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Chapter Twenty-Two

Andrew LaFollet watched through the boat bay gallery's armorplast as the civilian shuttle docked, and his mind was sick and weary behind the mask of his steady gray eyes. He'd come down personally to escort the shuttle's passenger to the Steadholder because he hoped that this time there might be some good news buried in all the horror, yet another part of him knew there was no good news, and the weight of his personal despair was like some agonizing yet pale shadow of Lady Harrington's.


LaFollet was a Grayson. He was unmarried and had no children, yet he understood his people's fury deep in his bones. He didn't—couldn't—blame them for feeling it, but he also knew how skillfully Lady Harrington's enemies were using that fury against her. The callous manipulation of such heart-deep anguish sickened him, yet there was nothing he could do about it. And because there wasn't, he couldn't protect his Steadholder from others' anger . . . or from her own cruel, self-inflicted wounds.


He remembered his sense of futility when Lady Harrington had learned of Paul Tankersley's death. She'd been shattered by her loss, white-faced and stricken, and she'd shut out the entire universe, even Nimitz, for three terrible days. LaFollet had been terrified that they were going to lose her, that she was simply going to go out like a light, but somehow she'd survived. Avenging Tankersley's bought and paid for murder had helped, he thought. It hadn't been enough to prevent the deep wounds not even a full T-year had yet completely healed, for no amount of vengeance could ever restore the man she'd loved to her, but it had helped.


Only this time, there was no one to seek vengeance from, and the only person she could punish for what her company had done was herself.


LaFollet's mind shied away from what this was doing to her. She hadn't withdrawn this time, but the person who looked out through her eyes was no longer his Steadholder. She was a stranger, fulfilling her duties as a naval officer only because some remnant of her deep, personal sense of honor required that she do so. Yet she fulfilled them like a robot, locked in her own private hell and hating herself even more than the people on the planet her ships orbited hated her. There was no cruel, vicious charge anyone could hurl at her which she hadn't already hurled at herself, and the fresh damage had ripped her old wounds wide.


He watched the green pressure signal light over the docking tube and remembered the first night after the dome's collapse. He'd been off duty when MacGuiness commed him frantically, and he'd rushed to her quarters to find her writhing in the sweat-soaked grip of a nightmare. He had no idea what agonies she'd been inflicting upon herself, but one look at Nimitz had told him they were terrible.


Even when she'd withdrawn into her numb, frozen cocoon after Tankersley's death, she'd never truly been alone, for Nimitz had been with her. He'd shared her pain, but he'd fought for her, pouring his love and support into her while he handled the anguish beating at him through their empathic link and refused to let it suck him under with her or make him let her go.


Not this time. This time her agony had claimed him, as well, and a hissing, red-eyed, bare-fanged demon had crouched on the carpet just inside her sleeping cabin when MacGuiness keyed the hatch. Andrew LaFollet was no coward, but he'd seen the videotapes of the Maccabeus coup attempt, seen Nimitz kill and maim men who threatened Honor Harrington, and it would have been more than his life was worth to dare that door guard's fury. He and MacGuiness had talked to the 'cat, gently, soothingly, almost begging him to let them pass, and there'd been no response. None at all. Nimitz had been lost in his person's agony, hammered back to the bloody-fanged violence of his evolutionary past.


And then, thankfully, the nightmare had released her, and the 'cat had dropped to the carpet, shaking his head and whimpering in reaction. LaFollet had never seen Nimitz frightened. The 'cat's supreme confidence in his person and himself was a fundamental bulwark of his personality. Yet this time he'd huddled in a lump, trembling, his belly pressed to the carpet in a futile defensive posture against the threat he couldn't fight, and his fear had wrung LaFollet's heart.


The major had stood motionless, frozen by the implications, but MacGuiness had crossed to the treecat. He'd scooped Nimitz up in his arms like a beaten child, and the 'cat had buried his face against the steward and moaned. It was the only word for the sound he'd made, and Andrew LaFollet had watched in despair as MacGuiness carried his frightened, shivering friend from the sleeping cabin while he murmured useless, soothing words to him.


That had been the worst night, the major thought . . . but for how long? How long before the hatred building on the surface of Grayson fused with the Steadholder's own self-hatred and destroyed her outright?


The docking tube hatch slid open, and Andrew LaFollet braced himself to meet Adam Gerrick while he prayed that it wasn't still more bad news which brought him here.


* * *


Honor Harrington sat before her blank terminal. She should be working, a dreary corner of her brain told her, but she couldn't. She knew Walter Brentworth and Alfredo Yu were carrying the full weight of her responsibilities to the squadron, and the knowledge was one more weight in the scales of her self-hatred. She couldn't even do her job anymore, she thought with bitter self-loathing. She could only sit here, knowing she was beaten, knowing that the part of her life she'd turned to to rebuild her universe after Paul's death had been as brutally destroyed as Paul had been. She went through the rote motions, pretended there was something left inside her, and every evening she felt the terror of sleep looming before her with its promise of fresh and hideous nightmares.


She'd failed. Worse than failed. She was responsible for the deaths of children and men who'd worked in her employ. It was her dome which had killed them, and even through her own black despair, she recognized that her guilt was the flail with which Benjamin Mayhew's enemies would pound his reforms to dust. It was her fault, a cruel inner voice whispered. In her pride and arrogance, she'd accepted responsibilities she was unfit to discharge, and the consequences of her failure stood stark and plain in her mind. She'd actually thought she could be a steadholder, make a difference, play a part on a stage too great for her pitiful capabilities, and this was the result. Death and destruction, the collapse of an effort to bring an entire world into the present out of the past. And now she couldn't even do the one job she'd always believed she could and had to rely on people who had the right to expect—demand—leadership from her to hide the utter totality of her failure from anyone outside the squadron.


She raised her dull, almond eyes to Nimitz. The 'cat was huddled on his perch above her desk, watching over her, and his own eyes were dark. He was afraid, she thought. Afraid. She'd failed even Nimitz, for he could no more hide his emotions from her than she could hide hers from him, and for the first time in all their years together, he feared his link to her.


He made a soft sound, trying to disagree with her, his unflawed love battling against his fear, but she knew, just as he did, and the two of them mourned the ruin of all they'd been to one another as they mourned those crushed child bodies in Mueller Steading.


He made another soft sound and dropped from his perch. He crossed her desk and stretched out from its edge, putting his true-hands on her shoulders and rubbing his muzzle against her cheek, and tears burned behind her eyes as he begged her to relinquish the self-hate which was destroying them both. But she couldn't. She deserved her destruction, and knowing how terribly it hurt him only made her hate herself still more.


She took him in her arms, burying her face in his fur, and tried to use physical caresses as a substitute for the emotional ones she could no longer give him. He purred to her, pressing back against her, promising her his love . . . and under the love the bitter taste of fear still burned. The courage with which he exposed himself to her pain was a dagger, twisting within her, and she felt her tears soak into his fur like the acid of self-loathing.


She didn't know how long they huddled together, each trying uselessly to comfort the other, but finally the soft chime of the admittance signal broke in upon them. She tensed, muscles tightening to reject the summons, but she couldn't do that, either. She still had to pretend, she thought wearily. She was trapped, compelled to assume the mask of someone who could do the jobs she'd failed at, and she drew a deep, ragged breath, then pressed a kiss between Nimitz's ears and stood. She set him gently back on his perch and scrubbed away her tears, and his soft, loving croon as she turned away from the desk tore at her heart.


She pressed the admittance stud without even checking to see who it was. It didn't matter, anyway.


The hatch opened, and Andrew LaFollet stepped through it. She saw his face, the concern and trust—and fear—that echoed Nimitz's, however hard he tried to hide them, and her mouth moved in a parody of a smile. But then she saw Adam Gerrick behind her armsman, and her stomach knotted. Please, she thought. Oh, please, God! Not more disaster. I can't survive any more guilt.


"Andrew." Her own voice startled her, for she hadn't ordered it to speak, but it carried on without her, another rote automaton pretending the person it belonged to still functioned.


"My Lady," LaFollet said quietly, and stepped out of Gerrick's way.


"Adam," her voice said.


"My Lady." The engineer looked dreadful, she thought distantly, as if he hadn't slept since it happened. Yet even as she thought that, another equally distant part of her realized something had changed. The last time they'd spoken over the com, Adam Gerrick's self-hatred had been the mirror of her own, but there was something different now. The hate was still there, but it was hotter. It no longer burned like slow acid, and its fiery heat reached out to her as if from the door of an opened furnace.


"What can I do for you, Adam?" she asked listlessly, and his answer stunned her.


"You can listen to me, My Lady," he said grimly, "and then you can help me find the murdering bastards who sabotaged the Mueller dome."


It was the first time he'd ever used even the mildest profanity in her presence. That was her first thought, but it barely had time to register before she jerked as if she'd been slapped.


"Sabotaged?" she repeated, and her suddenly taut soprano voice was hoarse, no longer numb.


"Sabotaged." The engineer's reply was a thing of cold iron, as quenched in certainty as in outrage, and Honor swayed. LaFollet stepped quickly forward as she put out a hand, gripping her desk for support, but she didn't even notice. Her eyes were locked on Gerrick's face, begging him to be right, to know what he was talking about, and his short, savage nod answered her plea.


She dropped into her chair, distantly ashamed of her weakness, but things were shifting and roaring in her head. Vast, terrible weights plunged through the dark spaces of her mind, crashing into one another in showers of white-hot splinters, and she drew a deep, strangled breath.


"Are . . . are you sure, Adam?" she whispered. "It was deliberate?"


"It was, My Lady. Stu Matthews spotted it four hours ago."


"Four hours?" she repeated. "You . . . you've known for four hours?" Her voice broke, and shame flashed across Gerrick's expression.


"Yes, My Lady. Forgive me. I should have commed you and told you then, but I wanted to be sure—to be positive—before I brought it to you." His nostrils flared and he tossed his head. "Now I am . . . and so are Lord Clinkscales, Planetary Security, and Protector Benjamin."


"My God," Honor whispered. She heard the soft thud of Nimitz's weight on the desk behind her, felt his arms go about her neck from behind, and her eyes clung to Gerrick like her last, faint hope of salvation.


"Oh, my God!" she whispered again, and this time it was a cry from the heart, ragged with the agony she'd tried to hide for so long. She buried her face in her hands, rocking in her chair, and her entire body jerked with the force of her sobs.


"My Lady!" LaFollet cried. She felt him there, on his knees beside her, his hands on her forearms. He pulled with gentle strength, forcing her hands down, making her stare at him through her tears, and his voice was deep and soft. "It wasn't us, My Lady," he told her. "It wasn't an accident, wasn't carelessness. My Lady, it wasn't your fault."


She stared at him—ashamed of her weakness, grateful for his comfort—and he smiled at her. He smiled, without a trace of contempt for her broken reaction, and she twisted her forearms in his grip, sliding them down to clasp his hands and squeeze them tightly before she looked back at Gerrick.


"How, Adam?" she asked, and her voice was almost her own again. "How did they do it? And how did you find out?"


"How we found out is a long story, My Lady. The short version of it is that we've been modeling and analyzing the collapse ever since it happened, and we finally realized there was a pattern. We—"


He paused suddenly, then shook his head like an annoyed horse and gave her a weary, lopsided smile.


"My Lady, would you mind if I sit? I'm afraid I'm a little tired."


"Of course," she said quickly, and he sank into a facing chair. "I'll buzz Mac," she went on, knowing she sounded inane but unable to think of anything else to say. "We need—"


"My Lady," LaFollet's gentle voice summoned her eyes back to him, and he smiled again. "I already told him, My Lady, and he asked me to tell you he'd be here as soon as he found the . . . Delacourt, I think he said."


"The—?" Honor blinked at her armsman, for the first time truly realizing how exhausted and drained she was, and then she laughed softly. "The Delacourt," she repeated with a crooked smile of her own. "Mac always has had a nice sense of the appropriate."


"Indeed he has, and—"


LaFollet broke off as the dining cabin hatch opened and MacGuiness stepped through it. The steward carried a silver tray with three tall-stemmed glasses and a bottle from her father's personal cellars on Manticore, and the smile he gave her wrenched at her heart. He carried the tray to her desk and set it down, and she blinked misty eyes as she saw the small bowl of celery he'd taken time to prepare for Nimitz.


"I thought you might want this, Ma'am," he said quietly as he poured ruby wine into a glass. He handed it to her, then filled two more glasses and handed them to LaFollet and Gerrick before he stood back, still holding the bottle, and she reached out and touched his hand.


"Thank you, Mac," she said softly. "You always seem to know, don't you?"


"A minor talent, Ma'am," he said equally softly, and freed his other hand from the bottle to cover hers. Then he stepped back and set the bottle on the tray. "Buzz if you need anything else, Milady," he said with a small, formal bow, and withdrew from the cabin.


Honor watched him go, then turned back to Gerrick and LaFollet. The armsman stood formally beside her chair, but she shook her head and pointed to the couch. He hesitated a moment, then drew a deep breath, nodded, and obeyed her gesture, and she waited for him to settle before she looked back at Gerrick.


"Tell me," she commanded, and her voice was hers again. Still strained with grief and pain, but hers.


"In a sense, My Lady, it was our fault," Gerrick said quietly, "but only because we let the bas—" He paused, as if his anger had finally cooled enough for him to remember his language, then went on. "Only because we let whoever planned this slip their own people into our workforce, My Lady." He shrugged. "It never occurred to us that anyone might deliberately cause a disaster like this. We were only concerned with getting people who could do the job and then training them to do it right; security measures against sabotage never even crossed our minds."


"There was no reason they should have, My Lady," LaFollet said, and she glanced at him. "Oh, in hindsight, yes, it's something you ought to have considered. But hindsight is always perfect, and going in, there was no more reason for you to think any of your employees were mass murderers than for any other company to worry about it."


Honor nodded, grateful for his reassurance but not really needing it—not now—and looked back at Gerrick.


"Major LaFollet's right, My Lady, and this was no case of an individual maniac, either. It took at least eighteen or twenty people, acting in concert, to pull this off. That makes it a conspiracy, as well as murder."


"How did they do it?" she asked.


"They had two strings to their bow," Gerrick replied. "Either of them might have done it alone; with both of them in place, I'm amazed we got as far as we did before the dome collapsed." The engineer made a little face, and if his voice was no less angry, it was also dry and factual when he continued.


"One of their people got himself hired as a power bore operator, My Lady, and he altered the profile on the holes he drilled to hold the main support units. You're familiar with the original design?"


"Only in general terms," Honor said. She'd examined the plans, but they hadn't been her area of expertise.


"Do you remember how we'd designed the holes to give the maximum volume for the ceramacrete footings while simultaneously locking the base of each support into a natural load-bearing matrix?" Gerrick asked, and she nodded. "Well, with the supports socketed into the crosscuts and a hundred-plus tons of ceramacrete poured into each footing on top of that, each support in the alpha ring should have been the next best thing to indestructible."


Honor nodded. Had the ceramacrete been properly fused, it would have formed the equivalent of a plug of solid igneous rock stronger and harder than obsidian. Coupled with the socketing effect of the crosscuts, the support members should have been like extrusions of the planet's very bones.


"All right, My Lady, what actually happened is this. When the man on the power bore drilled his holes, they looked close to specs, but the portion that was supposed to 'neck down' actually had a diameter equal to the support's width, which meant the beams didn't engage in the crosscuts and knocked out that part of the design's stress redundancy. We've only managed to check two of the holes, since the Mueller inspectors won't let us on-site, but we had good visual records on those two. The people who shot the chips were holo-vid techs, not engineers, so they never noticed the proportions were off, and none of our technical people viewed the chips prior to the accident. But we've viewed them now, and we've been able to scale the holes from the HD chips. It's a computer reconstruction, but it'll stand up in any court, and the holes themselves are still there and available for physical examination to confirm it."


Honor nodded once more, and Gerrick rubbed his eyebrow in a gesture of tired triumph before he continued.


"In addition to the diameter shift, the bottoms of each of the holes we've checked were also off profile, My Lady. They were cut on a slight angle, so that only the edge of each support actually had any bearing surface. Again, with good ceramacrete, that wouldn't have mattered, since the pour would have come in under the unsupported portion of each upright before it was fused. With bad ceramacrete, it became an important factor in what happened."


"Didn't we check the profiles?"


"Yes and no, My Lady," Gerrick said with a grimace. "The specs were locked into the bores' software. For them to be off required the bore operator to deliberately alter them, and we run diagnostics and self-check programs on all our equipment between shifts to catch any accidental modifications. That meant whoever altered them also had to reset them before he went off shift, which he did. That deprived us of any warning from that end . . . and, just incidentally, proves that what happened wasn't an accident.


"But we had a second built-in check, My Lady. The crews who set the supports also had the proper profiles in their software. If the holes were off, they should have caught them—would have caught them, if they hadn't been deliberately covering for whoever drilled them in the first place. That's how we know there were at least two teams involved in this. And, finally, we had on-site supervisors who were responsible for spot-checking the footings after they were in. But the point is that we were checking for accidents, not deliberate sabotage, and whoever planned this knew it.


"As nearly as we can piece it together at this point, the crews who put the supports into the bad holes knew which ones were off. They put in their beams, then poured the ceramacrete, but they only fused the top half meter or so of it. Two of the bad holes had good ceramacrete, so we're assuming one of our supervisors happened by during those pours and that the saboteurs were afraid to hold back on the fusing process in his presence because they figured he'd spot it. As far as the others are concerned, though, our inspectors—and the Mueller Steading inspectors, for that matter—only drill twenty-centimeter cores for our quality control samples. That's the standard for Sword and steading inspectors, My Lady, partly because it's so hard to drill through ceramacrete in the first place. Given what's happened here, however, I've already recommended to the Protector that the requirement be changed to a full-depth sampling technique.


"What it meant, though, was that a half meter of good ceramacrete gave a valid quality control check for the entire footing—a footing which, in fact, came nowhere close to meeting the stress loading we'd designed into it. In fact, it wouldn't have been enough to handle the loads in a good hole, but they weren't taking any chances."


The engineer paused with a bitter smile, then took another sip of his wine and leaned back in his chair.


"So what happened, My Lady, is that approximately fourteen percent of the main load-bearing elements of the dome had been designed to fail, and the angle cut into the bottom of each hole actually threw the mass of those supports against the other elements of the dome. There was no way, My Lady, no way at all, that dome was going to stand with that kind of bugger factor built into it, and whoever did it knew exactly what was going to happen."


"Who, Adam?" Honor's eyes were hard, and the engineer shrugged.


"At this point, My Lady, we're still figuring out exactly how they did it. We can't identify the crews who set the supports and poured the ceramacrete from our own work orders, but Security is working with the site visual records, and Lord Clinkscales fully expects to find their faces in our employee database. But we can positively identify the bore operator right now, because we know which bore drilled which holes and who was the assigned operator on each bore."


"And?"


"According to our records, it was a Lawrence Maguire, My Lady," Gerrick said flatly. "He's one of the workers who 'resigned in protest' when the first reports of substandard materials came out, and we don't know where he went after that. We've already checked the address he listed as his residence and discovered that it was a boardinghouse. He rented rooms there only a week before he applied to us for a job, however, and none of the other personal background he gave on his application form checks out."


"Then we don't know who he really was?" Honor tried to keep the disappointment from her voice and knew she'd failed. It was vital that they find the man. If they couldn't identify him, establish a motive for his murderous actions, then her enemies would insist he was a figment of her company's imagination—that there'd been no deliberate saboteurs and that the faulty execution which had caused the disaster were only the "mistakes by poorly trained personnel" they were already being called.


"I didn't say that, My Lady," Gerrick said with a thin smile. "I said our records don't tell us where to look for him, and they don't. But while he falsified his application information, he had to give us his real fingerprints. I guess he figured we'd never put it together and even realize we should be looking for him, but we've got them, and we handed them over to Lord Clinkscales. He ran them against the Harrington database without finding anything, which confirmed our suspicion 'Maguire' was an outsider, but he also transmitted them under a deep security cover to a contact of his in Planetary Security, who ran them through the Sword database. And it just happens, My Lady, that as a teenager, Mr. 'Maguire' was once picked up for participating in a civil disturbance. It was a 'demonstration' against the Jerimites—they're a small, independent-minded group some members of the Church consider heretics—that turned violent, but because of his youth, he got off with a reprimand. He may not even have realized that the steading records on all criminal arrests, even the most petty ones, go into the Sword database and stay there.


"At any rate, My Lady, Protector Benjamin's people have IDed him. His real name is Samuel Marchant Harding." Honor's eyes flared, and the engineer nodded slowly. "That's right, My Lady. He's a first cousin of Edmond Marchant's . . . and his official place of residence is Burdette City, Steading of Burdette."


 


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