Chain of Command – Snippet 41

Chapter Twenty-Two

1 January 2134 (the next day) (eleventh day in K’tok orbit)

Sam floated out of his shower sphere, pulled off his shower mask, and checked the time: 0615, January First. Welcome to 2134, and just in time. Sam had had about all of 2133 he could handle.

The shower sphere was only about a meter and a half in interior circumference, with high pressure water jets on one side and vacuum intakes on the other. You had to wear an oxygen feed mask while you were in it to keep from drowning. Sam had to curl up almost in a fetal position to fit, and the pressure of the water jets spun him in the compartment, making him slightly dizzy, but despite all that it was one of the real luxuries of a senior officer’s cabin. The junior officers and enlisted crew made do with a communal shower shared with a half-dozen other crew once every week and sponge bathing in between.

He toweled off and checked his stored messages, and he saw a flashing attention notice by one from Commodore Bonaventure, logged in five minutes ago. Bonaventure was up early.

Bitka, as the task group N-2 I’ve got two bones for you to chew on.

First bone: we picked up some acceleration signatures, multiple ships, out past the asteroid belt and almost on the opposite side of the primary, so presumed hostile. We sure don’t have anything out there. Looks as if the task force main body wouldn’t have a line of sight to them, and neither would the ships out in Mogo orbit. We copied them and the raw data’s in the latest intel update but I want you to take a look yourself, bring that famous tac-head concentration to bear. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Second bone: we did a fly-over this morning of the landing site for those glide canisters and picked up vehicular movement heading south. They’re keeping dispersed, but the ground speed is consistent with gunsleds. Looked like they landed some lift cavalry and they’re headed toward the down station. Give me some options to deal with them.

Enjoy your breakfast.

He cut the connection and then checked the intel updates, and found the report of thermal signatures of an acceleration burn, starting north of the plane of the ecliptic and then cutting out once they reached the plain. Four or five separate signatures, hard to tell for sure at that distance and with a lot of thermal “noise” from the primary–the system’s sun.

He checked the watch rotation just to be sure, but knew what he would find: White Watch was on, had just taken over forty-five minutes ago. Ensign Barb Lee would be officer of the deck, already strapped into the command chair. The update had come in four hours ago when Blue Watch was on duty.

Jerry Robinette had finally qualified as officer of the deck and had taken over Blue Watch from Larry Goldjune three days ago. Robinette would probably be in the wardroom now, getting breakfast, having just come off watch. He’d come along surprisingly well since they moved him back to the tactical department from engineering. He took his responsibilities seriously, had worked hard to qualify as OOD, and had pitched in on the missile problem, done the force analysis calculations they needed to stress-test the parts. Sam had even gone several days without thinking of him as the Jughead.  He wondered if Jerry might be one of those legendary diamonds in the rough, who never shine until they need to. Maybe it was time to find out.

Sam squinted up his contact code and pinged him.

Yes, sir? Robinette answered.

“Ensign, did you notice an updated intel packet concerning thrust signatures out beyond the asteroid belt?”

Yes, sir. I flagged it for Lieutenant Filipenko’s attention, as Tac-boss, but it didn’t seem immediately pressing. I think she may still be in the rack. Is there a problem, sir?

“No problem, Ensign. You’re right, it wasn’t coded as critical and a burn that far away–at least one like this–isn’t an immediate problem. What do you suppose it means?”

There was a moment’s silence

Mean, sir? In what way?

“Well, when the uBakai hit us here, they came out of jump with a high residual velocity. That means they had to do a long, hard burn before they jumped.”

Sir, are you saying the uBakai could be getting ready for another attack?

Sam heard the rising alarm in Robinette’s voice.

“I don’t think so, Jerry.” Sam used Robinette’s first name to calm him, put him more at ease. “Besides, we’d have seen the energy signature of a jump if they’d done that, right? So if you take a look at these burn tracks, it is pretty clear they are moving slower as they approach the plane of the ecliptic, not faster. So they aren’t accelerating, are they?”

No, sir. They must be decelerating.

“Right. So what do you think that means?”

More silence.

That they’re slowing down? I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. It means they decelerated, but … I don’t know exactly what you mean by ‘mean,’ sir.

Sam took a breath and swallowed to keep the impatience from his voice.

“Okay, Jerry, I’m not trying to stump you, but if you’re going to be a tactical officer you’ve got to learn to think tactically. Everything means something. Every piece of data like this is the result of a sentient being making a decision to do something. The question is, what did they decide to do, and why?

“In this case, four or five unknown and previously undetected ships approached the plane of the ecliptic from galactic north at a fairly steep angle, then they decelerated and dropped into an orbit around the primary, out past the asteroids. They did it out there to use the primary and the asteroids to partially cloak themselves, right?

“But who are they? They had to come from somewhere and probably jumped to above the plane. But they’ve got a very different residual vector than the uBakai fleet had last time we saw them.”

Yes, sir. Theirs was flat, almost parallel to the plane.

“That’s right. So why would they change their vector into a north- -south orientation, then jump north of the plane, and then decelerate to burn away that new vector? And why wouldn’t we have seen their burn when they made that original vector change?”

More silence.

I … I’m sorry, sir, but I just can’t get it. I don’t know why.

Sam sighed.

“Robinette, you can’t think of a good reason for them to do it because there is no good reason. And we probably would have seen a major course change burn anywhere near this system. Those are uBakai reinforcements arriving, possibly the four cruisers they had at Akaampta.”

Sam cut the connection and shook his head. Well, that had been a pointless exercise, a waste of both their times, except for what it showed him about Robinette.

The Jughead.

Sam wanted to teach the young ensign that sometimes if you can’t think of a reason for something, there might not be one. The problem was, Robinette apparently could not figure out a reason for anything. Sam didn’t think he had much future as a tactical officer, which was too bad. They needed someone good to back up Marina Filipenko. She was rising to the job, but if anything happened to her, they were in big trouble.

He turned back to his desk and loaded the report on ground vehicle traffic down on K’tok.