Beginnings - By David Weber

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 the 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