Chain of Command – Snippet 02
“I-I’m the goddamned executive officer of this boat! You can’t talk to me like that!”
“Am I to assume then, sir, that your direct order to speak freely has been rescinded?”
Huhn glared at him for several long seconds before shaking his head in disgust.
“Get out of my sight!”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Out in the corridor Sam paused and with trembling hands checked his bio-monitor, to see if he was in danger of a stroke, or perhaps a heart attack. To his surprise they registered almost normal. Well, he had only been following orders.
The broad and warmly lit corridor rose up and away from him to either side, and even though he was used to the optical illusion created by the rotating habitat wheel of the carrier USS Hornet, today it took on an unpleasant significance. No matter which way he turned, sooner or later he would end up back here. For a moment he felt dizzy, but he knew that was simply the coriolis effect of the habitat wheel’s rotation. Its hundred-meter radius was not enough to keep his inner ear from noticing his feet moving slightly faster than his head.
He took the four steps over to the opposite wall and stood at the broad “window.” It wasn’t a window, of course. It was simply a smart wall keyed to show the view aft.
The carrier USS Hornet stretched over half a kilometer astern from the habitat wheels, terminating in the intricate lattice-like crossings and re-crossings of the interstellar jump drive generator, softly glowing and sparkling against the pitch black of deep space. Between the habitat wheels and the engineering spaces aft, a dozen black vessels clung to the carrier’s gray hull in three rows, like sticks of dynamite around the torso of a suicide bomber. One of those was his destroyer, USS Puebla. He waited until the rotation of the wheel brought it into view. Aside from the blocky low-contrast gray hull number, DDR-11, it was indistinguishable from the others.
Each one a hundred-forty-meter-long dart, the DDRs were austere, angular, and slab-sided to reduce radar reflection, built for battle and little else. The lack of an interstellar jump drive in the destroyers, and the subsequent need for a large ship to carry them from star to star, officially reduced them to the status of “boats,” as opposed to star ships, but they were dangerous boats.
They weren’t large enough to have their own habitat wheels, so in transit the crews lived in Hornet. Even with exercise, crews in prolonged zero gee began suffering from bone density loss and muscle atrophy within six months, but more serious were the effects of intracranial hypertension which began showing up in half that time, sometimes less. One thing a century and a half of space travel had made clear: gravity wasn’t a luxury.
The sight aft was spectacular and chilling at the same time. Sam found it hard to accept this massive ship and its deadly cargo–so cold and inhuman in appearance–as a work of man. He had stood here and looked often, and had gotten used to this strange mix of emotions, in part because he knew he did not have to make a lasting peace with it. He was a reservist, activated for a three-year hitch due to the current emergency. In a little less than two years all this would just be a strange memory, raw material for stories told at cocktail parties, and even now, looking out at the disturbingly beautiful jump drive and the deadly destroyer riders, he knew he would be unable to recapture this strange unsettled feeling later. He would remember that he had felt such a thing, he would remember the words he had used to describe it to himself, but the actual feeling would elude him.
Sam stood closer to the smart wall to let a squad of twelve Marines in PT gear jog past in formation. Trust the jarheads to be getting ready for a possible fight when everyone else had other things on their minds. As he stood there watching them move away and up the outside of the wheel’s curve, the smart posters on the wall chatted quietly to him about post-enlistment education and employment, and about destination resorts for his next liberty which were guaranteed to be romantic, exciting, picturesque, and restful–all somehow at the same time.
“I sure hope you guys are right,” he said to the posters,
Several hundred thousand kilometers from where USS Hornet and its twelve destroyer riders continued their long approach toward K’tok, the uBakai heavy cruiser KBk Five One Seven coasted behind the cover of its thermal shroud on a converging course. Unlike Humans, no Varoki navy gave its warships names–a practice widely disdained as foolish and sentimental. Ships were simply inanimate pieces of machinery, and to think otherwise was evidence of clouded judgment.
In the cruiser’s fleet tactical center–low-ceilinged, crowded, and dimly lit except for the glow of the tactical displays–the access hatch hissed open and Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker For the Enemy, what the Humans called a military intelligence officer, entered his admiral’s comparatively spacious office. The admiral continued working, absorbed by the smart display on his desktop. Nuvaash examined him again, searching for some additional clue to the man who carried all their fates in his pocket.
Admiral Tyjaa e-Lapeela was of no more than average height for a Varoki, although a Human would still have to look up at him. His hairless iridescent skin gleamed in the lamplight and his broad, leaf-like ears for the moment rested back against his head, but not tightly so. Part of the skin on the left side of his face was discolored, remnant of a burn he had sustained during the failed military coup a year earlier. Most senior officers associated with the coup–those who had survived–had been retired or imprisoned. Nuvaash did not know how e-Lapeela had avoided a similar fate. As the admiral read from the screen, Nuvaash noticed the tips of his ears tremble slightly in relish.
The admiral nodded to himself as he finished reading the report and looked up at Nuvaash. He reached out his hand, palm up, and curled his fingers–long even for a Varoki–in summons.
“Come closer, Nuvaash. I have read your threat assessment. It is quite thoughtful. The inclusion of recent Human warship traffic near the outer gas giant of their primary is an imaginative gauge of their ability to reinforce their forward fleet elements on short notice.”
“Thank you, Admiral. I live to serve.”
“Of course, as do I.” e-Lapeela leaned back and gestured to the chair across the desk. “Please, sit. I see you have served as a liaison officer to several Human fleets. I once did as well. Did you know I also began my career as a Speaker for the Enemy?”
“Your public service record mentioned that, Admiral.”
“And as a conscientious Speaker, you learned what you could about your new fleet commander. I expected nothing less.” The admiral fell silent for a moment and shifted slightly in his chair. Nuvaash sensed that the conversational preliminaries were complete.
“Nuvaash, we are about to embark upon an undertaking of enormous danger, but also of historic significance. You understand that. You have read the plan for First Action.”
Yes, Nuvaash had read the plan for First Action–a euphemism for the surprise opening shot in the first interstellar war in Cottohazz history. What he could not understand was why? Why now? Why here at K’tok? Why risk tearing asunder the entire fabric of the Cottohazz, the stellar commonwealth which the Varoki had labored so long to assemble and maintain? What could be worth all of that?
The admiral nodded, as if knowing the unspoken question.
“You know our history, but take a moment to consider its grand sweep. Three hundred years ago we Varoki learned the secret of the jump drive and began exploring the stars. Every sentient race we found, we added to our Cottohazz as equals. We are not conquerors, Nuvaash. All that we have retained for ourselves is the secret of the jump drive, although we license it to the others. Our laws, and other tangible measures, protect its secret, but within those limitations it is theirs to use.”
Nuvaash knew all of that, of course, but he sensed e-Lapeela was laying the groundwork for something else. The ‘other tangible measures’ he had mentioned were the deadly anti-tamper devices which effectively kept anyone but the manufacturers from examining the interior of the sealed jump drive components, a so-far effective way of preventing reverse-engineering.