Chain of Command – Snippet 27
19-20 December 2133 (later that day and the next) (one day from K’tok orbit)
Before turning in, Sam had a visit from Lieutenant Marina Filipenko, an official visit he had requested. She accepted a hot green tea and the two of them floated in his stateroom tethered to stanchions and at first just looked at the star field displayed on the smart wall.
“Filipenko, I’m kind of skipper and XO rolled into one for now. I’m supposed to make sure the crew functions as a team, you know? Something’s eating at you. It’s hard enough dealing with a war none of us expected, but something else is going on with you. I don’t want to intrude in your private life, but you’ve become an essential officer, a keystone member of the crew. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me.”
She floated silently for what seemed like a long time, looking down at the deck, thinking. Finally she shook her head.
“I don’t know that there is anything you can do. I think I made a terrible mistake leaving home. You don’t â€¦I don’t know that any of you can understand the sort of bond there is between folks on the BW–that’s what we call Bronstein’s World most of the time, the BW. It’s like a club, but everyone has to pay dues to stay a member, and the dues are really high, and you have to pay them every single day. But everyone there does–or they die and that’s that.”
She was silent for a while and finally Sam said, “Gotta be tough. But you got away. Took control of your life again.”
She shook her head.
“I ran away. I ran, and I abandoned my family, my friends, everyone on the BW. I said, ‘I’m not like you. I can’t do this.’ But I didn’t understand how important it was to be like them, to belong to that tribe, until I quit. That’s what it is, a tribe. None like it anywhere.
“I thought I’d find it here in the Navy, a new tribe, but â€¦” she looked around and then shook her head.
“Strikes me as pretty tribal,” Sam said. He’d never thought of it in quite those terms, but it fits. But once he said it, the thought made him uneasy.
“Yes, but a very silly tribe,” she shot back and glanced up at him, gave him that long, penetrating stare, and then shrugged. “Not supposed to say things like that, I know. But at Annapolis, everyone was so proud of what they had endured to get through each year, so proud of what they had accomplished by the end. All I could think was, twelve-year-olds on the BW have gone through more, endured more, had to shoulder more personal responsibility for their survival, than anyone at that graduation, and nobody ever told they to throw their hats in the air and crow about how exceptional they were. Now all my classmates do is preen and bicker and jostle for the right place at the wardroom table.
“God, I hate it! I hate the Navy.”
The passion and bitterness in her voice took him back, and Sam took a while thinking about it before answering.
“It’s funny, before this whole war thing started Del Huhn and I got into it over disciplining two of my petty officers and I told him it was stuff like that made people hate the Navy. To tell you the truth, I think I was talking about myself as much as anyone. But that was before the war. War has a way of â€¦broadening your thinking, you know?”
She shrugged, not meeting his eyes.
“I guess there are different versions of the US Navy, different layers. I don’t hate them all, and I don’t think you do either. There’s one I think of as The Entitled Navy. That’s the one where politically well-connected officers take for granted that their superiors will treat them with circumspection and wink at their shortcomings, and it turns out they’re right–that one I hate.”
Her eyes narrowed and she nodded.
“There’s another one where everyone’s got an eye on what comes next, whether it’s the next assignment or the job after you’re done with the Navy, and puts smoothing the way for that above doing their job here and now. The Nest Feathering Navy. Not crazy about that one either.”
“No,” she said.
“Tell you what I am crazy about, though. I’m crazy about my tactical department–yours too now. Joe Burns stepped up to Bull Tac like he was born for the job.”
“Yes! God, I don’t know how I’d have managed the department without him.”
“Joyce Menzies is like some sort of missile savant, and we might even make something of Ensign Robinette, too.”
“He’s trying hard,” she admitted.
“Got a pretty good engineering department, world-class A-gang. I’m even getting used to Ops. Goldjune and I are never going to bosom buddies, but so what?” Sam paused and looked around his cabin. “I’ll tell you what I’m crazy about: this boat. I don’t mind telling you it comes as something of a surprise.”
“It’s a fine boat,” she agreed.
“This is our tribe, Marina. Maybe tribes are like cats: you don’t find them, they find you.”
For the first time Sam could recall, Filipenko chuckled.
After two hours of floating and sweating in his sleep cubby, Sam awoke from a nightmare of Puebla dying under a hail of uBakai laser fire because he had forgotten how to maneuver the boat, forgotten how to order the weapons division to fire, been unable to form the right words, and so they had drifted impotently into the uBakai killing zone.
He turned on his stateroom lights and checked the time: 0030 hours, literally Oh-Dark-Thirty. He felt on the edge of panic, needed help. Then he had an idea where he might find it. Over a decade ago he had taken several courses on leadership. Everyone made light of “the book,” acted as if true enlightenment could only come once you had gone far past its simplistic lessons and formulas. Sam didn’t care. At that particular moment he was willing to take any help he could get.
He put on viewer glasses and scanned several manuals, but of course there was no single guide explaining how to be a crackerjack boat captain. Finally he came across something, something he had once known by heart. Every officer candidate learned it: the eleven principles of naval leadership. Even as he read them, they came back. They didn’t answer any specific question he had, but the first one got his attention right away.
First Principle of Naval Leadership: Know yourself and seek self-improvement.
Well, that wasn’t a bad place to start.
Six hours later Chief Constancia Navarro, one foot hooked through a handhold, floated before Sam’s desk in the captain’s office, her face a blank mask.
“Chief, I sent for you because I need your help,” Sam said. “I need it bad. I’m only captain for five or six days, but I can’t afford to screw this up.”
Sam gestured in invitation to the drink dispenser on his desk but Navarro shook her head.
“No thanks, sir. You move your gear into the captain’s main cabin yet?”
“I figured Lieutenant Commander Huhn can stay there until Commander Barger shows up. No point in moving twice in one week. Chief, my problem is I’m having a hard time getting a handle on commanding the boat. I sort of know the administrative end of things, but that’s not what I mean. I’m having trouble getting some of the officers on board. I could come down harder on them but I don’t want to rock the boat too much before the new C.O. gets here. What do you think?”
She squinted at him for a moment before answering. “It’s your boat, sir. I’d say rock it as much as you want.”
She continued looking at him and showed no more inclination to volunteer additional advice. Sam sipped his coffee, unsure if he’d done something to offend her. A captain maybe shouldn’t worry about that–it wasn’t a popularity contest–but he needed Navarro’s help. He needed somebody’s help, that was for sure,
Navarro shifted and looked away.
“Chiefs,” she said.
“Chiefs,” she repeated and turned to face him. “All due respect, sir, but you spend too much time thinking about the commissioned officers. They’re fine when somebody’s shooting at us, but the chief petty officers run the boat, day-in, day-out. You don’t need the officers to run a tight boat if you’ve got the chiefs.”
“Go on,” Sam said.
“Well, the problem is, chiefs aren’t going to piss off their department officers to please a captain who’s only going to be around to cover for them for five or six days.”
“Meaning I can’t really count on them,” Sam said.
“No, sir. Meaning you can’t count on them to walk the plank for you if you’re not even willing to move into the goddamned captain’s cabin.”
Sam straightened a bit, surprised at the animosity Navarro’s words revealed. “You really want me to move into that cabin?”
“No, sir. What I really want is for you to decide what you want from this crew. Now, if that’s all. I got a pile of work I need to get back to.”
He nodded. Navarro started to leave but she paused by the hatch, her back to him.
“So far the crew’s running on inertia and rage, and that’s okay for now. But pretty soon that’ll run out and they’re going to figure out what a really tight spot they’re in. You want to do something for them? Something that’ll make a difference? Tell them why they’re here. Tell them what they’re fighting for. Tell them why someone killed their shipmates and is trying to kill them, and why maybe it’s worth their lives”
“I’m not sure I know,” Sam said. “It’s something about K’tok’s biochemistry.”
Navarro left without looking back and Sam stared at the closed office door for a long time, thinking about how empty his words had sounded even to him.
That hadn’t gone very well. She’d told him what she thought he was doing wrong, she’d said it in plain standard English, but he had no idea what it meant. What was he supposed to do? Sure, he was the captain, but only for less than a week and with his relief already appointed. And how the hell was he supposed to know what the war was about? He just followed orders, like everyone else.
He saw a shadow in the corner of his eye and he looked away. He didn’t want her or anyone else to see him like this: confused, indecisive, a powerless captain because he didn’t know how captains exerted authority except by brute force of law and navy regulations–and he knew that was the worst possible course he could take.
Maybe the only way to handle this was to just go on acting as the executive officer for an imaginary, invisible captain. He knew how to do that much. But something nagged at him, something Navarro had told him in their first conversation after the war started: for the crew the captain was the Navy. And didn’t they deserve to hear from the Navy why they were going into harms way? He’d even read it the previous night.
Fourth Principle of Naval Leadership: Keep your subordinates informed.
Sam pinged the duty communications technician.
This is Signaler First Class Kramer, sir. How can I help you?
“Kramer, get me a tight beam to the flagship. I want to talk to someone on Captain Kleindienst’s staff, whoever you can raise.”
This is Lieutenant Alice Fong, Captain Kleindienst’s aide, Sam heard in his head once the tight-beam connection went active.Â What do you need, Lieutenant Bitka?
“Well, you can start by calling me Captain Bitka.”
Um â€¦ I understood your appointment was only temporary.
“Correct, which is why you’ll only have to call me captain temporarily too.”
Of course. Captain Bitka. What do you need?
“What I need is to know why we’re fighting this war.”
We’re very busy here, Captain Bitka. Do you have a request affecting the combat efficiency of your ship?
“First off, Puebla isn’t a ship. Destroyer riders don’t have jump drives, so they’re boats, which I assume you just forgot. Second, I’m not screwing around, Lieutenant Fong. I’ve got senior chiefs asking me what the hell’s going on and I don’t know what to tell them. Why are my people supposed to go into battle and risk their lives?”
Because they are under orders to do so.
“Not good enough. These are American mariners. They aren’t robots and they aren’t galley slaves. If you think this is the only place crews are asking questions like this, you’re kidding yourself. If you want these people to fight hard, you better figure out what it is they’re fighting for, and let them know. Or let me know and I’ll pass it on. You might want to let the West European, Indian, and Nigerian crews in on it, too.”
I’ll â€¦have to get back to you, Captain Bitka.
“Fine. Just see that you do. Oh, and Ms. Fong? We lost people in that first attack, friends and shipmates, gone forever. The reason better be pretty good.”
Twenty minutes later Sam was finishing up the new incoming parts inventory when his embedded commlink vibrated.
Captain, this is Signaler First Kramer on the bridge. I have an incoming audio tight beam from the flagship for your ears only.
“Okay, Kramer, patch it through.”
Sam expected to hear the voice of Lieutenant Fong, or perhaps someone with more rank. He suspected that the more rank behind the incoming comm, the angrier it was likely to be. Instead the voice in his head vibrated with barely contained mirth.
Captain Bitka, are you there?
“Commander Atwater-Jones? I was expecting someone else.”
I daresay, and I won’t keep you long. Just thought I would congratulate you on making the most of what will undoubtedly be the shortest command tour in the history of your navy. Good heavens, you’ve got a knack for asking the most awkward sorts of questions! Next you’ll be demanding to see the emperor’s new clothes.
“Well, I think it’s a pretty reasonable question.”
Of course it is! That’s what makes it so bloody awkward. Well, buck up. Dame Marietta will probably try to frighten you to death, but I felt obliged to ruin her fun. They–which is to say the admiral’s senior staff–have already decided your question does require an answer, and one spread throughout the task force, so you are not to be drawn and quartered–at least not yet. Not that you’ve gained an ounce of their respect or gratitude, you understand.
“Commander, I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but you being part of the admiral’s senior staff, I’m having a hard time figuring out where you stand in all this.”
I wouldn’t worry about it, Bitka, as long as you know where you stand. Toodles.
Sam received the predicted comm from Captain Marietta Kleindienst within another half hour and, as anticipated, it alternated between anger and expressions of disappointment, as well as containing a veiled threat to send Commander Barger over sooner than originally planned. Sam responded respectfully but managed not to buckle under the assault. Perhaps he’d have held up anyway, but Atwater-Jones having tipped him to the bluff certainly helped. As it was, Kleindienst left him with an admonishment to “shape up.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he had said as she cut the connection.
Dame Marietta. That’s what Atwater-Jones had called her and Sam chuckled. He respected the chief of staff, both personally and the authority of her office, but it was going to be hard to find her frightening from now on. There were just too many more-dangerous things in the universe for him to take her cross words very seriously. Besides, what could they do to him? Send him to K’tok?