Chain of Command – Snippet 32

“Two hundred and forty, sir,” he answered.

“Right, two forty. The thing is, it’s transferred so quickly–a lot quicker than a conventional explosion–it converts a section of the hull to plasma which is trying to expand, but it can’t expand fast enough to just drift away. Instead it whacks the boat about as hard as a quarter-ton explosive shaped charge attached to the hull: same concussion, same shear effects. We’re lucky we only caught a glancing blow.”

He looked around and saw men and women exchange frightened looks. Somebody should have told them this sooner. Somebody should at least have explained how their damned weapons worked, even if they didn’t need to know it to do their jobs.

“Any other questions? Okay. Chief Navarro, I want you to keep on top of progress, see where we need some extra help.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Navarro answered, her face expressionless.

“Well,” Sam said, and thought for a moment about how to send them on their way. “Merry Christmas, or it will be tomorrow. Kwanza starts in two more days, Chanukah in three. The winter solstice was two days ago, Mawlid a month back. Bodhi Day was … what? … two weeks ago? The day some of you celebrate the enlightenment of the Buddha. Not much enlightenment to celebrate this year. Maybe it seems like there’s not much to celebrate at all, but we’re still alive, and that’s something.

“We got punched pretty hard today. Next time it’s going to be different. So let’s turn to.”

As the officers and chiefs cleared out past him, Sam noticed Del Huhn floating at the rear of wardroom, his tether clipped to a wall stanchion. He looked a lot better. He was wearing a standard shipsuit and his face appeared rested, more relaxed. He held a drink bulb in his hand and looked at Sam, an odd knowing smile on his lips as if he and Sam shared a secret no one else knew. As the last of the chiefs left, Huhn cocked his head to the side. Sam kicked off and drifted over to him.

“So, how do you like being captain so far?” Huhn asked, and the smile became something closer to a smirk.

“Enjoy your coffee, Lieutenant Commander Huhn, but in the future I want you to clear the wardroom when I’m having a meeting with my officers and chiefs.”

“I’m still an officer on this boat,” Huhn said.

“With respect, sir, you are a passenger on this boat. And by the way, since you were already packed for the transfer to Pensacola, we’ll swap cabins in two hours.”

Sam turned and glided through the wardroom hatch only to find chief Navarro waiting on the other side.

“Satisfied?” he asked, but from her grim expression he didn’t think so.

“I got a little girl seven years old, a little boy five,” she said. “I don’t want them growing up sin madre. What do we do when El Almirante pulls everyone out of orbit except our three destroyers?”

Sam had suspected Admiral Kayumati might do that–pull all the jump drive-equipped ships out of harm’s way–but he wasn’t as certain as Navarro seemed to be.

“I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”‘

Her face remained rigid for several seconds, and then she nodded.

“With the captain’s permission, I think it’s time we had a talk.”


Ten minutes later they tethered themselves to restraint rings in Sam’s stateroom. It didn’t feel like his anymore, now that he’d made the decision to move, and he was glad he had. He was probably going to have a lot of private conferences like this and the captain’s cabin had more room. This had been Del Huhn’s cabin before Sam moved up to XO and he remembered how crowded that first officers’ meeting had felt.

Sam offered Navarro something to drink and for a change she took him up on it.

“Orange juice if you’ve got it, sir.”

After they took a moment to sip from their drink bulbs, Navarro cleared her throat and started.

“Near as I can tell, you did real good today, sir. With respect, how much of that do you figure was luck?”

It wasn’t the question Sam was expecting, although he couldn’t have said which one was expected.

“I’m not sure. Maybe most of it.”

She shook her head, her mouth a hard line.

“Captain, if you follow my advice, you will never say anything like that to another living soul on this boat. You can be all modest and stuff for the brass and for the folks back home, but for this crew, since you aren’t a career officer and you aren’t an operations officer, you better be a goddamned tactical genius. Everyone had lots of questions about whether you were up to this job. If we had a nice long peacetime cruise, you’d have time to work into this gradually, but that’s not our situation.”

“Not being from operations, not being a regular–does the crew really care that much about it?” Sam asked. He’d thought that pecking order was important only to the officers.

“Sure they care. I care, sir. I came up through maneuvering, promoted from quartermaster first to chief, operations all the way. All my career, most tac-heads I ever saw were just ballast, and some of them weren’t even very good at that. And as for being a reservist, the things you have to figure out, think through, the regular men and women know by instinct. They’ve been doing it every day for years.”

“That didn’t seem to be a problem for you when I got the XO job,” he said.

“XO ain’t captain, sir. But you may have noticed I said everyone had questions about you. All those drills everyone thought were a waste of time–seeing how fast we can get to general quarters, how fast we can get missiles out the tube–everyone knew speed and quick reaction time wasn’t important, right?

“But earlier today when our task force got hammered, we survived, and we were one of the only boats to get missiles fired. Even if the missiles ended up being broke-dick-no-workee, we looked pretty good. Now, the fact everyone but you thought those drills were stupid, makes you look like some kind of mastermind. And that’s good, because over a thousand men and women died in orbit earlier today, and as bad as everyone feels about it, they’d feel a lot worse if they were dead too.

“Why are those other people dead and we’re alive? The crew thinks it’s because of you. Whether you’re smart or lucky, they don’t much care. In their minds whatever mojo you have going is keeping them alive, and that’s good enough for them.

“I’m not saying to swagger around this boat as if you were Bull Halsey. I’m just asking you, please, to never let on to anyone that you don’t think you’ve got what it takes. The belief that you’re on top of this–even if it’s a lie–is all that’s holding these kids together.

“Oh, and by the way, pitching in to help with the repairs was good. Most of the time I wouldn’t encourage a captain to do that, but you’ve got a kind of eccentric genius thing going with the crew that makes it work.”

She stopped and took a long drink of orange juice. When she finished Sam expected her to resume speaking, but instead she just looked at him and he realized it was his turn to talk.

“Eccentric genius, huh? Not at all the way I think of myself, but I can live with it.”

“Don’t get me wrong, sir. I’m not telling you to try to be something you’re not, even though it may sound like it. But that won’t work either. You can’t act like the captain. You’ve got to be the captain.”