Chain of Command – Snippet 25

Chain of Command – Snippet 25

Everyone’s eyes turned to him as he entered. Huhn’s visage was unreadable, but from the expressions on everyone else’s faces Sam had the feeling he was in trouble–a lot of trouble. Maybe those mass-approved damage survey reports were coming back to haunt him. Or maybe one of the two enlisted crew were the ones in trouble. Somebody sure was.

“Sam, come over here,” Huhn said. Sam kicked lightly off the door and floated over to the table. Goldjune moved down the table, making room for Sam next to the captain. Sam clipped his tether lanyard to the table and held a bracket, mostly to keep his hand from trembling.

Huhn fingered his decorations, particularly an odd one, a large silver, gold, and red multi-pointed star or flower–Sam wasn’t sure which–that looked foreign and out of place below the orderly ranks of colored rectangular ribbons that represented his US Navy awards. Huhn’s index finger traced the edge of the star, lingered on one of the points.

“Sharp. Could hurt someone with this if you weren’t careful,” Huhn said. “Order of the State of the Republic of Turkey. Got it back in ’29. I saved the daughter of the Turkish ambassador to Bronstein’s World. Just a teenager, got caught in an airlock without a vacuum suit, but I kicked a circuit box open and shorted it out, so we could pop the hatch manually. Just used my head is all, but everybody else panicked. Saved that girl’s life and got this for it. Proudest day of my life.”

Sam wondered if he meant the day he saved the girl’s life or the day he received the medal.

“It’s very impressive, sir. What was it you wanted?”

“Sam, some of us are cut out for certain things, but not others. You know what I mean?”

“I think so, sir.”

“Sometimes we have to face hard truths about ourselves, look in the mirror and see things we don’t want to see, would rather look away from. But we’ve got to look, Sam. We’ve got to look hard.”

Huhn stared at him as if he expected a reply but Sam said nothing.

“We’re about to go into battle, Sam, and we all need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I cut out for this?’ It’s hard, but a lot of lives depend on us answering that question as truthfully as we know how. Do you agree with that?”

“Yes, sir,” Sam answered and licked his dry lips.

He had wondered this, many times, and also wondered if seeing ghosts might be a disqualification for duty. But he had no idea how to answer those questions except to see it through, do his duty as well as he could, and on the other side of it find out if that was good enough. He’d done okay in the first battle, but it had caught him by surprise. This coming fight filled him with a growing dread. He’d looked forward to their arrival, going to general quarters, facing whatever stood before them, but not because he longed for danger. It was only because he wanted this awful uncertainty, this dark foreboding, to end.

“Well, I’ve been looking in my mirror,” Huhn said. “I’ve spent a lot of the last week looking in it, and I know now: I’m not cut out to command this boat in battle. I’m cut out for a lot of things in the Navy, but not that. I think…I think I need a rest is all. That’s why I asked Medtech Tamblinson here, to certify me medically unfit for command.”

Sam looked at Tamblinson, whose eyes were larger than Robinette’s had been earlier when Sam turned the watch over to him for the first time. He looked at Goldjune and faced cold hostility, at Hennessey and faced anxiety bordering on panic, and he realized the trouble he was in was real, but was entirely different than he had originally thought, had in fact never imagined, and he felt this heart rate climb and chest constrict with the beginning of panic.

“Captain, I…I wouldn’t do anything too hasty. You need to be–”

“What? Certain? You think I’m doing this on the spur of the moment? Haven’t thought it through?”

Sam licked his suddenly dry lips again, and swallowed to loosen his tight throat. “Nothing like that, sir. It’s just…if you do this, it’s going to change your life, and there’s no changing it back.”

That was dishonest. Sam didn’t give a damn about Huhn’s future. He simply wanted no part of being captain. This was a job on which the lives of nearly a hundred people depended, and a job which he was so totally unprepared for he could not imagine any outcome but disastrous failure.

Huhn looked down at the table for a moment and then looked back up into Sam’s eyes.

“At least my conscience will be clear.”

Sam wanted to scream at him, wanted to slap sense into him, wanted to get up and leave the wardroom, come back in and try again from the beginning. Instead he floated by the table and stared dumbly at Captain Huhn…no, not captain anymore…at Lieutenant Commander Huhn.


Sam noticed that, while the grim-faced image of Captain Marietta Kleindienst, the task force chief of staff, remained fixed in his view, the ghosted image of the work area behind her floated gently, so she was holo-conferencing by helmet from the flag bridge of Pensacola, not from the conference room up in the rotating habitat wheel where there was spin-induced gravity and a full holo-suite. Sam couldn’t see her helmet, any more than she could see his, one of the odd effects of the helmet optics. The internal optics looked in and recorded the speaker’s face and head while the external optics looked out and recorded the nearby environment, but neither of them recorded the helmet itself.

“Mister Bitka, exactly what in the Sam Hell is going on over there?” Kleindienst demanded. “Lieutenant Colonel Okonkwo just got off the link and sounded like he was going to have a stroke.”

No one on Puebla had been sure who to notify about Huhn’s action, but Moe Rice had recommended the task force personnel department. Okonkwo was the task force N1–personnel chief–and Sam’s own conversation with him a quarter of an hour earlier had been difficult, eventually becoming heated.

“Yes, ma’am. When I spoke with him the situation seemed …beyond his personal experience. I don’t know that any ship captain in the Nigerian Navy has ever requested relief from command and duty on medical grounds–at least for this reason. But that’s the situation with Lieutenant Commander Huhn.”

It sounded strange not to call Huhn “captain.”

Sam didn’t know much about the Nigerian Navy, but Okonkwo’s rank was lieutenant colonel, not commander. The fact they used the same rank titles as the army instead of most other nations’ navies was a small thing, but it still seemed like a strike against them.

“And do I understand that those medical grounds are ‘psychological exhaustion?'” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you actually went along with this?”


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16 Responses to Chain of Command – Snippet 25

  1. Mike says:

    Well, I guess I was wrong. It did happen this quickly.

    I wonder what they expect Bitka to do other than go along with it. Huhn is (was?) his superior officer and it’s not like Bitka was the med tech either.

    • Robert says:

      I agree with you, Mike. The captain requests relief on grounds that he is medically unfit for combat due to psychological exhaustion. Even if Bitka refuses to go along with Huhn and Huhn does not stand relieved, who on the Puebla is going to go into battle with any confidence in the captain?

      Word will get around. Scuttlebutt travels faster than the speed of light, I think. No one will have confidence in a captain who claims that he is too psychologically damaged to command. This will hurt crew morale and performance during battle. Bitka had to go along with it, given the way that the captain sprung it on him.

      I see problems coming up with Goldjune, though. He may turn out to be a poor XO for Bitka. Or do you think that the Navy will assign a new captain to the Puebla on such short notice with battle possibly starting at any moment?

    • Lorendiac says:

      I agree with Mike. As soon as I saw the snippet ended with that question from Captain Kleindienst, I thought: “What a ridiculously unfair question!”

      In other words: If I were in Sam’s shoes, I’d be tempted to say something like this: “What do you mean, ma’am? The Lieutenant Commander did not consult me in this matter before announcing his decision. When I tried to offer an opinion anyway, right after he announced it, he made it clear he didn’t want or need to hear it, as his decision was already final. I know that in extreme circumstances an XO may need to invoke regulations that allow him to relieve his captain of command, but I’ve never heard of a rule that allows the XO to ‘unrelieve’ a senior officer. So what, exactly, would you have advised me to do, supposing you’d been standing right beside me at the time?”

      • Randomiser says:

        I would be tempted too, Lorendiac,but actually replying like that would end up seriously upsetting the chief of staff, NTM a charge of insubordination.

        • Lorendiac says:

          I’ve never served in the military, but I’m a bit surprised at the “charge of insubordination” bit. Isn’t a junior officer allowed to sincerely ask a senior officer something along the lines of “what would you have advised me to do, if you’d been there at the time?” Seeking the presumed wisdom of an older and more experienced authority figure?

          I can believe, however, that the hypothetical speech I rattled off would NOT have a calming effect on Kleindienst. (Although I feel obligated to point out that I’m not sure anything else Sam could possibly say at this juncture, in response to that particular question, would have any significant chance of achieving such an effect, either. As I said, it was an unfair question to begin with!)

          Looking back on my previous post, I can see that it might be more diplomatic, although far less informative, to just use the first two sentences from that speech — “What do you mean, ma’am? The Lieutenant Commander did not consult me in this matter before announcing his decision” –and then pause for a reply, letting her guide the conversation from there.

          • Mike says:

            Sometimes you are, sometimes you aren’t. Haven’t you ever had a boss?

            • Lorendiac says:

              I’ve had plenty of bosses. Most of them were quite rational, and wanted to teach me how to do a better job if they felt I was making mistakes.

              In other words, I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss who went through the roof if I asked for advice on exactly what I had done wrong, and how I should have handled it instead, regarding a situation where my actual behavior had now led to the boss scolding me for getting it wrong. (Granted, if I had ever asked such questions in a sarcastic, condescending tone, things might have turned out a wee bit differently. But I’m not an idiot.)

              Occasionally, I have found it necessary to remind the boss of an established “house rule,” or recent and specific order, which I had previously received from that boss, or from the boss’s boss, as a way of accounting for why I carefully had NOT done a certain thing in a certain way. Sometimes I need to fish out a paper memo or an e-mail in order to demonstrate why I thought the rules mandated or prohibited something which my boss evidently had forgotten about (or somehow had not been informed of?) regarding the official constraints placed upon my behavior. In such cases, of course, I do my best to stay calm and polite instead of projecting a smug attitude of “Gotcha! I remember the Sacred Rules better than you do!”

              But I’ve never yet had a senior executive suddenly snap at me just because I had failed to magically find a way to keep my immediate boss from quitting! So I really don’t know what I might say, in the heat of the moment, to such an unjust accusation that seemed as if it were trying to lay the blame for my boss’s behavior on my poor shoulders. It is quite possible that I would say something (as in my previous example) which was A) absolutely true, and B) undiplomatic, as I might realize after I cooled down a bit.

      • Terranovan says:

        About the unfair question from Kleindienst – I think that the captain deserves a pass on saying this due to the unusual surprise in Bitka’s revelation. Once. He shouldn’t be persistent in this line of questioning.

  2. PeterK says:

    It’s like a reverse Catch-22. By requesting to be deemed medically unfit for psychological reasons, Huhn has proven himself to be psychologically unfit. There is no way the Navy can put him back in command after he we went that far to get out of it.

  3. hank says:

    Huhn has eneded his career. Desk jobs at best in his future. Shore Patrol in North Dakota, perhaps?
    I sure didn’t expect Captain Queeg to relive himself!

    • John Cowan says:

      When he gets back to Earth (if he does) he’ll be allowed to resign. And for sure he won’t be the only one. Even in the early 21C we’ve come a long way from “Shot at Dawn”, though the UK government continues to be vindictive about it (in 2007 pardon became a possibility, but by UK law that does not mean a reversal of sentence).

  4. Randomiser says:

    Huhn’s career is over for sure. Has he done enough to buy himself a ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy, the then being in a state of war’ charge? Presumably Kleindienst thinks Bitka should have talked him down. He might even have tried if he had had any prior inkling of what was in Huhn’s mind. But as you all say, he had no authority to override the medic and if he had tried Huhn would probably just have holed up in his cabin during the battle, or worse come to the bridge and frozen. The transfer of a nice shiny spare LT CMDR from elsewhere would be the best solution, but just before battle and for story reasons you know that’s not about to happen.

  5. Drak Bibliophile says:

    Further Snippets will be delayed.

    System problems with the site prevented me from scheduling new snippets.

    Hopefully, the problems will be fixed Monday.

    Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

  6. Westrim says:

    I’ve had some doubts about the writing thus far (mostly the telegraphing of romantic entanglements for our protagonist), but this was really good. Huhn stepping down was well set up, but still successfully came as a surprise.

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