Chain of Command – Snippet 26

“He didn’t give us a lot of options. As long as he was in command, we had no choice but to obey his orders, and his last order was, ‘Take command.’ ”

“It sounds pretty fishy to me. I just spoke to him on commlink but he won’t holo-conference so I can’t tell if someone’s holding a gauss pistol to his head. If you’re pulling some kind of fast one over there, you will spend the rest of your natural life in a Navy brig. Do you read me?”

“Ma’am, you can commlink anybody you want to on this boat. If you think there’s some kind of conspiracy and everyone’s in on it …well, then I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t have a holo-conference suite over here, just our helmet optics. Lieutenant Commander Huhn won’t holo-conference because he’s in his dress whites and won’t change out of them for a shipsuit, so he’s got no helmet mount.”

“No shipsuit? Is he crazy?”

Sam didn’t answer. Kleindienst studied him for a moment.

“Has he been acting …odd?”

Sam paused to think about his answer, to choose his words carefully.

“Nothing he did was outside the behavioral latitude enjoyed by a commanding officer on his own vessel, ma’am.”

Kleindienst’s scowl deepened. “Meaning all captains get to act a little nuts? Alright, maybe you got a point. If you’d come running to the squadron medical officer with a list of peculiar behaviors, I’d have slapped you down as a disloyal bellyacher. And I’d have been right.”

Sam said nothing.

“Atwater-Jones thinks you’re smart, Bitka. Maybe so. But I never thought ‘smart’ was the most important attribute of a successful ship captain. What do you think?”

“I think I’m smart enough to know I’m in over my head.”

She nodded.

“I agree. You’re short line officers, too, aren’t you? I’ve got someone in mind to send over to take command: Lieutenant Commander Barger, in the operations shop of the task force staff. Good man: Annapolis, class of ’17. The shuttle can take Huhn off at the same time, bring him over here and we’ll see if he can handle some light staff duty. But Barger’s coordinating the orbital bombardment plan and I’d rather not bring someone else up to speed between now and the landing. Can you keep things together over there for, oh, let’s say five days?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Kleindienst cut the link without saying anything more.

The uBakai Star Navy had left K’tok orbit, so the task force shouldn’t encounter any resistance when they made their strike, and Puebla would be with the auxiliaries anyway. Five days–the duration of the short and hopefully uneventful career of Captain Sam Bitka, USNR. Chief Navarro should be able to keep him from screwing up too badly for that long. Then he would help Barger however he could, get through this war, and get back to his job on Earth.

He remembered joking with Jules that this was like Space Camp with better food, but that was before people started dying.

He triggered his commlink, squinted up the link for Ensign Lee–officer of the deck–pinged her, and had her patch him through the boat-wide announcement channel.

“All hands, this is Lieutenant Bitka speaking. At 1421 hours today Captain Huhn relieved himself of duty on medical grounds and turned over command of USS Puebla to me. I’ve just spoken to the task force chief of staff and we can expect a replacement captain once the initial operations in K’tok orbit are completed. Until then I will serve as acting captain.

“Lieutenant Commander Huhn will remain onboard until my relief arrives. He will be treated with the utmost respect and rendered every military courtesy by the crew at all times.

“Carry on.”

Sam cut the channel and went back to clearing the last of the paperwork on the replacement parts received from the other boats in the division, the repairs undertaken onboard, and the work that a proper shipyard needed to address the next time they saw one. He had already decided to continue with the XO job as well as command until his relief showed up. He saw no need to further disrupt the schedules and responsibilities of his fellow officers, short-handed as they already were. Everyone had to carry more water, and that included him.

He finished the report and moved on to an intel bulletin from the task force. Sensors had picked up a strong energy glow consistent with star ships running their fusion plants to recharge their power ring, probably after emerging from jump space. The contact was over eighty million kilometers galactic south of the planetary plane and whoever it was they weren’t making a secret of their presence. If they were coming to K’Tok from there, the task force would have plenty of time to get ready. He made sure the Tac department was on the distribution list.

A half-hour later his commlink vibrated and then he heard a feminine voice in his head.

Sir, this is Signaler Second Lincoln, duty comm. I have another incoming tight beam for you from USS Pensacola, a Lieutenant Commander Barger.

“Right, patch him through.” Sam heard the click of the circuit changing. “Bitka here.”

Lieutenant Bitka, this is Lieutenant Commander Lemuel Barger. Captain Kleindienst has just told me what’s going on and that I am to take command and straighten things up over there as soon as the landing force is down and has secured the objective.

“Yes, sir, I–”

Do not interrupt me, Bitka.

“No, sir.”

I know Delmar Huhn. I cannot say we are close friends, but I believe he was capable of handling command of a vessel in combat, especially as part of a larger task force, provided he received the support of his subordinates. Given his emotional collapse, I can only assume he did not receive that needed support. I am made of sterner stuff than Delmar Huhn, Mister Bitka. I will not tolerate disloyalty among my officers, and I will get to the bottom of what went on over there once I take command. Is that understood?

“Yes, sir.”

A reckoning is coming, Mister Bitka. I hope you will share this information with your fellow-officers and the senior chiefs.

“Understood, sir.”

The connection broke and Sam sat there for a while, staring at the open report on remaining food consumables without really seeing it.

Well, Barger hadn’t actually ordered him to poison the morale of his officers and chiefs, he had just “hoped” he would do so. Barger outranked Sam, but he had no authority to dictate what Sam did as captain of his own boat. And Sam had not promised to do so; he had only said he understood what Barger hoped for.

So at least for the next five days the officers and crew would go about their duties as if their loyalty were not under suspicion. They would go into battle with pride, believing they were appreciated and that their sacrifices so far, and their efforts to overcome battle damage and crew casualties, were valued by their superiors. Sam could at least see to that.

And for those next five days, until Lieutenant Commander Lemuel Barger was actually captain of USS Puebla, he could hope in one hand and piss in the other, and see which one filled up quicker.