It was almost dawn before they had the nets in place once more, and Honor was more nervous about the quality of their camouflage than she cared to show. The climate was definitely drier here, and the soil seemed to be less rich. There was far less undergrowth than the ferociously fecund four-canopy jungle in which they had originally landed had offered, and the trees, for the most part, tended to be smaller. It was much harder to snuggle the shuttles in under them, and there were fewer natural vines and lianas to complement the cammo nets. She knew McKeon was as unhappy about the situation as she was, and they’d already made plans for most of their people to spend the coming night weaving more natural elements into the nets, but for now they’d just have to hope the concealment was good enough.
"If things work out, maybe we should consider sending at least one of the shuttles back to Site One after all," she said quietly as the two of them sat under a wing and watched the sun come up. He glanced at her, and she shrugged, knowing that he would recognize her oblique apology for what it was.
"Maybe," he agreed after a moment. "I suppose we could use tight beam off one of the Peeps’ comsats to stay in touch without their noticing if we were careful. Bit risky, though."
She made a soft sound of agreement and leaned back against the seat cover Harkness and Andrew LaFollet had removed from the shuttle for her. Her energy levels still hadn’t come back up to her precapture standards, and she felt utterly wiped out.
"You shouldn’t have pushed yourself so hard," McKeon growled softly as Nimitz limped over to her and curled up on chest. She tucked her arm around the ’cat and closed her eyes wearily.
"Had to do my part. A CO has an example to set. I read that somewhere when I was at Saganami Island," she told McKeon, and he snorted with the fine fervor of an old friend.
"Sure you did. But while I realize you may not’ve noticed that you’re shy an arm, we have. So next time Fritz ‘suggests’ you take a break, you damned well take a break!"
"Is that an order?" she asked sleepily, feeling Nimitz’s purr blending into her bones even as his love echoed soothingly about the corners of her soul, and McKeon snorted again, albeit with slightly less panache.
"Actually, I think it is," he said after a moment. "We’re both commodores now, after all. You told me so yourself, even if Their Lordships haven’t gotten around to making it official. I’ve noticed that they seem to have lost my address over the last few months." Honor snorted, and he grinned at her. "Besides, Ms. Coup de Vitesse, I can probably beat you up in your present condition. Assuming Andrew didn’t hurt me first."
"Actually, I’d try very hard not to hurt you, Sir," Major LaFollet called softly from where he sat atop the wing, keeping watch over his Steadholder.
"There, see?" Honor said even more sleepily. "Andrew’ll stop you."
"Oh, I didn’t say that, My Lady!" LaFollet chuckled. "I meant I’d try not to hurt him while I helped him make you take a break."
"Traitor!" Honor murmured, right cheek dimpling with a smile that never touched the left side of her mouth at all, and then she drifted off to sleep.
It was not only drier here, it was also hotter. They were squarely in the middle of the continent, far away from the moderating influence of the oceans, and the aptly named Camp Inferno was, indeed, directly on the equator. It was as well that Nimitz had shed his winter down before they moved, yet even so, he and Honor were driven to retreat into one of the shuttles by noon.
But at least no overflying Peeps seemed to have spotted them, and by late afternoon McKeon, Marchant, and Metcalf had organized work parties to bring in native greenery to supplement the cover of the cammo nets. While they did that, Harkness, Barstow, and Tremaine got all the thermal convertors on-line, and the temperatures in the shuttles dropped dramatically as extra power began to augment their battery backups.
There were about three or four hours of daylight left when Honor found herself back under the wing with LaFollet, Carson Clinkscales, and Jasper Mayhew. Clinkscales fair redhead’s complexion had not reacted well to Hell’s climate. At least the dense canopy at Site One, coupled with copious use of sun blocker from the shuttles’ emergency stores, had protected him from direct sunlight and he hadn’t burned—yet—but he tended to stay an alarming, heat-induced beet-red which looked fairly awesome on someone his size. At a hundred and ninety centimeters, he was a good two centimeters taller than Honor, which made him a veritable giant for a Grayson.
At the moment, however, he was standing with crossed arms and regarding her with an expression which looked just as unhappy as Andrew LaFollet’s. Or, for that matter, Jasper Mayhew’s. Or, she reflected wryly, as Alistair and Fritz are going to look when they hear about this. Fortunately, rank does have its privileges... and we’ll be long gone by the time they find out what I’m up to.
"My Lady, Carson and Jasper and I can do this quite well by ourselves," LaFollet said flatly. "Frankly, you’ll just be in the way."
"Oh?" She cocked her head. "Let’s see, now. Jasper here grew up in Austin City, as I recall. I don’t remember seeing any jungles there. And then there’s Carson. He grew up in Mackenzie Steading, and I don’t remember any jungles there, either. In fact, Andrew, I don’t recall any Graysons having grown up running around the woods. It’s not the sort of thing people do on a planet with environmental hazards like Grayson’s. Now I, on the other hand, grew up in the Copperwalls. And if we don’t have jungles on Sphinx, we do have picket wood and crown oak and tangle vine, not to mention large and hungry predators, all of which I happen to have learned how to cope with as a wee tiny child."
She raised her hand, palm uppermost, and smiled at them and was rewarded by the audible grinding of LaFollet’s teeth.
"Be that as it may, My Lady, this is still no job for you. You’re still weak, and you’re blind on one side." He didn’t mention her missing arm, but his very lack of mention only drew attention to it. "And while you’re right about conditions on Grayson, My Lady, and while I may not have known how to swim before I entered your service, Palace Security gives its people a thorough grounding in wilderness and rough terrain training, as well as urban environs. In fact, we get exactly the same training the Army’s special forces teams get. I haven’t had a refresher in the past several years, but I understand it’s like riding a bicycle."
"Andrew, stop arguing," she told him, firmly but with a much gentler smile, and laid her hand on his arm. "I’ll concede your point about weakness and vision, but I need to be there. There won’t be any time to send messages back and forth if decisions have to be made." And you know I can’t send anyone else off to take this kind of risk without taking it myself, she carefully did not say, but the flicker in his gray eyes told her that he’d heard it anyway.
He glowered at her for another long moment, then sighed and shook his head.
"All right," he surrendered. "All right, My Lady! I suppose that by now I should know better than to argue with you."
"Well, it’s certainly not my fault if you haven’t figured it out," she told him with a chuckle, and smacked him on the shoulder. "On the other hand, I think I’ve heard it said somewhere that Graysons are just a bit stubborn."
"Not stubborn enough, obviously!" he growled, and this time Mayhew and Clinkscales chuckled as well. "Well, if you’re coming, My Lady, then we’d better get moving before Commodore McKeon or Commander Montoya figure it out. I’m sure you wouldn’t let them talk you out of it, either, but by the time they got done trying it’d be midnight."
"Yes, Sir," she murmured docilely, and he glared at her, then bent to pick up the treecat carrier she’d had Harkness run up for her and helped her into it.
Until they could get Nimitz home and into the hands of a good Sphinx veterinary surgeon to fix his twisted limb, it was impossible for him to ride her shoulder as he normally would have. Even if it hadn’t been, Honor had none of her custom tunics and vests which had been reinforced to resist a ’cat’s claws, and without them, Nimitz would quickly have reduced her tee-shirt to tatters... which wouldn’t have done her shoulder any good, either. But her own injuries meant she couldn’t carry him in her arms the way she would have under other circumstances, so Harkness and Master Chief Ascher had whipped up a sort of lightly-padded knapsack for her. It was just big enough for Nimitz to stand upright in, and it hung from the front of her shoulders, covering her front rather than her back, so that he could look forward from his lower vantage point.
"I still wish you’d stay put, My Lady," LaFollet murmured much more quietly, his voice too low for the other two to here. "Seriously. I don’t like you risking yourself this way, and you are still weak. You know you are."
"Yes, I do. And I also know that it’s my job as senior officer to be there if you three actually run into someone from Inferno," she said equally quietly. "I’m responsible for whatever decisions get made, so I need to be there when they get made in the first place. Besides, it’s going to be essential that I get a... feel for anyone we contact."
LaFollet had opened his mouth to try one final protest, but her last sentence closed it with a click. He was one of the very few people who had realized that Nimitz’s empathy permitted her to feel the emotions of those about her. He’d seen it save her life on at least one occasion, but even more importantly than that, he knew she was right. If anyone in their group would be able to know whether or not they could trust someone on this Tester-damned planet, Lady Harrington—with Nimitz’s help—was that someone.
He helped her adjust the tension of the ’cat carrier’s straps, gathered up his pulse rifle, and gave her equipment a quick but thorough examination. All of them carried bush knives, and like himself, she’d hung a pair of Peep-made night vision goggles about her neck against the oncoming darkness. She also wore a heavy, holstered pulser on her right hip to balance her binoculars case and her canteen, and he sighed and looked at the other two. He and Mayhew each carried a pulse rifle and a sidearm, but young Ensign Clinkscales had fitted himself out with a light tribarrel. LaFollet had almost objected to that when he first saw it, but then he’d changed his mind. Clinkscales was big enough and strong enough to carry the thing, and however over-gunned LaFollet might think he was, there were definitely arguments in favor of his choice. The belt-fed infantry support weapon was capable of spitting out as few as a hundred or as many as two or three thousand five-millimeter hypervelocity darts a minute, which would make it awesomely effective as long as the ammo in the tank-like carrier on Clinkscales’ back lasted.
"All right, My Lady," the armsman sighed. "Let’s go."