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Chapter Twelve

"I think those two look like our best bet, Andrew," Honor said quietly. It was the morning of their second day of watching Camp Inferno, and she lay in the fork of a tree four meters above the ground while she peered through her binoculars. LaFollet hadn't liked the notion of letting his one-armed Steadholder climb a tree, and he didn't like the notion of her turning loose of the tree trunk to use her one working hand to hold the binoculars to her working eye, but she hadn't given him much say in the matter. At least she'd let him help her with the climb, and now he hovered over her watchfully. And, he admitted, she wasn't really all that likely to fall. The trees here were very different from the almost-palms where they had originally landed. Instead of smooth, almost branchless trunks, they had rough, hairy bark and thick, flattened branches that shoved out from the main trunk in every direction. Rather than rise to a point, their foliage made them look almost like huge inverted cones, for they grew progressively broader as they grew taller and the individual branches grew thinner but the network of them spread wider and wider. The branch on which his Steadholder lay was fairly near the bottom of that spreading process, and it was two or three times the thickness of her own body, more like a shelf than a "branch."

Not that it kept him from worrying.

He clamped his jaws on a fresh urge to protest and looked up at Nimitz. The 'cat was a couple of meters higher up the central trunk, clinging with his good limbs as he sank ivory claws into the rough bark, and LaFollet had taken a certain perverse pleasure in watching the Steadholder worry over him as he hauled himself awkwardly up the trunk. It was the first time he'd attempted any climbing since their arrival on Hell, and he'd done much better than LaFollet had expected from watching his lurching progress on the ground. He still looked undeniably clumsy compared to his usual, flowing gracefulness, and his obvious pain still made something deep down inside the armsman hurt, but there was no self-pity in Nimitz. He clearly considered himself a going concern once more, if on a somewhat limited level, and he flirted his bushy tail with an undeniable air of amusement as he bleeked down at LaFollet.

The armsman looked away, shading his eyes with one hand as he peered at the pair of humans the Steadholder was studying so intently. He couldn't make out many details from here, but he could pick out enough to tell they were the same pair he'd watched yesterday. The man was short and bald as an egg, with skin so black it looked purple, and he favored brightly, almost garishly colored garments. The woman with him was at least fifteen centimeters taller than he was, dressed in somber shades of gray and with a single golden braid of hair that hung to her belt. A more unlikely looking pair would have been hard to imagine, and he'd wondered, that first day, just what they thought were doing as they moved slowly along the very edge of the camp's cleared zone.

He still didn't have an answer for that. It was almost as if they were peering into the forest beyond the open grasslands, searching for something, but there was little urgency in their movements. Indeed, they walked so slowly—and spent so long standing motionless between bursts of walking—that he was half inclined to believe their experiences here on Hell had driven them over the brink.

"You're sure you want to talk to them, My Lady?" he asked finally, trying unsuccessfully to keep his own doubtfulness out of his voice.

"I think so, yes," Honor said calmly.

"But . . . they look so . . . so—" LaFollet broke off, unable to find the exact word he wanted, and Honor chuckled.

"Lost? Out of it? Crackers?" she suggested, and he twitched a sour smile at her teasing tone.

"Actually, yes, My Lady," he admitted after a moment. "I mean, look at them. If they knew we were out here and were searching for us, that would be one thing, but they can't know it. Or if they do, they're the most incompetent pair of scouts I've ever seen! Walking around out there in sight of the Tester and everyone and staring into the woods—" He shook his head.

"You may have a point, Andrew. After all, a stay on Hell would probably be enough to drive anyone at least a little mad, although I doubt they're as far gone as you seem to think. But that isn't really the reason I picked them. Look for yourself," she invited, rolling over on her side to hand the binoculars up to him and then sweep her arm in an arc across the cleared area. "The only other people out there are all in groups of at least four or five, and each of them is obviously performing some specific task."

LaFollet didn't need the binoculars to know she was right; his unaided vision could see it clearly from here. Two groups of ten or fifteen people apiece were hauling branches and vines and fern-like fronds out of the jungle while another five armed with long, slender spears watched over them protectively. Another group was busy with clumsy looking wooden sickles, cutting back the grass along the edges of the cleared zone about the fence, with another little knot of spearmen guarding them, and others were busy with still more chores, most of them almost impossible to figure out from this distance. Only the pair Lady Harrington had selected weren't obviously embarked on such a task.

"Not only are those two out on their own," she went on, "but they're already headed our way. I think you and Jasper can probably intercept them about there—" she pointed to where a clump of trees thrust out from the base of their hill "—without anyone noticing you, and invite them up here to talk to me."

" 'Invite'!" LaFollet snorted. Then he shook his head resignedly. "All right, My Lady. Whatever you say."


Honor sat on a thick, gnarled root, leaning her spine against the tree to which it belonged with Nimitz in her lap, as the two POWs were escorted towards her. They were still too far away for her to feel their emotions with any clarity, but the way they moved proclaimed their uncertainty and wariness. They stayed close together, looking back over their shoulders frequently, and the man had his arm around the woman in a protective gesture which would have looked silly, given the difference in their heights, if it had been even a little less fierce.

Jasper Mayhew followed them, his pulse rifle casually unslung but with the muzzle pointing unthreateningly away from his "guests," and Andrew LaFollet brought up the rear. Her armsman, she saw, had collected the POWs' spears. He'd evidently lashed them together so he could carry both of them in one hand, and he carried his drawn pulser in the other. The spears had long, leaf-shaped heads chipped from a white, milky-looking stone of some sort, and each POW wore an empty belt sheath. She glanced at LaFollet again and saw knives or daggers of the same white stone tucked into his belt.

She watched them come closer, and Nimitz stirred uneasily in her lap. She reached out through her link to him and winced as a fist seemed to punch her in the face. She'd felt fear to match the POWs' often enough, but never such bleak, helpless, terrible fury. The emotion storm was so ferocious she almost expected to see one of them burst into spontaneous flame—or at least turn to charge Mayhew and LaFollet in a berserk suicide attack—but they had themselves too well in hand for that. And perhaps there was another reason beyond self-discipline, for even through their seething rage, she felt a tiny edge of something else. Uncertainty, perhaps. Or curiosity. Something, at any rate, which whispered to them that what was happening might not, in fact, be what they had assumed it must be.

They reached the top of the hill and paused suddenly, stock still as they saw Honor and Nimitz. The two of them looked at one another, and the woman said something too low for Honor to hear, but she felt that spark of curiosity flaring higher, and realized it was the sight of Nimitz which had fanned it. Mayhew said something to her in reply, his tone courteous but insistent, and they shook themselves back into motion and walked straight to her.

She gathered Nimitz up in the crook of her arm and stood, and she felt another, stronger flash of shock and curiosity snap through them as they stepped under the shade of her tree and stopped, staring at her from a distance of three or four meters. Then the woman shook herself and cocked her head to the side.

"Who are you people?" she asked in a soft, wondering tone.

Standard English had been the interstellar language of humanity from the earliest days of the Diaspora. It had become that almost inevitably, for it had been the international language of Old Earth and had been carried to the other bodies of the Sol System long before it left them for the stars. Many worlds and even star nations spoke other languages among their own citizens—German in the Anderman Empire, for example, or Spanish on San Martin, French on New Dijon, Chinese and Japanese on Ki-Rin and Nagasaki, and Hebrew in the Judean League—but every educated human being spoke Standard English. And, for the most part, electronic recordings and the printed word had kept its pronunciation close enough from world to world for it to be a truly universal language. But Honor had to concentrate hard to follow this woman's mushy accent. She'd never heard one quite like it, and she wondered what the other's native tongue was. But she couldn't let it distract her, and so she drew herself up to her full height and nodded to them.

"My name is Harrington," she told them calmly. "Commodore Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy."

"Royal Manticoran Navy?" This time the woman's voice was sharp, and Honor felt a fresh stab of anger—and scorn—as the blonde's eyes dropped to the black StateSec trousers Honor wore. "Sure you are," she said after a moment, gray eyes hard.

"Yes, I am," Honor replied in the same calm tones. "And whatever you may be thinking, clothes don't necessarily make the woman. I'm afraid we've had to make do for uniforms with what we could, ah, liberate, as it were."

The other woman looked at her in hard-eyed silence for several more seconds, and then, suddenly, her eyebrows rose in an expression of shock.

"Wait. You said 'Harrington.' Are you Honor Harrington?" she demanded harshly, and it was Honor's turn to blink in consternation.

"I was the last time I looked," she said cautiously. She looked past the newcomers at Mayhew, one eyebrow quirked, but the Grayson lieutenant only shook his head.

"My God," the woman muttered, then turned back to the man. He returned her stare without comment, then shrugged and raised both hands palm uppermost.

"May I ask how you happen to know my first name?" Honor asked after a moment, and the woman wheeled back around to face her.

"A couple of dozen Manty prisoners got dumped in my last camp just before the Black Legs sent me to Inferno," she said slowly, narrow eyes locked on Honor's face. "They had a lot to say about you—if you're really the Honor Harrington they were talking about. Said you took out a Peep battlecruiser with a heavy cruiser before the war even started, then ripped hell out of a Peep task force at someplace called Hancock. And they said—" her eyes darted to Nimitz "—that you had some strange kind of pet." She stopped and cocked her head aggressively. "That you?"

"Allowing for a little exaggeration in the telling, I'd say yes," Honor replied even more cautiously. It had never occurred to her that anyone on this planet had ever heard of her, and she was unprepared for the fierce, exultant enthusiasm her name seemed to have waked within the stern-faced blonde. "I wasn't in command at Hancock—I was Admiral Sarnow's flag captain—and I had a lot of help dealing with the battlecruiser. And Nimitz isn't my 'pet.' But, yes. I think I'm the one you're talking about."

"Damn," the woman whispered. "Damn! I sure as hell knew he wasn't from any evolutionary line on this planet!" But then her exultation faded, and her face turned cold and bitter. "So the bastards got you, too," she half-snarled.

"Yes, and no," Honor replied. "As you may have noticed, we're a little better equipped than you people seem to be." LaFollet had joined her while she and the other woman were speaking, and she handed him Nimitz and then took the lashed-together spears from him. She weighed them in her hand a moment, then passed them back to her armsman and tapped the butt of her holstered pulser, but she was unprepared for the other woman's reaction.

"Oh my God, you hit one of them, did you?" she demanded in a tone of raw horror.

" 'Hit one of them'?" Honor repeated.

"Hit one of the supply shuttles," the other woman said harshly, and the horror in her face—and emotions—had turned accusing.

"No, we haven't hit one of the supply shuttles," Honor replied.

"Oh, sure," the blonde said. "You found the guns growing wild in the woods!"

"No, we took these from the Peeps," Honor told her calmly. "But we took them before we ever hit atmosphere." Both newcomers were staring at her now, as if at a lunatic, and the living side of her mouth smiled grimly. "Did either of you happen to see a rather large explosion up there about five T-months ago?" she asked, and jerked her thumb at the sky, invisible beyond the tree branches.

"Yeah," the blonde said very slowly, drawing the word out, and her eyes were narrow again. "Matter of fact, we saw quite a few of 'em. Why?"

"Because that was us arriving," Honor said dryly. LaFollet shifted beside her, and she felt his unhappiness. He didn't want her telling these strangers so much about them so quickly, but Honor only touched him on the shoulder. He stilled his fidgeting, and she gave him a brief smile. Unless she decided that she could trust these two—fully—then they would be returning to the hidden shuttles with her and her companions, at gunpoint if necessary. But for now, she had to convince them she was telling the truth, because if she didn't, they would never trust her, which meant she would never be able to trust them.

"You?" the woman asked, brow furrowing in disbelief, and she nodded.

"Us. The Peeps captured us in the Adler System and turned us over to StateSec to ship out here. Their plans included hanging me on arrival, but some of my people had . . . other ideas."

"Ideas?" the blonde parroted, and Honor nodded again.

"Let's just say that one of my chiefs has a way with computers. He got access to the ship's net and took the entire system down, and in the confusion, the rest of my people broke me out of solitary confinement, seized control of a boat bay, stole us some transport, and blew the ship up as they left." She felt a fresh, wrenching stab of loss and grief for the people who had died making that possible, but she let none of it show in her face. Not now. Not until she had convinced these people that she was telling them the truth.

"And just how the hell did they do that?" the other woman asked in obvious skepticism, and Honor smiled crookedly at her.

"They demonstrated what happens when you bring up a pinnace's impeller wedge inside a boat bay," she said very softly. The other woman showed no reaction at all for two or three seconds, and then she flinched as if someone had just punched her in the belly.

"My God!" she whispered. "But that—"

"Killed everyone on board," Honor finished for her grimly. "That's right. We took out the entire ship . . . and no one dirtside knows we got out—and down—alive. With, as I said, somewhat better equipment than you seem to have."

"How do you know?" the man demanded, speaking for the first time. His speech was similar to his companion's, but even more slurred and hard to follow, and he made an impatient gesture when Honor cocked her head at him. "How do you know they don't know?" he amplified in his almost incomprehensible accent, speaking very slowly and with an obvious effort at clarity.

"Let's just say we've been checking their mail," Honor replied.

"But that means—" The woman was staring at her, and then she wheeled back to her companion. "Henri, they've got a pinnace!" she hissed. "Sweet Jesus, they've got a pinnace!"

"But—" Henri began, and then stopped dead. The two of them stared at one another, expressions utterly stunned, and then turned back as one to Honor, and this time suspicion and fear had been replaced by raw, blazing excitement.

"You do, don't you?" the woman demanded. "You've got a pinnace, and— My God, you must have the com equipment to go with it!"

"Something like that," Honor replied, watching her carefully and privately astonished by how quickly the other woman had put things together. Of course, it must be obvious that if they'd gotten down without the Peeps knowing about it they had to at least have a lifeboat, but this woman had gotten past her disbelief and shock to put all the clues together far more rapidly than Honor would have believed was possible. Was that because her odd accent made her sound like some sort of untutored bumpkin from a hick planet whose schools couldn't even teach their people to speak proper Standard English?

"But why are you—?" the blonde began, speaking almost absently, as if to herself. Then she stopped again. "Of course," she said very softly. "Of course. You're looking for manpower, aren't you, Commodore? And you figured Camp Inferno was the best place to recruit it?"

"Something like that," Honor repeated, astonished afresh and trying not to show it. She didn't know how long this woman had been a prisoner, but captivity obviously hadn't done a thing to slow down her mental processes.

"Well I will be dipped in shit," the other woman said almost prayerfully, and then stepped forward so quickly not even LaFollet had time to react. Honor felt her armsman flinch beside her, but the blonde only held out her right hand, and Honor tasted the wild, almost manic delight flaring through her.

"Pleased to meet you, Commodore Harrington. Very pleased to meet you! My name's Benson, Harriet Benson," she said in that slurred accent, "and this—" she nodded her head at her companion "—is Henri Dessouix. Back about two lifetimes ago, I was a captain in the Pegasus System Navy, and Henri here was a lieutenant in the Gaston Marines. I've been stuck on this miserable ball of dirt for something like sixty-five T-years, and I have never been more delighted to make someone's acquaintance in my life!"


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