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Book Four

Chapter Twenty-Two

"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."


"Is the Chief sure, Scotty?" Honor Harrington asked that evening. She and Alistair McKeon sat with Commodore Ramirez and Captain Benson in Ramirez' hut, and the insect equivalents of Hell's ecology buzzed and whined as they battered themselves with typical buggish obstinacy against the vegetable-oil lamps hanging overhead.

"I'm afraid so, Ma'am," Tremaine replied. "The molycircs themselves are gone, and we don't have a replacement crypto component. He and Chief Ascher are trying to cobble something up from the com gear, but there're all kinds of system incompatibilities. Even if they manage to jury-rig a short-term fix, it won't exactly be what I'd call reliable." He shook his head. "Sorry, Ma'am, but it looks like Shuttle Two's IFF beacon is down for good."

"Damn," McKeon muttered. Honor glanced at him, then looked back at Tremaine.

"Have he and Chief Barstow checked Number One's beacon?"

"Yes, Ma'am. It seems to be fine," Tremaine said, very carefully not stressing the verb or adding so far to his reply. Honor heard it anyway, and the living side of her mouth quirked wryly.

"Well, go on back to them, please, and tell them I know they'll do their best for us," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am." Tremaine saluted and turned to leave, and she laughed.

"In the morning will be soon enough, Scotty! Don't go wandering around the woods in the dark—you might get eaten by a bearcat!"

"Drop by my hut, Commander," Harriet Benson put in. After two months of practice, most of Honor's people could follow her slurred speech now without too much difficulty. "Henri and I'll be glad to put you up tonight. Besides, he's been thinking about that last move of yours," she went on when Tremaine glanced at her. "He and Commander Caslet think they've found a way to get out of it after all."

Honor hid a small grimace at Benson's remark. None of the inmates of Inferno ever attached the "Citizen" to the front of Warner Caslet's rank title. None of them were particularly comfortable about having a Peep naval officer in their midst, but they weren't as uncomfortable about it as Honor had feared they would be, either. Apparently there were enough Legislaturalist ex-officers scattered among Hell's political prisoners for the regular POWs to have developed a live-and-let-live attitude. Indeed, Honor suspected that their term for StateSec personnel—"Black Leg"—had evolved as much as a way to differentiate between the real enemy and Peeps who were fellow inmates as from the black trousers of the SS uniform. Not that Inferno's inhabitants intended to take any chances with Caslet. Everyone had been quite polite to him, especially after Honor's people had had a chance to take them aside and explain how this particular Peep came to be on Hell, but they kept an eye on him. And there was a specific reason he'd been assigned to the hut Benson and Dessouix shared.

"So they're ganging up on me now, are they, Ma'am?" Tremaine asked Benson with a grin, unaware of his CO's thoughts. "Well, they're wrong. I bet I know what they've thought up, and it's still mate in six!"

"Try not to hurt their feelings too badly, Scotty," Honor advised. "I understand Lieutenant Dessouix is quite proficient at unarmed combat." Which, of course, was one of the main reasons Caslet roomed with him.

"Ha! If he doesn't want his feelings hurt, he shouldn't have whupped up on me like that in the first two games, Ma'am!" Tremaine retorted with a twinkle, then saluted his superiors and disappeared into the night.

"An entertaining young fellow," Ramirez noted in his deep, rumbling voice, and Nimitz bleeked in amused agreement from his place on the hand-hewn plank table. Benson reached out and rubbed him between the ears, and he pressed back against her touch with a buzzing purr.

"He is that," Honor agreed, watching Benson pet Nimitz.

The 'cat had set about captivating Camp Inferno's inmates with all his customary skill, and he had every one of them wrapped around his thumb by now. Not that he hadn't had more reasons than usual for being his charming self. The seduction process had given him—and Honor—the opportunity to sample the emotions of every human being in the camp. A few of them were hanging on the ragged edge, with a dangerous degree of instability after their endless, hopeless years on Hell, and she had quietly discussed her concerns about those people with Ramirez and Benson, but only one of Inferno's six hundred and twelve inhabitants had been a genuine security risk.

Honor had been dumbfounded to discover that the Peeps really had planted an agent in Inferno, and the other inmates had been even more shocked than she. The man in question had been their resident expert on how to spin and weave the local equivalent of flax to provide the fabric Dessouix and his two assistants used to clothe the inmates. That had made him a vital cog in the camp's small, survival-oriented economy, and almost all of the other prisoners had regarded him as a personal friend, as well. The thought that he was actually a StateSec agent planted to betray their trust had been more than enough to produce a murderous fury in his fellow prisoners.

Only he hadn't actually been an "agent" at all; he was simply an informer. It was a subtle difference, but it had kept Ramirez from ordering (or allowing) his execution when, acting on Honor's suggestion, Benson and Dessouix found the short-range com set hidden in his mattress. Had they failed to find it before the next food drop brought a shuttle into his com range, a single short report from him would have killed them all, and they knew it. But they'd also discovered why he'd become a StateSec agent, and it was hard to fault a man for agreeing to do anything which might save his lover from execution.

So instead of killing him, they'd simply taken away his com set and detailed half a dozen others to keep an eye on him. All things taken together, Honor was just as glad it had worked out that way. Whatever else he might have been, too many of the camp inmates had considered him a friend for too many years, and things were going to be ugly enough without having to begin killing their own.

"—on Basilisk Station?"

She blinked and looked up as she realized McKeon had been speaking to her.

"Sorry, Alistair. I was thinking about something else," she apologized. "What did you say?"

"I asked if you remembered what a puppy Scotty was at Basilisk," McKeon said, then grinned at Ramirez and Benson. "He meant well, but lord was he green!"

"And he was also—what? A couple of hundred thousand richer by the end of the deployment?" Honor shot back with a half-grin of her own.

"At least," McKeon agreed. "He had a real nose for spotting contraband," he explained to the other two. "Made him very popular with his crewmates when the Admiralty started handing out the prize money."

"I imagine it would!" Benson laughed.

"But he's a levelheaded young man, too," Honor said, and her grin faded as she remembered a time that "levelheaded young man" had saved her career.

"I can believe that, too," Benson said. She glanced at Honor as if she'd caught a hint of what had been left unspoken, but she chose not to push for more. Instead, she shook herself, and her expression became much more serious. "How badly is this likely to affect our plans?"

"If nothing happens to Shuttle One's beacon, it won't affect them at all," Honor replied. She held out her hand to Nimitz, and the 'cat rose and limped over to her. She lifted him down into her lap and leaned back, holding him to her chest while her good eye met the gazes of her three senior subordinates. "We were always going to have to task one of the shuttles to deal with the courier boat," she reminded them, "and an IFF beacon won't matter one way or the other for that part of the operation."

"And if something does happen to Shuttle One's beacon?" McKeon asked quietly.

"In that case, we either figure out how to take a supply shuttle intact, or else we abandon Lunch Basket entirely and go for a more direct approach," Honor replied, equally quietly, and the living side of her face was grim.

None of her listeners cared for that, yet none of them disagreed, either. For all its complexity, "Operation Lunch Basket," as Honor had decided to christen her ops plan, offered their best chance of success, and they all knew it. In fact, it was probably their only real chance. Trying any of the fallback plans was far more likely to get them killed than get them off Hell, but no one mentioned that either. After all, getting themselves killed trying was better than staying on Hell.

"In that case," McKeon said after a moment, "I guess we'd better just concentrate on not having anything happen to One's beacon." His tone was so droll Honor chuckled almost despite herself and shook her head at him.

"I'd say that sounds like a reasonable thing to do," she agreed. "Of course, exactly how we do it is an interesting question."

"Shoot, Honor—that's simple!" McKeon told her with a grin. "We just sick Fritz on it. He'll set up one of his famous preventive care programs, prescribe a little exercise, schedule it for regular office visits, and we'll be home free!"

This time Ramirez and Benson joined Honor's laughter. Fritz Montoya had already proved worth his weight in anything anyone would have cared to name to Camp Inferno. Relatively few medical officers got sent to Hell, and of those who had been sent there, none had been further exiled to Inferno. For the most part, the local germs tended to leave the indigestible human interlopers alone, but there were a few indigenous diseases which were as stubbornly persistent in attacking them as shuttlesquitos or bearcats. And, of course, there was always the potential for food poisoning, accidents, or some purely terrestrial bug to wreak havoc. More than one of Hell's camps had been completely depopulated between supply runs, and Montoya had found himself with a backlog of minor complaints and injuries to deal with.

His facilities were nonexistent, and his medical supplies were limited to the emergency supplies aboard the shuttles, but he was very good at his job. Although he'd been reduced almost to the primitive capabilities of a late prespace physician on Old Earth, he'd handled everything that came his way with aplomb. But he'd also almost had a fit over some of Camp Inferno's routine procedures. He'd completely overhauled their garbage disposal practices, for example, and he'd instigated an inflexible schedule of regular checkups. He'd even rooted out the most sedentary of the camp's inhabitants and badgered Benson into reworking the work assignments to see to it that they got sufficient exercise. For the most part, the camp's inhabitants were still at the bemused stage where he was concerned, as if they hadn't quite decided what to make of this alien bundle of energy, but they were far too glad to see him to resent him.

Honor hid a fresh mental grimace at the thought. That was another thing the Peeps couldn't have cared less about. The way StateSec saw it, it was cheaper for them to lose an entire camp of two or three thousand prisoners than to bother to provide proper medical care. If someone got sick or injured, he or she lived or died on his or her own, with only the crude facilities and resources fellow prisoners might be able to cobble up to keep them alive.

I suppose I should be grateful they even bother to lace the inmates' rations with contraceptives, she thought grimly. Not that they do it to be nice. Kids would just be more mouths for them to feed, after all. And God only knows what the infant mortality rate would look like in a place like this without proper medical support!

"I'm sure Fritz would be touched by your faith in his medical prowess," she told McKeon dryly, shaking off her gloomy thoughts. "Unfortunately, I doubt even his superb bedside manner would impress molycircs very much."

"I don't know about that," McKeon argued with a grin. "Every time he starts in on me about exercise and diet, I get instantly healthy in self-defense!"

"But you're easily led and highly suggestible, Alistair," Honor said sweetly, and he laughed.

"You are feeling sleepy, very sleepy," she intoned sonorously, wiggling the fingers of her hand in front of his eyes. "Your eyelids are growing heavier and heavier."

"They are not," he replied—then blinked suddenly and stretched in a prodigious yawn. Honor laughed delightedly, echoed by Nimitz's bleek of amusement, and McKeon gave both of them an injured look as he finished stretching.

"I, Dame Honor, am neither suggestible nor easily led," he told her severely. "Claims to that effect are base lies, I'll have you and your friend know! However—" he yawned again "—I've been up all day and so, purely coincidentally, I do find myself just a bit sleepy at the moment. The which being so, I think I should take myself off to bed. I'll see you all in the morning."

"Good night, Alistair," she said, and smiled as he sketched a salute and disappeared into the night with a chuckle.

"You two are really close, aren't you?" Benson observed quietly after McKeon had vanished. Honor raised an eyebrow at her, and the blond captain shrugged. "Not like me and Henri, I know. But the way you look out for each other—"

"We go back a long way," Honor replied with another of her half-smiles, and bent to rest her chin companionably on the top of Nimitz's head. "I guess it's sort of a habit to watch out for each other by now, but Alistair seems to get stuck with more of that than I do, bless him."

"I know. Henri and I made the hike back to your shuttles with you, remember?" Benson said dryly. "I was impressed by the comprehensiveness of his vocabulary. I don't think he repeated himself more than twice."

"He probably wouldn't have been so mad if I hadn't snuck off without mentioning it to him," Honor said, and her right cheek dimpled while her good eye gleamed in memory. "Of course, he wouldn't have let me leave him behind if I had mentioned it to him, either. Sometimes I think he just doesn't understand the chain of command at all!"

"Ha!" Ramirez' laugh rumbled around the hut like rolling thunder. "From what I've seen of you so far, that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Dame Honor!"

"Nonsense. I always respect the chain of command!" Honor protested with a chuckle.

"Indeed?" It was Benson's turn to shake her head. "I've heard about your antics at—Hancock Station, was it called?" She laughed out loud at Honor's startled expression. "Your people are proud of you, Honor. They like to talk, and to be honest, Henri and I encouraged them to. We needed to get a feel for you, if we were going to trust you with our lives." She shrugged. "It didn't take us long to make our minds up once they started opening up with us."

Honor felt her face heat and looked down at Nimitz, rolling him gently over on his back to stroke his belly fur. She concentrated on that with great intensity for the next several seconds, then looked back up once her blush had cooled.

"You don't want to believe everything you hear," she said with commendable composure. "Sometimes people exaggerate a bit."

"No doubt," Ramirez agreed, tacitly letting her off the hook, and she gave him a grateful half-smile.

"In the meantime, though," Benson said, accepting the change of subject, "the loss of the shuttle beacon does make me more anxious about Lunch Basket."

"Me, too," Honor admitted. "It cuts our operational safety margin in half, and we still don't know when we'll finally get a chance to try it." She grimaced. "They really aren't cooperating very well, are they?"

"I'm sure it's only because they don't know what we're planning," Ramirez told her wryly. "They're much too courteous to be this difficult if they had any idea how inconvenient for us it is."

"Right. Sure!" Honor snorted, and all three of them chuckled. Yet there was an undeniable edge of worry behind the humor, and she leaned back in her chair, stroking Nimitz rhythmically, while she thought.

The key to her plan was the combination of the food supply runs from Styx and the Peeps' lousy communications security. Her analysts had been right about the schedule on which the Peeps operated; they made a whole clutch of supply runs in a relatively short period—usually about three days—once per month. Given Camp Inferno's "punishment" status, it was usually one of the last camps to be visited, which was another factor in Honor's plan.

Between runs, the Black Legs stayed put on Styx, amusing themselves and leaving the prisoner population to its own devices, and despite the guard force's obvious laziness, she reflected, it really was an effective prison system. No doubt the absolute cost of the operation was impressive, but on a per-prisoner basis, it must be ludicrously low. All the Peeps did when they needed another camp was to pick a spot and dump the appropriate number of inmates on it, along with some unpowered hand tools and a minimal amount of building material. Their total investment was a couple of dozen each of axes, hammers, hand saws, picks, and shovels, enough wire to put up a perimeter against the local predators, a few kilos of nails, and—if they were feeling particularly generous—some extruded plastic panels with which to roof the inmates' huts. If a few hut-builders got munched on by the neighborhood's wildlife before they got their camp built, well, that was no skin off the Peeps' noses. There were always plenty more prisoners where they'd come from.

StateSec didn't even carry the expense of shipping in and issuing the sort of preserved emergency rations she and her people had been living on. They grew fresh food on Styx, which, unlike any of the rest of Hell, had been thoroughly terraformed when the original prison was built. To be more precise, their automated farming equipment and a handful of "trustees" did all the grunt work to raise the crops, and the Peeps simply distributed it.

She'd been surprised by that at first, but on second thought it had made a lot of sense. Fresh food was much bulkier, which made for more work on the distribution end of the system, but it didn't keep indefinitely the way e-rats did. That meant it would have been much harder for one of the camps to put itself on short rations and gradually build up a stash of provisions that might let its inmates get into some sort of mischief the garrison would not have approved of. And it made logistical sense, too. By growing their own food here on Hell, the Peeps could drastically reduce the number of supply runs they had to make to the planet. In fact, it looked like they only made one major supply delivery or so a year, now.

But there was more traffic to and from the Cerberus System, albeit on an extremely erratic schedule, than she'd assumed would be the case. For one thing, runs to deliver new prisoners had gone up dramatically after the Committee of Public Safety took over. One of the old Office of Internal Security's failings had been that it hadn't been repressive enough. A regime which relied on the iron fist to stay in power was asking for trouble if it relaxed its grip by even a millimeter, and the Legislaturalist leadership had made the mistake of clamping down hard enough to enrage its enemies, but not hard enough to eliminate them outright or terrify them into impotence. Worse, they'd ordered occasional amnesties under which political prisoners were released to placate the Mob, which put people who'd experienced InSec's brutality from the inside back outside to tell their tales of mistreatment—a heaven-sent propaganda opportunity for the agitators of the Citizens Rights Union and other dissident groups. Worse, perhaps, it had suggested a sense of weakness on InSec's part, for why would they have attempted to placate their enemies if they'd felt they were in a position of strength?

The Committee of Public Safety, having been the recipient of such assistance from its predecessors, had decided that it would err by going to the opposite extreme. Its determination not to extend the same encouragement to its own enemies went a long way towards explaining the brutal thoroughness which had made Oscar Saint-Just's security forces so widely and virulently hated.

It also explained why the Peeps were dumping even more prisoners on Hell these days. It served them simultaneously as a place to put potential troublemakers safely out of the way and a not-so-veiled threat to keep other troublemakers in line back home. And it was also much thriftier than simply shooting everyone who got out of line. Not that they were shy about summary executions, but the problem with shooting people was that executions were fairly permanent . . . and deprived the state of any potential usefulness the troublemakers might have offered down the road. If you just stuck them on Hell and left them there, you could always retrieve them later if it turned out you needed them for something worthwhile.

In point of fact, StateSec seemed to regard Hell, and especially its political prisoners, as a sort of piggy bank for conscripted labor forces. Even the most modern of industrial bases (which the PRH's was not) had its share of jobs which ranged from the unpleasant to the acutely dangerous. More than that, StateSec had its own highly secret projects, which it preferred to keep as quiet as possible, and there were people among Hell's politicals who had skills those projects sometimes needed badly. For that matter, before the war with the Star Kingdom broke out, StateSec's predecessors in the Office of Internal Security had used Hell as a source of "colonists" (or at least construction crews) for some less than idyllic worlds where the People's Navy needed basing facilities and then returned the workers to Hell when the job was done.

All of which meant that StateSec-crewed personnel transports arrived at Hell, invariably with a warship escort these days, at highly unpredictable but fairly frequent intervals. More rarely, one of StateSec's warships which found itself in the area or passing nearby on its own business might drop by for fresh food, to pick up reactor mass from the huge tank farm StateSec maintained in orbit around Hell, or for a little planetside R&R.

One might not normally think of a "prison planet" as a place where people would want to take liberty, but Camp Charon was actually quite luxurious (InSec had chosen to pamper the personnel who found themselves stuck out here, and StateSec had seen no reason to change that policy), and Styx's climate would have stood comparison with that of any resort world. Which made sense, Honor supposed. It was only reasonable to put your permanent base in the most pleasant spot you could find, and with an entire planet to choose from, you ought to be able to find at least a few spots that were very pleasant indeed.

Besides, she thought grimly, this is StateSec's planet. They own it, lock, stock, and barrel, and they feel safe here. I don't think ONI's ever realized just how important that is to them. It may be off the beaten track, and months may go by with no one at all dropping by, but they always know Hell is out here, like some sort of refuge. Or like some nasty little adolescent gang's "clubhouse."

She snorted at the thought and brushed it aside. It probably had all kinds of psychological significance, but at the moment it was definitely secondary to the problem they faced.

And solving the problem they faced required certain preconditions. Like a Peep supply run to Inferno which happened to arrive when no other supply shuttle had a direct line of transmission to the camp. And which wasn't on the com when it arrived but had been on the com at some point prior to its arrival.

So far, they'd been through three complete supply cycles without meeting the conditions they needed, and Honor was honest enough to admit that the strain of waiting was getting to her. At least the rations the Peeps were delivering were sufficient to feed all her people as well as Inferno's "legal" population. The garrison wasn't very careful about counting noses except for the twice-a-T-year prison census, and a dozen or so of Inferno's inmates had died of natural causes since the last headcount, so there was ample food to go around.

Actually, the Peeps were fairly generous in their food allocations . . . when they weren't cutting rations in punishment, at least. Probably because it didn't cost them anything to feed their prisoners a diet which would actually keep them healthy. Honor was almost back up to her proper weight now, and her hair had changed from a short fuzz to a curly, close-growing cap. There was nothing Fritz Montoya could do about her missing arm, blind eye, or dead nerves, and she'd found that the lost arm, in particular, made it very difficult for her to pursue her normal exercise regime. But Montoya was insufferably pleased with the results of the rest of his ministrations, and she had to admit he had cause to be.

She gave herself a mental shake as she recognized the signs. Her thoughts were beginning to wander again, which meant Alistair wasn't the only person who'd stayed up too late.

She stood, holding Nimitz in the crook of her arm, and smiled at the other two.

"Well, whatever happens, we can't do a thing until the next food run. In the meantime, I think I need some sleep. I'll see you both at breakfast."

"Of course," Ramirez replied. He and Benson both rose, and Honor nodded to them.

"Good night, then," she said and stepped out the door into the bug-whining night.


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