Chain of Command – Snippet 07

Chapter Three

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

“She’s over there, Mister Bitka,” the medtech told him, “with the others. Ensign Waring and Chief Nguyen, too.”

Sam turned and saw the seven gray body bags floating softly in zero gee, nuzzling against each other as if for comfort. They were tethered to a fitting at the aft end of the wardroom, which had become a temporary casualty dressing station. The air had been vacuumed and filtered now, but two hours earlier it must have been like hell in here. The circular stains on the bulkheads and walls bore mute testimony to globules of blood having floated in the air like a child’s soap bubbles.

“Sir,” the medic said, “if it means anything, she never felt a thing. There was a lot of high speed fragmentation when they took that hit, most of it on the starboard side of the bridge. I know it’s none of my business, but … well, if I were you, I wouldn’t look inside. Remember her how she was last time you saw her. I mean …there was a lot of fragmentation.”

Sam had already seen Captain Rehnquist, still alive but missing his right leg below the knee, right arm at the shoulder, and his lower jaw, nose, right cheek, and eye. Rehnquist had already gone into a cold sleep capsule to wait until they could get him to a hospital and start reconstructive surgery. Sam looked away from the bags and shuddered, then nodded. He wanted to thank the medic but no words came, so he just patted him on the back.

The medtech went back to his patients and Sam floated to the gray composite bags, found the one with the tag reading “Washington, Lieutenant Julia K, Tactical Department” and closed his eyes.

“Hey, Jules,” he said very softly, “How did this happen? It doesn’t make sense. Little over a year ago I was back on Earth in civies, happy as a clam. Now here I am. Here you are.

“One year. That was a pretty quick change from weekend spaceman to head of a department, but I wasn’t worried. I had you backing me up. Now peoples’ lives depend on me making the right call, on my own, and I wonder how ready for all this I really am. Maybe everyone’s wondering that, huh?”

His embedded commlink vibrated. He opened the circuit and heard the voice of Senior Chief Petty Officer Constancia Navarro, the Chief of the Boat, COB for short.

Lieutenant Bitka, all department heads are to report to the executive officer’s cabin.

“On my way, COB,” he replied. Sam touched Jules’s bag one last time. “Goodbye, friend. God, I’ll miss you.” He pushed off toward the hatch, grateful for someone having ordered him to do something, anything.


He paused in the main access trunk to let another damage control party hurry past going forward, where most of the damage had been suffered. The XO’s quarters were just aft of the wardroom and when Sam got there the stateroom already held three other officers besides Lieutenant Commander Huhn.

Sam had never been inside Huhn’s stateroom and as he glanced around he was struck by its sterile, institutional feel. Most of that was due to the smart walls being turned off, showing nothing but bare gray composite panels. What sorts of pictures or background did Huhn normally display on his walls? Or was this it? Maybe so.

He nodded to the others as he glided in the hatch and grabbed a padded handhold to anchor himself next to Lieutenant Moe Rice, the supply officer and the only other reservist in the room. Rice looked at Sam with eyes wider than normal and nodded a sad greeting. Jules had been his friend as well.

Lieutenants Marina Filipenko and Rose Hennessey floated side-by-side against the opposite wall. Most of the others had zero-gee drink bulbs, but Filipenko had a “bat-rat”, a battle ration in a self-heating bag. She took a bite, pausing first to sniff the bag’s dispenser valve. Sam had noticed that habit of hers before: she always sniffed each bite of food before eating it.

She was short and slender, but Sam knew from working out with her that her leg muscles were like steel springs–a legacy of growing up in the 1.1 gees of Bronstein’s World, the only Human extra-solar colony. Now she looked at him with that eyes-a-little-too-wide expression which always made him uncomfortable. Not that she singled him out–she looked at everyone that way, as if trying to see past their skin and into their souls, trying to solve the mystery of their existence with one good, long stare.

Hennessey, the chief engineer, was a regular officer, but her degree was from MIT instead of Annapolis, and her solid build, ruddy complexion, and buzz-cut reddish-blonde hair, contrasted with Filipenko’s slighter physique and paler palette.

Huhn was in his sleep cubby with the covers wrapped around him. He looked like a cocooned caterpillar to Sam. What kind of way was that to conduct a meeting? Sam looked quickly back at Moe Rice and raised his eyebrows slightly in question. Moe shrugged.

“I see Lieutenant Bitka has finally joined us,” Huhn said. “Good of you, considering there’s a goddamned war on.”

“Yes, sir, I heard the war announcement an hour ago. I came here as soon as I received word of the meeting.”

“Oh, no hurry,” he answered, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “At least no one higher up the chain of command seems to think there’s any hurry. Do you know when the uBakai turned over their declaration of war to our consulate on K’tok?”

He looked around at the faces of the other officers–glared at them, his rage barely contained.

“Seven damned hours ago! Some bureaucratic screw-up. We didn’t get the formal word until fifty seven minutes ago, although an hour before that we got the message loud and clear, didn’t we? That’s for damn sure! My God we’re in the shit.”

“What’d they go and start a fight for?” Moe Rice asked, looking from face to face in genuine bewilderment.

“Who knows why leatherheads do anything?” Huhn said.

“K’tok,” Filipenko said, eyes unfocused, as if she were talking to herself, her fork hesitating half way to her mouth. “That’s the brass ring everybody wants.”

“Let’s not argue over why,” Hennessey said. “They did it. That’s what counts. So what comes next?”

Huhn hunched his shoulders and pulled the covers tightly around him.

“I’m taking command of the boat, effective immediately. Captain is officially off the duty roster. Hell, he’s an icicle down in the med bay. The bad news is we took a lot of damage. Worse news is Hornet couldn’t get out of the way of the particle cloud and the really bad news is she was turned broadside trying to evade when she got hit.”

He paused and glanced at Sam for a moment and then looked away. Was that a veiled thanks for Sam getting them turned into the pellets or a veiled apology for freezing up himself?

“Our anti-collision nose armor stopped most of the stuff that hit us, but Hornet’s crippled and the squadron commander was killed. Hornet barely has internal power. Their A-gang is working to get emergency maneuvering and life support up, but even if they do, she’s out of commission for the foreseeable future. Her jump drive’s shot, too, so she’s not going home soon, which means we aren’t either.”

“Damn! What do we use as a back-up carrier?” Moe Rice asked.

Huhn’s mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. “I guess they’ll tell us when they figure it out themselves, okay? We’ve got our own problems to worry about, starting with holes in the personnel roster and … well, we’ve got to get organized. Re-organized, I guess. Filipenko, what’s Lieutenant Goldjune’s status?”

Filipenko looked up sharply as if her mind had been elsewhere. Her white shipsuit was stained–with grease, Sam had first thought, but now that he looked more closely he recognized the stains as dried blood. When they’d taken the hit she had been on the bridge in the communications chair, to the captain’s left, and that was probably his blood on her uniform. It was a miracle she hadn’t been killed or injured. She wrapped her arms across the front of her torso, hugging her shoulders, and shivered, then cleared her throat.

“The medtech tells me he will be alright. He was on the bridge, was wounded by fragments in the shoulder, and passed out from oxygen starvation when his suit failed, but they got to him quickly enough. I saw him and … the others.” She shuddered again. “He was lucky. The medtechs already have him bandaged and stabilized but they want to keep an eye on him for a few more hours.”

Sam understood her revulsion. His own brief glimpse of their mutilated captain would inhabit his nightmares for some time. Goldjune had been lucky his chair was on the port side of the bridge; no one on the starboard side–all of them people from Sam’s tactical department– had survived

“Thank God!” Huhn said, shaking his head. “We’d really be in the shit without Goldjune. I …” Huhn stopped and cleared his throat, then continued in a reedy voice. “I don’t know how I’d run the boat without him.”

Sam looked at Huhn and tried to match the figure in front of him with the officer who, a little more than two weeks earlier, had described himself as a “hard-charging warrior.”

Huhn shook himself once, the way a dog shakes off water, took two long deep breaths, and looked up.

“What shape’s the boat in, Hennessey?”

Rose Hennessey put a pair of viewer glasses on and gave them a short and to-the-point summary of the damage Puebla had suffered and how far her damage control teams had gotten in repairing the worst of it. They had atmospheric integrity and all fuel leaks had been patched. The thermal shroud was operational again at about 95% efficiency. That struck Sam as a hell of a lot accomplished in only two hours. Beyond that, the drives and life support were operational, although their high resolution visual spectrum–HRVS–optics were still down along with their active radar.

Hennessey pushed the viewer glasses back up on her head. “Problem is I only got eight EVA-qualified A-gangers, and they can only get so much done on the outside of the hull at one time. I’d like to get back to them as soon as possible.”

Huhn looked away and frowned. “You got snipes can turn a wrench. I need you here, figuring out what we do next. But I’ll keep it as short as I can. Rice, what’s the final casualty count?”