Beginnings - By David Weber Page 0,1

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