Chain of Command – Snippet 17
“Tell you what, Lieutenant Goldjune, why don’t you go back out into the passageway, count to ten, knock, and we’ll try starting this conversation over.”
“Why don’t you go to hell? Now answer the goddamn question.”
Sam leaned back in his zero gee restraint and looked Goldjune over. His fleshy face was flushed and he panted slightly, either with emotion or exertion.
“You’re really pissed, aren’t you? Well, if it makes any difference, I wanted you to take over TAC, but the captain overruled me. Filipenko was the only alternative. With Washington and Waring dead and me at Exec, there are only four line officers–two lieutenants and two ensigns–left to staff the two line departments–Operations and Tactical. Hard to figure out an arrangement that doesn’t end up with one lieutenant and one ensign in each department. So which would you prefer: to run Ops with Barb Lee as your ensign, or run Tac with Jerry Robinette?”
The answer was obvious for several reasons: Goldjune was a die-hard Ops man, Jerry Robinette was the most inept ensign on the boat, and it was an open secret that Larry Goldjune and Barb Lee had been having an affair for over a month.
Goldjune hooked his feet through a padded handhold on the wall and folded his arms across his chest, but Sam could see his anger slipping away, and Larry struggling to maintain it.
“So you wanted to stick me in TAC, huh? That figures.”
“Yeah, it does, because you’re better qualified than Filipenko. When the shooting starts, the Captain better have the best brain he can get sitting beside him in the Tac One chair. At least that’s how I see it. But he decided you’d be happier in Ops, and what the Captain says goes.”
Larry looked at him, thought that over, and for a moment Sam thought they might get past this wall of animus that separated them. But Goldjune’s eyes narrowed again, and hardened.
“What do you know about what he’ll need in combat? When did you become an expert on it? You think just because you guessed right once on an attack profile you’re some kind of military genius?”
Sam could have told him that neither of them had ever heard a shot fired in anger, that all any of them had to go on was their training, but he was suddenly tired of arguing. No matter what he said, nothing would change.
“Filipenko is taking Tac and that’s it. And while you’re here, your affair with Ensign Lee is over, effective right now–or at least on hiatus until end of our deployment. It’s none of my business after that. But she’s your direct subordinate, for Christ’s sake. Now get out of here so I can do some work.”
An hour after Goldjune left, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he heard the ID tone of the captain.
“Bitka, come to my cabin at once,” Huhn said, clearly agitated, and then he cut the connection.
“Aye, aye, sir,” Sam said to the empty office around him. Now what?
As Sam unbuckled his restraint lanyard from the workstation he saw a flickering something out of the corner of his eye, just for a moment, and turned quickly, but nothing–or rather on one–was there. The image had been unclear but somehow familiar, familiar enough to make his scalp tingle, make his vision lose clarity and turn the colors pale, make his hands tremble. It had been Jules, hadn’t it? The thought filled him with a familiar warmth and dread realization in equal measures.
Oh, that’s great. First an interstellar war, and now I’m going nuts.
He looked around the office one more time, took a long breath to steady himself, and left.
Sam’s office was forward, off the bridge, and Huhn’s cabin was aft, in officer’s country, but it still took him less than five minutes to reach the door. He touched the knocker and camera-mike, which would turn the inside surface of the door into a window and show his presence to Huhn.
“Sir, it’s Lieutenant Bitka, reporting as ordered.”
Huhn immediately opened the door. He hadn’t shaved in at least a day, as near as Sam could tell, and pale stubble covered his cheeks, chin, and the sides and back of his head.
“Come in, Sam. Come in.” Huhn stuck his head out into the corridor and looked both ways before closing the door and locking it. “Care for some coffee? Or can I offer you something stronger–got some pretty good bourbon over here.” He kicked off from the door, gliding over to a cabinet behind his desk. Sam looked around and the cabin walls were still unadorned gray. A dirty sock was stuck to an exhaust ventilator.
“Thank you, sir, coffee sounds good. I still have some work to finish up later this afternoon. Better keep a clear head.”
“Of course, of course,” Huhn said. He punched in the order on his desk dispenser and in seconds handed a warm drinking bulb of coffee to Sam. He gestured to the padded restraints and handholds along the gray cabin walls. “Make yourself comfortable, please. No need to stand on ceremony.”
Sam pushed off the deck toward a wall stanchion and clipped his restraint lanyard to it. So far this was not the conversation he had anticipated.
Huhn floated silently behind his desk for a few seconds, as if gathering his thoughts. “Sam, I want to talk to you about Lieutenant Goldjune.”
Okay, here it comes, Sam thought and took a swallow of coffee. Maybe the bourbon would have been a smarter move.
“You and I have disagreed about him, especially in our assessment of him as an officer.”
“I think Goldjune is a talented and capable officer, sir,” Sam said, just to get it on the record.
“Of course he is,” Huhn said, nodding, “as far as that goes. But you know, sometimes character’s more important. Maybe that’s especially true in wartime. The war’s made me take another look at some things. I’ll tell you something, Sam: I don’t trust him. He’s been acting funny for the last day or so, talking to people in the wardroom and then they stop and just look at me when I come in. What’s that all about?”
Sam thought it might be about Del Huhn’s guilty conscience, but he didn’t say that.
“I don’t know, sir, but I’ll try to find out.”
“You haven’t heard anything? Any â€¦disloyal mutterings?” Huhn searched Sam’s face but avoided his eyes.
“No, sir, and if I had, they’d have stopped right there. I give you my word on that.”
Huhn looked at him for a moment and then looked away and nodded.
“I believe you, Sam. I think you’re a man of character, an honest man–too honest maybe. I suppose that’s why we had our little disagreement. Seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Well, water under the bridge. Peace and war, different times, different lifetimes. Maybe it’s only possible to be too honest in peacetime, you know, like I was saying, war and character â€¦something about them going together, I â€¦I don’t know. But I trust you, Sam.”
Huhn looked at Sam with eyes that shown with moist affection and entreaty, a combination Sam found pathetic, repellant, and vaguely alarming.
“Thank you, sir,” he managed and looked away, his eyes fastening again on Huhn’s family pictures, slowly cycling on the one small live area on the smart wall.
“That’s Joey, my boy,” Huhn said, and glided over to the video window. He stopped the display and enlarged it to show the family in yet another posed grouping. Did they ever vacation? Did they ever do anything together but pose for pictures? The son was in his late teens in this picture, beginning to look heavy in the face and upper body, and for a change staring directly at the camera in an apparent act of defiance with a hint of contempt.
“He’s a few years older now. He tried the Navy–probably wanted to please the old man, follow in my footsteps, you know how sons are. It didn’t work out, Navy wasn’t for him. Joey’s had trouble finding his niche, but he’s a good boy. He’s â€¦well, he’s a good boy.”
Sam looked at the picture and nodded. The woman with her tentative smile, fleeing in quiet panic toward the safety of dowdy middle age, looking as if she needed permission to do anything, who might have been pretty when she was young if she’d let herself, if she’d just given herself permission. Married to a husband who tried to cheat on her when on deployment–probably thought it was what mariners always did, were supposed to do, made them somehow more manly and desirable. And Huhn couldn’t even manage to do that right, could he? Jules had turned him down, and how many others before her?
When Huhn had graduated from Annapolis and, with a thousand other white-clad men and women, thrown his hat as high into the air as he could, he must have envisioned a life about to unfold before him. He had seen those plans realized, but distorted and grotesque, as if reflected by a funhouse mirror. Did he sometimes wonder where he went wrong? Did he ever stop wondering?
“We’ll get through this, sir,” Sam said. “We’ll get through it, and we’ll get back to our families.”
Huhn put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“I know I can count on you, Sam. Now, Goldjune?” Huhn looked aside, eyes focused farther away than the barren gray wall he faced. “After all I’ve done for him? Stood up for him? Covered up his mistakes and indiscretions? He’s just a disloyal little shit. Sometimes I wish he was dead.”
In the corridor outside Huhn’s room Sam stopped and closed his eyes, but the flickering shadow he knew to be Jules persisted, dancing at the periphery of his right field of vision, always just out of reach. Her being there, watching, waiting for something, made his nervous, almost sick to his stomach. Who was crazier? he wondered. Huhn or him?
He squinted up the medtech’s comm address.
Medtech Tamblinson. What can I do for you, Mister Bitka?
“Tamblinson, I’ve â€¦I’ve got a headache,” he lied. “Yeah, a real skull-buster, and I need to get some shuteye. Can you give me something that will knock me out for a couple of hours but not leave me punchy when I wake up?”
They don’t call me Doc Feelgood for nothing, sir.