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Chapter Twenty-Three

"Commodore Harrington! Commodore Harrington!"

Honor looked up and turned quickly. Her missing arm left her unable to help very much with most of the tasks required to keep Camp Inferno's small community alive, but she'd discovered that she had a much better eye for color than she'd ever realized. It wasn't, after all, a subject she'd had a great deal of time to explore prior to her trip to Hell. But since her arrival at Inferno, she'd begun helping Henri Dessouix and his assistants experiment with the dyes they used on their handmade clothing. As Ramirez' exec, Harriet Benson was in charge of managing the camp's manpower pool, and she had detailed Lieutenant Stephenson, late of the Lowell Space Navy, as Honor's assistant. Stephenson had no color judgment at all, but he did have two sound and brawny arms to man the mortar and pestle in which Dessouix crushed roots, berries, leaves, and anything else he could find to provide dyes. He also had a cheerful disposition, and he and Honor had been experimenting with new dye combinations for almost three months now. They were close to producing a green which was almost identical to the dark jade Honor had chosen for the tunics of her Grayson armsmen, but she forgot about that in an instant as she saw the expression on Ramirez' messenger's face . . . and felt the other woman's jagged emotions.

"Yes?" she said sharply, and heard Andrew LaFollet's feet thump on the ground as he slithered down out of the tree from which he had been keeping watch over his Steadholder.

"Commodore Ramirez . . . says to come quick, Ma'am!" the messenger gasped, panting hard after her dead run through the afternoon's searing heat. "He says . . . he says Grandma is inbound!"

Honor's head snapped around, her good eye meeting LaFollet's, and felt the sudden explosive excitement ripping through her armsman. He looked back at her for a second, then unhooked the small com unit from his belt and held it out to her without a word.

She took it and drew a deep breath, then punched the transmit button. It was one of StateSec's own security coms, and they'd chosen a frequency as far as possible from those the SS here on Hell routinely used and set it up for burst transmission. But they hadn't encrypted it, on the theory that if anyone else happened to pick it up anyway, it would be better for Camp Charon to hear a random scrap of chatter which might not make any sense but had to have come from one of their people rather than start wondering why someone was encrypting his traffic.

Not that she intended for the transmission to be long.

"Wolf," she said calmly into the com. "I say again, Wolf."

There was an instant of silence, and then the startled voice of Sarah DuChene came back to her.

"Copy Wolf," DuChene said. "Repeat, copy Wolf."

Honor's fierce half-grin was more of a snarl, baring the teeth on the right side of her mouth, and she tossed the com back to LaFollet, then scooped Nimitz up into his carrier, wheeled, and ran for the main camp as hard as she could.


Citizen Lieutenant Allen Jardine yawned mightily as he swept around in a shallow turn and lined up on the ceramacrete shuttle pad. It was the only break in the sword grass—aside from the POWs' crude village, of course—which made it easily visible even from four or five thousand meters. From Jardine's present low altitude, it showed up still more clearly, and he looked over his shoulder as he dumped forward velocity.

"Coming up on Inferno," he called to his bored three-man crew. "Up top again, Gearing."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Citizen Corporal Gearing grumbled. He climbed back into the stirrups of the dorsal turret and twisted the joystick to test the heavy tribarrel. The turret whined as it rotated smoothly, and Gearing's put upon voice sounded in Jardine's earbug. "Turret check. Powered up. Gun hot."

"Confirm turret check," Jardine replied crisply. Despite his own almost unendurable boredom, the citizen lieutenant insisted on following SOP to the letter. That made him unique among the grocery flight pilots (and extremely unpopular with his flight crews), but he'd only been on Hades for about nine T-months, and he was determined to avoid the kind of casual torpor which seemed to infect so many of his fellows. It was also, he suspected, the reason Citizen Brigadier Tresca tended to choose him so often for the run to Inferno. If anyone was likely to make trouble, it was undoubtedly the stiff-necked intransigents here.

Not that even the Inferno inmates would actually be stupid enough to try anything, Jardine reminded himself. All they'd buy if they did was slow starvation, and they knew it. So the other shuttle jocks were probably right when they urged him to ease up on his flight crews. He knew that. It just went against the grain with him to do anything any more sloppily than he had to, and he grinned wryly at his own bloody-mindedness as he flared out, extended his gear, and settled towards the pad.


"Stand by," Honor murmured softly. She sat cross-legged under the cammo net they'd rigged on the hill from which she had first observed Camp Inferno. Her position was a good omen, she reflected . . . and so was the fact that, as closely as she could calculate, the Peeps had captured Prince Adrian almost exactly a year ago.

We owe ourselves a little anniversary present, she told herself, and the right side of her mouth twisted in a hungry smile.

Behind her, the satellite com gear they'd lugged from the shuttles and hidden with painstaking care atop the hill was plugged into the Peeps' com net, listening for any scrap of traffic between it and the cargo shuttle settling towards the pad outside the camp. Unlike most of the supply shuttles, this one's pilot had checked in after each landing on his schedule to report his safe arrival, which had given her people plenty of time to steal its IFF settings. That was a sort of adherence to proper operating principles which very few of the Peep pilots ever displayed, and it was almost a pity, she thought regretfully. People who bothered to do their jobs deserved better than for their very attendance to duty to bring destruction down on them.

She raised the binoculars again, listening to the earbug tied into the StateSec net and feeling Alistair McKeon's taut readiness beside her. Nimitz stood upright in the carrier, now slung across her back, pressing his triangular jaw into the top of her shoulder as he stared down at the shuttle pad with her, and the bright flame of his predator anticipation burned at the heart of her own like a fire.


The shuttle settled with neat precision in the center of the pad, and Jardine allowed himself a small smile of self-congratulation. A trash hauler was hardly a sexy mount, but it was nice to demonstrate that he still had the precision of control which had gotten him promoted to Camp Charon.

Yeah, and if I'd known how exciting it was going to be, you can bet I'd have blown off the chance to get my ass sent here, too, prestige posting or not! he thought with a silent chuckle, and keyed his com.

"Base, this is Jardine," he reported. "On the ground at Inferno."

"Check, Jardine," Base Ops replied in a voice tinged with ineffable boredom. The woman on the other end of the com didn't quite invite the citizen lieutenant to go away and quit bothering her in so many words, but her tone got the message across quite handily.

And that's exactly why I enjoy reporting in so much, Jardine thought with a nasty smile. Citizen Major Steiner wasn't as bad as a lot of the other base personnel, and she was actually fairly competent. But she was just as set in her ways as anyone else, and she'd leaned harder on Jardine than most about easing up on The Book. She hadn't been confrontational about it, but she'd made her point with a fair degree of emphasis, and she was too senior for him to fire back at her the way he'd wanted to.

But, of course, she can't officially complain if all I do is follow Regs, now can she? And if that just happens to rub it in with a little salt. . . .

He chuckled and looked over his shoulder at his crew.


"He's transmitted," Honor said quietly, good eye aching as she stared through her binoculars.

Come on, Jardine, she thought silently, almost prayerfully, at the pilot. Be sloppy just this once. Break SOP just a little bit, please. I don't want to kill you if I don't have to.


"All right, Rodgers. Over to you and Fierenzi."

"Gee, thanks a whole hell of a lot," Citizen Sergeant Rodgers muttered just loud enough for Jardine to hear but not quite loud enough he couldn't pretend he'd thought he was talking only to himself if the citizen lieutenant jerked him up short over it. Not that Rodgers really cared a whole hell of a lot. He was an old Hades hand, and he'd seen a handful of other hotshots like Jardine come and go. The citizen lieutenant's by-the-book, pain-in-the-ass mania for details had lasted longer than most, but sooner or later Hades took the starch out of even the most regulation personality. Still, it would be nice if Jardine would go ahead and get it the hell out of his system and be done with it.

But he wouldn't—or not yet, anyway—and that meant he'd be staying at the controls with the turbines spooling over and Gearing would be staying on the dorsal gun, just in case. And that meant it was going to be completely up to Rodgers and Citizen Corporal Fierenzi to unload all the stinking food for the useless bastards here in Inferno.

Of course, there are some pluses, Rodgers reminded himself as he hit the button and the big rear cargo hatch whined open. I may be stuck humping this stuff out, but it'll give me a fresh chance to look over the local talent. If that cute little brunette's still out here, maybe I'll just cut her out of the herd and take her back to Styx with me.

And maybe he wouldn't, too, he thought. None of the prison bait in Inferno had been sent here for good behavior, after all. Cute as that sweet little number looked, ordering her into his bed might not be the very smartest thing he could possibly do.

He chuckled at the thought and stepped out into the brilliant sunlight with Fierenzi on his heels.

That's funny, he thought. They had to hear us coming, so why the hell aren't any of 'em already out here to unload their damned food?


"They're following the rules," Honor said, and McKeon heard the sadness in her voice. "Just two of them, and they're already starting to look around," she went on. "I'm afraid we don't have any choice, Alistair." She paused for a heartbeat, then sighed.

"Do it," she said softly.


Commodore Alistair McKeon pressed a button, and a strand of old-fashioned fiberoptic cable flashed the signal to the detonators on five hundred kilos of the very best chemical explosives State Security had once owned. Those five hundred kilos were buried directly under the center of the shuttle pad—beneath, in fact, the exact point on which Citizen Lieutenant Jardine's precise piloting had deposited his shuttle.


The thunderous explosion smashed at Honor's face and eardrums even at a full kilometer's range, and the local equivalent of birds erupted from the trees in a shrill, yodeling chorus of protest as the dreadful sound reverberated. The shuttle vanished in a flaming fountain of dirt and debris, taking its entire crew with it, and Honor felt a stab of terrible guilt. She hadn't had a choice . . . but that made her feel no less like an assassin.

"Cub, this is Wolf. Go," she said into her com, and her calm voice showed no hint of her sense of regret.


"All right, Chief. Let's roll!" Scotty Tremaine snapped.

"Aye, Sir. Everything looks good back here," Horace Harkness replied crisply, and Tremaine glanced out the side window of his cockpit. Geraldine Metcalf and Sarah DuChene had Shuttle Two, with Master Chief Ascher as their flight engineer, but there'd never been any doubt in Tremaine's mind who would draw Shuttle One for Operation Lunch Basket. Now he watched as Solomon Marchant and Anson Lethridge shouted orders to the "ground crew." Muscles strained as the carefully prepared cammo nettings were yanked off, and then the ground crews were streaming aboard Shuttle One.

"Nets clear, Sir," Harkness reported. "Hatches sealing now. Ready when you are."

"Understood," Tremaine said, and the turbines whined as he lifted off.

"IFF code entered, Sir," Senior Chief Barstow's voice came from the tac section. "As far as they know, we're one of theirs now," she added.

"Well that's fair enough, Chief," Lieutenant Sanko said with the sort of cheerfulness that tries to hide gnawing tension. "After all, we are one of theirs. We're just under new management."


Honor, McKeon, LaFollet, and Carson Clinkscales jogged down from the hilltop as the big assault shuttle swooped low over their heads and settled in the sword grass just outside the camp's perimeter fence. Ramirez and Benson had already marshaled the assault force, and the first of them were moving towards the shuttle even before Harkness opened the hatches and deployed the boarding ramps. The shuttle's landing gear was tall enough to keep its turbines' intakes clear of the sword grass, and Honor felt the sense of awe rising from many of the prisoners as they actually saw it for the first time. It was one thing to be told that the craft existed; it was another to see it in the flesh and know the moment had arrived.

Marchant and Lethridge were organizing the flow up the ramps by the time she and her companions arrived. The shuttle was big enough to drop one of StateSec's outsized companies—two hundred and fifty troopers strong—in a single flight, and it had been one of Tepes' ready shuttles, with fully stocked small arms racks and a complete load of external ordnance. There was only enough unpowered body armor for a hundred and thirty people, but the small arms racks had been intended to provide every member of the company with side arms as well as pulse rifles, plasma rifles, or tribarrels. Transferring any of that hardware to Inferno and running even the tiniest risk of it being spotted by the Peeps before they got a chance to launch Lunch Basket had been out of the question, but Senior Chief O'Jorgenson and Senior Chief Harris stood at the heads of the ramps, handing out armor and weapons to the incoming stream of inmates. By cramming them in with standing room only, Honor could fit three hundred of Camp Inferno's people onboard, and every one of them would have something to shoot with at the other end.

LaFollet broke into the line, clearing a path for Honor and McKeon. One or two people looked irritated at the intrusion . . . but only until they recognized who they were standing aside for. Then they were pushing back against their neighbors, opening the path still wider, and Honor felt a handful of hardier souls reaching out to pat her on the back or simply touch her—as if for luck—as she walked past them. Nimitz shifted in the carrier on her back, true-hands' claws kneading ever so gently at the top of her shoulder as they worked in and out, and the blaze of excitement, fear, anticipation, and dread flowed into him from the humans around them. And over and above all the other emotions there was the eagerness, the flaming need to strike back at least once, however it turned out in the end.

She reached the main troop compartment and picked her way around people strapping into clamshell breast-and-back plates and activating test circuits on their helmet coms and HUDs. She already wore a holstered pulser, but she made no move to collect any additional weapons. A one-armed woman and a crippled treecat had no business in the kind of fight this was likely to be . . . and Andrew LaFollet would have knocked her out and sat on her if she'd even tried to participate in it.

She grinned at the thought despite her tension—or perhaps because of it—and glanced over her shoulder. LaFollet had snagged armor and a helmet of his own and stopped in the tac section to climb into it while she pushed on into the cockpit and settled into the copilot's couch. She actually had no business here, either, since the loss of her arm would hardly make her the ideal pilot to take over if something happened to Tremaine. On the other hand, if anything happens to Scotty, it'll probably be . . . extreme enough that it won't matter how many arms I have, she reflected, and grinned as the lieutenant commander looked up at her.

"So far, so good, Ma'am," he reported. "Shuttle Two is light on the skids when we need her."

"Good, Scotty. Good. Give me a hand?" She unhooked the chest strap for Nimitz's carrier and turned sideways for Tremaine to help her shift it around in front of her. Then she strapped in—awkwardly with one hand, and careful to keep from crushing the 'cat—and adjusted the powered flight couch to the proper angle.

Someone loomed in the hatch between the cockpit and the tac section, and she turned her head to peer over her shoulder.

"Only me," Alistair McKeon told her. "Jesus and Harriet say another fifteen minutes to get everyone on board."

"Um." Honor checked her chrono. The good news about the late Citizen Lieutenant Jardine's attention to The Book was that no one in Camp Charon was going to expect "his" shuttle to do anything at all untoward upon its arrival. The bad news was that he had told Base Ops exactly when he landed, and given that Camp Charon knew how long it should take him to unload his counter-grav pallets of food, that meant they also knew how soon he ought to be lifting off again. And they should be lifting off right now.

"Tell them to expedite, Alistair," she said calmly, and he nodded and withdrew from the cockpit. Honor returned her attention to the panel in front of her, and the living side of her mouth curled up in a hexapuma's snarl as she keyed the weapons station alive. That was something she could do with one arm . . . and she was looking forward to it.

"Checking external ordnance circuits," she told Tremaine calmly, and her good eye gleamed.

Payback time, she thought.


"Come on, come on! Move—move!" Captain Harriet Benson chanted, reaching out and physically pushing people up the ramp. It was taking longer than they'd expected. Should have figured it would, she thought almost absently. We thought we'd allowed plenty of time, but Murphy always knows better. Yet the thought barely touched the surface of her mind. It was an aside, an inconsequential. What mattered was that they were actually doing it. That after the better part of seventy years on Hell, she was about to have her chance at kicking the Black Legs' asses. Personally, she gave Commodore Harrington's plan to actually get anyone off Hell no more than a thirty percent chance of success, but that hardly mattered Whether they managed to escape the prison or not, they were going to make one hell of a hole in the StateSec garrison, and that was good enough for Harriet Benson.

"That's the last, ma petite!" Henri told her as he jogged up the ramp.

"Then get aboard, baudet!" she told him, and he gave a wild laugh, paused just long enough to drag her head down for a burning kiss, and ran past her. She looked up to see Jesus Ramirez laughing and shook a fist at him, and then the two of them followed Dessouix up the ramp and the hatch hissed closed behind them.


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