Chain of Command – Snippet 29

Chapter Fourteen

24 December 2133 (two day later) (third day in K’tok orbit)

Seventh Principle of Naval Leadership: Train your crew as a team.

“Missile away,” Filipenko said from the Tac One seat beside him.

“Time?” Sam asked.

“Three minutes, forty-two seconds.”

The spinal mount electromagnetic coil gun, which launched their missiles, ran over two thirds of the length of the Puebla’s hull, through the center of it, and could only be aimed by physically turning the boat itself.  It took that much barrel length, and almost three gigajoules of stored energy from the power ring, to accelerate a missile to a velocity where it could get close to an enemy ship within a few hours, or maybe less. It came out the pipe at about six kilometers per second, which sounded fast until you realized that meant it would still take half an hour to cover ten thousand kilometers.

Other than physically realigning the boat, the main delay in firing was going through the simulated identification-friend-or-foe–or IFF–procedures.

“That’s pretty good time,” Sam said. “Chief Menzies has your missile rooms ready to wreck ships and kill people. Our only delay is identifying the target and getting the boat aligned.”

“Yes, sir,” Filipenko said with a grateful smile. “I don’t know what we can do to shave target identification any closer, given the IFF protocols.”

“Neither do I.  Okay, give me the all-boat channel.”

“You’re live, sir,” Signaler First Kramer answered from the Comm One seat.

“All hands, this is the captain.  Okay, three minutes and forty-two seconds. Well done, people, especially weapons division. Exercise is terminated. Secure from general quarters. Readiness Condition Three. White Watch, you’re up. First beer’s on my tab tonight, and nobody gets a second one. We’re sharp; let’s stay that way. Carry On.”

Sam turned back to Filipenko. “You’re on duty in a couple hours. Ensign Lee’s Officer of the Deck and I’ll hold down the bridge until she comes forward. Go ahead and get something to eat or grab some sack time.”

“Thanks,” she said, but she hesitated.  As most of the rest of the bridge crew unbuckled and made way for their reliefs, and the bridge filled with a low babble of conversation, Filipenko leaned over toward him and spoke softly.

“Captain, why are we doing all these drills? Just to keep the crew busy? I mean, the troops landed successfully, the cruisers pounded the only mobile troops the uBakai had near the down station, and their fleet has run away. Besides, even if they’re out in the asteroids, we’ll see them coming with days to get ready, or at least hours. Counting seconds …well, seconds don’t matter, do they? Isn’t it really about thinking it through and making the right call?”

Sam linked both hands behind his head and stretched his back, looking at the long-range sensor display on his workstation. Everything Filipenko said made sense, was all correct doctrine, but something nagged at him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.

“That’s standard operating procedure, and you’re probably right. The thing is, I keep coming back to ‘Why?’ Why would they start a war and then run away? It doesn’t make any sense, unless they know something we don’t. And remember what the Red Duchess said? ‘These uBakai are clever boots.’ I’ve got this feeling they’re going to hit us some way we’re not figuring on.”

“What way?”

Sam laughed. “Hell, if I could figure that out they’d make me the next chief of naval operations, which would piss off Lieutenant Goljune’s uncle, right? Isn’t he in line for the job?”

“Sir, I’ve got an incoming hail from Pensacola, for the duty officer,” Kramer said.

“Right, I’ll take it,” Sam said and waved Filipenko toward the bridge hatch. “Captain Bitka here,” he said on the tight beam channel. Sam suspected he knew what this comm was about and he said ‘Captain Bitka,’ perhaps for the last time, and with some regret, which surprised him. He hadn’t enjoyed anything about the last five days–frustration was closer. But he’d felt a little satisfaction now and then. He had the feeling he’d been doing something important, and actually doing it passably well under the circumstances. Maybe Navarro didn’t agree, maybe half his officers didn’t agree, but he thought he’d done okay. This was probably his scheduled relief, and he should welcome it. After all, it came before he’d encountered a situation he couldn’t deal with and had a chance to screw everything up. He’d be leaving the boat is as good a shape for Barger as he knew how.

Bitka, this is Lieutenant Commander Barger. I’m on board shuttle Papa Echo One Seven and we are approaching your orbit track from planet-side. The pilot estimates docking in twelve minutes. Be prepared to execute the change of command as soon as I arrive aboard.

“Understood, sir.”

Sam looked around the bridge, possibly for the last time from the command chair. The bridge hatch opened and Ensign Lee pulled herself through. He nodded to her and unhooked his tether as she pushed off to drift to the command station.

“Ensign Lee, the boat is at Readiness Condition Three, Material Condition Bravo, in low planetary orbit above K’tok, in formation with Task Group 1.3. Shuttle Papa Echo One Seven, carrying my relief, is approaching from retrograde and planet-side to dock in approximately ten minutes. The power ring is fully charged, reactor on standby, shroud secured, sensors active. The boat is–”

“High Energy Discharge!” Ron Ramirez called out from the Tac Three seat. “Multiple unidentified contacts!”

Sam turned and saw his workstation display light up with several flashing yellow contact markers. He punched the General Quarters alarm on the command console and immediately heard the gong of the alarm fill the bridge, knew it spread through the boat as well.

“Lee, take Maneuvering One,” he ordered, but she was already strapping in when he glanced up.

“Mean bearing two four seven degrees relative, angle on the bow one two zero, range …” Ramirez said, his voice rising, “six thousand kilometers? That can’t be right! They’re right on top of us. And they’re closing at twenty-one kilometers per second!”

Sam tried to see the situation in his mind but the numbers made no sense. He enabled the holo-display on his workstation and he pulled it into larger scale with his hands: K’tok at the center, the string of cruisers and other vessels, including Puebla, strung out in orbit around its equator, most of them about seven thousand kilometers out. But the tight cluster of contacts glowed about six thousand kilometers above them and the planet, visibly advancing down toward K’tok’s north pole at a sharp angle. It was hard to make out the number of ships in the enemy formation. They were obscured by some sort of debris or energy cloud.

Where did they come from? How had the destroyers, or the deep sensor drones, not picked them up before this?

“Kramer, make to Shuttle Papa Echo One Seven: ‘Am preparing to maneuver. Stand off.’. Lee, prepare to align the boat on those contacts. No …look at their track. They’re going behind K’tok, putting it between them and the main cruiser packet. Align on K’tok’s horizon where they’ll depart line of sight. Ramirez, all eight iris valves open and get our laser heads deployed.”

Sam’s thoughts raced. The uBakai were almost on top of them, but their velocity was the real complicating variable. They were moving over three times as fast as Puebla’ missiles would leave the coil gun. Instead of overtaking them, the missiles would fall behind. Once the uBakai were past them, there wouldn’t be a target solution. He glanced over at the Tac One seat–Filipenko wasn’t back yet. He could use someone else running the numbers but he didn’t know if they had enough time to put a missile over that horizon before the enemy ships disappeared into K’tok’s shadow. He squinted up the duty missile rating and pinged.

Port Missile Room, Chief Menzies.

“Menzies, glad you’re still on duty. This is no drill. Get ready to cycle missiles as fast as you can. How soon?”

Sir, you can fire as soon as you get this de crisse boat aligned on target. I’ll have one in the pipe by then and we’ll keep it up from here until the starboard missile room is manned and ready as well.”

“Load ’em up, Menzies. We’ll fire from here once the boat’s aligned on target.

“Ready to align,” Lee shouted from her station.

“Hit the klaxons and align the boat,” Sam ordered.

The acceleration warning klaxons sounded and Sam took a deep breath, tried to steady his thinking, slow things down, but the seconds tumbled past with undiminished velocity.

“Multiple ordnance launches from bogies,” Ramirez reported, his voice still tense but more business-like than in the first excitement of the contact.”

“Not bogies, Ramirez,” Sam said. “Those are hostiles–bandits. Code ’em red.”

“Task Forces hasn’t unlocked IFF yet, sir.”

I just did, damnit!”

“Aye, aye, sir. Bandits have launched missiles, individual contacts tracking on all our vessels: outer screen destroyers, cruisers and transports. Bully just launched ordnance in reply!”

Bully–USS Theodore Roosevelt–one of the leading cruisers in the bombardment group. If anyone could get a missile off that fast, it would be Captain Chelanga. She couldn’t have a good target solution yet, but at this range did she need one? Just get the missile within five thousand kilometers of the target and let nature take its course. That was a hell of an idea.

Sam checked and saw Elise Delacroix had finished strapping into the Tac Four seat. Marina Filipenko and two others came through the hatch and pushed toward their stations.

“Delacroix, the laser heads are deployed. Guns up. Hit those missiles tracking on the flag and transports with our point defense lasers.”

“Guns up. Engaging,” she answered.

“Sir, incoming burst transmission from Papa Echo One Seven,” Kramer said, her voice unnaturally calm amidst the chaos. “Text reads: ‘Belay maneuver. Prepare to take me aboard.’ Signed Barger.'”

“There’s no time. We’ve got maybe a minute before those uBakai missiles are within discharge range.  Make to Shuttle Papa Echo One Seven: ‘Stand off–Expedite.’ and demand an acknowledgement from the shuttle pilot, understand? Lieutenant Commander Barger is just a passenger over there.”

“Sir, incoming text from Task Force Flag,” Kramer said, her voice now cracking with excitement. “Text reads: ‘Cease fire at once. Targets not positively identified.’ Signed, Klinedienst, Chief of Staff.'”

Part of him wanted to give in, to surrender responsibility to Klinedienst, let her take the heat if the decision was wrong. Another part of him saw the missile tracks closing on them, knew they were coming to kill them, knew it, and wanted to scream in panic.

“Kramer, make to flag: ‘Negative.’ Sign it Bitka, Captain.

Well, ignoring IFF protocols was one way to cut a minute or so off the reaction time

“Enemy missile destroyed.” Delacroix said. “We got another! Continuing to engage.”

Sam saw an energy flare from the uBakai ships on his tactical display.

“What’s that? Did someone hit them?”

“Negative, sir,” Ron Ramirez said. “They’re firing their direct fusion thrusters. Those guys are headed for the barn.”

Ramirez was right. Sam could see the velocity numbers changing on his display. The uBakai must be pulling well over one gee, possibly over two gees. He felt Puebla’s attitude control thrusters kick in and the boat’s alignment begin to shift. Sam turned to Filipenko, who was now in the Tac One seat with her holo-display activated. He took a second to gather his thoughts, try to put them in an order that would make sense, make what he saw developing clear to her. He couldn’t afford many seconds, though.

He took a long steadying breath,

“Okay, Tac, Delacroix’s on guns, you’re on missiles. Set the missiles on TeeOpp mode–targets of opportunity–code everything you see in that bandit cloud as hostile, and start launching as soon as our bow’s within, oh, twenty degrees of them.

“Now look at your display. Think about what you’re seeing. They’ve fired off their missiles, lit up their fusion drives, and they’re passing on the far side of K’Tok from us and the cruisers. We’ve got maybe three or four minutes until they’re occluded by K’tok’s disc. They’re past the lead cruisers already and by the  time our cruisers get missiles out the tube, the uBakai will be in K’tok’s shadow and they’ll have so much velocity built up the cruiser’s missiles won’t catch them.”

“Where did they come from?” she asked, eyes wide with something close to shock.

“I don’t know, but they’re here. Just focus, okay?”

She nodded wordlessly.

“We’re retrograde from the cruisers in the orbit track so we’re better placed to lob missiles back and around to hit the uBakai when they pass on the far side, but not by much. Maybe we’ll get lucky. It’s going to be close, though, so as soon as you’ve got anything approaching a shot, just spit missiles out as fast as you can. I’m going to keep Lee rotating the boat past the horizon to shoot galactic south and try to get a piece of them as they emerge from K’tok’s shadow on the down side, although that’s a pretty forlorn hope.

“Here’s what I need you to do: once you start firing, put the coil gun on auto-fire and start crunching the numbers on the firing solutions for the salvo we’ll fire on the down side. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” she answered and turned back to her console.

Puebla suddenly lurched hard to the side, hard enough to send a lance of pain up Sam’s back and neck. He felt the explosion more than he heard it, coursing through the solid structure of the boat. The main lights went out but the consoles continued to glow. He heard the whooping siren of the hull breach alarm and voices crying out in terror. For a moment he almost joined them, but the lights came back on and he took a long shuddering breath.

“Damage report,” he said, and it came out coarse and angry-sounding.

“Hit–dorsal starboard, aft of frame sixty-eight,” the engineering tech answered. “Power spike caused some shutdowns but all internal systems back on line …we’re losing hydrogen reaction mass and I think another point defense laser is down, still trying to reboot its director. I think we lost a radiator, too.”

“Do we still have our coil gun?” Sam shouted.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, what else is–”

“They got Bully!” Delacroix said from her station.

“I’ve got a target solution!” Filipenko called out.

“Commence firing missiles,” Sam ordered and then pulled the scale up on his holo-display. In the cruiser formation the ID tag for CGS-218, USS Theodore Roosevelt, had turned red and flashed rapidly. Sam swallowed hard. Bully Big Dick had been the first starship he had served on as an ensign, following his commission back in ’22, and then was his first ship assignment after his reactivation earlier this year. He didn’t know if it was better or worse than any other cruiser in the fleet, but he’d walked its habitat wheel, served watches there, and he had admired and respected Captain Chelanga. He owed his current position to her glowing recommendation. How many casualties had they suffered? How many crew had survived?

Another cruiser tag went red. Then a transport. Then a fleet auxiliary.

And then another cruiser.