Chain of Command – Snippet 14

Chapter Seven

5 December 2133 (one day later) (sixteen days from K’tok orbit)

“Fillipenko, I appreciate you agreeing to step up like this to take over the tactical department,” Sam said.

Sam and Filipenko had travelled in silence so far, floating side by side down the central transit tube heading aft, banking from one wall to the opposite wall and then back again every three meters to avoid the half-bulkheads, tacking as if they were sailing vessels heading into the wind. Now Filipenko, the former communications officer and now acting Tac Boss, looked at him, surprise showing clearly on her face.

“You mean you don’t mind?”

Mind? Hell, you’re saving my ass. The admin duties are overwhelming, especially with all this repair work. You wouldn’t believe how many forms I have to fill out.”

Marina Filipenko’s surprise changed to something close to disapproval. At least she had recovered from her distracted lethargy of the day before.  Sam mentally shrugged. A job’s a job.

“I’ve got some help for you, too. I got curious about our new engineering ensign when he told me his specialty was electronic warfare. Moe Rice looked through the personnel folders and noticed that Ensign Jerry Robinette is a rated line officer. He’s just serving a tour with engineering right now, but I’m moving him over to head up your EW division, give you at least one other commissioned officer to work with. Supervising and training him won’t hurt your resume, either.”

“Pretty odd, putting a line officer in engineering, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Well, that’s the Navy for you. Good for us, though. We need the extra body.”

He glanced over at Filipenko. She didn’t seem too curious about Robinette, which was just as well. No point in maybe souring her on the kid. It turned out he’d bombed out of astrogation school and then out of communication. He’d barely squeaked through electronic warfare school, and the Navy must have decided he’d fit better in engineering until–and if–he found his footing. He hadn’t even commanded a division of his own; he’d been deputy to Lieutenant (JG) Carlos Sung, commander of the Auxiliary Division–universally known as the A-gang, the people who handled the odds and ends of routine maintenance most of the time and damage control during and after a battle.

They drifted past a large yellow arrow pointing in the opposite direction, toward the bow. As with every compartment and stateroom on Puebla, the central transit tube had omnipresent visual cues indicating up and down, despite the absence of any such physical sensation in zero gravity. Everything toward the bow of the boat was “up,” and everything toward the stern was “down.” All pictures on walls, all signs, everything which suggested orientation rigidly followed that pattern. Without that it was too easy for people to lose their sense of spatial orientation in extended zero gee, and then it became more difficult to re-adapt to a normal environment afterwards.

“I think you’ll like Menzies,” Sam said. “She’s kind of a diamond in the rough–Quebecois from the wrong side of the tracks.”

“Wrong side of the tracks? There’s an expression I haven’t heard in a long time. I take it you’re from the right side?”

Sam thought about that for a moment before answering. “Originally, but we sort of moved over as I got older. My dad had a pretty good job at Presidio Collective, but when the collective collapsed, it took out most of his equity and he was a little old to get as good a job anywhere else. None of the big outfits were all that crazy about hiring a former collectivist anyway, so things got …austere.”

“It seems as if a lot of people moved across the tracks the last thirty years,” Filipenko said. “You ever think maybe it was the tracks that moved?”

Filipenko was alright, and she meant well, but Sam didn’t feel like talking about it. His family’s decline wasn’t really her business. He had described it as austere. Soul-crushing was more like it–his father’s unwillingness to bend with the growing wind, his mother’s slide into alcoholism and addiction and compulsive spending, trying to maintain the shabby façade of middle-class gentility in worse and worse apartment buildings. But the part of the process which at first confused and then frightened and then angered Sam most was the look of assessment in the eyes of strangers. It wasn’t judgment or blame or contempt. It was just that he and his family had once mattered, and then gradually stopped mattering.

Only his father’s decision to move his college fund into a separate trust early in the disaster, before the debts became overwhelming, had let Sam make it to UC San Diego and have a shot at getting back across the tracks. His younger brother Rico hadn’t even had that, nor had he wanted it. He was doing okay, he claimed, although he was careful never to explain to Sam or their parents who he worked for or what he did, and none of them asked about the growing coldness in his eyes

But Sam had pulled himself back across the tracks and up the lower rungs of the management ladder at Dynamic Paradigms, had gotten his MBA at night and on weekends, almost had his doctorate of financial management. If he could crack his way into the executive track at DP, his children would never not matter.

Anxious to change the subject, Sam remembered Filipenko’s origin.

“What I said in the crew briefing about K’tok’s biology–I never really thought much about it before all this blew up. But you’re from Bronstein’s World, right? Must be tough there.”

She thought for a moment before answering.

“Tough …but beautiful, too. Maybe that makes it worse. My parents emigrated from the US of NA before I was born. I have dual citizenship. It sounds exciting to live on an alien world, to build a new home for Humanity among the stars, but that’s just a romantic lie. It is hard, boring work, and it is dangerous in ways that are so mundane. My little brother …” She paused for a moment, looking away, and took a slow breath. “Well, it’s like hell’s garden. I finally had enough and the Navy would pay for my relocation back to Earth if I joined, so here I am.”

She didn’t say anything for a while and then she shook her head. “The Varoki knew K’tok was compatible with our proteins. You know what they were trying to do? Ecoform it to suit their body chemistries. The only place in the whole galaxy that doesn’t try to kill us, and they were trying to fix it so it would. What kind of people do that?”

Sam had the feeling Filipenko didn’t talk about this very often. There was a bitterness in her voice she must keep bottled up most of the time. He also realized with a start that he now knew why she sniffed every bite of food before eating it. Living her entire life in a toxic environment where food could become contaminated and poisonous by the slightest mistake probably made everyone sniff every bite, every meal, every day of their lives. There was no chance of contamination here on Puebla, but habits like that don’t just go away.

“Here we are.” Sam said. He keyed the hatch from the main access passage into the port missile room and eased it open a crack, Loud, rhythmic electronic music escaped into the corridor. “You’ve been back here before, right?”

“Only once, on the tour when I first came aboard. No reason to since then.” She squinted through the hatch and hesitated, as if afraid she would get dirty inside.

Sam nodded. As communications officer she never had to venture aft of officer’s country, seldom interacted with anyone but officers and her division chief petty officer. This could be an assignment even less well-suited to her than Sam had feared.

Sam pushed through the hatch and into the missile room and Filipenko followed. Newly promoted Acting Chief Joyce Menzies and two ordinary mariners were on duty, the mariners at workstation consoles and Menzies at the maintenance station with a missile secured to the anchor bracket and the housing open to reveal its guts. Menzies saw Sam and Filipenko and came to attention, her feet locked through a deck handhold.

“Attention!” she barked and the two mariners came to attention at their work stations. Menzies was short and not exactly stocky, but solid, with the look of upper-body muscles. She wore her dark hair short, like most of the crew, and her nose looked as if it had been broken once and had not set quite right. She was almost invariably cheerful, but was also one of the last people on the boat Sam thought anyone who valued their health would pick a fight with.

“As you were,” Sam said. “Someone want to secure the music for a couple minutes? Thanks. Just showing Lieutenant Filipenko around. She’s your new department head. Ms Filipenko, this is Acting Chief Menzies, the best missile technician in the whole squadron. Speaking of which, how’s it feel to be a chief?”

“Doesn’t suck, sir,” Menzies said, grinning. She turned to Filipenko, her face now blank, noncommittal. “Welcome aboard the Tac shop, Ms Filipenko.”

Filipenko nodded and looked around, again squinting. The missile room was a wedge-shaped section of the boat’s hull, about five meters across and over four meters fore-to-aft. Racks along the outside wall held fifteen missiles, with one empty set of clamps. That was the missile on Menzies’s maintenance station.