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Chapter Eleven

It was almost dawn before they had the nets in place once more, and Honor was more nervous about the quality of their camouflage than she cared to show. The climate was definitely drier here, and the soil seemed to be less rich. There was far less undergrowth than the ferociously fecund four-canopy jungle in which they had originally landed had offered, and the trees, for the most part, tended to be smaller. It was much harder to snuggle the shuttles in under them, and there were fewer natural vines and lianas to complement the cammo nets. She knew McKeon was as unhappy about the situation as she was, and they'd already made plans for most of their people to spend the coming night weaving more natural elements into the nets, but for now they'd just have to hope the concealment was good enough.

"If things work out, maybe we should consider sending at least one of the shuttles back to Site One after all," she said quietly as the two of them sat under a wing and watched the sun come up. He glanced at her, and she shrugged, knowing that he would recognize her oblique apology for what it was.

"Maybe," he agreed after a moment. "I suppose we could use tight beam off one of the Peeps' comsats to stay in touch without their noticing if we were careful. Bit risky, though."

She made a soft sound of agreement and leaned back against the seat cover Harkness and Andrew LaFollet had removed from the shuttle for her. Her energy levels still hadn't come back up to her precapture standards, and she felt utterly wiped out.

"You shouldn't have pushed yourself so hard," McKeon growled softly as Nimitz limped over to her and curled up on chest. She tucked her arm around the 'cat and closed her eyes wearily.

"Had to do my part. A CO has an example to set. I read that somewhere when I was at Saganami Island," she told McKeon, and he snorted with the fine fervor of an old friend.

"Sure you did. But while I realize you may not've noticed that you're shy an arm, we have. So next time Fritz 'suggests' you take a break, you damned well take a break!"

"Is that an order?" she asked sleepily, feeling Nimitz's purr blending into her bones even as his love echoed soothingly about the corners of her soul, and McKeon snorted again, albeit with slightly less panache.

"Actually, I think it is," he said after a moment. "We're both commodores now, after all. You told me so yourself, even if Their Lordships haven't gotten around to making it official. I've noticed that they seem to have lost my address over the last few months." Honor snorted, and he grinned at her. "Besides, Ms. Coup de Vitesse, I can probably beat you up in your present condition. Assuming Andrew didn't hurt me first."

"Actually, I'd try very hard not to hurt you, Sir," Major LaFollet called softly from where he sat atop the wing, keeping watch over his Steadholder.

"There, see?" Honor said even more sleepily. "Andrew'll stop you."

"Oh, I didn't say that, My Lady!" LaFollet chuckled. "I meant I'd try not to hurt him while I helped him make you take a break."

"Traitor!" Honor murmured, right cheek dimpling with a smile that never touched the left side of her mouth at all, and then she drifted off to sleep.


It was not only drier here, it was also hotter. They were squarely in the middle of the continent, far away from the moderating influence of the oceans, and the aptly named Camp Inferno was, indeed, directly on the equator. It was as well that Nimitz had shed his winter down before they moved, yet even so, he and Honor were driven to retreat into one of the shuttles by noon.

But at least no overflying Peeps seemed to have spotted them, and by late afternoon McKeon, Marchant, and Metcalf had organized work parties to bring in native greenery to supplement the cover of the cammo nets. While they did that, Harkness, Barstow, and Tremaine got all the thermal convertors on-line, and the temperatures in the shuttles dropped dramatically as extra power began to augment their battery backups.

There were about three or four hours of daylight left when Honor found herself back under the wing with LaFollet, Carson Clinkscales, and Jasper Mayhew. Clinkscales fair redhead's complexion had not reacted well to Hell's climate. At least the dense canopy at Site One, coupled with copious use of sun blocker from the shuttles' emergency stores, had protected him from direct sunlight and he hadn't burned—yet—but he tended to stay an alarming, heat-induced beet-red which looked fairly awesome on someone his size. At a hundred and ninety centimeters, he was a good two centimeters taller than Honor, which made him a veritable giant for a Grayson.

At the moment, however, he was standing with crossed arms and regarding her with an expression which looked just as unhappy as Andrew LaFollet's. Or, for that matter, Jasper Mayhew's. Or, she reflected wryly, as Alistair and Fritz are going to look when they hear about this. Fortunately, rank does have its privileges . . . and we'll be long gone by the time they find out what I'm up to.

"My Lady, Carson and Jasper and I can do this quite well by ourselves," LaFollet said flatly. "Frankly, you'll just be in the way."

"Oh?" She cocked her head. "Let's see, now. Jasper here grew up in Austin City, as I recall. I don't remember seeing any jungles there. And then there's Carson. He grew up in Mackenzie Steading, and I don't remember any jungles there, either. In fact, Andrew, I don't recall any Graysons having grown up running around the woods. It's not the sort of thing people do on a planet with environmental hazards like Grayson's. Now I, on the other hand, grew up in the Copperwalls. And if we don't have jungles on Sphinx, we do have picket wood and crown oak and tangle vine, not to mention large and hungry predators, all of which I happen to have learned how to cope with as a wee tiny child."

She raised her hand, palm uppermost, and smiled at them and was rewarded by the audible grinding of LaFollet's teeth.

"Be that as it may, My Lady, this is still no job for you. You're still weak, and you're blind on one side." He didn't mention her missing arm, but his very lack of mention only drew attention to it. "And while you're right about conditions on Grayson, My Lady, and while I may not have known how to swim before I entered your service, Palace Security gives its people a thorough grounding in wilderness and rough terrain training, as well as urban environs. In fact, we get exactly the same training the Army's special forces teams get. I haven't had a refresher in the past several years, but I understand it's like riding a bicycle."

"Andrew, stop arguing," she told him, firmly but with a much gentler smile, and laid her hand on his arm. "I'll concede your point about weakness and vision, but I need to be there. There won't be any time to send messages back and forth if decisions have to be made." And you know I can't send anyone else off to take this kind of risk without taking it myself, she carefully did not say, but the flicker in his gray eyes told her that he'd heard it anyway.

He glowered at her for another long moment, then sighed and shook his head.

"All right," he surrendered. "All right, My Lady! I suppose that by now I should know better than to argue with you."

"Well, it's certainly not my fault if you haven't figured it out," she told him with a chuckle, and smacked him on the shoulder. "On the other hand, I think I've heard it said somewhere that Graysons are just a bit stubborn."

"Not stubborn enough, obviously!" he growled, and this time Mayhew and Clinkscales chuckled as well. "Well, if you're coming, My Lady, then we'd better get moving before Commodore McKeon or Commander Montoya figure it out. I'm sure you wouldn't let them talk you out of it, either, but by the time they got done trying it'd be midnight."

"Yes, Sir," she murmured docilely, and he glared at her, then bent to pick up the treecat carrier she'd had Harkness run up for her and helped her into it.

Until they could get Nimitz home and into the hands of a good Sphinx veterinary surgeon to fix his twisted limb, it was impossible for him to ride her shoulder as he normally would have. Even if it hadn't been, Honor had none of her custom tunics and vests which had been reinforced to resist a 'cat's claws, and without them, Nimitz would quickly have reduced her tee-shirt to tatters . . . which wouldn't have done her shoulder any good, either. But her own injuries meant she couldn't carry him in her arms the way she would have under other circumstances, so Harkness and Master Chief Ascher had whipped up a sort of lightly-padded knapsack for her. It was just big enough for Nimitz to stand upright in, and it hung from the front of her shoulders, covering her front rather than her back, so that he could look forward from his lower vantage point.

"I still wish you'd stay put, My Lady," LaFollet murmured much more quietly, his voice too low for the other two to here. "Seriously. I don't like you risking yourself this way, and you are still weak. You know you are."

"Yes, I do. And I also know that it's my job as senior officer to be there if you three actually run into someone from Inferno," she said equally quietly. "I'm responsible for whatever decisions get made, so I need to be there when they get made in the first place. Besides, it's going to be essential that I get a . . . feel for anyone we contact."

LaFollet had opened his mouth to try one final protest, but her last sentence closed it with a click. He was one of the very few people who had realized that Nimitz's empathy permitted her to feel the emotions of those about her. He'd seen it save her life on at least one occasion, but even more importantly than that, he knew she was right. If anyone in their group would be able to know whether or not they could trust someone on this Tester-damned planet, Lady Harrington—with Nimitz's help—was that someone.

He helped her adjust the tension of the 'cat carrier's straps, gathered up his pulse rifle, and gave her equipment a quick but thorough examination. All of them carried bush knives, and like himself, she'd hung a pair of Peep-made night vision goggles about her neck against the oncoming darkness. She also wore a heavy, holstered pulser on her right hip to balance her binoculars case and her canteen, and he sighed and looked at the other two. He and Mayhew each carried a pulse rifle and a sidearm, but young Ensign Clinkscales had fitted himself out with a light tribarrel. LaFollet had almost objected to that when he first saw it, but then he'd changed his mind. Clinkscales was big enough and strong enough to carry the thing, and however over-gunned LaFollet might think he was, there were definitely arguments in favor of his choice. The belt-fed infantry support weapon was capable of spitting out as few as a hundred or as many as two or three thousand five-millimeter hypervelocity darts a minute, which would make it awesomely effective as long as the ammo in the tank-like carrier on Clinkscales' back lasted.

"All right, My Lady," the armsman sighed. "Let's go."


Honor did her best to hide her profound relief when LaFollet called another rest stop. She had no intention of slowing the others down—or of giving LaFollet an opportunity for an ever-so-polite, not-quite-spoken-aloud "I told you so"—but her armsman had been right about her physical condition. She was far better than she had been, yet her endurance remained a shadow of its old self. The fact that Hell's gravity was barely seventy-two percent that of her native Sphinx helped, but she wasn't fooling herself. Her current state seemed even worse after a lifetime of regular workouts and the better part of forty T-years of training in the martial arts, and she dropped down to sit with her back against a tree, breathing deeply (and as quietly as possible).

LaFollet prowled watchfully around their resting point for another couple of minutes, and despite her earlier teasing, he moved with almost the silence of a Sphinx snow leopard. Not that I could hear a herd of Beowulf buffalo through my own pulse just now, she thought wryly, then looked up as her armsman blended out of the darkness and squatted easily beside her. He turned to look at her, his expression unreadable behind his night-vision goggles. But she didn't need to read his expression. Thanks to Nimitz, she could read his emotions directly, and she felt very much like a little girl under the gaze of a teacher who wondered where her homework had gotten to. Nimitz leaned back against her breasts in his carrier and bleeked softly, and neither his radiated amusement nor the taste of LaFollet's affectionate resignation helped a lot. But she managed a wry half-smile and wiped sweat from her forehead before she let her hand fall to the 'cat's head.

"I hope you're not feeling too justified, Andrew," she said quietly, and he chuckled, then shook his head.

"My Lady, I've given up expecting prudence out of you," he told her.

"I'm not that bad!" she protested, and he chuckled again, louder.

"No, you're not; you're worse," he said. "Much worse. But that's all right, My Lady. We wouldn't know what to do with you if you weren't. And all other things being equal, I guess we'll keep you anyway."

"Oh, thank you," she muttered, and heard a snort of laughter out of the darkness from roughly Jasper Mayhew's direction. One thing about being marooned here, she thought. There's too few of us for us to go all formal on each other. That was a vast relief in many ways. She'd grown accustomed to her status as Steadholder Harrington, though it still felt unnatural sometimes, and she'd been a part of the stratified world of the Navy's rank structure since she was seventeen T-years old, and she understood the value of military discipline and authority. But her present "command" was even smaller than the one she'd held when she'd skippered LAC 113 twenty-eight T-years ago, and she'd learned then that informality was just as valuable, as long as the chain of authority remained intact, in a group which must be tight knit and completely interdependent. More to the point at just this moment, it felt good not to be removed or barricaded off from people who were friends as well as subordinates.

"How far have we come, do you think?" she asked after a moment, and LaFollet raised one wrist to consult the dimly glowing readouts on it.

"I make it about nineteen klicks, My Lady."

She nodded and leaned the back of her head against her tree while she thought. No wonder she was tired. The undergrowth here might be sparse compared to that around their initial landing site, but it was still more than enough to pose an exhausting obstacle, especially once night had fallen. It had slowed their pace to a crawl, and even with their night vision equipment, each of them had managed to find more than enough vines, low-growing branches, shrubbery, tree roots, and old-fashioned rocks and holes in the ground to trip over. Honor herself had fallen only twice, but the loss of her arm made it very difficult to catch herself. The first time, she'd come down hard enough to rip the left knee out of her trousers. The heavily scabbed scrape on her kneecap from that was painful enough to give her an irritating limp, but the second fall had been worse. All she'd been able to manage that time was to wrap her remaining arm around Nimitz and tuck her right shoulder under so that she landed on it and rolled rather than crushing the 'cat under her weight. Jasper Mayhew had appeared out of nowhere to help her up after that one, and despite her need to avoid any more "pampering" than she absolutely had to put up with, she'd let herself lean on him for several seconds until her head stopped spinning.

Now she worked the shoulder cautiously, feeling the bruising and relieved she hadn't sprained it as she'd initially feared, while she considered their progress. She couldn't see the sky from where she sat, but here and there the light of Hell's moons spilled through breaks in the tree cover to make small, brilliant patches of silver on tree trunks and undergrowth. Sheol must be almost down by now, she thought, and Tartarus would be setting in an hour or so. They had about three more hours of darkness to cover the last four or five kilometers to Camp Inferno, and she drew a deep breath and pushed herself back to her feet. LaFollet cocked his head and looked up at her, and she grinned again and patted him on the shoulder.

"I may be weak, Andrew, but I'm not decrepit yet."

"I never thought you were, My Lady," he assured her. "I only thought you were too stubborn for your own good." He rose easily, regarding her with that same, measuring air for a few more seconds, then nodded and set off once more without another word.


"So that's Camp Inferno," Honor murmured.

She and the three Graysons lay belly-down on a small, steep hill to the east of their objective, and she rested her chin on the back of her hand as she contemplated the camp. Several tall trees grew on the hilltop, promising both additional cover and at least some shade once the sun came up, but most of the hill was overgrown in head-high, stiff, sword-like grass. The area around the huddle of structures below them, on the other hand, had obviously been completely clear-cut when the camp was put in, although two or three years must have passed since the last time it was brushed back. Clusters of saplings had sprung back up out of the grass of the clearing, and the western side of the fence surrounding the camp was covered in a thick, leafy canopy of vines. It all gave the place a disheveled, somehow slovenly look.

On the other hand, she reflected, first impressions might be misleading. The grass had been cut or trampled down in something almost like a fifteen-meter moat around the enclosed area, and that stuff on the fence might actually have been trained to grow there. Four larger huts, all built out of native materials, were packed tightly along the inner face of the fence there, and unless she was mistaken, that thicket of vines would start offering them shade from very shortly after local noon.

A ceramacrete landing pad and some sort of storage sheds thrust up through the grass about a kilometer north of the camp, and a plastic water tank stood on tall, spindly-looking legs almost at the center of the fenced enclosure. A windmill squeaked with endless, inanimate patience, its plaintive sound clear and forlorn in the predawn stillness, and water splashed from an overflow pipe on the tank. Clearly the windmill powered a pump to keep the tank filled, but it was equally clear that no one had used any of that mechanical power to generate electricity.

The explanation for the lights she'd seen during their approach was obvious enough from where they lay, concealed by yet more of that tall, stiff grass. There were four gates in the fence, located at the four major points of the compass and all tightly closed at the moment, and beaten dirt tracks connected them to form a cross-shaped intersection just south of the water tank. Two rows of dimly glowing lanterns on three-meter posts bordered each lane, and pairs of much brighter lanterns marked their intersection.

"How many do you think, My Lady?" Carson Clinkscales asked quietly. It was highly unlikely that anyone could have heard them from here even if anyone were awake to listen, but all of them spoke only in hushed tones anyway.

"I don't know," she told him honestly. Nimitz lay close beside her, and she took her hand out from under her chin to scratch his jaw while she pondered the ensign's question. Those were big huts down there. Depending on how tightly the prisoners were packed into them, there might be anywhere from fifteen to fifty people in each of them. So split the difference and call it thirty or so, she thought. In that case . . .

"I'd guess it at about six or seven hundred," she said finally, and turned her head to look at LaFollet, lying on his belly on her right. "Andrew?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, My Lady." He twitched his shoulders in a shrug. "I'd say you're probably close to right, but I thought each of those camps was supposed to have a couple of thousand people in it."

"The others do," she replied, "but this one's not like them. They're mainly just holding areas; this one is a punishment camp."

"Well, they certainly put it in the right place for that, My Lady!" Clinkscales muttered, and she heard the sharp smack of his hand as he swatted another of the insects Sarah DuChene had christened "shuttlesquitos." It was fortunate that they didn't swarm like the Old Terran mosquitos they outwardly resembled, because a "swarm" of blood-drinking predators with wingspans wider than Honor's palm would have been deadly. On the other hand, it would have been even more fortunate if they'd realized that however good human beings might taste, they couldn't live off them. In fact, human blood seemed to kill them quickly . . . which didn't keep their surviving brainless relatives from darting in for their own quick solo drinks.

"I could really learn to hate this place," the ensign added wryly, and she chuckled. Whatever else happened to Clinkscales, he was no longer the shy, clumsy, perpetual accident looking to happen he'd been when he first joined the Eighteenth Cruiser Squadron's staff as her flag lieutenant, and she rather liked the tough young man he'd turned into.

"I suspect that was the Peeps' idea," she told him, and it was his turn for a chuckle to rumble around in his broad chest. "On the other hand, I have no intention of complaining about their logic. Not when they've been kind enough to concentrate the very people I want to meet in one nice, neat spot like this."

Three other heads nodded, and Nimitz bleeked his own agreement. It was clear from the memo Scotty Tremaine had pulled out of the Tepes data that StateSec used Camp Inferno as a dumping site for troublemakers from all the other camps. Apparently, prisoners who sufficiently disturbed the status quo to tick their captors off without quite inspiring StateSec to simply shoot them and be done with it were shipped off to Inferno. An average sentence here for a first-time visitor was one local year—a bit shorter than a T-year—with longer terms for repeat offenders, and at least some of the inmates had been sent here permanently. Which, she suspected, was the real reason Inferno existed at all. It was a punishment short of shooting which everyone knew about, and cycling bad boys and girls through it on a semiregular basis would keep its existence—and threat—in the fronts of people's brains. And leaving some of them here permanently was a pointed hint that even on Hell, StateSec could always make someone's life still more miserable . . . and leave it that way.

But the people who ran Hell didn't know there were rats in their woodwork, Honor thought, her remaining eye glinting dangerously in the darkness. They had no idea that a handful of castaways might want to find some local allies for the general purpose of raising all the hell they could. Or that the castaways in question had hijacked a pair of StateSec's own assault shuttles . . . with full arms racks. If there really were six hundred people down there, then Honor had just about enough pulsers and pulse rifles—and grenade launchers, plasma rifles, and tribarrels—to give every one of them at least one weapon each, and wouldn't that be a nasty surprise for the Peeps.

Long, sharp fangs those rats have, Mr. Peep, she thought viciously. If, that is, the people down in that camp really are the troublemakers you seem to think they are. And there's only one way to find that out, now isn't there?

"All right," she said softly. "Let's pull back under the trees and get some sort of overhead cover rigged. I want plenty of shade for all of us by the time the sun really hits. But keep it unobtrusive."

"Yes, My Lady." LaFollet nodded to her, then jerked his head at Mayhew and Clinkscales, and the other two officers faded back from the lip of the hill. He himself lay motionless beside Honor, watching her peer through her electronic binoculars one more time, then quirked an eyebrow at her.

"Any thoughts on exactly how we go about making contact, My Lady?" he asked, and she shrugged.

"We'll have to play it by ear, but we've got enough food for three or four days, and there's plenty of water." She nodded her head at the stream from the water tank and pump where it snaked under the fence and meandered in their direction. "I'm not in any rush. We'll watch them for a while, see how they spend their time. Ideally, I'd like to catch one or two of them outside the camp on their own and get a feel for how things are organized in there before we jump right in with both feet."

"Makes sense to me, My Lady," he said after a moment. "Jasper and Carson and I will take turns playing lookout once we get the camp set up."

"I can—" Honor began, but he shook his head firmly.

"No," he said in a soft, flat voice. "You were probably right about coming along, My Lady, but we can do this just as well without you, and I want you rested when the time comes to actually talk to these people. And I don't want you dragging Nimitz out of the shade, either."

"You fight dirty," she told him after a moment, and his teeth flashed in a smile.

"That's because you don't leave me much choice, My Lady," he told her, and jerked a thumb in the direction of the trees. "Now march!" he commanded.


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