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Book Two

Chapter Eight


The sneeze snapped her head back so violently stars seemed to spangle her vision. Her eyes watered, her sinuses stung, and Commodore Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Countess Harrington, hastily dropped the metal comb and rubbed her nose in a frantic effort to abort the next onrushing eruption.

It failed. A fresh explosion rolled around inside her head, trying to escape through her ears, and a cloud of impossibly fine down went dancing and swirling away from her. She waved her hand in front of her face, trying to disperse the cloud like a woman brushing at gnats . . . and with about the same effectiveness. The delicate, fluffy hairs only stuck to the perspiration on her hand, and she sneezed yet again.

The treecat in her lap looked up at her, but without the laughing deviltry his eyes would have held under other circumstances. Instead, it seemed to take all the energy he had just to turn his head, for poor Nimitz was stretched out as flat as his crookedly healed ribs and crippled right mid-limb and pelvis would permit while he panted miserably. Even his tail was flattened out to twice its normal width. Sphinx's winters were both long and cold, requiring thick, efficient insulation of its creatures, and treecats' fluffy coats were incredibly warm and soft. They were also silky smooth and almost frictionless . . . which could be a considerable disadvantage when it came to providing an arboreal's prehensile tail with traction. Having one's grip slip while hanging head-down from one's tail a hundred meters or so in the air was, after all, a less than ideal way to descend a tree.

The 'cats had met the challenge by evolving a tail which was both wider than most people ever realized and completely bare on its underside. Powerful muscles normally kept it tightly curled into a lengthwise tube which showed only its bushy outer surface and hid the leathery skin which gripped even wet or icy branches and limbs without a hint of slippage. It was a neat arrangement which provided maximum heat retention during the icy winter months without depriving a 'cat of the use of his tail.

But that was on Sphinx, and Sphinx was a cool planet, even in summer. The planet Hades (more commonly referred to, by those souls unfortunate enough to have been sent to it, as "Hell") was not. It orbited Cerberus-B, its G3 primary, at a scant seven light-minutes, with an axial tilt of only five degrees, and it had not been designed for treecats. The triple-canopy jungle (although, to be entirely accurate, the local jungle might better be described as quadruple-canopy) provided a dark, green-tinted shade which looked deceptively cool, but the current temperature here near Hell's equator was actually well over forty degrees centigrade (close to a hundred and five on the old Fahrenheit scale), with a relative humidity closing in on a hundred percent. It rained—frequently—but none of the rain ever made it straight through that dense, leafy roof. Instead, a constant mist of tiny droplets drizzled to the squelchy ground as the water filtered through the overhead cover. That kind of heat and humidity were enough to make Honor thoroughly miserable, but they had the potential to become actively life-threatening for Nimitz.

Treecats did not put on and shed winter coats on a regular calendar cycle. Instead, the thickness of their triple-layer coats was determined by their environment's current ambient temperature. It was a system which worked well on Sphinx, where a winter which hung on only a little late (relatively speaking) could easily last three or four full extra T-months and where seasonal weather changes were agreeably gradual. But the sudden transition from the moderate temperatures maintained aboard most human-crewed starships to the steam bath of Hell had been far from gradual, and the shock to Nimitz's system had been severe. He had been gradually shedding the innermost, winter-only coat he'd grown during their last stay on Sphinx even before their capture by the Peeps, but the transition to Hell had activated his shedding reflex with a vengeance. He was shedding not simply his winter coat, but also the middle coat of down which the 'cats normally maintained year round (though it grew thinner in warmer weather) with frantic haste, and Honor and her human companions spent their time enveloped in a thin, drifting haze of 'cat fur.

Perhaps fortunately for his continued survival, the two-legged people around him knew he was even more miserable than his shedding was making them. They also recognized the importance of getting his coat thinned down, and that his poorly-healed injuries made it much more difficult than usual for him to groom himself. Despite the billows of fine down which the procedure inevitably entailed, he could always find a volunteer to comb or brush his coat. Under other circumstances, he would have luxuriated shamelessly in all the attention; under these, he was as devoutly eager for the entire process to be completed as anyone could have wished.

Now he blinked up at his person with a soft, almost apologetic "bleek," and Honor stopped rubbing her nose to caress his ears, instead.

"I know, Stinker," she told him, bending over to brush her right cheek against his head. "It's not your fault."

She sat otherwise motionless for several more moments. The warning tingle in her nose refused to—quite—flash over into still another sneeze, yet she knew there was at least one more lurking in there somewhere, and she was determined to wait it out. While she did, she looked up into the branches of the tall, vaguely palm-like almost-tree beside her. The trunk was a good meter across at the base, and she could just pick out Andrew LaFollet amid the foliage thirty meters above her head. Her Grayson armsman had a hand com, a canteen, electronic binoculars, a pulser, a heavy pulse rifle with attached grenade launcher, and—for all she knew—a miniature thermonuclear device up there, and she smiled fondly.

I don't care if he does have a nuke, she told herself firmly. If it makes him happy, then I'm happy, and at least "ordering" him to take the lookout slot keeps him from sitting around all day watching my back. This way he can watch all our backs . . . and we're—I'm—darned lucky to have him. Besi—

Her thoughts broke off as the anticipated sneeze took advantage of her distraction to rip through her sinuses. For an instant, she thought the top had actually blown off her head, but then it was over. She waited an instant more, then sniffed heavily and leaned to the side, reaching clumsily for the dropped comb. Picking it up without letting Nimitz slide off her lap was an awkward business, for she no longer had a left arm to hold him in place while she did it. He dug the very tips of his claws into her ill-fitting trousers—carefully; the pants had come from the emergency stores of a Peep assault shuttle, and they were not only thinner than the ones she usually wore but effectively irreplaceable—until she managed to snag the comb in the fingers of her remaining hand and straightened with a sigh of relief.

"Got it!" she told him triumphantly, and a fresh wave of fluff rose as she began combing once more. He closed his eyes, and despite his overheated exhaustion and general misery, began to purr. Their empathic link carried her his gratitude for her ministrations—and for the fact that both of them had survived for her to offer them and him to accept them—and the right side of her mouth curled up in an echoing smile, edged with sadness for the men and women who had died helping them escape State Security's custody. He interrupted his buzzing purr long enough to open one eye and look up at her, as if a part of him wanted to scold her for her sorrow, but then he thought better of it and laid his chin back down as he began to buzz once more.

"Is he ever going to run out of hair?" a voice asked in tones of wry resignation. She turned to look for the speaker, but he was on her left side (the upwind one), and the Peeps had burned out the circuitry for the cybernetic eye on that side while she was in custody. She began to turn her entire body, but the newcomer went on quickly. "Oh, sit still, Skipper! It's my fault for forgetting the eye."

Feet swished through the low-growing, perpetually wet fern-like growth that covered every open space, and Honor's half-smile grew stronger as Alistair McKeon and Warner Caslet circled around in front of her. Like most of the other members of their small party, both of them had chopped their liberated Peep-issue pants into raggedly cut off shorts and wore only sweat-stained tee-shirts above the waist. Well, that and the ninety-centimeter bush knife each of them had slung over his left shoulder. McKeon also carried a heavy, military issue pulser (also Peep issue) holstered at his right hip, and a pair of badly worn boots—the last surviving element of his Manticoran uniform—completed his ensemble.

"What the stylish castaways are wearing this year, I see," Honor observed, and McKeon grinned as he glanced down at himself. Anything less like a commodore in the Royal Manticoran Navy would be impossible to imagine, he thought dryly . . . except, perhaps, for the woman before him.

"Maybe not stylish, but as close to comfortable as anyone's going to find on this damned planet," Caslet replied wryly. He was a native of Danville, in the Paroa System of the PRH, and his Standard English carried a sharp but oddly pleasant accent.

"Now let's not be unfair," Honor chided. "We're right in the middle of the equatorial zone here, and I understand from Chief Harkness that the higher temperate zones can be quite pleasant."

"Sure they can." McKeon snorted, and flipped a spatter of sweat off his forehead. "I understand the temperature gets all the way down to thirty-five degrees—at night at least—up in the high arctic."

"A gross exaggeration," Honor said. She spoke as primly as the dead nerves in the left side of her face allowed, and a twinkle danced in her remaining eye, but McKeon felt his own smile become just the slightest bit forced and fought an urge to glance accusingly at Caslet. Her captors had burned out her artificial facial nerves at the same time they wrecked her eye, and the slurring imposed by the crippled side of her mouth always got worse when she forgot to speak slowly and concentrate on what she was saying. He felt a fresh, lava-like boil of anger as he heard it, and he reminded himself—again—that Warner Caslet hadn't had a thing to do with it. That, in fact, the Peep naval officer had been headed for something at least as bad as Hell himself because of his efforts to help McKeon and all the other Allied prisoners aboard PNS Tepes.

That was all true, and McKeon knew it, but he wanted so badly to have someone—anyone—to take his hate out on whenever he thought about what the State Security goons had done to Honor. Ostensibly, deactivating all cybernetic implants of any prisoner had been billed as a "security measure," just as shaving her head had been solely for "sanitary purposes." But despite Honor's refusal to go into details, he knew damned well that neither "security" nor "sanitation" had had a thing to do with either. They'd been done out of sick, premeditated cruelty, pure and simple, and whenever he thought about it he felt almost sorry that the people responsible were already dead.

"All right, thirty degrees," he said, trying to sound as light as she did. "But only in the fall and winter."

"You're hopeless, Alistair." Honor shook her head with another of those crooked half-smiles. McKeon was too self-disciplined to let his emotions show, but she and Nimitz had felt his sudden spike of fury, and she knew exactly what had caused it. But talking about it wouldn't change anything, and so she only looked at Caslet.

"And how has your day been, Warner?"

"Hot and humid," Caslet replied with a smile. He glanced at McKeon, then held out a hand. "Let me have your canteen, Alistair. Dame Honor obviously wants to talk to you, so I'll take myself off and refill yours and mine both before we head back out."

"Thanks, that's probably a good idea," McKeon said, and unhooked the canteen from the left side of his belt, where it had counterbalanced the pulser. He tossed it underhand to Caslet, who caught it, sketched a jaunty half-salute, and moved off towards the grounded shuttles.

Honor turned her head to watch him go, then looked back up at McKeon.

"He's a good man," she said quietly, with no particular emphasis, and he exhaled noisily and nodded.

"Yes. Yes, he is," he replied.

It didn't sound particularly like an apology, but Honor didn't need Nimitz's empathic abilities to know it was one. In fact, Caslet and McKeon had become good friends during their time aboard Tepes and after their escape, but there was still that unavoidable edge of tension. Whatever else Warner Caslet might be, he was—technically, at least—still an officer of the People's Navy. Honor liked him a great deal, and she trusted him, yet that invisible line of separation still existed. And Caslet knew it as well as she did. In fact, he was the one who had quietly suggested to her that it would probably be a good idea if no one offered to issue him a pulser or a pulse rifle, and his departure to refill his and McKeon's canteens was typical of his habit of tactfully defusing potential awkwardnesses. But she still didn't know exactly what they were going to do with him. He'd been driven into opposition to State Security because of the way StateSec had treated her and the others captured with her, yet she knew him too well to believe he could turn his back on the People's Republic easily. He hated and despised the PRH's current government, but like her, he took his oath as an officer seriously, and the time was going to come when he had to make some difficult decisions. Or, more accurately, some more difficult decisions, for his very presence here was the result of some he had already made.

And also the only reason he's still alive, she reminded herself. He would've died with everyone else when Harkness blew up Tepes if Alistair hadn't brought him along. And even if the ship hadn't blown, leaving him behind wouldn't have done him any favors. Ransom would never have believed he hadn't helped with the escape, and when she got done with him—

Honor shivered at her own thoughts, then pulled free of them and nodded for McKeon to sit on the log beside her.

He ran his hands over his dark hair, stripping away sweat, and obeyed the implied command. There was very little breeze under the thick, green ceiling of the jungle, but he was careful to take advantage of what there was and stay upwind from the cloud of drifting treecat down, and Honor chuckled.

"Fritz brought me a fresh water bottle about ten minutes ago," she said, her good eye fixed on Nimitz as she worked with the comb. "It's in the rucksack there. Help yourself."

"Thanks," McKeon said gratefully. "Warner and I finished ours off an hour ago." He reached into the rucksack, and his eyes widened as something gurgled and rattled. He brought the water bottle out quickly, shook it beside his ear, and pursed his lips in delight. "Hey, ice! You didn't mention that part!"

"Rank hath its privileges, Commodore McKeon," Honor replied airily. "Go ahead."

McKeon needed no third invitation, and he twisted the cap off the insulated water bottle and raised it to his lips. His head went back and he drank deeply, eyes closed in sensual ecstasy as the icy liquid flowed down his throat. Because it was intended for Honor, it was laced with protein builders and concentrated nutrients in addition to the electrolytes and other goodies Dr. Montoya insisted on adding to everyone else's drinking water. They gave an odd, slightly unpleasant edge to its taste, but the sheer decadence of its coldness brushed such minor considerations aside.

"Oh, my!" He lowered the water bottle at last, eyes still closed, savoring the coolness clinging to his mouth, then sighed and capped the bottle. "I'd almost forgotten what cold water tastes like," he said, putting it back into the rucksack. "Thanks, Skipper."

"Don't get too carried away over it," Honor said, shaking her head with just an edge of embarrassment, and he smiled and nodded. A part of her resented the way that Montoya insisted on "pampering" her. She tried to disguise her discomfort with a light manner, but it seemed dreadfully unfair to her, particularly when everyone else in their little party of castaways had done so much more than she to make their escape possible. At the same time, she knew better than to argue. She'd been injured far more seriously than any of the others during their desperate breakout, and she'd been more than half-starved even before that. Despite the difference in their ranks, Surgeon Commander Montoya had flatly ordered her to shut up and let him "fatten her back up," and it often seemed to her that every other member of her tiny command kept saving tidbits from their own rations for her.

Not that "tidbit" was actually a word she would normally consider applying to Peep emergency rations. Prior to her arrival on Hell, she'd thought nothing could possibly taste worse than RMN e-rats.

Well, you learn something new everyday, I suppose, she thought, then changed the subject.

"Anything new from the patrols?" she asked, and McKeon shrugged.

"Not really. Warner and I brought back those specimens Fritz wanted, but I don't think they're going to work out any better than the others. And Jasper and Anson ran into another of those bear-bobcat thingamies that was just as ill-tempered as the other two we've met." He made a disgusted sound. "It's a damned shame the local beasties don't know they can't digest us. Maybe they'd leave us alone if they did."

"Maybe not, too," Honor replied, stroking the comb up and down against her thigh to clear a clot of Nimitz fur from its teeth. "There are quite a few things people—or treecats—can't digest very well, or even at all, that they still love the taste of. For all you know your bearcat might be perfectly happy to spend the afternoon munching on you. It might even consider you a low-calorie snack!"

"It can consider me anything it likes," McKeon told her, "but if it gets close enough to me to be rude, I'm gonna feed it an appetizer of pulser darts."

"Not very friendly, but probably prudent," she conceded. "At least the things are smaller than hexapumas or peak bears."

"True." McKeon turned on the log and glanced over his shoulder at their encampment. Each of their two hijacked Peep assault shuttles was sixty-three meters in length, with a maximum wingspan of forty-three meters and a minimum span of over nineteen even with the wings in full oversweep for parking efficiency. Fervently as every member of their group might curse the hot, wet, rot-ridden, voracious jungle, hiding something the size of those two craft would have been an impossible challenge in most other kinds of terrain. As it was, the individual trees which supported the uppermost layer of the overhead canopy were just far enough apart that the pilots had been able to nudge their way between the thick trunks without actually knocking them over. And once the shuttles were down, the cammo netting which had been part of their standard supplies, coupled with the jungle's vines, lianas, fronds, leaves, branches, and tree trunks had made concealing them a straightforward task. The sheer grunt labor involved in spreading the nets with only seventeen sets of hands and just four portable grav lifters available for the job had been daunting, but the alternative had been a great motivator. They'd all had more than enough of the Office of State Security's hospitality.

"How are the converters holding up?" he asked after a moment.

"Still cranking out the current," Honor replied. She'd gotten the knot of fur out of the comb and went back to work on Nimitz. "The more I see of Peep survival equipment, the more impressed I am," she admitted, not looking up from her task. "I'd expected that most of it would be pretty shoddy compared to our own gear, but somebody in the PRH put some serious thought into equipping those two birds."

"State Security," McKeon grunted sourly. "The SS gets the best of everything else, so why not survival gear, too?"

"I don't think that's what happened here," Honor disagreed. "Harkness, Scotty, and Warner have gone through the operator's manuals, and they're all standard Navy publications. A little more simpleminded than any of ours would have been, but still Navy, not SS."

McKeon made a noncommittal sound, and she smiled down at Nimitz as she tasted the other human's urge to disagree with her. Alistair hated the very thought that anything the Peeps did or had could match the Manticoran equivalent.

"Actually," she went on, "I think their power converters may even be a bit better than ours are. They're a little bulkier and a lot more massive, but I suspect their output's higher on a weight-for-weight basis."

"Oh, yeah? Well at least their weapons still stink compared to ours!" McKeon told her, turning on her with a grin that acknowledged her teasing.

"True," she said solemnly. "And I suppose if I simply had to choose between having, oh, a better graser mount for my ships of the wall, let's say, or a more efficient emergency power converter for my lifeboats and shuttles, I guess I might opt for the graser. Mind you, it'd probably be a hard choice, though."

"Especially under these circumstances," McKeon agreed much more seriously, and she looked up from Nimitz's grooming to nod soberly.

McKeon had so far given only the most rudimentary consideration to what to do next. Getting the escapees down in one piece, convincing the Peeps they were all dead in order to head off any search parties, hiding the assault shuttles against accidental detection, and exploring their local environs had been quite enough to keep him busy. Yet he suspected Honor was already several steps along in working out their next move, and he was certain those shuttles were central to whatever she had in mind. But Hell's climate could not have been intentionally designed to be more brutal on delicate electronics and machinery. Senior Chief Barstow's work parties were kept busy on a daily business, pruning back the vines and other undergrowth which insisted on trying to infiltrate the intakes for the shuttles's turbines or crawl up into the electronics bays through open landing gear doors. For all that, the shuttles' battle steel hulls were undoubtedly immune to anything even Hell could throw at them, but high humidity, high temperature, and the mold, mildew, and fungus which came with that kind of environment could eat the guts right out of them, leaving nothing but useless shells.

That was why it was as essential to keep their environmental systems up and running as it was to keep the local plant life outside them, but doing that required power. Not a lot of it compared to even a small starship, perhaps, but a hell of a lot when it came to hiding a power plant from overhead sensors. Of course, they'd been careful to land on the far side of the planet from the island HQ where StateSec's garrison of prison guards hung out, and so far as Harkness had been able to determine when he raided Tepes' computers, the Peeps hadn't planted any of their prison colonies within a thousand kilometers of their present location. All of which meant that, logically, there should be no reason for the Peeps to be looking for anything out here in the middle of the jungle.

Neither Alistair McKeon nor Honor Harrington were particularly fond of including words like "should" in their planning, however. And even if there hadn't been the possibility of detection by satellite or airborne sensors, running the shuttles' onboard fusion plants would quickly have eaten up their available reaction mass even at standby levels.

But the Peeps who'd planned the equipment list for those shuttles had provided them with at least twice the thermal converter capability an equivalent Manticoran small craft would have boasted. Although the intention had probably been for the converters to provide power to recharge weapon power packs and other small items of personal gear, they also produced—barely—enough power to keep both shuttles' environmental plants on-line. Temperatures inside the craft were several degrees higher than anyone would have kept them in regular service, but the interiors felt downright frigid compared to the jungle's external temperatures, and the dehumidifiers kept the all-invasive humidity at bay.

And they also provide just enough power to produce a teeny bit of ice, McKeon thought, wistfully recalling the chill freshness of Honor's water bottle. That coolness was already little more than a memory, and an ignoble part of him wanted to "borrow" her bottle for just one more sip, but he suppressed it sternly. That was her water, and so were the nutrients in it, just as the extra ration pack in the rucksack was specifically earmarked for her. Besides, he thought with a hidden smile, Fritz would hurt me if I took anything remotely caloric away from her—and well he should!

The temptation to smile faded, and he shook his head. The enhanced metabolism that went with Honor's genetically engineered heavy-grav muscles had turned her scarecrow-gaunt during her imprisonment. Unlike anyone else in her small command, she was actually gaining weight on a diet of e-rats, which spoke volumes for how poorly her SS gaolers had treated her. But she was still at least ten kilos underweight, and however much she might dislike the notion that her people were "pampering" her or "taking care of her," Alistair McKeon intended to go right on doing exactly that until Fritz Montoya pronounced her fully recovered.

"Have you had any thoughts on our next move?" he asked her, and she raised her right eyebrow at him. It was the first time he'd come right out and asked, and she hid a grin as she realized he must be beginning to consider her truly on the mend if he was willing to push her on command decisions.

"A few," she acknowledged. She finished grooming Nimitz and slipped the comb into her hip pocket, then reached down and removed the water bottle from her rucksack. McKeon suppressed an automatic urge to take it away and open it for her. He might have two hands to her one, but he also had a pretty shrewd notion how she would react if he tried it, and so he sat and watched, instead.

She clamped the bottle between her knees to unscrew the top, then set its cap on the log beside her and held it for Nimitz. The 'cat pushed himself upright, lurching without the use of his crippled limb, and reached for the bottle with both true-hands. He took a long, deep drink of the iced water, then sighed in bliss and leaned back against Honor, rubbing his head against her breastbone as she replaced the cap and tucked the bottle away once more.

She spent a few seconds stroking the angle of his jaw, and his purr was much livelier than it had been. She suspected they were getting towards the bottom of even his ability to shed, and she shared the taste of his pleasure as he realized how much cooler he felt. She chuckled and gave his jaw another rub, then looked back up at McKeon.

"I think I'm beginning to get the rough pieces into place up here," she told him, tapping her temple with her index finger. "We're going to have to move carefully, though. And it's going to take some time."

"Moving carefully is no problem," McKeon replied. "Time, though. That could be a bit of a complication, depending on how much of it we'll need."

"I think we'll be all right," Honor said thoughtfully. "The real bottleneck is food, of course."

"Of course," McKeon agreed. Like most small craft aboard a warship, the shuttles had been supplied for use as life boats in an emergency. Normally, that meant a week or so worth of food for a reasonable load of survivors, but the escapees rattled around inside their two stolen shuttles like a handful of peas. What would have carried a "reasonable" number of survivors for a week would feed all of them for months, and his own initial estimate of how long their food would last had been overly pessimistic by a factor of at least forty percent. Yet there was still a limit to how long they could last without some alternate source of food, and he and Honor both felt it creeping up upon them.

"Has Fritz turned up anything at all?" he asked after a moment.

"I'm afraid not." Honor sighed. "He's run everything we could get our hands on through the analyzer, and unless the stuff you and Warner brought back is radically different from anything else he's checked, there's not much hope there. Our digestive systems can isolate most of the inorganics we need from the local plant life, and most of it won't kill us out of hand if we eat it, but that's about it. We don't even have the right enzymes to break down the local equivalent of cellulose, and I don't know about you, but I don't particularly want a big lump of undigestible plant fiber moving through my gizzards. At any rate, we're certainly not going to be able to stretch our e-rats by browsing on the local flora or fauna."

"I wish I could say I was surprised," McKeon observed, then snorted a chuckle. "But what the hell, Skipper! If it was going to be easy, they wouldn't have needed us to deal with it, now would they?"

"True. Too true," Honor agreed. She wrapped her arm around Nimitz, hugging him for several moments, then looked back at McKeon.

"At the same time, I think it's time we were about it," she told him quietly. "I know you and Fritz are still watching over me like a pair of anxious hens, but I really am recovered enough to get started." He opened his mouth, as if to object, then closed it again, and she reached across to pat him on the knee with her remaining hand. "Don't worry so much, Alistair. Nimitz and I are tough."

"I know you are," he muttered, "it's just that it's so damned un—" He cut himself off and twitched a shrug. "I guess I should have figured out by now that the universe really is unfair, but sometimes I get awful tired of watching it do its level damned best to chew you up and spit you back out. So humor me and take it easy, okay?"

"Okay." Her soprano was just the tiniest bit husky, and she patted his knee again. But then she sat back and drew a deep breath. "On the other hand, what I have in mind for starters shouldn't take too much out of me or anyone else."

"Ah?" McKeon cocked his head at her, and she nodded.

"I want Harkness, Scotty, and Russ to break out the satellite com gear and figure out a way to sneak into the Peep com system."

" 'Sneak in,' " McKeon repeated carefully.

"For now, all I want to do is find a way to listen to their traffic and get a feel for their procedures. Eventually, we may need to see if we can't hack our way into Camp Charon's computers, as well."

"That's a tall order with the gear we've got here," McKeon warned. "The hacking part, I mean. And unless they're total idiots, there's no way their central systems would accept reprogramming from a remote location."

"I know. I'm not thinking of programming, only of stealing more data from them. And if things work the way I'd like them to, we may never have to do even that. But I want the capability in place if it turns out that we need it. And if Harkness can hack the central computers of a StateSec battlecruiser with only a minicomp, I figure he's got to have a pretty fair shot at infiltrating a simple com net. Especially since the bad guys 'know' no one else on the entire planet has any electronic capability at all."

"A point," McKeon agreed. "Definitely a point. All right, Skipper. I'll go collect the three of them and tell them to get started assembling their gear." He chuckled and climbed to his feet with a grin. "When they figure out they'll get to start spending time in the air-conditioned luxury of one of the shuttles, I probably won't even have to kick any butt to get them started, either!"


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