Chain of Command – Snippet 22

The third briefer wore dark blue: Commander Cassandra Atwater-Jones, Royal Navy. She seemed quite amused by whatever had gone before.

“So you’re the famous Lieutenant Bitka,” the gray-haired staff captain said, making famous sound like an epithet. Her mouth seemed sculpted into a permanent frown, accentuated by her heavy jowls and deep-set eyes. “I better let you know neither I nor Commander Boynton thinks much of your theory of the uBakai attack profile. Commander Atwater-Jones disagrees with us, but I do not believe either she or you appreciate how tricky the astrogation set-up for that attack must have been.”

Boynton. That name was familiar. Where did he know him from?

She glowered at him and after a second or two he realized she expected a reply.

“Understood, Ma’am.”

“I still believe the problem must have been an intelligence leak.” She turned her glare on Atwater-Jones, who returned a cheerful smile. “Do you have anything to add to that, Commander?”

“If I had,” Atwater-Jones said, still smiling, “and as it would involve an on-going intelligence investigation of a most sensitive nature, it would of course be for your ears only, Mum.”

So apparently Sam was not the only one who occasionally felt the urge to bait the bear.

The formal briefing got going after that. The formidable gray-haired captain running the show turned out to be Marietta Kleindienst, chief of staff to Admiral Kayumati, the commander of the task force. Atwater-Jones was obviously there as the N2–smart boss. Sam still couldn’t place the other officer.

The plan was essentially as outlined before: a direct descent on K’tok, two cohorts of mike troops landed to seize the needle, another cohort in reserve, the fleet to engage and destroy any uBakai warships in the area of operations, then provide orbital bombardment support and secure the orbital space from interference by any arriving uBakai forces.

Sam was unfamiliar with the terminology of the planetary assault itself, never having served in assault transports or in exercises involving deployment of ground troops. He kept squinting up glossaries to guide him through the maze of jargon. “Mike” stood for Meteoric Insertion Capable–soldiers dropped from orbit in individual re-entry capsules and accompanied by clouds of decoys to confuse missile interceptors.

The five heavy cruisers would hold low planetary orbit (LPO), positioned to bombard the area around the Landing site. The four destroyers of DesDiv Four would form the outer screen in much higher planetary synchronous orbit (PSO). The transports and logistical support vessels, along with USS Pensacola, the task force flagship would take station as needed.

Captain Kleindienst also told them a Nigerian and a British cruiser–NNS Aradu and HMS Exeter–had been detached to secure the system gas giant, Mogo. The four destroyers of DesDiv Five had been dispatched to Mogo; they would arrive later than the cruisers but relieve them on station there so the heavier ships could rejoin the task force.

“Any questions?” Captain Kleindienst asked and looked at the twelve men and women in the crescent.

To his surprise, Sam heard Filipenko clear her throat.

“I have one, ma’am.”

Kleindienst’s frown deepened and took on an added layer of impatience.

“Very well, but make it fast.”

“I’m a communications officer by training and principle experience. Usually communication back to Earth takes weeks, because there is no communication except by data transfer by jump craft. This is only our fifth day of war.

“I know our emergency procedure calls for an automated comm packet dispatched by jump missile to Bronstein’s World, where it will be received, transferred to a similar jump missile to Earth, where it will be received, acted on, and the procedure then repeated in reverse. But even the emergency process takes days, usually many days.”

“Yes, what’s your question?” Kleindienst snapped.

Filipenko took a breath, perhaps to steady herself, and then spoke.

“This plan was given to us in outline the day of the attack. I don’t see how consultation with superior authority was possible. Is this attack authorized?”

That was a hell of a question. What Filipenko said was true, obviously true, but Sam hadn’t thought to wonder about it. He faulted the astrogators for not thinking tactically, but Filipenko just showed him what it meant to think as a signaler.

Opposite them, Kleindienst paused, apparently to let her glare grow even more fiery.

“Given the very problems you enumerate,” she said carefully and slowly, “and given the volatile nature of the situation here, Admiral Kayumati sailed with sealed orders covering a variety of anticipated contingencies. Yes, Lieutenant, this attack was authorized at the highest level. Admirals don’t go around starting wars.”

Sam did not find that particularly reassuring. Of course the attack was authorized. But if the task force had sailed with contingency plans this detailed, how peaceful had the original intention been? The uBakai had struck the first blow, taken the role of aggressor. But what if they hadn’t? Maybe they had been very obliging to strike that first blow. Maybe that’s just what the coalition had wanted when the task force was sent, but that left Sam more unsettled than the idea of a rogue admiral swept away by desire for revenge would have. If their side had wanted this to happen, then they had wanted Jules and the others to die. But that was a very big “if.”

“Very well,” Kleindienst said, eyes narrowed with irritation. “The smart boss will update you on our current threat assessment.” She nodded to Commander Atwater-Jones.

“Right,” she began. “Our best estimate, based on communication traffic analysis and sensor tracks over the last six months, is that the uBakai have four cruisers in the star system, of which two are currently in orbit around K’tok. One had been in orbit around Mogo but withdrew upon approach of Task Group 1.4–that’s Aradu and Exeter. We don’t know its angle of departure as it made its escape burn when Mogo was between it and our task force. Very clever boots, these uBakai. One cruiser is currently unaccounted for, but did depart K’tok orbit at a time consistent with Lieutenant Bitka’s theory of the initial uBakai attack profile.”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” the dark-haired male officer with a squat face and bulbous nose said. He wore the three broad stripes of a commander and Sam finally placed him: Holloway Boynton, who had been Ops Boss on USS Theodore Roosevelt where Sam served as a sensor officer until three months earlier.  He knew him by name but had never spoken to him.

“No,” Atwater-Jones answered, “but if that cruiser made both attacks, and if it made its final evasive course correction using its MPD thrusters at a low enough energy level to escape thermal detection by us, we have a reasonably limited sphere in which it must be.”

“Commander, we’ve had HRVS optics looking in your sphere for days, and haven’t found anything,” Boynton said.

“Which means,” Atwater-Jones shot back, “either Leftenant Bitka’s theory is incorrect or the vessel is where we cannot detect it by visual stellar occlusion–which is to say it is directly between us and the asteroid belt, which I note we have not completed mapping.”

“That’s enough,” Kleindienst snapped. “This is a briefing, not a staff debate.”

“Quite right,” Atwater-Jones said. “As I was saying before I was interrupted, our best estimate is that they have four cruisers in the system, two around K’tok, one somewhere near Mogo, and one unaccounted for, but it’s bloody-well somewhere and up to mischief.