Chain of Command – Snippet 13

Chapter Six

4 December 2133 (one day later) (seventeen days from K’tok orbit)

“Coupling, arm, servo-mechanical, one-point-seven-four-meter, type alpha seven dash seven one,” Sam read.

“Um … right here,” Ensign Robinette answered and pointed to the twisted piece of metal, one of several hundred items floating tethered in long swaying lines in the storage bay.

Sam clicked the “verified” box by the part on his data pad. “Gain conduit, electro-thermal, twelve-kiloamp.”

“Over here. Ow!”

Sam looked up and saw Robinette sucking the tip his right index finger.

“Sharp edge. Cut myself,” the ensign explained.

Sam clicked the correct box.

“Plasma flux regulator, serial whiskey romeo one niner four niner.”

“Yeah, here it is.”

“Okay, Robinette, what the hell is a plasma flux regulator?”

The young engineering ensign looked up from his own data pad.

“Um, it says here it’s part of the magneto-plasmadynamic thruster’s magnetic containment system, sir. I think it keeps the plasma jet from touching the ignition walls, so the exhaust nozzle doesn’t heat up. That’s why the MPD thruster is low signature.”

Sam thought it was a little strange an engineering officer had to look that up, but Robinette was pretty young and new to the job–he was the only officer on Puebla who had arrived after Sam and Moe Rice had transferred over from USS Theodore Roosevelt. Being skinny made him look younger than his years, and his thin, weedy moustache younger still. His large ears stuck almost straight out from his head, like jug handles. If Robinette hadn’t been an officer and gentleman by act of congress, Sam was pretty sure his nickname among the crew would be The Jughead. Maybe it was and they were just careful not to let it slip near anyone in a white shipsuit.

“What’s your specialty, Robinette?”

“Oh. Well, electronic warfare, I guess,” he said and looked back down at his data pad. Sam was pretty sure he was blushing, but had no idea why asking about his specialty would be embarrassing.

“I thought we didn’t take any damage to the drives.”

Robinette’s head rose and he looked relieved at the change of subject. “No, sir, but one of the slugs went through a storage bay and damaged some of our replacement components.”

Sam nodded and stretched his neck. They had been at this component damage survey for nearly an hour and hadn’t made as much progress as they needed to. Engineering work parties were pulling damaged components and replacing them at a heroic rate, but every damaged item would have to be replaced, and that meant every single one had to be surveyed and inventoried by engineering, and then verified by the executive officer–Sam–before a requisition could be sent on to squadron support on USS Hornet. The fact that Hornet was in worse shape than Puebla and was in no position to get them the replacement parts at any time in the foreseeable future was–as Captain Huhn had pointed out to Sam earlier–not germane.

What bothered him most was the utter stupidity of the entire arrangement. There was no good reason for storing and stockpiling parts when the fabricators on Puebla and every other ship in the fleet could manufacture any part required. All they needed, other than the fabricators themselves, were electricity, the correct raw materials, and the part generation software. The software was the sticking point, and for a change it wasn’t Navy bureaucracy standing in the way. The suppliers wouldn’t release the proprietary software codes, so Navy ships (and boats) like Puebla had to haul around parts bays that looked like old-time hardware stores. Absurd.

Yes, having the parts on hand meant they could make urgent repairs more quickly. Yes, that was a possible advantage in battle. But the parts were vulnerable to damage themselves, as this plasma flux regulator thing showed, and if now the main one broke, then what?

His imbedded commlink vibrated and he heard the accompanying ID tone of the captain’s own commlink. Great. Now what?

“Yes, sir.”

How’s that damage survey coming?

“Finishing up the first part of it with Ensign Robinette from engineering now, sir.”

Well get it squared away. I’m looking at your revised watch-standing list. Some of this just won’t fly. I’m making a list of modifications

“Modifications. Yes, sir.”

I also need tomorrow’s plan of the day ASAP. I want to check the schedule of drills.

“Plan of the day. I’ll do it as soon as Robinette and I finish the damage survey.”

Okay, but don’t dawdle over it. One more thing. I decided I’m going to have Filipenko take over the tactical department from you. You’ve got your hands full with all the administrative stuff.

Sam didn’t answer for a moment.

“Filipenko? The communications officer? Sir, I don’t recall that Lieutenant Filipenko has any background in either sensors or weaponry.”

It’s covered in the line officer basic course we all took post-academy, and she’s a fast study.

“Yes, sir, but … if you want to move someone into that position, why not Lieutenant Goldjune? He did a deployment as leading sensor officer on USS Reagan.”

I need Larry in Ops. Filipenko can handle TAC.

And then Huhn cut the connection. So much, apparently, for their brief honeymoon as captain and XO.

“Trouble, sir?” Robinette asked.

Sam was still unused to ensigns calling him “sir,” even though he had two pay grades and about ten years on Robinette.

“Captain’s just giving me a hard time, that’s all. We don’t always see eye-to-eye. Look, I’m going to go out on a limb here and just check all the rest of these parts as verified.”

“Is that kosher, sir?”

“Based on my assessment of the efficiency of the engineering department and the chief engineer, I feel confident the list as submitted is a complete and accurate report of our damage situation–at least so far. I’ll append an explanatory note to that effect. These peacetime procedures don’t really take into account the kind of situation we’re facing here, so they’ll understand upstairs.”

Robinette looked doubtful.

“Or they won’t,” Sam added with a shrug, “in which case they can fire me and send me home. You’ll probably have another couple hundred parts to survey by the next watch change.”

“Yes, sir. I bet we will.”

“Okay, Ensign, get back to it and tell the repair parties I appreciate the job they’re doing. Oh, and uh … if you should run into him, no need to let the captain know how we’re expediting the survey, okay?”

Robinette glided out the storage bay hatch and Sam turned back to his data pad and the reports queued up for his attention. The first one was from Moe Rice:  an inventory of destroyed consumables–mostly rations. They had lost one of the water recycling units and several atmosphere scrubbers, but Moe had appended an estimate of how long they could safely put off repairs.

Sam also had a list of next-of-kins waiting for holograms. That was the captain’s job but he had delegated it to Sam.  What was he going to say to Jules’s folks?

Thankfully, he brought up the blank form for the Plan of the Day instead and began filling in the entries.

“Mister Bitka, have a minute?”

Sam looked up and saw the broad face and thick shoulders of Senior Chief Petty Officer Constancia Navarro, the Chief of the Boat, hovering in the storage bay’s hatchway. As the senior non-commissioned officer on Puebla, Navarro occupied a special, almost exalted, place in the boat’s hierarchy. In theory, every officer outranked her. In practice she had the ear of the captain and XO in ways few if any of the officers did. No junior officer, with the possible exception of the least experienced and most stupid of newly minted ensigns, would think to give her an order. Sam had spoken with her before and she had always been respectful, but she had never taken much notice of him beyond that, so her appearance took him off guard.

“Absolutely, COB, come on in.”

Her features showed her American Indian lineage without much evidence of either Spanish or Anglo genes. She was only a few years older than he but already had fifteen years in uniform, and gray streaks softened the stark black of her short, coarse hair.

“Thank you, sir.” She locked her feet through a handhold on one wall, looked around the cluttered storage bay and nodded. “Quite a job to have to tackle without much warning.”

Sam almost said he could handle it but stopped himself. Navarro was here for a reason but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“This is my first deployment out of the Solar system,” Sam said instead, “my first introduction to ship-board administration–and my first war. Any advice you have would be very welcome.”

Navarro continued to look around the bay, nodding slightly to herself, perhaps collecting her thoughts. She cleared her throat.

“I’ve seen some pretty good execs in my time,” she said, “and some … not so good. To be good, you have to understand that for most of the crew, you speak for the captain. So you need to understand the captain.”

“Easier said than done,” Sam said and he smiled, but Navarro didn’t return the smile. She didn’t look offended, just thoughtful to the point of preoccupation. She nodded slightly, in acknowledgement of the truth of what Sam said, if not exactly in agreement with it.

“The way the Navy uses the word captain,” Navarro continued, “…well, it’s funny, isn’t it? Captain’s a rank, O-6, but no matter what their rank, whoever’s senior line officer on a vessel, they’re the captain.”

“Sure,” Sam said, “the job, not the rank.”

“That’s right, sir,” Navarro said and nodded for emphasis. “The job. A ship captain is … well, as far as the crew’s concerned a ship’s captain is the navy. Admirals can tell captains where to take their ships, and what to do with them once they get there, but not how to run them. Captains are monarchs on their own ships, absolute dictators.”

“Subject to Navy regulations,” Sam added.

“Yes sir, subject to Navy regulations. But with that one limit, captains are always right. They’re infallible, and it’s official–you know, like the pope.”

Sam chuckled. “In theory, anyway.”

“Yes, sir, in theory. But people going into war, they got to believe in something, even if it’s just a theory, and on a ship that something is the captain.”

Sam began wondering how long Navarro had been outside the open storage bay hatch, how much of his conversation with Ensign Robinette she had overheard.

“Chief, what if it turns out the captain is, well …fallible?”

Navarro looked him in the eye for the first time.

“Sir, here’s the dirty little secret: they’re all fallible. There’s not a man or woman in uniform who can live up to that job and never stumble along the way. Some more than others. That’s why we have execs.”

“To keep them from stumbling?” Sam said. “That’s going to be a good trick. He won’t listen to a thing I say, Chief. You know that.”

She kept looking him in the eyes. “Yes, sir, that’s true. So all you can do is back him up, no matter what he does. Anything he does, according to you, is the smartest thing you’ve ever seen. Anyone disagrees, you bark ’em down. No matter what he does.”

Sam felt his cheeks flush, thinking again about what he had said to Robinette. He hadn’t said anything disloyal, had he? Not exactly. But he’d hinted. He’d tried to get the ensign to keep information back from the captain just to make his own job easier.

“Chief, how much of my conversation with Ensign Robinette did you hear?”

Navarro squinted at a ventilation duct somewhere above Sam’s head.

“Sir, the Exec and the Chief of the Boat need to have a close working relationship founded on mutual trust. So it’s important for you to know that I would never deliberately eavesdrop on a conversation of yours.”

Sam almost said that was no answer, but he stopped himself. Instead he said, “Fair enough. Go on.”

“Well, sir, here’s the hard part. You can’t just go through the motions. When the captain does something stupid, something petty, something the crew will hate, you have to defend it so convincingly the crew will think it must have been your idea, and you talked the captain into doing it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Up until now it had sounded difficult and unpleasant, but all in the line of duty. But this last bit made him feel momentarily dizzy. Sam liked most of the officers and crew, and he knew most of them at least didn’t dislike him. He wanted to keep it that way. He wanted to do his job and have people like him for it, respect him for it. But this …

“So you’re saying I have to look like such a flaming asshole the captain will look good by comparison?”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind, sir. But that is one way of looking at it.”

Sam always thought people who lived only for the approval and regard of others were shallow and weak. Now the universe–through the agency of a US Navy senior chief petty officer–was calling his bluff. Put up or shut up. If Jules were still alive, he realized, this would have been a lot harder–making her dislike him along with everyone else. As it was …

“Well, a job’s a job,” Sam said.

For the first time, Navarro smiled. “Yes, sir.”