Chain of Command – Snippet 33

Chapter Seventeen

26 December 2133 (two days later) (fifth day in K’tok orbit)

The four holo-conference attendees seemed to float in space, each one surrounded by a small sphere of imagery–a cabin, a wardroom, a work station, an empty conference room–the spheres forming the four corners of a small square surrounded by dimensionless gray. Atwater-Jones was holo-conferencing from the unarmed command ship, USS Pensacola, but from a conference room somewhere other than its habitat wheel, so she was in zero gee. Her long red hair was tied back into a ponytail, but a very loose one, so her hair floated around her head in a soft cloud, as if she were under water. It was a little distracting. The three destroyer captains, of course, floated in zero gee as well–they had no other option.

Sam had balked at another holo-conference–he had too much to do as it was without another meeting to attend–but he found himself looking forward to seeing Cassandra Atwater-Jones again. He liked her sense of humor. After five minutes, though, he wasn’t laughing; he found himself staring at the image of the British officer in disbelief.

“They hit Bronstein’s World? But the BW’s neutral, isn’t it? They don’t even have a military, just a police force.”

“That is quite correct, Captain Bitka,” Atwater-Jones said. “However, the US Eleventh Fleet Headquarters is located on land leased from the planetary authorities, close by the needle down station and in the administrative capital. There are also several orbital facilities owned by the United States Navy, as well as one owned jointly by India and Brazil. All of the orbital installations were destroyed and the Eleventh Fleet ground facilities were attacked from orbit, with considerable loss of life both in the facility and the surrounding civilian community.”

Sam shook his head and for a moment thought about Filipenko–she hit her hard.

“Beyond that,” she went on, “the coalition task force assembling near the system gas giant was taken under attack as well and has suffered casualties similar to ours, both in scope and apparent cause.”

“What does that mean for us getting reinforcements?” Juanita Rivera on Champion Hill asked.

Rivera was the acting commander of the destroyer division, and Sam had spoken to her several times about readiness and repair progress. She hadn’t been able to tell him what the long-term plan was, because task force hadn’t told her yet. They’d both hoped this briefing might answer that question.

In sharp contrast to Atwater-Jones, Rivera’s raven-black hair was cut to a uniform length of five centimeters and in zero gee stuck out like a porcupine’s quills. She was big, with big hands and a strong, squared-off jaw. She looked as if she lifted weights normally, but the extended zero-gee was getting to her, rounding her face and body. She probably wasn’t getting as much exercise as she should, but she still looked as if she could kick down doors that got in her way. So far her command style was just about as subtle as that, which was fine with Sam. The time for subtlety had passed, in his opinion.

Atwater-Jones said nothing for a moment.

“Our two detached cruisers–Exeter and Aradu–are en route to join us, as are the three destroyers under Commander Bonaventure escorting USS Hornet. They will be here in three days.  The admiral has also ordered your four remaining destroyers to leave orbit around the gas giant Mogo and join us. But as to reinforcements from Earth …well, that’s off, at least for the immediate future.”

Mierda,” Rivera said. “Any more bad news?”

The British intelligence officer shifted uncomfortably–the first time Sam had seen any hint that anything might put her off balance.

“I am afraid so. It seems our initial assessment that we destroyed an uBakai cruiser in the battle was incorrect.”

Sam sat back in his chair.

“But I’ve seen the wreckage imagery,” he said. “We all have. Now you’re telling us we didn’t kill a single uBakai ship? How is that possible?”

The other two destroyer captains in the holo-conference made noises of agreement, and Atwater-Jones’s expression didn’t change as she listened. Her briefing had already made clear that the task force still had no idea how the uBakai had turned their jump drives on remotely. Now this.

“Yes, I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” she said. “Believe me, the cruiser captains were even more distressed. They had thought to have been responsible for the one uBakai ship destroyed. But careful study of the sensor records indicates that the single enemy craft lost was destroyed well before any ordnance was launched by any of our vessels.”

“You mean the uBakai blew up one of their own ships?” Rivera said. “Bullshit! They aren’t that loco.”

“Blew up their own ship? Not deliberately,” Atwater-Jones answered, ignoring the implied challenge. “It appears to have been an accident. They were able to arrive seemingly out of nowhere because that is in fact precisely what they did. You see, they exited jump space well within the plane of the ecliptic, under ten thousand kilometers from K’tok. Our sensor records clearly show the energy signature of a jump emergence at the point we first detected them.”

“And no one in the task force saw it coming?” Rivera said, her voice taking on more of an angry edge.

Sane people like us never do that sort of thing,” Atwater-Jones said quietly, “because the plane of the ecliptic is full of debris, dust, asteroids–widely spaced to be sure, but chance emergence in the same space as even a fairly modest-sized piece of rock can be catastrophic, as you all know very well. That appears to have been what happened: one of their ships exploded immediately upon exiting jump space.” She glanced briefly at Sam and raised one eyebrow.

“Sane people like us listen carefully to what our astrogators say, and follow all the rules, even after the rules cease making sense.”

“So their admirals are smarter than ours, is what you’re telling us,” Rivera said.

“I’d say they gambled and won,” Atwater-Jones replied.

“I’d say they just revolutionized interplanetary warfare,” Sam said. The others turned to look at him. “Think about it. All of our tactics are built around the assumption jump drives get us from star system to star system but Newton thrusters move us around in the system. It makes perfect sense in peacetime, but these in-system jumps are the way tactical surprise returns to the battlescape. Sure, there’s a risk, but there’s a hell of a payoff if it works.”

Sam did not add that in a single stroke the uBakai had also rendered the destroyer rider concept obsolete, or at least a great deal less useful. The others sat silently for several long seconds.

“So we didn’t even get a piece of them?” Captain Mike Wu of Petersburg, finally said. Wu looked as if he was well over the fleet mass limit for his height. He frowned and rubbed the top of his shaved head with his small but fat-fingered hand–or at least seemed to, but the hand moved back and forth several centimeters above his head, rubbing the top of his invisible helmet.

“I’ve looked through the data dump on the attack. There are heat spikes, additional debris, even some outgassing.”

“Yeah, how do you explain that?” Rivera demanded.

“Oh, they did not escape entirely unscathed. One of USS Theodore Roosevelt’s missiles certainly hit an uBakai cruiser. We cannot tell how serious the damage was–not enough to disable it–but a fire lance hit can cause quite a lot of mischief short of that. And Captain Rivera, you may find this particularly heartening. USS Shiloh, one of your destroyers, was effectively overrun by the uBakai squadron as it passed behind K’tok, and as you know was destroyed with considerable loss of life. But in recovering survivors we also recovered its intact bridge data log.

“The late Captain Rothstein of Shiloh fired six missiles at the oncoming uBakai, and although they caused no hits their close-in detonation provided her with an interference barrier against the uBakai sensors. That kept them from hitting her boat until they were quite close. Rothstein redirected her point defense lasers to engage ship-sized targets instead of missiles, and appears to have done considerable damage to several of the four remaining uBakai cruisers.”

“Someone better put Miriam in for a decoration,” Rivera said. “It’s not much, but it might mean something to her husband and kids.”

“I quite agree,” Atwater-Jones replied.

Sam cleared this throat.

“I’ve got one more question. Why is this war so important?”

Atwater-Jones shifted in her chair and gave him a look partly quizzical, partly mocking.

“Important? I thought the admiral’s address made that clear. The salient point is the bio-compatibility of–”

“No,” Sam said, cutting her off. “I understand why it’s important to us. But we didn’t start the war, they did. And now they’ve escalated it by hitting Bronstein’s World. K’tok is just one of more than a dozen Varoki colony worlds, and some of them are Varoki bio-compatible. So why is this one so important to them?”

“Well …” Atwater-Jones began but then stopped. She frowned for a moment and looked away, perhaps to gather her thoughts, and then her face cleared.