Chain of Command – Snippet 25

Everyone’s eyes turned to him as he entered. Huhn’s visage was unreadable, but from the expressions on everyone else’s faces Sam had the feeling he was in trouble–a lot of trouble. Maybe those mass-approved damage survey reports were coming back to haunt him. Or maybe one of the two enlisted crew were the ones in trouble. Somebody sure was.

“Sam, come over here,” Huhn said. Sam kicked lightly off the door and floated over to the table. Goldjune moved down the table, making room for Sam next to the captain. Sam clipped his tether lanyard to the table and held a bracket, mostly to keep his hand from trembling.

Huhn fingered his decorations, particularly an odd one, a large silver, gold, and red multi-pointed star or flower–Sam wasn’t sure which–that looked foreign and out of place below the orderly ranks of colored rectangular ribbons that represented his US Navy awards. Huhn’s index finger traced the edge of the star, lingered on one of the points.

“Sharp. Could hurt someone with this if you weren’t careful,” Huhn said. “Order of the State of the Republic of Turkey. Got it back in ’29. I saved the daughter of the Turkish ambassador to Bronstein’s World. Just a teenager, got caught in an airlock without a vacuum suit, but I kicked a circuit box open and shorted it out, so we could pop the hatch manually. Just used my head is all, but everybody else panicked. Saved that girl’s life and got this for it. Proudest day of my life.”

Sam wondered if he meant the day he saved the girl’s life or the day he received the medal.

“It’s very impressive, sir. What was it you wanted?”

“Sam, some of us are cut out for certain things, but not others. You know what I mean?”

“I think so, sir.”

“Sometimes we have to face hard truths about ourselves, look in the mirror and see things we don’t want to see, would rather look away from. But we’ve got to look, Sam. We’ve got to look hard.”

Huhn stared at him as if he expected a reply but Sam said nothing.

“We’re about to go into battle, Sam, and we all need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I cut out for this?’ It’s hard, but a lot of lives depend on us answering that question as truthfully as we know how. Do you agree with that?”

“Yes, sir,” Sam answered and licked his dry lips.

He had wondered this, many times, and also wondered if seeing ghosts might be a disqualification for duty. But he had no idea how to answer those questions except to see it through, do his duty as well as he could, and on the other side of it find out if that was good enough. He’d done okay in the first battle, but it had caught him by surprise. This coming fight filled him with a growing dread. He’d looked forward to their arrival, going to general quarters, facing whatever stood before them, but not because he longed for danger. It was only because he wanted this awful uncertainty, this dark foreboding, to end.

“Well, I’ve been looking in my mirror,” Huhn said. “I’ve spent a lot of the last week looking in it, and I know now: I’m not cut out to command this boat in battle. I’m cut out for a lot of things in the Navy, but not that. I think…I think I need a rest is all. That’s why I asked Medtech Tamblinson here, to certify me medically unfit for command.”

Sam looked at Tamblinson, whose eyes were larger than Robinette’s had been earlier when Sam turned the watch over to him for the first time. He looked at Goldjune and faced cold hostility, at Hennessey and faced anxiety bordering on panic, and he realized the trouble he was in was real, but was entirely different than he had originally thought, had in fact never imagined, and he felt this heart rate climb and chest constrict with the beginning of panic.

“Captain, I…I wouldn’t do anything too hasty. You need to be–”

“What? Certain? You think I’m doing this on the spur of the moment? Haven’t thought it through?”

Sam licked his suddenly dry lips again, and swallowed to loosen his tight throat. “Nothing like that, sir. It’s just…if you do this, it’s going to change your life, and there’s no changing it back.”

That was dishonest. Sam didn’t give a damn about Huhn’s future. He simply wanted no part of being captain. This was a job on which the lives of nearly a hundred people depended, and a job which he was so totally unprepared for he could not imagine any outcome but disastrous failure.

Huhn looked down at the table for a moment and then looked back up into Sam’s eyes.

“At least my conscience will be clear.”

Sam wanted to scream at him, wanted to slap sense into him, wanted to get up and leave the wardroom, come back in and try again from the beginning. Instead he floated by the table and stared dumbly at Captain Huhn…no, not captain anymore…at Lieutenant Commander Huhn.


Sam noticed that, while the grim-faced image of Captain Marietta Kleindienst, the task force chief of staff, remained fixed in his view, the ghosted image of the work area behind her floated gently, so she was holo-conferencing by helmet from the flag bridge of Pensacola, not from the conference room up in the rotating habitat wheel where there was spin-induced gravity and a full holo-suite. Sam couldn’t see her helmet, any more than she could see his, one of the odd effects of the helmet optics. The internal optics looked in and recorded the speaker’s face and head while the external optics looked out and recorded the nearby environment, but neither of them recorded the helmet itself.

“Mister Bitka, exactly what in the Sam Hell is going on over there?” Kleindienst demanded. “Lieutenant Colonel Okonkwo just got off the link and sounded like he was going to have a stroke.”

No one on Puebla had been sure who to notify about Huhn’s action, but Moe Rice had recommended the task force personnel department. Okonkwo was the task force N1–personnel chief–and Sam’s own conversation with him a quarter of an hour earlier had been difficult, eventually becoming heated.

“Yes, ma’am. When I spoke with him the situation seemed …beyond his personal experience. I don’t know that any ship captain in the Nigerian Navy has ever requested relief from command and duty on medical grounds–at least for this reason. But that’s the situation with Lieutenant Commander Huhn.”

It sounded strange not to call Huhn “captain.”

Sam didn’t know much about the Nigerian Navy, but Okonkwo’s rank was lieutenant colonel, not commander. The fact they used the same rank titles as the army instead of most other nations’ navies was a small thing, but it still seemed like a strike against them.

“And do I understand that those medical grounds are ‘psychological exhaustion?'” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you actually went along with this?”