Chain of Command – Snippet 12

Sam had always accepted this hierarchy, never questioned it. He was just one of the cogs, focused on doing his job and making his boss happy–usually. Now it was different. Now he was executive officer and his job was to make all these cogs mesh into one efficient machine. The carefully regimented hierarchy was supposed to make it easier to understand the extent and limits of every other officer’s authority and responsibility. It was supposed to make it easier for everyone to work together, but Sam wondered.

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Captain Huhn said as he coasted through the hatchway to the wardroom and then kicked off the compartment wall toward the table. “As you were. No standing on ceremony here. Let’s enjoy our supper, but cover some business while we’re eating, okay? Go ahead and order. I hear the curried chicken’s good tonight.”

Sam couldn’t imagine why the machine-reconstituted and cooked curried soy-chicken would be different tonight than it was any other night but he ordered it to be agreeable, punching the order into the smart table surface. Huhn seemed awfully cheerful one day into the war, nothing like on the auxiliary bridge or in his cabin. Maybe he’d recovered his balance, his self-confidence.

The mess attendant handed Sam his dinner tray with the sealed food packages held to it by fibre pads. Sam peeled back the cover of the entré container, unclipped the fork from the tray, and started eating curried chicken. Not bad, but nothing special. Food eaten in zero gee never tasted all that great. For one thing, the aroma never rose from the food, so unless he brought it right up to his nose he couldn’t smell it, and that cut a lot of the enjoyment. Even when he did lift it up, Sam couldn’t smell it all that well. Along with everyone else after the first couple days in zero gee, the fluid accumulation in his head meant a permanent stuffy nose.

“Well, it’s customary for a new captain to call a wardroom meeting like this to get acquainted,” Huhn said once the orders were in and the mess attendant began bringing out the food and beverage containers. “But we already know each other, don’t we? What’s really changed everything is this war. Some of us saw it coming, and Captain Rehnquist and I were among them. Nobody upstairs would listen to us, of course. Staff officers have a hard time listening to the people who can see what’s what, and so here we are.”

That was surprising. As far as Sam could tell, Captain Rehnquist and Delmar Huhn had been singularly unconcerned about looming hostilities. It was possible they had logged warnings to their superiors and had not said anything to the crew to avoid worrying them. Anything was possible, he supposed.

“Well, that’s all water under the bridge,” Huhn went on. “The important thing is we’re in a war and we have a job to do. The task force coming behind us has seven heavy cruisers from four different navies: the WestEuros, India, Nigeria, and us. Transports, too, carrying three cohorts of troops–two of them Mike Troopers, and one conventional infantry. The grunts were going to land and reinforce the local security forces in the Human colony while the Mikes would be an orbital reserve and quick reaction force. Now the plan is to drop the whole expeditionary brigade right on T’tokl-Heem, the Varoki colonial capital, and grab the needle. The brass thinks that should be enough to force them back to the bargaining table.”

“They gotta be kidding!” Rose Hennessey said and Huhn looked over at her, eyes suddenly wide with surprise.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

She shook her head, her cheeks and neck turning a splotchy red, either embarrassment or anger, Sam couldn’t tell which. “Jesus, grab the needle? An elevator from planet surface to orbit is just about the most delicate and complicated piece of engineering anyone in known space has ever built, and it costs a fortune. One wrong move, one stray shot, and we’re gonna have a hell of a mess on our hands.”

“You mean they will,” Larry Goldjune said from across the table. “They started this fight, they attacked us by surprise, killed our shipmates. If we break their needle, I say too goddamned bad. Fuck ’em.”

Several officers nodded and growled their agreement.

“But our people gotta live down there too, Goldjune,” Hennessey said. “Hell, they broke the needle on Nishtaaka twelve, thirteen years ago and still haven’t got it working right.”

“Okay, okay,” Huhn said. “Settle down you two. I’m inclined to agree with Larry on this one, but let’s not worry about that stuff until they tell us to pin stars on our collars. Alright? Okay.”

Huhn was right, this was way above their pay grades, but Hennessey had a point, too. Whatever commercial viability a world had was tied to it having a functioning needle. Boosting payloads to orbit by rocket was absurdly expensive, not remotely economical. Star drives were fine for exploring the galaxy and all that, but the reality of interplanetary and interstellar commerce was that almost all the cost of moving something from one planet to another–regardless of which star it orbited–was paid once you got it into low orbit. A needle cut the cost per kilo of lifting cargo and people to orbit by two orders of magnitude.

Sam had read about needles his whole life, and lived with the images of them, but the first one he actually saw was the Central Pacific Needle, shortly before he rode it to orbit his second summer of NROTC training. It shone bright gold in the Pacific sunlight, and stretched up into the haze, an impossibly long, impossibly thin column, plated in gold only molecules thick to prevent oxygen erosion of the carbon nanotubes that formed the core of the structure.

It was really a bundle of nanotubes, a big vertical cable in permanent synchronous planetary orbit–SPO–over one spot in the equator, but reaching past the SPO orbit track and tethered to a massive captive asteroid, far enough out it moved at escape velocity and  would depart orbit if it weren’t for the mass of the Needle holding it back; the centrifugal force of the asteroid trying to escape orbit held the Needle up and balanced the centripetal force of gravity trying to pull the whole thing down. It all made sense mathematically, but that never changed the chill Sam felt whenever he stepped into the passenger compartment of the elevator and realized he was already in orbit, even though he was still at sea level. The whole structure and everything on it was in orbit.

But needles were huge investments: difficult to build and almost impossible to restore to their original condition once they suffered major damage. Fighting anywhere near one was a hell of a gamble.

Huhn was talking again and Sam shook the vision of a shattered needle from his mind to listen.

“Now, because of the damage we took,” Huhn went on, “they are modifying our job. The task force has accelerated and is overtaking us. The other eight boats in the squadron will accelerate as well and form the forward screen, but our four-boat division will hold back to escort Hornet, at least until they can get power up. Then we’ll be the task force reserve.

“I know this is probably a disappointment to everyone. I’m sure all of us want to be in on the first strike back at these people, to avenge our shipmates and because … well, just because, that’s why. But in the Navy we follow orders, no matter how unpleasant they may be, and we do it without bellyaching.”

As Sam looked around the table, a few officers showed looks of genuine disappointment but Delmar Huhn wasn’t one of them.