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Chapter Eleven

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 theyd already made plans for most of their people to spend the coming night weaving more natural elements into the nets, but for now theyd 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 hadnt come back up to her precapture standards, and she felt utterly wiped out.

"You shouldnt 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 notve noticed that youre 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 Nimitzs 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. "Were both commodores now, after all. You told me so yourself, even if Their Lordships havent gotten around to making it official. Ive 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 didnt hurt me first."

"Actually, Id 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. "Andrewll stop you."

"Oh, I didnt say that, My Lady!" LaFollet chuckled. "I meant Id 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 redheads complexion had not reacted well to Hells 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 hadnt burnedyetbut 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 LaFollets. Or, for that matter, Jasper Mayhews. Or, she reflected wryly, as Alistair and Fritz are going to look when they hear about this. Fortunately, rank does have its privileges... and well be long gone by the time they find out what Im up to.

"My Lady, Carson and Jasper and I can do this quite well by ourselves," LaFollet said flatly. "Frankly, youll just be in the way."

"Oh?" She cocked her head. "Lets see, now. Jasper here grew up in Austin City, as I recall. I dont remember seeing any jungles there. And then theres Carson. He grew up in Mackenzie Steading, and I dont remember any jungles there, either. In fact, Andrew, I dont recall any Graysons having grown up running around the woods. Its not the sort of thing people do on a planet with environmental hazards like Graysons. Now I, on the other hand, grew up in the Copperwalls. And if we dont 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 LaFollets teeth.

"Be that as it may, My Lady, this is still no job for you. Youre still weak, and youre blind on one side." He didnt mention her missing arm, but his very lack of mention only drew attention to it. "And while youre 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 Armys special forces teams get. I havent had a refresher in the past several years, but I understand its like riding a bicycle."

"Andrew, stop arguing," she told him, firmly but with a much gentler smile, and laid her hand on his arm. "Ill concede your point about weakness and vision, but I need to be there. There wont be any time to send messages back and forth if decisions have to be made." And you know I cant 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 hed 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, its certainly not my fault if you havent figured it out," she told him with a chuckle, and smacked him on the shoulder. "On the other hand, I think Ive 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 youre coming, My Lady, then wed better get moving before Commodore McKeon or Commander Montoya figure it out. Im sure you wouldnt let them talk you out of it, either, but by the time they got done trying itd be midnight."

"Yes, Sir," she murmured docilely, and he glared at her, then bent to pick up the treecat carrier shed 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 hadnt been, Honor had none of her custom tunics and vests which had been reinforced to resist a cats claws, and without them, Nimitz would quickly have reduced her tee-shirt to tatters... which wouldnt have done her shoulder any good, either. But her own injuries meant she couldnt 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 youd stay put, My Lady," LaFollet murmured much more quietly, his voice too low for the other two to here. "Seriously. I dont like you risking yourself this way, and you are still weak. You know you are."

"Yes, I do. And I also know that its my job as senior officer to be there if you three actually run into someone from Inferno," she said equally quietly. "Im responsible for whatever decisions get made, so I need to be there when they get made in the first place. Besides, its 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 Nimitzs empathy permitted her to feel the emotions of those about her. Hed 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 Harringtonwith Nimitzs helpwas that someone.

He helped her adjust the tension of the cat carriers straps, gathered up his pulse rifle, and gave her equipment a quick but thorough examination. All of them carried bush knives, and like himself, shed 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 hed 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. "Lets go."

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