give that some hard thought.

“One hundred sixty seconds to impact.”

They sat in silence, feeling the burden of time’s glacial passage, waiting to empirically discover their fates. As they did so, Chief Petty Officer Abhay Patel glided through the hatch and wordlessly strapped into the Tactical Two chair. Sam nodded to him.

Maybe they should have burned longer, but for Puebla that would have meant emptying their energy storage system. They’d have had to use the direct fusion thruster to get back on course. Everyone in the star system would see that. Maybe everyone already knew where they were. Maybe they all should have just used the direct fusion thrusters and poured on two gees of acceleration for the full two minutes they had until impact. Maybe.

One thing occurred to Sam: if the pellet cloud hit them now, it would hit them broadside, and that would do a lot more damage. Huhn didn’t look as if he was thinking things through very well, and it was Sam’s job as Tac One to remind him.

“Commander Huhn, I recommend we re-orient the boat nose-on to the angle of attack. The forward micro-meteor shield will give us some protection.”

Huhn jerked a bit in his acceleration rig and looked at Sam, eyes wide.

“Sir, shall I order Ensign Lee to reorient the boat?” Sam asked.

Huhn stared at him blankly. His eyes blinked.

“Yes, sir,” Sam said. “Ensign Lee, reorient the boat to our previous heading.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” she said and sounded the boat-wide acceleration klaxon.

“One hundred to impact,” Sam said as he felt the Puebla begin to turn.

Why wasn’t Jules or anyone else on the bridge answering their commlinks?

She and Sam had hit it off almost as soon as he came on board. They were officers and both understood their responsibilities–she probably better than he–so they hadn’t crossed any lines, hadn’t broken any rules. Maybe they should have.

The radar image of the pellet cloud disappeared when it crossed the 1700 kilometer range band and snuffed out ChaCha’s drone and its active radar.  Sam’s screen went back to displaying just the passive thermal images of the nearby friendlies.

“Sixty seconds to impact.”

It was funny. His taste in women usually tended toward the buxom, but Jules was thin, wiry even. But people aren’t just types, are they? You think you know what you want, where your life is going, and then someone comes out of nowhere and just surprises the hell out of you. She had this amazing smile.

“Twenty seconds to impact.”

“Damage control party has reached the bridge,” Karlstein reported, her voice strained. “Multiple casualties.”

Sam breathed in slowly.

“Impact in five, four, three …”