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BEGINNINGS-eARC

WORLDS OF HONOR #6

DAVID WEBER

WITH

CHARLESE. GANNON

TIMOTHY ZANN

JOELLE PRESBY

Advanced Reader Copy

Unproofed

Baen Books by David Weber

Honorverse Novels:

On Basilisk Station

The Honor of the Queen

The Short Victorious War

Field of Dishonor

Flag in Exile

Honor Among Enemies

In Enemy Hands

Echoes of Honor

Ashes of Victory

War of Honor

At All Costs

Mission of Honor

Crown of Slaves

(with Eric Flint)

Torch of Freedom

(with Eric Flint)

The Shadow of Saganami

Storm from the Shadows

A Rising Thunder

Honorverse Anthologies:

More than Honor

Worlds of Honor

Changer of Worlds

The Service of the Sword

In Fire Forged

Beginnings

Honorverse Young

Adult Novel:

A Beautiful Friendship

Fire Season (forthcoming)

Empire from the Ashes

Mutineers' Moon

The Armageddon Inheritance

Heirs of Empire

Empire from the Ashes (omnibus)

Path of the Fury

In Fury Born

The Apocalypse Troll

The Excalibur Alternative

Oath of Swords

The War God's Own

Wind Rider's Oath

War Maid's Own

With Steve White

Insurrection

Crusade

In Death Ground

The Shiva Option

The Stars at War I

The Stars at War II

With John Ringo

March Upcountry

March to the Sea

March to the Stars

We Few

With Eric Flint

1633

1634: The Baltic War

With Linda Evans

Hell's Gate

Hell Hath No Fury

BEGINNINGS

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book

are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Words of Weber, Inc.

“By the Book” Copyright © 2013 by Charles E. Gannon, “A Call to Arms” Copyright © 2013 by Timothy Zahn, “Beauty and the Beast” Copyright © 2013 by Words of Weber, Inc.,” Best Laid Plans” Copyright © 2013 by Words of Weber, Inc., “Obligated Service” Copyright © 2013 by Joelle Presby.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN 13: 978-1-4516-3903-2

ISBN 13 for SIGNED EDITION: 978-1-4516-3924-7

Cover art by David Mattingly

First printing, July 2013

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Beginnings : worlds of honor #6 / By David Weber.

pages cm. -- (Worlds of honor ; #6)

"A Baen Books Original."

ISBN 978-1-4516-3903-2 (hc)

1. Science fiction, American. 2. Harrington, Honor (Fictitious character)--Fiction. I. Weber, David, 1952-

PS648.S3W383 2013

813'.0876208--dc23

2013005693

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

BY THE BOOK

Charles E. Gannon

Four days out from Hygeia, August 12, 2352 AD (250 PD)

The ship's youngest rating, Brian Lewis, sighed so heavily that the inside of his faceplate fogged for a moment. “So, that's it, Skipper. We're locked out.”

Lieutenant Lee Strong stared at the uncooperative external airlock door in front of them.

The other rating, three-year veteran Roderigo Burns, asked, “Well, why don't we just set some charges and blow our way into the ship?”

Lee's senior NCO and EVA specialist, Jan Finder, made a reply that was more growl than human speech. “Because, idiot, if we blow a hole in the side of this tin can, we can't be sure who'd be left alive inside.”

“But the internal door—”

“Listen, recruit, and listen good. Since we can't see into the airlock, we can't know that the inner hatch is dogged. And we can't assume what we can't see. Even our green looey here figured that out—and a whole lot more, besides.”

Which was exactly the kind of backhanded—and therefore, safe—compliment Lee had come to expect from Finder. He'd watched how most NCOs worked with new lieutenants. If they hated them, it was all respectful formality to their face and subtle undermining behind their back. On the other hand, if they liked the new officer, they ribbed him gently at first—like this—but always in a way that reminded the ratings that even though their CO was a newbie, he was a smart newbie, and they'd better respect both his intelligence and his rank.

Burns sounded obstinate. “Well, even if the airlock's inner hatch is open when we blow the hatch, then when we blow the outer hatch, the environmental sensors will detect the exposure to vacuum and seal the emergency bulkheads automatically.”

“Only if the internal sensors are still functioning, Roderigo,” Lee said quietly. “And since we know this ship was seized violently, we've got to assume that any of its systems could be compromised.”

“Uh . . . well, yeah, Sir. I guess there's that.”

Lee heard the smile behind Finder's affirming grunt. He glanced at his overage top kick, whose squat, powerful form was a black silhouette against the starfield, with Jupiter an intensely bright star staring over his left shoulder. “Your thoughts, Sergeant?”

There was no sign of motion in the floating black outline. “We could try cutting.” The silhouette shrugged. “It's safer. But it takes longer, so they'll know we're coming. Not good.”

“Sounds like you're speaking with the voice of experience, Sergeant Finder.”

“Yep. When I was a green recruit, an officer tried doing that in a situation like this.”

“And the hijackers heard you coming and killed the hostages?”

“Worse than that, Lieutenant. They let us get on board, then executed a young girl right in front of us. Threatened to shoot more if we came any closer. That suckered our officer into talking, negotiating. Meanwhile, they worked most of their men around behind us, using the environmental conduits. They killed half our team.”

“And no hostages rescued, I'll wager.”

“You'd win that bet, L.T.—if you could find someone stupid enough to take it. Now, Burns here is none too smart, but he's said to be a betting man—”

“Hey—” complained Roderigo.

“That's enough,” Lee ordered. “We can't use demolition charges, and we can't use cutting torches.”

“So, we're stuck outside,” Lewis repeated in a voice full of quiet vindication. “We're done.”

“No, Lewis, we're not,” corrected Lee. “There's another way.” He studied the length of the outsystem passenger liner. Extending aft from the forward collection of habitation and command modules where they were floating, there was a midsection girdle of sausage-like fuel tanks and then a long, thin boom, bracketed by four support trusses. They all terminated at the rearmost engine decks. Pointing aft, Lee uttered t

he timeless, two-word order that junior officers had been uttering for millennia: “Follow me.”

He pushed off the hull of the liner—the Fragrant Blossom, two weeks out from Mars—and used his suit jets to angle astern, toward the engine decks.

* * *

They stared “up” into the large black hole in the belly of the liner's primary thrust module.

“You're not serious,” breathed Roderigo Burns.

“You might say he's deadly serious,” Finder quipped.

“I don't think you're helping matters, Sergeant,” Lee said.

“Sorry, sir. But this is nonstandard.”

“‘Nonstandard'?” Brian Lewis croaked. “Sirs, this is directly against regs. This is a class-one radiation hazard, and if—”

“Lewis,” Finder said from far back in his throat where he apparently cached a ready supply of gravel, “shut up. Those regs are superseded by emergency rescue ops. And don't you ever call me ‘sir' again. I'm not an officer; I work for a living. Now, you will give your undivided attention to the L.T. or I will give your ass the undivided attention of my boot.”

Lee was inspecting the edges of the large black hole. “No signs of recent wear. Probably hasn't been used since they did the post-production trial run.”

“Great,” muttered Lewis with a shiver.

“Calm down, Brian,” said Lee. “That test is performed with an inert core. It's just to prove the ejection system functional. Sergeant, get me a REM reading.”

Finder rumbled assent.

Roderigo Burns looked dubious, his eyes wide through the tinting of his photosensitive faceplate. “But sir, I thought they used this hole to vent radioactive wastes.”

Lee suppressed the urge to declaim the official fear-mongering that the Earth Union called “truth.” “No, Burns. A nuclear drive's core-ejection tube has one use, and one use only: to dump the business part of a malfunctioning reactor.” Which, as an automatic protocol, was pretty stupid in and of itself. But that was the Earth Union for you. Ever since the Greens and Neo Luddites had come to power almost two centuries ago, the words “nuclear power” had become functionally synonymous with “demonic arts.” The notion of exposing a human body to radiation of any kind had become such an object of fetishistic fear that many of the extreme Neo Luddite groups refused any medical diagnostics that involved X-rays (or even magnetic resonance imaging, despite repeated assurances that such tests did not involve any radioisotopes). Consequently, their life expectancy statistics were usually about ten years less than other groups living in the same communities.

Finder put away his palm-sized combination Geiger counter/radiance sensor. “Readings indicate eighteen REM per hour, holding steady.”

Lee turned to the ratings. “We'll be in and through in ten minutes. That a total exposure of three REM, tops. No physical effects.”

Burns and Lewis tried to look reassured but failed miserably; a lifetime of indoctrination was not overcome in a single minute.

Finder edged closer. “Okay L.T.; we go in the hot pipe. Then what? Sure as hell there can't be an airlock at the other end.”

“No, Sergeant, but there are access panels. Now, follow me.”

The carrier signal changed subtly; another subaudial hiss had popped into existence alongside the general tactical channel. “Sir,” said Finder, using the private link reserved for NCO-officer communications. “I'm the EVA expert. And I'm the meat-headed Sarge. So let me go in first, okay?”

Lee fought two contending reactions: a wise readiness to accept respectful advice from a career sergeant versus the powerful desire to show his men—by example—that he'd do anything he asked them to do, and that in this case, there was no danger in what he was ordering. Well, not from radiation, at least.

But Lee managed to resist that second, stronger impulse. He cleared his throat, and used his chin to shut off the private channel, sending his next statement to the entire team. “Sergeant Finder, on second thought, you lead with your radsensor. If it gets any hotter as we go, we'll want to know right away.”

“So we can bug out?” asked Burns anxiously.

“No: so we can double-time it to our objective.” Lee unholstered his large-framed ten millimeter handgun. “Let's go.”

* * *

The core ejection tube showed no sign of wear—or maintenance. Evidently, the fearsome legends of the nuclear dragon residing at the other end of this man-made cave had kept visitors away—even the ones whose duty it was to periodically check that the tube was unobstructed and functional. It was yet another example of the dangers of the excessive fear often inculcated by the Greens and Neo Luddites. As the terror of a technology became primal, the maintenance of it devolved into a collection of dread rituals, not clear-eyed technical practices.

Had the Greens found any other technology to provide inexpensive and swift space travel beyond the moon, Lee had no doubt they would have seized upon it. But, unwilling to focus either public attention or funds upon advances in new technology, the Green leadership in almost every country had reluctantly agreed to approve nuclear thermal rockets for limited use beyond cis-lunar space. Unfortunately, that approval came with so much dire rhetoric of the technology's implicit dangers that all too few people born on Earth had the interest—indeed, the courage—to master it. So it was left—as so many dirty jobs were—to the Upsiders, that very small population that lived either on the moon, on Mars, or in the rotational habitats. It was they who maintained the satellites, mined the belt, or helped to build the slower-than-light starships that sent feckless, and usually obstreperous, bits of the human race off to colonize other star systems.

Of course, that still didn't mean there were a lot of vessels with nuclear plants. Even now, there were probably not more than four dozen operating in the system, all marks and missions included. But whereas cargos could be shuttled from one far-flung point of the system to another with VASIMIR drives, and shorter trips could be made by slightly higher power magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters, deep space personnel movers had to be equipped with nuclear thermal rockets. Otherwise, journeys that currently took a few weeks would take months, even years, to complete.

But since the leadership of Earth always viewed nuclear rockets as a deal with the devil, they never became comfortable with them. If anything, their necessity was an infuriating goad to the Greens and the Neo Luddite camps alike, prompting a steady derogation of anything—or anyone—having anything to do with them.

And so, trailing at the rear of the four-man boarding team, Lee Strong watched his otherwise technically competent ratings—Burns and Lewis—superstitiously flinch away from contact with the sides of the tube. Lee half expected to see one of them make a warding sign in the direction of the fission plant itself.

At the end of the tube, Finder counter-puffed his suit jets until he hung motionless before an oversized hatch fitted with immense bolts. On the private channel, he reported, “REM now up to twenty-three an hour. Rising slowly. What now, L.T.? I didn't bring a big enough wrench to unbolt this monster.”

“We don't need one. We're not going in there.”

“No?”

“Nope. Look to your left. See the panel, flush with the wall?”

“Yeah. Okay. Recessed bolts. But it looks like we'll need a special key wrench to unlock them for manual removal, and I don't—”

“You don't have the right shaped wrench-head,” Lee completed for Finder as he drifted forward between Burns and Lewis. “But I do.” He undid a small velcro-sealed pocket on the inside of his left wrist, and carefully withdrew the lanyarded key-wrench.

“Huh.” The sergeant had gone back to the private channel. “Guess that's why you're the officer.” Finder's quick smile sent a glint of teeth even through his semi-tinted visor.

“In this case, yeah. The big wigs in Geneva don't like advertising anything about nuclear access. Particularly a backdoor like this one.”

“So they entrust it to a lieutenant who'd never seen a nuke pile bef

ore leaving Luna. No offense, sir, but a lot of you guys from Earth—well, you're not exactly brimming with good sense. Current company excepted, of course.”

“Of course. And I can't say I disagree with you, Sarge.” Which was not just polite banter with the NCO whose help or hindrance would either save or undo him during his first year in deep space. In this case, the sergeant's Upsider prejudices were sadly accurate. After ensuring that every child grew up hearing an unceasing flood of invective against the dangers of technology, of space, and of nuclear power, the Earth Union's Space Activities subdivision had a hard time finding enough capable young men to serve as officers. Women were not permitted to work in the Customs Service or any of the other official spacefaring divisions of the Earth Union. Their ovaries had to be protected from the electromagnetic rapine of spaceside radiation exposure. And among the men, Lee had to admit that few of his training class had showed half as much technical aptitude as political shrewdness. Consequently, although they often failed to grasp the practical realities of life in space, they understood full well why, in services populated almost exclusively by native-born Upsiders, only natural-born sons of Earth were allowed to wear the gold braid of the officer ranks: they were the watchdogs of Dirtside interests. They were to ensure that those lesser humans born in space, and who performed all the dirty work there, never found themselves unsupervised long enough to consider turning the tables on their terrestrial masters.

Lee had finished unlocking the bolt covers with the key wrench. “They'll give to hand tools easily enough, Sarge.”

Burns' voice was hushed as he asked on the other circuit, “L.T., if the mutineers, or hijackers, or pirates, or whoever took over the Blossom hear us back here, could they—well, could they wash us out of this tube with radioactive gases?”

Resisting the impulse to shake his head at the depth of ignorance implicit in the question, Lee toggled his mic back to the general circuit. “No, Roderigo. That's not how these engines work. A particle bed nuclear rocket is designed so that all its radioactives are sealed within a shielded subassembly. At need, that ‘core' can be jettisoned through this tube, but it's a fairly specialized process, and the activation codes are only known to a few crewmembers. And I doubt any of the criminals currently in control of the hull are hanging back here in the Engineering section.”



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