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David Weber

War Of Honor

Prologue

'Com confirms it, Sir.' Korvetten Kapitan Engelmann sounded as if he couldn't quite believe his own report.

'You're joking.' Kapitan der Sterne Huang Glockauer, Imperial Andermani Navy, commanding officer of the heavy cruiser IANS Gangying, looked at his executive officer in astonishment. 'Code Seventeen-Alpha?'

'No question, Sir. Ruihuan's positive. As of thirteen-oh-six hours, that's what they're squawking.' Engelmann glanced at the bulkhead date/time display. 'That's over six minutes, so I doubt that it's a mistake.'

'Then it's got to be a malfunction,' Glockauer half-muttered, eyes swinging back to his auxiliary plot and the glittering icon of the four-megaton Andermani-flagged freighter from which Gangying had just requested a routine identification. 'Nobody could be stupid enough to try to sail right past us squawking a Seventeen-Alpha—much less squawk it in response to a specific challenge!'

'I can't dispute your logic, Skipper,' Engelmann replied. He knew Glockauer wasn't actually speaking to him, but one of an executive officer's responsibilities was to play the part of his commanding officer's alter ego. He was responsible for managing the smooth functioning of the captain's ship, of course, but that was only part of his job. He was also responsible for providing a sounding board when the captain needed one, and this situation was so bizarre that Glockauer needed a sounding board badly at the moment.

'On the other hand,' the exec continued, 'I've seen pirates do some pretty stupid things over the years.'

'So have I,' Glockauer admitted. 'But I've never seen any of them do anything this stupid.'

'I've been thinking about that, Skip,' Engelmann said diffidently, 'and I wonder if it's actually so much a case of their being stupid or of someone else's having been sneaky.'

'How?'

'Well, every merchant line knows that if one of its ships is taken, whoever grabbed her will want to pull the wool over the eyes of any Navy ships they run into. But most navies have at least their own national shipping list in memory—complete with transponder codes matched to emissions signatures. So pirates also know there's at least some risk an alert plotting and com team will cross check and notice some little flaw any time they use a false transponder code.' The exec shrugged. 'That's why pirates tend to go on using the original code until they get a prize safely tucked away somewhere, rather than generating a fresh, false one.'

'Of course it is,' Glockauer said as his second-in-command paused. His comment could have sounded impatient, since Engelmann was busy saying something both of them already knew perfectly well. But he recognized that tone of voice. Binyan was onto something, and Glockauer was willing to give him time to lay out the groundwork for whatever it was.

'The thing I'm wondering, Skipper,' the korvetten kapitan said, 'is whether or not someone at Reichenbach figured out a way to take advantage of that tendency. Suppose they set up the beacon software to tag the transponder with a Seventeen-Alpha if the ship was taken? If they did, then they could also have rigged the rest of their software to strip the tag off when it plays the transponder code back to the bridge crew.'

'You're suggesting that someone in the command crew activated a booby trap in the transponder programming when he realized his ship was about to be taken?'

'I'm suggesting that that might be what happened,' Engelmann agreed. 'Think about it. There's no way a normal merchie can hope to stand off a pirate. They're not armed, and the only thing trying to resist boarding parties would accomplish would be to absolutely assure a massacre once they actually got aboard. So if the command crew figured they might be able to pull off something like I'm suggesting may have happened here, it would have to be pretty tempting.'

'Um.' Glockauer rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully. 'You're right about that,' he said after moment. 'Especially if the pirates decided to keep the original crew alive and force them to work the ship for them. Their best chance of being rescued—their only chance, really—would be for the people who grabbed them to stumble across a warship which somehow managed to realize they'd been taken.'

He rubbed his lip some more while he considered the scenario he and Engelmann were discussing. Code Seventeen was a standard, universal merchant ship transponder code, although it was used far more often in bad adventure fiction than in reality. The code's actual meaning was 'I am being boarded by pirates,' but there wasn't really any point in squawking the code unless there happened to be a friendly warship practically in the merchie's lap when the pirates turned up. In very rare instances, a pirate might break off an attack in the face of a Code Seventeen if he thought there was a warship in range to pick up the signal and intervene. But that happened so seldom that a great many merchant skippers preferred not to squawk Code Seventeen under any circumstances. Pirates had been known to wreak particularly gruesome revenge on merchant spacers who'd attempted to resist . . . or to summon help.

Seventeen-Alpha was even rarer than a straight Code Seventeen, however. Seventeen-Alpha didn't mean 'I am being boarded by pirates;' it meant 'I have been boarded and taken by pirates.' Frankly, Glockauer couldn't remember a single instance outside a Fleet training exercise in which he'd ever heard of anyone squawking a Seventeen-Alpha.

'Still,' he went on after a moment, putting his thoughts into words, 'it'd be risky. If the pirates' prize crew activated the transponder while their own ship was still close enough to pick it up, they'd spot it in a heartbeat, however the merchie's own communications software might have been buggered up. Even if they didn't bring the transponder up while their buddies were still in range, eventually they're going to make port somewhere, and when they do, someone's going to pick up the code. Which would almost certainly entail some seriously unpleasant consequences for whoever activated the booby trap software.'

'There's not much question about that,' Engelmann acknowledged with a small shrug. 'On the other hand, it could be that whoever thought it up figured that between the possibility that the crew would already have been massacred, or that they'd be massacred anyway whenever they reached their final destination, the risk was worth it if it gave any of their people even a tiny chance of being rescued.'

'Fair enough,' Glockauer conceded. 'And I suppose they could have built a few additional precautions into this hypothetical software we're theorizing about. For example, what if the program was designed to delay the activation of the Seventeen-Alpha? If it squawked a clean transponder for, say, twenty-four or thirty-six hours before it added the Code Seventeen, the odds would be pretty good that the original pirate cruiser would be far out of range when it did. And the program could also be set up to terminate the Code Seventeen after a set period, or under specific circumstances—like after the ship translates back out of hyper the first time.'

'It could be.' Engelmann nodded. 'Or, it could be even simpler than that,' he pointed out. 'The only reason they squawked their beacon at all was because we requested an ID, Skipper. And we identified ourselves as a warship when we did.'

'Now that, Binyan, is an excellent thought,' Glockauer approved. 'If the software's set up to automatically append the Seventeen-Alpha to any ID request from a warship, but not under any other circumstances. . . .'

'Exactly,' the exec said. 'Although, it would have been nice—assuming that there's anything to this entire theory—if Reichenbach had bothered to warn us that they were going to do something like this.'

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