Chain of Command – Snippet 40

Chain of Command – Snippet 40

Chapter Twenty-One

31 December 2133 (later the same day) (tenth day in K’tok orbit)

Sam had finished his dinner and evening administrative work when he heard the chime at his cabin door. He turned the hatch transparent and was surprised to see Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn in the corridor.

“Sam, do you have moment?” Huhn said to the door, still an opaque gray on his side.

Sam’s first impulse was to say no, to plead pressing business, but his own orders to the crew had been to extend Huhn the courtesy and respect appropriate to his rank.

Fifth Principle of Naval Leadership: Set The Example

He released the hatch lock.

“Of course. Come in, Commander Huhn.”

Sam noticed he carried an oblong brown plastic or composite box under his arm, no more than twenty centimeters square and twice that in length.

Hope it’s not a bomb, the paranoid guy that lived in the dark back of his head thought.

Sam gestured to the two zero-gee “chairs”–actually padded torso frames–along one wall. Both men kicked gently off and glided over to them, Huhn from the hatchway and Sam from his workstation. Once they were tethered in, the silence stretched out until it became awkward, at least for Sam. Huhn seemed lost in his own thoughts. Finally he looked up.

“Once it was done and I had time to think, I figured I made an awful mistake, giving up command. I was always an ambitious man, but not …well, not crazy. Not unrealistic. Never thought I’d retire with an admiral’s star. Captain of a cruiser–that was the pinnacle of my ambition. Four broad stripes on my sleeve.”

“It must have been a difficult decision,” Sam said, although the words tasted trite to him as soon as he spoke them. Huhn looked at him for a moment but Sam could not read his expression. Huhn’s face seemed blank, as if the life had left him.

“Threw my future away,” Huhn said after a moment, and then he looked around the cabin he had briefly occupied. “No getting it back. Hated you for a while, for doing what I couldn’t. Still do, a little bit …hate you, I mean.”

Sam didn’t know what to say so he said nothing. He wished he’d poured them bulbs of coffee, water, something to keep his hands occupied.

“I’ve been reading about the Royal Navy,” Huhn said, “back in the olden days, the Age of Fighting Sail. Know much about it?”

Sam shook his head,

“The ships had contingents of Marines, for boarding actions and such, commanded by a sergeant or a lieutenant on the smaller ships. On the big ships of the line those marines were commanded by a captain. But onboard the ship he was always addressed as major. You know why?”

“No, why?”

“Because a ship can only have one captain.”

Huhn took the box from under his arm and handed it to Sam, who took it with a measure of reluctance. Gifts suggested obligations. An unknown gift carried an unknown burden of obligation. He opened the box and saw a bottle of bourbon.

“Booker Beam,” Huhn said. “Seven years old. About as good as it gets.”

“I don’t…”

“It’s not for you, Bitka. Not personally, anyway. It’s for the captain, in case you want to share a drink with your officers.”

Sam stared at the bottle, uncertain what he should say or do about this, uncertain in fact how he felt about it.

“Will you …will you have a drink with me, Commander Huhn?”

“Nope. I’m not one of the ship’s officers any more, just a passenger.” He unbuckled himself from the chair and Sam felt his face flush.

“I regret that remark, sir.”

“It was the truth, and it needed saying. Don’t be sorry for that. Besides, it means I don’t need permission to leave.”

He pushed off the wall and left the cabin.

Sam stared at the bottle of bourbon. What was going on in Huhn’s head? Was this gesture well-intended or ill? Did Huhn himself know? Sam shook his head.


“Back home we got an expression for a guy like Admiral Kayumati,” Moe Rice said with the careful enunciation characteristic both of his West Texas accent and of a drunk. “All hat, no cattle.”

Laughter flashed around the circle of officers, from Marina Filipenko’s bell-like tinkle to the loud guffaws of Rose Hennessey. The five of them–Sam and his four department heads–floated in Sam’s cabin and had been drinking the bottle of bourbon formerly belonging to Delmar Huhn.

The bourbon had been a small compensation–or at least a chance to unwind–for the officers after over seventy hours of near-continuous work and omnipresent tension, punctuated by the final horror of what happened to Champion Hill. Sam needed a drink himself, but didn’t like the idea of drinking alone. Besides, it was New Years Eve. He had stood the crew to a beer at mess, which slightly assuaged his sense of guilt at this exercise of exclusive privilege–slightly, but not entirely.

As the laughter faded, Sam was tempted to pass on Juanita Rivera’s final question in the briefing, knew it would find sympathetic ears here, especially now that she was gone, but he did not. Instead he thought he should reprimand Rice, shouldn’t let disrespectful talk like that about the chain of command–injurious to good order–go unchecked, but he just said, “Moe, maybe you’ve had one too many bourbons.”

Moe nodded. “Yup, that’s muh story and I’m stickin’ to it.” Then he grinned.

They all laughed, except Larry Goldjune.

“Go on, Rice, get drunk, play the clown,” he said. “You can afford to. Take a couple days off if you like. Nobody will even notice you’re gone.”

The laughter stopped and Moe’s face cleared, the drunkenness–or perhaps its pretense–gone.

“Mister Goldjune, if you have some duty I can assist your department with, I will be happy to do so. I will do whatever I can to help make this ship combat–”

Boat, Rice!” Goldjune interrupted him. “Christ, how long do you have to be on a destroyer before you learn it’s called a goddamned boat instead of–”

“That’s enough, Larry,” Sam said, and to his surprise Goldjune stopped talking and settled back. For a moment Sam hated Goldjune, wanted to push his sour ass out the nearest airlock. All Rice had been trying to do was take their minds off the last twelve hours, the last two days, the last week. Sam took a deep, slow breath and let it out.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I guess part of me thought we might bond under all this pressure, loosen up with some alcohol. Well, that doesn’t matter. You all worked your asses off the last couple days, and under lousy conditions. You earned a nightcap. So let’s finish our drinks, get some rest, and we’ll start again tomorrow.”

They drank in silence for a moment, and then Marina Filipenko spoke.

“Any progress on the jump drive scrambler, Larry?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped.

Marina recoiled slightly, her eyes widening in surprise and distress.

“Take it easy, Larry,” Sam said. “She didn’t mean anything, except the jump drive scrambler’s on everybody’s mind. If we figure it out, we may have a handle on this whole mess.”

Goldjune looked down at his drink bulb, and for a moment Sam thought he was going to throw it against the bulkhead.

“No progress.”

Goldjune lifted his face and Sam looked at him, looked carefully, maybe for the first time, and under the anger and frustration and contempt, he saw something he had never seen before, although now that he thought about it, it must always have been there, back behind everything else. He saw fear.

They were all afraid. This was war, and a war they were losing, a war that was killing people at so alarming a rate that their own chances of survival seemed more remote by the day. Who wouldn’t be afraid? But Goldjune’s fear had always been there, hadn’t it? And what did Larry Goldjune, the son and nephew of admirals, the honors graduate of Annapolis, the officer clearly foreordained to wear stars on his shoulders one day, have to fear before the war?

“Okay, Larry, tomorrow put together a data dump with all the stats you think might be relevant and pass it to Hennessey. Rose, somebody in your engineering shop has to have pulled duty in a J-drive room. See if anything sets off an alarm with them and if so get it back to Larry. We’ve got to figure this thing out so our cruisers can back us up.”

“I think that fleet already sailed,” Larry said, again looking down at his drink. “Two days ago.”

“Bush league,” Moe Rice said after a while, staring down at his bourbon. They all looked at him but even Larry Goldjune said nothing. Moe raised his head and looked around at them. “I mean, I’m just a supply officer, right? But that’s how this feels to me: fucking bush league. We’re supposed to be the United States Navy and it’s like we can’t even get out of our own goddamned way. Every time we turn around those guys bitch-slap us. Our missiles don’t work right. We’ve been hanging around with the Varoki for a century and all of a sudden they’ve got weapons we’ve never heard of? How’d that get past us? Our mission is to support a ground force with orbital bombardment and so we pull every bombardment-capable ship out? Now all the admiral can figure to do is run away to some gas giant it’s just as easy for them to get to, but isn’t worth as much, so maybe they’ll leave him alone. Jesus fucking Christ!”

It was the longest, angriest speech Sam had ever heard Moe make, and he was right. He was right enough Sam felt his face burn with shame.

Marina Filipenko touched Moe’s arm and smiled softly. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d never been in an interstellar war before.”

Rose Hennessey nodded. “It is taking some getting used to.”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe said.

They looked at each other for a few moments and then finished their drinks in silence.


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21 Responses to Chain of Command – Snippet 40

  1. Robert says:

    Booze and fear are rarely good combinations.

  2. Daryl Saal says:

    Two things stand out to me. Should they be drinking to a level that affects their thought processes right in the middle of a war? I thought the US Navy was dry anyway.
    The second point is, one bottle of bourbon and a whole bunch of people are legless, don’t make sailors like they used to?

  3. Courtenay says:

    A thought occurred to me: Who cares how the jump drive scrambler works? Just cut up the jump drive and jettison it. After the war, you can repair the cruisers and carriers; right now they are right where they are supposed to be.

    • Richard H says:

      I’m right there with you: before entering combat, cut the power feed to the jump drive. If it’s self-powered, cutting it out of the ship altogether is a decent second choice. At least do it for the first arrivals. Backup later can figure something else out, but they need to hold now, and it’s not like they’re going somewhere with an enemy fleet at hand.

    • Mike says:

      In the previous book, they said that some kind of unstoppable bioweapon is stored inside the components of the jump drive, as a further precaution to reverse engineering it.

      a) you would have to be really careful doing things like cutting it out of your ship

      b) it seems like an even simpler weapon for the varoki to use if they somehow remotely release this drive-protecting bioweapon

      • Richard H says:

        I didn’t realize this wasn’t the first in the series. That detail about the self-defense mechanisms, assuming they’re telling the truth, is good to know. It does make trying to eject it significantly more dangerous.

        That said, there’s one advantage this weapon has over triggering the self-defense mechanism: deniability. Sure, it’s really obvious when a ship blows itself into dust activating its jump drive in the wrong place, but it’s even more obvious when a ship’s jump drive activates its self-defense mechanism, and the ship still exists afterward. Also, “unstoppable” doesn’t necessarily mean “instantly wipes out everyone on the ship”. The threat would last longer.

        • Mike says:

          It kind of did mean “instantly wipes out everyone on the ship”. They told a story of one ship accidentally colliding with another, causing the seals to be broken on the jump drive components. Not long after, everyone on both ships were dead. People who tried to go in wearing space suits found that the bioweapon ate through the seals of the suits and killed them too. Eventually the Varoki arrived on the scene but even they wouldn’t go anywhere near the ships. The story ended with both contaminated ships being de-orbited into the local star.

        • Westrim says:

          Nothing I’ve seen of the book indicates it’s a sequel so I hadn’t noticed either. Looking at his bibliography on another site, I see that there’s a previous duology following a human on another planet during what is probably the internecine Varoki war vaguely mentioned here as backstory. If they didn’t mention Varoki, I wouldn’t realize that duology and this book were related.

          Side note; the book releases on Oct. 3, so this is probably the penultimate snippet.

          • Randomiser says:

            Oh yes, a good bit of the action in the first book takes place on K’tok and that leads to the interesting characteristics of the place being uncovered. (Haven’t read book two yet)

  4. Frank Chadwick says:

    I suspect Wetsrim is right and Monday’s snippet will be the last. I just wanted to say that I’ve stayed out of the conversation because I didn’t want to cramp anyone’s style, but I’ve really enjoyed looking in from time to time and seeing you folks this engaged with the story. If you’re interested, I had a really good long conversation with Tomy Daniel about the book and its background and it’s the latest Baen Free Radio Hour podcast. Now that we’re probably at the end of the snippets, I don’t mind talking about it a little bit.

    One thing is the inspiration the South Pacific campaign played in the story. Good catch seeing that, although I’ll say that if you are looking for exact parallels to specific actions and specific facilities (like Henderson Field), you are going to be confused/disappointed. The overall situation inspired the story, but I never wanted to make it “Guadalcanal In Space,” battle by battle. Some of the incidents will look familiar, but I was more interested in trying to capture the feeling of a navy at the start of a war for which it is psychologically unprepared, and how different people respond in different ways to that, some productively, some not so much. And part of that is how difficult it is for a large institution to discard peacetime mental habits, even when it’s clear they aren’t entirely appropriate any more.

    So I’m glad you’re interested in the story s far and hope you enjoy the rest of it if you stick with it.

    • Drak Bibliophile says:

      As “He Who Posts Snippets”, I’m here to say that Wednesday’s is the Last Snippet. [Wink]

      • Frank Chadwick says:

        Cool. If my page-counting is right, that should take them through the end of Chapter Twenty-Two. That’s page 202 out of 376, so they got half the book and a nice little bonus. A lagniappe, my friends from Louisiana would say.

        • Dave Lachlan says:

          Many Thanks Frank
          and Drak
          and all the comment writers.

          I have enjoyed reading the snippets and the comments here – I’ll pick up a copy of the book to see how few survive.. ;)

          A sequel and a full ground story would be nice.

          • Frank Chadwick says:

            A sequel is already written. Whether it will see print depends largely on how well Chain of Command sells. We live in a world where publishers no longer have vaults full of money they can hand out to writers just because they “like their stuff.” Books have to pay for themselves. But I’ve got big hopes for Chain of Command.

        • Randomiser says:

          Speaking for myself that’s too much. It leaves me conflicted; I appreciate all the snippets, but feel a bit cheated when asked to pay my £6.60 for less than half the book. Yes, I may well be cheap, but there you are. I’m much more comfortable with 25%-30% in snippets.

          • Frank Chadwick says:

            I’m pretty sure Baen routinely aims for about half, but I could be mistaken.

          • Mike says:

            This idea that there were “too many snippets” is just silly. If you pay for the book eventually, why does it matter if you read 30% of it before you paid for the book or 60% of it? You still read the same book and paid the same price.

            Heck, there are books that I have bought that I have read 100% of before I bought them, but I valued being able to read them at 2am on a Sunday when the library is closed.

            • Randomiser says:

              Mike your logic is flawless, but emotionally I feel disappointed and kind of cheated. I think it’s that I buy the book expecting a good chunk more of the story I have been enjoying then find there is a fair bit less than I had been hoping for.

              Frank I haven’t been counting with other Baen books, but I only get that, “Where’s the rest of the book?” feeling occasionally. Off the top of my head I would say that 50% is unusual, but I don’t buy that many books, really, and you may well be right.

    • Richard H says:

      “The overall situation inspired the story, but I never wanted to make it “Guadalcanal In Space,” battle by battle. Some of the incidents will look familiar, but I was more interested in trying to capture the feeling of a navy at the start of a war for which it is psychologically unprepared, and how different people respond in different ways to that, some productively, some not so much.”

      To be completely honest, I’m very happy to hear this, as following them closely enough as to be transparent tends to make stuff predictable. Thanks for the discussion here; it was interesting!

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