Chain of Command – Snippet 20

“Commander, I don’t know anything about any intelligence leaks.”

“Then how could you be so sure the same attack launched against your force could have been duplicated against ours? Our senior operations staff assures me the potential volume of space where we could emerge from interstellar jump renders chance detection of an arriving force almost impossible. Coincidental detection of two such forces?” She frowned and shook her head.

“Yeah, well … all due respect to your operations people, Commander, but they think like astrogators, not Tac-heads.”

Then Sam explained in detail why the astrogation standard practices of arriving Earth forces had made it possible to detect them, the same as he had explained to Huhn and the others the day of the attack. Commander Atwater-Jones listened carefully, nodding her understanding, her face eventually creasing with anger.

“Knobbers!” she finally said when he was done, then she shook her head. “Oh, not you Bitka. Excellent piece of tactical reasoning.”

She stared ahead for a moment, her eyes not on him, so she must have been studying information projected by her viewer glasses. Her focus returned to him.

“You’re a reservist,” she said, surprise in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am. Is that a problem?”

“Heavens, no! Why, some of my best chums are Royal Navy Reserve.” She gave him a lop-sided grin. “We just don’t expect them to be prodigies, that’s all. What’s your secret?”

Prodigy? Sam felt his face warm a bit but he took a breath and made his mind work this through. He was on dangerous ground: he didn’t want to say anything a British officer might interpret as criticism of the US Navy, and who knew what her agenda was? He did suspect that flattery from a naval intelligence officer was more likely a prelude to trouble than to good news.

“I’m no prodigy, Commander, and there’s no secret, just excellent training at Pearl River–the Deep Space Tactical Warfare School. Fundamentals of interplanetary astrogation, sensor performance at light-second range, combat tactics on a high-closing-rate vector–they made it all seem easy and fun.”

She laughed.

“Easy and fun? They must have changed some of the faculty since I read tactics there six years ago. An exchange assignment, you know. Beastly in the summer, isn’t it?”

“It’s not really the heat,” Sam said with a smile, “it’s the humidity.”

“I rather thought it was both,” she answered and she nodded thoughtfully, but Sam didn’t think her mind was on the climate of southwestern Mississippi. After a moment her eyebrows danced up just for an instant and then settled back, as if shrugging.

“Right. Well, thank you Leftenant Bitka, you have been most helpful.”

And the connection went dead.

Sam took off his helmet and clipped it to his workstation, then stretched his back and locked his fingers behind his head.

What was his secret? Did he even have a secret?

After college and his mandatory term of active duty service with the Navy, he’d spent seven years in the private sector, working his way up to assistant vice president for West Coast Product Support in the large-capacity fabricator division of Dynamic Paradigms. Had anything from his work helped him as a tactical officer? It had taught him how to figure out what his bosses wanted and give it to them, which got him through Pearl River with great marks. Then it got him strong fitness reports and glowing recommendations from the captains he served under before coming to USS Puebla.

The training really had been good, and something about it had appealed to him. It was easy and fun, but probably less because of the instructors and more because Sam had taken to it. It was a good mental fit, the way you sometimes meet a stranger but your minds are organized so similarly that within no time you feel like you’ve know her for years. But others took to the training as well. That wasn’t his secret.

He started to sip coffee from the drink bulb tethered to his desk but it had gone cold. He flushed it in his drink dispenser’s liquid recycler and switched to mango juice. He had enough caffeine in his system but a little sugar wouldn’t hurt.

What was his secret? It wasn’t his secret at all; it was the Navy’s, and he didn’t think they even knew they had one. A hundred years of peaceful space travel had left the Navy paying lip service to the violent part of its mission, and you could see it in something as simple as where officers sat at the wardroom table. Promising regulars, the ones with good marks and better connections, went into operations–astrogation and communication–not tactics. They had to do rotations in tactical departments, but when they did they usually opted for the sensor slots rather than weapons. Weapons were things you maintained and polished and practiced shooting, but never actually used. Sensors at least were useful for astrogation.

Sam didn’t fault that. It wasn’t for him to judge, and in any case it made sense. What the Navy did was move people and ships around, and to do that they needed astrogators, communicators, and engineers. The tactical people had been dead weight for a hundred years, they were the bottom rung on the social ladder, and as soon as a bunch of bright-eyed reservists started coming into uniform, as many of the old tactical officers as could manage it had switched over to operations, leaving their seats for reservists to fill.

But what Sam had said to the British commander was true as far as it went: operations people just didn’t think tactically; they thought like astrogators. What he hadn’t told her was that, as far as he could tell, right now the United States Navy was run, top to bottom, by astrogators.

He couldn’t just come out and say that to some Limey.

Had he just gotten a number of astrogators in trouble? He hoped so. Those would be the same ones who got Jules and six more of his shipmates killed by cutting corners to make their jobs easier. If Sam survived this, they’d find out what real trouble was.

Speaking of trouble…

Sam keyed his embedded commlink and squinted up the connection to the duty communications petty officer.

Sig-One Kramer.

“Kramer, this is the XO. Notify the captain that the task force smart boss just called for a face-to-face with me by name, and send the captain the recording of the conference.”

Aye, aye, sir.

“Oh, and Kramer … make sure you let him know I told you to send him the recording.”