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Chapter Twenty-One

Citizen Rear Admiral Thomas Theisman stepped into PNS Conquistador's flag briefing room with Citizen Commissioner Dennis LePic at his heels. Theisman didn't much care for LePic, but he knew most of that stemmed from his dislike for carrying a constant political anchor around with him. He'd seen the consequences of political interference in military operations often enough without ferrying politicians to the very site of the action so they could screw things up even faster.

On the other hand, he also knew how fortunate he was to be here himself. He'd survived Haven's original fiasco in Yeltsin only because he'd been lucky enough (and luck, he knew, was precisely the right word for it) to damage several of Honor Harrington's ships before his destroyer was forced to surrender to her. Only that achievement, coupled with the distraction of Captain Yu's defection to Manticore, had saved him from the Legislaturalist admirals seeking a scapegoat for that particular screw-up. And, he admitted, only the destruction of the old regime had saved him from the consequences of what had happened to the Ninth Cruiser Squadron in the opening moves of the current war. He'd made his Legislaturalist commodore look like an idiot, and her patrons would have squashed him like a bug for daring to be right when she was wrong. But the new regime had been looking for Legislaturalist scapegoats, so Commodore Reichman had been shot and Captain Theisman had been promoted.

The universe, he reflected, was not precisely overrunning with fairness, but it did seem that what went around came around. A point the Committee of Public Safety might want to bear in mind.

He shook off his thoughts as he took his seat at the conference table and LePic slid into the chair beside him. Citizen Vice Admiral Thurston and Citizen Commissioner Preznikov were already ensconced at the head of the table, and Meredith Chavez, Task Group 14.1's CO, nodded to Theisman from across the table. Theisman didn't know George DuPres, Chavez's commissioner, but he was rumored to be more willing than most to let the professionals get on with their profession, which probably helped explain Meredith's cheerful demeanor.

Citizen Rear Admiral Chernov and Citizen Commissioner Johnson of TG 14.3 arrived less than three minutes after Theisman, and Task Force Fourteen's command team was complete. Except, of course, for their chiefs of staff, whom what passed for Fleet HQ these days had decreed could not be informed of the details until Operation Dagger was actually launched. Not the most promising of preparations for an op this complex, although, to give the staff pukes their due, Dagger should be a piece of cake if Stalking Horse had succeeded.

Of course, "if" wasn't a word Thomas Theisman had ever been particularly happy about including in operational planning.

"I see we're all here," Thurston remarked. "And since we are, I can tell you that Stalking Horse seems to have worked out quite nicely."

Chavez and Chernov grinned, but Theisman contented himself with a nod. "Seems." Another of those words with unfortunate connotations.

Thurston activated the holo display, and a star map appeared above the table. He manipulated controls briefly, and Minette and Candor blinked red. A moment later, Casca, Doreas, and Grendelsbane also began flashing, but their lights were amber, not red.

"All right," he said. "You all know Citizen Admiral McQueen and Citizen Admiral Abbot have secured control of Minette and Candor. McQueen took a heavier hit from the Manty pickets than we anticipated, but they burned off all their missiles to do it. All they can do now is stooge around the outer system and watch her, and they took losses of their own. What they've got left couldn't take her on even with full magazines.

"Citizen Admiral Abbot's in even better shape. He got in without a shot, and the Manties don't have anything heavier than a battlecruiser to picket him."

Thurston paused and looked around the table to make sure everyone was with him, then used a cursor to indicate Grendelsbane.

"As you also know, we've had light, covert pickets in place around Grendelsbane and Casca for over a month, and Admiral Hemphill seems to be playing it very cautiously in Grendelsbane. She's retained her ships of the wall there—probably to be sure we don't make another flank pounce if she uncovers it—but she's dispatched a heavy battlecruiser force to support the Doreas pickets. In addition, some of her light units have joined the Manty picket still in Minette. That suggests her attention's focused there while she waits for reinforcements before going in to take it back . . . just as we want her to do.

"More to the point," the cursor swooped up to Casca, "our scouts up here report the arrival of a pretty damned powerful task force. I wonder where they came from?"

Thurston bared his teeth, and this time even Theisman smiled back. Damn, he thought. The man's a calculating son-of-a-bitch, but he does know how to work a crowd!

"We didn't get as good a read on them as I'd like," Thurston admitted, "but what we did get seems to indicate they've done what we wanted. We have positive confirmation of at least five ex-PN prize ships there, and their arrival time works out right for an immediate response from Yeltsin to Stalking Horse. In addition, the entire force arrived as a single unit, which indicates it was pulled out as a unit. This isn't something they put together by scraping up ships from other locations, people."

Theisman nodded, but something about Thurston's confident explanation nagged at him, and he raised a hand.

"Citizen Admiral Theisman?"

"You say we have confirmation on five ex-PN prizes, Citizen Admiral?"

"That's correct."

"But only five?" Theisman pressed respectfully, and Thurston exchanged glances with Preznikov before he nodded.

"That's correct, Citizen Admiral," he repeated. "The range was quite long, and you know how hard it can be to interpret passive data. In addition, the Manties and Graysons seem to have refitted them even more heavily than we'd anticipated, which makes emission analysis proportionately more difficult. Given the timing, however, and the size of the force, my staff and I are confident several of the capital ships our scouts were unable to positively identify were actually prizes which had simply been refitted too extensively for us to ID with certainty."

"How many other ships are we talking about, Citizen Admiral?"

"Eight of the wall—probably eight, that is." Theisman frowned thoughtfully, and Thurston shrugged. "No doubt they picked up a couple of Manty extras that happened to be in-system. We know they've pulled all of the Manty ships of the wall which were stationed in Yeltsin out of the area—they've been positively IDed at Thetis—but it's a logical place to stage through. A good area for final exercises before they commit new units to the front."

Theisman sat back with a nod, for Thurston was certainly right about that. And the fact that the Graysons doubtlessly needed all the training they could get would only make the practice even more attractive to the Manties. Still . . .

He ran his mind back over his own intelligence package. Assuming Intelligence had it right, even Manticoran yards couldn't have more than eight or possibly nine of Grayson's eleven prizes back into service yet. If the original damage estimates were correct, he thought sardonically, the Republic couldn't have gotten more than six of them back on-line this soon, and it was unlikely Grayson could be as efficient as Manties were. Not yet, anyway. And if Intelligence's estimate was accurate, and if five of the prize ships had been positively located at Casca, Thurston was probably right: the Alliance had stripped the system to cover against the threat from Candor.

"On the basis of that intelligence," Thurston went on, "Citizen Commissioner Preznikov and I have decided to activate Operation Dagger in seventy-two hours. We'd like to start immediately, but we've agreed that it would be wise to spend two or three days rehearsing the operation now that we're cleared to brief your staffs and unit commanders."

Well, thank God for that, Theisman thought. Task Force Fourteen had over a hundred and sixty ships on its order of battle, including thirty-six battleships and twenty-four battlecruisers. That sounded impressive as hell, but operational security had been so tight that virtually none of their ships' companies had the least idea what Operation Dagger was about. Theisman himself, with LePic's clandestine approval, had "accidentally" leaked the ops plan to his own staff, so he'd managed to put together a series of contingency plans he could live with, but none of his captains knew what was supposed to happen. The Committee of Public Safety had seen to it that they'd learned not to ask questions, too. The chance to brief and rehearse them, even if only for a couple of days, would be invaluable, and Theisman wondered how Thurston had gotten Preznikov to agree to it. It was possible the commissioner had succumbed to the force of logic, but Theisman warned himself not to indulge his optimism too wildly on that point.

"All right," Thurston went on. "Here's what I have in mind. First, I'll give you three hours to brief in your staffs and unit COs. At thirteen hundred, Commissioner Preznikov and I will set up a task force conference net to handle any questions you or any of your people may have. After that—at, say, sixteen hundred—we'll start with a sim of the primary plan of attack, with Citizen Admiral Chavez coordinating. Citizen Commissioner Preznikov and I will observe and run the Graysons for the first sim. After that—"

* * *

The news, as the Protector had known it must, had leaked, and the media was playing the story for all it was worth.

No, he told himself sternly, that wasn't fair. The Grayson press corps was more responsible than most. In fact, it was possibly a bit too much on the "tame" side—as a reflection of its society's deference-based mores and traditional respect for authority, no doubt—and the newsies had checked their facts carefully before going public. Unfortunately, they had those facts straight, and one thing Benjamin Mayhew had learned from others' mistakes was to never, ever lie to reporters. Refusing to comment and keeping a lid on stories was one thing; destroying his credibility forever was something else entirely, and it was a deadly simple thing to do.

So he'd confirmed the lab reports in as noninflammatory a fashion as possible and preserved his credibility . . . for whatever that was worth.

Shock and grief had swept the planet even before the reports made the news. Despite its ancient tradition of steading autonomy, Grayson was a world whose people rallied almost instinctively to their neighbors' support in time of trouble. But Mueller's internal resources had sufficed to do what pitifully little could be done for the victims and their families, which meant there'd been no place for outsiders to help, and that had only strengthened the rest of Grayson's grief and sympathy. The combination of their religion and planetary environment meant Graysons were programmed on an almost genetic level to help, which was one of the things Benjamin most liked about his people. But when they couldn't help they felt as if they'd somehow failed, and in this instance, that was the worst thing they could have felt. People who already felt vaguely guilty themselves had a natural tendency to be even angrier with someone whose guilt was real and unquestionable.

And, as the reports from the laboratories and inspections had made clear, someone was guilty. Most of the Mueller Middle School dome's supports appeared to have been properly set in high-standard ceramacrete, but some had not, and what made it even more heartbreaking was that the problems with the ceramacrete seemed to be entirely the fault of poor quality control. The material had all the proper ingredients, in precisely the right proportions. As far as Benjamin's own experts could determine, the entire disaster had stemmed solely from a simple failure to fuse it properly. A stupid, unforgivable, easily preventable mistake which—as the reporters had figured out—pointed at either poor equipment maintenance or grossly inadequate training. Either the fusers themselves had been defective, or else the people operating them hadn't known what they were doing, and in either case, the blame rested squarely on the management of Grayson Sky Domes, Ltd.

Greed. That was the damning verdict of the media. Sky Domes had been too greedy to invest in proper maintenance of its equipment, or else it had expanded its work force so rapidly—again, out of greed to cash in on the contracts available to it—that it had put half-trained, or possibly even totally untrained, workers into the field. And the hell of it, Benjamin thought, was that there was no way to disprove that verdict. The evidence was there, in the improperly prepared ceramacrete, and the discovery had caused a panic. Of the twenty-three other projects Sky Domes had had simultaneously under construction, eight had been suspended by the buyers. The other fifteen had been canceled outright, and no one had even commented on the fact that Sky Domes itself had put an immediate hold on all of them even before the customers reacted. Benjamin knew that order had come from Honor Harrington herself. She'd refused to allow any project to proceed until she knew what had happened in Mueller and was positive it wouldn't happen anywhere else, and no one even seemed to care . . . despite the fact that if Sky Domes failed to meet those projects' completion deadlines, the penalty clauses in the contracts would wipe out even Lady Harrington's off-world fortune. She'd put every penny she had on the line by ordering the hold, and all public opinion could do was scream about the "greed" with which she'd risked the lives of their children!

It was a disaster in every sense of the word. The earlier attacks upon her had suddenly acquired a damning currency, and her role as the heroine of Grayson was no protection against the charge of child-murder. Even some of her own steaders recoiled from supporting anyone responsible for the deaths of children, and her enemies were fanning the fire with savage enthusiasm.

Steadholder Mueller's first grief-wracked news conference after the collapse had done incredible damage. Rescue operations had still been underway when he first faced the reporters. The safety inspectors hadn't even begun their initial examinations at that point, and he'd been careful not to point any fingers. But the very way he hadn't pointed them, the way he'd bent over backward to avoid accusing Lady Harrington of any wrongdoing, had only made people more certain of her guilt. And since the inspectors' reports had been made public, Mueller's grief had turned into rage at the parties responsible for the deaths.

Nor was he the only one crying out for punishment of the guilty. Lord Burdette had launched a brutal attack on Sky Domes, Lady Harrington, and the consequences of allowing women to exercise a man's authority within an hour of the dome's collapse. And while most of Grayson's clergy were still conducting services to pray for God's mercy on the disaster's victims and their families, Edmond Burdette was preaching fire and damnation from the stolen pulpit of Burdette Cathedral—which was now packed for every fiery sermon.

For the moment, Benjamin thought grimly, he could still keep a lid on things . . . but only for the moment. The fury against Honor Harrington was gathering like a tidal wave, and when that wave crashed ashore, everything Benjamin Mayhew had fought to bring to his planet was all too likely to be smashed away in the general destruction.

* * *

"That's odd."

The soft murmur drew Adam Gerrick's attention from his own terminal. Stuart Matthews, the leader of the pattern analysis team, stood gazing down at a detailed holographic model of the collapsed dome. The ghastly tangle of wreckage was brutally clear, but at least the bodies had been omitted. Gerrick was grateful for that, but even now his mind insisted on supplying the crushed victims, and a fresh shudder of anguish ran through him as he remembered a smiling little girl's final seconds of life.

He closed his eyes, fighting off the pain that threatened his ability to think, then stood and walked over to the holo.

"What?" His voice was a croak, and his eyes were red-rimmed and swollen in a sunken face. He'd had less than ten hours' sleep in the ninety-odd hours since the dome's collapse, and he'd gotten those only because the medics had flatly refused to prescribe any more stimulants unless he did. Matthews was in little better shape. Like all of Sky Domes' senior engineers, he'd been skipping sleep, meals, and baths, and his own exhaustion showed as he blinked owlishly, then ran one hand through the oily tangle of his thinning black hair.

"I've been running the actual event against our models of what could have happened."


"And they won't match, Adam. Not even if we allow for defective ceramacrete in every footing pour."

"What?" Gerrick propped his buttocks on a work table to take the weight off his shaky legs, but though his shoulders slumped with grinding fatigue, his stim-fired brain worked with a sort of detached smoothness.

"I said what happened doesn't match any of them."

"It has to," Gerrick said reasonably. "Are you sure we've allowed for all the factors?"

"Damn straight I am." Matthews' temper was on as frayed a leash as anyone else's, and his voice was sharp with exhausted belligerence, but he clamped his teeth and fought it down, then took a deep breath and held up a thick folio of data chips. "We've got everything in here, Adam. I guarantee it. Hell, I even went back and applied all the met data from the period between our original survey and the start of construction just to see if it could have had some unanticipated effect on the soil strata. And I'm telling you that nothing in our models can account for what happened here."

"Why not?"

"Watch." Matthews tapped instructions into the computers driving the holo display. The tangled wreckage reassembled itself into an intact, half-completed dome, and Gerrick shoved himself up off the worktable and stepped closer for a better view. "I'm running this at a one-to-sixty retardation rate for better detail," Matthews said without turning his head. "Keep your eyes on the alpha ring down here in the eastern quadrant."

Gerrick grunted agreement, then folded his arms and waited. Nothing happened for a moment, and then he detected the same, tiny movement he'd seen the first time. It brought back all his nightmare memories, but this time his angle of view was different . . . and this time he wasn't actually standing there watching children die. He could think about what he was seeing, not simply know he was trapped in an obscene tragedy.

The first support member began its fall, and despite his detachment, Gerrick's heart spasmed as he saw another begin to move. Then another. But then his eyes narrowed, for there was a pattern here. One he hadn't seen at the time, and one he still couldn't quite isolate. His trained instincts saw it, but it eluded his reason, and he leaned still closer to the holo, fighting to isolate the element that was indefinably yet utterly wrong.

"There!" Matthews froze the holo. Plunging crystoplast and alloy were abruptly suspended in mid-fall, and he pointed. "Look here, down in the alpha ring. See this?" He frowned and tapped more keys, and a clutch of structural members abruptly shifted color, blazing bright crimson in the display.

"Yessssss," Gerrick said slowly, brow furrowed in thought, and the other engineer shook his head.

"Couldn't happen that way, Adam. Look." He input still more commands, and glowing vector analyses appeared beside the crimson supports. "See, those suckers are turning. They're not just falling, they're rotating in the holes."

"But—" Gerrick began, then stopped, and his frown mirrored Matthews'. He remembered his original impression on the site, the way the collapsing shafts had twisted sickeningly as they fell, and his frown deepened.

"But that is what happened," he said after a moment, very slowly. "I was there, Stu. I saw it."

"I know it is," Matthews said tiredly. "This isn't a model; it's a recreation from the visual records of the real event. The only problem is, what you're seeing is impossible. The crosscuts in the holes would have prevented that twisting motion."

"Come on, Stu. There's a hell of a lot of mass coming down out there, and the footings don't have to actually turn to impart that kind of motion. Even the six-nineteen alloys would warp under that much stress."

"Sure they would, but not this soon. We're barely three seconds into the event, Adam. They would've held longer than that. And when they did start warping, they'd do it as individuals, in a cascade effect. Not only that, but if you look closely, you'll see there's very little deformation of the supports. In fact, if you check the post-collapse reports, the ones I've highlighted actually show less deformation than any other beams in the entire structure—and none of them actually sheared." Matthews shook his head. "No, Adam. These bastards started turning before they started falling."

Gerrick grunted as if he'd been punched in the belly, for Matthews was right. What had happened in Mueller couldn't have happened. The support bores narrowed once they reached bedrock, and each of them incorporated a squared-off crosscut a half-meter wider than the diameter of the lower bore. The rectangular support shafts socketed into those crosscuts, for their cross-section was also greater than the diameter of the lower bores. The last ten meters of every shaft was, in effect, locked into a supporting matrix of bedrock even before the ceramacrete footing was poured. Without proper ceramacrete, the native rock couldn't have held a support once the collapse began—but it should have kept the supports from turning until far more shearing force was exerted on the stone. The supports should have fallen straight inward for the first dozen meters and only started to twist in the last two-thirds or so of their collapse.

And, he thought, his eyes suddenly even more intent, only the supports Stu had tagged in crimson showed that motion pattern. The ones between them were falling exactly the way the models said they should, and he was right about the final degree of deformation, too. It was as if something had actually relieved the stress on the marked support members . . . and that, he realized suddenly, was exactly what would have happened if they'd been free to turn in the holes. More than that, there was another pattern that—

"We've input the data on the bad ceramacrete?"

"Of course we have," Matthews said a bit snappishly, touched on his exhausted professional pride, and Gerrick raised a placating hand.

"Highlight the supports with the bad footings in amber," he said intently. Matthews looked at him a moment, then shrugged and typed more instructions into the computer. Nothing happened for an instant while the molycirc genius considered its orders, and then most of the crimson-coded support members began to flash alternating crimson and amber. But not all of them, Gerrick noted, and leaned closer to look at the two which didn't.

His eyes darted over the displayed vector analyses beside the two steadily crimson supports, and then he grunted again. The numbers didn't match those of their red-and-yellow fellows, but allowing for the fact that they'd had good ceramacrete and the others hadn't . . .

And then the rest of the pattern hit him.

"Son-of-a-bitch," he whispered. "Son-of-a-bitch!"

"What?" Matthews said sharply.

"Look! Look at the spacing of the bad holes!"

"What about it?" Matthews asked blankly, and Gerrick shoved him aside to get at the controls. He frowned for a moment, making his brain give up the information he needed, then started inputting commands, and the display began to flash with additional light codes.

"We had a total of seven power bores working this project," he reminded his colleague without ever looking away from his keyboard and the holo. "Each of them put in five holes a day, right?"

"Right." Matthews' reply came out slowly, as if his thoughts were almost catching up with Gerrick's. More lights flashed in the holo, picking out support members in seven different colors, and then Gerrick stood back.

"You see?" He reached out and caught Matthews' shoulder as if to drag him physically inside the holo with him, and his voice was a whisper. "Do you see it, Stu? Every goddamned one of those 'turning' supports was set in a hole drilled by the same bore-operator! And look at this!" He tapped more keys, and a final indicator of lurid, poison-green light flickered and danced in the display. "You see it?" he said again. "Two of the holes the son-of-a-bitch drilled got good ceramacrete, but every single instance of bad ceramacrete is in one of the holes he drilled!"

"But that means—" Matthews began, and Gerrick nodded savagely, then whirled from the display.

"Chet! Get me a priority line to the Regent!"

"What?" Sky Domes' personnel manager sounded confused, and Gerrick actually stamped a foot in fury.

"Get me Lord Clinkscales now, damn it!" he barked. "And then get me the name of the motherless bastard responsible for—" he bent to peer at his own inputs for a moment "—Power Bore Number Four!"


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