"You know," Lieutenant Russell Sanko observed, "if these people would just talk to each other every so often, we might get something accomplished here."
"I’m sure that if they only knew how much they’re inconveniencing you they’d run right out and start gabbing away," Jasper Mayhew replied with a grin. "In the meantime, we’ve only been listening for two weeks, and—" He shrugged, tipped his comfortable chair well back under the air return and luxuriated in the cool, dry air that spilled down over him.
"You’re a hedonist, Mayhew," Sanko growled.
"Nonsense. I’m simply the product of a hostile planetary environment," Mayhew said comfortably. "It’s not my fault if that sort of insecure life experience imposes survival-oriented psychoses on people. All us Graysons get horribly nervous when we have to operate out in the open, with unfiltered air all around us." He gave a dramatic shudder. "It’s a psychological thing. Incurable. That’s the real reason Lady Harrington assigned me to this, you know. Medical considerations. Elevated pulse and adrenaline levels." He shook his head sadly. "It’s a terrible thing to require this sort of air-conditioned luxury solely for medical reasons."
Mayhew chuckled, and Sanko shook his head and returned his attention to the com console. He and the Grayson were about the same age—actually, at twenty-nine, Mayhew was three years older—and they were both senior-grade lieutenants. Technically, Mayhew had about three T-months seniority on Sanko, and he’d been Lady Harrington’s staff intelligence officer before they all landed in enemy hands, while Sanko had been HMS Prince Adrian’s com officer. By ancient and honorable tradition, there was always an unstated rivalry between the members of a flag officer’s staff and the work-a-day stiffs who ran the ships of that officer’s squadron or task force, even when they all came from the same navy. But Mayhew was a comfortable person to work with, and however laid back he cared to appear, he was sharp as a vibro blade and, like most Graysons Sanko had met, always ready to lend a hand. He was also some relation to Protector Benjamin, but he seldom talked about it, and he seemed thankfully immune to the arrogance Sanko had seen out of certain Manticorans of far less exalted birth.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really matter how pleasant one’s partner was if there was nothing for the two of you to work on, and that seemed to be the case here.
It should have been simple, Sanko thought balefully. After all, the Peeps had a planet-wide com net whose security they trusted totally, for reasons which made perfectly good sense. Not only did the StateSec garrison have the only tech base and power generation facilities on the entire planet, but their com messages were all transmitted using the latest in secure equipment. Well, not the absolute latest, even by Peep standards, but pretty darn good. Sanko was a communications specialist himself, and the SS’s equipment was considerably better than any of the classified Navy briefings he’d attended had suggested it ought to be. Not as good as the Star Kingdom’s, but better than it should have been, and Camp Charon had received the very best available when it was built.
Fortunately, Hell seemed to have fallen a bit behind on its upgrades since then. The planetary garrison had an impressive satellite net—why shouldn’t they, when counter-grav made it dirt cheap to hang comsats and weather sats wherever you wanted them?—but their ground stations were getting a little long in the tooth. And, of course, the people they didn’t know were trying to eavesdrop on them just happened to have a pair of assault shuttles which, up until very recently, had also belonged to StateSec... and had been fitted with the very latest in secure communication links. In fact, the systems Sanko was using were probably at least fifteen or twenty T-years newer than the Peep ground stations, and they’d been expressly designed to interface with older equipment as well as their own contemporaries. Which meant Sanko and Mayhew—and Senior Chief Harkness and Lieutenant Commander Tremaine, or Lieutenant Commander Lethridge and Ensign Clinkscales, who’d pulled the other two watches for the same duty—ought to be able to open up that "secure com net" like a pack of e-rats.
Unfortunately, the Peeps didn’t seem to use the net very much, for aside from routine, automatic downloads of telemetry from the weather sats to Camp Charon’s Flight Ops, there was no traffic on it at all. And weather data was completely useless for Sanko’s and Mayhew’s current purposes.
But I guess it actually makes sense, he acknowledged sourly. After all, they’re all parked on their butts up there at Camp Charon itself. They don’t need comsats to talk to each other, and they couldn’t care less what happens in any of the prisoner camps, so there’s no reason to install ground stations at any of them, either. Hell, their CO can probably just stick his head out the window and shout at anybody he actually wants to talk to!
There wasn’t much for the eavesdroppers to do under the circumstances. If they’d just had some decent computer support, there wouldn’t even have been any need for them to be here at all—they could have left the routine listening watch up to the computers. Well, to be honest they could probably have trusted a simple listening watch to them anyway, but they were talking about Peep computers, which brought the ancient and honorable term "kludge" forcibly to mind every time he had anything to do with them. No wonder Senior Chief Harkness had been able to fry the net aboard that damned battlecruiser! Worse, the shuttles had extremely limited computer support compared to their Allied equivalents. What they needed for flight ops, fire support missions, troop drops, and that sort of thing was adequate—not great, but adequate. But most functions that weren’t absolutely essential were done the old-fashioned way... by hand, or at least by extremely specific, canned software so limited, and with such crude heuristic functions, it made a man want to sit down and cry. Which meant real live human beings had to sit here to watch over the computers, because their AI functions were so stupid they would have gotten lost in downtown Landing on a night with a full moon if—
"Base, this is Harriman," a bored voice said suddenly, spilling from the com speakers. "You want to give me the count on Alpha-Seven-Niner?"
Sanko’s eyes widened, and his hands darted for the console even as Mayhew snapped upright in his chair at the tactical station.
"Harriman, you dickhead!" an exasperated female voice replied in a tone that could have blistered battle steel. "I swear, you are stupider than a retarded rock! How the hell did you lose the numbers again?"
Mayhew’s fingers flew over the keyboard of the shuttle’s main computers while Sanko worked equally frantically at the communications station. All the information on Hades that Horace Harkness had managed to pull out of Tepes’ data bases before her destruction had been dumped from his minicomp to the shuttle’s larger memory, and Sanko heard a sound of triumph from Mayhew as something correlated between the overheard conversation and Harkness’ stolen data. At the same time, Sanko himself was working with the comsat serving as the relay link for the exchange between "Harriman" and Camp Charon. His equipment might not be up to the high standards of the Royal Manticoran Navy, but it was newer than the opposition’s, and his updated software had let him into the satellite’s on-board computers without anyone dirtside knowing a thing about it. The tight-beam tap he’d set up had been cut entirely out of Camp Charon’s net, which meant the base’s traffic computers didn’t even know it was there to log, and his eyes glowed as information from the comsat began downloading smoothly to his own station. All the security and encryption data buried in the transmissions’ automatic security linkages spilled over the display before him, and his lips drew up in the snarl of a hunting Sphinx hexapuma.
"How do I know what happened to them?" Harriman growled at his critic. "If I knew where the damned grunt list had gone, then it wouldn’t be lost, now would it?"
"Oh, fer cryin’ out loud!" Base muttered. "It’s in your computers, dipshit—not scribbled down on a scrap of paper somewhere!"
"Oh, yeah?" Harriman sounded even more belligerent. "Well I happen to be looking at the directory right this minute, Shrevner, and it ain’t here! So suppose you get off your lazy ass and get it to me? I’m coming up on the drop for Alpha-Seven-Eight in about twelve minutes, and I got lots of other stops still to make."
"Jeezus!" the other voice snarled. "You stupid goddamned pilots are so— Oh." It cut off abruptly, and then a throat cleared itself. "Here it is," Base said in a much crisper (and less contemptuous) voice. "Uploading now."
No one spoke for a few seconds, and then a sharp snort came down the link from Harriman.
"Interesting time stamp on that data, Base," he said almost genially. "Looks to me like those numbers were compiled—what? Seventy minutes after I left?"
"Oh, screw you, Harriman!" Base snapped.
"In your dreams, sweetheart," Harriman said with cloying sweetness, and Base cut the channel with a click.
"Did you get it?" Mayhew demanded.
"I think so." Sanko punched more commands, calling up a review of the data he’d been too busy downloading to evaluate and felt his face stretch into an exultant grin. "Looking good over here, Jasper! How about your side?"
"Speculative, but interesting," Mayhew replied. He tapped a few queries of his own into the system, then nodded. "I think it’s time we got Lady Harrington and Commodore McKeon in here, and then—"
"Base, this is Carson. I’m at Gamma-One-Seven, and I’ve got a problem. According to my numbers—"
The fresh voice rattled from the speakers, and Sanko and Mayhew dived back into their consoles.