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Chapter Forty-Three

Citizen Lieutenant Commander Heathrow hadn't been at all happy when he received his latest orders, but he hadn't been sufficiently unhappy to let it show. That was a bad enough idea for a Republican officer when it was merely Navy orders he objected to.

Still, it did seem unfair to pick on him for this. State Security had skimmed off large enough numbers of badly needed warships for its own private use, and the SS was notoriously secretive about its affairs. Those were two good reasons they should have been able to send one of their own courier boats right there!

But they hadn't, for whatever reason. Officially (and it might even be true) the problem was shortage of time and resources in the wake of the Navy's achievements at the front. Heathrow was too junior an officer to have access to any of the classified briefings, but even peasants like him knew Citizen Secretary McQueen's enormously successful offensives had thrown the Republic's naval forces into utter confusion. In some ways, following up success had wreaked more havoc with their deployments than years of slow, steady retreat had, and Heathrow supposed StateSec might be experiencing echoes of that same mad scramble to reorganize on the fly.

But whatever the reason, the StateSec CO in Shilo had needed a courierfastand he hadn't had any courier boats of his own immediately available. What he had had, however, was the standing SS authority to requisition the "support" of any Navy or Marine units which he might happen to decide he needed, and so Heathrow and his crew had ended up stuck with the job. Which explained why he was sitting very nervously in his command chair and watching Citizen Lieutenant Bouret follow Camp Charon's extremely specific helm instructions. Given the number of targeting systems currently illuminating his command and StateSec's obsessive suspicion of the regular Navy, neither Heathrow nor Bouret had the least intention of straying so much as a meter from their cleared flight path. Besides, the damned mines out there looked thick enough to walk on.

Heathrow made himself sit back and ease his death grip on the chair arms. It wasn't easy, and he tried to distract himself by studying his plot. Camp Charon had warned him in brusque, no-nonsense tones that Navy ships were not encouraged to use active sensors this close to StateSec's private little planet, but even passive sensors and old-fashioned visuals were enough to show Heathrow that he wanted nothing to do with this place. Seeing all that orbital firepower made his skin crawl. This was supposed to be a prison, not some kind of fortress against the universe, for God's sake! What did they expect? That the prisoners were somehow going to signal an enemy fleet to come charging in and attack the system? It had to be something like thator else sheer, paranoid distrust of the Republic's own Navybecause there was no way in hell StateSec needed remote missile platforms, graser and laser platforms, and minefields against anyone on the surface of Hades.

I just hope that the fact that they had to tell me the systems coordinates so I could get here in the first place doesn't come back to haunt me, Heathrow thought mordantly. I can see it now: "We can tell you how to get there, but then we'll have to kill you. Here, take Citizen Warden Tresca this message, then report back for... um, debriefing. Thank you very much, and rememberStateSec is your friend!"

"We're coming up on our designated orbit, Skipper," Bouret reported.

"Good. We're a lot more likely to attract some loose mine when we're moving under power," Heathrow muttered. "Time to thruster shutdown?"

"Eight minutes," Bouret replied.

"Very well."

Heathrow watched the plot as the courier boat's icon drifted ever so slowly towards precisely the proper spot. They'd been on reaction thrusters with their wedge down for the last hour, as per instructions from Camp Charon. His mission brief had warned him that would be SOP once he arrived; apparently StateSec imposed it on everyone who came to Cerberus, though for the life of him Heathrow couldn't understand the reasoning behind that particular bit of idiocy. But as with all the other foolishness which had come his way, he'd known better than to argue. Nonetheless, he would have felt much more comfortable with the wedge up. At least it would have offered his ship some protection if one of those hordes of mines took it into its idiot-savant brain that she was a hostile unit.

And after associating with StateSec for so long, the poor things probably think everybody is "the enemy," the citizen lieutenant commander thought moodily.

"Done with thrusters, Skipper," Bouret reported finally.

"Very good." Heathrow looked over his shoulder at the com section. "Are you ready to transmit, Irene?"

"Yes, Sir," Citizen Ensign Howard replied promptly.

Heathrow glanced over at Bouret with a grin, but he didn't correct her. One of the few things that made the cramped confines of a courier boat endurable was that such vessels were considered too small and unimportant to require their own people's commissioners. Which meant there was still one place in the Navy where officers could be naval officers.

"Request authorization and validation for download, then," Heathrow instructed her after a moment.

"Transmitting now," Howard said, and punched a key at her console. She watched her display, listening to her earbug carefully, then grunted in satisfaction. "Receipt code validation confirmed, Sir," she said. "The crypto files are unlocking now." She sat for several more seconds, watching the display flicker and dance as her onboard computers communed with those on the planet below in a cyber-speed game of challenge and response. Then a bright green code flashed, and she looked over her shoulder at Heathrow.

"Master encryption unlock confirmed, Sir. The message queue is uploading now. Time for full data dump nine minutes, ten seconds."

"Excellent, Irene. That was smoothly done."

"Thank you, Sir!" Howard beamed like a puppy with a new chew toy, and Heathrow made a mental note to speak to her about her mode of address after all. She was a good kid, and he wouldn't be doing her any favors if he got her into the habit of using recidivist modes of address. At the same time, it wouldn't do to hammer her hard over it all of a sudden. Better to wait and speak to her off-watchor better yet, let Bouret talk to her. He was closer to her rank and age, and it wouldn't sound as threatening coming from him. Besides, if Heathrow spoke to her himself, he'd almost have to sound as if he were reprimanding her for something... or else risk sounding as if he thought the whole "Citizen This" and "Citizen the Other" business was stupid. Which he did, but letting anyone else know that wouldn't be the very wisest thing he could possibly do.

He frowned and rubbed his chin, letting his mind play with the best way to go about it, then shrugged. He'd find an approach that worked... and he'd have plenty of time to hunt for it, too. They had two more stops after Hades before they returned to Shilo and hoped Shilo State Security would finally release them for their interrupted trip to the Haven System, after all.

Yeah, and were not going to get offered any R&R at this stop, he thought. Not that I really want to complain. Voluntarily spend leave time surrounded by an entire island full of SS goons? Uh-uh, not Ms. Heathrow's little boy Edgar! I'm sure there have to be some perfectly nice people in State Security. It's just that I've never met any of them... and somehow I doubt I'd run into them among the garrison of a top secret, maximum security prison!

He chuckled at the thought, then stirred as Howard spoke again.

"Message dump complete, Sir."

"Was there any 'reply expected' code on the message queue?" Heathrow asked.

"Uh, yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir. I should have reported that already. I didn't"

"When I think you need chewing out, Irene, I'll chew you out all on my own," Heathrow said mildly. "Until that happens, take it a little easy on yourself."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." Despite her thanks, the citizen ensign's face was still red, and Heathrow shook his head. He'd been twenty-two once himself, he was sure. He simply didn't seem to remember when it had been.

But the important thing was that at least some of the traffic he'd just delivered to Hadeswhatever it had beenrequired an immediate response. That was unfortunate. It might mean he and his crew had to hang around for several hours, or even a day or two, waiting while Dirtside got its act together. With no idea of what had been in the encrypted message files, he couldn't even make an estimate of how long he might be hung up. Not that there would have been anything he could do to shorten the time requirement even if he'd known what it was, he thought with a mental sigh.

"Is anyone down there asking us to receipt anything?" he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful that no one was. After all, it was possible some regular SS courier had just happened to wander by and deal with the problem before he got here. That wouldn't be asking too much, would it?

"No, Sir," Howard told him, and he started to smile. But then the citizen ensign went on. "They have transmitted a request to hold while they read the traffic, though."

"Great," Bouret muttered under his breath, and Heathrow heartily endorsed the astrogator's disgusted tone. God only knew how long it would take for Groundside to read its mail and then record a response.

"Well, there's nothing we can do about it except wait," he said as philosophically as possible, and leaned back in his command chair.

Chapter Forty-Two | Echoes Of Honor | * * *