Chain of Command – Snippet 08

Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve others injured but expected to return to duty soon. It was a big bite out of a total crew of ninety-five, but the biggest bite had been out of Sam’s tactical department.

As if thinking the same thing, Huhn’s gaze settled on Sam

“Bitka, I don’t know how you’re going to manage the tactical department without Lieutenant Washington. She was a hell of an officer. You lost your senior chief, too, didn’t you? And Waring?”

Sam looked away and swallowed before answering.

“Yes, sir. Chief Nguyen was killed on the bridge along with Lieutenant Washington, Ensign Waring, and one of my sensor techs. But our weaponry is up, except for one point defense laser mount. I’d like to get the power ring recharged as soon as possible so we’ve got plenty of juice for the spinal coil gun and lasers, but TAC’s up and running otherwise.”

The power ring was the boat’s superconducting magnetic energy storage system, or SMESS, wrapped around the boat’s waist like a corset, buried under armor and coolant lines.

Huhn stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, can you handle the department without your best people? No officers, no senior chief–do you know what you’re doing?”

Once Sam might have felt a surge of anger or resentment at that, but he looked at Huhn’s scowling face, wrapped in his ridiculous blanket, and he felt nothing: no anger, no resentment, no contempt–nothing. He tried to remember what it had felt like to be intimidated by Huhn, but he could not. He felt detached, withdrawn from everything going on in the room, as if it was happening to someone else. His body was here but his mind–part of it, at any rate–was in the wardroom staring at a floating gray body bag.

“My two division chiefs are rock-solid sir. Chief Burns is ready to move up to Bull Tac, and he’s got a good machinist first behind him in weapons division to move up to chief.” Sam decided not to mention his candidate for promotion to chief was Joyce Menzies, one of the two petty officers Huhn had argued with him over earlier. “I’ve got a good set of acey-deucies to fill in behind them. We’ll manage, sir.”

Bull Tac was the unofficial title of the senior chief petty officer in the tactical department, the position Chief Nguyen had held. Acey-deucies were the petty officers first and second class, the men and women who did most of the real work in the boat.

“I hope to God you’re right,” Huhn said. “We’re going to need your department up to speed where they’re sending us, which is right straight into hell. There’s a combined task force following us in, about six days behind us. It was meant as a show of force, to keep the Varoki from pulling something like this, but it’s too late for that. Now they’re the counterattack force, and we’re riding point for them, all the way down to low orbit around K’Tok. When I said we were in the shit, I meant it. This is definitely Charge of the Light Brigade stuff.”

Hennessey and Filipenko exchanged a worried look, but again Sam wasn’t sure if they were more worried about the new mission or Huhn.

“I think somebody better warn the follow-on force to expect the same attack we got hit with,” Sam said.

“Noted,” Huhn answered and looked away–which was Navy-speak for Who cares what you think?

“I’m serious,” Sam said. “We need to get a tight beam message to the main task force right away or they’re going to get whacked.”

“They came in later than we did so they’re in a different intercept corridor,” Huhn said.

“Doesn’t matter.”

They all looked at him and Huhn opened his mouth to cut him off but Sam pushed on. “This attack was launched along an exactly reciprocating course track. That’s nearly impossible. There is only one way this attack could be executed.”

“Oh? So please educate us all, Mister Bitka,” Huhn said.

“Yes, sir. Buckshot is just inert pellets, so once it’s launched there’s no way to alter its vector. That means the launch vessel has to already be on the correct course. The only practical way to do that would be to leave orbit around K’tok and accelerate into the reciprocal course, but to do that they would have to already know our position and in-coming course. That means the vessel had to leave K’tok orbit after we came out of J-space and began our glide. I bet there’s a departure report somewhere in the intel feeds for the last two weeks.”

“You mean they had us detected all along?” Filipenko said.

“Impossible!” Huhn spat.

“Not if they knew where to point their hi-res optics,” Sam said. “If they have a couple optics platforms out in the asteroid belt we don’t know about, all they have to do is point them at the right spot, look from a couple different angles, and wait for us to occlude a star.”

“But how would they know where and when to look?” Huhn demanded. “Do you have any idea how enormous the volume of space above and below the plane of the ecliptic is?”

“Yes, sir, I do. But according to our standard operating procedure, we always enter this star system from above the plane–galactic north–always at the same distance from the orbital plane, and we always do it so that our residual momentum from the final sprint at Bronstein’s World carries us on a zero-burn intercept with K’tok. And we always do it with the same residual momentum so we don’t have to recalculate the intercept problem.”

“Wait one,” Rose Hennessey said. “You want to unwrap that a little for the benefit of a poor engineer who doesn’t know beans about astrogation?”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe agreed.

Sam looked at their blank faces. Even Filipenko, who was supposed to have some background in astrogation, frowned in thought.

“Sure. The galaxy is a flat spinning disc of stars. There’s no real north or south, up or down, but for purposes of reference, if you’re looking at it from a distance and it looks as if its spinning counter-clockwise, you’re ‘up’, or galactic north of it. If it’s spinning clockwise, you’re galactic south. Got it? Okay.

“Same with a star system. Over 99% of the matter that makes up a star and its planets, asteroids, all that stuff is concentrated in a very flat disc. The planet orbits, the asteroids, all of them are in that disc, called the plain of the ecliptic. Only stuff that wandered in and got captured later, like some comets, move outside of it.

“When we jump from star to star, we pop out of J-space into real space. If we come out and some part of the ship is in the same space occupied by, say, a rock the size of a baseball, you get what’s called an ‘annihilation event’.”

“That sounds bad,” Moe said.

“Sounds bad, is bad. So we like to do it above or below the star’s plane of the ecliptic, because there’s hardly anything floating around there.

“When you make a jump you retain whatever momentum you had from before. So we jump here from Bronstein’s World, which has a plane of the ecliptic aligned almost the same as K’Tok’s: both of them angled between thirty and forty degrees off the galactic disc. Before we jump, we accelerate down, stellar south, away from the Bronstein’s World plain of the ecliptic, but we calculate the jump to come out north of K’Tok’s plane.”

“Okay, so our momentum is carrying us down toward the plane and the planets,” Moe said.

“Right. We know where K’Tok is in its orbit at any given time so the astrogator calculates the jump to come out exactly where our residual momentum will carry us on an intercept course with K’Tok.”

“Of course,” Huhn admitted, finally speaking. “That way we don’t have to expose ourselves with a mid-course correction burn. All we do is decelerate into orbit once we get there.”

“Yes, sir. But here’s the thing: at any one time there’s only one place we can emerge from J-Space with that vector and make that intercept. It’s a moving exit point, because K’tok is moving in its orbit, but it’s pig-simple to calculate where it is. Maybe they aren’t idiots. Maybe they noticed that. And so maybe that’s where they point their optics.”

Rosie Hennessey ran her hands back through her buzz-cut hair and looked at Huhn. “Shit, sir, sounds to me like he’s on to something.”

“Okay, okay, so you’re on to something, Bitka. What does that get us?”

“If they saw us, they’ll use the same method to spot the follow-on force and may have buckshot on the way to them, so they need to be warned.

“But we also know when ChaCha’s probe went active there was no ship on that course within normal detection range of our radar. Unless they’ve got some new super-stealth ship out there–and there’s nothing in the intel briefings to suggest it–they did a low-signature course correction after they launched the ordnance, and they got way the hell away by the time we started getting hit, which means they did it a long time ago.”

“Get to the point,” Huhn snapped.

“They had to have fired that buckshot days before the incident on K’tok they say started the war. This was a carefully-planned surprise attack.”

For a moment the only sound in the compartment was the hiss of the ventilators.

Moe put his hand to his temple and squinted, a habit he had when getting an incoming message on his embedded commlink. He nodded a few times absently, then his eyes opened a bit wider.

“Roger that,” he said and turned to the others. “That was Yeoman Fischer. We sent the casualty report up to squadron and just got the modified chain of command. Commander Huhn, you’re skipper, of course.”

Moe turned to Sam. “Looks like you’re second in command, Bub.”

“What?” Huhn said. “No, that’s got to be a mistake! They must have drawn it up not knowing Larry’s returning to duty status.”

“No, sir,” Moe said. “Seems like Bitka has almost a year’s seniority in grade over Goldjune.”

“Were you on active duty when you got your promotion to full lieutenant?” Huhn demanded.

Sam shook his head.

“Don’t matter, sir,” Moe said. “Effective date is effective date.” He turned to Sam, his right hand out. “Congratulations, XO.”