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Chapter Thirty-Three

Ginger Lewis watched her work section help the crew of Rail Number Three maneuver the pod back into Cargo One. The pod was smaller than a LAC, but it was much larger than a pinnace, and its designers had been far less concerned with ease of handling than with combat effectiveness. Nor was the situation helped by the fact that Wayfarer, as one of the first four ships to be fitted with the new, rail-launched version, had been forced to work out handling procedures more or less as she went. But each pod cost over three million dollars, which put their reuse high on BuShip's list of desirable achievements. And, Ginger admitted, having them available to shoot at another enemy made sense all on its own.

None of which made the task any less of a pain.

Commander Harmon's LACs had tracked down all but three of the pods used in the short, savage destruction of Andre Warnecke's cruisers, which was outstanding, given how difficult the system's low signature features made finding them. Be a good idea to put a homing beacon on them, Ginger thought, making a mental note to suggest just that. Wonder why no one at BuWeaps thought of that?

In the meantime, all twenty-seven of the (beaconless) relocated pods had been towed to Wayfarer, where skinsuited Engineering and Tactical crews had worked their butts off recertifying their launch cells. Two had been down-checked—they were repairable, but not out of Wayfarer's onboard resources—and the Captain had ordered them destroyed.

That left twenty-five, all of which had to have their cells reloaded. That could have been done on the launch rails, but Cargo One didn't offer much space for maneuvering capital missiles. Wayfarer was equipped with the latest Mark 27, Mod C, which weighed in at just over one hundred and twenty tons in one standard gravity. Even in free-fall, that was a lot of mass and inertia, and the damned things were the next best thing to fifteen meters long. All in all, Ginger had to agree that reloading them outside the ship, where there was plenty of room to work, and then remounting them on the rails made far more sense.

It was also backbreaking and exhausting, and the combined teams from Engineering and Tactical had been at it for eighteen hours straight. This was Ginger's third shift, and she was starting to worry about personnel fatigue. Tired people could do dangerous things, and it was her job to be certain none of her people did.

She walked further up the side of Cargo One, standing straight out from the bulkhead to get a better view as the rail crew—wearing hardsuits and equipped with tractor-pressor cargo-handling units—babied the current pod into mating with the rail. The handling units looked like hand-held missile launchers, only bigger, and each end mounted a paired presser and tractor with a rated lift of one thousand tons. The rail crew was using the pressers like giant, invisible screw jacks to align the pod's mag shoe precisely with the rail, and despite their fatigue, they moved with a certain bounce. Ginger smiled tiredly at that. Morale aboard Wayfarer had soared since Schiller. First they'd taken out two raider destroyers—well, all right, one destroyer—and a light cruiser and captured a Peep CL for good measure. Then they'd sailed straight into Marsh and zapped four heavy cruisers, and then they'd captured one of the most wanted mass-murders in Silesian history in a personal shoot-out with the Old Lady, blown a thousand more straight to hell, and saved an entire planet from nuclear devastation. Not too shabby, she thought with another grin, remembering a long ago discussion with a bitterly disappointed Aubrey Wanderman. Not a ship of the wall, no, Wonder Boy. But somehow I doubt you'd have wanted to be anywhere but on the Old Lady's command deck when this one went down!

As always, thoughts of Aubrey woke a reflexive pang of worry, but there was something going on there, as well. Ginger hadn't managed to figure out exactly what it was. She was still new enough in her grade to be a bit slow tapping into the senior petty officer's information net—one couldn't call it gossip, after all—but she knew Horace Harkness and Gunny Hallowell were involved, and she had immense respect for both those gentlemen. Knowing they'd taken a hand was a huge relief, and so were the changes she was seeing in Aubrey. He was still wary, but he wasn't scared to death anymore, and unless she was seriously mistaken, the kid was starting to fill out. One of the side effects of prolong was to slow the physical maturation process. At twenty, Aubrey looked a lot like a pre-prolong civilization's sixteen or seventeen, yet he was turning into a solid, well-muscled seventeen-year-old, and his confidence was growing right in step. There was a new maturity there, too. The kid she'd teased—and taken unobtrusively under her wing—during training was growing up, and she liked the man he was turning into.

"All right!" Chief Weintraub's exclamation of triumph came over the com as the pod finally mated properly. The work crew stood back, clearing the rail safety perimeter, while Weintraub signaled Lieutenant Wolcott to run the pod in, and Ginger heard a chorus of tired cheers as it cycled smoothly back to its place in the launch queue.

"Only eight more to go, troops, and only two of 'em are ours." Weintraub used his suit thrusters to turn himself until he faced Ginger and waved a manipulator arm at her. "We've got our next baby coming along in about five minutes, Ging. Leave your people here to take a breather and go see how they're coming on the loading for Number Twenty-Four, would you?"

"No sweat, Chief." Ginger was technically senior to Weintraub, but he was the missile specialist BuWeaps had trained specifically to straw boss Rail Three, and this was his show. Besides, it gave her a chance to play with her SUT pack for the first time this shift. She waved back, walked to the lip of the cargo doors, and consulted the HUD projected on the inside of her helmet. Ah! There Number Twenty-Four was. Nine klicks out at zero-three-niner.

Ginger disengaged her boots from the hull and floated free for a moment, gazing down at the huge, blue-and-white marble of Sidemore. It sure is a pretty planet. Glad we could get it back for the people it belongs to. Then she looked out at the stars, and a familiar sense of awe filled her. Unlike some people, Ginger loved EVAs. The immensity of the universe didn't bother her; she found it cleansing and oddly soothing—a special feeling of privacy mixed with a wondering joy that God would allow her to glimpse His creation from His own magnificent vantage point.

But she wasn't here to admire the view. She centered the HUD reticle on Pod Twenty-Four's beacon, locking her vector into the automated guidance systems of the outsized Sustained Use Thruster pack strapped over her skinsuit. The SUT packs were designed for extended EVA use, with much greater endurance and power than the standard skinsuit thrusters, and Ginger loved her rare opportunities to play with them. Now she double-checked her vector, grinned in anticipation, and tapped the go button.

That was when it happened.

The second she enabled the thrusters, the entire system went mad. Instead of the gentle pressure she'd expected, the SUT went instantly to maximum power. It slammed her away from the ship under an acceleration intended only for emergency use, and she grunted in anguish, unable to cry out properly under the massive thrust. Her thumb reached frantically for the manual override, finding the button with the blind, unerring speed of relentless training, and jabbed sharply . . . and nothing happened at all.

Nor was that the worst of it. Her attitude thrusters were equally berserk, whipsawing her wildly and sending her pinwheeling insanely off into space. She lost all spatial reference in the first two seconds, and her inner ear went mad as she whirled crazily away from the ship. It was only God's good grace that she was headed away from the ship; her malfunctioning SUT could just as easily have turned her straight into the hull, with instantly lethal consequences.

But the consequences she had were bad enough. For the first time in her life, Ginger Lewis was hammered by the motion sickness which had always evoked amused sympathy when she saw it in others. She vomited helplessly, coughing and choking as the instinct-level responses her instructors had beaten into her fought to keep her airways clear. She'd never expected to need that training—she wasn't the sort to whoop her cookies over a little vacuum work!—but only the legacy of her merciless DIs kept her alive long enough to hit the vomit-slimed chin switch that dropped her com into Flight Ops' EVA guard frequency.

"Mayday! Mayday! Suit malfunction!" she gasped while her thrusters continued to bellow like maddened animals. "This—" She retched again, choking as dry heaves wracked her. "This is Blue Sixteen! I'm—God, I don't know where I am!" She heard the panic in her own voice, but she couldn't even see. The contents of her stomach coated the inside of her helmet, wiping away the stars, compounding her disorientation, and still the thrusters thundered without rhyme or reason! "Mayday!" she screamed into the com.

And no one answered at all.

 

"What the—?" Scotty Tremaine had just relieved Lieutenant Justice, LAC Two's ops officer, and settled into his chair in Flight Ops when he noticed the radar trace spearing away from the ship on an impossible vector.

He punched a query into the computers, but they didn't know what it was either, and he frowned. The guard frequency was silent, so it couldn't be somebody in trouble, but he couldn't begin think of what else it might be, either. He tapped a stylus to his display, painting the trace and dropping it onto the master plot in CIC, and then hit the all-hands transmit key.

"Flight Ops," he said crisply into his boom mike. "I have an unidentified bogey heading out at—" he checked the numbers "—thirty-five gees. All section leaders, check your sections. I want a headcount soonest!"

He sat back in his chair, gnawing his lip as reports started coming in. They rattled from the com with reassuring speed, and he checked each section leader off on his master list as he or she reported in. But then they stopped, and there was one section still unchecked.

"Blue Sixteen, Blue Sixteen!" he said into the mike. "Blue Sixteen, I need your count!" Only silence came back, and then someone else spoke.

"Flight, this is Yellow Three. I sent Blue Sixteen to check out Pod Two-Four three or four minutes ago."

Tremaine's blood froze, and he shifted instantly to his link to Boat Bay One.

"Dutchman! Dutchman!" he barked. "Flight Ops is declaring a Dutchman! Get the ready pinnace out now!"

A startled acknowledgment came back, and he plugged into CIC.

"Ullerman, CIC," a voice said.

"Tremaine, Flight Ops," Scotty said urgently. "Listen up! I've got a Dutchman headed away from the ship at thirty-five gees. I painted the trace on your plot three minutes ago. Tie into the ready pinnace and guide them in on it—and for God's sake don't lose it!"

"Acknowledged," the voice snapped, and Tremaine turned back to his own radar. It was short-ranged and much less powerful than the main arrays, and the trace was already fading from his display. He saw the much larger radar signature of the ready pinnace, driving hard on reaction thrusters to clear the ship, and his lips moved as he whispered a silent prayer for whoever that disappearing trace was.

If the pinnace didn't get to him before Tracking lost him, the poor bastard would become a Flying Dutchman in truth.

 

"Are you positive, Harry?" Honor asked quietly.

"Absolutely," Lieutenant Commander Tschu grated. "Some sick son-of-a-bitch rigged her SUT, Skipper. He tried to make it look like a general system failure, but he got too cute when he set her com up to 'fail.' The com's not part of the SUT, and he had to interface her SUT computers with her skinny. That's not hard, but it doesn't happen by accident; someone has to make it, and someone damned well did. The SUT computer's totally fried, and all his execution files were supposed to crash and burn with the rest of the system, but my data recovery people found a single line of code directing output to her com buried in the garbage. It's only a fragment, but it's also completely outside normal programming parameters, because there's not supposed to be a link from the SUT to her com. This wasn't a hardware failure, and it wasn't corrupted files. It took specifically planted files to make it all happen."

Honor locked her hands behind her. She didn't say a word for at least one full minute, but her eyes blazed. Morale—and performance—aboard Wayfarer had gone up by leaps and bounds. Her people had come together, fused into a single living, breathing whole by their shared accomplishments. They'd only had to look around to see how well they'd done, and she'd made certain they knew she was proud of them, as well. Even Sally MacBride and Master at Arms Thomas had commented to her on it, and Tschu's Engineering department had shown the greatest improvements of all.

Now someone had attempted to murder one of her crew, and the way whoever it was had done it was almost worse than the attempt itself. Few spacers would admit it, but the terror of being lost, of drifting helplessly in space until your suit air and heat ran out, was one of the darkest nightmares of their profession.

That was what someone had done to Ginger Lewis, and Honor's rage burned even hotter because it was her fault. She never doubted who was responsible for this, and she was responsible for the fact that Steilman was still at large. She should have forgotten about Tatsumi's career and Wanderman's sense of self-respect and smashed Steilman the first time he stepped out of line. She'd let herself be distracted—let herself actually look forward to Wanderman's giving Steilman his comeuppance—and forgotten that he might have marked Lewis down for a victim.

The right corner of her mouth began to tic, and Rafe Cardones, who knew the signs of old, felt himself tighten at the telltale sign of fury. Then he realized she was even more enraged than he'd thought, for her voice was calm, almost conversational when she spoke to him at last.

"Is Lewis all right?"

"Angie says she will be, but I'd say she's used up about two lifetimes of luck," he replied carefully. "Her attitude thrusters could just as easily have slammed her straight into the hull, and she inhaled enough stomach acid to cause major lung damage. Angie's on top of that, but she pulled thirty-five gees for twenty minutes, with no warning, and her vector looks like a near-weasel chasing a rabbit. That didn't do her a bit of good, and she was pretty far gone in anoxia—from the lung damage, not suit failure—before the pinnace got to her. By the way," he added, "Tatsumi was the ready section SBA. Angie says he's the only reason she's still alive."

"I see." Honor paced once around her day cabin while Nimitz crouched on his perch, tail lashing and coat bristled as he shared her searing wrath. Tschu had brought Samantha with him, and she quivered with her own echo of the emotions radiating from Honor and Nimitz . . . and her own person. The engineer reached up to stroke her spine soothingly, and she pressed back against his touch—but she also bared her fangs with a sibilant hiss.

"Who worked suit maintenance?" Honor asked finally, turning back to the others.

"I've pulled the duty roster, but we're working extra shifts with the pod reloading, and there were some extra hands involved," Tschu said. "I've got the check-off on Lewis's SUT—it was Avram Hiroshio, one of my best techs—but there've been so many people in and out of the suit morgue that anyone could have done it. It was all software, Ma'am. All the bastard needed was five seconds when no one was watching to overwrite his chip onto the SUT computer."

"You mean to tell me," Honor pronounced each word with deadly precision, "that someone in my ship tried to murder one of my crewmen, and we don't have the slightest idea who it was?"

"I can narrow it down some, Skipper, but not enough " Tschu admitted. "It could've been any one of two or three dozen people. I'm sorry, but that's the truth."

"Is Randy Steilman on the list?" she asked flatly.

"No, Ma'am, but—" Tschu paused and drew a deep breath. "Steilman isn't, but Jackson Coulter and Elizabeth Showforth both are, and they're part of Steilman's circle. I can't prove it was either of them, though."

"I don't care what you can prove. Not now." Honor turned to Cardones. "Screen the Master at Arms. I want Coulter and Showforth brigged, and I want them sweated."

"I understand, Ma'am," Cardones started, "but with no evi—"

"My authority," she said in that same flat, calm voice. "You tell them that. And you remind them a serving member of the military does not have the right to remain silent. One of those two people just attempted to commit murder, and I want them hammered until I know which it was."

Cardones met her gaze levelly, but his own was troubled.

"Skipper, I'll do it, but you know they're going to claim they never actually meant to kill her—that it was only a prank that got out of hand—even if we break them down."

"I don't care." Honor Harrington stood very tall and straight, hands still locked together behind her, and her eyes were brown, blazing ice. "This is the second 'accident' to one of my people. Understand me. There will not be a third. I will have these two in the brig, and I will have them hammered, and I will find out who did it. And when I do, I will by God make whoever it was the sorriest piece of scum ever to wear Manticoran uniform. Do you read me on this, Rafe?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Cardones nodded sharply, fighting an urge to spring to attention, and she nodded back.

"Good."

 

Aubrey Wanderman sat in sickbay once more, this time holding Ginger's hand. She lay very still, mouth and nose covered by a transparent oxygen mask. Commander Ryder had promised Aubrey she'd be all right, that she only needed the oxygen until the quick heal repaired her acid-seared lungs, but she looked so still. So broken.

It's only the quick heal, idiot! he told himself sharply, and knew it was true. They'd put her under a general while they flushed the acid out of her lungs, and then they'd had to hit her with a massive dose of the quick heal compounds. That always put the recipient out like a light. But knowing it didn't make her look one bit less terrible, and he looked up as Yoshiro Tatsumi paused at the foot of the bed.

"Thanks," Aubrey said simply, and the SBA shrugged uncomfortably.

"Hey, it's my job, okay?"

"Yeah, I know. Thanks anyway. She's a friend."

"I know." Tatsumi nodded, eyes dark with compassion as he gazed down at her. "You know she's likely to have some problems when she comes out of the quicky, don't you?" he asked quietly. "I mean, she went for a wild one, man. Odds are real good she's gonna have some post traumatic from it." He shook his head. "I knew a tech once—an electronics guy, like you—went for a Dutchman. He was working on a gravitic array and some asshole in CIC didn't check the warning board. Threw power to the array while he was on it and blew him clear off the hull. Power surge fried his com and half his suit electronics. It took us almost twelve hours to find him. That man never went extra vehicular again. Just couldn't to it."

"Ginger's tougher than that," Aubrey said more confidently than he felt. "She's always loved EVA, too, and she was only out there about thirty minutes. She can kick it. No way she's going to let a stupid accident get to her that way."

"Accident?" Tatsumi blinked, then looked around carefully and shook his head. "It wasn't any damned accident, man," he said much more softly. "Haven't you heard?"

"Heard what? Lieutenant Wolcott gave me permission to come right down here, and I've been here ever since."

"Shit, Wanderman—the Old Lady's brigged Coulter and Showforth. Word is, somebody sabotaged her SUT, and the Skipper's pretty damned sure it was one of those two. She's gonna turn whoever it was into reactor mass when she figures out which one to hang, too. I mean, that lady is pissed, man!"

"Coulter and Showforth?" Aubrey repeated, and he didn't recognize his own voice. Tatsumi nodded, and Aubrey stood smoothly. He patted Ginger's hand gently, then glanced back at Tatsumi. "Keep an eye on her for me, okay? I want somebody to be here if she wakes up."

"Where are you going?" the SBA asked uneasily.

"I've got to see someone about a lesson," Aubrey said quietly, and walked away without another word.

 

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