"Do you think we’ll get the break this month?" Scotty Tremaine asked as he used a brightly colored bandana to mop irritably at the sweat trickling down his face. He tried to keep any trace of anxiety out of his voice, but his audience knew him too well to be fooled.
"Now how would I know that, Sir?" Horace Harkness asked in reply, and his tone, while utterly respectful, managed to project so much patience that Tremaine grinned despite himself.
"Sorry, Chief." He shoved the bandana into the hip pocket of his trousers—no longer StateSec issue, but produced, like the bandana, by Henri Dessouix, who functioned as Camp Inferno’s chief tailor—and shrugged. "It’s just that all the waiting around is getting to me. And when you add things like this to the waiting... Well, let’s just say my nerves aren’t what they used to be."
"Mine either, Sir," the senior chief said absently, then grunted in triumph as the jammed access panel he’d been working on sprang open at last. "Light, Sir?" he requested, and Tremaine directed the beam of his hand lamp up into the shuttle’s number one communications bay.
"Hmmm..." Like Tremaine, Harkness now wore locally produced clothing, and he obviously favored the same garish colors Dessouix did. In fairness, Dessouix was limited in his choice of dyes by what grew within a reasonable distance from Camp Inferno, but he did seem to enjoy mugging people’s optic nerves. So did Harkness, apparently, and he looked more like an HD writer’s concept of a pirate than a senior chief petty officer of Her Majesty’s Royal Manticoran Navy—especially with the pulser and bush knife he insisted on carrying everywhere with him—as he frowned up into the small, electronics-packed compartment.
Peep installations tended to be bigger than Manticoran ones, largely because they used more plug-in/pull-out components. Peep techs weren’t up to the sort of in-place maintenance Manticoran technicians routinely performed, so the practice, wherever possible, was to simply yank a malfunctioning component and send it to some central servicing depot where properly trained people could deal with it. Unhappily for the People’s Navy, that assumed one had a replacement unit handy to plug into its place when you pulled it, and that had been a major reason for the soaring Peep unserviceability rates of the first two or three years of the war. The PN had been structured around short, intensive campaigns with plenty of time to refit between gobbling up each successive bite of someone else’s real estate. Their logistics pipeline had been designed to meet those needs, and it simply hadn’t been up to hauling the requisite number of replacement components back and forth between the front-line systems and the rear area service and maintenance depots over an extended period of active operations.
That, unfortunately, was one problem they seemed to be getting on top of, Tremaine reflected while he watched Harkness pull out a test kit and begin checking circuits. They were finally getting their logistics establishment up to something approaching Allied standards, and—
"Uh-oh." Harkness’ mutter pulled Tremaine out of his thoughts and he peered up past the burly senior chief’s shoulders. "Looks like we’ve got us a little problem in the transponder itself, Sir."
"How big a ‘little problem’?" Tremaine demanded tersely.
"All I can tell you for certain right this minute is that it ain’t working, Sir," Harkness replied. "I won’t know more till we pull it, but between you and me, it don’t look real good. The problem’s in the encryption module." He tapped the component in question and shrugged. "This here’s an almost solid cube of molycircs, and I didn’t see no molecular electronics shop aboard either of these two birds."
"Damn," Tremaine said softly. "I don’t think Lady Harrington is going to like this."