Chain of Command – Snippet 24
19 December 2133 (twelve day later) (two days from K’tok orbit)
“They’re gone,” Delacroix said, her eyes on the sensor repeaters.
“Looks that way to me,” Robinette agreed.
Petty Officer Second Elise Delacroix sat Tac Three and Ensign Jerry Robinette sat Tac One on the bridge, with Sam in the command chair. They’d been at Readiness Condition Two–half of the crew on watch–for the last day. An hour ago Sam had taken over for Ensign Barb Lee as OOD to give her a breather.
They were coming up on K’tok. The transports and fleet auxiliaries had already begun their deceleration burns preparatory for entering orbit. The warships had more powerful drives and so could put off the burn longer, then make it short and hard. They’d go to general quarters then, but not until they had to. They could only keep everyone at their battle stations so long before performance went into the toilet.
Sam looked at his own sensor repeaters, showing the radar return echoes from the sensor probe far out ahead of the task force, far enough to have cleared K’Tok’s orbital track and look “behind” it, into the space the planet occluded. Nothing there.
“Those two uBakai cruisers only disappeared two days ago,” Sam said, as much to himself as the others. “Where did they go?”
“Hiding with the asteroids behind them, like the Red Duchess said about the other one?” Robinette said. “And how come we don’t have a decent data map of the asteroid belt in this star system? All our stellar occlusion detection routines freak out as soon as we dump any data in with the asteroids in the frame. A million bogies, maybe more.”
The “Red Duchess” had become Commander Atwater-Jones’s nickname throughout the boat, and apparently throughout the task force. Red came from the color of her hair. They called her a duchess partly because she was English, but also because she had an Oxford accent and money, judging by the fact her Royal Navy shipsuit was not standard issue but tailored, apparently by some famous “Old Bespoke” designer on Saville Row, if you believed all the scuttlebutt, which also required you to believe she had had sex with most of the male and half the female admirals in the Royal Navy, and possibly several members of the royal family. Sam’s state of mind, particularly concerning Jules’s death, had been such that he had not taken much notice of the British officer’s looks in their first encounter, but everyone else had.
This all confirmed Sam in his belief that mariners on long deployment were like old men and women with nothing to do but make up gossip. Atwater-Jones was certainly attractive, but he wouldn’t call her vid-star beautiful. She did have an interesting attitude. He wondered if Jules would have liked her. Atwater-Jones was almost old enough to have been Jules’s mother–was old enough if she’d been naughty very early, and of course the gossips suggested exactly that. He saw a familiar flicker in the corner of his eye, turned to ask Jules, but of course she wasn’t there.
Focus: cruisers and asteroids …
“I think Survey is working on a data set of the asteroids,” he said, “but that’s not the problem here, Ensign. We’re coming down on K’tok from straight above the plane, galactic north, so they can’t be hiding in the background clutter. Only direction for those two cruisers to run and keep K’tok between us and them is straight down, below the plane, and there’s no asteroids down there to hide in–nothing but stars and hard vacuum. Your stellar occlusion routines are working fine.”
So where the hell had they gone?
Sam closed his eyes and concentrated on the problem. To keep K’tok between them and the task force left a very narrow cone where they could be. The uBakai could have gone cold, turned their thermal shrouds toward K’tok, and coasted away once they’d made their burn, but the probe was pumping active radar energy down that cone and getting no bounce-back. A thermal shroud didn’t stop radar echoes and there were no known means of defeating the multi-wavelength variable-pulse radar mounted on the US Navy sensor probes. Even if the uBakai had some new stealth trick up their sleeves, these cruisers were both from a familiar class of uBakai warships that ground-based radar had tracked with no trouble earlier. They couldn’t just have turned invisible.
“Maybe they jumped out-system,” Robinette said. “I mean, we outnumber them–what–five to one in combatants? I’d sure get the hell out of Dodge.”
“Smartest thing you’ve said so far, Ensign. I’m just reluctant to assume all our problems are over and they jumped back to Akaampta or someplace else. Would they give up the system that easily? Why start a war and then run away?”
His commlink vibrated and when he squinted he saw the ID tag for the engineering officer, Rose Hennessey.
“Yeah, Hennessey, what’s up?”
“Mr. Bitka, we have a situation in the wardroom and we need you here, right away.”
“I’m standing watch for Ensign Lee.”
“She’s here, and I’ll send her forward, but you need to get here as soon as you can.”
She sounded frightened, or maybe just out of her depth, off-balance. Sam couldn’t remember ever hearing her sound quite like that.
“On my way,” he said and cut the connection. He turned to Ensign Robinette, who had still never stood a watch as Officer of the Deck.
“Big day for you, Ensign. The boat is at Readiness Condition Two, Material Condition Bravo, on task force course for K’tok. Power ring is fully charged, reactor on standby, shroud deployed, sensors passive. Expect your relief by Ensign Lee shortly, but until then it’s your boat.”
“I … I relieve you, sir,” Robinette said, his eyes larger than a moment before.
I’m turning the boat over to The Jughead, Sam thought to himself as he unbuckled his harness. What could possibly go wrong?
Sam passed Lieutenant Barb Lee going in opposite directions in the central trunk, her normally pinched features looking even more distressed.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“If I say, you’ll probably arrest me for conduct unbecoming,” she answered as she glided by, avoiding eye contact.
Maybe he had overdone it in telling Filipenko to come down hard on her. Lee hadn’t spoken to him much since then, come to think of it. He should have noticed, but everyone had been busy getting ready to enter K’tok orbit and almost certainly fight a major ship-to-ship action. Well, angry with him or not, it sounded like the problem was with Huhn.
A minute later Sam pulled himself through the door of the wardroom and saw a tableau which would not have been all that unusual were it not for the awkward and distressed expressions on the participants’ faces–that and the fact Captain Huhn was in his dress whites complete with all decorations. Dress whites weren’t really made for zero gee and Sam noticed the trouser cuffs floating up high enough to show a band of pale hairy leg above the socks. Huhn floated at the head of the wardroom table with Goldjune to his right and Rose Hennessey and Moe Rice, to his left. Chief Navarro and Tamblinson the Med Tech floated near the end of the table as well. Actually, the presence of two enlisted crew in the wardroom was unusual.